CALLIGRAPHY LESSON: THE COLLECTED STORIES, by Mikhail Shishkin

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Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories
By Mikhail Shishkin (Translated)
Deep Vellum Publishing – 12th May 2015
ISBN 9781941920039  – 180 Pages – Paperback
Source: Edelweiss


CONTENTS:
“The Half-Belt Overcoat” (Translated by Leo Shtutuin)
“Calligraphy Lesson” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“The Blind Musician” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“Language Saved” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“Nabakov’s Inkblot” (Translated by Mariya Bashkatova)
“Of Saucepans and Star-Showers” (Translated by Leo Shtutin)
“The Bell Tower of San Marco” (Translated by Sylvia Maizell)
“In a Boat Scratched on a Wall” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)

        –

This book from Deep Vellum Publishing marks the first collection of Mikhail Shishkin’s stories in English. Shishkin is a highly-regarded writer in contemporary Russian literature, a winner of multiple literary prizes whose name comes up with the likes of Haruki Murakami and Krasznahorkai László for potential candidacy for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Shishkin’s writing is typical of the literary genre in its skillful achievement of complex, stylistic prose to evoke poignant themes common to all people, including love, life, family, and death. His particular style is impressionistic, which matches the characteristics of his dominating theme: language. The translation required for bringing these stories to Anglophones who cannot read Russian is wonderfully fitting with the primary concern of Shishkin’s prose. Through the narrators Shishkin argues that language is a barrier, something imperfect that can never express an exact truth. Twice he points to the story of the Tower of Babel as emblematic (the start of) the separations that language engenders.
Yet Shishkin’s stories explore this concept a bit more deeply, particularly in light of what language is able accomplish, despite its limitations through the art of prose, of the story. His debut 1993 story that gives the Calligraphy Lesson collection its name most strongly delves into this. In this story Shishkin considers words and their formation, whether through the process of basic writing, the art of calligraphy, or spoken and the power that they have to convey meaning both implicitly and explicitly. Moreover, he explores how language can be used to interpret complex human emotions and experience, such as the soul-numbing violence faced by the police investigator in the story.
Language allows organization of fragments, it allows the impression of a truth to be conveyed through imperfect means through the interpretations it permits. In one brilliantly written courtroom scene in the title story characters consider one word in Russian and the meaning, the ‘baggage’, that each letter of that word brings along with it, how they resonate in sound and appearance when written. Earlier in the story, Shishkin alternates scenes describing the composition of calligraphic text with scenes that mirror points in aspects of human interactions. Thus language itself is a translation, a transformation of ideas.
Aside from the repeated theme of language in general, Shishkin’s stories are also firmly embedded within the historical context of Russian literary history. (Footnotes and one brief, but very informative afterward are provided by the translators to give some grounding to readers.) The most recent story from Shishkin, 2013’s “Nabokov’s inkblot” illustrates this condition most directly with a character-driven tale that features a man considering his present, the weight that we attach to memories of the past, of historical significance broad or personal, and how they may be viewed quite differently in the light of the present moment.
The only limitation from the collection, from perhaps Shishkin’s short fiction in general, is the question of where it has grown – or can grow. His mastery of themes shines here, and he follows that dictum of writing what one knows best. His stories all feature male protagonists that resemble their author, literary-inclined Russians, some of whom like the author spend time residing in Switzerland. Can he write more than this? Does he need to even, if this where he excels, where he has something to say. For immediate purposes such questions are somewhat moot. This particular collection is short enough that the thematic repetition doesn’t try the reader, it is the perfect length for the stories to remain engaging. Additionally, stories vary in how far they extend the themes symbolically into the characters. For instance “The Blind Musician” considers language further within the realm of sight, with both the fallibility and unique abilities that blindness could offer.”In a Boat Scratched on a Wall” on the other hand is less of a narrative, something closer to an essay.
Books like this make me thankful for publishers of all kinds that support and facilitate translation of the world’s literature into English for the US market. In this case it offers accessibility to a major figure who I would otherwise be ignorant. Deep Vellum Publishing is a Dallas-based nonprofit literary arts organization that specializes in getting translations to market. You can find out more about the organization, their books and their translators at their site. One translator of many of the stories in Calligraphy Lesson, Marion Schwartz, was just shortlisted for the 2015 Read Russia prize for her translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
Through 5th June 2015 you can enter to win a copy of the Calligraphy Lesson collection through Goodreads’ Giveaway program.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Deep Vellum Publishing via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

