Tag Archives: short stories

Tender by Sofia Samatar

I knew right away that I had to read this anthology. Sofia Samatar’s work is always amazing: unexpected, brilliant, beautiful. It’s been almost two years since I first read The Winged Histories, which turned out to be an important book for me. In Tender (Small Beer Press, 2017), Samatar has collected twenty pieces of short fiction, most of them published elsewhere previously. They are grouped into two sections: tender bodies and tender landscapes. It’s up to the reader to determine the way these two ideas interact with each other across the divide of the grouping, and the way they take on different shades of emotion and inflection in each story.

Short fiction collections can sometimes be frustrating, particularly when the pieces are uneven in quality. In addition, some collections lack coherence and end up feeling like the pieces have nothing to say to each other. Or the pieces begin to feel too much the same, as if the writer only has one real idea.

For me, Tender struck a nice balance between these two problems. There are similarities of theme–connection and loss, personal resistance to injustice, belonging–and even of tone. Many of the stories strike a melancholy and even elegiac note. However, Samatar’s seemingly endless inventiveness when it comes to setting and the crystal clarity with which she draws her characters keeps these similarities from dominating. What emerges is instead a set of stories that are in conversation with each other across the boundaries of genre and setting.

Because of this, and because it’s a strong collection, it’s difficult to pick favorites. “Selkie Stories are For Losers” as the opener is fascinating; I had read it before and while it’s not my gut-level favorite, it establishes the kind of narrative gaps that Samatar loves to play with. The tension between hope that the future will be brighter and the knowledge that it may not be. Within the first section, I also loved “The Ogres of East Africa,” which starts engaging with racism and colonialism, and ways of holding your self true in the midst of their pressures. This thread weaves through a number of the stories in the collection, approached in different ways but always with thoughtfulness and hope.

If I had to pick one favorite story out of this collection, it would probably be “Honey Bear,” which acts as a class in playing with the expectations of genre readers. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I was delighted at how deftly Samatar took my sense of where the story was headed and turned it on its head.

In the second part, tender landscapes, “An Account of the Land of Witches” was especially delightful to me. I loved the way dreams are played with, and it’s an epistolary short story! I love those. “Request for an Extension on the Clarity” also shows how well Samatar can evoke setting and character, even in a very brief form. I’m still not sure what I thought of “Fallow,” the long story that makes up the bulk of the second section. The images and writing are vivid and lovely, but it felt a little bit pat. However, I loved “The Red Thread,” the last story of the collection. With its post-apocalyptic feel and haunting ending, it felt like the perfect conclusion for this set of stories.

All in all, no surprises here, I loved Tender and certainly want to revisit this collection of stories again. Given the depth and richness of Samatar’s writing, I’m sure rereading them will be like revisiting a familiar landscape and finding something in it that had never been seen before.

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Recent short fiction reads

When I was in college, I was a pretty big reader of SFF short fiction. That’s where I first encountered authors like Theodora Goss and Catherynne Valente. But at some point, I kind of lost track of the short fiction world. Recently, I’ve been wanting to dive back in, and have found a few stories I’ve really enjoyed. Lady Business’s Short Business project has been very helpful in finding several of these.

To Whatever” by Shaenon Garrity: An epistolary short story, told in the letters of Ethan to whatever lives in the walls of his apartment building. This one was especially fun because I like epistolary stories quite a bit to begin with, because the evolution of the relationship in the story is nicely drawn, and because I thought I knew where the arc of the story was going, and I was wrong! It totally surprised me. Also Willem’s letters were spot-on. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one.

Pockets” by Amal El-Mohtar: This story builds to a slow crescendo. It starts with the odd but not entirely bizarre recurrence of things appearing in Nadia’s pockets. A lipstick that isn’t hers; a coin; a gun. Nadia’s reaction to this is well done, and the story weaves in questions about friendship, trust, and ultimately the bent of the universe. Its ambiguity is tempered with hope, and I found the ending so beautiful that I cried a little bit.

Clasp Hands” by Stephanie Burgis: I’ve loved Stephanie Burgis’s Kat Stephenson books, and the novella “Courting Magic” that she wrote as part of that. So I thought I would read some of her short fiction as well. I haven’t worked my way through all of her short stories, but so far “Clasp Hands” is my favorite. Genuinely eerie and sad, but also full of the warmth and humor and care of family. Also magic.

The Merger” by Sunil Patel: This story is brand new; a weird mix of totally strange alien entities and a corporate takeover. The full title, “The Merger: A Romantic Comedy of Intergalactic Business Negotiations, Indecipherable Emotions, and Pizza” sums it up pretty well. I really enjoyed the relationship between Paresh and Sita, and their dilemma in trying to figure out how to deal with the BlarbSnarb.

So there you have a few short stories I’ve liked! If you have recommendations, please to send them my way.

