Category:

entertainment

Dear Jeff VanderMeer –

I imagine that you get a lot of letters like this: oh, I love your work! Oh, hey, I think there’s a mistake on this page. This would be exactly one of those, were I to write it and mail it to you. However, I’m sort of saving you the work of reading this by not actually sending it. It’s not like I have something earth-shattering or novel to say to you. Also, I’ve never had enough guts to actually mail an author I admire about their work. I’m not sure why this act seems so intrusive and forbidden to me. I imagine most authors, indeed most types of artists, would be delighted to hear about how great they are from someone, anyone, even a stranger. Maybe writing to someone who traffics in words is intimidating? I’m not sure, and it’s not relevant. I apologize for the introspection. It’s you I’m trying to talk about, or your words, at any rate.

I first fell in love with Ambergris when I read your story “The Cage”, in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Volume 14. What a gorgeous gem of a story. Shivery and magical and so, so strange. I was thrilled to have found the story, and thrilled to have found you. I followed that up with Secret Life which was truly an amazing book with some stunning stories in it. Some of those images are still with me.

I am now reading Shriek: an afterword. I am not sure how I feel about it yet. Ambivalent, I guess. I do like it, and I will finish it, that much I know. It does some very neat things with crosslinked narrative and editorial comment. It’s very clever, and it makes me think about writing at every sentence. One thing it doesn’t do, though, is open up the reader trance for me. I’m so conscious of reading words someone wrote, and so conscious of the altered manuscript of the story, that I cannot lose myself in any of the narrative threads. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. It’s a daring thing, and an interesting thing, but it’s a hard thing to love, when absorption into books is why most avid readers read. It’s as though you’ve snuck off with my opium pipe and given me methadone instead. I’m not going to get the heebie jeebies without my fix, but man, it’s a weird, weird trip and not as euphoric as I would expect (or perhaps desire).

I don’t like Duncan or Janice at all. I’m ok with not liking them, actually. You threw me a few bones, a few people to like: Sybel, Bonmot, the mother. The only shame of it is that the character I love with all my heart, Ambergris, is made more remote by the self-absorbed siblings’ constant, facile commentary. It’s like being in a crowd where that one guy who feels like he must explain everything just will not shut up. I’ve been that guy, actually. I’ve stood behind myself going “shut up! shut up! shut up! no one cares! no one wants to know!”. But I digress. (Again. Maybe this is why I don’t write to writers. Thoughts squish out in all directions). I might wish that Duncan’s and Janice’s shrieking would mute to a dull roar, Ambergris would rise to the foreground and I would hum with happiness and marvel at the strangeness of it all. There are moments, don’t get me wrong. When she’s scraping the mushrooms off Duncan? Awesome. When father takes him on the underground tour? Riveting. The walk in the woods to the statue? Very nice. The suicide attempt is memorable as well. Lots of bits I like a great deal, but the overall structure creates this cordon of writing, this space, between me and what I really want to get to. So…ambivalence.

There’s one thing which I really love, and that’s how the natives of Ambergris characterize themselves. This is too rare in fantasy, though China Mieville does it well also (and, of course, Borges). In this world, people who consider themselves of a (large enough) city often assign themselves qualities that they perceive all natives of that city have. The city has a character, and its character rubs off on them, or they act as though it does. I think this reflects tribe and human nature, and when I don’t see it in fiction, it bugs me. All the lines stereotyping Ambergrisians make me smile. It’s like something Londoners would say, or New Yorkers, or Portenos.

So because I’m so conscious as I read of the writing of the work, and the layers and fictions overlapping the writing of the work, I’m following every word. You’re getting quite a close reading, and I hope a faithful reading, not a good parts reading (being blocked from the trance keeps me from building a good parts version, I think). Here’s my question: on page 95 of the Tor first edition hardback, there’s a paragraph that begins “Back then, he was a mischievous sprout…” Following? Good, well in that paragraph the line “his bright green eyes sometimes seemed too large for his face” appears twice. At first (I have such faith, see), I thought you did that on purpose. That you were going to start increasingly repeating lines at various intervals, to make some point about circularity or Janice’s complete mental dissolution. But then, it didn’t seem to happen again. So, was it just a mistake? One of those human kinds of mistakes? My second question is about the machine in the underground sequence. See, I checked Secret Life out of the library, so I don’t have it handy, but that sequence…seems repeated. Is it? Did you just rip it out of Secret Life and re-purpose it for Shriek: an afterword? It’s not a problem, or anything, but I was a bit surprised to see it again. When you wrote it, did you have Duncan in your head as the narrator, or did you discover that later? Was it just love for that bit of prose that made you use it again? Also, not a big deal, but I can’t help wondering if the afterword is this extensive, how long exactly is the book? Must be some kind of crazy huge tome.

