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Sarah Tolmie's latest book, Two Travelers, is a collection, just barely - it contains two separate works, a novelette, "The Dancer on the Stairs," and a novella, "The Burning Furrow." Both are stories of travellers, people caught between worlds, coming to terms with being out of place in the the place they find themselves.

"The Dancer on the Stairs" is about a woman, possibly from a world much like ours, who finds herself transported to a palace so vast and complex it is a world in itself. Confined at first by her lack of knowledge and status to the vast staircase that connects the various levels of the palace - where she finds many others, all exiles without the status or means to influence the doorkeeper stationed at each level to let them return - she slowly learns enough about the intricate and protocol-driven society beyond the stairs to gain entrance and place, though she is never truly one of them.

In "The Burning Furrow", a man called Eyo't finds himself moving between worlds - our own, modern world, and the world of his birth, where his people are oppressed and he is part of a resistance movement. He can bring other people with him, and so he has taken his family - wife, son and daughter - from his world to ours, where they own a restaurant and have access to education and medical care. Yet he continues to cross back and forth, bringing his family home with him at regular intervals for the rite that binds his people together. Events and new relationships formed in both worlds eventually force him, and the members of his family, to make choices about which world is theirs. At the same time, through her connection with Eyo't, the countess Ienne, a member of the ruling class on Eyo't's world, crosses the lines between class and culture.

Both stories are excellent, thoughtful pieces about making the best of changes one cannot control, adapting to new realities, learning to be at home despite being always the outsider.

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Finally, there is a collection of Eleanor Arnason's short fiction set among the alien Hwarhath, appropriately titled Hwarhath Stories: Transgressive Tales by Aliens. What makes the collection even more delightful to read is that Arnason has framed it as an anthropological investigation of Hwarhath culture and the response of the Hwarhath to contact with humans through their stories, and has fleshed out the volume with scholarly analyses of what these tales tell us about the Hwarhath.

As the Introduction, supposedly written by Rosa Haj of the Independent Scholars Union, explains:

"As far as can be determined, the stories in this collection were all written after the hwarhath learned enough about humanity to realize how similar (and different) we are. Our existence has called into question many ideas about life and morality that most hwarhath would have called certain a century ago. With two exceptions, the stories don’t deal with humanity directly. Instead, the authors are looking at their own culture through lenses created by their knowledge of us. Reading this fiction, we can begin to learn about our neighbors in known space. We may even learn something about ourselves."

I had read most of the stories collected here at one tine or another, but it was most enjoyable to read them again, and to savour the ones I had missed until now. And to ponder the ways in which transgressions both change and preserve societies.

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Hero Is a Four-Letter Word is a short collection of short stories on the themes of heroes, villains and superpowers, good and evil, written by J. M. Frey, previously published in other anthologies and now available via Tapas.

These are not your typical hero stories. Each of the five stories collected here is an unusual take on the themes, looking at extraordinary people and our reactions to them in unexpected ways.

Tackling the subject in a humorous vein, Once and Now-ish King features the second coming of Arthur and his knights - but there's some way to go before they are ready to save Albion once more.

Another Four Letter Word, my favourite story in this collection, is a modern re-working of the Tam Lin ballads. Will Jennet of Carterhaugh save Tam Lin once more, or will the Faerie Queen's curse descend on the world?

Maddening Science is a look at what comes after the hero and villain stories are over, when a former supervillain, out of prison and retired, is forced to confront his history in the person of a young woman only he can save.

Two, Three, Four, Five tells the story of a woman worried about her super-powered lover, with a bit of a twist.

On His Bday isn't about superheroes so much as about someone born with a strange and deadly ability, and how he comes to make use of it. Is this the banality of evil, or simply an ordinary man with an extraordinary gift surviving as best he can?

All in all, a delightful group of visions.

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Gypsy is one of the latest additions to PM Press's remarkable Outspoken Authors series. As with previous volumes in the series, Gypsy contains several collected works a single author. This collection features selections from the works of eclectic writer Carter Sholtz, including the novella Gypsy, two bitingly funny satirical short stories, an essay on the ease with which the US and its corporations violate national and international law, and an interview conducted with Sholtz by Terry Bisson.

The novella Gypsy takes place in an unsettlingly familiar dystopic future - climate change, corporate greed, resource depletion, war and the collapse of civil society. It's gotten bad enough that an underground network of dissidents have managed, in secret, to cobble together a space ship that will be able - if everything goes right - to transport a small number of people to the Alpha Centauri system in the hopes of finding a livable planet. It's a desperate shot in the dark.... but letting the situation on earth continue without some attempt to create another place for humans to survive seems unthinkable.

