A Winter Book, Tove Jansson
A Winter Book is a collection of some of Tove Jansson’s less famous writing — i.e., this isn’t the Moomins. Instead, this is a selection of short stories written throughout her life, many of them autobiographical or otherwise revealing. The stories are generally quiet set pieces, often with vivid images at the centre — the girl rolling a stone home; the girl throwing her torch onto an island of floating ice and lighting it up, but too scared to jump across…
‘Quiet’ is definitely the word that comes to mind most; the prose (even accounting for translation) is unassuming and relatively down to earth. Things are just so.
The writing isn’t bad, but it’s not the sort of short story writing I actually really enjoy, though at times it can be done really well (thinking Raymond Carver).
The Heart of Aces, various
The Heart of Aces is a collection that’s almost more interesting/important to me because of the theme than because of anything about the actual stories within. Asexual representation is a big thing to me, because for a long time I was all kinds of confused about why I wasn’t interested in other people the way my peers were, why I didn’t want the same things in a relationship, etc. The only times I did come across it were in stories about trauma, and then it was something to be got over; not something that you can just accept. And that’s the nice things about the stories here. Each one of them accepts asexuality as a valid way of living a life that can still be whole and fulfilling, and even shared with a romantic partner. Sometimes you have to compromise or go out on a limb, sometimes things don’t match up quite as well as you’d hope, but all the same, these stories say it’s possible.
(And oh, my relief that I don’t think a single character in these stories calls not wanting sex “unnatural”, or anything like that. Look, I don’t feel naturally feel physical attraction — if anything, if I did, that would be unnatural for me, even if it might maybe be achievable with drugs or something. It’s just not the way I’m built, and that’s okay.)
The stories in the collection are a little shaky; one of them I just found plain unreadable, while others were very basic. There are a couple of sweet ones in there, though. I do wish that there was a bit more representation across the board — a cisgendered, straight, asexual couple would be great to see, or stretching the definition of ace a bit, an aromantic character — but there is one story with a trans character (albeit the POV character takes a while to switch pronouns correctly), and a realistic range of what the characters in the stories are interested in. I wouldn’t really recommend the stories, except that there’s so little out there that’s tailored for asexual people. If you feel like you really need to see something that does touch on that, you might enjoy picking up The Heart of Aces.
Toad Words and Other Stories, T. Kingfisher
If you’ve been following my reactions to T. Kingfisher’s longer retellings, it’s probably no surprise that I enjoyed this collection of short stories. Despite the stated belief that she can’t write short stories, this should make it very obvious that she can: with wry humour, with tenderness, with care, with cleverness. Each of these stories has its own spin on the original fairytales; each has its own voice and shape, and sometimes it goes quite far from the original — but always in a way that I really enjoy. For example, the talking boars in ‘Boar & Apples’, which is a skewed retelling of Snow White.
If you’re not reading T. Kingfisher yet, this would make a good introduction; there’s plenty of bang for your buck here, because the stories give you a taster of all the author’s talents (rather than being a single story like Bryony and Roses or The Raven and the Reindeer). Mind you, it’s not like the other books are very expensive either; I totally recommend going for it and having a binge, if you enjoy fairytale retellings.
Of course, not all the stories were 100% to my taste, but that always happens, especially with short stories — I’m picky. It’s a strong enough collection that I think what appeals to me less could well be someone else’s favourite.
(My favourite story was ‘Loathly’; though it doesn’t explicitly reference Arthuriana, I enjoyed this take on the Loathly Lady a lot.)
The Terracotta Bride, Zen Cho
The Terracotta Bride is a short story/novella set in a very particular sort of afterlife: a bureaucratic one, in which people live (er, death?) very much as the living do, though they rely on the offerings of their descendants for money, food, and whatever else becomes necessary. So the saying that ‘hell is other people’ is literally true, especially for the protagonist of the story. It’s a pretty un-Western setting, and Cho expects the reader to keep up. Like this bit:
There were so many other dangers to contend with — demons promoted from other courts, furiously upstanding and eager to hurry on the cycle of rebirth. The eight thousand terracotta warriors who had been buried with an emperor, now lost. Left masterless, the warriors roamed the tenth court, looking for trouble. And worst of all, the dead. In hell, as in every other world, man was man’s greatest enemy.
The story follows a woman who has been married off by a family member to a rich man, because he wanted to manipulate another of his wives. Then there’s the Terracotta Bride herself. I don’t know what other people expected from this story; I didn’t really expect it to go quite in this direction, although it felt very appropriate. The ending is lovely, just right: even if you didn’t expect the exact direction of the story.
It’s a little bittersweet, but hopeful too. It really works.
The Bread We Eat in Dreams, Catherynne M. Valente
If you’re a fan of Catherynne M. Valente’s work, then you probably know what to expect: prose that touches poetry at times, often an influence of Japanese folklore, strange dream-like logic… This is a wide-ranging collection which includes some stories I read elsewhere, or could’ve read elsewhere, like the Fairyland novella about Mallow. The writing is generally beautiful; that’s never really something I doubt with Valente. The choice of stories is also generally good, even though I have encountered some of them in multiple other collections.
It’s probably most worthwhile for the pretty cover and for people who either haven’t read much Valente and want a sampler, or people who read everything she writes and don’t want to miss anything.
Confession: I mostly skipped the actual poetry. I prefer the lyricism of Valente’s prose to anything about her poetry.
