The Folk Tales of Scotland: The Well at the World’s End and Other Stories

By Norah Montgomerie, William Montgomerie

Rating: 3 stars

This was an interesting collection of folk- and fairy-tales from across Scotland. Most of them are very short, only a few pages each, which hardly leaves any space for characterisation or plot development. There’s a lot of repetition within stories as well – the power of three crops up again and again where the hero must do things three times to get the effect. I imagine this works better in the oral tradition than written down. There are also variations on well-known stories (including Cinderella and Rumpelstiltskin) and lots of very traditional roles (princess offered in marriage as a prize for the hero recurs often).

But it’s interesting to read older versions of some of these traditional stories to see how they’ve evolved over time and where there are seeds for other stories. It’s also nice (if somewhat surprising) to see several stories featuring Finn McCool, who’s more closely associated with Irish mythology.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841586946
Publisher: Birlinn Ltd
Year of publication: 1956

Sunspot Jungle: The Ever Expanding Universe of Fantasy and Science Fiction

By Bill Campbell

Rating: 4 stars

This is a pretty huge collection, and the range of stories is impressive as well. There’s no real theme to the collection, but it’s a set of well-told tales. The opening is as strong as you would expect from someone with the reputation of N. K. Jemisin, being a dystopia where the alien Masters control the earth, and the very bodies of its people. The tone of the stories varies up and down, but seems to get darker towards the end of the collection. That particular beat isn’t to my taste, but there’s enough else here to enjoy, and no story really outstays its welcome (the only story that I mostly skipped was Clifton Gachagua’s No Kissing the Dolls Unless Jimi Hendrix is Playing as I just found it impenetrable).

Some highlights for me include Sarah Pinsker’s A Song Transmuted about the power of music; Real Boys by Clara Kumagai, telling the story of one of the boys turned into donkeys in Pinocchio (that scene in the Disney film terrified me as a kid); Madeleine by Amal El-Mohtar, about a woman who may or may not be going mad; How to Piss Off a Failed Super Soldier by John Chu, about a super-powered person who needs help to learn how to live. I perhaps shouldn’t have read Hal Duncan’s A Pinch of Salt — tale of sex and blasphemy — while I was eating, but then knowing what I do about Duncan, that was my own fault.

So a strong collection, with a lot of variety, and contributions from all over the world. It’s nice to see an editor willing to pull contributions from beyond the usual anglophone sphere.

Book details

ISBN: 9780998705972
Publisher: Rosarium Publishing
Year of publication: 2018

Strength Of Stones

By Greg Bear

Rating: 2 stars

I found it difficult to engage with this book at all, I’m afraid. I loved the idea of mobile cities (long before Mortal Engines), who had kicked out their inhabitants, and yet yearned for citizens to fill their streets and be lived in. I found the characters not hugely engaging, but most of all I found the end unsatisfying.

With the final of the three linked novellas pulling together threads and characters from the previous stories, and the appearance of (a simulacrum of) the architect Robert Khan, who had created the cities, I felt like there would be change. Instead, we’re left with stasis. Nothing changes at the end; entropy wins. The living cities all die, religious zealotry prevents the improvement of the lot of the people of God-Does-Battle, and the city part Jeshua is left completely alone on Earth.

I didn’t entirely understand the whole thing with the multiple versions of Khan, but it seemed like his plan was to create matter transportation bridges to move the entire population (along with possibly the rest of the human race?) to a giant sphere, where they’ll exist in energy form. Or something? But the fanatic Matthew decided that God had decreed that everyone had to stay where they were, so he destroyed two of the cities that were to take part. And what was up with Thule? I still don’t understand that at all. Is the moral that gnosticism is bad…?

So some good ideas, but a muddy and disappointing (not to mention pretty bleak) ending.

Book details

ISBN: 9780441790692
Publisher: Ace
Year of publication: 1981

The October Man (Rivers of London, #7.5)

By Ben Aaronovitch

Rating: 3 stars

This novella is a bit more substantial than The Furthest Station and is the first mainstream work that moves away from the PoV of Peter Grant. Looking at the GR series for the Rivers of London I did notice the name of Tobias Winter though, so it turns out that this wasn’t his appearance in the series, even if the previous one was a flash fiction piece on Aaronovitch’s blog summarising the lead up to Tobias becoming a practitioner.

In this novella, Tobias is well on that journey, and is sent to investigate the potentially magical death of a man in the city of Trier. His local liaison is Vanessa Sommer (and more than one person cracks a joke at the expense of Winter and Sommer) who turns out to be competent, enthusiastic and ambitious.

Although we’re not in London any more, the local river goddess does make an appearance and Tobias is a decent enough Peter Grant substitute. I do miss the familiar crowd though. I liked both Tobias and Vanessa, but the former doesn’t really have a distinct narrative voice for me, and it did feel like Aaronovitch spent a long time covering basics that readers would really be familiar with by now, after seven novels, six graphic novels and a handful of short stories. Although, to be fair, it is interesting to see the German perspective on things that we think we’re familiar with.

