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Jul/Aug 2006 Book Reviews

Summer Anthology Survey

by Colleen Mondor


Buy now from Amazon!I have a huge weakness for anthologies and short story collections. They strike me a bit like dating--you can get to know an author through short fiction without making the time commitment of a full-length novel. It's a chance to meet someone you might want to have a long term literary relationship with but it gives you an easy out if things don't click.

Is it just me or do I really need to stop watching reruns of Sex and the City?

In the wake of the devastating 2004 tsunami Steven Savile and Alethea Kontis gathered a group of science fiction and fantasy authors together for a most impressive anthology. Elemental includes an introduction by Sri Lankan resident Arthur C. Clarke and stories from Larry Niven, Joe Halderman, Brian Aldiss and Sherrilyn Kenyon (writing as Kinley MacGregor) among others. With more than twenty entries in the collection it is really hard to characterize the entire volume. Hard core science fiction is present (Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson contribute a story set in the Dune universe for example) but there is also fantasy from the likes of Nina Kiriki Hoffman and even a reinvention of MacBeth from Adam Roberts. I liked David Gerrold's look at the traffic in present day Los Angeles (and what might go wrong one day) in "Report from the Near Future: Crystallization" and what do you say about Jacqueline Carey's consideration of small town suspicions and celestial beings in "In the Matter of Fallen Angels"? She wrote a story that nailed perfectly what the average human would do if faced with a winged creature of potentially holy origins, and showed once again why if there is intelligent life out there somewhere; it certainly isn't going to be visiting us anytime soon.

Can you blame them?

My favorite piece in the book is by Sir Brian Aldiss and it struck me hard because it was such a shock, such an amazing shock, to realize at the end just who the narrator, Will, truly is. "Tiger in the Night" is incredibly brief--only three pages really--but this one made me cry, literally. It is speculative fiction, I suppose, because it reinvents a moment in a famous poet's life. But "Tiger" impressed me simply as short story writing at its finest; regardless of genre assignment. Somehow, Aldiss manages in a very few words to not only rewrite history but also to induce an amazing well of compassion in the reader. He also reveals the ability of a writer, through both his own perspective and that of the protagonist Will, to re-envision a common event as something wholly original and utterly unique.

It's a gift when a writer can do that, a worthy and admirable gift.

On top of the first rate writing in Elemental, it should be noted that all of the publisher's and authors' profits will be donated to the Save the Children Tsunami Relief Fund. This means that while as Savile explains on his website. "Other disasters have captured the headlines of late, but the shocking and sad truth is that for S.E. Asia the rebuilding of their lives will take at least ten more years and a lot of generosity from the rest of the world. By buying Elemental you are not only getting these amazing stories, you are giving to the worthiest of causes."

It is hard to imagine any reader needing added inducement to pick up this collection, but now there is the humanitarian effort to consider as well. All in all it makes for an excellent combination of cause and content and a great way to meet some authors.

Twice Told Tales has to win the award for "nobody ever thought of doing this before" anthology. Artist Scott Hunt drew nine very interesting pictures and then sent them to eighteen young adult authors with the challenge to craft a story around the picture. The result is two very different stories for each picture and a lesson in creativity that borders on the amazing. It would be easy to say that the contributors are all talented, but when you see how they interpreted the pictures in such vastly different ways the reader becomes almost bowled over with the level of originality. Because of this, the book should be read by any fan of the short story but also--and perhaps more importantly--by any short story writer as well.

The collection's contributors are all first rate and they vary from Bruce Coville and Sarah Dessen to John Green and Adele Geras. Each tale is set firmly in the real world--no fantasy or science fiction here--but by keeping the rules the same for everyone, it shows how much room the authors had to play with the idea. For example, it would be one thing if two stories were different because one was set on Mars, but it's a whole other thing when they are both about the people who work at the donut house down the street, but still have nothing in common but donuts. (Thank Dessesn and Ellen Wittlinger for proving how interesting donuts can be.)

