When I was wallowing in the teen years, I wasn’t too keen on short story collections. Too much interrupted reading–just as I got into a story and really got to know the main characters, it ended. There was one exception–an AWESOME collection of short horror fiction edited by Issac Asimov called Young Monsters. It was all about teen monsters and a lot of their “monstrosities” could easily be synonyms for the absolute horror of being an ugly adolescent. It’s long out of print now, so I’m not going to include it below, but it really captured my imagination. In fact, I recently found an old copy on my public library shelves and re-read it, and it was just as great as I remembered. This inspired me to go back through my list of recent reads, and I actually found a lot of short fiction collections that are pretty damn good. So here they are–if you generally find that short stories suck, try these. In my opinion, they are collections that You Might Actually Want to Read!
Blessed Island is a truly stress-free place. There are no cars to pollute the air with smoke and noise, no cell phones to distract people from real connections. It’s so peaceful that reporter Eric Seven just can’t seem to motivate himself to collect the research he needs to write an article about the remote island community and it’s rumored fountain of youth. The villagers are friendly and generous, and there’s always another cup of tea to sip, another delicious meal to eat, another nap to take. Soon he’s been there for several days and it’s getting harder and harder to remember why he came. All he knows is that it had something to do with flowers, and the young woman named Merle. Eric feels certain they’ve met before, although he doesn’t know how since Merle’s never left Blessed Island and he’s never been. Or has he? In seven cleverly intertwined short stories, author Marcus Sedgwick weaves a classic yet wholly original tale of blessings and curses, love and loyalty, bitterness and revenge. Each story is like an interlocking puzzle piece that forms a fascinating picture by the immensely satisfying end. As a reader, I was completely captivated by the storytelling and as a writer, utterly blown away with the razor sharp execution of plot, clues and character. It’s an absolute stunner of a mystery and romance and I will be madly recommending it to everyone I know.
Unicorns and zombies battle for supremacy in this ultra cool collection of short stories edited by YA rock stars Black and Larbalestier. The rival authors engage in a fervent back-and-forth argument before every story, each claiming that her supernatural creature is the more badass of the two. But the spectacular stories the two editors have assembled make it very hard to choose between Team Zombie and Team Unicorn. Among my favorites were Garth Nix’s inspired opener “The Highest Justice,” a medieval tale that includes both a zombie AND a unicorn, Alaya Dawn Johnson’s surprisingly touching zombie romance “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” and Margo Lanagan’s tragic story of an unholy union between unicorn and maiden in “A Thousand Flowers.” Maureen Johnson brings the funny with “The Children of the Revolution,” a story of celebrity zombies that almost made me pee my pants laughing, and Meg Cabot also keeps it light with “Princess Prettypants,” about a rainbow-colored, flower-scented farting unicorn who can also kick butt when necessary. More serious are Carrie Ryan’s, Scott Westerfeld’s and Libba Bray’s darker visions of a future America where frightened and cynical teens must abandon the adult rules of the world before the zombie apocalypse and create their own new societies from scratch. There’s even more, but I leave the rest for you to discover when this unique collection comes galloping/shambling into your local library or bookstore. And what team am I on? Well, it was hard to decide since many of my fav author peeps swing the other way, but since I am ultimately an optimist and romantic at heart, I could always only be firmly in this camp:
Master creepologist Holly Black has collected some of her greatest short story hits (and a few new tunes) into a gleefully gruesome mix tape for your reading pleasure. Here you will meet Matilda, “The Coldest Girl in Cold Town,” who runs towards vampires instead of away from them. But when she tries to save her lover from a horrible fate, he betrays her in the coldest way possible. Nikki finds herself in an eating competition with Satan in “Reversal of Fortune,” while Tomasa tries to bargain with an evil elf for her sister’s life in “The Night Market.” There’s a nice ode to librarians and the Dewey Decimal system in “Paper Cuts Scissors” while tailors get props in “The Coat of Stars,” about an NYC costume designer who whips up gorgeous wraps in order to tempt a reluctant faery Queen into returning his kidnapped boyfriend. But my favorites were the ones featuring clever lads fighting their animal natures. In a totally Twilight Zone turn, Black’s “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” will warn you not to believe everything you read when Alex becomes convinced after reading it in a book that smelling a certain posy will cause his canines to grow. And “The Dog King” is a marvelous medieval tale about a monarch who should’ve kept a tighter rein on his beloved tamed wolf, as the natural predator ends up being much smarter than his scruffy nature would suggest. Then there was the story that brought me to tears—“Virgin” about a lonely homeless boy and his pet unicorn—and the one that left me snickering on the subway—“In Vodka Veritas,” about an “accidental” boarding school orgy. Good stuff, all. Black doesn’t strike a sour note in the bunch. Plus, the small, detailed pen and ink illustrations by Black’s hub Theo add a distinctly melancholic touch. So go ahead drink some Poison—it’s good for you!
