The Water Diviner and Other Stories, byRuvanee Pietersz Vilhauer****

ALT.FINAL_The WaterI read this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and University of Iowa Press. This distinctive collection is for sale now.

All told there are fifteen stories, all of them featuring Sinhalese Sri Lankans, most of them expatriates that have moved to the United States.  Before commencing I knew very little about the culture of this small island country, apart from its having been colonized by Britain earlier in its history. I still know very little, but this collection is an approachable way to introduce oneself, in addition to being well crafted fiction.

Several of the stories are dark, dealing with the racism and ignorance with which immigrants are often greeted. The angriest of the stories is “A Burglary On Quarry,” in which a student is accused of burglary by her well-to-do, bigoted landlord who doesn’t want to face the obvious perpetrator: her own son.  It reads like a manifesto, and it makes me want to pump my fist and yell, “Tell it!”

This, however, is something none of the characters in these stories would do, apart from the privileged Caucasian American in “Accident.”  David nearly comes to great harm while visiting his new wife’s homeland, largely due to his own obliviousness; it hasn’t occurred to him that he himself might be deemed unacceptable for his race and nation of origin, having lived all of his life as an affluent member of the dominant culture. He is from Texas, and he’s drunk, and he doesn’t even try to understand discretion or subtext. As his wife’s neighbors ogle him suspiciously and the police consider that he may have caused an auto accident for which he is not responsible, he continues to assure his wife—in English—that everything is just fine. He says nothing quietly, ever, and it takes a political connection on the part of his wife’s relatives to extricate him from the hard place he doesn’t know he’s in.

Other entries are also bittersweet, and “Sonny’s Last Game” stands out as one of these. However, “Leisure” literally made me laugh out loud. Well, guffaw, actually: “Cutex! Who does she think she is!”

The last entry, “Hello My Dear”, is both funny and bittersweet, as Prema is faced with the question of whether an email from a stranger is a scam or the real deal.

I enjoyed this collection tremendously and would read Vilhauer again in a heartbeat.

The Big Book of Female Detectives*****

TheBigBookofFemaleDWell now, that was a meal. Penzler does nothing halfway, and this meaty collection of 74 stories took me awhile to move through. I read most, but not all, and I’ll get to that in a minute. First, though, thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The collection begins with Mrs. Paschal, published in 1864, who must find “the cleverest thieves in Christendom,” and it concludes with a piece by Joyce Carol Oates. The stories are broken down into sections, beginning with The Victorians and Edwardians, followed by Before World War I, The Pulp Era, The Golden Age, Mid-Century, and The Modern Era, and concluded with Bad Girls. Says Penzler in his introduction:

“Seeing the Evolution of the female detective’s style as it gathers strength and credibility through the decades is educational, but that is not the purpose of this book, or not the primary one, anyway. The writers whose work fills these pages are the best of their time, and their stories are among the high points of detective fiction that may be read with no greater agenda than the pure joy that derives from distinguished fiction.”

And so the reader must absorb the hallmarks of the time period, and that means the earliest entries carry a certain number of stereotypes, primarily about the nature of women, but in the end, the detective is successful nevertheless. And it’s fun to see historical details written in present tense long ago, and so we know it’s getting to be late out when the lamplighters come out to start the gas lights in the hallways of the manse, for example. It’s also interesting to read authors that were the runaway sensations of their day, the ones that sold the most and wrote the most and were on the tongues of every mystery reader—and yet now they are completely obscure. We can never tell who will stand the test of time until it happens.

And now a confession. The first time I set out to read this tome, I read the entries in the first two sections and decided I would skip the portion devoted to pulp, which isn’t my personal favorite, and I would skip forward to read an entry by one of my favorite present-day mystery writers, and then go back again to cover the sections that come after the pulp section. That was my plan. I’m telling you this because the mistake I made here could happen to you, too, so here it is.

