Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Four and Five Star Books 2013 Part One: The Short Stories



53 four-and-five star books this year - one for every week plus one, which feels kind of like a win. Oh, except there were 69 last year, which is a higher number AND appealingly dirty. Oh, but 53 the year before that, so symmetry, and also, weirdness. Whatever, none of it is statistically relevant. I usually organize this post into categories to create the fiction that I have some kind of system.

Apparently I like short stories - mostly genre short stories - even more than I thought. When I rate a short story collection I go on overall impression - I don't rate each individual story and then average it out.

Short stories:


M is for Magic by Neil Gaiman: Goodreads synopsis: Stories to delight, enchant, and surprise you.
Bestselling author and master storyteller Neil Gaiman here presents a breathtaking collection of tales that may chill or amuse readers - but always embrace the unexpected. Collection includes:
"The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds," 
"Troll Bridge," 
"Don't Ask Jack," 
"How to Sell the Ponti Bridge," 
"October in the Chair," 
"Chivalry," 
"The Price," 
"How to Talk to Girls at Parties," 
"Sunbird," 
"The Witch's Headstone," 
"Instructions"

I wrote on Goodreads: Turns out I've read most of these already, which is not unfairly surprising or hidden or anything, I just wasn't paying attention. Not opposed to the opportunity to read them again. (This seems to be classed as Young Adult, which seems weird to me. "Troll Bridge" in particular has a bittersweet melancholy that it seems to be would be entirely wasted on young readers. Gaiman is a writer, anyway, who I think should just be given to children in their cradles and read over and over at every new stage of life). 

Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories by Karen Russell: Goodreads synopsis: From the author of the New York Times best seller Swamplandia!—a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—a magical new collection of stories that showcases Karen Russell’s gifts at their inimitable best.
A dejected teenager discovers that the universe is communicating with him through talismanic objects left behind in a seagull’s nest.  A community of girls held captive in a silk factory slowly transmute into human silkworms, spinning delicate threads from their own bellies, and escape by seizing the means of production for their own revolutionary ends. A massage therapist discovers she has the power to heal by manipulating the tattoos on a war veteran’s lower torso. When a group of boys stumble upon a mutilated scarecrow bearing an uncanny resemblance to the missing classmate they used to torment, an ordinary tale of high school bullying becomes a sinister fantasy of guilt and atonement. In a family’s disastrous quest for land in the American West, the monster is the human hunger for acquisition, and the victim is all we hold dear. And in the collection’s marvelous title story—an unforgettable parable of addiction and appetite, mortal terror and mortal love—two vampires in a sun-drenched lemon grove try helplessly to slake their thirst for blood.
Karen Russell is one of today’s most celebrated and vital writers—honored in The New Yorker’s list of the twenty best writers under the age of forty, Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists, and the National Book Foundation’s five best writers under the age of thirty-five.  Her wondrous new work displays a young writer of superlative originality and invention coming into the full range and scale of her powers.  


I just loved this collection so much. The stories seemed to be both wild and beautiful imaginings AND incisively wise insights about people, life, the universe and everything. I got it from the library and kept it as long as I could without going bankrupt. Then I ordered a copy for my brother-in-law and his wife (my heart-sister), but I accidentally sent the order to myself. So I readdressed the box and sent it to them again, but this book had been backordered, so it came to me afterwards. So I had to keep it. Sometimes I sleep with it under my pillow. (Not really. But I feel like maybe I should). 

The Girl Who Loved Animals and other stories by Bruce McAllister: Goodreads synopsis: Bruce McAllister's long-awaited short fiction collection showcasing the author's five decades of writing, including his first professional sale. Introduction by science fiction great Harry Harrison, afterword by the John W. Campbell Memorial Award-winner Barry N. Malzberg, and wraparound cover art by World Fantasy Award-winner John Picacio. 

I got this collection from the library because Susan Palwick mentioned McAllister's latest book on Facebook. I ordered the novel but haven't read it yet. I didn't take notes, and now I can't remember much detail about the stories; I remember a general impression that this was older science fiction, with a dark and yet oddly hopeful and innocent resonance. Some of them reminded me of Tiptree. 

Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories by Elizabeth Hand: Goodreads synopsis: Widely praised and widely read, Elizabeth Hand is regarded as one of America's leading literary fantasists. This new collection (an expansion of the limited-release Bibliomancy, which won the World Fantasy Award in 2005) showcases a wildly inventive author at the height of her powers. Included in this collection are "The Least Trumps," in which a lonely women reaches out to the world through symbols, tattooing, and the Tarot, and "Pavane for a Prince of the Air," where neo-pagan rituals bring a recently departed soul to something very different than eternal rest. Written in the author's characteristic poetic prose and rich with the details of traumatic lives that are luminously transformed, Saffron and Brimstone is a worthy addition to an outstanding career.

