Hi! Welcome to a new series of posts.
“Short Fiction Time” will include both reviews of short fiction and discussions surrounding it. I’ve mentioned before that I haven’t been reading as much short stories and anthologies as I’d like, and this is my attempt to fix that.
In this post, I’ll be reviewing what I’ve read lately, and talk about reviews of anthologies and short story collections.
- The Girlfriend’s Guide to Gods by Maria Dahvana Headley (Tor.com): I tried this one pretty much on a whim. While I found its beginning really compelling and the format really original as well – braiding comparisons between common shitty boyfriend antics and godly misbehavior from Greek myths – I found myself kind of bored in the end, when the story turns into… a long list? It’s probably meant to mirror the way one might invoke a goddess, but it was boring to read. I didn’t really get the point of that, though of course Headley’s writing is gorgeous.
- I (28M) created a deepfake girlfriend and now my parents think we’re getting married by Fonda Lee (MIT Technology Review): structured like a r/relationship reddit post and just as wild as reddit posts sometimes get, this is a tale about online dating in a very near future, and it’s… creepy. Both because of the main character’s lack of self-examination (which was realistic for the kind of structure this went for, wasn’t it) and for the way I know some people trust algorithms this much. A compelling read with an ending that made me laugh. Some people never learn.
- Pistol Grip by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Uncanny): she’s one of the authors I had bookmarked (she’s been nominated for awards and I hadn’t read anything by her yet), so I decided to start with this one. And… oh wow. Way to start a story? I don’t know if I’m meant to, but I find fictional firearm unsafety very funny (…that’s a very specific trope). Anyway, this starts with gun sex. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Apart from that, this is a story about trauma, and finding ways to survive and be ourselves in the connections we form. A really unusual read about gay supersoldiers, and what can I say, I definitely won’t forget it easily.
In January I read Salt Slow by Julia Armfield.
This managed to gross me out in so many different yet very quiet ways, so of course I really appreciated it.
Salt Slow is a collection about unruly women. Women who defy the rules of reality, who are messy and ugly and feral, or turn so; women who are violent, long for the worst, howl at the moon.
In a society in which even a hint of these things in a woman is met with retaliation, it’s really refreshing to read stories that bend reality to allow us to be. This book isn’t afraid of gore, of going to dark places, and Julia Armfield’s prose certainly has teeth – both in the sense that this book will happily sink them in you and in the sense that almost every single story contains multiple occurrences of the word “teeth”. (why?)
Salt Slow has the kind of attention to detail that makes magical realism and contemporary fantasy truly magical for me – it cares about the mundane and the small, finds the shine and the rot in it. Most of its power comes from exploring speculative paths based on very real, very unremarkable events, turning an average day into an experience of quiet horror.
These stories all have the kind of conclusions that made me think, which I appreciate immensely. I know this will stay with me, as almost every single story did (interestingly, all of them but the one that gives the title to the book).
I often ended the stories feeling uneasy, and even more often, confused. I had to work to make them make sense, or to find a sense – sometimes the sense is a condensation of a story and your own experiences – and I will never turn down a puzzle, so this was fun as well.
As for what it talks about apart from the unifying thread, there are a lot of themes discussed here that are personal to me – most of all, the experience of being raised as a Catholic woman when you’re queer (Cassandra After) – and some that were not, like divorce (Smack), miscarriage (Salt Slow) or a marriage growing cold (Granite).
Individual reviews of the stories that stood out for me the most:
- My favorite was probably Stop your women’s ears with wax: not only because it centers an f/f relationship, though that is really appreciated too, but because of its sheer energy. It’s vibrant, unforgiving in its attention to detail, and has so much restlessness and color that it all blurs together. It’s about girl bands – kind of a response to sexism in the music industry and the way female bands and their fans are seen with disdain or not at all, with a disturbing turn evoking a fae court-like atmosphere.
- Cassandra After was probably the most personal to me, as it’s about being a Catholic-raised queer. Me and the main character don’t have the same experiences with it exactly, but this story gets how the shame that is written into us rewrites our experiences, makes it harder for us to do right by our loved ones, cleaves the connection between us and our communities, between us and our own bodies. This is a soft, quiet ghost story – the main character is visited by her dead ex-girlfriend, and both are looking for closure – and haunting stories have a special place in my heart, always. It’s about grief, regret, and the many small-yet-so-heavy ways things are more difficult for queer people, even in absence of explicit homophobia.
- The Great Awake was also remarkable, a beautiful, slow, sleepy story about sleeplessness, following the relationship between two women who each envy what the other has. It’s dreamlike and unhurried, and the ambiguous ending was a really interesting choice. I appreciated the exploration of the consequences of sleeplessness, but for me it’s more than anything about the sleepless, isolating nature of cities, and how we can survive them only by forming connections.
I want to also mention the two stories about puberty-as-metamorphosis, Mantis (which I reviewed here) and Formerly Feral (probably the most stunning symbolism I’ve seen in a long while), as I think those are also really interesting and would especially appeal to Wilder Girls fans.
My average rating of this might not be five stars, but that’s definitely how I see this collection.
As I loved reading Salt Slow – only one story every day, slowly, to give myself the time to think about them – I’m going to make an effort to read at least a short story every day. I’m currently reading How Long ‘Til Black Future Month and will probably review it in my next Short Fiction Time.
Now, onto the discussion topic of the month:
On Anthologies, Collections, and Ratings
The first anthology I ever read was Summer Days and Summer Nights, edited by Stephanie Perkins. When it came to writing a review – one I can’t link, as it’s on my old Italian blog – I didn’t even ask myself how to do that; the answer seemed obvious. An anthology is made of a certain number of short stories, there’s no content outside of them. It should go without saying that the most accurate way to review an anthology is to review and rate every single story. And as far as the overall rating is concerned, there’s nothing more accurate than the average rating.
That was 2016. I was sure of all of this then, but I’m not so sure now, because I realize this is not the way I remember anthologies. I don’t remember the stories of Summer Days and Summer Nights that didn’t speak to me; I remember the ones that did, I remember the one that changed my life – The End of Love by Nina LaCour, the first time I ever saw a sapphic girl be the protagonist of anything at all – and what if the average rating is a little under four? I remember it as something that is fully a four and nothing less. And this is one of the least glaring examples.
The most glaring for me is probably Three Sides of a Heart. In it, the average rating for me was also a little under four, and I originally rated it a four on goodreads – when it’s the anthology that completely changed my mind on love triangles as a trope, as it was its goal to do, to convince readers love triangles have potential. That’s because some of the short stories were such standouts (Vega by Brenna Yovanoff, and especially Before She Was Bloody by Tessa Gratton) that I completely don’t mind I DNFed some others. I changed the rating to five a few days ago.
Today, I think of anthologies and collections as more than a sum of their parts. I can’t even fully describe why, but I don’t feel like the way I recall them is accurately described by my average rating of the stories. I also think that not resonating/agreeing with all stories is a feature instead of a bug; an anthology should present as many facets and perspectives as possible, and it’s only natural that I’m not going to like all of them. I’ve moved from reviewing every story and saying almost nothing about the anthology as a whole to doing the opposite. Not all stories are as interesting, not all of them deserve as much space, but my feelings on the book as a whole do.
- Have you read any of these?
- What reviewing/rating method works best for you and describes your feelings about the anthology/collection more accurately?
- Are there any anthologies and collections you recommend?