This is not a happy story. It is unrealistic to expect that that everything would go right in such an endeavour, and this is, given the opening situation, a very realistic, hard sf story. But it is also a powerful story, and a thought-provoking one.

In addition to the novella, the other pieces in the collection are well worth reading. I particularly enjoyed "Bad Pennies," a wicked satire on the American penchant for meddling in other countries' business and for doing business at whatever cost.

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Peter Termayne is, as I understand, best known for his series of historical mysteries featuring Irish nun Sister Fidelma, which I have recently begun reading. However, he has written mysteries set in other eras, including the more-or-less modern one, and some of his shorter offerings are collected in Ensuing Evil and Others: Fourteen Historical Mysteries.

It's quite an interesting range, from a murder mystery set in the castle of the historical MacBeth and his lady Gruoch, to a modern locked-room mystery set in an airplane in flight. In between we visit the theatre district of Shakespeare's England, the well-known occupants of 221B Baker Street, a battleship during the Napoleonic Wars, the London of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, and India under the British Raj, plus a bonus Sister Fidelma story. An enjoyable read.

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Whispers of the Dead is another enjoyable collection of pieces by Peter Tremayne concerning the deductive skills of seventh century Irish religieuse and legal advocate, Sister Fidelma. These short stories are drawn from all periods of of Fidelma's career, and include a story in which she impresses her teacher while still in her early years of study with the perceptiveness, her logical reasoning and her passion for truth. Written later in Tremayne's career, the narratives flow more smoothly and the tics are less pronounced. And the mysteries are fun. And the look at life in the seventh century - and all the issues which divided the Roman and Celtic churches - is something I'm liking quite a bit. I continue to be a fan.

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Ever since I finished reading all the Dame Frevisse mysteries by Margaret Frazer (and the Player Joliffe mysteries too), and having read most of Ellis Peters' Cadfael mysteries, I've been a at bit of a loss for historical mysteries with clerical detectives. That gap in my reading life has for the time being been filled with a new series.

I have just encountered (for the first time) the Sister Fidelma mysteries by Peter Tremayne (one of Celtic scholar Peter Berresford Ellis' pseudonyms). Hemlock at Vespers: Fifteen Sister Fidelma Mysteries is a good introduction to the series, consisting as it does of short stories set throughout the earlier years of the seventh century Irish religieuse's crime-solving career.

What makes these stories so much fun is the background - the Irish church is still in full flower and outside cultural influences have not yet swept away a society in which women had a legal, social and economic status that would not be seen again in Western civilisation until the early 20th century.

Sister Fidelma is a dalaigh (her culture's version of a lawyer) one who is authorised to conduct investigations as well as argue legal cases before a Brehon judge. She holds one of the highest rankings possible in the Irish legal system, that of anruth, which gives her a social status equivalent to that of a minor king. While she is clearly Christian - although firmly on the Irish side of the religious divide, including preferring Pelagian to Augustinian philosophy - it is also suggested on several occasions that this is more a matter of following social expectations than a religious vocation. As Tremayne writes, before the arrival of Christianity, members of the professions - doctors, lawyers, educators and so on - were usually Druids. Once the Church supplanted the Druidic orders, those in the professions tended to join the Church instead. This was, of course, much more palatable in this eta, when celibacy was optional and the Irish Church operated religious houses where married clerics could live together and raise their children.

The stories themselves are interesting glimpses into another time and culture, as well as being decent mysteries. Tremayne's skill as a writer develops as one reads through in chronological order, although his phrasing remains vaguely stilted throughout, perhaps as an intentional choice to convey the nuances of what was a highly status-conscious society. He also has a few "tics" that show up mostly in describing Sister Fidelma, notably the ubiquitous references to her "rebellious" red hair.

But Fidelma herself is sufficiently fascinating a character, and the setting of the stories is so interesting, that I did not have much difficulty in ignoring the tics and just enjoying the stories.

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N. K. Jemisin's Shades in Shadow is a modest collection - three stories set in the universe of her Inheritance trilogy - but a welcome one. In a sense, these small gems are almost sidebars to the main story told in the trilogy, scenes that were not essential to the overall narrative, but enhance our understanding of some of the characters.

"The Wild Boy" is a prequel, set in the early days of Nahadoth's confinement, and tells a story of his relationship with a mortal determined to avenge himself against those who enslaved him.

In "The God without a Name," a new god born from the body used by Nahadoth during his enslavement searches for his nature and for a reason to continue living.

And in "The Third Why," Glee Oree, demon daughter of Itempas, seeks out her father in the hopes that through him she will find answers to questions she scarcely knows how to ask.

All three tales deal in some fashion with finding meaning in life and reason for living, even if the answers are not always the most productive. They are about understanding one's nature and one's self - and if even gods have trouble with these things, then perhaps in reading these stories we mortals can learn to take it easy on ourselves when we too lack all the answers.