My review from Goodreads: Beautiful writing. A couple of the stories suffer a bit from privileging the beautiful writing over any kind of satisfying closure (this strange thing happened, this strange thing happened, the end). The concluding story cycle is fascinating and elegant.

The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 4, edited by Ellen Datlow: Goodreads synopsis: The first three volumes of The Best Horror of the Year have been widely praised for their quality, variety, and comprehensiveness.

I believe I detailed my love affair with Ellen Datlow anthologies in this post. I always feel a delicous shiver of anticipated on cracking open one of these. 

Sleight of Hand by Peter S. Beagle: Goodreads synopsis: Abundant with tales of quiet heroism, life-changing decisions, and determined searches for deep answers, this extraordinary collection of contemporary fantasy explores the realms between this world and the next. From the top of the Berlin Wall to the depths of the darkest seas, gods and monsters battle their enemies and innermost fears, yet mere mortals make the truly difficult choices. A slightly regretful author and a vengeful-but-dilapidated dragon square off over an abandoned narrative; the children of the Shark God demand painful truths from their chronically absent father; and a bereaved women sacrifices herself to change one terrible moment, effortlessly reversed by a shuffle of the deck. Whether melancholic, comedic, or deeply tragic, each new tale is suffused with misdirection and discovery, expressed in the rich and mesmerizing voice of a masterful storyteller.

This, along with his other collection, We Never Talk About My Brother, which I still have to get back from Collette because I gave it to her just as she became obsessed with her smartphone and stopped reading books, burns brightly in my mind as one of the best short story collections I've ever read. They seem to be about things happening and people existing which are utterly new and surprising and yet so right that you can't believe they weren't always happening and existing. I feel like if I could somehow attach these stories to my very being I would have achieved all the wisdom, compassion, joy and serene acceptance for which I strive every day. 

Hellgoing: Stories by Lynn Coady: Goodreads synopsis: Winner of the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Shortlisted for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. Selected as an Amazon.ca Best Book and for The Globe's Top 10 Books of 2013.
With astonishing range and depth, Scotiabank Giller Prize winner Lynn Coady gives us nine unforgettable new stories, each one of them grabbing our attention from the first line and resonating long after the last.
A young nun charged with talking an anorexic out of her religious fanaticism toys with the thin distance between practicality and blasphemy. A strange bond between a teacher and a schoolgirl takes on ever deeper, and stranger, shapes as the years progress. A bride-to-be with a penchant for nocturnal bondage can’t seem to stop bashing herself up in the light of day.
Equally adept at capturing the foibles and obsessions of men and of women, compassionate in her humour yet never missing an opportunity to make her characters squirm, fascinated as much by faithlessness as by faith, Lynn Coady is quite possibly the writer who best captures what it is to be human at this particular moment in our history.

A lot of people on Goodreads were dissatisfied with this. Maybe I'm just Lynn Coady's bitch. I found the stories completely satisfying, each one seeming like a perfect, detailed, radiant moment in a character's life, providing a lifetime's worth of baggage and weight in a few pages. The first story, particularly, unfurled like a vividly coloured map in my mind. Some of the images are still seared into my imagination. It was different from reading one of her novels, but I was equally compelled and enamoured. 

Sympathy for the Devil edited by Tim Pratt: Goodreads synopsis: The Devil is known by many names: Serpent, Tempter, Beast, Adversary, Wanderer, Dragon, Rebel. His traps and machinations are the stuff of legends. His faces are legion. No matter what face the devil wears, Sympathy for the Devil has them all. Edited by Tim Pratt, Sympathy for the Devil collects the best Satanic short stories by Neil Gaiman, Holly Black, Stephen King, Kage Baker, Charles Stross, Elizabeth Bear, Jay Lake, Kelly Link, China Mieville, Michael Chabon, and many others, revealing His Grand Infernal Majesty, in all his forms. Thirty-five stories, from classics to the cutting edge, exploring the many sides of Satan, Lucifer, the Lord of the Flies, the Father of Lies, the Prince of the Powers of the Air and Darkness, the First of the Fallen... and a Man of Wealth and Taste. Sit down and spend a little time with the Devil.

I ordered this for five bucks from Indigo during a Black Friday sale. The stories are imaginative, varied, and hugely enjoyable. This device for an anthology worked exceedingly
well.

Tenth of December by George Saunders: Goodreads synopsis: A new story collection, the first in six years, from one of our greatest living writers, MacArthur "genius grant" recipient and New Yorker contributor George Saunders.
George Saunders, one of our most important writers, is back with a masterful, deeply felt collection that takes his literary powers to a new level. In a recent interview, when asked how he saw the role of the writer, Saunders said: "To me, the writer's main job is to make the story unscroll in such a way that the reader is snared-she's right there, seeing things happen and caring about them. And if you dedicate yourself to this job, the meanings more or less take care of themselves." In Tenth of December, the reader is always right there, and the meanings are beautiful and profound and abundant. The title story is an exquisite, moving account of the intersection, at a frozen lake in the woods, of a young misfit and a middle-aged cancer patient who goes there to commit suicide, only to end up saving the boy's life. "Home" is the often funny, often poignant account of a soldier returning from the war. And "Victory Lap" is a taut, inventive story about the attempted abduction of a teenage girl. In all, Tenth of December is George Saunders at his absolute best, a collection of stories and characters that add up to something deep, irreducible, and uniquely American.

