Short Story Review: “Today I Am Paul” by Martin L. Shoemaker

Today I Am PaulToday I Am Paul by Martin L. Shoemaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dementia is heartbreaking to watch in a loved one and incredibly hard to fully comprehend. However, this beautiful and amazing tale forces the issue by confronting and analyzing an elderly woman’s growing dementia and the reactions of those around her.

A high-end medical android gains sentience as it’s designed to empathize with its Alzheimer’s stricken patient, Mildred, and emulate whomever she mistakes the android to be at any given hour. Sometimes, it intuitively becomes whomever she needs it to be at any given point, such as her husband who passed away two years ago. Mildred has no memory of that loss, nor of her 5 y.o. granddaughter that comes to visit. Her older granddaughter Anna is also commonly emulated by the droid. Most often, the droid portrays Mildred’s son [and Anna’s father], Paul:

This morning she imagines Paul, so that is who I am.

Synthesizing Paul’s voice is the easiest part, thanks to the multimodal dynamic speakers in my throat. “Good morning, Ma. I brought you some flowers.” I always bring flowers. Mildred appreciates them no matter whom I am emulating. The flowers make her smile during 87% of my “visits.”

“Oh, thank you,” Mildred says, “you’re such a good son.”

Things get trickier when Paul or his wife Susan come around as the droid tries to make everyone calm and happy. But with such a charged situation, the challenge is daunting. Even more challenging, is when a fire breaks out on the lower level of the house–especially with Mildred wary of strangers, the outdoors and emergencies . . .

This story is heartbreaking in its honesty and poignant in its telling as most anyone who’s lived with a loved one struggling with dementia will recognize. This tale is highly recommended.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2016 edited by Rich Horton, which I received directly from Prime Books. I’ve previously read this author’s “Unrefined”.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Short Story Review: “In the Ruins of Mohenjo-Daro” by Usman T. Malik

4 of 5 stars.

Scars permanently brand bodies and psyches alike. Entire cities, cultures and landscapes can be scarred. A scar embeds a story, perhaps a cautionary tale or a lesson learned or even a worse fate avoided. The ruins of an ancient city and culture are a two-fold scar. The first upon the city’s former glory; the second upon nature trying to restore itself.

Beneath her hijab, Noor hides the physical scars of her former life in America and the suicide bombing her “martyred” brother expected her to help with. Now she teaches in Pakistan at a boys school where neither new teachers nor female teacher are well-treated. Her one friend is an older female teacher. Together with an arrogant, sexist male teacher and a dozen boys, they charter a bus to Mohenjo-Daro to see ancient ruins from a pre-Islamic culture.

Rumored to be haunted or worse, Mohenjo-Daro becomes more than just a quick tour when Taliban shoot up a private school not far from the site. Roads are assumed to be in terrorist hands and cell service cuts out leaving the small group stranded with little food, shelter or information as night brings chilling cold and an unsettling fog.

A couple boys disappear into the ruins and unearthly noises emanate from within as Noor tries to focus through her cluster headache and cramps . . .

This tale appears in the New Lovecraftian anthology, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu edited by Paula Guran. I received my copy of the anthology directly from Prime Books. I’ve previously read this author’s excellent The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn and his “Resurrection Points”.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Short Story Review: “It’s All the Same Road in the End” by Brian Hodge

3 of 5 stars.

The stuff of urban legends and the weight of American folklore resides in the unmapped expanses of the Appalachian and Ozark Mountains and in the rolling wheat fields of the sparsely populated Great Plains. Like a season of Supernatural, two brothers head to Kansas to find clues into the disappearance of their maternal grandfather who disappeared a half-century earlier.

Will and Clarence never knew their grandfathers. The one died of Black Lung when their father was young. The other disappeared with few clues when their mother was young. Now she is dying and wants closure on her missing father. The only clues left behind are the budding musicologist’s tape recorder and the camera he had with him when he disappeared. The developed grainy film shows a strange, old woman in front of her ramshackle house in nameless western Kansas. The tape recorder holds 3 minutes of an old woman’s haunting lamentation not in English or any recognizable language.

The brothers spend considerable breaks from work heading from the East Coast to the Mid-West trying to find the nondescript farmhouse and farm and the identity of the old woman. In their search for their ancestor, the young men find out considerably more about themselves and their relationships to each other and to their parents . . .

