So let’s talk about teacher unions

As the Republican National Convention lurches on, teachers are once again under attack as one of the Republican party’s favorite whipping boys. In his speech Tuesday night, Donald Trump Jr. claimed that schools are currently set up to serve teachers and administrators, not students. He went on to say that Democrats “are more concerned about protecting the jobs of tenured teachers than serving the students in desperate need of a good education.”

This is a familiar talking point: the problem with education is that it is too hard to get rid of bad teachers, and so Johnny doesn’t learn because he has some lazy slob at the front of the room who won’t teach him. Why is it so hard to get rid of bad teachers? Well, teachers’ unions, naturally.

Except there’s an obvious hole in that logic.

The following is basically back-of-napkin calculation. It’s not intended to be a comprehensive study, just something I threw together in a few minutes of internet research.

In the table below are the 50 states ranked in order from best K-12 ranking to worst. I got the rankings from Quality Counts’s 2016 rankings, as reported in EdWeek. Don’t like that source? Feel free to substitute your own—from an organization without an obvious axe to grind, ideally—and see if the results are very different. This list is reasonably consistent with what I’ve always heard about which states provide the best and worst education in the country.

State K12 rankings 2016

As you can see, I highlighted some of the states—specifically, the states listed in orange are “Right-to-Work” states. These are the 26 states that have passed laws weakening unions. If the Republican talking point is correct, if unions are the biggest problem with education today, you’d expect the states with strong unions to be at the bottom of the list, and the states with Right-to-Work laws to be at the top.

That correlation is pretty plainly not there. In fact, if anything there is a slight indication that the opposite correlation is there. Nine of the top thirteen states are not Right-to-Work states, while ten of the bottom thirteen states are.

Now, I’m not suggesting that this is evidence that strong teacher unions make schools better. Many of the higher-ranked states are also wealthier states. There are likely to be other confounding factors as well. But I am saying that at a quick glance, the claim that teacher unions are the great boogeyman of education doesn’t appear to match the data.

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Two new stories published this month!

June was a pretty good month. I had two new stories come out, and they both have been quite well-received.

On June 2, Motherboard/Terraform published my story “Spirit of Home.”

There is a scene in the story where the protagonist visits her father in a hospital. That scene is straight out of my real life, sixteen years ago, when I visited my father in the ICU right after his quadruple bypass. My father was always formidable, larger than life in personality and temperament. In the ICU, with tubes running into him, I could hardly recognize him. I thought I was going to lose him right there–he was fighting the treatment, and it did not look good.

Cuba looms hugely in my life. My first language was Spanish, I was raised within the Cuban expat culture, and I think of myself as Cuban. My heart hurts for the tragedies that have befallen my people over the last sixty or so years. I wish more than anything else that I could visit my father’s Cuba, but I know that this isn’t possible. If I visit Cuba, I will be a tourist, a stranger.

I think it can be hard for people who are not part of an immigrant experience to identify with those of us who are. (You’re in this country now! Speak English! Be American! OR You’re Cuban! Explain/justify everything Cubans do! Why don’t you dance better?) But spec-fic readers seem to have no trouble inhabiting other planets, the Serenity, Middle Earth. I myself have been to Mars numerous times, through the books of Kim Stanley Robinson, Ben Bova, Greg Bear, and others. I know the planet well. I thought if I set my story on Mars, it might be easier for people who were not born into diaspora to put themselves into it.

So basically, there’s a lot of me in this one.


Then, on the thirteenth, I made my second appearance in Strange Horizons—a market that’s just the pinnacle of what I love in short stories—with “Life in Stone, Glass, and Plastic.” I think this story is some of my very best work. It’s the first time folks have indicated that they found something I wrote to be surprising in the direction it took. It may not be as personal as “Spirit of Home,” but in a way that makes it a bigger accomplishment to me, to be able to generate any kind of power without plumbing my own experience.

You can read it here, or listen to the podcast here.

And let me take a moment to gush about the artwork they commissioned. Isn’t this wonderful?

OMG OMG OMG it's ART!!!!

© 2016 Sandro Castelli “Life in Stone, Glass and Plastic”

I’ve had art attached to my stories before, but this is the first time original non-composite (Is that a word? Do you get what I’m saying?) artwork has been commissioned  for one of my stories, and it’s definitely a career bingo square checked off.

