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Short Stories on Saturday: The Way of the Needle, Derek Künsken

asimovs march 2012I’ve decided to subscribe to Asimov’s on my Kindle and decided to write very brief thoughts on the stories in this and any other magazines I might choose to read in the future. I think “Short Story Saturday” is probably owned by someone but no one I follow; please let me know if I’m stealing your feature so I can give you credit!

My very first short story – or “novelette” as the magazine calls it – in years was The Way of the Needle by Derek Künsken. Both a thriller and a contemplative story about loyalty and friendship, the beings in this novelette have developed under the heat of microwaves. They’re made out of needles and feed one another in a relatively strict hierarchy. Mok, a Follower of the Needle, an order of martial priests, has a reputation to make and an assassination to carry out. On his way, he meets a slave, who he must befriend to make his way to the upper echelons of the palace and his assassination target …

I absolutely surprised myself by how much I delighted in this story. I loved every bit of it, from the weird world to awkward, half-arrogant Mok, to the actual ending of it. It felt quiet, just the way I like, but so powerful – and you’d never really imagine that spiky metal creatures soaking up microwaves could really do that, but these did. Brilliant – this story had me absolutely eager to read the rest of the magazine and reinforced my feelings that science fiction is still my current obsession.

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Review: You Know When the Men Are Gone, Siobhan Fallon

you know when the men are goneLife in the military is difficult, not only for the men who go off to war, but for the women and children they are forced to leave behind. This new collection of stories from Siobhan Fallon explores the lives of the men and women who are forced to endure the separation, from both perspectives. We see men who dream of nothing but home, only to find themselves strangely out of place away from the war. We meet women who are bereft without their men, but when the men return are unsure how to fit them back into their strict lives. And we witness the spouses who can’t take the separation, who cheat, from both sides of the equation.

Every tiny bit of praise you’ve heard for You Know When the Men Are Gone is true. This is an incredible collection of stories, and I say that as someone who doesn’t normally like short stories, whose loved ones are all civilians, and who is hesitant about reading books about modern day women’s emotions. Each story in this book is wonderful on its own and as part of this collection. They are all very loosely connected, some having more links than others, but with several universal themes coming through.

Many of those themes are explored through the two different perspectives. We witness just how difficult it is for women when their husbands are gone. They bond together with other mothers, have children early to have something left of their husbands, and end up coping with absolutely everything in the men’s absence. Meanwhile, the men are dreaming of home, even as they’re adjusting to Iraq. Each story in some way deals with a soldier’s return or lack of return.

Infidelity is a big concern for both the soldiers and the women who are waiting for them. After all, a year’s deployment is a very long time, and all of them can get desperate. One husband returns, convinced his wife is cheating, and hides in his own basement to catch her in the act. A wife suspects her husband of cheating, but decides to forgive him and save the love that she still has for him and, she hopes, him for her.

Each story in this collection affected me in some way, tugging on my heartstrings relentlessly. Several had me in tears, which doesn’t happen very often for me and books. I can’t imagine how difficult these lives are, but I truly feel that Fallon gave me a glimpse into the tough struggles that military families go through each and every day. There is definitely a reason this collection has earned so much buzz, and it’s so well deserved. I’m glad to add my voice to the many others who have fallen in love with this book – Fallon is unquestionably an author to watch and You Know When the Men Are Gone is an amazing read.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review from the publisher.

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Review: The Ivory and the Horn, Charles de Lint

This is a collection of short stories set in Charles de Lint’s urban fantasy city of Newford.  This city – I’ve always thought it was in Canada but I don’t recall ever actually reading that – has its fair share of the poor, the needy, and the ones who choose to take advantage of them, but it is also full of magic for those with the ability to embrace it, like artist Sophie who dreams another world into existence.  Though these stories have all been published before and can be treated as separate entities, the book also works well as a collection with many of the same characters appearing over and over again.

My previous experience with Charles de Lint has been confined to The Onion Girl, which is set in this same city, and Moonheart, which is set elsewhere but still falls under an urban fantasy heading.  I knew that Newford started out with short stories and I always wanted to start from the beginning.  The Ivory and the Horn isn’t the beginning, but it was close enough for me when I got tired of waiting to be able to buy the first collection!

This is urban fantasy, but it’s a different kind of urban fantasy than the glut of books about badass heroines falling in love with/killing vampires/werewolves/etc which is currently dominating the market at the moment.  Much as I do enjoy those books, I also really enjoy this, because I feel that Newford is very much a real city with a real city’s issues, even if its inhabitants transport themselves to other worlds on occasion.  There is poverty here.  There is murder that has nothing to do with blood-sucking.  To me, this is more like real life with a fantasy edge, not a book that is fantasy with few touches of real life.  The fantasy is so subtle in some of the stories that it could be explained away as a dream or delusion, until it’s confirmed by someone else.