This tale appears in the New Lovecraftian anthology, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu edited by Paula Guran. I received my copy of the anthology directly from Prime Books. I’ve previously read this author’s “Dead Giveaway” and “The Same Deep Waters As You”.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Graphic Novel Review: Birthright, Volume 1: Homecoming by Joshua Williamson

Birthright, Vol. 1: HomecomingBirthright, Vol. 1: Homecoming by Joshua Williamson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of the most devastating things that can happen to a family is when a child vanishes without a trace. In the short term, some will rally to support the family’s search. But inevitably as time passes, the support fades and rumors and accusations trickle into the void eroding the already fragile family. There are a few stories about kids becoming supernaturally transported to mystical other realms–think, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Chronicles of Narnia–but these’re from the child’s POV allowing the adventure to bloom. This tale follows the family left behind and shows the devastation in its wake.

On young Mikey Rhodes’ birthday, his father takes him to a wooded park while older brother Brennan and their Mom decorate the house for a surprise party. A game of catch sends Mikey into the woods to retrieve a ball, but he never returns. A horrific year passes in which most accusing eyes and authorities decide that the father killed his son that day, though no body was ever found. Mom’s doubts about Dad lead to divorce. Brennan gets into fights with peers and tries to keep peace between his parents and coax his father back into sobriety. This is dark stuff.

Then, after a year, the FBI regathers the family to see a new suspect, a hulking bearded man heavily armed that raves about slaying dragons and fantastical wars. He also claims to be Mikey . . .

Mikey’s tales of the other world start to mix with the plot of the real world. He claims to be a hero there, but he’s also an adult with an agenda. It’s hard not to picture his tales as well-constructed half-truths filtered for his audience. Convincing his family of his identity may not be his top priority.

This series is co-created by author Williamson and artist Andrei Bressan.

[Check out my other reviews here.]

Short Story Review: “The Daughters of John Demetrius” by Joe Pitkin

3 of 5 stars.

When gods and mortals meet, one might expect a bit of the divine, or perhaps a momentous occasion on the part of the humans if not both parties. This quizzical tale follows a god, Mendel, wandering out of the desert and into a small Mexican mesa village. The humans seem to recognize him for what he is without being overly surprised or moved. Nor do they beseech him with requests or prayers despite rampart poverty and disease.

Much is left unexplained, such as why Mendel’s covered in blood at the beginning or why monstrous liliths hunt him. Why does Mendel collect human children? And what is the significance of a child he deems a daughter of John Demetrius?

Regardless, the tale’s interesting and well-paced. The protagonist’s neither likable nor detestable. He fights demons and collects children for what one can hope is good purposes. He may have the ability to elevate children to his status of god-like. And yet his bartering of basic medical knowledge at the expense of the humans is rather slimy.

The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2016 edited by Rich Horton, which I received directly from Prime Books.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Short Story Review: “I Do Not Count the Hours” by Michael Wehunt

3 of 5 stars.

The dissolution of a major relationship or a loss often warps one’s short-term, psychological perception of the world. Likewise, a major psychological blow can adversely affect one’s relationships. Both of these truisms come to fruition as Ada and Luke’s marriage ends with little notice.

After 6 years together, Ada is left in shock after Luke acts cagey for a couple days then declares the end of their marriage. He leaves and stays gone for over 4 weeks as Ada deals with the quiet and loneliness and strange shadows and noises of their house. Ada’s life has been an insular one with Luke as her entire world. Orphaned at 3 y.o., her Gram took her in, never sending her to school or socializing her in any way beyond their small church. Ada then met Luke mere months after Gram passed away.

Without a job, or a firm grasp on how the world works, Ada digs into evidence in the form of film footage left behind in Luke’s home office. The “found” footage proves sufficiently cult-ish opening new questions into where Luke has gone. Shadows and neighbors also start to act strangely in Ada’s peripheral vision . . .

This tale appears in the New Lovecraftian anthology, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu edited by Paula Guran. I received my copy of the anthology directly from Prime Books.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Short Story Review: “The Graphology of Hemorrhage” by Yoon Ha Lee

2 of 5 stars.

In folklore and fantasy, different magic systems draw power and influence [or glamour] from various sources. One recurring source is language and writing despite language being mostly arbitrary and writing being variably arbitrary. The representation of the word [graphic or spoken] completes the link for the magic.

In this tale, nations use graphological magic and magic users to wage war. In particular, a talented magic user, Kodai, and her apprentice, Nawong, attempt to overcome the empire’s enemies whom they call “The Spiders” since the enemy’s word for themselves is similar to the imperial word for spiders–yet another arbitrary linguistic link with real ramifications. Kodai is well-versed in the ways of calligraphy and forgery and decides on a route of attack that will render the Spider language obsolete and bleed her enemies into non-existence–thus, the graphology of hemorrhage. Unfortunately, doing so threatens to redact herself from language and history, too . . .