So there you go–June was a pretty awesome month for me! How was your month?

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New publication: The Curse of Giants

My story, “The Curse of Giants” went live today on Daily Science Fiction and has already garnered some nice feedback. Go check it out!

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. . . And my own 2015 recap and award eligibility post

In this post yesterday, I told folks about stories by other writers that I loved this year. Now I’d like to take a moment to reflect on my own writing year. Nobody reads my blog anyway, so I know nobody will mind. *grin*

2015 was a pretty terrific year for me. I sold more stories than ever before, for more writing income than in any other year, but that’s not really a reflection of the year—or if it is, it’s a reflection of me being lucky, and of past investments paying off. It takes a fair amount of time, usually, for a story to make it into print, so the stories of mine that came out this year were almost all written in prior years.

What made it a great year for me was the things I actually did, not the decisions other people, like editors, made. I learned to manage my dayjob workload better than I ever have before, and I believe being less stressed out than before has made me a friendlier, better teacher. And it’s left me more energy for writing at the end of the day. I wrote seventeen stories, a record for me. More importantly, I figured out which bits of process work for me right now, and which ones don’t. Writing has always been difficult for me. I believe I’m good at it, and I find myself drawn to writing—I want to write and I am satisfied by having written. But the writing itself has almost always been a slog for me. I kept doing it anyway and managed to write hundreds of thousands of words’ worth of completed manuscripts, including three novels, before this year, so I’m not merely somebody who talks about writing without doing it. But it was always incremental struggle without feeling like I knew how to flip the switch that made the words flow.

If there was a theme for 2015 for me, it was Embrace the Great YMMV. Lots of people will give you writing advice. A fair percentage of them will tell you they’re sharing with you the “right” way to do things. And I realized this year I’d internalized a lot of B.S. about what was not legitimate. I was fighting against what worked for me because I believed that “real” writers didn’t do this or that. Well anything that gets words written is a thing that real writers do. This was the year I started paying attention to myself, finding the path of less resistance, and getting the words to flow. I also started collecting all the tips, techniques, and observations that were effective for me, and put them all in an Evernote file I could use to remind myself. And finally I started to feel like I knew how to operate my creativity. My real accomplishment in 2015 wasn’t stories written or stories told: it was learning to stop trying to be a different writer. It was learning that there isn’t a Way To Be A Writer, there’s The Way You Write.

Now I know how I brainstorm, and I know that I can generate a new story any time I want to. Now I know how I get words flowing, and I know I can do that any time I want to. And now I know how I revise. I believe I’m writing the best stories I’ve ever written, and I think the best writing and publishing days are ahead of me, FSM-willing.

But yeah, on to the stories that saw publication this year:

My best received story, far and away, was “Weight of the World,” published in the February issue of Fantastic Stories. You can download this issue—currently free!—here. It’s an emotional story about a man bringing his son down to Earth for treatment for a life-threatening disease. K. Tempest Bradford on io9 had this to say about it:

This flash piece doesn’t fall into over-sentimentality, which I appreciate, yet is a touching exploration of what parents go through when they have a very sick child. The last paragraph nails it.

If stories exploring gender roles and deconstructing traditional fairy tales is more your thing, you might like my story “Cupid and Psyche at the Caffé Sol y Mar,” published in Fireside Fiction in October. You can read it here. It’s basically revisiting the story of Cupid and Psyche a few thousand years later, when Psyche’s had enough time to figure out that maybe she got a raw deal.

A story of mine that I’ve been quite fond of, “The Flood,” found a home in Grantville Gazette this November, and I’m delighted that some folks have really responded to it. It’s the story of a former soldier raising a war orphan after all the battles have been fought, and trying to figure out what it means to be a parent. You can buy the issue containing my story here.

Finally, the most “normal” story I’ve sold, I think, is “Message from Beyond,” published in the July-August issue of Fantastic Stories, available for purchase here. Charles Payseur had this to say at Quick Sip Reviews:

It’s a nice story, biting and darkly funny, with Ray an interesting main character, a man bitter and entitled and yet with tragedy hounding him through no real fault of his own. A story worth checking out.

