06 April 2006 by Published in: entertainment 1 comment

Yeah, so when I said book reviews a while back, I was actually meaning to write something about Elizabeth Bear’s books Hammered and Scardown but then I decided I ought to read Worldwired before I said anything and I got…distracted. So instead, you get one of those endless sentence-about-every-short-story reviews. They’re more work than the other kind, but I must like something about them, because I keep doing them. I trust you know how to skip posts that aren’t of interest to you.

The volume as a whole was enjoyable, and I re-read all the stories that appeared here that I had already read elsewhere. However, I did find myself thinking from time to time, this is the best of the year? Really? Because if this is the best we got, we didn’t get much. Also, it was incongruous to me to see certain stories from collections I had read that I hadn’t cared for included in the volume, while other stories that blew me away were tucked into Honorable Mentions or forgotten. I mean, are you really going to stand there and tell me “Revenge of the Calico Cat” was better than Vandermeer’s “Secret Life”, Cacek’s “The Following”, de Lint’s “Riding Shotgun”, or anything Gene Wolfe wrote? Ok, so it’s not me picking the best of the year, and for good reason, and the people who are picking it have loads of talent, insight and experience. I’m sure there’s part of the equation I’m just not getting here. Perhaps my reading palate is not as refined as it should be, but I gotta tell you reading some stories in this book really made me go “zuwha?” and not in a good way. Anyway, the theme of my interactions with this book is: it’s probably just me.

