short stories

Review: The Emerald Circus

I’ve written about Jane Yolen’s books before, which I have really enjoyed, especially her short stories. like Sister Emily’s Lightship. With that in mind, when I saw a new collection of Yolen’s stories, The Emerald Circus, I decided to take a look (I actually checked it out of the library!).

This book has some reprints of earlier stories I liked, including Sister Emily’s Lightship and Lost Girls. But I especially enjoyed reading some newer stories I hadn’t read before. In particular, I loved “A Knot of Toads,” which was a creepy, modern-gothic story set on the coast of Scotland. I loved the origins of the story and the references to history, but the characters really shine through, and I love how the main character’s views of the people around her are suddenly upended. Likewise, “The Quiet Monk” was passionate and romantic and beautiful, and the ending had a kind of quiet devotion that I loved. “Evian Steel” was another Arthurian -inspired story I enjoyed. It had a great twist ending, and gave a really fascinating perspective on familiar characters.

“Blown Away” was a dark and disturbing retelling of Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, form the point of view of one of the farm hands on Dorothy’s Uncle’s farm. It was strangely creepy and bleak, and the ending was both haunting and “off” in a fascinating, if not exactly satisfying way. The unreliable narrator and the constant uncertainty about who is telling the truth about Dorothy’s strange disappearance made it feel like there were terrible family secrets welling just beneath the surface.

Overall, I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in Jane Yolen’s writing, or in reading fantasy short stories, particularly reinterpretations of fairytales and legends.

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Review: Tales from Alternate Earths

In honor of Indy April, I decided to read and review several books by independent authors or small presses. I chose Tales from Alternate Earths form Inklings Press to review because I’d read an enjoyed some of the Leo McBride’s Altered Instinct. Full disclosure: Altered Instinct gave a great review to a story I contributed to Red Sun Magazine.

Once I started reading this, I actually tore through many of the stories pretty quickly. I thought that the theme of the anthology, which was imagining alternative events or outcomes in human history, was quite interesting. That said, like many multi-author anthologies, the styles and interpretations of the authors included were wildly variable. In fact, if I had a criticism, it’s that it was actually too variable. Every time I felt I had a grasp of the events and alternate history in one story, I’d move on to another one that was incredibly different in time period, characters, and theme. Sometimes that worked, as I found the new story as interesting as the one I’d left. Sometimes, not quite so much.

A few stories stood out as particular good. I liked the subtle tension set against the domestic calm of Terri Pray’s “One More Dawn,” and the interesting twists of history in Jessica Holmes’ “September 26th, 1983.” My favorite stories, though, were the last three. I liked Leo McBride’s “The Secret War” because its shell-shocked and traumatized main character really spoke to me, and I enjoyed twist at the end. Daniel Bensen’s “Treasure Fleet” had a richly imagined world and interesting characters. I think more science fiction and fantasy writers should look at 14th century China’s domination of the seas!

But if I had to choose one favorite, I’d have to pick Maria Haskins’ “Tunguska, 1987.” Haskins’ characters had great depth, and her world had some fantastic science fiction elements—the mysterious metal invaders, their incredible powers, and the fact that some people could sense the alterations that time travel produced, all of it made a good story. What’s more, her reveals at the end were as subtle and fascinating as her earlier writing, and left me with as many questions as she’d answered.

A couple of the stories really weren’t to my taste. I felt that while “Twilight of the Mesozoic Moon” had an interesting premise, the story felt like it had too many elements, some of which didn’t feel like they went together. The story had two authors, so I almost wondered if it was a “too many cooks” problem. I didn’t care for “One World,” because honestly it read a little like a conspiracy theory gone amok, and I just couldn’t relate or sympathize with the main character (for most of the story, he seemed more like an observer than a protagonist). “Stargazing on Oxford Street” had an interesting setting and a good premise, but I felt that the main characters didn’t really accomplish anything or do much.

Overall, I felt that Tales from Alternate Earths was a good indie anthology and a good way to discover lots of new sci-fi authors. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in alternate history or science fiction.

Review: Sister Emily's Lightship by Jane Yolen

Since I’ve been writing short stories, I thought I’d mention some more short story collections that I’ve read by other authors!

I first discovered Jane Yolen through her children's books, the adorable "How Does a Dinosaur?" books. I checked them out of the library to read to my little girl, and we ended up buying How Do Dinosaurs Clean Their Room?. These are lovely books for toddlers and young children--good messages delivered in a charming and imaginative way. However, on a later library trip, I discovered Sister Emily’s Lightship, and realized the author of some of my daughter's favorite books was also an award winning science fiction and fantasy writer for adults! I had to check the book out.