What I did was I skipped to the last section and began flipping through it, and then I was pissed, because I thought the best female detective writers of today had been left out, and in a huff, I abandoned the rest of the book and picked up something else. It wasn’t until I sat down to write a halfhearted review, in which I would explain what I read and what I skipped and why, that I reread the promotional teaser and realized I must have missed something. I went back to the galley, moved back to the second-to-last section that is clearly labeled “Modern”, and there they all were, and it is the longest, most inclusive section in the collection. That changed everything. So reader, if you go for this book, bear in mind that the sections are not completely linear. The “Bad Girls” section at the end, which didn’t do much for me but you may like it, is made up of stories about women criminals from a variety of different time periods. The most recent time period, the one bearing selections by Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, the late and beloved Sue Grafton, Nevada Barr, and a host of others, is second-to-last.

Once I realized my error, of course I returned to read the rest of the book.

The one sorrowful note here is that those of us that love these modern female detectives enough to have bought other anthologies, for example those brought to us by the Paretsky group, “Sisters in Crime,” will run across selections we have already read. I have seen both the Grafton and Paretsky stories already, although the piece by Barr, “Beneath the Lilacs,” is new to me. However, I see authors I haven’t read and will happily watch for now. The end of the mid-century section features “Mom Sings an Aria,” and although it veers a wee bit toward stereotypes, I can’t say I mind too much, because this writer makes me laugh out loud. James Yaffe is on my list now. “Blood Types”, by Julie Smith is likewise pithy, and “Miss Gibson,” by Linda Barnes also cracks me up. And I don’t know why I am still surprised by this. After reading so many anthologies, you’d think I’d realize that the greatest charms are had by finding brand new-to-me authors, but since it’s a good surprise every time, I may allow myself not to absorb the lesson; this way I can still be pleasantly surprised over and over again.

If you buy a holiday gift for a mystery lover, I recommend you get this book. If you try to buy something by your loved one’s favorite author, you may run up against it as I did: they’ve already read it. (And you probably hate returning things as much as I do.) But what are the chances she has this anthology? It’s over a thousand pages of detective fiction, and last I saw, it’s on sale for less than twenty bucks. There, that’s one gift chosen for you, and it’s not even November yet. You’re welcome.

The O Henry Prize Stories 2018, by Laura Furman, editor*****

TheOHenryPrize2018This collection is guaranteed to be good, and I was thrilled when I received a review copy, thanks to Net Galley and Doubleday. Those that enjoy strong fiction should buy it and read it, even if you have to pay full jacket price. This year’s edition holds 20 prize winning stories along with a bit of judging commentary at the end. This book is now for sale.

The first story in any short story collection is bound to be good, and so I knew that Joanne Beard’s Tin House would be strong, and it is, in a dark, surreal way. I wouldn’t read it at bedtime lest it enter my dreams, but it’s memorable, original, and gritty. I also enjoy Brad Felver’s Queen Elizabeth, and Past Perfect Continuous, by Dounia Choukri. My favorite of all of them, the one that made me laugh out loud, is Why Were They Throwing Bricks, by Jenny Zhang, a story that features a cagey, manipulative Chinese grandmother and the grandchildren whose lives she enters, leaves and reenters. Zhang appears to have mostly published poetry up to this point, but I hope she writes more fiction, because I want to read it.

The only aspect of any short story that I don’t enjoy is the open-ended sort that conclude with no real resolution. This screamingly frustrating inclination is minimal here, showing at the ends of a just a couple of the featured stories.

Short stories are terrific to leave, once you’ve finished them, in your guest room, because people that stay with you briefly can read a story or more without the frustration of having to either leave an incomplete novel behind or beg to borrow it, not knowing when they can return it. If you need an excuse to get this excellent collection for yourself, there it is.

Highly recommended.

Dusty Zebra and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak***

Dusty ZebraClifford Simak was a prolific writer of short stories, mostly science fiction starting in the 1930s when the genre was new, and initially the stories were sold individually to magazines. They have been curated and released digitally by his friend, David W. Wixon, who provides a forward and brief, interesting notes before each one. My thanks go to Open Road Media and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received in 2016 in exchange for this very tardy but honest review.

Open Road offers the entire Simak collection in a series, and as a fan of old school science fiction–the sort that doesn’t make inside jokes for programmers and code writers–I have been snapping them up. I read #1, #4, and #7-10 and loved them all, and so I settled happily down to read this one. The introduction by Wixon is perhaps the best of the notes I have seen so far, and the first story, Dusty Zebra, is uproarious. I loved it. After that, not so much.