Ron Koertge impressed me with a story of unlikely friendship, "Just a Couple of Girls Talking Haiku" and Jan Marino made me laugh with a case of boredom out of control in "What I Did Last Summer". But it was William Sleator who freaked me out the most with "Chocolate Almond Torte", a story about war and homecoming gone terribly wrong. (It reminded me just a little bit of the classic Frederic March WWII movie, The Best Years of Our Lives although the story is a lot more violent, if you can believe it.) Both of the writers who had the "bunny" picture took sad and somewhat horrible directions with it, Nancy Werlin with "Rebecca" and Alix Flinn with "Bunny Boy". I have to be honest--I was icked out by that drawing at first glance as well. There is just something wrong about a child in a bunny suit and clearly the authors felt that way as well (especially Flinn).

Jaime Adoff wrote an impressive poem about taking the wrong road with "The God of St. James and Vine" and Margaret Peterson Haddix took the same drawing and turned it into the most unexpected Vietnam story ever, with "Essie and Clem". I loved "Essie and Clem"--it might be my favorite story of the collection. The characters were just so effective; their pain so clearly heartfelt, that I was pretty riveted from the moment I began reading. I think there is a book in this story, if Haddix ever wanted to expand on it, and I wish she would consider that idea. No one has ever written about the war this way for young adults and I think it is a story that needs to be told.

I am shorting the other great authors by not mentioning them specifically (no room, no room!) but suffice to say I was quite impressed with both the idea and execution behind this anthology. Twice Told is an excellent example of why anthologies need to be published for young adults and the many ways in which good writers can be prompted to produce some truly wonderful work. (And Hunt's pictures are all great as well.)

Firebirds Rising is a speculative fiction collection put out by the impressive Sharyn November who is a well known powerhouse in the young adult field. She has done an amazing job here, gathering such luminaries as Diane Wynne Jones, Kelly Link, Alan Dean Foster and Charles de Lint. The stories are all well done and while even November admits it is a bit light on science fiction (where is all the great science fiction for young adults these days?) Kara Dalkey and Alison Goodman still provide some excellent stories in that genre. (Dalkey's "Hive" is a perfect example of how to incorporate futuristic elements into a story that reads like it is happening today. In this respect, it reminded me a bit of Ray Bradbury's "R is for Rocket".) As for the fantasy stories, it's hard to pick a favorite but I will happily discuss several that gave me a smile and made me think.

"In the House of the Seven Librarians" by Ellen Klages is pretty much a love letter to bookaholics everywhere. Just like all the bookish girls fantasize about the library in the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, many of us would also like to live permanently in a library.

Go ahead, you can admit it.

In Klages' story, the old library is closed down for a shiny new improved version but the seven librarians refuse to leave. A baby ends up at their doorstep and it is through her growing eyes that we see the building and its occupants. Altogether it's a lovely story about books and the worlds that house them and is the kind of thing I wish I had written. (And when Klages wrote in her afterword that "I have always lived with and around books," she became a dear friend, just like that.)

Diane Wynne Jones does something magical (of course) with "I'll Give You My Word". Brothers Jethro and Jeremy are clever and pitch perfect--especially Jethro with all his worries of getting his utterly unorthodox family to fit in anywhere. The villain is classic, the battle is both serious and hysterical and the parents are the ones I wish I had growing up. All in all it's a joy of a read and reminded me just why I consider Fire and Hemlock one of my favorite books.

There's also "What Used to Be Good Still Is" by Emma Bull, a touching story about volcanoes and goddesses and small town suffering. It's a wonderful exploration of myths and magic and desperation that is more quietly beautiful than anything else. Patricia McKillip's "Jack O'Lantern" is the best kind of creepy (not really creepy at all in the traditional sense, but in the "woman used to have no choice about anything" kind of sense). And then there is Tamora Pierce's reconsideration of the Central Park "wilding" rape attack that ends the best way possible.

And after you read it, you will think so too.