I hope that Jemisin will continue to visit this universe from time to time and bring back more tales to inform and delight us.

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I must confess that I skimmed many of the early pieces in Margaret Atwood's Second Words: Selected Critical Prose 1960-1982, for a very simple reason - Atwood's early critical work examines a period of Canada's literary history that is well before my time. Reviews of small literary magazines that ceased publication before I was of an age to explore such things, while interesting in terms of following the development of Atwood's choices of subject, critical voice, and style, were not easy for me to sink into. Nonetheless, Atwood is always interesting, and even in her early days she had important things to say, and was on her way to developing that sly irony and trenchant wit which is such a part of her literary voice.

In one piece, while lamenting the end of one of those small Canadian literary magazines, Atwood makes an interesting observation:
Give the same poem to a model American, a model English and a model Canadian critic: the American will say "This is how it works;" the Englishman "How good, how true to Life" (or, "How boring, tasteless and trite"); the Canadian will say "This is where it fits into the entire universe."
There is something about this that rings true to me - certainly in my own modest and sporadic attempts at criticism (and not just literary criticism) I always seem to be looking for the contexts, the connections. And it is something that can be seen in Atwood's work in full measure.

The collection is divided into three sections and contains fifty short pieces, obviously not all of equal interest to me. My attention in the first part of the book (covering the years from 1960 to 1971) was particularly drawn to her analysis of the works of poets I have some familiarity with - Gwendolyn McEwan, Al Purdy - and to a fascination exploration of H. Rider Haggard's presentation of women in his novels, culminating in She and Ayesha: The Return of She.

Another of the early pieces that was more than a mere academic exercise for me was written in 1971. In "Nationalism, Limbo and The Canadian Club," Atwood talks about her memories of attending graduate school in the U.S. in the 60s, and the beginnings of the Canadian search for a unique cultural identity. How true the following observation rings, even today:
"They" had been taught that they were the centre of the universe, a huge, healthy apple pie, with other countries and cultures sprinkled round the outside, like raisins. "We" on the other hand had been taught that we were one of the raisins, in fact, the raisin, and that the other parts of the universe were invariably larger and more interesting than we were. A distortion of the truth in both cases, let us hope.

There were several disturbing corollaries. One was that we knew more about them, much more, than they knew about us; another was that they knew a lot more about themselves than we knew about ourselves. Another, related to our growing consciousness of economic domination, was that we had let ourselves come under the control of a people who neither knew nor cared to know anything about us. The most disturbing of all was the realization that they were blundering around in the rest of the world with the same power, the same staggering lack of knowledge and the same lack of concern: the best thing for the raisins, in their opinion, was to be absorbed into the apple pie.
In her introduction to the second section of the collection, containing works written between 1972 and 1976, Atwood notes that the publication of her book of Canadian literary criticism, Survival, and the growth of the women's movement had a significant influence on the nature of the requests she received for articles and speeches. Many of the collected pieces in this section are reviews of books written by women - Adrienne Rich, Audrey Thomas, Erica Jong, Kate Millett, Marie-Claire Blais, Marge Piercy - or
articles about literature or writing from an early feminist perspective. A must-read among these is "The Curse of Eve," in which almost every sentence identifies an entire library's worth of feminist cultural and literary analysis - most of which, at that time, was still waiting to be written. It concludes with this plea from a "woman writer" that is, in many ways still relevant today:
I will enter a simple plea; women, both as characters and as people, must be allowed their imperfections. If I create a female character, I would like to be able to show her having the emotions all human beings have—hate, envy, spite, lust, anger and fear, as well as love, compassion, tolerance and joy—without having her pronounced a monster, a slur, or a bad example. I would also like her to be cunning, intelligent and sly, if necessary for the plot, without having her branded as a bitch goddess or a glaring instance of the deviousness of women. For a long time, men in literature have been seen as individuals, women merely as examples of a gender; perhaps it is time to take the capital W off Woman. I myself have never known an angel, a harpy, a witch or an earth mother. I've known a number of real women, not all of whom have been nicer or more noble or more long-suffering or less self-righteous and pompous than men. Increasingly it is becoming possible to write about them, though as always it remains difficult for us to separate what we see from what we have been taught to see.
The remainder of the pieces from the second section are articles on themes in Canadian literature, or on the Canadian identity. Reading these latter pieces bring back memories of those days when we as Canadians were becoming aware of not just who we were, but how vulnerable we were to cultural and economic imperialism and exploitation.
But there's another image, fact, coming from the outside that I have to fit in. This territory, this thing I have called "mine," may not be mine much longer. Part of the much-sought Canadian identity is that few nationals have done a more enthusiastic job of selling their country than have Canadians. Of course there are buyers willing to exploit, as they say, our resources; there always are. It is our eagerness to sell that needs attention. Exploiting resources and developing potential are two different things: one is done from without by money, the other from within, by something I hesitate only for a moment to call love.
The third section, which contains pieces published between 1977 and 1982, documents an expanded range of topics and perspectives on Atwood's part, as she notes in her introduction to the final section.
I have always seen Canadian nationalism and the concern for women's rights as part of a larger, non- exclusive picture. We sometimes forget, in our obsession with colonialism and imperialism, that Canada itself has been guilty of these stances towards others, both inside the country and outside it; and our concern about sexism, men's mistreatment of women, can blind us to the fact that men can be just as disgusting, and statistically more so, towards other men, and that women as members of certain national groups, although relatively powerless members, are not exempt from the temptation to profit at the expense of others. Looking back over this period, I see that I was writing and talking a little less about the Canadian scene and a little more about the global one.
Among the articles published in this period are reviews of a variety of books, some by authors still writing, some still part of the recognisable cultural canon even though their writers are no longer with us, and some that have passed into relative obscurity. Books reviewed include: A Harvest Yet to Reap, a book documenting the experiences and activism of prairie women; a posthumously published collection of letters by American poet Anne Sexton; Timothy Findley's novel The Wars; two works by recently deceased poets, Pat Lowther's A Stone Diary, and John Thompson's Stilt Jack; Tillie Olsen's Silences, a meditation on the obstacles facing writers, particularly women writers; Sylvia Plath's posthumously published Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams; Red Dust, a collection of short stories by W. D. Valdgardson; Nadine Gortimer's July's People; Ann Beattie's Falling in Place; E. L. Doctorow's Loon Lake; Jay McPherson's Poems Twice Told; and Midnight Birds, a collection of short fiction by Black women authors (concerning this review, Atwood examines not only the work, but the reasons why she has been asked to review a collection of American authors for a magazine devoted to "third world" literature).