That’s really the most interesting thing about this story, really: seeing familiar things from a different perspective and seeing how another culture deals with magic. Towards the end of The Hanging Tree Peter Grant muses on establishing communications with other national magical police forces. It’s clear from Tobias that this hasn’t happened yet (although Tobias keeps tabs on Peter, he doesn’t think that Peter knows about him) and that would make for an interesting story.

Book details

ISBN: 9781473228665
Publisher: Gollancz
Year of publication: 2019

Snow White Learns Witchcraft: Stories and Poems

By Theodora Goss

Rating: 4 stars

I picked this collection up after reading the Athena Club books by the same author, which I thoroughly enjoyed. This collection has a very different feel to it. While the Athena Club is set in Victorian London, these are retellings and reinterpretations of fairy tales, bringing the women in them to the fore.

Some worked better than others for me, and there were some that I enjoyed, but don’t know the underlying story. Goss is originally from Hungary, and I think several Eastern European tales or variants made their way in to the collection (for example, there were several stories referring to the bear’s wife, but my google-fu failed me on that one).

I often have trouble with poetry, but I’m pleased that the poetry presented here isn’t as dense as some and was often quite prose-like, so I was able to read it almost like a prose story. Of the stories, I think I enjoyed Blanchefleur the best. Again, I’m not sure I recognise the specific story that it came from, but it had the structure and feel of a fairy tale. And it was a love story, which I’m always a sucker for. The Other Thea is a lovely story about wholeness and belonging; while A Country Called Winter about a refugee who makes startling discoveries about her family and her home.

I enjoyed this collection a lot and will certainly look out for more of Goss’s short fiction (as well, of course, as the next ‘Athena Club’ book!)

Book details

Publisher: Mythic Delirium Books
Year of publication: 2017

Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories

By Naomi Kritzer

Rating: 5 stars

I got this book as part of the Feminist Futures story bundle and it caught my eye because I’d read the title story when it was nominated for a Hugo award a few years ago. I loved the story then, and was pleased that it went on to win the Hugo for short story that year and was happy to revisit it as part of this collection.

I’ll be honest, I haven’t enjoyed a collection of short stories as much as this in a long time. There’s not a story here that didn’t connect with me in some way, although some moreso than others. I’m not going to go through every story in detail, but here are some of the highlights. Ace of Spades deals with themes of changes in modes of warfare, how the reduction in risk that technology brings affects decisions, and second chances, all with a sympathetic protagonist dealing with being dealt a crappy hand by fate. Wind is a story about extremes, about two girls who give up something that provides balance in their lives in exchange for something that they yearn for and then have to live with the consequences. Cleanout deals with three daughters clearing out their mother’s house, after she moves into a home and is a beautiful story of grief, loss and coping.

The Good Son had me in tears as a fey follows a human girl back to America and bewitches an old, childless couple, to think of him as their son, to provide camouflage while he chases the girl. Except he doesn’t realise the implications that creating a family will have for him. This is another beautiful story of what family means and the extents we will go to for those we love. Bits, on the other hand, is a hilarious story about alien refugees and the humans who fall in love with them and then need help to have a, er, full relationship. Sex toys. It’s a story about a firm that creates a line of sex toys to help alien/human couples have sex. And it’s brilliant. The final story in the collection, So Much Cooking is told as a series of blog entries in a cookery blog, at the start of an influenza pandemic and how the author and her family cope with not being able to leave the house (and it’s got some cracking recipes as well).

So having enjoyed this collection immensely, I very much look forward to reading more of Kritzer’s work.

Book details

Publisher: Fairwood Press
Year of publication: 2017

Magic for Beginners

By Kelly Link

Rating: 2 stars

I’m afraid I really didn’t enjoy this book much, and what’s worse is that I feel bad for not enjoying it. The author is obviously very familiar with story and storytelling, and the stories in this collection reflect that familiarity and her playing with it and twisting it. Unfortunately, what we ended up with was something well out of my comfort zone and into the surreal. Now I don’t mind a certain level of surrealism (I’m very fond of Robert Sheckley, who didn’t object to going down strange narrative roads at times) but this was too much for me.

I got the book as part of a Humble Bundle and it took me literally years to get past the first story. Having managed that in the end, I struggled with the rest of it. Sometimes the story was just bizarre from the start, without much in the way of structure or plot (The Hortlak, The Cannon) but others start off interesting, or at least hinting that there’s a plot but spiral into strangeness (The Lull, Stone Animals). The one I found most disappointing, possibly because it was the one I enjoyed the most, right up until the last page, was Some Zombie Contingency Plans about a guy who’s not long out of prison and drives around, with a painting in the boot of his car, crashing parties. I was enjoying the slow pace and the actual structure of this. I just don’t like where it went in the end (assuming that I’m reading it right).

So a strong collection if you like works that know the limits of story and are happy to go beyond that, or works with a strong streak of surrealism running through them. Unfortunately, I like neither of those, so I’m afraid this is not for me.

