readingtrance

book reviews by Althea


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Little Black Book of Stories – A.S. Byatt ****

I’ve read several of Byatt’s books – mostly because the covers tend to be irresistible. Until now, I’ve always found them to be good, but not amazing. This slim book of short stories is definitely my favorite of her work that I’ve read so far – perhaps I should go out of my way to find more of her short work!
Although advertised as ‘fairy tales’ these works are more ‘inspired by’ fairy tales than actual fairy tales. Well. Kinda sorta.  I would recommend this to people who enjoyed Angela Carter’s ‘Bloody Chamber.’

The Thing In The Forest
This is a wonderful story. It’s also genuinely horrific, creepier and more disturbing than many so-called ‘horror’ tales. Two little girls, sent away from London during the Blitz (I wonder if anyone’s ever done a count of just how many stories feature this plot element), encounter the titular thing. Later, we see how that one day has affected them, even as adults.

Body Art
OK, this story was beautifully written… and obviously, the author was intentionally going for a lot of moral ambiguity here. But I cannot get behind the story’s seeming message that if you just force a pregnant woman who is obviously not mentally, emotionally, or financially at a point where she wants to have a child, to give birth, she will fall in love with her baby and everything will work out for the best. OH NO. Still… the art made with the stolen medical/historical stuff? Wow.

A Stone Woman
Here, Byatt takes the common metaphor of being turned to stone, and turns it on its head. Here, turning to stone is not becoming lifeless or numb, but becoming strangely beautiful, oddly more alive, more in tune with the ancient rhythms of the earth.

Raw Material
Byatt’s taught writing at some point, hasn’t she? She must have. The portrayals of the amateur creative writing students here are hilarious.. and their criticisms of the one possible talented student heartbreaking. The eventual result? Horrifying.

The Pink Ribbon
Another really tragic story, about a man attempting to deal with his wife’s Alzheimer’s. Very well done, very sad.


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Mister B. Gone – Clive Barker ****

OK, at times it got a little gimmicky and repetitive. (There’s only so many times you want to hear a narrator imploring the reader to “burn this book… now!”) However, as it went on, it grew on me.
The narrator, a very minor demon from a horribly abusive family, keeps sucking you in to sympathise with him – and them reminding you that no, he really is kind of evil, when you get right down to it… but no, he’s just a poor little put-upon demon!
It starts as a bildungsroman, as the young demon, Jakabok Botch, goes out into the world, has an obsessive affair with an older demon… this part of the book is good enough. But the end, with Johannes Gutenberg as an essential character, and, of course, the Great Secret of the conflict between Heaven and Hell, is excellent.
Clive Barker is always an entertaining and clever writer, and in the end, this book does not disappoint.

Also – the book itself, as a physical object, is lovely. I love it when publishers bother to put money into making a book look nice. The faux-aged pages and old-fashioned font really work.


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All About Emily – Connie Willis ****

I love Connie Willis. However, I continue to be slightly befuddled by her passionate love of musical theater/old movies/retro celebrity… that sort of thing. It’s just not my thing.

It is certainly the thing of the main character in this book, though – an aging actress, who, much against her expectations, finds an emotional bond with a lifelike robot whose one dream in ‘life’ is to become a Rockette.

Although extremely short, the book is witty, touches thoughtfully on quite a few ethical questions, and is very touching. I cried. On the subway.

Side note: Yay for the public library! Because $20.00 (the price of this book) is really just too much for one story – even if it is a very good story by a very good author.


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The Armless Maiden, and Other Tales for Childhood’s Survivors – Terri Windling, ed.

I’m a big fan of Terri Windling, and make an effort to seek out her anthologies. Thus, I got this one. I’d heard rave reviews of it – people saying “This is the one that made a difference in my life!”
I was a bit quizzical about that, because for me, that was ‘Bordertown.’ And for me, it remains Bordertown, although I can see why other people might need this book more. I was lucky enough to always be wanting to run ‘to’ – not having to run ‘from.’
This book is on the theme of child abuse. It’s kind of a rough read – not that any one of the stories is so particularly awful, but when read all in one go – that’s a lot of child abuse. It’s emotionally difficult. Terri Windiling’s personal, autobiographical essay about why she chose to do this anthology is powerful, touching, and almost shockingly revealing.
As with any anthology, some of the stories are much better than others, but overall, it’s a very good anthology.

Contents:

The armless maiden ;The hero’s journey /Midori Snyder
Bedtime story /Lisel Mueller
Allerleirauh /Jane Yolen
Snow White to the prince /Delia Sherman
She sleeps in a tower /Tanith Lee
Briar rose (sleeping beauty) /Anne Sexton
In the house of my enemy /Charles de Lint
Fear of falling /Susan Palwick
Princess in Puce /Annita Harlan
The stepsister’s story /Emma Bull
The session /Steven Gould
The mirror speaks /Jane Yolen
The juniper tree /Peter Straub
Dolls /Guy Summertree Veryzer
This is us, excellent /Mark Richards
Saturn /Sharon Olds
The twelve-windowed tower /Silvana Siddali
Now I lay me /Sharon Olds
Now I lay me down to sleep /Ellen Kushner
Reading the Brothers Grimm to Jenny /Lisel Mueller
Knives ;Scars /Munro Sickafoos
The pangs of love /Jane Gardam
Brother and sister /Terri Windling
The face in the cloth /Jane Yolen
Their father /Gwen Strauss
The chrysanthemum robe /Kara Dalkey
Watching the bobolinks /Caroline Stevermer
The boy who needed heroes /Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Wolves /Sonia Keizs
Wolf’s heart ;The story I hadn’t planned to write /Tappan King
Gretel in darkness /Louise Gluck
The lily and the weaver’s heart /Nancy Etchemendy
Silvershod /Ellen Steiber
The lion and the lark /Patricia A. McKillip
The iron shoes /Johnny Clewell
The green children /Terri Windling
Guardian neighbor /Lynda Barry
The little dirty girl /Joanna Russ
Donkeyskin /Terri Windling
In the night country ;A matter of seeing /Ellen Steiber
Surviving childhood /Terri Windling
Dream catcher /Will Shetterly.


