BOOK REVIEW: Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears ed. by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Ruby Slippers, Golden TearsRuby Slippers, Golden Tears by Ellen Datlow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This anthology consists of 22 pieces of short fiction written by 21 authors and connected by the theme of “fairy tales.” These are variations on traditional folk and fairy tales written for adult audiences. Some are more recognizable than others either because they follow the original more or less or because they start with a more or less well-known tale. (Make a note, these aren’t for bedtime reading for the kids– unless you’re willing to shell out for therapy. Some are dark and some deal in adult sexual themes.)

 

“Ruby Slippers” by Susan Wade: A modern, journalistic hearing of the “Wizard of Oz.”

 

“The Beast” by Tanith Lee: What does a woman’s new husband do when he goes out, and where does he go? A variation on the theme of “Beauty and the Beast.”

 

“Masterpiece” by Garry Kilworth: This is a deal-with-the-devil story in which an artist must make a perverse decision between his masterpiece or something else dear.

 

“Summer Wind” by Nancy Kress: This is the first of three pieces that play off the Briar Rose / Sleeping Beauty concept. A prevailing theme is one of making a less passive sleeping princess.

 

“This Century of Sleep or, Briar Rose Beneath the Sea” by Farida S. T. Shapiro: This is one of the few poetic pieces in the anthology. It reconsiders the Briar Rose [Sleeping Beauty] fable.

 

“The Crossing” by Joyce Carol Oates: This is the last of the stories built around Sleeping Beauty. It’s a period piece set neither in ancient times nor the present day.

 

“Roach in Loafers” by Roberta Lannes: This is a humorous retelling of the tale in which the elves come each night and save the over-burdened cobbler.

 

“Naked Little Men” by Michael Cadnum: This time, instead of a cockroach, it’s naked little men that come to do the work.

 

“Brother Bear” by Lisa Goldsmith: Part Goldilocks and part tale of marriage in the animal kingdom.

 

“The Emperor Who Had Never Seen a Dragon” by John Brunner: An arrogant, despicable, and dense Chinese Emperor summons an artist who draws dragons, insisting the artist introduce him to a dragon. This story goes in the “be careful what you wish for” file. It’s among my favorites of this anthology.

 

“Billy Fearless” by Nancy Collins: Another outstanding story. Billy is fearless and he’s suffered for it because his father and others think he doesn’t have any sense. (He’s not the sharpest tool.) But one day he finds himself in a situation in which his fearlessness might work to his advantage.

 

“The Death of Koshchei The Deathless” by Gene Wolfe: This is based on a Russian folk tale of the same name, but shedding the superstitious / supernatural elements to give it a bit of realism.

 

“The Real Princess” by Susan Palwick: The story’s basis is “The Princess and the Pea.” The story is built around a sadistic king of an impoverished kingdom and the “Real Princess” who comes to live with him.

 

“The Huntsman’s Story” by Milbre Burch: The Huntsman from the Snow White fairy tale, but in a brusk style and with a key difference.

 

“After Push Comes to Shove” by Milbre Burch: A poem on the Hansel & Grettel theme.

 

“Hansel & Grettel” by Gahan Wilson: This short story re-imagines the two children not as impoverished waifs but rather as wealthy trust-fund kids who travel the world, ending up at a fancy resort that represents the siblings’ second brush with stumbling into some place that could be bad for them.

 

“Match Girl” by Anne Bishop: A little abused orphan girl finds her fire. This is a prime example of a story not for the kiddies; it’s got a bit of an S&M undertone.

 

“Waking the Prince” by Kathe Koja: This is a variation on “Sleeping Beauty” with an obvious change in gender roles and the modern outlook that comports with said change.

 

“The Fox Wife” by Ellen Steiber: Based on Japanese folklore in which foxes are clever and conniving souls. A samurai’s trophy wife becomes possessed by fox spirit. This was among my favorites. It’s also one of the longer pieces.

 

“The White Road” by Neil Gaiman: A poem based on the English fairy tale of “Mr. Fox.”

 

“The Traveler and the Tale” by Jane Yolen: This one is a bit different. It’s a sci-fi tale that suggests fairy tales are injected into society in order to have some effect on behavior.

 

“The Printer’s Daughter” by Delia Sherman: This is also one of my favorites. It’s a take on the Pinocchio story. What’s fun about this version is that the totem brought to life is made out of proofing sheets. Since the printer mostly prints booklets of bawdy tales and, on the other hand, religious tracts, the girl that comes to life can only speak in two ways: one that would make a sailor blush and the other is quoting scripture.

 

Short story anthologies usually don’t included much in the way of ancillary matter beyond an introduction (and sometimes an epilogue,) but this one has a several pages of recommended reading at the end for those who are interested in learning more about fairy tales and how they come to be translated into modern forms.