Liars and Thieves, Karen Maitland
I might’ve benefitted from reading this closer to when I read Company of Liars, as it took me a while to remember who the characters were and what exactly was going on — and I still can’t quite remember how it fits in. It’s basically like a missing chapter from Company of Liars; nothing essential, but some characterisation stuff and a little bit more of the world, and the dangerous situations travellers faced.
It’s not a great or vital addition to the world, but if you enjoy the characters and their interplay, you might want to pick it up. It’s readable, just not special.
The Paper Menagerie, Ken Liu
Received to review via Netgalley
The Paper Menagerie is a collection of stories by Hugo, Nebula and World Fantasy Award winner Ken Liu. Some of the stories deal with issues of Chinese-American heritage, and one in particular goes into a lot of detail, in a very interesting documentary format, about events in China during Japanese occupation, issues of experimentation, and then through the lens of spec-fic, history and who owns it, who controls it, how we can interact with it. Some of the stories are quite long, and come with footnotes about how they originated or further sources if you’re interested in the story.
There was nothing I specifically didn’t like about the stories, in general; one or two were weaker, others stronger. I was surprised that I felt ‘The Paper Menagerie’ to be a little… trite, given the awards and praise it has received, but it does evoke the feelings well. There are some moments where that comes out very strongly in Liu’s stories: there’s one story which uses a lot of descriptions of Chinese food and culture, and I could almost taste the dumplings, the rice, the vegetables, when reading that one. For the most part, though, I felt like Liu’s voice was very even in tone; I didn’t feel passionately one way or the other about quite a few of these stories. I felt like there were a few obviously great stories, and others that were entertaining enough but definitely not as strong.
I’m interested to read The Grace of Kings, Liu’s novel, and his translation of Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem; I’d like to see how Liu’s voice comes across there and how it flavours a work in translation. I’m not put off Liu’s work, just not quite enthused about it.
The Collectors, Philip Pullman, read by Bill Nighy
I don’t think I knew when I picked this up that it was part of the His Dark Materials world, but it doesn’t really matter that it is. It does add another dimension if you can identify why certain things go together, but it works as an atmospheric creepy story, too. Especially as read by Bill Nighy — I don’t often read something only as an audiobook, but this seems very much designed to be an audiobook. The action is almost entirely in dialogue.
The feeling of the story… it’s something like Neil Gaiman’s style, now I think about it. And it feels more like Clockwork, of Pullman’s work, than His Dark Materials. That’s not a criticism, despite the fact that Clockwork is aimed at a younger audience. I think both capture something creepy and bring it across in just the right number of words.
For an audiobook I got for free, this is definitely worth the half hour’s listening. Especially if you are a fan of Pullman in general.
Unnatural Creatures, Neil Gaiman
Unnatural Creatures is a fun collection with a rather diverse set of authors, including Gaiman himself, Peter S. Beagle, Nnedi Okorafor, Nalo Hopkinson, Diana Wynne Jones… it includes some stories published before which fit with the theme, and a couple which seem to be published for the first time here. Most of them weren’t stories I knew already, and I thought overall it was a good selection; there were none which really didn’t work for me, though I wasn’t so interested in ‘The Compleat Werewolf’, particularly given how long it was.
Some of the creatures are more traditional than others: werewolves and ancient animal gods and the spirits of trees juxtaposed against a predatory bicycle, the story by Gahan Wilson, etc. Which is always good, to my mind, because werewolves and unicorns and such have been done, and a bit of new blood is always interesting.
My favourites of the collection? Hmm. ‘The Griffin and the Minor Canon’, by Frank R. Stockton; ‘The Sage of Theare’, by Diana Wynne Jones; ‘The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees’, by E. Lily Yu; ‘Prismatica’, by Samuel R. Delaney… Stockton’s story, for example, is fairly traditional in the sort of structure and moral, but then there’s that odd sad note of pity for the Griffin, despite — well, you should probably read it for yourself. ‘The Cartographer Wasps’ is a fable, too, with a different sort of feel. And then ‘The Sage of Theare’ has a figure familiar from Jones’ other books — Chrestomanci!
Yes, it’s definitely an interesting combination, and a collection worth spending some time with, I think.
The Mistletoe Bride, Kate Mosse
The Mistletoe Bride is a good collection of stories for those who already like Kate Mosse’s work, I think. It’s fairly standard fare for her: timeslips, connections across time, history in the landscape, etc. If you’re big on the folklore of Brittany and that sort of area, it might also interest you: there are a few tales in this collection drawn from that. The writing is usually good, though occasionally somewhat stilted or just… too familiar. As if the same phrases are being used in different stories, the same images recurring.
The stories aren’t creepy-creepy, but they are in that mysterious gothic-ish style which reminds me a little of Daphne du Maurier’s short stories. It’s not an immensely special collection, and the tone is mostly the same, but for fans of the genre and of Kate Mosse in particular, it should be reasonably satisfying. One or two of the stories just made me cringe with their triteness, though — ‘In the Theatre at Night’ is something I would’ve written as a child, and I couldn’t take it seriously.
I think my favourite aspect was actually reading about the origin of each story, getting at the folklore behind it. ‘The Drowned Village’ and ‘The Ship of the Dead’ were probably my favourites, and the title story is better than the other version of the same story, ‘The Yellow Scarf’, which again struck me as just… too convenient. Overall, the collection lacks a spark, I think.