TRUTH OR DARE?, Edited by Max Booth III

23197861

Truth or Dare?
Edited By Max Booth III
Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing – 31st October 2015
ISBN 9780986059452  – 234 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
“Shackled to the Shadows”, by Richard Thomas
“An Unpleasant Truth about Death”, by Eric J. Guignard
“Mantid”, by Kenneth W. Cain
“A Ribbon, a Rover”, by Jessica McHugh
“Iz”, by Eli Wilde
“Laal Andhi”, by Usman T. Malik
“The Bone Witch”, by Chantal Noordeloos
“The Pole”, by William Meikle
“Lucy’s Arrow”, by Jay Wilburn
“Change”, by Peter & Shannon Giglio
“Marco Polo”, by James Chambers
“The Dog Metaphor”, by Vincenzo Bilof
“The Whited Sepulchre”, by Nik Korpon
“Rattlebone Express”, by Sanford Allen
“The Shadow Life of Suburbia”, by T. Fox Dunham
“The Other Bonfire”, by Jeremy C. Shipp
“Oh Fuck, it’s the Cops”, by Joe McKinney

        –

I wish I would’ve had copy of this back around the time it was initially released, because it would be the perfect thing to read through the nights around Halloween. The short stories of this themed horror collection Truth or Dare of course share a framework around the party game. But they also share a common universe in setting and characters, the high school students of Greene Point High in Ohio who gather around a bonfire on Halloween night to reveal untold tales or meet the twisted challenges of peers.
While the shared aspect works fine as a setup, the collection doesn’t really hold up to many strong linkages between stories, and it is hard to envision how the events of all the stories could possibly all have occurred during this one supposed night. Yet, this aspect is something that can just be basically ignored, and each of the stories work fine with separate consideration as part of a shared theme collection rather than a shared universe narrative as well.
The stories reminded me of the quality and breadth that readers could expect from typical horror short fiction markets, including Nightmare Magazine, which I’m most familiar with, and the collection includes well-established authors and new-comers alike. A few of the stories didn’t impress me much, but on the whole the collection kept me entertained and provided the slight chills that scary stories and horror provide.
Truth or Dare opens with Thomas’ “Shackled to the Shadows”, which does a good job at setting the overall tone, first person narration, and a general structure shared by many of the loosely connected stories. With this story one already gets a sense that there are many levels of horror surrounding this high school game: the pains of being an outsider within the harsh realms of teenage existence, the monstrosity that people can manifest and the hatred it can in turn engender from victims. Beyond the internal viciousness of the characters there is also the impression of external malevolence, supernatural and ancient. In this opening story and beyond the reader sees that there is the horror of the story itself, but like all good campfire tales they conclude with hints of an even greater horror awakened, to come.
After the opening story heavy on tone, Guignard’s “An Unpleasant Truth about Death” relates an interesting plot about a near (or perhaps actual) death experience that highlights the dangers of intense curiosity and touches upon the power that games like Truth or Dare have, a superstitious hold of rules that one doesn’t take seriously on the level of rationality, but breeds deep fear in the soul upon transgression.
Though entertaining, Guignard’s story (or the one related by the character at least) has the feeling of being contrived – to have that creepy effect on the reader (or the fictional audience in the story). This isn’t a bad thing, I think it’s partially something integral to these kinds of stories, and it reminded me somewhat of the way classic creepy folklore goes, having an emotional effect but then triggering questions about how some plot detail could really happen – or why. This kind of effect casts doubt on whether the scary story is true, giving the audience a rational out to discount danger and allay fear. But what if it did happen?
Perhaps you can recall Schwartz’s classic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark collections? Many of the stories in Truth or Dare reminded me of that style, tone, and plotting, but for an adult audience. Jessica McHugh’s “A Ribbon, Rover” is a great example of that, with a compelling plot that seems inventive yet also something born of ageless tales, mirroring the character of the story itself. I’ve read one novel of McHugh’s prior, but this is closer to actual classic horror and I look forward to reading more in that vein from her lovely mind. “The Bone Witch” and “Rattlebone Express” are two others that recalled those feelings of fairy tale and folklore in excellent modern fashion.
“The Bone Witch” also had slight tones of humor in it, despite a rather horrific situation and outcome. “Change” later in the collection from the Giglios also has this certain lightness, which provides some nice variety amid the more darkly emotional stories or the creature horrors of stories like “Mantid” and McKinney’s closing piece.
A few stories also delve into deeper waters of real horror, or in the case of “Iz” tackle the general issue of what makes a monster, what they do both to threaten society or perhaps provide for society. “The Pole” almost literally brings up Nazi skeletons in the closet and “Marco Polo” tackles the very real horrors of abuse. Malik provides a story (Laal Andhi, or Crimson Storm) of horrors from Pakistan, linking uncanny events with the real violence of terrorism, where macabre events from childhood end up imprinting damage on a young boy leading him to senseless and hopeless conflagration in the future.
A satisfying collection that would particularly fit reading in situations (beyond Halloween time) like a summer camping trip, Truth or Dare features a really good idea with the game as a theme for the horror genre. Even if Booth’s collection fails to make a cohesive narrative taken all together, it succeeds well in providing a range of tales that horror fans would enjoy and perhaps some new authors to discover.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