 

I’d recommend this book for those interested in fairy tales of a form suitable for adults.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Nightmares ed. by Ellen Datlow

Nightmares: A New Decade of Modern HorrorNightmares: A New Decade of Modern Horror by Ellen Datlow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is an anthology of 24 horror short stories. Horror is a simplification; there are several cross-genre pieces (e.g. dark sci-fi, dark historical fiction, tales of the weird, etc.) as well as stories that have a realistic—but dark—tone. However, it’s all fiction linked by a visceral darkness.

These stories have all been previously published in various magazines or collections, and they were all written during the decade between 2005 and 2015.

1.) “Shallaballah” by Mark Samuels: A celebrity awakens in a hospital after a drunken crash that necessitated reconstructive surgery. It slowly dawns on him that the clinic isn’t what it seemed. This is an intriguing and distinctive tale.

2.) “Sob in the Silence” by Gene Wolfe: A horror writer has the family of an old friend to his house. He tells them that it’s the “least haunted house in the Midwest,” despite a gruesome history that suggests a place where evil comes to play. This was among my favorites. The horror writer character is well-developed.

3.) “Our Turn Too Will One Day Come” by Brian Hodge: It’s never good when someone calls you in the middle of the night and asks you to bring a shovel. But sometimes it’s even worse than expected. I’ve read this one before. It’s a great premise and an engaging story. This anthology includes both stories that feel like they are realistically set in the world we know, as well as speculative fiction pieces. This feels like the former, but makes a shift.

4.) “Dead Sea Fruit” by Kaaron Warren: There’s a myth among anorexics of the Ash Mouth Man, whose kiss robs its victims of the ability to taste pleasant flavors. A dentist of a different ilk takes up with this mythical man. I’d place this one more as a tale of the weird than horror, but it’s on the dark side of that sub-genre. It’s well-written.

5.) “Closet Dreams” by Lisa Tuttle: An abduction and abuse victim tells her story of being locked in a closet, but no one believes the part about her fantastic escape. This is a gritty and evocative piece.

6.) “Spectral Evidence” by Gemma Files: This is an unconventional approach to story. The information content is conveyed by way of a file from a parapsychology institute after a coroner’s inquest of a psychic medium’s death proves inconclusive. I sometimes like this approach. Reading through a file fills a kind of voyeuristic pleasure, and offers the challenge of piecing together events oneself. This story was solid, but not my favorite of the bunch.

7.) “Hushabye” by Simon Bestwick: A man out walking in the middle of the night stumbles onto the scene of a young girl under attack. Strangely, there seems to be a metallic substance pouring between the girl’s mouth and that of her attacker. This is crime fiction with a supernatural twist.

8.) “Very Low-Flying Aircraft” by Nicholas Royle: A Royal Air Force air crew in Zanzibar shows off for some ladies with dire consequences. This one is in the realist vein. It feels like a story one might be told in a bar by a particularly gifted storytelling veteran.

9.) “The Goosle” by Margo Lanagan: This tale seems to take place in the Hansel and Gretel universe. An unsavory merchant of the illicit woos a witch, and, surprisingly, it doesn’t work out as he’d hoped. This is a compelling story in the dark fairy tale sub-genre.

10.) “The Clay Party” by Steve Duffy: This one has a 19th century vibe, not only because that’s when it’s set, but because it’s conveyed through documentation as was a popular approach of the era. In this case it’s a newspaper’s reprinting of the diary of an individual from an ill-fated cross-continental convoy. (i.e. “Clay Party” as in Donner Party.) The diary approach worked well, being both easy to follow and having an authentic feel.

11.) “Strappado” by Laird Barron: Two hip and cosmopolitan lovers attend the performance art event of an artist deemed trendy and edgy by the in-crowd. The performance doesn’t work out for everybody. This was evocative, and was, perhaps, a cautionary tale about being too up for trendy and edgy activities.

12.) “Lonegan’s Luck” by Stephen Graham Jones: A snake-oil salesman knows something that the locals don’t, and it’s not about the efficacy of his product. This is another of my favorites. It’s a Western with a supernatural twist.

13.) “Mr Pigsny” by Reggie Oliver: A Professor with some mobster relatives attends the funeral of one such gangster. The Professor is willed a Ming vase that he’d once admired, but ends up tangled up in the dealings between the deceased and a mysterious “spiritualist.” The spiritualist, Mr. Pigsny, is masterfully portrayed as both a quiet professional and spine-tinglingly creepy.

