Review: New Suns ed. by Nisi Shawl

40680117Verdict: Disappointing

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, Speculative Fiction

Published by Rebellion Publishing, March 18, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

Anthology of contemporary stories by emerging and seasoned writers of many races

“There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns,” proclaimed Octavia E. Butler.

New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color showcases emerging and seasoned writers of many races telling stories filled with shocking delights, powerful visions of the familiar made strange.  Between this book’s covers burn tales of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and their indefinable overlappings.   These are authors aware of our many possible pasts and futures, authors freed of stereotypes and clichéd expectations, ready to dazzle you with their daring genius

Unexploited brilliance shines forth from every page. 

I have read quite a few anthologies published by this publishing house and while short story anthologies are nearly always a mixed bag, I have always found some brilliant authors to follow. This book though did not work for me. I found most of the short stories disappointing and I did not finish reading all of them. I think I would have liked this more if there had been some kind of theme here. While I appreciate the idea of publishing short stories by authors of colour, I do think more cohesion would have improved my reading experience.

There were nonetheless a few stories that stood out for me and I feel the need to highlight them. I really enjoyed Rebecca Roanhorse’ take on the Deer Woman (“Harvest”) and thought the story was both poignant and impeccably structured. She is fast becoming one of most exciting SFF authors out there (I still have not read her Hugo winning short story but will have to remedy this as soon as possible). I found Chinelo Onwualu’s short story “The Fine Print” impressive in its interesting exploration of family and the ties that bind us. As always, the short story by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (“Give Me Your Black Wings Oh Sister”) was by far my favourite. I really do like the way here prose flows and her imagination sparkles and will definitely have to pick up some of her novels this year.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Rebellion Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: The Outcast Hours ed. by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

40680026Verdict: Some brilliant stories but also many that did not work for me.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, Anthology

Published by Rebellion, February 22nd, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

Bold new anthology from the acclaimed editors of The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories

We live our lives in the daylight. Our stories take place under the sun: bright, clear, unafraid.

This is not a book of those stories.

These are the stories of people who live at night; under neon and starlight, and never the light of day.

These are the stories of poets and police; writers and waiters; gamers and goddesses; tourists and traders; the hidden and the forbidden; the lonely and the lovers.

These are their lives. These are their stories. And this is their time:

The Outcast Hours.

I adored the first anthology by the editor duo so much that I did not hesitate for a single second before requesting this one and immediately starting to read it. Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin do have a great way of building anthologies and even though I did not love this one as much, I will still be on the lookout for more work by these two.

These stories all take place at night, in the liminal spaces that entails, and span a wide array of genres. For me, the first half of the anthology was by far the stronger one with some absolutely stunning stories that make me excited to check these authors out. The second half and the micro-stories by China Miéville who are interspersed throughout did not work for me, however. Here I found myself skim-reading and often not caring at all.

The anthology starts very strong with a quiet horror story by Sam Beckbessinger, Lauren Beukes, and Dale Halvorsen: The Book Will Find You. I adored this story about grief and anger and supernatural beings, and the brilliant way it climaxes. I have been eyeing Lauren Beukes’ books for ages and really need to check her stuff out. I found Will Hill’s It Was A Different Time incredibly angering and wonderfully constructed. My personal favourites of the bunch were Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Sleep Walker and Frances Hardinge’s Blind Eye, both authors whose work I have wanted to read for ages. I should really get on with it.

I appreciate how varied this anthology was and how widely different in tone and style the stories were allowed to be. For me that is always a positive in an anthology because it gives me the opportunity to read outside my comfort zone without having to spend hours reading things I am not enjoying that much.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Rebellion Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

Review: A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel

16158505Verdict: Vicious, weird, wonderful.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, Magical Realism

Published by Riverhead, 2013

Find it on Goodreads.

Major new literary talent Ramona Ausubel combines the otherworldly wisdom of her much-loved debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, with the precision of the short-story form. A Guide to Being Born is organized around the stages of life—love, conception, gestation, birth—and the transformations that happen as people experience deeply altering life events, falling in love, becoming parents, looking toward the end of life. In each of these eleven stories Ausubel’s stunning imagination and humor are moving, entertaining, and provocative, leading readers to see the familiar world in a new way.

In “Atria” a pregnant teenager believes she will give birth to any number of strange animals rather than a human baby; in “Catch and Release” a girl discovers the ghost of a Civil War hero living in the woods behind her house; and in “Tributaries” people grow a new arm each time they fall in love. Funny, surprising, and delightfully strange—all the stories have a strong emotional core; Ausubel’s primary concern is always love, in all its manifestations.

I have lamented before how difficult I find reviews for short story collections, even the ones I love. And it is a shame because I want to do this justice: I loved this. Ramona Ausubel has written the best short story collection I have read this year and I want to convince as many people as possible to pick it up.

