Looks: Broken Time Blues is a subtly shiny paperback with art from Galen Dara (cover), Evan Jensen (interior) and again, the delightful Galen Dara (also interior.) The interior design was done by Janice Blaine; I mention this because I rarely want to marry the interior design of a book. Though not legal nor possible, I’d give it thought in this case.
The interior art is all in black and white. My particular favorites of the interior art was for Semele’s Daughter by John Remy, The Automatic City by Morgan Dempsey, and Nor the Moonlight by Andrew Penn Romine. The rest of the illustrations are similarly appropriate and skillfully done.
I usually try to cherry-pick for anthology reviews, but Gates and Holt made that essentially impossible. I’d like to note that Jaym Gates and Erika Holt can do something I rarely see well executed by anthologies. It’s good, from start to finish. The themes are just dissimilar enough that even the painful reads act as counterbalances to the others, and the anthology itself shows not only excellent writing, but talented editing. 154 pages seems like a tragically short number for such a satisfying read.
The anthology opens with The Sharing, by James Sutter. The story has a bleak cold open, and the voice he chose to write it with is appropriate to both time and setting. The speculative element included feels neither forced or out of place. I’d like to note that I’ve been following Sutter across anthologies and various projects, and I’ve been impressed by the development of Sutter’s writing.
Frank Ard’s Chickadee deserves mention because it may be weirdest story I have read in the past few years. I say this having survived college writing workshops and over a year as a slush reader for two different publishing houses. Ard does a lovely job of making a dark tale of foibles, family and greed absolutely fucking surreal with his choice of speculative element.
John Remy’s Semele’s Daughter makes me hopeful that he’ll revisit his particularly violent, anti-witch, magic infused Prohibition setting, where sorcerers die in Sing Sing and gin joints exist in a cloud of magic. The lesbian relationship at the core of the story is worth noting for believability and poignancy. Kingston and Lily love each other, deeply, and are up to their fucking eyes in danger. The horror of the story is as much about their shared peril as it is the setting.
Morgan Dempsey’s The Automatic City is right on their heels; unlike the trio before it, Dempsey’s story is an intensely uncomfortable read, at least in part due to the somewhat incomprehensible nightmare the protagonist is dealing with. It’s deftly rendered, if an endurance trial to finish. Barbara Krasnoff’s Button Up Your Overcoat is a well-executed story, but the speculative elements when mixed together make the overall quality of the story suffer. As a reader, I’m not left with just enough questions, but one too many. Still, the ending has an element of sweetness that tempers the cluttered plot turn.
Andrew Penn Romine’s Nor the Moonlight starts with a punch; the speculative element is there in the first paragraph. In an all too brief turn of pages people die, two men lose the same bright and shining love, and dreams end. Jack and the Wise Birds, by Lucia Starkey, has the folksy tone of any good Americana tale, but the subject matter is a painful reminder that even in folktales, children are abused and horrible things happen. Like any good fairy tale, the end is one of implication: perhaps monsters really can be escaped.
Madonna and Child, in Jade is Amanda C. Davis attempting to break the speed of plot. The attention to past language and slang is dutiful, the action tightly paced, and the ending is as touching as it is horrifying. Der Graue Engel, from Jack Graham, is the third story I can point to in the anthology with at least one queer protagonist, which makes this queer English major’s heart sing. I’m hoping we see more of Graham, now that his first fiction sale has him off to such a lovely start.
Ari Marmell’s The Purloined Ledger is a magic-stained visit to the Great Depression, where Chicago streets are walked by a man packing a wand as well as mobsters with guns. If Marmell revisits this setting, I will gleefully read every word. Ryan McFadden’s Fight Night is the literary equivalent of being punch-drunk, if filtered through the brain of David Lynch. It’s bizarre, but good. I’m willing to accept I ended the story with no clearer an idea of what the fuck is going on then I did on the first page.
Broken Time Blues ends with A Drink for Teddy Ford, by Robert Jackson Bennett. It’s as bitter as the garnish on Teddy’s drink, and a suiting end to the anthology, no matter how sad the story got. And I can tell you that story got pretty fucking sad.