In addition to having written a ton of science fiction and a few westerns, which were hugely popular in the 1950s and early 1960s, Simak also wrote a few World War II stories, primarily during and shortly after the war. These are not stories that have aged well. There are a whole raft of ugly racist terms used in them that were horrifyingly common among Caucasian Americans during that time period. We are better people now, most of us, and so reading this sort of thing puts my teeth on edge. I skipped around in the collection some, but even those that contained none of this crap somehow failed to hold my attention. I moved to the last story, since short stories are often bookended with the strongest selections, and I didn’t care for it either; it wasn’t offensive, but it also wasn’t interesting. Simak sometimes struggled with dialogue, and so dialogue-heavy selections are usually not his best work.

Open Road doesn’t post on Net Galley anymore, but I still have one more of their Simak collections, #12, and I intend to read it and review it. With 6 excellent collections and 1 mostly lousy one, I like my odds. But for fans of wonderful science fiction, I recommend turning to one of the others noted above, all of which I have reviewed. Simak’s work is great more often than not, and I still encourage you to read it; in fact, since it’s selling cheaply, you could even buy this one for the title story if you have a mind to. But you’ll get more bang for your buck by turning to the others first.

The Island Dwellers, by Jen Silverman*****

TheIslandDwellersJen Silverman is a playwright with a list of awards as long as your arm. With this impressive collection of short stories, she steps into the world of prose with guns a-blazing. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review. This book is now for sale.

Silverman’s contemporary fiction is themed, as the title suggests, around people that live on islands in various parts of the world. Everything here is edgy and a little bit dark. Her characters are melancholy, naïve, neurotic, bent, and at times laugh-out-loud funny; she doesn’t leave her endings—or her readers—hanging, and I didn’t successfully predict the way any of her stories would turn out. We have destructive relationships; relationships that are hellishly unequal; artists that aren’t really; strange, strange animals—oh, hell, that Japanese pit viper! But the thing that ties these tales together, apart from the theme, is deft, tight writing.

Anyone planning a vacation should pack this title, whether in paper or digitally. Short stories are terrific for bed time and when traveling, because the end of each story gives the reader a reasonable place to pause even when the prose is masterfully rendered, as it is here. This volume was released May 1, 2018 and is highly recommended.

Bring Out the Dog, by Will Macklin****

bringthedogsWill Macklin can really write. His disquieting collection of short stories draws from his time as a special operations soldier in Iran and Afghanistan. Some soldiers come home and go crazy, if they aren’t already; this one came home to write. Thanks go to Random House and Net Galley for the DRC.

The skill level that is shown in these eleven stories, from setting, to pacing, to character, is tremendous. That said, I found it hard to read. Given the subject matter, I shouldn’t have been surprised, but it rattled my cage more than most; then too, the opening story involves deliberately blowing up the home of a teacher that one of the local allies disliked, and I suspect that other teachers are going to have a tough time with that one, too. I set the collection aside to shake off my dislike, and then plunged in again. To be fair, there isn’t one of these tales that is designed to be a feel-good read. They’re all intended to move readers out of their comfort zones, and the author succeeds richly for this reviewer.

I am not a fan of ambiguous endings, and all of these stories conclude that way, which is where the single star fell off my rating.

The most impressive addition is “Kattekoppen”, and after I noted this, I discovered that it was included in a best short story collection.

Macklin is a writer to watch. This collection is recommended to those that like war stories.

The Magic Spinster, by Mallory Ortberg*****

themerryspinsterMallory Ortberg’s feminist horror collection is bound to be the best short story collection of 2018, darkly funny, cleverly conceived and brainier than I realized when I signed on for it. Many thanks go to Henry Holt and Net Galley for the review copy, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. This title is for sale now.

Ortberg takes well known children’s stories and fairy tales and injects sinister elements into them, sometimes starting with the exact wording of the story, cited in her endnotes, and then changing it a tiny bit at a time. If you don’t know the story quite well, you may not be able to pinpoint the exact place Ortberg goes off script; some of these are Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which are fairly, uh, grim in the first place and not originally intended for small children. She often combines the influence of a second fairy tale, and everything is beautifully documented at the back, just so you can see how she did it.