I had a fifth sale in November that will come out in 2016 from Daily Science Fiction. I’m really excited about that one and look forward to sharing it next year!

And it’s that time of year where we do the award eligibility thing, isn’t it? Honestly, I’m not high profile enough to expect to make a run at any awards anyway, but what I would like is to get more people reading my stories, because connecting with readers is a big part of why I do this. So whether you nominate or not, I hope you’ll check out something by me. And if you read something of mine but it wasn’t your cuppa, thank you anyway for taking the time.

If you are reading with award nominations in mind, then I believe I am eligible to be nominated for the Hugo Award (short story), the Nebula Award (short story), the Tiptree Award (assuming those nominations have reopened when you read this), and the Carl Brandon Parallax Award. Naturally, you should only nominate works you think are excellent and deserving.

Thanks for being a part of my 2015, and here’s to a wonderful 2016 for all of us!

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Some Terrific Short Stories of 2015

For the past few years, I’ve posted year-end recaps of some of my favorite stories, and friends have told me they found my recommendations helpful. I read short speculative fiction—particularly online short spec fiction—pretty voraciously, so I may have run across some wonderful stories that you don’t already know about. This blog post is not an exhaustive list of every terrific story I’ve read in 2015; follow me on Twitter or Facebook if you want that, because I share links to stories pretty much year-round. Rather, it’s a list of stories that have stuck with me even in the weeks or months since I read them.

There are no doubt plenty of amazing stories I haven’t run across. I’m not done reading yet for the 2015 award season, and I know I’ve saved some of the best for last. But right now, on December 31st of 2015, these are stories that have haunted me. I hope you’ll enjoy them.

In no particular order:

