Shoggoths in Bloom, by Elizabeth Bear

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Publication date – October 11, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Short fiction from Elizabeth Bear, recipient of the “John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.” Includes her Hugo- and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award-winning “Tideline” and Hugo-winning novelette, “Shoggoths in Bloom,” as well as an original, never-published story. A World Fantasy, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick nominee, Bear is one of speculative fiction’s most acclaimed, respected, and prolific authors.

Thoughts: Short story collections vary in their quality. That’s pretty much a given, an acceptance that just about everyone has when they start reading.  Some will be better than others, some you may want to skip to get to better things ahead, others are so dull they may tempt you to put the collection down entirely.

This wasn’t the case with Shoggoths in Bloom.

Perhaps it was due to the fact that all the stories in here are written by Elizabeth Bear and aren’t a collection from multiple different authors with multiple different styles. That helped immensely. True, there still were a couple of stories in here that interested me less than others, but I mean that very literally. 2. 2 stories out of 20. And there were far more that were awesome enough to make up for a couple of duller moments.

Bear’s range is evident in this collection, as she presents futuristic sci-fi, historical speculation, straight-up fantasy, all of the stories thought-provoking and all highly creative. From The Something-Dreaming Game that deals with kids and auto-erotic asphyxiation (and the admission that even in kids it can be erotic) to Dolly and its exploration of whether emerging sentience in machines means they can be criminally tried, to stories that defy categorization but still make you go, “Whoa!” like Annie Webber, Bear takes readers on a ride that will stretch minds and imaginations alike in ways that make me eager to read more of her work.

This was my introduction to her writing, and I’m not sure I could have asked for a better one. This was a light buffet instead of a feast, getting to sample things in small amounts rather than diving right in, with less pressure to enjoy than if I’d just launched myself into a full novel. Not that a novel would be a bad thing. I discover many amazing authors that way, obviously. But sometimes one finds themself in the mood for lighter fare, and this catered to my appetite and made me hungry for more.

So whether you’re a fan of Bear’s work and have been for years, or else you’re just curious to try something new, this is a book you ought to be reading. I can’t recommend this enough. Rarely does it happen that I rate a collection so highly. Rarely am I ever so satisfied with a short story collection. Shoggoths in Bloom, I think, will end up being the standard by which all other collections are judged.

(Book provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.)

Two and Twenty Dark Tales, by various authors

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Publication date – October 16, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) In this anthology, 20 authors explore the dark and hidden meanings behind some of the most beloved Mother Goose nursery rhymes through short story retellings. The dark twists on classic tales range from exploring whether Jack truly fell or if Jill pushed him instead to why Humpty Dumpty, fragile and alone, sat atop so high of a wall. The authors include Nina Berry, Sarwat Chadda, Leigh Fallon, Gretchen McNeil, and Suzanne Young.

Thoughts: It isn’t hard to find collections of stories that apply a dark twist to fairy tales. It’s a bit harder to find something that applies a dark twist to nursery rhymes, those little snippets of poetry and song that most of us grew up with and know like we know the backs of our hands. But th stories in this collection are ones that are familiar and unfamiliar at the same time, the telling of the darker side of those rhymes that we don’t put much thought into. Little Miss Muffet and Humpty Dumpty have new and creepy life breathed into them by this collection of YA authors.

Some stories worked better than others. “Blue,” for example, which was based on Little Boy Blue, didn’t actually stick much to the original rhyme (I don’t recall any sheep in the meadow nor cows in the corn), and reminded me of nothing so much as bad fanfiction for Fatal Frame 3. “Life in a Shoe,” based on the old woman who lived in a shoe, was depressing and difficult to read as it tells the story of a family with far too many children to be fed and cared for properly because the man of the house is a borderline rapist. Dark, yes, and in both cases, but the stories seemed like they got into this collection only due to a stated connection to the nursery rhymes, though in reality the connection was thin and tenuous at best.