Oh, one more thing. This line: “And let you, O Lord, serve as a light to him, for we are imperfect vessels and we platitude simile extended metaphor with barely any pauses followed by more repetition. Period.” is so near perfect I wanted to make someone else read it. That whole paragraph is deliriously funny and incisive, actually, but I wouldn’t want to abuse fair use by too extensive a quote. Thanks for writing it, and all the other words, too.

Love,

Anarkey

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Meme, because that’s all I have energy for (so that’s how memes happen). Works thusly: you read over the Science Fiction Book Club’s “The Most Significant SF & Fantasy Books of the Last 50 Years, 1953-2002” list and then you italicize and bold and mark up stuff about each one, and everything you mark up means something. Only I haven’t done enough of these to figure out what’s what, so I’m taking a page from my fellow VPer cicadabug’s book and just grouping them instead of all the crazy highlighting. Makes more sense and you know, I just cannot resist putting like items together. I’ve been having an ongoing conversation with a friend about spec fic and how much I’ve been reading of it lately and whether that’s a departure for me or not. Perhaps the list will illuminate.

Books I’ve read, loved and still love (and would read again in a heartbeat, if only there were enough heartbeats in a life to do so)
  • 1 The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
  • 5 A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
  • 10 Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
  • 11 The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe
  • 12 A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.
  • 26 Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling
  • 27 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
  • 29 Interview with the Vampire, Anne Rice
  • 30 The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
  • 33 The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick
  • 42 Slaughterhouse-5, Kurt Vonnegut
  • 43 Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson (though I liked The Diamond Age better, to be honest)
Books I loved when I read them
  • 2 The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov
  • 3 Dune, Frank Herbert
  • 6 Neuromancer, William Gibson
  • 9 The Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley
  • 37 On the Beach, Nevil Shute
  • 41 The Silmarillion, J.R.R. Tolkien
  • 47 Stormbringer, Michael Moorcock
Books I’ve read
  • 4 Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert A. Heinlein (am I the only person on the planet who really dug The Puppetmasters and not much else Heinlein?)
  • 21 Dragonflight, Anne McCaffrey
Books I read but hated
  • 23 The First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson
  • 48 The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks
Books I feel like I really ought to/want to read
  • 8 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
  • 20 Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany
  • 36 The Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith
  • 45 The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
Meh. Might read this some day
  • 16 The Colour of Magic, Terry Pratchett
  • 19 The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester
  • 22 Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card*
  • 28 I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
  • 32 Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny
  • 31 Little, Big, John Crowley*
Books you will never persuade me (go on, try) I need to read
  • 14 Children of the Atom, Wilmar Shiras
  • 15 Cities in Flight, James Blish
  • 17 Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison
  • 18 Deathbird Stories, Harlan Ellison
  • (to be fair, I totally met my Ellison quota, because I read the mammoth retrospective tome)
  • 24 The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
  • 25 Gateway, Frederik Pohl
  • 34 Mission of Gravity, Hal Clement
  • 35 More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon
  • 38 Rendezvous with Rama, Arthur C. Clarke
  • 40 Rogue Moon, Algis Budrys
  • 44 Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner
  • 49 Timescape, Gregory Benford
Did I read this?
  • 7 Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke
  • 13 The Caves of Steel, Isaac Asimov
  • 39 Ringworld, Larry Niven
  • 46 Starship Troopers, Robert A. Heinlein
  • 50 To Your Scattered Bodies Go, Philip Jose Farmer

It may seem weird to you that I’m not all that sure what I’ve read. This is part of my impetus toward better record-keeping. I forget what I read. I’m also pleased to see how I’ve loved most of what I’ve read, and hated very little of it. Even the two haters were instrumental in their way to my adolescent self. Before I read them, I read anything, uncritically. It took stories I hated to make me see not all stories are worth it. So, not counting the five I may or may not have read (they look familiar, but if I did read them it was over ten years ago and I can’t exactly remember), I’ve read twenty three of the fifty. Not quite half, but close. Some of the most loved ones I’ve read multiple times.

ETA : I asterisked the books strongly recommended in the comments, in case I use this entry to pick books later.