Book details

Publisher: Small Beer Press
Year of publication: 2005

Worlds Enough & Time: Five Tales of Speculative Fiction

By Dan Simmons

Rating: 3 stars

I mostly enjoyed the stories in this collection. It pulls together five longer stories, more or less of novella length, along with introductions for each one. As I say, the stories are generally quite enjoyable, but the introductions are another matter. They seem to lack the discipline and editing that goes into the stories, feeling bloated and self-indulgent. The exception to this is the introduction to my favourite story in the collection, Orphans of the Helix, a story set in the universe of the Hyperion Cantos. Set some years after the end of Rise of Endymion, it was nice to return to that universe, following a group of colonists of the Amoiete Spectrum Helix, looking for a planet to settle well outside existing human space who encounter a distress signal en-route.

Of the other stories, I probably enjoyed On K2 with Kanakaredes the most, about a small group of mountain climbers who climb the world’s second-highest mountain with an alien, even if a lot of the actual mountain-climbing bits left me cold. I felt there was lots of context in The Ninth of Av that I wasn’t getting. It’s a story about the end of the world, as the post-humans get ready to put the remaining old-fashioned humans into suspended animation while they clean up the Earth. Or possibly it’s about genocide of the Jews. I think there were hints in the text, but possibly ones you need to be familiar with Judeo-Christian mythology to understand.

Looking for Kelly Dahl was interesting, about a suicidal former school teacher who has to track down one of his former pupils. And finally, The End of Gravity was possibly the least interesting to me. You know that cliché about Lit Fic being all about 50-something straight white writers who have affairs with young, pretty women? This felt sort of like that. The protagonist is an older straight white male writer, and there’s an attraction to a younger woman, and possibly some sort of metaphor involving the International Space Station that I didn’t really get. I think I found the protagonist too irritating to really pay that much attention to his internal monologue.

So a decent hit rate with stories that have a bit more room to breathe than your normal shorts. But I would mostly skip the introductions (although YMMV, as always).

Book details

ISBN: 9780060506049
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Year of publication: 2002

A Better Way to Die: The Collected Short Stories

By Paul Cornell

Rating: 2 stars

In his introduction, John Scalzi claims that Paul Cornell is, possibly, the nicest man in science fiction. I’ve only met the chap once or twice, but from those, and from Twitter, I wouldn’t argue the proposition. That makes it difficult to come out and say that I didn’t really enjoy much of this collection. Although Cornell has written some cracking Doctor Who, this volume, as well as my reading of the first of his Shadow Police series and his Lychford books suggest that his personal style doesn’t work for me. He seems to write from a dark place, something which comes out moreso in his short fiction. The stories in this collection are set in chronological order (with the Hamilton stories sorted at the end), so we can see his style and his writing develop.

The early stories, The Deer Stalker, Michael Laurits is: DROWNING and Global Collider Generation: An Idyll feel quite experimental, and I struggled to understand a lot of them; The Sensible Folly was a lot more fun, as were the two Wild Cards stories (Cornell’s contribution to George R. R. Martin’s shared universe). The Ghosts of Christmas felt really bleak all the way through and I really struggled to read that story.

The Hamilton stories were interesting because they start out almost as James Bond pastiche, in a world where Newton’s musings took him in a very different direction, where the great powers of the 19th century have survived and still play their Great Game, while maintaining a “balance” to avoid all-out war. It feels like these stories in particular get very dark as they go on. Hamilton is a complex character, trapped by ties of loyalty and love in a very cruel world. It’s easy to feel sympathy for him, and even what he does, and still be appalled at his world.

An interesting collection, with a strong authorial voice. Read if you enjoy going to dark places, but not really to my taste.

Book details

ISBN: 9781907069840
Publisher: NewCon Press
Year of publication: 2015


By Roald Dahl

Rating: 3 stars

This collection is part of a themed series put out by Penguin to showcase Dahl’s adult short fiction. The clue to the theme is in the title, with trickery and deceit being the order of the day. Some of the stories fit the theme by a thread (such as the first story, The Wish about a boy who imagines his carpet to be full of monsters), but most are good fits. I hadn’t known that one of my favourite Dahl books as a youngster, Danny, the Champion of the World, was based on a short story, but it was, and it’s in this collection. The plot is much the same (but with adult protagonists) but with fewer words, there’s less space for characterisation.

The longest story in the collection is one of Dahl’s ‘Uncle Oswald’ stories, and it’s nice to see the licentious old man get the wool pulled over his eyes. Other highlights for me included The Surgeon about a surgeon who is given an astounding gift; and Beware of the Dog about an RAF pilot who comes down and finds himself in hospital.

While some of these have lost their sting over the years, many others still retain their bite and sense of “oof” that comes with the twist. It’s a fun collection, if quite short, and a decent introduction to Dahl’s adult short fiction.

Book details

ISBN: 9781405933230
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2017

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