Words In: Saffron and Brimstone by Elizabeth Hand

I first read the lead-off story in this collection, “Cleopatra Brimstone,” in the anthology Poe’s Children (edited by Peter Straub). This story of a young entomologist who moves to London in the aftermath of rape was the best thing in Straub’s anthology and turns out to be the best thing in Saffron and Brimstone too. That’s not at all to say the rest of this collection is lacking.

The very best fictional narrative has the feel of true personal history, enough to inspire the reader to check the writer’s bio and figure out whether or not certain events from the story really happened. That’s how most of these stories felt to me, like places I have seen, and like true life events a storyteller has conveyed to me half-reluctantly and with some sadness. Every story overflows with lush imagery and vivid details. The stories may not be connected by character or events, but a kind of quiet melancholy hangs over them.

It’s always interesting to see a writer shift focus in terms of genre and subject matter. Here, as in her novel Generation Loss, Hand generally tones down the fantastical elements more common in her earlier work. The stories feel exotic, even when nothing impossible or otherworldly is happening. Perhaps her greatest strength is the ability to convey a lifelike sense of place, and of events which might have truly happened. Though in my own reading I tend to enjoy the otherworldly and fantastic, I’m hesitant to say I wish Elizabeth Hand would write more in that direction. Whatever the degree of fantasticality in these stories, Hand’s use of language is so elegant and her characters and situations so engaging, I’ll gladly read whatever she chooses to write regardless of genre considerations. Here, as in Generation Loss, she does something that feels very real.

Highly recommended for those readers who enjoy lush prose and human-focused stories with an otherworldly feel even if they take place in our own world. Readers with a preference for more overt genre elements, as well as those wishing for a greater focus on plot rather than character, may enjoy this less than I did. As for me, this book on top of Generation Loss are enough for me to elevate Elizabeth Hand to among the top handful of authors whose work I’ll explore with most eagerness. From here, it’s on to Waking the Moon or Winterlong.

Review: Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman

I love short stories. I love Neil Gaiman’s writing. Does it follow, then, that I love Neil Gaiman short stories?

Some of them, yes.

Smoke and Mirrors covers a lot of ground: humor, erotica, whimsy and horror. Included are several poems, some flash fiction pieces, and a number of conventional short stories. The tone, regardless of what mood or emotion a given story is going for, tends toward the straightforward. Unadorned, no-nonsense, but clear and effective.

Gaiman’s favorite trick is to flip a well-known fable or fairy tale upside down — to reveal events seen from a different character’s perspective, or to modernize a traditional character or scenario.

“Murder Mysteries,” a long story retelling interactions between angels going back to the very formation of the universe and the human sphere, may be the most ambitious and interesting thing here. “Snow, Glass, Apples” is likewise richly told and well written.

“Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar,” which visits a variation on Lovecraft’s fictional town of Innsmouth, and “We Can Get Them for You Wholesale,” about a guy who turns to an assassination service to help him deal with his frustrations, are particularly funny.

Many of other pieces were comparatively slight, though. In my recent review of Joe Hill’s collection “Twentieth Century Ghosts,” I said the book might have been improved by eliminating the weakest 1/3 of the material, and I’d say the same thing here. A shorter book, but a much stronger one, would result. I give the collection as a whole 4 stars, but there’s quite a bit of 5-star material here, as well as some individual stories I’d give 3 or even 2 stars.

Overall a hit-and-miss collection, yet it contains some very worthwhile stories fans of Gaiman won’t want to miss.

Do You Read Novel Excerpts?

I’m almost finished with the 2009 Nebula Awards Showcase collection, edited by Ellen Datlow. It’s an anthology sampling, as you might guess, stories nominated for Nebula awards (one of the big two annual Science Fiction awards). The stories were first published not during 2009, or during 2008 (when the awards were actually given), but during 2007. That’s not a problem, and it sort of makes sense that 2007 stories might be nominated for awards given in 2008, and it takes a while for the book to be assembled and published so they can call it the 2009 showcase. That’s fine, because I didn’t buy this book thinking these stories were brand new, but if you want to read a collection of stories from 2009 nominated for Nebula awards, those awards will happen in 2010 and the book will come out in 2011.

Nebula Awards Showcase 2009

I’ll write a more complete summary of what I found worthwhile and not so great in this space as soon as I finish up the last story or two, but as I contemplate whether or not to read each and every item in here, I realized: I hate reading “excerpts.” This collection includes a tidbit from Michael Chabon’s well-received novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, a book I’d consider reading, but I don’t want to give it a try. If I want to read the book, I’ll read it. I don’t want to give the excerpt a try and get all excited about the story, only to find myself stuck at page twelve.

Likewise, I hate serialized stories (you know, appearing in installments in a periodical), and I hate watching TV shows week-by-week with a wait in-between. My favorite way to watch TV, really just about the only way I’ll bother, is to discover the show on DVD after it’s been out for 3-5 years already, so once I start I can run just about straight through without any delay.

I also just finished a book by a favorite writer of mine, a little surprised to come to the end with such a thick chunk of pages remaining in the book. I thought maybe there’s some kind of essay or glossary or maps or something, but it was just a first chapter from the guy’s next book. I skipped it, because if I really loved it and wanted to read it, I couldn’t yet. The book isn’t available. Stop teasing me!

I’ll follow up with a post on the Nebula collection soon, but for now I’m just venting about those excerpts. I consider them a sort of tease without payoff, rather than a pleasant, enticing little sampler. I’ll have none, thanks.