On the other hand, this book contained some true gems, making me wish more than once that they were longer than they were so that I could keep reading them. “Sing a Song of Sixpence” was one of my absolute favourites, incorporating all elements of the nursery rhyme into one dark fantasy story that was truly inspired. “Wee Willie Winkie” was very creepy and deft in its handling of the truth behind small-town legends. And “I Come Bearing Souls” was an amazing twist on “Hey Diddle Diddle,” of all rhymes, featuring reincarnation and literal interpretations of Egyptian mythology and the concept of the self and relation to duty and fate. “Tick Tock” was a creapy story about a group of children committing murder for reasons which were left obscure, adding a rather disturbing supernatural element to the tale. Some things are better off when they still have some mystery to them, after all.

My biggest regret, though, is that the ARC copy I received was missing the second part of a really good story. “The Lion and the Unicor,” dealing with historical witchcraft in England and King James’s connection to the devil, was broken into two parts. The first part appeared early on, and about a page into the tale I was hooked, really excited to keep reading and to find out what happened. Unfortunately for me, the ARC copy doesn’t actually have the second part in it, which was very disappointing. I won’t hold that against the book, since I know the risk with ARCs is that one gets them unfinished and often changes will occur between the ARC and the final product, so the book isn’t losing marks with me because of that unfinished story, but I will say that I was disappointed to not find out how such a wonderful story was going to end.

Over all, there were more hits than misses in this compilation, and I would say that fans of dark YA fiction would do well to take a look at this one. Though I admit I hadn’t heard of most of the authors, I was introduced to a few whose work I now want to take a close look at. Definitely a book worth keeping on the shelves.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

Diverse Energies, by various authors

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Publication date – October 14, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) In a world gone wrong, heroes and villains are not always easy to distinguish and every individual has the ability to contribute something powerful.

In this stunning collection of original and rediscovered stories of tragedy and hope, the stars are a diverse group of students, street kids, good girls, kidnappers, and child laborers pitted against their environments, their governments, differing cultures, and sometimes one another as they seek answers in their dystopian worlds. Take a journey through time from a nuclear nightmare of the past to society’s far future beyond Earth with these eleven stories by masters of speculative fiction. Includes stories by Paolo Bacigalupi, Ursula K. Le Guin, Malinda Lo, Cindy Pon, Daniel H. Wilson, and more.

Thoughts: Many truly depressing futures are showcased in Diverse Energies. From violent wars to exploitation to impossible-to-bridge gaps between the rich and poor…Wait, doesn’t this sound familiar? Doesn’t this sound precisely like what’s in the news today?

That’s what makes these futures so believable, I think. Every single story in this compilation deals with a future that’s all too easy to see happening. This isn’t science fiction taking place on other planets, with people and situations that are too distant from our own lives to really feel a connection to. These are futures that we already know have seeds planted. Exploitation of workers overseas. The poor left to struggle and die in polluted worlds while the rich have the luxury of health and clean air and water. A vicious divide between “eastern” and “western” cultures. These are things we can see bits and pieces of just by turning on the news. The stories are relatable, understandable, easily evoking empathy from any reader.

And true to advertisement, anyone who’s looking for minorities to get some literary screentime in speculative fiction should take a look at this book. Very few stories even contained white characters, and most of the ones who did were not protagonists. If it wasn’t minorities by culture, it was minorities by sexuality. Sometimes both. The characters here were as diverse as humanity itself, and it was a welcome break from fiction that revolves around North America’s accomplishments and station in the global community.

There was only one story where it really felt as though a character of colour was shoehorned in, where it would have made absolutely no difference to the tale whatsoever. A story about a robot on a murderous rampage was told from the perspective of one who was attacked, giving a report to a law enforcement officer. The law enforcement officer had Osage heritage. This was mentioned in 2 lines of dialogue, as an aside. It added nothing to the story. It didn’t take anything away, sure, and perhaps that was the point. That it doesn’t take much to add a bit of diversity to a story. I’m not sure. But to me, it seemed as though the lines were added as an afterthought, a quick way to throw in an attempt at diversity without actually doing so.