This collection is pretty much custom-made for me: it combines lyrical language and stark imagery with themes of family, lost and found; the stories are weird and poetic and in parts disturbing, but they are also so very beautiful and profound. The stories center families in such a wonderful way while also being incredibly unique, I am just so in awe.

My favourite stories (in a collection where there was not a single story that I did not enjoy) were the very first story, “Safe Passage” about the end of a life which I found heartbreaking and heartwarming (First sentences: “The grandmothers – dozens of them – find themselves at sea. They do not know how they got there.”), and “The Ages” about young love which I found incredibly moving (First sentences: “When the girl and the boy moved in together, they had sex in the bed and everyone could probably hear it. Houses were pretty close together and there were a lot of open windows.”). But like I said, the stories are all very strong and if you can stomach a little weirdness (well, ok, a lot of weirdness) I would absolutely recommend these stories.

Recommendations: Short Story Collections

I love short stories. I only started properly reading them a few years ago but I have developed such an appreciation for the format. When a short story is done right, it can pack an unbelievable punch.

16158505I am currently reading A Guide To Being Born by Ramona Asubel, a rather brilliant collection, with twisty, dark, wonderful, magical stories (I understand why Jen Campbell names this as one of her favourites) and the reading experience got me thinking about what I like in the collections I adore. I gravitate towards short stories with a bit of a magical twist – I find these stories to be super mesmerizing. I also appreciate more realistic stories but here I often find that these collections are overall rather bleak which can get too much for me.

Here are some of my favourite short story collections, in case you are (like me) always looking for more collections to read.

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

28818921Nobody is surprised to see this collection of this list: I adored every second of it. I am in general a huge fan of Roxane Gay’s writing and these stories are a perfect example for her prose and her characterization, which I am just in awe of. The stories are well-plotted and purposefully structured. You can find my review here.

 

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

29236311One of my all-time favourite books, everything about this spoke to me. Marra tells an overarching story in wonderfully structured short stories. His command of language is impressive, his way of characterising people with a sentence and a half something that I find fascinating, and his sense for pacing and plotting is absolutely on display here. Be warned though, the book and its subject matter is bleak (it is after all set in Chechnya and unblinking in its depiction of war and atrocities), but Marra infuses it with just enough hope to be a stunning ode human connection. I cannot wait for his next book.

The Brink by Austin Bunn

22693283I loved this (and its perfect cover!). The stories all deal with some sort of Brink – often the end of the world as we know it. I adored the vagueness of the stories and the punch they had. Bunn is a another of those authors whose next work I am eagerly awaiting. You can find my review here.

 

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

32874103Another set of interconnected short stories where I found the whole even greater than the sum of its parts. Strout shows great tenderness for her characters while being unflinching in her portrayal of their short comings. Her stories are wonderfully structured and impeccably paced. She excels especially in depicting families in all their dysfunctional glory. I adored this. My review is here.

Tales of Falling and Flying by Ben Loory

33570520These stories are peculiar. They feature anthropomorphic animals (amongst other things) and revel in their weirdness. But for me, these stories worked exceedingly well and I had a blast with this collection. There is just something poetic and lyrical in the way Loory’s language flows and his imagination is glorious. My review can be found here.

 

The Unfinished World and Other Stories by Amber Sparks

25622828These stories just combine everything I adore in short fiction: they are magical and weird, wonderfully written, and often feature sibling relationships (I adore that). Her language flows wonderfully and every story in this collection is strong on its own. My review can be found here. (Sparks is apparently working on a new collection, an angry, feminist collection, which I cannot wait for.)

Do you read short stories at all? What are your favourite collections?

Review: Young Skins by Colin Barrett

23346874Verdict: Beautifully written, unbearably bleak.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction, Short Stories

Published by Vintage Books, 2014

Find it on Goodreads.

This magnificent collection takes us to Glanbeigh, a small town in rural Ireland – a town in which the youth have the run of the place. Boy racers speed down the back lanes; couples haunt the midnight woods; young skins huddle in the cold once The Peacock has closed its doors. Here the young live hard and wear the scars. It matters whose sister you were seen with. If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, it matters a very great deal.

Colin Barrett’s debut does not take us to Glanbeigh alone; there are other towns, and older characters. But each story is defined by a youth lived in a crucible of menace and desire – and each crackles with the uniform energy and force that distinguish this terrific collection.

Colin Barrett has a stunning way with words. Some of these sentences are unbearably beautiful. As such I can absolutely see why this collection comes this highly praised. But, for me personally, the stories were just too bleak in the end and in their bleakness too similar to each other.

The stories focus young men and not so young men who for one reason or the other are unhappy in their lives. There is a sense of hopelessness that infuses these stories, a sense of roads not taken and lives not lived. All stories are impeccably crafted but maybe too similar in tone. Short fiction is often a format that plays with hopelessness and sadness, but even so, this one was too sad for me.

