A Date with the F&SF Oct/Nov All-Star Issue, Part 2: The First Layer

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Chocolate assortments run the gamut from from Hershey’s Pot of Gold to Leonidas Signature Dark Belgian Chocolates, but in the end they’re still assortments. I have no idea why someone keeps thinking that nougat centers are a good idea, yet there they are in every box of mixed chocolates, so somebody must like them. I have a friend who says the similar things about coconut centers (“they fool you into thinking they’re vanilla creme…”). He thinks wrongly, of course, and I wish I could enlighten him, but he resists all persuasion.

Mind you, we both hate nougat.

Last night’s reading went pleasantly. There’s a good stride to the way the stories are ordered ((I miss the Kindle’s ability to jump between items in the table of contents, so my October/November preview issue is full of colorful paperclips as I marked out where each story starts and ends.)) ; a few short stories, kind of like little cream centers, before you get to a novelette, a sort of dark large truffle. This repeats itself in a hypnotic way. If I didn’t have work the next day I might have read late into the night.

Of course, that’s a nice pattern that I don’t remember seeing in anthologies, although perhaps I simply wasn’t paying enough attention. I don’t even remember it from when I was reading the Ellery Queen magazines a while ago.

So the first two creams (which I sort of cheated on with an extra online) and first dark truffle:

Inside Story by Albert E. Cowdrey

Tough as he was, retired Detective Sergeant Alphonse Fournet admitted that he hadn’t been able to handle the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“Living in Alabama for a month,” he groused to Chief of Detectives D. J. Tobin. “Wunnerful folks, but how they live! Frying ham in lard. Alla time asking me what choich I belong to. They had a prayer vigil, for Chrissake, to apologize to God for pissing him off enough to hit us with Katrina. It’s like that guy Cheney shot apologizing for getting in he way of the birdshot.”

It was noon at Ya Momma’s Bar & Grill, and succulent aromas filled the air. Tobin, who was picking up the tab, listened patiently but sympathized only to a point.

“You didn’t lose your house or nothing, right, Alphonse?”

“I live in Algiers,” said Fournet, as if that were sufficient explanation for his good fortune. “The west bank is the best bank. You oughta loin that, D. J., now you gotta wife and kids to proteck.”

If you aren’t a frequent reader of F&SF, you may not have read Albert E. Cowdrey’s work. It’s plainly obvious how much he loves New Orleans, because this (along with Queen for a Day, up for I don’t know how long) breathes New Orleans in and out. It’s a visceral part of the scenery, the characters, the plot. And I do mean visceral; either you’ll really like it, or you really won’t.

I appreciate the atmosphere, and found this story funny, but I wish there was more to it. There is a strange feeling that the story is too short, but that the story and characters wouldn’t hold up to being stretched longer. I know that a good story is supposed to feel fit, maybe even tight, but for me this was rather a bit too taunt.

Queen for a Day by Albert E. Cowdrey

“Looka that goddamn king,” growled Det. Alphonse Fournet.

“You in a mood,” opined his partner, Det. D. J. Tobin. DJ was black and Fournet was white, but both spoke in the downtown New Orleans accent called Yat.

Traffic cops had shifted the movable barriers on Canal Street to let them through. But the parade had ground to a halt. On the royal float the bewigged king was drinking a toast to his queen, a pale deb shivering on the steps of the Posh Club. Just behind, the title float — THE BIBLE, with a wind-shaken, papier mâché Adam, Eve and serpent — blocked the growler’s path.

“It’s that crooked lawyer, Bose,” Fournet bitched on, naming a lawyer famed for his almost magical skill in getting criminals off the hook. “Fuckin’ king for a fuckin’ night. Fuck him.”

“Boy, you in a mood. Wife on your ass again?”

Fournet did not answer, for suddenly crystal goblets splintered on the tarmac, the Queen of Kronos raced inside to get warm, and the parade jerked to life. Space opened behind Adam and Eve, DJ hit the gas and the car slid across Canal into Bourbon Street, the crowd parting as reluctantly as the Red Sea probably had for Moses. Fournet rolled down his window.

“Outa the way, assholes!” he roared.

“Boy, you really in a mood,” said DJ, shaking his head.

I thought, since I had very little grasp on D. J. and Fournet from “Inside Story”, I might as well go all in and read this story as well.