At first I wondered if I would react badly to this; I am a grandmother of tiny children as well as a retired teacher, and these stories tread on sacred ground. But it’s done with such genius that all I can do is shake my head in admiration.

There are eleven stories. One of my favorites is the title story, in which a woman is held prisoner by a captor that builds her a fabulous library, but tells her that he will decide what she will read. There’s horror for you. There’s a takeoff on The Little Mermaid that left me with half the story highlighted out of admiration. The Thankless Child features a fairy godmother that is more of a mafia figure, like a supernatural, female Godfather.

But perhaps my very favorite is The Rabbit, which is a takeoff on The Velveteen Rabbit. I began this one with a furrowed brow, because the original story is so dear to my heart, a cherished experience held with each of the four babies I bore and raised. But my prior knowledge is actually a useful thing, because with the original more or less committed to memory, I can see where she begins to alter the story. At first she changes just the tiniest things, and then gradually adds more…and in her version, the rabbit loathes the boy and seeks revenge. In the end it is the same story, and yet different enough that it doesn’t offend me as I suspected it might. She started with apples and made bleeding red oranges.

Ortberg has created a masterpiece of feminist fiction replete with some of the best word smithery found in contemporary prose. It can be read at the surface level, just for your amusement—which is guaranteed to all that enjoy gallows humor—or as a scholarly endeavor. I expected this book to be full of darkly ridiculous stories themed around women’s issues. Instead it is even better, both brainy and hilarious, the best surprise of 2018.

Highly recommended to all that appreciate great feminist fiction and enjoy dark humor.

Nothing with Strings, by Bailey White****

nothing with stringsWith Christmas around the corner, I bought this slender volume for less than five bucks. It brightened my days (and my bathroom) until I finished it.

White has a droll sense of humor, quirky, eccentric, and at times understated enough that if my mind strays to other things even slightly, I find I have missed something funny. My favorites are the title story, which is fall-down-laughing funny, and “What Would They Say in Birmingham”. Here I have to add that White’s protagonists tend to be Caucasian Southerners, and the humor she employs will most likely appeal to the typical NPR audience, which is mostly white liberal Boomers from all over the United States.

Although it’s billed as a collection of Christmas stories, the holiday influence here is minimal. It’s the sort of collection one could read at any time of year without feeling out of place. I like short story collections because they can be tucked into the guest room, where visitors can read a story or two even if they won’t be around long enough to go through the whole book, but this time I dropped it into a Christmas box I was mailing to relatives as a happy extra little surprise.

Recommended to fans of this writer, and to older white folks that like short stories.

Bad Kansas, by Becky Mandelbaum*****

“It’s either school, a job, or a girl,” she said. “Or death. Those are the only reasons for coming to Kansas. Unless you’re born here, of course. Then it’s a matter of escaping.’

BadKansasThis collection won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, and it may very well win more awards as well. Thanks go to Net Galley and University of Georgia Press for providing me with a free advance review copy in exchange for this honest review. The collection is now available to the public.

We have eleven stories here, all of them set in Kansas, and all of them excellent. Every story is built around a dysfunctional romantic entanglement. There are manipulative relationships, stalkers, couples held together by money alone, and there are pathetically lonely types that want to cling to a dying romance at all costs. Somehow, Mandelbaum takes a wide range of pathological partners and makes them hilarious. In addition, the character development surprises me, going beyond what one might anticipate in short stories. My personal favorite is “A Million and One Marthas”, which is darkly funny and skewers the wealthy and entitled, but it’s a hard call, because the quality is uniformly strong, with not a bad one in the bunch.

Nobody needs to know anything about Kansas to enjoy this collection, and by the time the last rapier thrust has been extended, you’ll feel better about not having been there.

Mandelbaum is on a tear. She’s witty, irreverent, and clearly a force to be reckoned with. Look for her in the future, and if you see her coming, step aside, because nobody, but nobody can stop her now.  Highly recommended to those that love edgy humor.