  1. Gregory Maguire – The Oakling: A perfectly adequate story. I neither hated it nor loved it.
  2. R.T. Smith – Horton’s Store: Ehhhh, poetry. Hard for me to get excited about that. Some of this piece was forced enough to set my eyes rolling, but I’ll forgive all the bad lines for this one, which is awesome: “I was too amazed in the shadows to know how every story cauled a grief, regrets,…”. Alas, he ruins it by following that gut punch with the commonplace “cruel ruin”.
  3. Margo Lanagan – Rite of Spring: Good story, I liked it. I particularly loved the narrator: he was an everyman with heroic grit that I could really cheer for.
  4. Simon Bestwick – A Hazy Shade of Winter: I knew exactly where this story was going from the first line. I went along, even though I felt a little battered about the head and shoulders by message as I did. The characters seemed flat and the narrator was a jerk as far as I was concerned. There was a nice moment when [SPOILER] the protagonist helps the werewolf get away, even though his effort is doomed and he knows it, but then after that there’s all this explaining of everything that went on and what it all means. Gah.
  5. Douglas Clegg – The Skin of the World: The first really powerful story of the volume. This one grabs you and doesn’t let go. And you know, the narrator is a selfish jerk in a lot of the same ways the narrator of “A Hazy Shade of Winter” is, but I was right there with him. I understood, and I sympathized instead of wanting to smack him. Also, this story has a really cool title. Author did a great job with the setting, too.
  6. Andy Duncan – Zora and the Zombie: This story made me interested in Zora Neale Hurston. I think that’s what it meant to do and it worked. It was also flavorful, like good Caribbean cooking.
  7. Theodora Goss – The Changeling: Yeah, I actually liked this poem. Great ending. Can I still keep my poetry-hatah card?
  8. Stepan Chapman – Revenge of the Calico Cat: When I was reading this story I thought it would never end. When I finally got there, I thought, “Twenty-four pages and that’s how it ends?” In short, it demanded much and delivered little. Also, I’ve already seen “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”
  9. Lucy Sussex – Frozen Charlottes: You know, I do find china dolls to be a little bit eerie, but I’m not all freaked out by them on principle. Generally, stories that rely on the doll to give you the creeps don’t work for me, and this one is no exception.
  10. China Mieville – Reports of Certain Events in London: This is as amazing a story the second time around as it was the first. I was kind of worried that it wouldn’t be, but I was silly. It’s rich enough to sustain many readings. I love China’s short stories and this is probably one of my favorites of his. Certainly it was one of the very best stories I’ve read in the last year, and earned its place among the year’s best.
  11. Jean Esteve – House of Ice: I didn’t get this one. Maybe I don’t like poetry because I’m too dumb for it.
  12. Stephen Gallagher – Restraint: This one was reliably spooky. I can’t say I’d want to read it again, but it was engaging and vivid. I liked it.
  13. John Kessel – The Baum Plan for Financial Independence: What a freaky little gem of a story! I kept expecting not to like it, and I kept feeling a bit discomfited by the fact that I couldn’t box it into a category (I’m a librarian, I classify, so shoot me). But I have to tell you, I really enjoyed reading this, and I loved the ending. And you know what I liked best? That the two main characters [SPOILER] completely got away with it. There were no repercussions or anything. They scammed the future.
  14. Frances Oliver – Dancing on Air: I knew the steps of this one too, and I couldn’t help thinking it would have had more torque if I hadn’t seen its path quite so clearly. However, sometimes it’s nice to dance to something a little familiar, isn’t it? An enjoyable, though not soul shaking, story.
  15. M. Rickert – Cold Fires: I loved this piece. Well, I loved it except for the last paragraph which made me want to stab my eyes out with a chopstick. Ok, I admit, the first sentence of the last paragraph is fine. It’s the sentences that follow that first one, most especially that last, torturously long, telling me way too much and leaching all possible impact out of the current glorious moment sentence that really kills it for me. So sad. Trust me, if you read this story, skip the last paragraph or you shall weep, as I did.
  16. Richard Mueller – And the Sea Shall Give Up Its Dead: Ehhhh. World War II stories. I try to muster enthusiasm, I really do, but ehhh. Ok, as World War II stories go, this one was pretty good, but still. I could really go the rest of my life without reading any more World War II stories and remain both healthy and happy.
  17. Tina Rath – A Trick of the Dark: And you know, just like WWII stories make me instantly go ehhh, vampire stories almost always perk me right up. This was no exception. Nicely played! Clever and fun.
  18. Philip Raines and Harvey Welles – The Bad Magician: Yes! Very good, thank you. When I hear best of the year I want to be wowed, and this did.
  19. Tanith Lee – Speir-Bhan: I stopped reading Tanith Lee a while back. One of the reasons is that I always feel a little bit ensorcelled when I read her works. I’m all for absorbing reading, but sometimes with her, I don’t really know what I’m getting into. The currents are deeper than I am comfortable with. But you know, she can really write, and this was a great story. Still, when I put the book down I felt like I’d been away from myself, and who was me while I was out?
  20. John Farris – Hunting Meth Zombies in the Great Nebraskan Wasteland: Cute. Funny. Nice post-apocalyptic feel. That is all.