  • “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead,” by Brooke Bolander
    I’m a sucker for stories about women who kick ass, but this story had a tender heart too.
  • “Limestone, Lye, and the Buzzing of Flies,” by Kate Heartfield
    What if Walt Disney World’s Frontierland had real ghosts, who played out their ongoing dramas by possessing the castmembers? I thought this story was fantastic–beautiful at first, then chilling and foreboding by turns, and oh-so-atmospheric.
  • “The Ways of Walls and Words,” by Sabrina Vourvoulias
    This story is sweet and bitter and beautiful and unflinching. It’s a story of friendship, of self-sacrifice, of honoring your traditions, of honoring your loved ones, of finding commonality in your differences. It’s a story of surviving in the face of oppression, of bending but not breaking. There’s a raw honesty in this story. Check it out.
  • “The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History,” by Sam J. Miller
    I only discovered Sam J. Miller’s stories in the last twelve months or so, but everything I’ve read by him has been terrific, so when I ran across this story, I was looking forward to reading it. Then, about three paragraphs in, when I realized he was writing about the Stonewall Riots, I felt a literal frisson–what an amazing concept. This is like a documentary (or an oral history, as the title notes) of the riots that touched off the modern form of the LGBT rights movement–only in this version the fires were lit not physically, but by a mass psionic polykinesis. Which is freaking cool as hell. I’d read about the Stonewall Riots several times before, but this science fictional account made it more real for me, because it gave me characters to attach to and care about, so it became more than a dry history, but something to really get invested in. This story also raised in my mind interesting questions about to whom historical events belong–especially historical events that were experienced by and are meaningful touchstones for people who are still alive. (That sounds like a criticism. It’s not, though. It’s just another way this story made me think.)
  • “. . . And I Show You How Deep the Rabbit Hole Goes,” by Scott Alexander
    If you don’t normally read short stories, read this one. It counts, dammit. Sometimes you find fiction in the most unexpected places. This looks like nothing more than Tumblr silliness, but it’s a double dose of amazeballs, is what it is. No, DON’T just read the picture here. That’s not the awesome part. The awesome part is everything that comes after!
  • “Nothing is Pixels Here,” by K. M. Szpara
    I’ve often thought about what it would be like if our e-lives and virtual reality became so ubiquitous that it was possible to live your whole life in a virtual existence, like Second Life, only much more so. When I see other people play with this conceit, they always seem to come down on the side of treating this as some sort of horror story scenario, but I’ve never been quite convinced. Maybe because I’ve always been an early adopter–I feel like I grew up on computers and then online anyway. Anyway, this story explores the trope in a more nuanced way than I’ve seen before. This story wins the Damn I Wish I’d Written That Award for 2015.
  • “Madeleine,” by Amal El-Mohtar
    This one explores grief and sanity and reality and delusion. And more than anything else, loneliness. One thing that struck me in this story is the way support systems sometimes—often—edge away if you start to need TOO much support, or start to need support for TOO long. Like, okay, this bad thing happened, and here is the narrative for how you should feel the pain, and for how long, and when it’s time to get over it already. That’s not What The Story Is About, but it’s a thread running through the story that stood out to me. I’ve read a few stories by Amal El-Mohtar, but this is my new favorite.
  • “Forestspirit, Forestspirit,” by Bogi Takács
    This story had all the tense skiffy action, out-there inventiveness, high stakes, and big thematic ideas you could want, but at its heart (for me) was a touching relationship between a soldier and a child.
  • “When Your Child Strays From God,” by Sam J. Miller
    This story is a masterclass in writing an unreliable narrator, but beyond that it’s a great lesson in taking a deeply flawed central character and treating them with a ton of compassion and fairness as they come to some self-awareness. This is the second story I’ve recommended this year by Sam J. Miller; you really should just read everything he writes.
  • “It Brought Us All Together,” by Marissa Lingen
    I can see this story considered for Kaleidoscope’s Best YA stories of the year anthology. It features yet another unreliable narrator, skewering the faux-grief that tragedies sometimes bring out in a spot-on weary teen voice. The narrator, of course, is SO BEYOND it all . . . except that she’s not.
  • “Descent,” by Carmen María Machado
    I don’t generally do horror, but this is really more dread than horror, and this story is smart. I love how we get this image of concentric semicircles in the amphitheatre and then the story itself has pretty much the same structure, and story within a story within a story. And then the last three paragraphs gave me chills. (This story is sadly all too topical too.)
  • “Let’s Tell Stories of the Deaths of Children,” by Margaret Ronald
    If we care so much about children, why do we (as a society) seem to love stories in which they’re endangered so much? This story had so much going on. It’s a critique of such stories, while ironically participating in the genre. It’s delightfully creepy, it’s meta as all hell. And from a writing standpoint, it made me see how it’s possible to use deconstruction as an element within fiction. I’ll have to try that soon.
  • “And We Were Left Darkling,” by Sarah Pinsker
    I seem to be a sucker for impossible baby stories–my favorite story of 2014 was just such a tale. It might touch a nerve for me because I don’t and won’t have genetic offspring of my own. I love how real the characters are. Taya and Jo. No good or bad guys. Just people in a crazy situation doing their best. And I love the ending, in that it’s really a beginning. Wonderful story. Check it out if you haven’t read it. And then check out everything else by Sarah Pinsker.
  • “When We Were Giants,” by Helena Bell
    This is the sort of using-spec-metaphorically story that I just eat up. For me, this was a story of how we raise girls as a society, how we try to train them to be meek, to not be “big and loud.” And how we use the fear of bad things happening to reinforce this–how when somebody gets hurt it’s not, “It happens,” not a necessary risk, but “You shouldn’t have.” And ultimately, I thought it was a story of the women who internalize patriarchy, who give up the things that make them feel alive before somebody can take them away, and who end up resenting the women who refuse to do so.

So anyway, I hope you find something to enjoy here that maybe you hadn’t read before. There’s a lot of great short spec fiction being published these days, and it breaks my heart how many of my friends seem totally unaware if this short fiction golden age we’re living through. So give these a look, and let me know if you find something you love!

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Interview and New Story!

Last month I was fortunate enough to get to present at a couple of different Cons–Spec Fic South East in Orlando and Necronomicon in Tampa. While I’ve done a number of presentations at libraries and writing groups around town, this was my first time on programming at a Con. I was surprised by how comfortable I felt, and I had a terrific time. I very much look forward to doing it again!

While I was an Necronomicon, I had the good fortune to be interviewed by G.W. Pomichter for his “Hangin’ With . . .” web series. We talked about short stories in general and my weird corner of genre, and I plugged some of my short stories, most notably “Cupid and Psyche . . . ” We had some good laughs over how ridiculously long that title is. (I do feel like pointing out that I don’t only write short stories. You sell a few shorts and suddenly people think that’s all you do!)

