New release review: Stellar stories from Tachyon

This season, three fantasy masters have story collections out from Tachyon Publications — a splendid opportunity to feast yourself on a rich assortment of weird, funny, whimsical, lyrical, dark, thought-provoking tales that beautifully explore the full range of our imaginative landscape. If any of these are among your favorite authors, you will surely want to pick up their latest offerings — and if you’ve not yet had had the pleasure of making their acquaintance, this is the perfect opportunity to do so. Whether you devour all the stories or just sample the ones that are to your taste, there’s a good chance you’ll find something that interests you here.

I’ve already mentioned Jane Yolen’s The Emerald Circus, which Tachyon kindly allowed me to offer as part of the Witch Week giveaway last November. I described it then as “a master storyteller’s riff on various well-known tales including The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and of course the Arthurian legend. Three Arthurian stories are included, of which my favorite is the novella Evian Steel, a striking re-imagining of the forging of Arthur’s sword in connection with the power of women’s magic. If only Yolen had been able to fulfill her intention of making this the central portion of a novel … perhaps one day she will? A new introduction by Holly Black gives a tribute to Yolen by the next generation of fantasy writers, and each story has an endnote about its creation and original publication, paired with a thematically related poem — quite a unique feature!”

Other standouts for me were “Blown Away,” which imagines an alternative fate for Dorothy from the point of view of one of the Kansas farmhands (including a stint in the Emerald Circus of the title), and “Sister Emily’s Lightship,” which makes the unlikely pairing of Emily Dickinson and an alien visitor seem almost inevitable. Yolen has made me look asquint at all the classic books and authors on my shelves now…what antics might be going on just beyond or around those hallowed pages?

From Yolen’s literary extravaganza I moved on to The Overneath by Peter S. Beagle. His first collection in some years, it includes uncollected work along with several stories previously unpublished in print, and many of them are dazzling. The title comes from the breezily inventive “The Way It Works Out and All,” in which Beagle himself appears as a character along with fellow fantasy author Avram Davidson, who’s discovered a way into the mysterious “plumbing” behind the ordinary world. I love this image, and it could be taken as a metaphor for the uncertain and sometimes dangerous ways the author has to tread in bringing the gifts of the imaginative world to us. Beagle casts himself as being more reluctant in this endeavor than his intrepid friend, yet I suspect he’s no less of an adventurer at heart.

Such sly humor is only one of the narrative tones at Beagle’s disposal, though, as he brings us a couple of stories about the wizard Schmendrick (from his famous novel The Last Unicorn); tales of three other very, very different unicorns; a melancholy fairy tale resonant with themes of aging and forgiveness; tales of technological magic that comes via laptops and wireless transmitters; and much more — as a former Seattle resident I was especially pleased to see the Fremont Bridge Troll get his very own story. Beagle’s notes at the head of each selection further illuminate their origins and his creative process.

Jo Walton is a newer addition to the fantasy and science fiction scene than either of these two long-established names, yet has quickly proved herself as one of the most versatile and inventive writers around. In Starlings, her first collection of short works — mostly not exactly stories, but chapters from unwritten novels, fragmentary fiction, writing exercises, poems, and even a play — her experimental spirit is strongly in evidence. Readers looking for a polished set of conventional short stories may be disappointed, but those who can take each piece on its own terms will find much to enjoy.

Actually, I thought that Walton spent way too much time apologizing for not writing “real” stories. I found many of her “non-stories” delightful, from the first, a trio of twilight tales that reminded me strongly of Joan Aiken, to the last, a play based on an Irish legend (and where does one get to encounter something so highly non-commercial these days?). A selection of poems completes the volume, many of which are also based in myth, legend, and pop culture — “Godzilla Weeps for Baldur,” anyone? If one piece doesn’t do the trick for you, just move on; at the very least you’ll encounter a wild and wonderful imagination at work along the way.

Thank you, Tachyon, for these bursts of magic to enliven some cold winter nights. I hope you’ll give them a look.

Reading New England: The Country of the Pointed Firs

Sarah Orne Jewett, The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896)

PointedFirsIn this evocative collection of sketches set in Maine, in and around the fictional coastal town of Dunnet Landing, an unnamed narrator reveals little of herself other than that she is a writer, visiting the town one summer to pursue her work. Her role is to observe, listen to, and report the stories of the people around her, nearly all older people with the turmoil of youth behind them: herbalists, sea captains, fishermen, homemakers…unsophisticated, even poor people who reveal something of their inner strength and richness through the tales they tell.

The incidents portrayed are generally not outwardly dramatic, but celebrate endurance, tenacity, faithfulness — the qualities that make life possible in a land not always friendly to human habitation. A seaman recalls an unearthly vision that has haunted him all his life; a beloved elder of the community courageously holds to the island life she has known for so long; a courtship of many years finally ends in fulfillment. So a quietly poignant picture of human striving and suffering is built up, and the dignity of hard work and simple living is upheld.

With its episodic nature and lack of a unified plot, I would hesitate to call this work a “novel” or even a novella, but that’s not to say it isn’t artfully constructed. The stories, linked by narrator, recurring characters, place, and voice, combine to make us feel we have visited a real place and met its people, that we too have experienced the beauty and bleakness of the “country of the pointed firs.” I highly recommend it for anyone who wishes to journey there in spirit.

Which edition you choose to read matters. The first 19 chapters were originally published in installments in the Atlantic Monthly, and then in book form with two additional chapters in 1896. Jewett also wrote four other stories set in Dunnet Landing before she died in 1909. Although she never authorized their inclusion, editors sometimes inserted these awkwardly into later editions, upsetting its artistic wholeness. Readers of the earlier work will certainly want to read the additional stories, which revisit some of the characters and places we have grown to know and love thereby, but should seek out a version that puts them in their proper place as a separate section, like the Modern Library edition that I read. The illuminating biographical note (which includes the information on publication history I’ve summarized here) is another good reason to choose this edition.