This book has twenty eight short stories, each one unique. In fact, it's hard to sum up Yolen's work, since the stories are so diverse in tone. Yet each one was interesting in its own right. I loved the lyricism of stories like "Become a Warrior" or "The Traveler and the Tale," as well as the cheeky impertinence of "Lost Girls." Yolen has a particular gift for re-telling fairy tales in a fresh, often startling way. "Granny Rumple" is penetrating examination of the Rumpelstiltskin story, one that reveals the original's unsavory origins. Likewise, "Allereirauh" and "Godmother Death" are haunting versions of folk tales and the bitter truths they hide. "Allereirauh" deals with the tragedy of incest and child abuse, and the horrid cycle it produces in one generation after another. Yolen also has several very funny stories, including a hilarious critique of Romeo and Juliet in "Dusty Loves" and the raunchy but enjoyable "Dick W. and his Pussy; or, Tess and her Adequate Dick."


Out of so many vastly different stories, I found it hard to pick my favorites, but if I had to, I'd say either "Sister Death" or "The Memoirs  of a Bottle Djinn." "Sister Death" is a dark tale about Lillith, yet the twist at the end, especially with its uncertain hope of redemption, makes it a powerful tale. I enjoyed "The Memoirs of a Bottle Djinn" because it was so evocative of the glories and joys of life, and the way that asceticism and religious fundamentalism rob life of its meaning. But the best part of the story was its wise protagonist, who recognizes that all the pleasures in the world are meaningless without love and companionship.

I'd recommend this book to anyone who loves science fiction and fantasy. And I'd also recommend Yolen's children's books to parents everywhere!

Review: Black Swan, White Raven

Black Swan, White Raven is a collection of fairy tales retold by modern fantasy writers. The stories are alternately dazzling, psychological, dark, and powerful. While a few fell flat, several stood out as brilliant re-imaginings of familiar stories.

In particular, I enjoyed Anne Bishop's retelling of Rapunzel, where the heroine learns true wisdom from her suffering. Don Webb's Three Dwarves and 2,000 Maniacs had an energetic and compelling voice, and captured the madcap insanity of magic run amok. Pat Murphy's The True Story turns the story of Snow White completely on its head, and raises some hard questions about why stepmothers are so reviled in stories, while fathers are excused. Likewise, Karen Fowler's The Black Fairy's Curse plays with our expectations about what makes a truly happy ending and a healthy relationship. Yet, perhaps the most eerie and unique story is Bruce Glassco's True Thomas, which seamlessly blends science fiction and fantasy into one of the most compelling versions of faeries I've ever read. This book is worth reading for that story alone.

A few of the stories were disappointing. I didn't care for The Flounder's Kiss--the main character seems likeable enough until the end of the story, when he becomes completely monstrous. It felt like an out of character transformation, and made the story feel uncomfortable and misogynistic. I also didn't care for the The Breadcrumb Trail, a poem included in the stories. It just didn't seem to work for me--it seemed to obvious.
Overall, I'd highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys fairytales, fantasy, or even science fiction. The stories are so diverse that each one feels new and exciting, even when they're retelling familiar stories. It's fascinating to read so many entirely new perspectives on fairy tales.

Short Stories: Why I Write Them

Over the last few years, I’ve written tons of short stories! I started writing them soon after I had my first child. As a new mother, I found it difficult to get the focused, sustained time and attention I needed to write a full length novel, so instead I started writing something short. I ended up really liking short stories, both to read and to write, because they can pack such an emotional punch in such a quick period of time.

Short stories are also good way for writers to explore different genres or writing styles without committing to an intense project. If you normally write serious, dramatic novels, you could try writing something light-hearted or funny in a short story. I've written short stories about minor characters or aspects of a world I might later use in a novel. That allows me to flesh out these side characters and give them more depth, and it can help with world-building.

It can be tricky with science fiction or fantasy stories because often the worlds we create in speculative fiction are unique to our imaginations. This is why many fantasy writers spend so much time "world-building," or writing about the setting of their stories or novels. For short stories, our world-building needs to be economized as much as possible. We need to suggest the nature of our world in a few words, or else our "short story" quickly swells into a novel with a limited, short-story plot. I handle this by trying to keep the world entirely within one character's perspective. If that character knows little about the nature of magic or a scientific discovery, then I don't give the reader an explanation either. It's often more dramatic and emotional if characters don't completely understand what's happening to them, or how things work. Life is often bewildering.

While writing short stories is a fun challenge, reading them wonderful too! I love many short stories by writers such as Connie Willis and Neil Gaiman. I also like reading multi-author anthologies such as Black Swan, White Raven, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, or the Nebula Awards Showcase books, which have some really excellent science fiction. Books like these can also help you find new authors whose writing and story telling you admire.

Of course, if you enjoy short stories, I hope you’ll read my book, Sapience, as well!