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So, back when I first got Direct TV (last January) I asked for recommendations on what I should be watching on TV, since I’m so inexpert. The general consensus was that I should be watching Battlestar Galactica. Obediently, we acquired the first season, and I watched the first four shows of the first season. And then…stopped. I’m still taping it, but I’ve not watched a single one of my recorded episodes because I never got past the fifth show on season one. And it’s not because I don’t like it. No, I do like it. I just almost always seem to have something better to do than watch it. Which means I don’t love it.

I’m not saying I don’t have a problem with it that makes me reluctant. I do. It’s the Cylon’s plan that’s giving me trouble. I’m not convinced they really have one. Or rather, I’m not convinced they really have one that makes sense beyond being convenient to the overall plot. I know the beginning of every episode tells me they have a plan, and since these guys are robots they must be governed by logic, but they’re acting like idiots, and each new idiocy makes it less likely that the show’s creators are going to be able to stitch the thing together in a way that will click for me.

Please, this is not an invitation for you folks in season 3 of Galactica to tell me in great detail how much sense the Cylon’s plan makes. For one, you’re not going to sway me that way, and I’ll abandon the show completely if it’s spoilered for me. However, if you want to reassure me that their plan isn’t colossally stupid without ruining the whole show, you may do so. I’m just saying, from where I’m standing, getting rid of those last 50,000 humans ought to be a piece of cake, and I can’t figure out why the Cylons keep botching it. If getting rid of that last 50K isn’t the plan, then whatever the alternate plan is, it better make sense. No, really.

I’m not giving up yet. I still enjoy watching it when I have time. I’ve watched three more episodes in the last week, in fact. Up to about show 8 or 9. I like a lot of things about the show, more things than I roll my eyes at, that’s for sure. It’s just that I’ve been burned by the everything-will-ultimately-make-sense handwaving back in the X-Files days, and I’m suspicious.

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Low Red Moon is an enthralling tale of people backed into corners and making bad choices. Whether it be the irrevocable kiss that makes a professional relationship much more (or much less) than that or siding with murderers who may (or may not) be the lesser of two evils, everyone in this book is going the wrong way. Things go bad, reliably and (for the reader) rewardingly.

Joyfully, somewhere between Threshold and Low Red Moon Kiernan dropped the habit of mashing up adjectives, which I found distracting. Her prose, poetic and involving as ever, captures the horror and beauty of the world — often simultaneously. She is a complete mistress of mood and atmosphere. Reading her books is delightful and wrenching. I still admire the way she uses heat and light to evoke terror, the way lesser horror authors use darkness.

Low Red Moon improves upon Threshold with clarity in the sequence of events and a faster paced, more involving plot. So those people who complained of being confused by the “ambiguity” of Threshold need not be afraid of Low Red Moon. I respect that she moved toward specificity without sacrificing mystery. There were a couple of bits that confused, but I think that might have been a shortcoming of mine, as a reader. I felt like clues must have been set to tell me which of the people speaking was most unreliable, but I missed them, so I wasn’t sure who to believe. None of that was major, though.

However, there’s something that bothered me in Threshold that was a thousand times worse in Low Red Moon: the dialog. It’s not that people spoke particularly unrealistically (though I did roll my eyes a bit at the cheesiness) or out of character (though occasionally I was like zuwhaa?). No, in fact, the dialog is, if anything, too mundane to sit comfortably alongside the rest of her gorgeous writing. Whenever people talk in her books, they’re being complete assholes to one another. I’m supposed to believe this man and that woman are married, but they can’t stop bickering. I’m supposed to believe these natural enemies are going to team up against the bigger bad, but they’re confrontational, belligerent and provocative at every utterance. Not a single main character can ever say something nice to another. Minor characters who are polite or pleasant are unfailingly redshirts. There’s condescension, sarcasm, bitterness and accusations in spades, but never kindness or decency. Now, I realize everyone in the book is under a lot of stress. Belief systems are being shattered, horrible things are happening, and there’s even hormonal pregnancy craziness involved. Maybe the dialog is intended to reflect that. And maybe, once I noticed that I didn’t care for the dialog it became that thing I couldn’t ignore or look past, so that every new round of backbiting seemed worse than the last, even though – objectively – it may not have been. I don’t know. All I know is that these people seem unable to say please, thank you, I love you, I forgive you, anything like that. They’re unable to be emotionally honest with one another. They cannot confess any kind of weakness: not fear, not pain, not even that they have a raging migraine headache. Maybe the goal of all this vicious dialog is some kind of message about every person’s isolation. Maybe it was Kiernan’s way of turning up the tension (though I thought she did better with interior monologues on that score). To me, it was exaggerated to the point of caricature. I will probably read another book of hers, but I’m sensitized to the dialog thing now, so I hope her characters’ conversational mode changes in some of the later books. Additionally, I don’t recollect noticing any issues with dialog in the short stories I’ve read, so I’m encouraged by that, as well.