Though I am grateful for many things this Thanksgiving weekend, one item that tops my list is Sharon G. Flake’s new collection of short stories and poems featuring teenage boys and their angst. She is one of the hippest authors for teens around, and a new title from her is ALWAYS cause for celebration. This book is a companion piece to one of her earlier works, Who Am I Without Him? Short stories about girls and the boys in their lives (a title I have successfully shopped to so many teens I’ve lost count), and provides the adolescent 411 from the dudes’ POV. Navigating issues from teen marriage and suicide, to neighborhood politics and hot moms who attract unwanted attention, these guys struggle to make sense of the world around them while trying to solve that most maddening of mysteries—what makes girls tick? Flake also dishes up some hot poetry in this collection, including this excerpt from the title poem, “You Don’t Even Know Me”: You tell me to quit fronting,/ You ask who I think I am,/Pretending/That I’m better than you know I really am./…You know/I’ve been wondering lately,/Trying to figure out just how it could be/That we call each other brother,/And you still don’t know a thing about me/ There’s some surprises here, too. I like all the stories, but my favorite just might be “Fakin’ It,” about a last-chance boy who’s been kicked out of every one of his relatives’ homes and is now about to be kicked out of his aunt’s house, a six million dollar lottery winner. Despite her new money and resources, she still has old-school rules and he still can’t seem to follow them no matter how many chances she gives him. Unusual and unsettling because we like to think money solves everything, I just can’t get that story out of my head. So if you want to be moved to tears, laugh out loud, or be lit up with surprise, then this is YOUR book.
Remember your first kiss? While I’m sure it was exhilarating, it was most likely a great deal tamer than the supernatural busses that take center stage in Laini Taylor’s delicious collection of fantasy romances. In “Goblin Fruit,” a lonely girl wishes for love, but finds something else entirely behind a new boy’s perfect lips: “The goblins want girls who dream so hard about being pretty their yearning leaves a palpable trail, a scent goblins can follow like sharks on a soft bloom of blood.” Beautiful boy or secret beast? Only a kiss will tell…In “Spicy Little Curses Such as These,” a young WWI solider travels to India to forget the horrors of war and finds his true love. Except, she is under a curse that claims if she speaks, all who hear her will die. Will their first kiss unleash passion or destruction? Finally, a young girl finds her fate tied to that of benevolent demon when she discovers she has unknowingly incubated the love of his immortal life deep within her soul in “Hatchling.” Each story hinges on one fated kiss that holds the power of life and death, love and loss, happiness and despair. All it takes is lips touching three times to produce one dreamy, steamy reading experience. Laini Taylor’s luxuriant writing will transport you to faraway lands where demons frolic, Hell is a place of cleansing and rebirth, and destinies are determined by the whim of cold sorceress queens. Her husband Jim Di Bartolo’s opulent illustrations rendered in black, red and cream are the perfect compliment to Taylor’s plush prose, and are so lovingly detailed you will want to go back and linger over them again and again. Still thinking about your first kiss? Relive the magic, danger and decadence of it all again through the richly realized characters in Taylor’s tantalizing tome.
Regular readers of RR know I am big fan of the multi-talented Deborah Noyes and her horror-ific short story collections. In this latest macabre mishmash, Noyes asks authors to turn their attention to that object of endless fascination: the sideshow freak. The resulting ten stories are both striking and spellbinding. Step right up to the striped tent and meet Aimee Bender’s “Bearded Girl” and Cynthia Leitich Smith’s slinky feline shape shifter. Over there beneath the Midway, you’ll find Annette Curtis Klause’s resourceful Egyptian dancer who, despite her maturity, still needs her “Mummy” now and then. Out behind the Big Top, God (yes, THAT one) visits a couple of kids who just lost their dog in David Almond’s dreamy contribution, while Cecil Castellucci’s heroine discovers a distasteful family legacy in “The Bread Box.” There’s also some cool comic shorts, including my favorite story of all, Matt Phelan’s “Jargo!” about the mysterious front end of a fake circus giraffe who was NOT to be messed with. Wacky, weird and sometimes tragic, these stories will stick with you long after you close the garish covers of this compelling and odd compilation. And the only ticket you need to get into Noyes’s freak parade? Why, your library card of course!