Anyway, you can watch the interview here:

In other news, I sold another story and it was published! Already! My short story, “The Flood” (short title this time!) is in the November issue of Grantville Gazette. I thought each issue was free-to-read the month when it came out, but alas, that’s no longer the case. If you’re a subscriber, you can read it here; if you want to buy the individual issue, the cheapest place to do so appears to be here.

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New story: Cupid and Psyche at the Caffé Sol y Mar

My flash story “Cupid and Psyche at the Caffé Sol y Mar” is up at Fireside Fiction today!

It was inspired by thinking about the myth of Cupid and Psyche, which forms the basis of many children’s stories told, often to little girls, to exemplify a beautiful fairy-tale romance. (In fact, you can see echoes of it in many Disney-esque stories, including Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, and The Little Mermaid.) Except if you really think about it, it’s a horrible example of a romantic relationship. Psyche doesn’t really get a say in marrying Cupid, she is held to unreasonable rules in his palace, and then she is forced to carry out horrifying tasks when she fails to follow those rules–but at no point does Cupid really have to prove himself worthy of her.

So I set about imagining what an immortal Psyche would have to say about her treatment, thousands of years later, if she developed into a modern woman. This story is what resulted. If that sounds interesting to you, read it here!

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New Pub Plus Half-Year In Review

Cover image for "Message from Beyond"I’ve had two more sales since the last time I updated, and one of them came out yesterday! “Message from Beyond” is a bit less heavy than a lot of my stories, more of a funnish ghost story, so if that sounds like your sort of thing, go check it out!

This is my first time selling again to a market I’ve previously sold to, which is a cool kind of landmark.

So I’ve got six sales now, five of them at professional rates. I’ve also got three sales so far in 2015, which makes this my most successful year to date by most measures. Beyond that, though, it feels like in the last month or two I’ve started to get a handle on what I’m doing.

When I’ve written a salable story before, luck has been a large element, because I’m trying to figure this process out as I go. For most of my writing life, I have found writing very difficult. I’ll sit for hours some times to produce very small wordcounts, and only occasionally have productive bursts. It hasn’t kept me from writing because on some level I’ve never felt like I had a choice.Writing is cathartic for me, and having written is immensely satisfying. I write not because it’s fun, but because I have things I desperately need to get out, and this is my way.

Recently, though, I feel like I’ve figured out what my process is. I can consistently sit down to write and churn out words, and what’s more, I actually pretty much like them—or when I don’t, I have confidence in my revision process, that I’ll be able to polish them into something I will like. (Of course, as soon as I feel like I’ve leveled up, I always seem to try to stretch in some new direction, so I can feel lost again.)

It’s a very exciting time for me–and a very frustrating time, because any stories I write right now will take weeks if not months to shop around, and then further weeks or months to see publication, so I’m in a position where I feel like I’ve hit a new threshold, but there is no evidence of this that I can point to.

So, hey! Watch this space!

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New story out!

My short story, “Weight of the World,” has just gone live at Fantastic Stories of the Imagination. And let me say I adore the artwork they attached to the story!

I can’t wait to read my TOC-mates in this issue! :)

Anyway, I hope you’ll give it a read, and if you do check it out, I hope you like it!

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Some great short spec fic of the last year or so

Back in 2012 I put together a year-end list of some of my favorite short speculative fiction of the year. I didn’t bother doing this in 2013, because I didn’t feel like I’d done nearly as good a job of keeping up with the field, but then some of my friends expressed disappointment, and told me they’d actually taken my recommendations to heart and tried out some stories they would not otherwise have known about. So even though I once again have only read a very small sampling of what’s out there, I figured I’d share some of the stories that had a big impact on me in the last year or so.