To sum up, I enjoyed the book, and was glad I read it. Sometimes I wished the characters would just shut up, true, but that’s no different than life, is it?

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I rushed over to read Elizabeth Bear’s new story at Strange Horizons as soon as it became available. I liked it, it reminded me of “Old Leatherwings” (one of my favorites by her), probably because of its focus on setting. The chilly sea atmosphere and the loving descriptions of characters and place will take you all the way through before you realize that there’s not a whole lot of spec in this fiction (does the bargain really count?). If you like the melancholy of that Billy Joel song “Downeaster Alexa” (and I do), you’ll like this tale. Go, read, enjoy.

Now, in a complete aside, I cannot tell you how excited I am to see Bear selling fiction that’s only tangentially speculative. This is a gnawing worry for me; nothing I write has much shiny to it. Bruce Sterling would certainly deride all my stuff as “Abess Phone Home” (not that he’d ever actually read any of it, but you know what I mean). Can I take a further sidetrack here and let you know that I learned the Turkey City Lexicon term (at Viable Paradise) before I read the story which inspired this particular phrase? I was roughly two thirds of the way through the story (in The Locus Awards : Thirty Years of the Best in Science Fiction and Fantasy) last December before I said to myself “Holy cow! This is the abbess phone home story!” Sadly, I didn’t care for it, but not for its lack of sfnal elements.

Right, back to the main road. My next three reading recommendations are actually listening recommendations. They come from the ever-pleasing Escape Pod podcast. They may be available elsewhere (Escape Pod does a lot of reprints), but I heard them there and thought there was value add in the way they were read. One is Merrie Haskell’s flash piece “One Million Years B.F.E.“. I’ve listened to this at least three times, and it never fails to make me giggle. I’m sure I don’t even get all the anthro jokes, but there’s plenty to laugh for the layman. The next is “Aliens Love Oranges“. This is one of those stories that by rights should be in Stories of the New South, but they’d never take it because it’s not angsty enough and there are no references to the “War of Northern Aggression”. Catty of me, wasn’t that? I’d explain, but that would be yet another derail. Anyway, Sue Burke’s tale is sweet but has some serious meat to it, kind of like oranges do. Mur Lafferty, with her authentic but not stupid-sounding southern accent, is the perfect reader for this piece. The story is also comforting in the “tangentially speculative” way that Bear’s is, though I don’t expect that to be your reason for listening. Just listen because it’s well-written, touching and will make you smile. And last but not least, also in the very funny category, “The Uncanny Valley” by Jared Axelrod is well worth the time it takes to listen to it. I’d have cut the last line, but you know, still good.

Someone recently pointed me to Connie Willis’ Christmas story “Just Like The Ones That We Used To Know“. If you’re feeling in need of Christmas innoculation at this early date then make haste and read this engaging, well-woven story. You may want to save it for Thanksgiving, if you think that’s when your nerves will be most frayed. I especially love how deftly she handles the ensemble. I never would have believed you’d be able to have that many distinct characters in one story. But it works, so there you go.

One more thing, I usually rate the stuff I read (and like) online in Stumbleupon. Though there’s overlap between here and there, it’s not complete, so here’s my Stumbleupon page, and its feed.

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I just finished Worldwired, and it’s been a few months since I read Hammered and Scardown (back to back, in November) so this review is probably going to focus more on the third book than the first two because it’s the freshest in mind. It’s no secret that I love Elizabeth Bear, but I will make an effort to point out some of the things I thought were a little weak in this set of books which are the first long work of hers I have read.

First of all, these are good books, worth reading, with plenty of shiny and lots of heart. The downward ecological spiral is fascinating, the aliens are very cool, and the worldwire is the best computing network since Gibson’s cyperspace. If you aren’t hooked by Genevieve Casey then you lack any empathy whatsoever and should probably be administered the Voigt-Kampff test. Her character arc is nicely drawn and most satisfying.

Bear manages an ensemble cast surprisingly well and, in the third book especially, really shows her strong tension/plot skills by managing short, breath-taking scenes with far flung characters that build on one another in that gripping what-else-could-possibly-go-wrong way. She breaks away in all the right spots, too, even if it makes you go “Arggh! I’m not ready to leave this scene!” as you read it.