De Lint’s fantasy has also always felt very natural to me.  It’s bound up in what I imagine are Native American myths.  Some of the characters transport themselves to a desert and speak with animal spirits, or perform magic that leaves behind bits of bone and grass.  It always feels to me like it touches on what people actually believed was real at one point.  It’s difficult to describe the essence of it, but I really like it.

I even liked the characters.  Short stories are often a hard sell for me.  I find it really hard to relate to anyone when they’re only around for thirty pages or so, and I don’t think the plot always can develop either.  But here, because everyone pops up again and again, and similar issues are dealt with, and the city stays the same, I actually really appreciated the short story format.  The stories kept my attention and I could get to know the characters as well as find out a new angle about their lives.  It’s about a community.

I’m really anxious to read more Newford stories.  I’m still not supposed to be buying books, but we’re halfway through February now and it’s almost March, when I can be a little freer with my purchases.  So, recommendations – I fully intend to read Dreams Underfoot, but what else is excellent by de Lint?  Let me know!

I am an Amazon Associate. I purchased this book, and I’m sorry I waited so long to read it!

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Review: Smoke and Mirrors, Neil Gaiman

This is a collection of short stories and poems that Neil Gaiman has either written for publication elsewhere or had lying around for other  reasons and collected in this volume.  The stories are extremely varied, many are dark and involve magic (as one might expect), and there are even a few fairy tale retellings.  A few of the stories pay homage to other writers and the explanations for these are given in the introduction, which is extremely helpful as one goes on.

I found this collection to be a bit of a mixed bag.  I really enjoyed a lot of the stories, but I’m not a huge fan of poetry, and these didn’t strike me as particularly good.  This may just be my own personal defect, but I enjoyed the prose short stories much more.  I found myself at a disadvantage occasionally because I hadn’t heard of the author Gaiman was imitating or honoring, but for the most part these were interesting selections.

I haven’t read Gaiman in a while and I was surprised by how sexual some of his stories were, too.  One was particularly explicit, describing virtually everything that goes on in a bedroom scene, and I hadn’t really expected that at all.  Another one is about a man obsessed with finding a girl photographed naked in a magazine, always aged nineteen no matter when the pictures appear.  I didn’t remember if this was typical of his work or if he’d just made exceptions here.  A lot of the stories were creepy and had dark or ambiguous endings.  As I was going along, I thought this would be perfect for the RIP challenge, even though it’s a long time until the next one.

I don’t really have any deep thoughts about this collection, but I think it speaks volumes that while I normally take forever to read short story collections (I’ve had a different one going for a couple of weeks), I finished this one in a couple of days.  The stories are often very short, two to three pages, and Gaiman writes well.  The stories go oddly well together, often picking up on themes, like magicians’ magic (hence smoke and mirrors) and using various bits of mythology to make his reader think.

Overall, Smoke and Mirrors is recommended, especially if you enjoy short stories and creepier fantasy.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.

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Review: Nocturnes, Kazuo Ishiguro

This short story collection contains “five stories of music and nightfall”, revolving around some similar characters and locations.

“Crooner”

This story features a Hungarian musician in Venice who sees his mother’s favorite singer, Tony Gardner, at a cafe where he is playing.  When he rushes over to greet Mr. Gardner, he is surprisingly invited to accompany the famous man in a serenade for his wife. As their barge circles Mrs. Gardner’s window, the musician learns that the married couple is not what he originally thought.

“Come Rain or Come Shine”

The narrator, Ray, goes to visit two of his college friends, Emily and Charlie, whose marriage is breaking up.  Charlie asks Ray to help him save it, but Emily has hated Ray for years, only appreciating his taste in music.  When Emily leaves, Ray finds himself accidentally peeking in her diary, tearing out a page.  In an attempt to save the day, Charlie tells Ray to pretend the neighbors with the dog have come by and ruined everything.

“Malvern Hills”

A young man goes to visit his sister and her husband for the summer after a number of failed attempts to join a band.  While there, he meets a European couple who have performed all over the world.  The man, an eternal optimist, and his wife, a much more negative person, have a few lessons to teach the narrator about his music.

“Nocturne”

Both Steve’s marriage and his music career are failing.  His wife’s new lover offers to give him a facelift, which according to his manager will re-launch his career, as he’s quite an ugly man.  When Steve takes the offer, he discovers that he is next door to Lindy Gardner, Tony Gardner’s ex-wife, and together they have a series of adventures at night in the recovery hotel.