  21. Chuck Palahniuk – Guts: Ok. This drew me in utterly. But man did it ever squick me. It was extremely gross. Totally disgusting. In fact, in the middle of it, I realized I was holding the book at arm’s length and actually turning my face half away and squinting, like I could somehow only superficially acquire the images this way and shunt them away as soon as I had finished reading. I think this may have been the grossest story I’ve ever read in my whole life. I think it was well-written, but who can be sure, the way I was rushing through the sentences to make it be over as soon as possible? I have no idea how someone could sit with these thoughts long enough to write about them. And now, pardon me while I think about something else entirely, like the next story.
  22. Simon Brown – Water Babies: Ordinary but well-executed. Don’t know what’s best of the year about it, but didn’t mind reading it either.
  23. Peter Straub – Mr. Aickman’s Air Rifle: Another re-read for me. I actually enjoyed this story far more the second time around. Maybe I should give Straub’s longer works a chance, though I was burned by one he wrote with Stephen King which I read in high school: memorably bad. At any rate, yes, I can totally see where the bat hits the ball and goes out of the park on this one, and more clearly than I could the first time I read it. How does he do that funny and creepy thing simultaneously?
  24. Bentley Little – We Find Things Old: Scenery is great on this one, vivid and pleasing. However, please see entry on “Frozen Charlottes” and s/china dolls/clowns for my overall reaction to this story.
  25. Elizabeth Hand – Wonderwall: This was a re-read for me, and I was dreading it, because I didn’t exactly love it the first time I read it. I don’t know why this story doesn’t work for me. It was, if anything, worse the second time I read it than the first. I’m just not on board with the debauched artist seeking enlightenment agenda, I guess. I paced myself and tried to pay attention to every little thing, to see if there were things I could pick up that would enrich the experience for me. I did notice more, but it didn’t help my overall impression. I loaned Flights, the book in which this story appeared, to a friend of mine and raved about the Gene Wolfe story and the Joyce Carol Oates story. When he returned it he told me this was the story he loved. Of course I asked him if he was quite sane or yanking my chain or what. There must be something really great here and it makes me sad that I cannot seem to see it. To me its a story about strangers without hearts doing not very much at all.
  26. D. Ellis Dickerson – Postcretaceous Era: Now this was a joke I laughed along with, unlike “Revenge of the Calico Cat”. This was deft, funny, meaningful and just enough nostalgic to win me over. Also short, which carried it to its punchline in a timely manner.
  27. M.T. Anderson – Watch and Wake: Oh, this one was good! I was surprised at how good it was, given how stilted the writing was. I did think that it would have been ok to periodically toss in an eight or even a ten word sentence in among the three word ones, and it bothered me a little that it was ostensibly a YA piece, because the language was so bare and simple and I don’t think kids are that stupid. To give the guy credit, he handled some really complicated plot and interesting subtext with tiny words and brief sentences, but I had to wonder what more I could have had with bigger words and longer sentences. And he got me on the twist. Completely, even though the signs were all there. Bravo!
  28. Catherynne M Valente – The Oracle Alone: As good a use of second person as I have ever seen, I think. Lovely language, and I admire how she pulled this one altogether with a little bow. A very satisfying read.
  29. Jeffrey Ford – A Night in The Tropics: I didn’t think this one was going to work when I started reading. I could not have been more mistaken. I love this story. Disparate elements pulled together and given meaning so seamlessly while juggling plot and heaping in character. This is a well-written story, a treat to read. Perhaps I should hunt out more Jeffrey Ford, as I don’t recall reading anything else by him. Recommendations?
  30. Terry Dowling – Clownette: You see, if you’re going to do something with clowns, this is the sort of thing you’d have to do to give me the shivers.
  31. Joyce Carol Oates – Stripping: Wheee! JCO! I’m still looking for the Joyce Carol Oates story that fails to speak to me on every level. She rocks my world. However, Why’d “Stripping” get put here instead of “Six Hypotheses”? I’m not complaining, mind you, I’m just saying.
  32. Christopher Fowler – Seven Feet: I quite liked this one. I’m always interested in stories where everything breaks down, and how people cope during collapse of the world around them. This was post-apocalyptic in feel without a discernible apocalypse.
  33. Margo Lanagan – Singing My Sister Down: While Lanagan’s other story in this volume was no slouch, this was the one that was jaw-dropping. How masterfully she uses voice, and how odd and intriguing the situation and how beautifully pieced together this sad story is!
  34. Laird Barron – Bulldozer: If you asked me, I’d tell you I wasn’t much a fan of Westerns, but I think I’m lying to myself, because I’m crazy about Deadwood. Not only is this a great Western, but Barron kicks it up a notch by throwing in some horrors of the deep. I guess at this point it becomes a multiplied factor of interesting to me. I liked how this story was paced, its hallucinatory circularity, the disjointed scenes, and most especially the tenor of its protagonist’s voice. This one definitely deserved a place in the volume.