I am a bit lax in not posting this earlier, but I only found out today! My flash fiction story “Smoke and Whiskey” ran Saturday in The Irish Times. I can’t jump up and down like I’d love to because of this bloody headache, but let me assure you, it is a full on Annie musical number in here.
I was a teenager, sitting around with my older brother and some of his friends talking role-playing games, when one of them produced a book I’d never seen before. They thought I’d like to see it, asked if I wanted to borrow it. It was called Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah. It was a Wraith: The Oblivion source book.
Charnel Houses talks about the Dark Kingdom of Wire, the independent Necropoli of Holocaust wraiths. Those wraiths, like the living they had been, suffered through bureaucracy and squabbling about where to put the refugees that had tried fleeing the mouth of the war machine devouring Europe; in the case of the wraiths, only to die. Between the art in the beginning book, and Janet Berliner’s foreword, I started to cry. Charnel Houses is a book that talks about history as much as it does fiction.
Months would go by before I’d find it again in my room, and put it away with shaky hands. I wasn’t ready to learn how history and games went together. But my gaming group kept talking about the book, and the lives of our families during the war. A game had made us open family history to each other, and to history made decades before we were ever born.
It took what felt like eternity, to finally get through all of Charnel Houses. I’ve used chunks of it at LARPs and in table-top games since then. The people I told those stories for hugged each other longer than usual at those games.
You could say it’s just a role-playing book. But I still have it on my shelf. I still talk about, touch it with the same fingers I use to touch the name on my state ID. The weight of those names and half-remembered whispers of my relatives mean I can never get rid of the book. I can never say a game, a story, a piece of fiction, that they can’t teach us, because that would be a lie.
Some of us had family who wanted us safe from history, so we had to seek history out together, in defiance and curiosity, as only teens can. So we read, and watched, and played. I told stories to tell myself about who I was, while my friends created their own stories. We played a game called Wraith together, and used the book to tell a story that moved us to tears.
When we were able to tell a story about the Shoah together, to try and understand it. That’s when I finally knew that a game is never just a game.
I had a stroke last year, and I finally have a few things I can say about it.
I got to keep all my brain tissue, which is a big plus.
Right after the stroke, one by one, I had to quit things. School. Submissions editor positions. Internships. Writing contracts. I felt like I was dwindling as a person because my work was my sole defining feature to me. I didn’t think I had limits, till I woke up in the emergency room.
I wound up on medication. I’m on medications four, five and six. One through three didn’t work so well. They add to the remaining fog leftover, instead of subtracting from it. I’ve developed ways to cope with my forgetfulness and episodes of aphasia. There are days where my language center is tangled so badly I can only feel frustration. The times when I can’t process language, speak in clever words, or even write my name are deeply upsetting. Yet, I have an amazing medical team trying to keep me from ever having those days again.
Despite the pain and fear, I’ve done things I never thought I could since the stroke. I was at the reading for the Growing Dread anthology, where we’d crammed so many people in the building the windows were fogging. That was earlier this year, when I was discovering the wonders of severe dry mouth and the joys of aphasia. I still managed to read my entire story, without losing a single word.
I flew alone, for the first time in my life. I found out that even with a periodically messed up brain, I could walk alone through a convention two timezones away, and when I got lost, I could joke about it. I’ve sat outside the Ferry Building in San Francisco, soaking up the sun, savoring that I was somewhere beautiful. That I’d walked there by myself. This spring I became an Editor-in-Chief (before 30!) and I danced so hard when I did, that I fell over laughing.
I’ve been regaining a sense of independence that I had thought I’d lost. I’ve learned I can still trust myself, and my senses.
Sometimes I think those are little things. But they’re my things, and they can be as huge to me as I like.
I’m still incredibly scared. I’m scared of more strokes, of making my life about words and knowing I can lose them at any time. My fear is what’s keeping me honest about having very real limits.
This life isn’t about burning out early, or even about burning out at all. It’s treasuring what I can do, and doing it for as long as I am able. And that means playing life as an entirely longer game than I ever thought I could. In the words of one of the best men I have ever known, opportunities do not stop coming if you continue walking forward. No matter how slowly, forward is still forward.