THERE’S SOMETHING I WANT YOU TO DO: STORIES, by Charles Baxter

22024692There’s Something I Want You to Do: Stories
By Charles Baxter
Pantheon – 3rd February 2015
ISBN 9781101870013  – 240 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Edelweiss


CONTENTS:
“Bravery”
“Loyalty”
“Chastity”
“Charity”
“Forbearance”
“Lust”
“Sloth”
“Avarice”
“Gluttony”
“Vanity”

 I absolutely loved this short collection of interconnected short stories that are broken down into two sections: virtues and vices, five each. The stories are linked by shared characters where secondary characters in one pop up in another. Though one in particular seemed to appear most frequently, each story does have a unique point of view, and voice.
The stories are character driven, ‘literary’ takes that highlight different relationships and the qualities that underlie, define them. The stories may each feature one key virtue/vice that gives it name, but others can be seen underlying, sometimes in those secondary characters that then come to the fore in the story where they serve as protagonist.
Aside from exploring these qualities of virtue or vice, the structure that Baxter employs serves well to humanize all of his characters. In one story a character’s actions may be rather incomprehensible, eliciting judgement from the protagonist and the reader perhaps. But then you walk in their shoes, and perhaps feel a little different. Perhaps that character you thought seemed so virtuous has a bit of a vice.
Delightfully written and not remotely pretentious, these stories accomplish that role of literary character development, eliciting human empathy, wonderfully well.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Pantheon via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

DANGEROUS GAMES, Edited by Jonathan Oliver

21412123Dangerous Games
Edited by Jonathan Oliver
Solaris Books – 2nd December 2014
ISBN 9781781082683  – 320 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
“Big Man”, by Chuck Wendig
“The Yellow Door”, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
“Die”, by Lavie Tidhar
“Chrysalises”, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
“South Mountain”, by Paul Kearney
“The Game Changer”, by Libby McGugan
“Distinguishing Characteristics”, by Yoon Ha Lee
“Captain Zzapp!!! – Space Hero from 3000 AD”, by Gary Northfield (Comic)
“Death Pool”, by Melanie Tem
“The Bone Man’s Bride”, by Hillary Monahan
“Honourable Mention”, by Tade Thompson
“Loser”, by Rebecca Levene
“Two Sit Down, One Stands Up”, by Ivo Stourton
“Ready or Not”, by Gary McMahon
“The Monogamy of Wild Beasts”, by Robert Shearman
“The Stranger Cards”, by Nik Vincent
“All Things Fall Apart and Are Built Again”, by Helen Marshall
“Lefty Plays Bridge”, by Pat Cadigan

