The OF Blog: Three short story collections, an anthology, and a review essay collection

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Three short story collections, an anthology, and a review essay collection

Confession:  I have read a lot of wonderful short fiction collections this year.  I have also read some that did not appeal to me.  Chances are, if it's a recent SF/F anthology/collection, I did not enjoy it as much as I did those not marketed as such (one such collection will be reviewed in the next week or so), perhaps due to changing tastes or just a general lack of narrative energy and experimentation.  I also am going to write a few words about a writer/lit critic/professor whose reviews, even when I disagree with them, often serve to remind me how much further I could go as a critic if I felt so inclined (sometimes, I feel more inclined to just skim over the sludgy mediocre stories in favor of those that didn't suck quite so much, other times it's all about the squirrel readers; the price I had to pay for reading/reviewing so many books this year).  Some of these works you might enjoy much more than I did; others might be less appealing.  But here they are, in an even-more condensed version than what Reader's Digest could ever hope to pull off:

Dorothy Tse, Snow and Shadow (translated from Chinese by Nicky Harman)

Snow and Shadow is testimony to the ability of writers to employ surrealistic techniques skillfully irrespective of culture or language.  Tse's stories are mostly set in a warped, sometimes grisly Hong Kong, in which women may turn into fish, or a wicked queen might attempt to graft a pig's trotter onto the amputated arm sockets of young women.  Harman does a good job in making Tse's use of weird, grotesque images seem as though they were originally composed in English.  There are few dull stories in this collection; many succeed in creating unsettling settings for some truly odd happenings.  While not every story is pitch-perfect, there are enough solid to very good efforts to make this debut English-language collection worthwhile for readers who enjoy surrealist and weird fiction.

Justin Taylor, Flings

It is almost clichéd to claim that a short story collection contains a mixture of good and not-so-great stories.  Yet there are times where one might read a collection and wonder between stories if the same writer composed the two, because one is so much better than the other that it is difficult to believe the same pen composed the twain.  This is the case with Justin Taylor's latest collection, Flings.  Roughly half of these stories are standard lit fare, replete with familiar characters and cozy plots and mundane action.  The characters in these stories might as well be engaging in one-off flings for the lack of depth and vitality that they possess.  Yet there are a handful of stories that manage to go beyond the mechanistic entities of the other tales and become something moving, vibrant beyond the author's obvious talent for writing.  In tales such as "Sungold" or "Poets," Taylor provides the reader with enough glimpses of his abilities that it is frustrating to read his lesser works, because it is plain by collection's end that he has the potential to write tales that could approach the level of some of the finest short fiction writers of the past half-century.  Maybe in his next collection he'll realize this potential.  As it stands, Flings is a solid yet uneven collection.

Margaret Atwood, Stone Mattress

Atwood is a difficult writer to sum up in a few pithy sentences.  Not only is she a talented writer on the technical level, but her stories also tend to contain profound themes, memorable characters, and situations that challenge reader preconceptions on several "hot topic" issues.  The nine stories in her latest collection, Stone Mattress, largely live up to reader expectations.  There are surprising revenges, intriguing revelations, and tales that consciously and confidently brush aside issues of genre identification in order to narrate tales that engage the reader without feeling too oblique or too transparent in construction or execution.  Stone Mattress might not be Atwood's best work, but it certainly ranks comfortably with several of her other collections and novels.

Adam Roberts, Sibilant Fricative:  Essays & Reviews

Confession:  I have a difficult time pronouncing "sibilant."  I frequently confound it somehow with silibant, which would make for an odd pun if one were pondering the merits of (unintentionally) comic novels.  Puns of course being something with which followers of Roberts' Twitter account would be familiar.  That weakness being confessed, here's another:  Roberts is one of the best lit critics writing today, especially for those who deign to treat topics as varied as Robert Browning, Gene Wolfe, Christopher Priest, Maurice Sendak and Robert Jordan.  Yes, Roberts' essays run the gamut from breaking down complex fictions into interesting, illuminating reviews to bringing to the fore Jordan's unfortunate penchant for writing quasi-clothing and tea porn.  There are times where I disagreed with his conclusions but admired the way he argued his points.  Then there were the times that I wanted to laugh aloud at how adroitly he could skewer a plot that deserved to die the death of a thousand pinpricks.  If this isn't a testimony to how good Roberts is as a reviewer, then perhaps I should just say go forth and buy a copy and find out for yourself.

Neil Clarke (ed.), Upgraded:  A Cyborg Anthology

There is a passage in the New Testament book of Revelation that talks about a church being like lukewarm water, fit only to be spewed out of the mouth.  "Lukewarm" is perhaps the most fit descriptor for this anthology of stories that deal with humans being augmented or in some form or fashion becoming "cyborgs."  There was nothing overtly offensive in any of these tales from a diverse mix of young and established SF writers, but neither was there anything memorable at all.  It took over three months for me to finish this anthology because so few stories had any real interest or appeal to me after the first few paragraphs.  Maybe it was the theme, but I suspect it is more the case that recent SF/F short fiction (not that older SF/F was better on any technical or narrative level) just leaves me cold.  There are few glaring problems with prose or characterization other that one feels cold and the other just merely lifeless. This is an issue that goes beyond this particular anthology, making Upgraded merely emblematic for the larger malaise that I feel is afflicting current SF/F short fiction.  Reading this anthology after reading several solid to outstanding non-SF/F collections and anthologies this year only underscores just how devoid of prose mastery or character nuances the SF/F collections/anthologies that I've read in recent years tend to be.  As I said above, this anthology left a lukewarm feeling, thus I spat out these thoughts.

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