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Queen’s Own Fool – Jane Yolen ***

Enjoyable YA historical fiction, from the point of view of Mary, Queen of Scots’ court jester.
I tend to like Jane Yolen, and this book did not disappoint, even though it is co-written (by Robert J. Harris – don’t know much about him as a writer). It is a little juvenile in tone, more so than some YA books –  it’s an entertaining, fast-paced light read.
I did find myself wishing for a bit more depth and complexity, and more historical detail – but I still enjoyed it 4-stars’ worth.
Plus – excellent and appropriate cover art by Cynthia von Buhler.


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Dragon-Lover’s Treasury of the Fantastic – Margaret Weis, ed.

This book is pretty much exactly as advertised – if you’re in the mood for some dragons, and you’re a fan of fantasy fiction, there are stories here for you.
They’re not all excellent stories – but my rating gets raised up to 4 stars because it does have some true classics here – Anne McCaffrey’s gloriously un-PC ‘Weyr Search’ (the one that started it all!) and George R.R. Martin’s ‘Ice Dragon,’ for example.

The Jane Yolen story is an excerpt from her ‘Pit Dragon’ trilogy, which is still my favorite of her works.
The Joan Vinge selection is a wonderfully complex fairy tale, and one I hadn’t read before, as a bonus.
I had read the McKillip before; it’s a nice feminist take on a quest story.
Mickey Zucker Reichert – eh, I found the Japanese setting unconvincing.
L. Sprague de Camp – not a fan. You might be, but it’s just not my style of humor. If you like this, you’ll probably also like Gordon R. Dickson’s piece, which finishes up the book, and maybe even the rather crass Craig Shaw Gardner one. I just didn’t think the Mike Resnick piece was funny at all.
Roger Zelazny’s ‘The George Business’ is also humorous – but I liked it much better.
Lois Tilton’s ‘Dragonbone Flute’ is similar in setting, but beautiful and poignant.
Esther Friesner’s Viking-flavored tale was quite entertaining – pleasantly so, after I quite disliked the book I read by her recently.
Barbara Delaplace’s story of an abused wife is well-intentioned but clunky.
Steve Rasnic Tem’s sci fi/horror take on a dragon story is interesting, but not my favorite thing I’ve read by the author. The Greg Benford/Marc Laidlaw entry is also sci-fi… but, maybe because I just read it recently, it suffered in comparison to the similar ‘Override’ by George R.R. Martin.
Nancy Berberick – seems like it would be a good intro to a typical fantasy novel. Maybe it is – she’s written several ‘Dragonlance’ books. The David Drake; I also found to be kind of unmemorable.
Orson Scott Card – much as I’d like to dislike Card’s writing, I don’t. ‘A Plague of Butterflies’ is weird, disturbing, creepy and beautiful.
eluki bes shahar – A response to Moorcock’s Elric/Eternal Champion stories? A woman hero deals with her dangerously magical sword…
Contents:

Introduction by Margaret Weis
Weyr Search [Pern] by Anne McCaffrey
Cockfight by Jane Yolen
The Storm King by Joan D. Vinge
The Fellowship of the Dragon by Patricia A. McKillip
The Champion of Dragons by Mickey Zucker Reichert
Two Yards of Dragon [Eudoric Dambertson] by L. Sprague de Camp
Saint Willibald’s Dragon by Esther M. Friesner
A Drama of Dragons [Ebenezum] by Craig Shaw Gardner
The George Business by Roger Zelazny
The Dragonbone Flute by Lois Tilton
The Ice Dragon by George R. R. Martin
The Hidden Dragon by Barbara Delaplace
Last Dragon by Steve Rasnic Tem
The Wizard’s Boy by Nancy Varian Berberick
A Hiss of Dragon by Gregory Benford & Marc Laidlaw
A Plague of Butterflies by Orson Scott Card
The Ever-After by eluki bes shahar
Dragons’ Teeth [Dama (& Vettius)] by David Drake
The Trials and Tribulations of Myron Blumberg, Dragon by Mike Resnick
St. Dragon and the George [Jim Eckert] by Gordon R. Dickson


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The Charwoman’s Shadow – Lord Dunsany ****

This is one of those books that it’s a little bit embarrassing to admit that I hadn’t already read. I’ve read who knows how many tales that were influenced to some degree by Dunsany… but not a lot actually by him.

The Charwoman’s Shadow is a lovely, original fairy tale. In order to gain money for his daughter’s dowry, a father sends his son to apprentice to a magician, with the goal of discovering the method of turning lead into gold. But the magician asks high prices for his secrets.  An old servant warns the young man not to give up his shadow to the wizard, as she did, long ago – but a shadow seems a relatively small price to pay. And when the young man’s sister begs him for a love potion, instead of a dowry, he wishes only to be able to give her what she wants…