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Recent Reading: Short stories, romance, and middle grade

sun kissedSun-kissed by Laura Florand: A new short novel from Florand. This one is a bit different in that it 1) takes place in America and 2) focuses on the older generation, Mack Corey and Anne Winters. I really enjoyed the way Florand explores the different characters, who are more mature and self-confident than their children and their children’s peers in some ways, and yet still very vulnerable in others. I did miss the French setting a bit, but the sea-side is a lovely alternative. I loved the way Mack sees his daughters and sons-in-law; it was great to see some of the other characters from the Chocolat series through his eyes. All in all, this was a lovely endcap to Florand’s earlier stories (though if there are more in the future, I won’t be sad!)

conservation of shadowsConservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee: A collection of sff short stories. Lee is Korean-American, and based several of the stories on incidents from Korean history. I found that the sensibility underlying the stories to be clear and beautiful; I can’t speak to how and what has been informed by his heritage, but there’s certainly an awareness of non-western based cultures that is refreshing. I loved the worlds Lee creates, and his characters–often caught between two duties or two loyalties. This is one of the most cohesive anthologies I can remember reading, which I greatly appreciated–while I love short stories, I often feel that collections lack coherence. If I have a complaint, it’s that occasionally the endings felt less forceful than I wanted them to be; not rushed, exactly, but compressed in a way that didn’t quite give me the follow-through I wanted. I don’t know if the fault is in the stories, or in me, but this happened often enough for me to notice it.

clair de luneClair-de-Lune by Cassandra Golds: A middle-grade book, which falls somewhere between fantasy and magical realism (the tone reminds me a bit of The Tale of Despereaux). I liked the characters and writing a lot, but felt some vague unease about the tidiness of the ending and an occasional hammering-home of points. In general, I think this is one I would have absolutely loved a few years ago; it’s probably a good one for the quieter, dreamy young girls.

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Reading notes 11-16-2012

I wanted a few of these to be proper reviews, but if that’s the case, we may be waiting till the cows come home. So, SUMMING UP!

Crown of Embers by Rae Carson: Almost all of my reader friends looooved the first book and I…didn’t. But I had enough interest to check out the second, and I’m glad I did. Though I was bothered by the pacing and heavy-handed pointing out of the romance (I don’t object to the pairing, just the “He’s so handsome! But I must not think this! But I do!” which was happening for a longish time), I thought Carson did a fabulous job of deepening Elisa’s character and showing both her weaknesses and strengths as a queen. I do wish that she would be a tad less subtle with her world-building, and I say this as the queen & champion of subtle world-building. There was a line or two that read like these are possibly far in the future settlers on another planet, ala Dragonriders of Pern? But to be honest, I have never liked that aspect of Pern and the strategy in general feels a bit like a cop-out. Or am I totally misreading this? Comment! Tell me! I am confused. (Side note: the UK cover is so much better!.)

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold: IVAN! I love Ivan! Well, really I just love everyone in the extended Vorkosigan/Vorpatril/Vorbarra clan, including Gregor who I may have a massive book crush on (I admit nothing). And it took me a really long time to figure out that Bujold is at least partly playing with the Ivan the Idiot figure from Russian folk tales (I wonder which came first, the name or the character?). Because of course, Ivan is not really an idiot. He’s just not Miles. I liked Captain Vorpatril a lot, and I think it would make an interesting counterpoint to A Civil Campaign. I’ve heard rumors that this may be the last Vorkosigan book. If so, I think I will always re-read the series in terms of internal chronology, because Cryoburn is definitely a stronger ending for the whole thing. Which I think Bujold must realize, since she’s set CV’sA a good few years before Cryoburn. The only odd thing is that there were a number of infodumps–interesting ones, with lots of details about Barrayaran & Cetagandan history that haven’t necessarily appeared before, but infodumps nonetheless. Surely this is not the place to enter the series? Surely anyone trying to will realize this and start at the beginning? Moreover, I’m not sure that I don’t prefer not knowing (triple negative, sorry) all the details, having to do the work of figuring out the different cultures. I don’t need to be told that Russian, Greek, & French are the major ancestral groups of Barrayar; I’ve known that since about book 3. If this is the last book, I almost wonder if she was just dumping in all the bits she knew and hadn’t found a place for but wanted to make part of the canon.

The Curiosities by Maggie Stiefvater, Tessa Gratton, and Brenna Yovanoff: This was one of those books that made me want to jump up and write a whole bunch of short stories. I think it’s an extremely strong anthology, which comes partly from what it is–a collection of the stories from The Merry Sisters of Fate. The three authors work well together, since they have similar obsessions, if not similar styles. And they are so very good at what they do. In fact, the collection as a whole is so strong that I’m having trouble picking out favorite stories. This does not happen to me with anthologies. My only quibble is that I frequently found the annotations distracting, especially on a first read. I’d like an e-book where the reader can turn the annotations on and off as desired.

Alamut by Judith Tarr: I finished this one last night. I really liked it–Tarr is one of those writers who makes prose seem effortless. And who knew that Crusading knights and fey creatures could play so well together? In fact, this is a lovely bit of historical fantasy, and I do love historical fantasy, especially with a dash of mystery and a lot of strong writing. There’s also a strong romantic plot which I found odd, but also enjoyable in a hard-to-define way. I’ve heard really good things about her Lord of the Two Lands, so I have put a hold on that.

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