Now, reading it did help a lot, and gave me more grounding for who the main characters are and, more importantly, the kind of stories being told here—although there it feels like there isn’t a lot there, even from the first story. A bit frustrating, since even the poor beleaguered soul in the next story of the 2008 All-Star issue has more depth; however, perhaps this is intentional. And it’s just the way the characters and the stories work; they’re supposed to be funny and primarily about strange happenings in New Orleans, which is the most important bit.

Or I’m grossly misunderstanding, which is always a strong possibility.

Either way, I think they’re well done, but they are not for me. I will willingly read them because they come in an assortment, just like I’ll eat orange-flavored mint creme centers because they come in an assortment and aren’t nougat, but otherwise I wouldn’t. But that’s just me personally. There are strange people out there who like orange-flavored mint creme centers.

I will remember New Orleans, though.

Has anyone gathered up Cowdrey’s New Orleans stories into a collection yet? I think that would be a very cool idea.

Sleepless Years by Steven Utley

I would like to sleep now. I would. I’ve told them this, they’ve asked, they’re interested in how I’m feeling, every time they ask, I tell them, “I would like to sleep now.” I find myself emphasizing different words whenever I say it. I would like to sleep now. I would like to sleep now. They hang on everything I say. I would like to sleep now. I have little else to say to them any more, so I say it often. I would like to sleep now. They seem never to tire of hearing me say it. I would like to sleep now.

I’m pretty sure I like this story not just because that was, basically, my Labor Day weekend and I’m super-identifying. (Pager. Systems. You don’t want to know.)

This is a lovely, creepy story that’s part interview and part musings; a very well done first-person piece. When I read the bit about the lack of a subconscious, everything slotted together; and if you’ve ever been long without sleep (I have), what’s described here rings true. Except, of course, that Utley makes it weirder and creepier… and strangely also about faith and death. Or, perhaps, not so strangely.

Very well done. One of those little pralines with the surprise of hazelnut filling.

Steven Utley has a blog, by the way, so you can stalk friend him there. He’s also reading Rivals of Sherlock Holmes. No, not all those other ones. This one, edited by Alan K. Russell.

Days of Wonder by Geoff Ryman

Leveza was the wrong name for her; she was big and strong, not light. Her bulk made her seem both male and female; her shoulders were broad but so were her hips and breasts.

She had beautiful eyes, round and black, and she was thoughtful; her heavy jaws would grind round and round as if imitating the continual motion of her mind. She always looked as if she were listening to something distant, faraway.

Like many large people, Leveza was easily embarrassed. Her mane would bristle up across the top of her head and down her spine. She was strong and soft all at once, and kind. I liked talking to her; her voice was so high and gentle; though her every gesture was blurting and forlorn.

But that voice when it went social! If Leveza saw a Cat crouching in the grass, her whinnying was sudden, fierce, and irresistible. All of us would pirouette into a panic at once. Her cry was infallible.

So she was an afrirador, one of our sharpshooters, always readerd up onto hind quarters to keep watch, always carrying a rifle, always herself a target. My big brave friend.

I’ve found that I’m fond of animal stories. If done well, it’s a joy to watch the author bridge between the context of the reader and the context of this other world, which is not so completely alien to us. An animal story pretty much requires a mythological frame of reference; in a way, they echo back to ancient tales, and the cultural reverberations re-surface. And, by the way, author, that bridge still needs to be built. Oh, and you need to take care of some characters and plot, too. Kthxbai.

Most such animal stories are fantasy stories. (Or something. I’ve never known how to classify Watership Down.) This one is definitely a science fiction animal story, however.

Now, laying aside the animal story thing. Days of Wonder is the kind of story I love to read; something you can get lost in. It’s not just the world, and it’s not just the characters; it’s also the stakes. There are stories, then there are mythical stories. Days of Wonder is one of them. Granted, this is a novelette, so it has more elbow room, but there are short stories that also make a similarly wonderful use of space—like Elizabeth Bear’s Tideline, or Darja Malcolm-Clarke’s The Beacon.

This is storytelling done right. And it isn’t done like this often enough, in my opinion. But I suppose we can’t live on only big dark truffles.

Very, very nice dark truffle; the kind that fills you up.

By the way, Geoff Ryman has this weird website, some sort of interactive novel. This is very curious. I wonder what’s inside…

• • •

Next time, we’ll look at the Stephen King story, another animal story by Scott Bradfield, and Robert Reed’s novelette, The Visionaries. Please don’t let there be nougat.

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