In addition to the reviews, the collection includes a variety of articles and speeches, primarily on aspects of writing and being a writer:

"Diary Down Under," notes and observations made during her participation in 1978 in Writers' Week, an Australian literary event;
"Witches," a brief address on the persecution of authors and books - witch-hunting - whether they be North American feminists saying uncomfortable things, or revolutionary Latin-American poets saying things that get them disappeared;
"An End to Audience?," a lecture on what it means to be a writer, as a vocation, as a profession, as an art, as a moral statement - and on the changing nature of the writing and publishing landscape and the reading audience;
"Introduction to The Edible Woman" in which Atwood briefly discusses her own first published novel and its relationship to the feminist movement (incidentally, The Edible Woman is one of my favourite Atwood novels);
An address to a meeting of Amnesty International in which Atwood speaks passionately about the responsibility of the writer in a world where oppression and political censorship have become commonplace;
"Northrop Frye Observed," a discussion of Atwood's thoughts on having been a student of Frye's;
"Writing the Male Character," in which Atwood discusses the perils and pitfalls of writing a character of another gender than one's own, from a very feminist perspective.

In what is one of the longer pieces collected in this volume, "Canadian-American Relations" - a speech given to a US audience - Atwood traces the history of the quest for a Canadian identity, and looks at the ways in which the United States has alternately ignored and influenced this. In a somewhat prescient comment, she notes that both Canada and the US must now inhabit a changing world in which the lines are being redrawn:
The world is rapidly abandoning the nineteenth-century division into capitalist and socialist. The new camps are those countries that perform or tolerate political repression, torture and mass murder and those that do not.
Reading this collection, I was reminded once more just how much Atwood's critical perspectives on both art and the world we live in are worth reading.

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In "Let's Play White," a collection of dark fantasy and horror short fiction, Chesya Burke "weaves African and African-American historical legend and standard horror themes into stories that range from gritty subway gore fests to a sympathetic take on zombies.[1]" The stories explore not only issues of race, but also of power, need, loss, and all the other darker elements of human existence to create fiction that is more than simply macabre. These stories grab the reader and demand that she think about where the horror comes from, and why. As the blurb on the publisher's website notes,
White brings with it dreams of respect, of wealth, of simply being treated as a human being. It's the one thing Walter will never be. But what if he could play white, the way so many others seem to do? Would it bring him privilege or simply deny the pain? The title story in this collection [Walter and the Three-Legged King] asks those questions, and then moves on to challenge notions of race, privilege, personal choice, and even life and death with equal vigor.
The stories that spoke to me most strongly in this collection were:

"Purse," in which a human tragedy reveals itself in the course of a subway ride;

"I Make People Do Bad Things," based on the life of Harlem gang leader Stephanie "Queenie" St. Clair, which postulates a chilling source for her power;

"The Unremembered," in which a dying girl's transformation and power come from a forgotten past;

"Chocolate Park," a story of life and death in ghettoised urban America, of drug dealing and prostitution, spousal and child abuse, rape and murder, of some who get out and others who stay behind to wreak a terrible revenge;

"The Room Where Ben Disappeared," in which a man returns home to face a memory of childhood; and

"The Teachings and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason," in which a woman with special gifts pays a terrible price to pass her knowledge and calling on to two young girls.