 Among the short story collections that I’ve read recently, Dangerous Games was unfortunately one that I enjoyed less. While certainly not a poor showing, I personally found most of the stories going in styles or directions that simply weren’t my favorite. This may be from the luck of the draw. I don’t love everything and in the game of collection readings there are going to be some that just don’t fit. It may also arise from the theme of the title, which limits the stories somewhat, where most fit into the description literally with characters in some dire scenario of competition. There is less here of internal struggle than one might find in a general collection or with another given theme.
“Big Man”, by Chuck Wendig opens the book with a story that was a superb choice for lead-off hitter. It sets the tone with a bit of darkness to accompany that ‘danger’ and presents a present day horror without flowery adornment with a very readable voice. It also introduces a common theme of making circumstances of the horror/fantasy open to reader interpretation.
While I enjoyed this start well enough the next series of stories made it more difficult for me to get into things. Lovecraftian stories (like Moreno-Garcia’s) elude me, perhaps I really just need to take the time and read some of his classic works. Lavie Tidhar is an author who I find hit or miss, and here the miss arises from a similar sense of the story not packing enough of a punch or depth despite well handled language; similarly, Sriduandkaew at times connects, but I often get lost in her dense word spinning web. This one (or duo of tales) just confused me despite reading twice.
This trend of the stories being okay but not really resonating with me in terms of the plot, action, or underlying theme continued through the comic by Northfield and beyond. I cannot comment at all on “Captain Zzapp…” at all. An eReader is simply useless to me for being able to resolve a comic’s panels or text.
Eventually I came to a pair of stories I really did adore, “Death Pool”, by Melanie Tem and “The Bone Man’s Bride”, by Hillary Monahan. These each had a strong sinister factor mixed with underlying themes/character psychology that connected with me, mental health in the case of addiction in the case of the former, and sacrifice/servitude in the latter. “Loser” which follows soon after had a similar dark tone with strong characterization to deal with a troubling subject that I found impressive.
“Two Sit Down, One Stands Up”, a spin on Russian Roulette, no pun intended 🙂 was the one more literal take on a game that kept me fully interested in as a tale, mostly because I was eager to see how it turned out. And as I enjoyed her Gifts for the One Who Comes After, I loved the mystique and mood of Helen Marshall’s story. However, while I loved the style and feel of the words on my brain, the plot left less of a mark as notable.
And that situation is somewhat emblematic of many of the other stories here, there may have been an elements that I enjoyed, but other aspects of the given work failed to engage me and that one aspect that hit just wasn’t strong enough to carry everything. In the end your reaction to this, like many collections will come down to personal preference and is harder to predict. But if the theme of Dangerous Games sounds interesting to you and you know a large chunk of these authors as ones you’ve liked before then it’s worth a try.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Solaris Books via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Solaris Rising 3, Edited by Ian Whates

Solaris Rising 3: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction,
Edited by Ian Whates
Publisher: Solaris
ISBN: 178108209X
448 pages, paperback
Published 14th August 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
“When We Have Harvested the Nacre Rice”, by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
“The Goblin Hunter”, by Chris Beckett
“Homo Floresiensis”, by Ken Liu
“A Taste for Murder”, by Julia E. Czerneda
“Double Blind”, by Tony Ballantyne
“The Mashup”, by Sean Williams
“The Frost on Jade Buds”, by Aliette de Bodard
“Popular Images from the First Manned Mission to Enceladus”, by Alex Dally MacFarlane
“Red Lights, and Rain”, by Gareth L. Powell
“They Swim Through Sunset Seas”, by Laura Lam
“Faith Without Teeth”, by Ian Watson
“Thing and Sick”, by Adam Roberts
“The Sullen Engines”, by George Zebrowski
“Dark Harvest”, by Cat Sparks
“Fift and Shira”, by Benjamin Rosenbaum
“The Howl”, by Ian R. MacLeod & Martin Sketchley
“The Science of Chance”, by Nina Allen
“Endless”, by Rachel Swirsky

My thoughts on Solaris Rising 3 have been languishing for awhile now as a co-review was first planned for Skiffy & Fanty and then got delayed and didn’t end up happening. As I look back over the notes I had written and the skeleton of this review in correspondence with my colleague Cecily Kane I realize just how much I want to go back and read this un-themed collection again.

Yet, this is the first of the Solaris Rising series that I’ve had a chance to read, so I should probably go back and read the first two. It’s a testament to how enjoyable the stories are here in what is a stellar lineup of highly-regarded contributors that re-reading this again so soon feels like something warming and relaxing. Though there were a couple stories here that just didn’t work for me, it is probably still the best collection I read in 2014 for its sheer entertainment.

And my favorite stories in here were also quite a surprise to me. In his introduction, editor Whates comments on the opening line(s) of one story and how magnificent it is/they are. Though they are great I have to say that the opening lines of the collection, in Benjanun Sriduangaew’s “When We Harvested the Nacre-Rice” are far more stunning in its powerful flow and imagery. This ended up being my favorite story in the collection. I’d read a couple of other stories from the Hegemony universe and while I appreciated the poetic style and alien weirdness, they were a little dense; their vagueness left me feeling unmoored from the plot. With this, Sriduangaew’s writing fully connected with me.