14.) “At Night, When the Demons Come” by Ray Cluley: A big, strong man and a little girl meet, and team up with, a party of four survivors in a demon-infested dystopian wasteland. Whether the odd pairing are truly allies, or, if not, what type of threat they present is not as was expected and made for a thought-provoking piece. I found this tale to be clever, and it revealed an unexpected theme.

15.) “Was She Wicked? Was She Good?” by M. Rickert: A little girl makes enemies by cruelly dispensing with little forest creatures–fairies, perhaps. Her parents debate what they should do to stave off the wrath of their neighbors of another species. The title says it all. This is one of those stories that tactically reveal information to keep the reader wondering.

16.) “The Shallows” by John Langan: It’s not so easy for me to describe this story. There’s a lot going on. It’s what I’d call busy. The part of the story that resonated with me was about a stray dog that a family adopts only to have its (apparently-negligent) owner come and retrieve it. This was among my least favorite entries, but it was solidly written.

17.) “Little Pig” by Anna Taborska: A newly-wed man waits at Heathrow airport for the grandmother of his Polish wife. That present-day event brackets a flashback from the grandmother’s youth that helps to explain what seems like inexplicable old-world behavior. This is one of the shortest pieces, but it’s an endearing tale–even with the dark events of the flashback.

18.) “Omphalos” by Livia Llewellyn: This is an intense story about a family of four who go on a vacation that’s a sham. The mom and dad pretend they are taking the kids to Canada in their RV only to detour into remote parts of the Pacific Northwest. The depravity quotient of this family is high. Much of the story is brutally realistic, but there is a supernatural element with regards maps, which appear to be marked up differently to each member of the family. The maps play an important role in the unfolding of the story. This story is well-written and gripping, but, unlike the bulk of the works herein, it’s not PG-13.

19.) “How We Escaped Our Certain Fate” by Dan Chaon: This is the story of a father and son living in a zombie apocalypse-ish—after the mother died. That may make this sound like one of the more derivative stories in the bunch, but the author creates a unique zombie “apocalypse.” This isn’t the dark and gritty world of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Here, the zombies are more of an inconvenience—like wild animals that get into one’s garden–rather than a swarming threat to life and limb. This is both an interesting take on the sub-genre, and an intriguing commentary on humanity.

20.) “That Tiny Flutter of the Heart I Used to Call Love” by Robert Shearman: A girl requires the execution of her dolls from both her brother and later her new husband. She says she cannot love them fully as long as the dolls are there taking in her love. Creepy, that’s the word for this one. It has a lower body count (of living things) than many of the stories, and yet it’s as disturbing as they come.

21.) “Interstate Love Song” by Caitlin R. Keirnan: A couple of homicidal girls pick up a hitchhiker as they ride cross-country. There are some interspersed flashbacks that show that this isn’t their first rodeo, but, still, it doesn’t go like the others. This is a page-turner.

22.) “Shay Corsham Worsted” by Garth Nix: Wouldn’t it suck to die because the post-Cold War bureaucracy didn’t have institutional memory of one of its doomsday technologies—especially one that lived next door? This is one of my favorites. Besides the fear factor, this story has a dry humor that I found amusing. Like a few of the others, this story manages to make a commentary without detracting from its entertainment value.

23.) “The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud: A bookstore owner / occultist who used to work for a crime boss is strong-armed back into the life. What he stumbles into is even worse than he expected, but he makes a decision that will dramatically change his life. This was also an engaging story as well as a strong entrant in the anthology.

24.) “Ambitious Boys Like You” by Richard Kadrey: A couple of burglars badly overestimate the ease of robbing an old man and what will come of it. It starts out a bit like a creepy version of “Home Alone”–with an old man instead of an eight-year-old, but then takes a turn into territory darker than Wild Bill of “Silence of the Lambs” fame.

This is a strong collection. There are several stories that have that cinematic quality that make for gripping reading. There weren’t any pieces that I didn’t at all care for, and there were several that hooked me.

I’d recommend this collection for those who like dark fiction.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Alien Sex Ed. Ellen Datlow

Alien Sex: 19 Tales by the Masters of Science Fiction and Dark FantasyAlien Sex: 19 Tales by the Masters of Science Fiction and Dark Fantasy by Ellen Datlow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Alien Sex is an anthology of 19 works of short fiction that revolve around sex, attempted sex, or sex-like behavior with non-human entities. While the title leads one to believe the book is specifically about sex with aliens from outer space, that’s not the case in all these stories. There are also stories where the object of affection is a lesser primate, an incubus, a new species, and a biologically-modeled robot. As one would expect with life forms from other worlds, the “sexual” act is not always what we would recognize as sex. (e.g. One planet’s whoopee might be another’s mundane act.) As a last warning about what the book is not, it’s not—on the whole—a collection of sci-fi erotica. A number of the stories probably wouldn’t be arousing to the freakiest of super-freak, and I can only assume weren’t meant to be.