[1] http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-1-9370099-9-1#path/978-1-9370099-9-1
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i have long felt that Elizabeth Bear is a very good writer in the process of becoming a great writer. It easy to see this progression in her most recent short fiction collection Shoggoths in Bloom - all but one of the pieces are reprints and they show how over the past decade her writing has been evolving, growing ever more incisive and provocative and finely crafted. I'd read some of these before - the thought-provoking title story, the heart-breaking Orm the Beautiful, the multi-layered In the House of Aryaman, a Lonely Signal Burns - but when assembled in one place, the range and depth of this collection was striking.

Bear writes about uncomfortable things, and she wants you to think and feel strongly about those things even as she wraps those things in prose that is often a delight to read. She writes about evil and accident and caprice and entropy and just plain bad luck, and about people who find ways to keep fighting no matter what. She writes about hard choices and missed chances and those times where everything you have just isn't enough, but still you give everything because fighting to the end is better than giving up. And she writes about something that has always resonated with me, the willing sacrifice, the knowledge that there are prices to pay and the only thing you can do to keep your soul is pay the price.

That's some of what you'll find in this collection. The hardest truths of all, woven into the most beautiful of fictions.

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Elizabeth Moon's collection of short stories, Deeds of Honor: Paksenarrion World Chronicles, is exactly what the title suggests. Set in the world of her classic fantasy trilogy, collectively known as The Deed of Paksenarrion, and the various novels that followed, the stories collected here focus on deeds of honor, be it the honor of thieves or kings, servants, soldiers or noblemen and women.

Some of the characters in these tales play important roles in Moon's two series The Deed of Paksenarrion and Paladin's Legacy; others are characters met briefly, a few are only referred to, or performed the deeds recorded herein on the periphery of events, before them, or even after the conclusion of the Paladin's Legacy series. All, however, are rich with the flavour of Paksenarrion's world, and for that reason will be welcome to any fans of Moon's fantasy writing.

For myself, I was very hsppy to see, or hear about, some of my favourite characters again. If there are no more Paksworld novels, at least one can hope for more stories like these.

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Conservation of Shadows, Yoon Ha Lee's collection of short stories, is a treat in every way. Lee's voice is a unique one, his rich and evocative prose telling stories synesthetic in their blending of the diverse languages and symbologies of words, music, mathematics and programming.

There is an otherworldliness to his stories, but not the kind of otherworldliness one is accustomed to find in stories of science fiction or fantasy. It is not just the story itself that is in another world, but the very means of perceiving the story. There is something in these tales that reminds me of Borges and Calvino (not just in the one story Lee acknowledges to be a homage to Invisible Cities), something steeped in the history and myth of this world but translated (in both the linguistic and the mathematic sense) into a new dimension.

Richard Lawson, in his review of the collection for Strange Horizons, says:
The stories in Yoon Ha Lee's debut collection, Conservation of Shadows, are fantasies steeped in history—disguised histories, made-up histories, invented histories, however you want to describe them—taking place in worlds strikingly imbued with a rich sense of the past. The present moments of these stories are so rife with narratives of the past that they provide a real sense of a setting as lived-in, fully realized. These aren't historical fantasies, but rather history fantasies: stories that engage with the idea of history by employing the fantastic, creating worlds with pasts as rich as that of our own so as to engage our innate conceptions of history, our often conflicted relationship with our own past. (http://www.strangehorizons.com/reviews/2013/07/conservation_of.shtml)
I'm not sure that it's possible to concisely describe what Lee has done in the crafting of these stories, but It is truly something extraordinary.

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Say You're One of Them, Uwem Akpan

This collection of short stories and novellas by Nigerian writer and Jesuit priest Uwem Akpan is a stark and relentless look at the issues of poverty, disease and sectarian violence in modern Africa. Akpan has chosen as his central characters (protagonist smacks of too much agency) in these five pieces children caught up in genocidal violence, child slavery, poverty, prostitution - children who have seen too much to be wholly innocent, though they may not always comprehend the worst that can still befall them. Painful to read, and haunting.



Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, Vincent Lam

A suite of interlocking short stories that follow the work and personal lives of four doctors, Lam's debut work is enriched by his own experiences as a physician. The medical aspects of these stories are familiar from countless television shows, but what Lam excels at is showing us the souls of both doctors and patients, the damage caused by both the powerlessness of being ill or injured, and the power of being the only one who might be able to help.



Peter S. Beagle, Sleight of Hand

Beagle is a master of the short story form. And a master of the fantasy genre. But you all knew that, right?

This is a collection of new and previously published stories. Some of them are merely good; the rest are hauntingly wonderful. My favourites were: Vanishing, a different kind of ghost story set on the Berlin Wall; Dirae, about a warrior-protector of the weak whose strength comes at a tragic price; the Rabbi's Hobby, about the quest of a rabbi and his young bar mitzvah student to discover the person behind an unusual cover model's face; and Children of the Shark God, about two youths who set out to find their mysterious father. In varied and sometimes surprising ways, the stories in this collection offer meditations on family and friendship, courage, loyalty and love, as told by a master of the art of portraying the human soul.

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Karen Tidbeck, Jagannath

I was completely enthralled by this collection of short stories by Karin Tidbeck, translated from Swedish by the author herself. These are, for the most part, stories that inhabit the space between fantasy, science fiction and horror often refered to as weird fiction. Short-listed for the Tiptree award, many of the stories are told from the viewpoint of women, and deal, in one way or another, with variations on the themes of inheritance, bloodlines, reproduction. Tidbeck's brilliantly written tales are unsettling, disturbing, and rarely give the reader a clearly defined and closed off ending. Instead, she invites the reader to carefully consider the situation she presents, and come to their own conclusions about what happened, or will happen next.


Octavia Butler, Unexpected Stories

Octavia Butler died eight years ago. That voice of true genius was stilled. But sometimes the universe gives us an unexpected note of grace - or in this case, two notes, two early, previously unpublished stories by Butler, found among her papers by her agent and literary executor.

In these stories - A Necessary Being and Childfinder - Butler speaks to us again, about power and difference and finding solutions - but not always satisfactory ones - to the ways such thing divide and harm us. It was both sad and marvelous to read new words from Octavia Butler.


Eleanor Arrnason, Big Mama Stories

Arnason's Big Mamas are the stuff of folk tales - marvellous creatures who span space and time by their whim and will, who have the kind of adventures that gods and folk-heroes have, meeting all kinds of incredible situations with confidence and wit - Big Mamas who enjoy the occasional company of Big Poppas, but don't need them. This wonderful collection of Big Mama stories, published by Aqueduct Press, is sheer delight to read. As Karin L. Kross notes in her review of this collection on Tor.com,
Arnason’s Big Mama mythos is a highly enjoyable and strongly feminist synthesis of science, history, and sheer imagination. Like the best fairy tales and folk tales, her stories sometimes go to dark and unsettling places, but they’re really about how to overcome the darkness—how to take a long view of the universe, where individual lives are at once very small but also very important and precious.



Eugie Foster, Mortal Clay, Stone Heart and Other Stories in Shades of Black and White

It's not often that you find a collection or anthology where every single story is a gem, but that's exactly what this was. Foster writes stories that are both technically sound and emotionally powerful. Her genre choices range from straight-up fantasy to something akin to magic realism, so I urge anyone who enjoys short fiction of that kind to check out her work.

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Margaret Atwood's short story collection Moral Disorder is something both more and other than a straightforward collection; many of the stories seem to be explicitly about a single main character and her friends and family - certainly the names and backstories of the characters are the same, one assumes they are about the same people. As for the other stories - they all feature a protagonist who very well could be the same woman as in the linked stories, all but one of the stories are arranged as if to tell the tale of a single life from one end almost to the other, for the stories that tells of the protagonist's twilight days is actually the first story in the book. But it's never made clear. Ursula Le Guin, writing about the collection in a review in The Guardian, comments on this quality of the stories:
Most collections of short stories by a single author are grab-bags, but some approach or achieve real unity; this is a different unity from that of the novel, and deserves some attention. The gaps between stories preclude the supporting structures of conventional plot. If the stories tell a story, it must be read in glimpses, and through the gaps - a risky gambit, but one that offers singular freedom of movement and ironic opportunity. In such episodic narratives, character, place or theme replace plot as unifying elements. Many collections that pretend to unity merely fake it, but we need a name for a book that is truly a story told in stories. Could we call it a story suite?