But aside from that one story, the diversity shown in this novel was excellent, and could serve as a great lesson to many, readers and writers alike. You want a story that stands out, then don’t create your story from the same cookie-cutter ideas that have been done time and time again. People who aren’t straight and white want characters to relate to too. I know I do! (I’ve mentioned in the past how difficult it can be to find characters who are asexual as a sexual preference, and how hard it can be for me to relate to characters who are driven by sexual urges.)

If you’re looking for some good diversity in your speculative fiction, if you want a glimpse at the futures of places that aren’t North American, if you want to see some minorities take the stage, then reach for a copy of Diverse Energies. It’s worth your time.

(Receivedfor review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

The Best Horror of the Year, volume 4, edited by Ellen Datlow

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Publication date – May 1, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Fear is the oldest human emotion. The most primal. We like to think we’re civilized. We tell ourselves we’re not afraid. And every year, we skim our fingers across nightmares, desperately pitting our courage against shivering dread.

A paraplegic millionaire hires a priest to exorcise his pain; a failing marriage is put to the ultimate test; hunters become the hunted as a small group of men ventures deep into a forest; a psychic struggles for her life on national television; a soldier strikes a gristly bargain with his sister’s killer; ravens answer a child’s wish for magic; two mercenaries accept a strangely simplistic assignment; a desperate woman in an occupied land makes a terrible choice…

What scares you? What frightens you? Horror wears new faces in these carefully selected stories. The details may change. But the fear remains.

Night Shade Books is proud to present The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Four, a new collection of horror brought to you by Ellen Datlow, winner of multiple Hugo, Bram Stoker, and World Fantasy awards.

Thoughts: I’ll be honest. I nearly gave up on this book. I nearly stopped reading it and gave it up as a lost cause. Why? Because the introduction takes up over 10% of the book, and is mostly a rundown of the best horror novels published during the past year. I actually had to look at outside descriptions of this book to remind myself that yes, there are actual stories in here, and that it’s not just a book about other books. While having that listing certainly is nice, having it right at the beginning was a bit of a pain, especially when reading it on the Kindle, so it’s not like I could just flip a few pages and quickly discover that I can get to the stories that make up the bulk of the book.

But once I found that out, and spent five minutes pressing the “forward” button on my Kindle over and over, I can say with certainty that I was glad I did.

There’s some serious talent contained within this compilation, stories written by some big names and some who were — to me, at least — completely unheard of. Stephen King gets the honour of getting the ball rolling, and the only downside to that is that it sets a precedent that some of the other stories have a hard time living up to.

And if King sets a high standard to live up to in the first story, the final story, written by Peter Straub, was a big bust. Most everything in between was great, and very entertaining to read, but Straub’s story was something that I couldn’t get into no matter how hard I tried. The timeline jumped about all over the place, making it hard to follow and appreciate, and aside from a couple of legitimately creepy moments (and they were just moments, mind you), I couldn’t even tell half the time where the story was going, or what the point to it was. Perhaps it’s just that Straub isn’t to my taste. But I do feel compelled to say that as much as the collection ended on a low note, it was far better than beginning on such a low note. Had this story been the first one, I might not have found much of a reason to keep reading.

But looking at the stories individually, and trying not to compare them to what came before or after, ultimately this collection lives up to its name. It was a great collection of horror stories, some that make you shiver, others that make you feel a bit queasy, and others still that make you struggle to wrap your mind around what’s going on. A very good set that makes me want to keep my eyes open for next year’s compilation! In spite of a couple of low notes, this collection is definitely worth checking out, especially for horror fans and for those who want to have their spines tingled and their minds expanded.

(Book provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.)