SHORTS: Hill, Osborne, Towles, Buckell, Palmer

SHORTS: Our column exploring free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. This week’s post reviews two more Locus Award nominees, along with other recent short fiction works that we’ve enjoyed.

Late Returns by Joe Hill (2019, included in the Full Throttle collection). Locus award finalist (novelette)

Joe Hill, who like his famous father typically writes in the horror genre, switches it up in Late Returns, a novelette that was originally published in his Full Throttle (2019) collection of short fiction. John Davies, still dealing with grief from the double suicide of his ailing parents and out of work since his lost his job as a trucker in the aftermath, visits the library to return a long-overdue book and winds up with a part-time job driving their 1963 bookmobile truck, complete with psychedelic murals on the sides (“What does it run on?” he asks, “Unleaded? Or bong water?”). Gradually he realizes that some of the bookmobile patrons are townsfolk who are now dead, but have slipped forward in time to return their overdue books to the bookmobile. The first driver of the bookmobile calls these people “late returns.”

I have a major soft spot for both library-themed fantasy and time-travel stories anyway, and Late Returns is a poignant and bittersweet tale that’s liable to touch even hardened hearts. But this story is grounded by its realistic details — like the trouble the “late returns” have seeing books written after their time unless placed in their hands — and by the well-rounded characters, particularly the time-traveling mother of a famous local author. She and others travel forward in time, each for their own compelling reason, and it’s the bookmobile librarian’s duty and honor to find and give them the books they need to read. It’s a lovely concept and a well-told tale. ~Tadiana Jones


“Cup of Frost, Palm of Gold” by Emma Osborne (2019, free on Philome.la as a “choose your own adventure” game)

From the moment I reached the first ending of this story to now, some months later, it has never left my brain. I’m of the impression that this is one of those stories that has made a kind of home in my being and will likely be there for a very, very long time.

The unusual format of “Cup of Frost, Palm of Gold” is what drew me to it in the first place. I am enamored of stories told in unconventional ways: along the same lines, I collected the choose-your-own-adventure “Give Yourself Goosebumps” books as a child, and to this day almost exclusively play video games with strong storytelling. So, this new and interesting online, sort-of-a-game, kind-of-a-choose-your-path story got me very excited: and then it delivered something fantastic.

“Cup of Frost, Palm of Gold” reads to me like folklore that has been around for generations. Your first choice comes when a mysterious order of knights enters your village and demands to take four children, one of which is you. The story takes you on a journey that has a fairy-tale quality that I really love and is heightened by the second-person narrative as you, the reader, choose what happens in your story next.

I was, and still am, mesmerized by this story. At this point I believe I have found all the possible endings, but I revisit it periodically to re-explore what this story has to offer — and it never disappoints. ~ Skye Walker


“A Whimsy of the World” by Amor Towles (2020, free at Newscabal UK)

Ellie Watson is a whimsical, spirited Nebraska girl who tends to make spur-of-the-moment choices, until the fateful day when she writes a letter an English pen pal and suddenly realizes that she wants to be sensible and put the stamp in the typical place, rather than off in some other corner of the envelope. Her family and friends are bemused (and her parents and principal satisfied) by the change in Ellie, as she does her chores, pays attention in school, and otherwise acts like a well-behaved child.

Then one December day she hears the radio broadcast announcing that King Edward VIII has abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Simpson … and Ellie recognizes the handiwork of her whimsy. And in fact, her whimsy has absconded to Europe inside of the envelope Ellie sent to her pen pal, and is now jaunting about Europe. Ellie is determined to do something about it, but what?

This charming short story by Amor Towles, author of A Gentleman in Moscow, has a whimsical approach that befits its subject. The whimsy isn’t just a floating sparkle but somehow morphs into a clean-shaven man who can shake your hand and introduce himself, and when he starts hanging out with an older gentleman’s wanderlust, there’s no telling what will happen. Ellie’s determination is admirable, and the whimsy’s influence on Edward VIII’s history-changing decision was a nice touch. It’s a light, joyful and appealing tale with a subtle message. ~Tadiana Jones


New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color“The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex” by Tobias S. Buckell (2019, New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color, audio version free at LeVar Burton Reads podcast). Locus award finalist (short story)

Tavi is a New York City cab driver who, because he recently had his license reinstated after it was revoked, is trying not to cause any trouble. But when an octopus-like alien jumps out of his cab on the Brooklyn Bridge and falls to his death, Tavi is nervous about the consequences.

Government agents try to cover up the incident and warn Tavi not to admit to anything, but when another alien comes looking for answers, Tavi realizes that the fate of the Earth may be in his hands. Tavi just wants to do the right thing.

“The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex” is simple, entertaining, quirky, and heart-warming. The setting, in an alien-friendly Manhattan, is lots of fun. I’d love to read a novel set there.

I listened to LeVar Burton read “The Galactic Tourist Industrial Complex” in his podcast, which I’m so glad I found! He reads a new story (mostly speculative fiction) every week. He’s got a couple of ads (related to reading stories) in the beginning and the middle of the performance, and it’s full of sound effects that some listeners may not prefer, but he’s a great performer and I enjoyed hearing his thoughts about the story afterwards. ~Kat Hooper


“Dave’s Head” by Suzanne Palmer (2019, free at Clarkesworld Magazine)

In this bizarre and entertaining story, Suzanne Palmer introduces us to Cassie, a young woman who lives with her uncle (who seems to have dementia) and a giant talking life-sized robotic dinosaur named Dave. Dave came from a dilapidated amusement park. He likes to remove his head and have Cassie place it in the front seat of her car so she can take him on road trips. This time Dave plans to trick Cassie into taking him to a particular place where he wants to go. This leads to a dangerous altercation that could have world-shattering consequences.

Palmer leaves us with more questions than she answers in this mysterious, tense, and funny story. I loved the characters, especially Dave, and want to know more about Cassie’s family, especially her mother. “Dave’s Head” is a story that I’d love to see expanded to a full novel. Meanwhile, I’m going to check out Palmer’s other work. ~Kat Hooper


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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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SKYE WALKER, who has been on FanLit’s staff since September 2014 (after a brief time on staff as a YA reviewer in 2007-2008), is from Canada. Their HBA in Anthropology and Communications allowed them to write an Honours paper on podcasting as the modern oral tradition of storytelling: something they will talk about at any and all opportunities. Skye is a communications professional in the non-profit sector. These days their favourite authors include Ursula K Le Guin, Bo Bolander, and Chris Wooding. They can be found on social media @cskyewalker.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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2 comments

  1. Kelly Lasiter /

    Kat, that LeVar Burton podcast sounds awesome!

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