Barrett infuses his stories with a great sense of place in a way that I really appreciated. His depiction of small town Irish life rings true (as true as it can ring for me who has never lived there).

My favourite story was the very last story of the collection: Kindly Forget My Existence was just the perfect way to end this collection. Here two former bandmates meet again at a pub in their hometown, trying to drink their cowardice away and attend the funeral of their ex-girlfriend and ex-wife respectively. The whole story is just pitch perfect and nearly had me up my rating. If you only read one story of this collection, make sure it is this one.

Review: Heads of the Colored People by Nafissa Thompson-Spires

39780950Verdict: Clever, biting, sad, funny.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, Fiction

Published by Vintage, August 9th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

In this crackling debut collection Nafissa Thompson-Spires interrogates our supposedly post-racial era. To wicked and devastating effect she exposes the violence, both external and self-inflicted, that threatens black Americans, no matter their apparent success.

A teenager is insidiously bullied as her YouTube following soars; an assistant professor finds himself losing a subtle war of attrition against his office mate; a nurse is worn down by the demand for her skills as a funeral singer. And across a series of stories, a young woman grows up, negotiating and renegotiating her identity.

Heads of the Colored People shows characters in crisis, both petty and catastrophic. It marks the arrival of a remarkable writer and an essential and urgent new voice.

I knew I would enjoy this pretty much from the first page on. Nafissa Thompson-Spires has a wonderful tone and an even better command of her stories. I found the stories uncomfortable and biting and so very very clever. Her characters feel real if often difficult and the situations they find themselves in are frustrating and perfectly rendered.

Some stories feature the same people again, which is something I always enjoy. I do like how this gave the stories more depth without them being incomplete without the added context – this is something that I assume is difficult to achieve but oh so satisfying when it works.

My favourite story is Belle Lettres: told in a series of letters two mothers write to each other about their daughters who hate each other. I made me laugh so very hard while also making me feel sorry for their daughters. I found it clever and mean and funny and so very well-constructed: the escalation was brilliant to observe, from tiny little things such as the signatures to the change in language. Another favourite was Suicide, Watch – again beautiful but very sad. The way Thompson-Spires characterizes Julie, the focus of this story, made me impatient – and broke my heart at the same time.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Vintage Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review: Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff

10153529Verdict: Stunning.

My rating: 4,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, Fiction

Published by Windmill Books, 2009

Find it on Goodreads.

Lauren Groff’s critically acclaimed “The Monsters of Templeton” was shortlisted for the Orange Broadband Award for New Writers 2008, and critics hailed her as an enormous talent and a writer to watch. In “Delicate Edible Birds”, she fulfils that promise. “Delicate Edible Birds” includes nine stories of vastly different styles and structures. “L. De Bard and Aliette” recreates the tale of Abelard and Heloise in New York during the 1918 flu epidemic; “Lucky Chow Fun” returns to Templeton, the setting of Groff’s debut novel, for a contemporary account of what happens to outsiders in a small, insular town; the title story of “Delicate Edible Birds” is a harrowing, powerfully moving drama about a group of war correspondents, a lone woman among them, who fall prey to a frightening man in the French countryside while fleeing the Nazis. With a dazzling array of voices and settings, “Delicate Edible Birds” will cement Lauren Groff’s reputation as one of the foremost talents of her generation.

I love Lauren Groff. And I am trying to be better about reading other books authors I love have written, so I am currently making my way through her back catalogue and I am seriously happy about it. I think I liked this short story collection even more than her new one (which I reviewed earlier this year) and I enjoyed that one immensely. But this collection here just blew me away.

I am in awe of Lauren Groff’s command of language – every single sentence ist perfectly done while not making the writing sound clinical but rather organic and captivating. I also really like the way she structures her stories – they never felt like they were working towards a punchline but rather their endings were perfectly done. Some stories I would have loved to spend more time with but I mean that as a compliment.

I do have the same problem with these short stories that I had with Groff’s second collection: I am not too keen on her descriptions of overweight bodies; and the fixation on weight did not always work for me. I cannot quite put my finger on why I think she does this, but I do wish she stopped focussing on weight so much. But for me it never crossed the line into problematic territory and as such is not enough to ruin my enjoyment of these brilliant short stories.

My favourite of the bunch is the last story “Delicate Edible Birds” – I loved it so much I considered giving the collection 5 stars because it ended on such a high note. Set during the Second World War (which I usually am not too keen on), this story is told from different perspectives of a group of journalists fleeing Paris on the eve of its occupation. It was harrowing and wonderful and absolutely beautifully written. Bern, the female main character, was so absolutely brilliant, I wish there was a whole book about her.