“Cellists”

The only story to be told mostly in third person returns to Venice, where cellist Tibor meets an older American woman who considers herself a virtuoso on his instrument.  Through a series of lessons, Eloise teaches Tibor that he is a great cellist and that he deserves more than a place in a restaurant band.  Eloise, however, is holding something back.

For the most part, these stories were a little disappointing.  While they are still beautifully written, they just didn’t have the impact that Ishiguro’s novels do.  There isn’t enough time for that slow emotional build-up, nor to even get to know the characters.  I felt a few of them were almost insufferably arrogant when it came to their musical talent, which didn’t help.  While these stories did make me think, particularly about relationships and identity, and had some smaller revelations, overall Nocturnes was just not up to my expectations.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this collection from the library.

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Review: The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and six more, Roald Dahl

From the back cover:

The seven stories in this collection are brilliant examples of the bizarre and wholly unexpected world that Roald Dahl, ‘that great magician’ (Spectator), made his own.  It includes not only the trademark dark humour and other-worldly goings-on of ‘The Swan’ and ‘The Boy Who Talked With Animals’, but also a fascinating short essay on how he started writing, his first-ever story, ‘A Piece of Cake’, and the delightfully surprising title tale of a rich young idler who develops a most remarkable ability.  Reading them, you’ll find that people are far stranger than you could possibly have suspected …

Roald Dahl’s voice is one that calls me straight back to my childhood and doesn’t let me go until his stories have finished with me.  I adored this man’s works when I was younger.  I read them countless times.  As an adult, I have sometimes wondered what I would think, whether his bias against many members of society would affect my perception of his work.  I am usually adept at pushing this aside.  While such views are clearly, clearly wrong and probably adults should introduce these facets into discussion with children, it would be useless to forget the past and ignore the fact that Roald Dahl’s beliefs were shared by many.  With this in mind, I greatly enjoyed this collection of short stories.

Actually, my least favorite story was probably the title tale.  This one follows Henry Sugar, essentially a wastrel, to his discovery of a little blue book which contains an extraordinary story about a man who develops the ability to see somehow without his eyes, but through sustained and focused concentration.  Henry learns this skill himself in order to become more successful at gambling, but when money is easy, he learns that there is more in the world he should be fighting for.  I don’t know, but I just wasn’t really crazy about the story.  I didn’t feel that Henry really redeemed himself or was any different at the end.  I didn’t mind the magical aspects, indeed I expected them from Dahl, so it was mostly just his character that got to me.

I enjoyed the rest of the stories though.  I really loved Dahl’s essay on how he became a writer and his first short story.  I knew most of his history, but I haven’t read Boy or Going Solo for at least 10 years.  I love the way he tells his personal history and this was no exception.  The way that he backed into writing is fascinating and makes me think of what we would have missed out on had he never managed to find his way.  I love the way he tells history, too.  I think it adds a more personal touch to the British history which I am so fascinated by.  All this time I loved memoirs and when I was a kid, I didn’t even know what I was reading!

This review has become more of an ode to Roald Dahl than a review.  To be honest, these stories are mostly not his best work.  They don’t quite match up to his novels for kids.  (I’m not sure I want to go into his novels for adults.  I’m quite happy compartmentalizing him in the happy childhood box of my brain considering what I’ve heard. )  Still, they are entertaining and were a wonderful nostalgia trip for me.  If you loved Roald Dahl’s books, you will probably love these stories, too.

Amazon | IndieBound | Powell’s | Amazon UK

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Review: Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales, Eleanor Bluestein

This is a moving collection of short stories centered around a fictional Asian country, Ayama Na.  Ayama Na has its poor and its rich, its beauty contests, its factories, and its tourists, all of which provide a basis for these enchanting stories.  The country is recovering from both an internal coup and a long and devastating drought, providing an emotional and political backdrop for a series of stories which serve to get us acquainted with not only the country but the people it harbors.

As many others have said, getting to know the country of Ayama Na was perhaps the best part of this book.  It links all these stories together in a way that would not be possible if they were set in a less colorful, distinctive country, or even one with which we were better acquainted.  Ayama Na is fictional, but it doesn’t feel that way.  Rather, it feels alive and peeks out through each and every story.

Of course, the stories themselves are well worth reading.  I normally worry with short stories.  Will I get attached to the characters only to have them taken away? Or will I feel absolutely nothing because the story is just too short for me to care?  Luckily, neither of these things happened with this book.  Each story is very different but is a fully encapsulated burst of character.  In one, “Skin Deep”, a beautiful girl from a very poor family wins the Miss Lake Sporee beauty pageant, moving on to vie for the title of Miss Ayama Na.  For her talent, she learns to throw her voice and becomes a ventriloquist.  Song and her dummy have a fascinating relationship, and in the end it is through the dummy, Lulu, that important truths about their country are exposed, rather than smiling lies which normally make up such events.