Moral Disorder is such a suite, consisting of 11 short stories. Place, perhaps the commonest cement of the story suite, is not very important, but the stories have a single protagonist, a central character- or I think they do. She is variable, elusive, even a bit slippery. This is, after all, a book by Margaret Atwood.
At first I thought, as does Le Guin, that these stories do have one continuing central figure. I even thought for a while that they were semi-autobiographical, and that the figure was Atwood herself. Then I got tangled up in realising that some of these stories could have been about me, in that disguised way that fiction inspired by real events sometimes has. But then, I am, like Atwood, a woman with roots in Nova Scotia who is now planted firmly in Toronto, I spent time in Northern Ontario as a child, and so on. But surely there must be many other people who share some experiences - not necessarily the same ones - with Atwood, or with the protagonist/s of these stories. Perhaps the deeper truth is that the stories are not about one woman's life, but Everywoman's life, particularised into sketches that have some details in common with Atwood's life, or mine, or a million other peoples'.

And then I looked again at the first story in the collection, The Bad News. It is about Nell, she of the stories that seem fully linked, and her mate of many years, Tig. They are aging, retired, contemplating the morning news .... And suddenly time shifts, and the protagonist - still an aging woman discussing the deplorable state of the world with her mate - is living in the third century Roman town of Glanum in the south of what we now call France. And I think that Atwood is indeed slippery, and these stories are indeed about one woman, and Everywoman. And that's the point.

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Some interesting anthologies and collections of short stories came my way last year. The anthologies included two nicely edited theme anthologies by John Joseph Adams (dystopias and homages to Barsoom), a vamipre themed antholgy edited by Nancy Kilpatrick, a survey of urban fantasy edited by Peter Beagle and a dragon-themed anthology edited by Jack Dann.

Of particular interest were two volumes edited or co-edited by Connie Wilkins: the second volume in a new annual series of anthologies featuring short stories with lesbian protagonists; and an uneven but engaging selection of alternate history short stories with a focus on queer protagonists as nexi of change.

I was also delighted to be able to obtain a copy of an anthology edited by Nisi Shawl of short stories written by authors of colour who attended Clarion as Octavia E. Butler Scholars. The anthology was offered by the Carl Brandon Society for a limited time as a fund-raising project and is no longer available.

Peter Beagle (ed.), The Urban Fantasy Anthology
John Joseph Adams (ed.), Under the Moons of Mars
John Joseph Adams (ed.), Brave New Worlds
Nancy Kilpatrick (ed.), Evolve: Vampire Stories of the New Undead
Jack Dann (ed.), The Dragon Book: Magical Tales from the Masters of Modern Fantasy
Nisi Shawl (ed.), Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars
Connie Wilkins & Steve Berman (eds.), Heiresses of Russ 2012
Connie Wilkins (ed.), Time Well-Bent: Queer Alternative Histories


I also read several collections this year, including two more volunes from PM Press's Outspoken Authors series, featuring work by and interviews with Nalo Hopkinson and Kim Stanley Robinson.

Other collections of works by SFF writers included: a set of novellas from Mercedes Lackey featuring two familiar characters, Jennifer Talldeer and Diana Tregarde, and a new heroine, techno-shaman Ellen McBride; a collection of short stories by Elizabeth Bear featuring forensic sorcerer Abigail Irene Garrett; short stories by Maureen McHugh; and forays ibto the fantasy realm of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander.

In honour of Alice Munro, this year's recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature, I read a collection of her more recent short stories (and plan on reading several more in the coming months - I've always loved her work and am delighted that she has been so deservedly recognised). Also worthy of note was Drew Hayden Taylor's collection of stories set among the residents of the fictional Otter Lake First Nations reserve, and Margaret Laurence's short stories set in Ghana. In the realm of historical fiction, There were stories by Margaret Frazer featuring medieval nun and master sleuth Dame Frevisse; I discovered and devoured Frazer's novels last year, and will speak of them in a later post.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Lucky Strike 
Nalo Hopkinson, Report from Planet Midnight
Mercedes Lackey, Trio of Sorcery
Elizabeth Bear, Garrett Investigates
Maureen McHugh, After the Apocalypse
Lloyd Alexander, The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain

Margaret Laurence, The Tomorrow-Tamer
Margaret Frazer, Sins of the Blood
Drew Hayden Taylor, Fearless Warriors
Alice Munro, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

All in all, I found a wide range of short fiction to enjoy this year.

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Diane Duane, Lior and the Sea
Diane Duane, The Span
Diane Duane, Parting Gifts

Diane Duane, Not on My Patch
Diane Duane, Uptown Local and Other Interventions

I've always tended to think of Diane Duane as a "long-form" writer. I associate her with novels, unlike, say, James Tiptree Jr. or Eleanor Arnason, who i think of more as short-form writers (despite the fact that both have written novels that I've read and much enjoyed). But recently I have been reading a lot of the shorter fiction that is available on her website, and I am now aware, as I was not before, that her short-form work is every bit as compelling and enjoyable.