Though this was my first book by Sarah Orne Jewett, it won’t be my last. I’ll be seeking out more writing by this accomplished New England author, and I hope to visit her house in South Berwick as well. If you’ve read this or any other of Jewett’s books, I hope you’ll share your thoughts.

Reading New England Challenge: Maine
Back to the Classics Challenge: A Book of Short Stories


Review and Giveaway: The Folio Book of Ghost Stories

Congratulations to the winners of the Witch Week giveaway, Nicole (Bitter Greens) and Fadi (The Bloody Chamber)! I know you will love these wonderful books and am so grateful to the publishers for making it possible to send them to you.

Illustration from The Folio Book of Ghost Stories © David McConochie 2015

And I’m even more grateful that The Folio Society is making it possible for me to offer another giveaway of one of their gorgeous editions, this time open internationally. The Folio Book of Ghost Stories is a very appropriate choice for this time of year; as the light wanes and the night deepens, it’s a traditional time to tell stories of ghosts and supernatural visitations. Folio has gathered nineteen classic and contemporary stories and added atmopsheric illustrations by David McConochie, creating a collection that will delight any aficionado of creepy fiction, as well as lovers of beautiful design and typography.

Seldom do we get to see a book that is so meticulously designed in accord with its contents. From the haunting image on the cover, to the subtly off-kilter type on the spine, to the iridescent green endpapers, to the faint smudges on the binding, it shows us what to expect within: stories about what lies the edge of our perception, discomforting and sometimes terrifying.

I especially love the font choices — a vertically elongated display font with calligraphic touches that manages to give a faint sense of unease, and a classic yet slightly spiky serif font for text, which adds an undercurrent of menace. Setting the author names in small caps is also effective, just as a whisper can be louder than a shout.

Illustration from The Folio Book of Ghost Stories © David McConochie 2015

The actual contents of the stories are no less stellar. Great writers including Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Bowen, Vladimir Nabokov, and A.S. Byatt are represented, along with lesser known masters of the genre. The stories are arranged mostly in chronological order, and if read straight through show a development from artfully rendered yet fairly straightforward thrills in the Victorian tales, to greater psychological complexity in the modern stories.

Or you can just skip around and pick and choose your favorites. Mine would include the classic “Be careful what you wish for” tale “The Monkey’s Paw,” Edith Wharton’s slow-burning suspense story of a country house with a mysterious guardian, “Mr. Jones,” and Shirley Jackson’s relentlessly disorienting account of another house and its residents in “A Visit.”

The mixed-media illustrations, which come from the winner of an annual competition sponsored by The Folio Society and The House of Illustration, give us glimpses of things half-seen, beautiful landscapes that contain a twist of something not quite right, monsters that can’t be fully grasped with the senses. And as if all this weren’t enough, a brief but insightful introduction by journalist and historian Kathryn Hughes helps to orient us within the literary tradition.

I do hope I’ve enticed you to want this book in your hands, with all its deliciously spooky pleasures. Enter using the Rafflecopter widget below…if you dare.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Shiny New Books


The fall issue of Shiny New Books came out this week, and as usual there are so many tempting titles to explore…it’s going to keep me busy for some time. In the blowing my own horn department, I had two pieces included:

Suspense with Style: The Novels of Mary Stewart is in the BookBuzz section. I wanted to call attention to the new Chicago Review Press editions of Stewart’s suspense novels, but that wasn’t allowed in the Reprints section (UK editions only in there). I enjoyed pulling together some of my earlier posts about this favorite author and adding a teaser for her first novel, Madam, Will You Talk?

My review of Joan Aiken’s The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories celebrates the new UK edition from Virago Children’s Classics. Now readers on both sides of the pond can enjoy these delightfully funny and magical stories.

MadamTalk  SerialGarden


I do hope you’ll check them out, and sample other shiny new delights as well.

Short and Bittersweet: Bliss and Other Stories

Katherine Mansfield, Bliss and Other Stories (1920)

I don’t usually seek out short stories, though I often enjoy them when I do read them. Usually I’m looking for a longer-term reading experience, with characters I can live with over time. But when I read Katherine Mansfield’s collection Bliss and Other Stories (having drawn it as my Classics Club Spin book), I was reminded of how a beautifully rendered painting of a few objects, or an insightful portrait, can be a perfect work of art; we don’t always want or need a grand historical canvas with dozens of figures. In the same way these exquisitely written stories cast light on just a few characters or events, with an economy of language that does not lessen their emotional impact, but may even serve to heighten it. Freed from the necessity of plodding through a complicated plot, Mansfield often comes at her subjects in a surprising, sideways manner, with effects that are sometimes startling, sometimes amusing, but always masterfully done.

I know next to nothing about Mansfield, except that she was from New Zealand. This gave me the notion that her stories would be set in that country and that I would learn something about that place. However, this turns out not to be a strong element, at least in this particular collection; many of the stories are set in Europe, and the only one that is obviously set in New Zealand, the opening novella called “Prelude,” is far more occupied with the inner lives of the characters and their particular physical circumstances than with the setting in a wider sense. This is in no way a drawback, only a false expectation that I had to overcome in the process of reading.

The stories often end with a reversal or down-turn in the protagonist’s fortunes, but so light was Mansfield’s touch that this somehow did not depress me as it does with some authors. Comedy and tragedy can be very close together, and these stories delicately reveal their affinity.

Many more of Mansfield’s stories await me in my e-book edition. I’m sure I’ll be dipping into them again for a brief, invigorating dose of a fine writer’s art.

Review copy source: Free e-book from Girlebooks
Classics Club List #40