I liked how we get character emotional states through the filters of other character points of view, and how these evaluations are not always completely correct. It’s a clever way to tell us both about the character being observed and the character doing the observation, and is probably a whole lot harder to do well than Bear makes it look. The poetic, metered writing when wired POV characters jump into slowtime was pretty cool. I also liked a lot of particular actions characters took, sometimes expected and sometimes quite surprising but always believable. I won’t spoiler anything by going into specific details, just be prepared to enjoy it when you read the books yourself.

However (there’s always a however, isn’t there?) Bear had some quirks in her writing that were mildly irritating. She was a little too…in love, I guess…with her Feynman AI. In the second book especially, he gets more physical description time than any of the other characters, and you know what? Hasn’t got a body! Isn’t a physical entity! So, you know, not interested in those painstaking descriptions of his gestures, ripped right from the movies we’ve all seen of Feynman giving speeches. Ok, ok, I get the big irony stick here, we physicalize the entity who has no biological form, but in my opinion, it was overdone. In the third book she balances this out a little with lavish description time of other characters as well so it’s a bit less annoying.

Another small gripe: people talked too much alike for my taste, which was a less well-managed part of the ensemble cast. Only Jen always sounded like herself (though Gabe and Min-Xue were pretty distinct), and that was mostly due to the religious phrasings and the French bits. Now, I know that in real life people adopt other people’s modes of talking, and that’s one way to show you who is allied to whom. I don’t think it works as well in fiction, where the goal is (usually) to give different characters different speech patterns. For example, at least three different characters (maybe more, some repetitions might have slipped by before I was aware I was reading this particular set of words AGAIN) use the phrase “if you squint at it”. I didn’t buy it from all three, and felt like that was Bear’s phrase, slipping in. Hmmmm, tempted to search her blog on the phrase “if you squint at it”, but won’t because it doesn’t seem sporting somehow.

Despite Bear’s deftness with the rotating cast, I felt like there were too many characters, especially in the third book. I couldn’t figure out why we needed all those scientists aboard the Montreal, and why Elspeth Dunsany got relegated to being the flirt and the surrogate mommy in book three. Wtf was that about? Couldn’t she have served in Jeremy’s stead? So she’s scared of EVA, isn’t that a good reason to force her into it? Couldn’t she have gone over with Charlie to the shiptree? Or hell, couldn’t Charlie have gone over there alone? What did we need Jeremy for again? Didn’t Wainwright serve to worry about Leslie sufficiently? Which, btw, I was told a whole bunch of times how professional Wainwright was and how just because she was all hot for Leslie she wasn’t going to spring him from the birdcage, but I totally missed the part where she starts getting the hots for him. Was it there and I just didn’t pick up on it? Kindly do not elide the human interaction bits, if you would, specially if they determine character maneuvers. Also, I got a little whiplash from book two to book three; in Scardown Riel’s Brit scientist was portrayed as a good guy and then in Worldwired presto change-o, he’s the evil spy we must keep ignorant of the heroes’ do-good machinations. Huh? And also, why is he there but not there? I never got to see him in book three, just hear about how he was around. Weird.

[MILD SPOILER] — In the first book, Razorface’s wife was redshirted too quickly for me. She was just too nice, and too incidental, to survive. It’s not that I mind seeing stuff coming, but in most places Bear worked the casualties more subtly and to better effect.

In general, the trilogy was filled with plenty of action, lots of guts and glory, sharp edges and people cutting themselves thereon (yay for a book with consequences), and characters who felt real. Prose was occasionally sloppy, but perhaps this wouldn’t have been so noticeable if the prose wasn’t so elegant in parts (I know, if this compliment were anymore backhanded it would smack me on the rebound). Still, the inconsistency draws the eye. There’s an enjoyable sense of wonder about everything that unfolds, whether fabulous or catastrophic, which is a definite plus for my science fiction reading list. My complaints hardly rise to the level of quibbles, and there’s certainly both fun and engaging insight to be had from reading these three books. So I say to you: go forth, buy (or borrow) and read these three books.

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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.”

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22 Mar 2006, by

Genius.

Ursula K. Le Guin is a genius. Here’s the proof: “Ged stood still a while, like one who has received great news, and must enlarge his spirit to receive it.” (from A Wizard of Earthsea). I could only dream of writing that sort of sentence, you know?

Also? If for some weird reason you have not already read Kelly Link’s story “The Faery Handbag“, you should do that right now. I’m serious. It’s the kind of story to make readers blissful and writers envious. Link is amazing.

As you were.

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