  35. Melanie Fazi – The Cajun Knot: I’m of two minds about this story. I have no problem with the plot, or the choice of narrator outside the action or anything like that. It’s a pretty darn good story. Still, there’s an element to the language and the setting that feels contrived to me. I’m not sure why, either, which bugs me because I should be able to back up my claim concretely, with examples. Is it a disconnect in the translation? I read works in translation all the time and while there’s always an element of otherness and imprecision about them, I don’t usually think they’re fake the way I sense this to be. I know it sounds crazy to talk about fake and genuine in stories people make up (it’s all fake, right? That’s the point, isn’t it?), and maybe what I’m trying to describe is more about suspension of disbelief issues… but something in this piece is just out of tune. That’s the best I can do to explain it.
  36. Greg Van Eekhout – Tales from the City of Seams: Very good. I’m not sure this is one I’d give a second reading to, but I was completely involved in the first.
  37. Alison Smith – The Specialist: Charming and funny and I loved the shiny bit. Kind of a chicklit feel for some reason. This story definitely made me smile.
  38. Shelley Jackson – Here Is the Church: Given a choice between this and the Zora story, I’d definitely pick the Zora story. It’s not that this one was bad but I was uncomfortable reading Nina Simone’s inner voice. I wasn’t sure I bought it. I think she’s not been dead long enough or something, which is clearly an issue of mine and not a flaw in the story. Maybe it’s just another one of those that doesn’t work for me, but works for everyone else, like “Wonderwall”. Structurally it seemed sound but it didn’t reel me in.
  39. Alice Hoffman – The Witch of Truro: This had a lot of moments I liked, but the thing as a whole didn’t hang together for me. I know how weird it’s going to seem that I claim the fractured, scene hopping “Tales from the City of Seams” and “Bulldozer” absolutely worked as unified and connected pieces while this basically straightforward conventional narrative style did not. Maybe it’s a problem I have with point of view? Looking over my list, I seem to have favored first person or inside the head third person POV stories and this one was external omniscient, so maybe that’s why it felt cold instead of sweet, which is at least part of what I think it was aiming for. Maybe I need to read more omni pov stuff. Ok, wait just a second, I’m not buying that, on account of the scads of omni or omni-lite YA that I read which seem perfectly fine.
  40. Peter Straub – Lapland or Film Noir: This was a good story. Some of the descriptive phrases in here approach the divine. There’s a reworking of cliches that comes off surprisingly well: funny and highlighting the grain of truth that made each image a cliche in the first place. Still, this is never going to be one of my favorite stories because it’s about movies. It’s about a lot of other stuff, too, which is what kept me going, but it’s largely about movies, and I just don’t find movies to be all that. I like movies. Ok, maybe less than most people, but this doesn’t arise from hatred like my naysaying of all poetry does. It comes, rather, from a lack of proper awe or reverence for the form, I think.
  41. Theodora Goss – What Her Mother Said: poetry, so you can pretty much guess how I felt about it.
  42. Conrad Williams – The Owl: I’m going to have to admit that I did not get this story. I don’t know what happened at the end of it. I really enjoyed reading it, mind you, and I think something pretty substantial happened at the end, but I’ve no idea what. There’s some amazing symbolism, some wonderful description, some great human moments, but I failed to pick up on the requisite clues to fundamentally figure out the plot. I’d like to think I’m no more or less dense than your average reader. I really did try, investing several re-readings of the ending, hoping to find the sentence that would make my brain go click, but I never did. I like to think that I’m ok with ambiguity in stories too, at least a bit of it, but my problem here is that I don’t think the ending is meant to be ambiguous. I think it’s meant to be a distinct, fairly straightforward series of events, some or all of which I’m failing to follow along with. I’m not saying I don’t have any guesses as to what’s going on, I have those aplenty, but each seems as likely as the other, and so, it’s like I’m making up the ending for the story. Isn’t that the author’s job? Oh and though stylistically it was decent, there were a few too many awkward similes, which was odd, considering there were also some very pretty lines like “The light’s slow accretion, so subtle it couldn’t be measured.”
  43. Elizabeth A. Lynn – The Silver Dragon: What a whimpery way to finish out the book. I forced myself to read this a second time, and to be honest, I had a greater appreciation for her use of language this time around, but I still thought this story was merely adequate.

Maybe next year I’ll love more than a quarter of the forty plus pieces that get included in the year’s best anthology, and like more than half. Still, I was introduced to some authors, new to me, that were worth learning about (Lanagan, Barron and Ford). I endorse anthologies that let me read new stuff by people I may be interested in, even if there’s some slogging through of stuff I clearly won’t care for (but which might just be someone else’s key to the kingdom). Next year, however, I want to see Jeff Vandermeer or Elizabeth Bear or Joe Hill or someone I can really cheer for, you know?

iTunes says I was listening to The Lords Of The Rhymes by Lords of the Rhymes when I posted this. I have it rated 3 stars.

P.S. “I’m on an orc stampede, like Shadowfax.”

Comments

Thu 06th Apr 2006 at 4:47 pm

I like the reviews like this! Keep ’em up, I say.

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