Dashing young Duncan is either a handsome knight trying to win the heart of a princess by relieving the dreaded Frog King of his head, OR just another downtrodden teen trying to get by in the projects of Oakland, as his depressed mom dates one jerk after another. Greedy Gran’Pa Greenbax is either a latter day Scrooge McDuck-like animated TV star, OR just a little freshwater frog who’s been used and abused by cruel humans. Meek Janet is either a stately Nigerian princess, OR just another cubicle-dwelling office drone. No one is quite who they seem to be in this lushly illustrated, full-color collaboration between two of the best author/illustrators in the comic biz. But no matter what their circumstances, each character manages to discover hidden stores of bravery, hope and optimism that help clear away the dark clouds of anger, fear and pride. And what is the Eternal Smile? Well, it’s either the face of God or a hole in the ceiling, and the only person who can decide that is YOU, dear reader! Award winning authors and illustrators Gene Luen Yang and Derek Kirk Kim will both blow and bend your mind with these three quirky, offbeat Twilight Zone-meets-Pushing Daisies short stories about love, life and the power of the imagination. I didn’t even have to get to the last page to know that what I was holding in my hands was pure graphic novel gold.
Geeks of the world, rejoice! Several of the best YA authors around have let their freak flags fly in this nerdalicious collection of dork-shorts, and the result is no less than GEEKTASTIC. Are you an astronomy aficionado? A quiz bowl questioner? A crazy ComicCon-er? Perhaps you’re compulsive online gamer, A Rocky Horror crooner, or just simply a Buffy action-figure collector. Whatever brand of freak you are, you will soon recognize yourself and other members of your nerd herd in this outrageously funny and occasionally tragic collection of stories and comics. Holly Black and Cecil Castellucci imagine the impossible love between a Jedi and a Klingon in the star-crossed “Once You’re a Jedi, You’re a Jedi All the Way,” while David Levithan explores quiz bowl backstabbing in “Quiz Bowl Antichrist.” A couple of nerds outsmart their hazers in John Green’s “Freak the Geek,” Cassandra Clare explains what happens when online gamers meet in real life in “I Never,” and Libba Bray will make you cry in “It’s Just a Jump to the Left,” a gorgeously melancholic ode to the Rocky Horror Picture Show and lost innocence. Plus, there’s Lisa Yee’s story of baton-twirling angst, Tracy Lynn’s tale of a cheerleader who finally sees the geek-light, and some totally awesome comic shorts by Hope Larson and Bryan Lee O’Malley. Additional nerd-words are penned Scott Westerfeld, M.T. Anderson, Garth Nix, Kelly Link, Barry Lyga, Wendy Mass and Sara Zarr. As a proud former show choir nerd and theater geek, I dug each and every one of these original stories and I’m sure you will, too. Because when it’s all said and done, “geek” is just shorthand for being passionate about what you love, be it karate or Klingon. And who isn’t passionate about something? Jot this one down for next summer’s reading list, as it won’t be beamed down into a library or bookstore near you until August 2009. May the force be with you until then!
This otherworldly collection of short stories by master fantasist Kelly Link is equal parts whimsy and menace, where dreams and nightmares walk hand in hand, and butterflies turn out to be cockroaches. Walk around in Link’s peculiar world for a while, and you might run into a dead teenage girl at the 7-11 (“The Wrong Grave”), or wind up in another dimension if you open “The Faery Handbag.” In “Magic for Beginners,” you can watch a pirated television show called The Library, where the characters may or may not be real—but only if you can find it, because it’s never on the same channel twice. You can divine your inner goddess in “The Constable of Abal,” conjure your inner werewolf in “Pretty Monsters,” or discover that we are all capable of magic in “The Wizards of Perfil.” You’ll never go camping again after meeting the urban legend-y “Monster,” but may be tempted to believe in aliens after shaking hands with “The Surfer.” You can even try on the evil cousin of Harry Potter’s Sorting Hat in “The Specialist’s Hat.” Each story is as unique as a fingerprint, as surreal as a Salvadore Dali painting, and as unforgettable as your first kiss. Just in time for Halloween, these nine stories, quaintly illustrated by Shaun Tan, are full of tricks AND treats!