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.
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 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 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 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.
I mostly requested The Cutting Room because I know Ellen Datlow is a majorly respected editor of anthologies, and the idea of a themed anthology based on the silver screen… well, it did appeal, even if horror isn’t really my thing. Unfortunately, that turned out to be only too true, and also I didn’t really understand the point of some of the stories. There are definitely some standouts, though, and some amazingly written ones, and clever ones which turn things around.
‘Cuts’ was pretty good, even if I kind of expected the twist at the end; ‘Onlookers’, also. Genevieve Valentine’s story is interesting, and though I thought Peter Straub’s story was too self-conscious, it was well written. ‘Tenderiser’ was tense and breathless, though I wasn’t always following the reasoning 100%.
On the other hand, ‘Ardor’ for example just read as one big mess to me. Others just cut off, or just weren’t memorable, or just went for this big gory image for kicks. Just not what I connect to or am interested in.
Still, it was interesting to explore some stories like this, and look into some new authors. I don’t think I’ll pick any of them up on the strength of these stories, but it is nice to get a bit of variety.
Word Puppets is a collection of short stories written by Mary Robinette Kowal, arranged — if we can trust the alleged Patrick Rothfuss’ introduction — in the order they were written. I always think that’s a fascinating way to read an author’s work, because you get to watch their skills develop, their interests change, etc. This particular collection comes with an introduction written by Pat Rothfuss… which is a little suspect because in a little game they had on twitter, Kowal was better at being Rothfuss than Rothfuss was.
If that confused you, don’t worry; I think it bent more than a few brains.
As a whole, in any case, it’s an entertaining collection. There were one or two weaker points, where by my personal lights the twist was just a little… I saw it coming. ‘For Solo Cello, op. 12’, for example. And looking at the list of titles, there’s some where I can’t figure out which story they were, which you can attribute either to my terrible naming or perhaps less than memorable/well-matched titles/stories. ‘For Want of a Nail’, what was that one… ah, the one with the conflicted AI.
Still, for the most part I think Word Puppets is a strong collection, solidly entertaining, and what’s also nice, it has a wide range. Fantasy, various kinds of spec-fic, different settings, older protagonists… And it’s definitely quite different to her Regency/fantasy novels (which I do enjoy, but it’s nice to see Kowal taking on other frontiers). I enjoyed most of the stories, and I think particularly ‘Chrysalis’, ‘Body Language’, ‘The Lady Astronaut of Mars’ and ‘The Consciousness Problem’. Some of them really are sticking in my head, to be thought about later — so that’s a good sign.
I keep meaning to read Okorafor’s work, but Who Fears Death was a bad fit when I picked it up, and my copy of Lagoon has gone AWOL. Which left this as my introduction — maybe not a bad thing, because it’s fairly bitesize, without being truncated. I wasn’t sure what to think of it until I was talking with Robert from my book club, though, where he noted that at the start of the book, things begin to happen due to Binti’s merit. She gets herself into university, and she’s brave enough to leave her family and set out into the unknown. After that, though, it’s luck: she couldn’t know that the things she took with her would be useful, had no idea how to make them useful, and basically just happened to survive and do well because of her background.
It feels almost like message fiction: sometimes, someone from an unprivileged background can make good because they bring new tools which other people wouldn’t consider. That’s not a bad message, and the story and world-building is reasonably entertaining… but. The conflict essentially ends by 20% in — after that, Binti no longer has to rely on her own resources. She just happens to have the right things with her.
That’s a bit of a simplification, but it does weaken the story for me. It starts off strongly, and the world is interesting — Binti’s people, the way things are set up, the aliens — but then… I began to feel as if it would turn out okay because Binti was special somehow. Having a special protagonist who is insulated from harm makes suspense and intrigue difficult.
This is a lovely collection of microfiction, which often teasingly looks over the edge at poetry in the imagery, the choice of words, the spare precise nature of the prose. It’s a collection of fable-like stories, some of them more familiar than others, all of them given their own little twist. There were a few that didn’t really strike me, but microfiction is a very difficult art, and I think Yoon Ha Lee does an amazing job with the form. Each word has to be necessary — done. Each image has to evoke a picture, an emotion, a perfect still moment — done.
I also liked that gender is not a major thing in these stories. It shifts. Someone is referred to as someone’s son, and yet the pronoun is ‘they’. It’s noticeable at first because people don’t usually do it, but I quickly got used to it, and it’s a part of the narrative voice. (Some characters are ‘she’ or ‘he’; it also depends on the character, the story.)
I know Yoon Ha Lee has a sci-fi book deal with Solaris, and I’m definitely looking forward to that on the strength of this.