The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2016 edited by Rich Horton, which I received directly from Prime Books. I’ve previously read this author’s “Combustion Hour”, “Falcon-and-Sparrows” and “Wine”.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Short Story Review: “I Believe That We Will Win” by Nadia Bulkin

2 of 5 stars.

Religious fervor and fanaticism of one belief system are inexplicable to followers of other beliefs. This is especially true when the fanaticism accompanies bodily sacrifice or mutilation.

This tale is a chronicle of faux history detailing the decades-long relationship between the Church of the Holy Star and athletic success. Emerging from a period of famine and starvation, a small church finds a new purpose after the pastor’s daughter, Sasha, achieves great success in artistic gymnastics. In a religious fervor, she sacrifices herself on the church’s alter allowing the faithful to eat. From then on, St. Sasha is revered and the practice of “Champions” sacrificing themselves for other congregants to eat becomes the norm.

An offshoot plot line follows an athlete that left the fold, not wanting to kill herself. Then another follows a schism in the church when some break away to keep doing as they’ve been doing with self-sacrificing athletes and cannibalism, while the main church moves on to forcibly hunting its next “Champion” as they also more openly revere Lovecraft’s Azathoth, God That Devours Worlds . . .

This tale appears in the New Lovecraftian anthology, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu edited by Paula Guran. I received my copy of the anthology directly from Prime Books. I’ve previously read this author’s “Absolute Zero”, “Everything Dies, Baby” and “Only Unity Saves the Damned”.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Original Poetry: Home Grown Tomatoes

I’m young;
and I did not expect
to live to be this old.
Maybe it was the three
who left in auto accidents,
the one of stomach cancer
and the other of leukemia
while I was in high school.
Later, it was my lover’s
best friend beaten in the alley
between the pub and gay bar.
Josh was shot in Minneapolis.
Jeremy took his own life.
Toby became a mere quilt panel
for the Postmodern plague.

I worry about 401K plans
and wonder what happened
to my tragic or beautiful
or Romeo & Juliet, blend-
of-the-two ending.
Now I have my rent money
before it’s due and watch
a musical whose writer
never saw its phenomenon status.
Maybe I’m just not famous
enough and should tackle Wall Street
and a computer language.
I could travel, but
that would contradict
the garden I’ve always wanted.
I want to spend my summer
with a good book, lemonade
and home grown tomatoes.
I can live with that.
Why couldn’t Jeremy?

[Jaffa’s note: I find myself dusting off this poem from fifteen years ago despite it’s Juvenile qualities. It mentions a friend, Jeremy, who had taken his own life twenty years ago. At the time I wrote this, a second friend had just done the same and I needed to grieve and understand. Then ten years ago, a third friend took his life. It’s now been two years since a fourth friend did the same. There’s a lot I want to say and even more that I want to understand. However, for now, I will merely re-read an old poem that helped me once.] 
[Check out other original poems here.]

Short Story Review: “In the Sacred Cave” by Lois H. Gresh

2 of 5 stars.

Unpacking true history through the layers of folklore and archaeological evidence filtered through the biased truths of the historical victors has been an ongoing challenge to academia. The folklore itself often incorporates lost levels of supernatural and early religious influence worthy of fantasy. Here, historic hints along with lore of the Incas and pre-Incas meld with Lovecraftian mythos to depict a dark and fantastic look at the sacred spaces of the pre-Incan cultures. The pre-Incan is anachronistically and deeply infused with Lovecraftian mythos. One common characteristic that they do correctly share is the dysmorphic transformation of humans into something beastly and more ancient, if not eternal.

Chicya, a Quechua-speaking Incan, has spent her young life exploring her Andean mountains. She finds herself captured and tended to by hideous clay-like creatures that hint at human characteristics. Creatures shift from being clay pots to alive and back again over the course of days. As she emerges from her own delirium, she finds that her own body is starting to transform . . .

Tying the pre-Incan folklore aspect to Lovecraftian mythos is jarringly abrupt as it comes in a late realization to the protagonist. So, too, does a proof-less realization that the transformations are also indicative of a mutated small pox virus introduced by the Spanish centuries earlier. Science-based “realizations” without testing or use of the scientific process are the antithesis of science, and awkwardly shift the genre toward sci-fi. Leaving the transformations within the realm of supernatural pre-Incan lore could have made for a smoother tale.

This tale appears in the New Lovecraftian anthology, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu edited by Paula Guran. I received my copy of the anthology directly from Prime Books. I’ve previously read this author’s “Necrotic Cove”.
[Check out my other reviews here.]