Protagonists Pahayal and Etiesse are both delightfully rendered, complex mixtures of weakness and strength that draw forth reader empathy and disdain; their relationship is an echo of the larger issues of political control at the center of the story’s plot. Sriduangkaew handles the themes of dominance and submission, vulnerability and safety, trust and betrayal, creation and destruction with masterly control in scant pages.

I was likewise surprised to find the story I expected to love most in Solaris Rising 3, “Homo Floresiensis“, by Ken Liu to not resonate as strongly with me. Liu is one of my favorite authors and I would still call this story really good. But what I like about Liu is sort of what I like about a good film director like Kubrick or Hitchcock. He achieves a balance of great story, deeper meaning, and artistry in his creations. Liu’s story here is strong in he meaning department, and raises a big point about scientific advancement that I wish would crop up more often in the field. However, the structure of the story ends up making it feel like two separate entities of scenes that introduce and then scenes at the heart of the matter.

“Double Blind” by Tony Ballantyne, “The Mashup” by Sean Williams, “The Science of Chance” by Nina Allen, and “Thing and Sick” by Adam Roberts were all stories that I greatly enjoyed and each were science fiction mashups of sorts, whether taken literally (Williams’), with horror (Ballantyne’s and Robert’s) or  with mystery (Allen’s). These are all examples of a wide range of fine writing also across the board from light to subtly crafted to all out crazy.

“Thing and Sick” also represents one of a few stories in the collection that I quite liked for their approach to the concept of the alien “other”. A similar theme is taken up, at least in part, in the stories by Beckett, MacFarlane, Lam, Rosenbaum and the aforementioned Liu.

In some this ‘regard’ at the other makes the story a critique of colonial aspects. MacFarlane’s “Popular Images from the First Manned Mission to Enceladus” delves into such themes through the use of a non-traditional narrative that describes propaganda-esque posters through the eras of expedition to Saturn’s moon. I adored the ideas here, but the reading ended up being a bit on the drier side. Beckett tackles colonial issues head-on with a far more traditional plot. However I also found his story to be one of the most disturbing in the violence of its action and language against the other, in  this case aliens and female. It was sort of hard to figure out whether certain aspects were honest portrayals of very ugly characters and a commentary or something unintentionally offensive. Extremely well written and powerful, I loved it, but feel warning should be made for sensitive readers.

In “Thing and Sick” and in “They Swim Through Sunset Seas” the treatment of the alien ‘other’ was more focused on the psychology or biology of the nonhuman entity. I particularly found Lam’s story to be poignant and a great SF focus on biological science and the basic emotions that intelligent life forms may share for better or for worse. Rosenbaum’s “Fift & Shira” is simply an excellent biological speculation on gender and social structures in a non-human community. The story itself is not as enthralling as the ideas at play, but for me as a biologist I remained captivated nonetheless.

On the other end of the spectrum I personally found nothing to appreciate in  Zebrowski’s “The Sullen Engines” or in Watson’s “Faith without Teeth”. The remaining stories were good, but just haven’t stuck with me as strongly. Fans of the particular authors will surely appreciate the additions here. If you didn’t get a chance to pick this up back when it came out and are a fan of SF, I really recommend checking this out, particularly if you are someone that doesn’t normally read shorter works in the field. You may find your next favorite author.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Note: Thanks to Cecily Kane for some editing of my rambling thoughts on Benjanun Sriduangaew’s “When We Harvested the Nacre-Rice” that made it into this final post.

Mr. Tall: Stories, by Tony Earley

Mr. Tall: Stories, by Tony Earley
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
ISBN: 0316246115
224 pages, eBook
Published 26th August 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
“Haunted Castles of the Barrier Islands”
“Mr. Tall”
“The Cryptozoologist”
“Yard Art”
“Have You Seen the Stolen Girl?”
“Just Married”
“Jack and the Mad Dog”