I wrote on Goodreads, "Odd. Funny. Sharp. Sad. Sneaky." I confess that I'm somewhat perplexed by the hype over this book, which has been on several "Best Books of the Year" lists and one "50 Books to Make You a Better Person" post. Not that I didn't love it - I did love it. How do I explain this? The stories are dark, bright, sometimes blackly hilarious, and several veer very close to genre. This is the kind of thing that, in my mind, usually gets books relegated to the 'escapist' category. I applaud the literary establishment for recognizing the brilliance here, but I wish they would extend that courtesy to more less-strictly-classifiable literature. 


Godless but Loyal to Heaven by Richard Van Camp: Some stuff from Indigo since Goodreads had no synopsis: Review: "Powerful! An original voice from the true north strong and free." — Tomson Highway

"Gripping, graphic and insightful, Godless but Loyal to Heaven opens up the human heart and lets the reader watch it pumping. Van Camp slips in and out of characters like a shapeshifter, introducing poetry and the fantastic into a brutal landscape." — Eden Robinson, author of Monkey Beach

"Godless but Loyal to Heaven is a fierce look at all the dehumanized aspects of our world as it is, written courageously, poignantly and beautifully." — Lee Maracle

"Prepare to be shocked and seared, moved at times to tears when you read Van Camp’s work. You’ll be taken on a series of journeys that you will not forget." — Joseph Bruchac, author of Our Stories Remember

"Richard Van Camp successfully melds aborigninal traditions with a fictional contemporary North in his new short story collection." — Winnipeg Free Press

"Hard—nosed but thin—skinned, sturdy yet totally off the wall, Richard Van Camp’s Godless but Loyal to Heaven is such a vibrant story collection that I’m kicking myself for only getting around to it now" — Edmonton Journal

From the Back Cover
In Richard Van Camp’s fictionalized north anything can happen and yet each story is rooted in a vivid contemporary reality. The stories offer a potent mix tape of tropes from science fiction, horror, Western and Aboriginal traditions. The title story pits Torchy against the Smith Squad, fighting for love and family in a bloody, cathartic, and ultimately hopeful narrative. Van Camp’s characters repeatedly confront the bleakness of sexual assault, substance addiction and violence with the joy and humour of inspired storytelling.
I wrote on Goodreads: I got this for Christmas and knew nothing about it. I don't think I have the vocabulary to express how much it moved me. (But I'll try, because I recognize that that is one lazy-ass review. This is a mosaic of stories - loosely interlinked characters and settings. I hate to say "the aboriginal experience", and yet these stories gave me more of a visceral impression of some realities of what I can only think of as The Aboriginal Experience than anything else I have ever read. They are starkly sorrowful, skewed, strange, funny and wonderful. 

7 comments:

Kim said...

I am going to have to follow you on goodreads so that I can see your ratings when you put them in, instead of all at once.

I'm SO GLAD you said this about the Lynn Coady book because it's on my library holds list and I can't WAIT. Also, I too give side-eye to "this strange thing happened, this strange thing happened, the end" and I'm glad you cited that one for it but still managed to like it a lot anyway. There are times that a series of strange things is all I want in a story. (Also, the magazines that publish these things before they wind up in collections seem to LOVE that stuff.)

Kim said...

I am going to have to follow you on goodreads so that I can see your ratings when you put them in, instead of all at once.

I'm SO GLAD you said this about the Lynn Coady book because it's on my library holds list and I can't WAIT. Also, I too give side-eye to "this strange thing happened, this strange thing happened, the end" and I'm glad you cited that one for it but still managed to like it a lot anyway. There are times that a series of strange things is all I want in a story. (Also, the magazines that publish these things before they wind up in collections seem to LOVE that stuff.)

clara said...

I love that you sleep with Vampires under your pillow. I ADORED that book. If I had a top anything list from last year, that would be on it.

Steph Lovelady said...

I'm reading a book of short stories now, with very particular appeal. They all take place in Rehoboth Beach, DE, my very favorite beach town. The stories were all entries in a contest, so some of them are amateurish, but some are surprisingly good.

Anyway, this point of this is that I often forget I like short stories until I'm reading a collection of them.

Nicole said...

LOVE short stories!

Marilyn (A Lot of Loves) said...

Vampires in the Lemon Grove is the only book I also read. I wish the vampire story was expanded out to a full story. There's a lot more story there.

Sasha said...

Ok, thanks for putting this all in one place. Now I know how half of this stuff got on my reading list :) (ie by following your reviews). Goodreads REALLY needs a text field called "why did I add this book?"