While there’s a unifying theme, the works included cover a lot of ground in terms of style and format. It’s not even true to say it’s 19 short stories because there’s one poem and one chapter that reads more like an essay (i.e. lacks a narrative structure.) Some of the works are written in the language, tone, and style of erotica, but others aren’t. A few of them read like thinly veiled commentary on problems in the author’s own love life—i.e. cheating spouses, feeling a lack of attentiveness, or porn addiction. (Each work has a brief author commentary at the end, and a couple of the authors suggest that what was going on in their own life or those close to them shaped the idea.)

While the appeal of the works varied significantly, overall this was a fun and intriguing read. The works included are as follows:

1.) Her Furry Face by Leigh Kennedy
A primate handler who is in a waning marriage falls for one of his super-intelligent orangutan students.

2.) War Bride by Rick Wilbur
The world is going to end tomorrow unless you’ve been taken as a pet by one of the aliens.

3.) How’s the Night Life on Cissalda by Harlan Ellison
A man sent to investigate an alien race becomes inextricably sexually entangled with one of the aliens. Eventually, he’s forcibly separated from the alien—of a race that are apparently thin-skinned—and lives to see the descent of mankind.

4.) The Jamesburg Incubus by Scott Baker
A teacher in a Catholic school finds that he can make out-of-body nocturnal visits to some of his more attractive female students.

5.) Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex by Larry Niven
This reads more like an essay than a short story. The work delves into the physics of why sex with Superman would be fatal for Lois Lane.

6.) The First Time by K.W. Jeter
This is a variation on the old coming of age story in which a young man is taken to a brothel for his first sexual encounter. It’s just that this encounter is of the 3rd kind.

7.) The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod by Philip José Farmer
The premise behind the story is what if William S. Burroughs (author of Naked Lunch) had written the Tarzan stories instead of Edgar Rice Burroughs. In essence, it’s a risqué take on Tarzan.

8.) Husbands by Lisa Tuttle
After the extinction of husbands, a woman develops a new species to serve the companion role.

9.) When the Fathers Go by Bruce McAllister
A husband confesses to his wife that while she was in stasis waiting for him to come back from interplanetary travel, he sired a child with an alien. Furthermore, the child is coming to live with them. But wait there’s more…

10.) Dancing Chickens by Edward Bryant
This story reads more like an overly elaborate joke than a short story. It begins with the question, “What do aliens want?” and ends with a pun punch line. That being said, the lead is an unappealing but intriguing character.

11.) Roadside Rescue by Pat Cadigan
A stranded motorist is made an indecent proposal by a chauffeur on behalf of his alien employer.

12.) Omnisexual by Geoff Ryman
This is about an intergalactic brothel, but it’s the story in the collection that reads most like literary fiction—meant in both the best and worst possible ways.

13.) All My Darling Daughters by Connie Willis
While there are several really good works in this anthology, I’d have to rank this as my favorite—if only by a narrow victory. A sassy, sexually-liberated co-ed has her sex life torn asunder when all the young men come back from break with little, furry creatures in their possession and no interest in the female student body. Besides a neat concept for a story (though it may be implying that men are overwhelmingly rapey), the author does a great job of character development making the lead character both interesting and likable, while juxtaposing her with her apparently goodie two-shoes roommate.

14.) Arousal by Richard Christian Matheson
A woman who cheats on her husband with a stranger is cursed with permanent post-coital euphoria that swamps all interest in her family and life in general.

15.) Scales by Lewis Shiner
A woman’s husband is having an affair with what she thinks is a student assistant, but who turns out to be a soul-sucking seductress from the netherworld.

16.) Saving the World at the New Moon Hotel by Roberta Lannes
A woman waiting for her spouse to meet her at a bar to apologize for his infidelities decides to get a little herself. The man she hooks up with turns out not to be a man at all.

17.) And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side James Tiptree, Jr.
An experienced man offers advice to a newbie to get away before he ends up seduced by the aliens. This story talks about sex, but is about something much broader.

18.) Picture Planes Michaela Roessner
This one is a poem about alien sex, rather than a story. It stands alone as the only non-prose entry.

19.) Love and Sex Among the Invertebrates Pat Murphy
In a post-apocalyptic world, a dying scientist–who no longer believes in science–creates robots capable of engaging in the act. The creatures she makes are based on a range of real animals which are written about interspersed with the story-line.

I’d recommend this book for those who enjoy science fiction. One need not be into erotica to enjoy the stories and, the more one is seeking erotica, the less appeal the book may have. It’s a collection of big name writers in science-fiction, and the anthology’s diversity makes it particularly interesting.

View all my reviews