In another story, “The Cut the Crap Machine”, two of the country’s only remaining playwrights together attempt to compose a play.  They both have emerged from the crisis with completely different views on life and to say that they struggle to work together is an understatement.  All hope, however, is not lost, and bitterness doesn’t last forever.

My favorite, though, is the last story.  “Tea”.  Pania’s father announces to her that she is going to a dinner to meet a potential future husband.  Pania has embraced the western world and is infuriated, convinced that she has a right to choice.  She immediately asks her brother Kol to do something.  They meet for tea, but Kol does and says nothing; they don’t even have tea.  Pania is outraged still further and only with time does she learn exactly what she is meant to learn.

There are so many stunning contrasts in this book.  By using a fictional country, Eleanor Bluestein has been able to show the immense divides between rich and poor, between western and eastern culture, between the farm and the factory.  It feels like a behind-the-scenes look that the tourists don’t go see, like in the story “The Blanks”, when the tour guide finally takes an exasperating American couple to an impoverished village so they can see the reality of Ayama Nan lives.

Honestly, this is a wonderful collection.  Writing about it has convinced me even more of its beauty.  If Asia interests you, if short stories interest you, if anything in this review has captured your interest at all, you should read this book.  Do come back tomorrow – you might have a chance to get one step closer.

Buy Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales on Amazon.

For more reviews on this blog tour, check out these great blogs!

The Bluestocking Society
Bookstack
Nerd’s Eye View
Lotus Reads
8Asians
1979 Semi-finalist…
Ramya’s Bookshelf
Feminist Review
Trish’s Reading Nook
Savvy Verse and Wit

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Book Trailers for Christopher Meeks

Recently, I read and adored both of Christopher Meeks’ short story collections, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea and Months and Seasons.  So it only makes sense that I’d like to share his book trailers with you and encourage you to go out and read these wonderful collections.

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Review: The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, Christopher Meeks

In his first short story collection, Christopher Meeks uses effective prose to provide us with a variety of emotions and real life situations in compact form.  Each story gets its own few pages to shine and again delivers a singular emotion or effect, almost effortlessly evoking emotions in the reader.  According to the back of the book, many of these stories have been published elsewhere before, and I’m not surprised.

I was really pleased to discover that Meeks is proficient at one of my absolute favorite story techniques, what I generally call the slow reveal; it’s when you go along and at first everything seems perfectly normal, slowly gets worse until you realize what must have gone wrong, but it doesn’t hit you until it hits the character and delivers a great climax.  “He’s Home” shows off this particular type of story-telling.

My favorite, however, would be a contest between the title story, “The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea”, and another later on, “Engaging Ben”.  It’s hard to describe short stories effectively for me; I think it’s best going into them blind.  I can say that the first involves a surprise and deals an emotional blow to the reader (and to the characters), while the second involves a couple struggling nearly as soon as they get engaged.  Both of these stories engaged me emotionally and I really connected with them and felt for the characters involved, even though I’d known them for only a few pages.

I’d absolutely recommend this book.  All of these stories are terrific and I’m looking forward to more work from Christopher Meeks! Buy this book on Amazon.

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Months and Seasons, Christopher Meeks

This moving collection of short stories covers a full range of life experiences.  Short stories excel at conveying one particular emotion each and Christopher Meeks delivers a variety of them here.   Each short story feels rounded on its own as a complete vignette and all together, they make this collection shine with humanity and intelligence.

Many of the stories deal with couples, in all sorts of situations.  There is a story about a couple going to a hypnotists’ show – the wife wants to let go and have fun, but her husband holds her back from immersing herself in the experience.  Another couple with a reluctant husband attends a Halloween party together; he learns to have some fun.  My favorite story, however, was that of an old man, a writer, whose house burns down.  I thought it perfectly summed up how we all cope with disaster; our lives fall apart but we must put up a show for the rest of the world and pretend that we will be just fine.

As I was reading, I’d be excited for the next story when I felt the one I was currently reading begin to wrap up.  I never wanted to put the book down between stories because I just wanted to read more of them.  I’ve got his first collection sitting in my Amazon cart for when I make an over $25 purchase because I really, really want more of his writing.  I was thrilled to see the bonus track from his next book and I can guarantee I’ll be buying that one as soon as it’s released.

I would definitely recommend this one, whether you’re like me and want to read all the stories through at once, or whether you’d like to read just one story between errands on a busy day.  This collection is beautifully composed and certainly worth your time. Buy Months and Seasons on Amazon.

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