Of particular delight for me are three novellas set in Duane's Middle Kingdoms universe, the setting for her Tale of the Five. Part of what is so powerful for me about this particular universe, among all those that Duane has created or worked in, is the degree of integration of a spiritual or philosophical perspective that greatly appeals to me with the telling of profoundly engaging personal journeys that Duane achieves (not to say she doesn't do this elsewhere, of course, because she does, it's just that it is in the Middle Kingdom books that I feel it the most). The Span and Parting Gifts focus on the same character, Sirronde, a Rodmistress (the magic users of this particular universe) - the first tells us a key story of Sirronde's early career, the second takes place at the end of her journeys. Both are excellent. Duane plans to write a third novella set between these two, and I am much looking forward to it. Lior and the Sea ... is a beautiful love story, one in which the parties involved find both a deep sense of who they are, and a profound union with each other.

Not on My Patch is set in the Young Wizards universe, and it made me weep over the ultimate fate of a lopsided pumpkin. That's good storytelling.

Uptown Local and Other Interventions is a collection of short stories, some funny, some fascinating, some deeply moving. I laughed, I cried. You know how in most short story collections, here's a few stories that really hit the mark for you, some that are OK but nothing to write home about, and some that just miss the mark? Well, this collection wasn't like that - every single story got to me in one way or another. YMMV, and we have already established here and elsewhere that Duane generally manages to hit most if not all of my squee buttons, but I can whole-heartedly say that if you like Duane's work and haven't read these shorter pieces, then go visit her online bookstore and buy them. you won't regret it.
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Robert Boyczuk, Horror Story and other Stories

This was a delightful surprise. To begin with, I know the author – I studied C and systems design under his direction in my second foray into the academic world about 25 years ago, and I remember at the time he did mention working on some short stories. So when I wandered across his name in a list of recent speculative fiction publications, I just had to a) see if was the Bob Boyczuk I remembered, and b) read the book. Well, it was and I did.

The stories in this collection inhabit the worlds between fantasy, science fiction and horror. They are well-written, original, sometimes very provocative, often very powerful, and always interesting. And they are available under Creative Commons licence (https://cs.senecac.on.ca/~robert.boyczuk/writing/collected-works.htm) if you can’t find a dead tree version. Read. Spread the word.


Peter S. Beagle, We Never Talk About My Brother
Peter S. Beagle, The Line Between

Beagle is truly one of the masters of the short form in speculative fiction. I savour every new collection of his stories that I read. Beagle tells such quintessentially human stories, with such range and depth, that his work regularly takes my breath away. If you are looking for a more considered examination, you could always look at the articles in this issue of Green Man Review devoted to Beagle and his work (http://www.greenmanreview.com/oneoffs/peterbeagle.html) or you could just go and read anything he’s written.


Lavie Tidhar, HebrewPunk

Fantasy and alternate history that makes use of Jewish tradition, myth and archetypes is rather rare. I may be that I have been missing out on many such examples, but I am hard-pressed to think of many who have made significant use of Jewish culture and tradition in their works. The names that come first to my mind are Peter Beagle, Lisa Goldstein, Ellen Galford, Michael Chabon, Avram Davidson, and of course (though he is claimed by the literary fiction people as one of their own) Isaac Bashevis Singer. – and now, Lavie Tidhar. In this collection of four linked fantasy stories, Tidhar gives us a wealth of characters out of Jewish tradition. I am looking forward to reading more of his work.


Gwyneth Jones, The Buonarotti Quartet

Four stories set in the same universe as Jones’ Aleutian Trilogy, which use the existence of an instantaneous transit technology as the foundation for storytelling. Jones discusses these stories – which I found as thought provoking as I have come to expect Jones’ work to be – in a post on the Aqueduct Press blog: http://aqueductpress.blogspot.com/2009/05/gwyneth-joness-buonarotti-quartet.html

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The as-yet unrecorded short speculative fiction read in 2009:


Report to the Men’s Club, Carol Emshwiller - a collection of Emshweller's short fiction, many of the stories with distinctly feminist overtones, which greatly pleased me. My introduction to Emshweller.


A Mosque among the Stars, Ahmed A. Khan & Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmed (eds.) - I was very pleased to see this anthology; as Constant Reader is surely aware, I have a strong interest in seeing the experiences of all sorts of people represented in speculative fantasy, and there has been a definite scarcity of stories about Muslim people - and particularly positive stories about Muslims.


Gratia Placenti, Jason Sizemore & Gill Ainsworth (eds.) - sometimes I like me a little dab of horror in my speculative fiction diet, and I've found the short story collections from Apex Publications do very well at feeding my kink. This volume was no exception.


Trampoline, Kelly Link (ed.) - a solid fantasy anthology, notable in my opinion for its inclusion of Vandana Singh's "The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet."

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