So once again, in no particular order*:

  • Sarah’s Child, by Susan Jane Bigelow
    I love stories that explore our understanding of gender. This story features a trans woman named Sarah who dreams of a biologically impossible son, Sheldon, only to discover that Sheldon is the real son of an alternate universe version of Sarah, a cis woman named June. I found this one of the most powerful stories I read this year.
  • 57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides, by Sam J. Miller
    If you follow short spec fic at all, then you’ve already heard of this story. It won the Shirley Jackson Award and had all kinds of buzz, which is the only reason I stumbled across it, because I usually stay away from horror. (I see now that this was actually published in 2013, but I didn’t read it until 2014, so, whatever.) This is a great exploration of bullying and revenge, with teenage characters. This is at its heart like the best of YA, like the kind of YA that draws me to the genre. In short fiction, things don’t tend to get labeled YA, because there isn’t really a YA short fiction scene, but this story reminds me of books like 13 Reasons Why, only with a speculative bent that makes it the perfect marriage of the two literary traditions I love.
  • Selfie, by Sandra McDonald
    This was such a sad and powerful story of . . . well, I won’t spoil it for you! Let me just say it was a nice bit of Matrix-style mind-screwing with a powerful story about grief and regret.
  • 21 Steps to Enlightenment (Minus One), by LaShawn M. Wanak
    Magic realism with a touch of the absurd. Many people get spiral staircases magically appearing in their lives at moments when they need enlightenment. Sometimes the enlightenment achieved is profound, sometimes it is banal. Sometimes the realization is that some people need to find enlightenment all on their own.
  • 31-E, by M. Elizabeth Castle
    This is the shortest story on this list–it won’t take you but five minutes to read it. So go check it out so you can be astonished at how much punch can be packed into a tiny bit of story.
  • Five Stages of Grief After the Alien Invasion, by Caroline Yoachim
    I’m less about spec-fic as the “literature of ideas,” and more into stories that take me on an emotional journey, in case it’s not obvious by now. This story focuses on some of the individual lives disrupted after an alien species, mistakenly believing Earth to be uninhabited, attempt to “terraform” Earth.
  • The Great Detective, by Sarah Brooks
    This is one of those stories where a young person sees an elderly relative’s supernatural claim as being silly, until realizing their elderly relative understood much more about life than the protagonist ever realized. It’s a narrative I’ve seen before, but it works just the same. If you’ve got a Grandma whose wisdom you miss, this story will make you feel all warm inside.
  • What Glistens Back, by Sunny Moraine
    This story hooked me instantly with what I saw as a very obvious (not in a bad way) question: what if you only had seconds to live? How would you face your goodbyes? Your regrets? Your life’s work?
  • Lines on a Pamphlet Found Near the Museum, by Siobham Carroll
    This is the trippiest of these stories. It’s not as emotional a story as I usually like, but this teased the other side of my personality, the math teacher in me. This was a Möbius strip of a narrative, where it’s hard to be sure what’s real or what’s possible. Imagine Night at the Museum if it were actually an intelligent story, and not a stupid Ben Stiller vehicle.
  • Never the Same, by Polenth Blake
    This story is told from the perspective of a psychopath, who has rules and checklists for approaching behavior others will find acceptable, but we quickly learn that the narrator is the trustworthy one, and that the characters this colony world respects are not necessarily good. On top of an exploration of morality and conformity, this story explores gender as well, with a protagonist that identifies as neither male nor female.
  • Palm Strike’s Last Case, by Charlie Jane Anders
    To the best of my knowledge, you can’t read this one for free. It’s in the July/August issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine. You can buy this issue for the Kindle–a subscription is actually quite cheap–and you *may* be able to find this story in the free Digest edition that includes some of the stories. This story features a Batman-style vigilante who leaves Earth for a new start on a colony world, only to awaken from cold sleep twenty years too late, after the colony is on the brink of starvation and suffering from a drug crime problem. This was an interesting mashup of a comic book style story with a more straightforward skiffy story about the scientist with a problem to solve. What made it appeal to me was the emotional throughline of father-child relationships: Palm Strike is a father who has lost his son, and on the colony world he befriends a girl who has lost her father. That really gave this story the extra dimension that made it powerful for me.

And I’ll throw in a shout out for another of my favorites from 2013, since I never did a recap last year:

So anyway, I could actually keep going, but this is getting too long already. I hope you find a few gems you didn’t know about in this recap. If nothing else, I did enjoy looking back and remembering some of my favorite short reads.

* I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies in my recaps. They’re all from memory, and so hopefully I’m not doing these stories any grave injustices.

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