Like Margaret Atwood’s recent Stone Mattress, this wonderful collection of novellas could easily be described as a selection of “tales”. With a confident style and unadorned dialogue, Earley effectively combines literary exploration of the marriage relationship with aspects of the Southern American folk tale. The stories range from the conventional side of the spectrum to the wild, fantastical side that would be at home in a genre anthology.
“Just Married”, a set of character relationship portraits, and “Haunted Castles of the Barrier Islands” fall toward the conventional side. “Haunted Castles…” is a particularly strong opening to the collection, showcasing Earley’s talent at writing two characters dealing with life/relationship shifts. In this case concerning a wife and husband visiting a daughter now off at college, leaving the couple together in the isolation of a struggling relationship that contrasts the scenic, natural romanticism of the barrier islands they drive past on the way home. “Jack and the Mad Dog” falls at the other end with a clever play on a classic fairy-tale told with a meta fictional twist.
Earley’s most powerful tales fall in the middle of the spectrum. “The Cryptozoologist” and the best novella in the collection, “Mr Tall”, are special because they clearly combine the struggles of relationship at the crux of the protagonist’s being with the fantastic or symbolic elements of a folk tale. In “The Cryptozoologist” the loss of a spouse and the yearning to again feel the beauty of marriage and love becomes tied in time and place to a fleeting glimpse of a mythological creature and the burning desire to recapture a glimpse at its unique wonder.
“Mr Tall” fittingly gives this collection name. It conjures thoughts of the “tall tale”, and although the collection as a whole doesn’t really fit this form of folk tale, “Mr Tall” presents itself as a crafty twitching of the tall tale hallmarks. The historical story involves a young, naive, newly married woman whose devoted, but hard-working husband warns her not to visit their reclusive and seemingly dangerous neighbor, or approach his land. With certain unfulfilled feelings, general curiosity, and the boredom associated with being young and childless in the era, the wife ventures out exploring to learn more of this mysterious neighbor nicknamed Mr. Tall.  Exaggeration is subtly present in the town mythology surrounding Mr. Tall. And the wife is filled with a light-hearted optimism that one can find in a tall tale. Yet this tale is grounded in reality that is not entirely pleasant, and the story serves to illustrate the maturing of the protagonist from blissful naiveté to greater caution and fear. “Mr Tall” is a tremendous story with richly developed characters who show genuine aspects of humanity both positive and negative.
I haven’t read Tony Earley’s first collection, but it is going on my list of things to gladly read. I enjoy this kind of mixture of literary with genre, and it is particularly rare to see it done with the American folktale in my experience at least as a reader. I also need to reread “Jack and the Mad Dog”, for I fear I missed too much the first time, not ready for its unconventionality, and I think additional insights into the other novellas could come from rereading, a testament to the quality of this collection.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales, by Margaret Atwood

Stone Mattress, by Margaret Atwood
Publisher: Nan A. Talese
(Knopf/Doubleday)
ISBN: 9780385539135
288 pages, eBook
Published 16th September 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
“Alphinland”
“Revenant”
“Dark Lady”
“Lusus Naturae”
“The Dead Hand Loves You”
“The Freeze-Dried Groom”
“I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth”
“Stone Mattress”
“Torching the Dusties”

 The cover image on Atwood’s new collection of a boulder precipitously balanced on a mound of rocks is a strikingly fitting image to describe the nine tales found within. The characters in these stories are mostly at that stage of life where Atwood finds herself, elderly and looking toward the increasingly limited future, considering legacy in recollection of the life they have led. Balanced between future and past, life and death, creative productivity and a corpus of work left behind, unresolved conflicts and distant traumas, hope and reflection, there is no morbid preoccupation among Atwood’s protagonists, but rather a careful stock on what existence has given and still has the power to supply.
Elements of these balanced themes can be seen in Atwood’s recent decision to take part in writing something for the future, a work that she can create while still drawing breath, but which will only be available for a future generation to experience fresh. And there is a certain similar nobility, generosity, and joy in how Atwood approaches aging, legacy, and the emotions of memory in these tales. As she has pointed out, tales is the proper word to describe the nuanced dreamlike reflection of these stories. Like the reality of memory these tales have a touch of the fantastic and wonderful.
Atwood’s power and prowess at the short story really shines forth in these nine tales, most forcefully in the opening three, linked, stories and the penultimate one that gives the collection its name. These four tales most prominently feature the Janus-faced nature of the collection, but in contrasting styles – contemplative in the triptych and with vengeful – perhaps righteous – violence in Stone Mattress.
Creating a collection of even this relatively short size with consistently captivating style and rich characterization is not an easy task, but Atwood manages to deliver without a stumble. If you haven’t read anything by Atwood or have only tried her novel length work, you should pick this up to discover what you have missed. Those that already enjoy her short fiction will read this new book with fond memories and appreciation of its graceful regard for that to come.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.