There's also Pamela Dean, Nina Kiriki Hoffman (proving best friends transcend all differences), Sharon Shinn and Carol Emshwiller. Basically, there are over 500 pages of fantasy and science fiction tied up in a bow for every fan. It's the second in the series and November writes at the end that there is another in the works. Unlike the sad demise of Tor's Science Fiction and Fantasy for Teens at least Firebirds will keep going and give young adult spec fiction fans something to look forward to.

Finally, Slipstreams is a collection that according to editor John Helfers' introduction is built around a type of fiction that "tries to alter a reader's perception of the world around them... or the world that they are reading about in the particular book they have stumbled upon." As the anthology includes Santa Claus as a private investigator (and Jack Frost as a corpse), a mountain man in Yellowstone National Park who is hunting something very different from wolves and a WWI pilot who finds there is a force at work in the skies over France vastly superior to the Allied and Axis powers, there are plenty of stories that will change the way readers think. None of that matters if the stories don't work but Martin Greenberg and Helfers have been very careful with their picking and choosing and this sci fi heavy volume is first rate all the way. It is excellent reading for an adult audience and teens fans will find a lot to love here as well.

Tanya Huff is onboard with "Critical Analysis," a Vicki Nelson short story that isn't about vampires but rather a whole new reason for writers everywhere to be concerned about the stories they create. (It seems wildly appropriate that this particular story should be in this collection.) Alan Dean Foster takes Mad Amos Malone into Yellowstone looking for lost surveyors and finding a very site specific nasty little demon among the geysers. I think my favorite twist though was found in Isaac Szpindel's "From Gehenna" a story that really had my head turned in a whole different direction until the last few lines. This was a first class treatment of a true crime legend and Szpindel shows a creative flare that is most welcome.

I read Mark Bilgrey's "Even in Death" until the very end, even though I didn't really like his narrator, Robert, at all. The ending cemented the fact that I thought the guy was a first rate ass (something the character of Amanda would agree with--I wish she had pushed him overboard), but what Bilgrey did with Robert and Amanda and the rest of this story was very cool. It's classic techno sci fi that meets humanity's weakest link head-on and I was so glad that Robert behaved just as he should, just as I didn't want him to. Kudos to Bilgrey for not letting a jerk suddenly change his spots just for the reader's sake.

Dave Smeds reminded me in "Homespun and Handmade" of all the things I wished had happened on the Enterprise and Voyager holodecks but never did. I especially liked the evolution of his character Terri and how she came to accept the world she belonged in. And of course there is a Titanic story--of course! Pati Nagle does a very nifty time travel story with "Nite 2 Remember" and introduces the first Brittany I've been able to stand reading about in ages. For that miracle alone, the author practically deserves a medal.

There are twenty stories altogether in Slipstreams including entries from Nina Kiriki Hoffman, L.E. Mosdesitt Jr. and Michael Stackpole. Jane Lindskold probably has the quirkiest piece, "Menu for Life... and Death." Like the other three anthologies I have reviewed here, some of the stories in Slipstreams appealed to me a great deal while others left me more than a bit cold. The beauty of this type of collection though is that when a reader finds a story they don't like, they know they are only seconds away from another they probably will. And when they are done with the book they have a nice mental list of authors who really spoke to them, who said the things they love to hear, and thus now they have a multitude of new directions to head off in. Between these four books I've reviewed here, a reader could find a hundred authors to explore and consider. It's not a bad way to spend the summer, in between working on your tan and mowing the lawn, of course.

In fact, add some good food and good music and it just might be the best summer of your reading life.

Edited by Steven Savile and Alethea Kontis.
Elemental.
Tor Books. 2006. 384 pp.
ISBN 0-765-31563-7

Drawings by Scott Hunt.
Twice Told: Original Stories Inspired by Original Art.
Dutton. 2006. 259 pp.
ISBN 0-525-46818-8

Edited by Sharyn November.
Firebirds Rising.
Firebird. 2006. 524 pp.
ISBN 0-14-240549-3

Edited by Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers.
Slipstreams.
DAW. 2006. 307 pp.
ISBN 0-7564-0357-X

 

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