Personal Rankings of the WFA Finalists for Best Novel, Best Collection

October 28, 2007 § 2 Comments

With the exception of three novels that I had read back in November and December of 2006, I have spent the past two months reading and reviewing each of the finalists (5 each) for the 2007 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and for Best Collection. In my reviews (which may be found by clicking on the tags below), I did my best to note not just what I myself felt were the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate, but I also tried to examine these stories from how the authors approached telling them and to what degree they managed to accomplish their apparent aims. So here are my “rankings” in order of preferred finish, with some commentary to follow:

Best Collection (Single-Author)

5. Glen Hirshberg, American Morons

4. Margo Lanagan, Red Spikes

3. Susanna Clarke, The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories

2. M. Rickert, Map of Dreams

1. Jeffrey Ford, The Empire of Ice Cream

With the exception of the Hirshberg (whose stories for the most part did not “work” as well for me as perhaps they might have for others), it was very difficult to rank #1-4. In most ways, the authors managed to achieve their apparent aims within most of the stories, so in the end it came down to inventiveness and substance. Lanagan came in at #4 more because of the shorter-paged stories than because of any perceived lack of talent or imagination, of which she has scads of both. Considering her “target” audience, the YA market, she has done very well with a difficult task.

I almost placed Clarke at #2, but held back due to this feeling that her stories were a bit too polished, that they lacked a sense of roughness and exploration that many of the finest SF and fantasy short story classics over the years have contained. Clarke does extremely well-drawn characters and situations, but there is a sense of “distance” that developed between me and the stories. Although I certainly could see her winning this award, I believe that the next two are even better in the sense of capturing a mood to which I could relate well.

I went back and forth between Rickert and Ford for the #1 and #2 positions. Each of these authors displayed a wide range of styles in their collections and I enjoyed virtually every single one of them. Rickert in particular captures that sense of people longing for something better in their lives, that belief that there is something “different,” if not “better,” around the corner. However, Ford not only shows these sorts of emotional longings as well, he also manages to depict human worries, motives, and uncertainties just a bit better than Rickert, and it is for this reason that I have chosen The Empire of Ice Cream as the best of the finalists for Best Collection.

Best Novel:

5. Stephen King, Lisey’s Story

4. Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora

3. Ellen Kushner, The Privilege of the Sword

2. Gene Wolfe, Soldier of Sidon

1. Catherynne M. Valente, The Orphan’s Tale: In the Night Garden

It was a little bit easier for me to place these five books into a #1-5 ranking. While I spent some time elaborating within their individual reviews the degree of “award-worthiness” that I saw (while also trying again to take into account authorial intent and accomplishment of apparent aims), I shall briefly explain why I placed these in this order.

King was the easiest choice. While the writing style at times engaged, too often it was a bit clunky and just annoyed me. I felt the pacing was a bit erratic and could have been streamlined without losing effect. While the “personal” nature of the story was done fairly well, as a whole, the story just didn’t “click” with me.

It was a tough battle between Lynch and Kushner for #3. In the end, I felt that Lynch’s first novel in the planned seven-volume Gentleman Bastards series, while better than average for the caper subgenre of the heroic/epic fantasy branch, showed some weaknesses in style and in pacing. While I understood the point and need for the flashbacks to convey mystery and to help explain plot events using minimal print, they did interrupt the flow of the narrative a bit too much for my liking. It was a first (published) novel and with the usual rookie mistakes (which I feel confident will be addressed in future volumes as his writing matures and he develops his voice), Lynch maybe should not have appeared so quickly on the World Fantasy Award shortlist.

Kushner felt like a “safe” choice for nomination: Nice, fluid writing style, with characters who were developed quickly and yet were mostly well-rounded in this installment of her Riverside series. But “safe” is a two-edged sword here. There were no really daring chances taken with the prose, such as what Hal Duncan did last year with his WFA-nominated debut novel, Vellum, nor did it ever feel as though this “coming of age” story would ever approach the powerfulness of Haruki Murakami’s 2006 winner, Kafka on the Shore. Kusher’s book was solid, but only that in my opinion.

When I first read the final two back in late 2006, I debated for a long time in my personal ranking of my Best of 2006 which ought to be higher. There is much going for either choice. Wolfe is a master prose writer, in both the short and long forms. In this third volume of the Latro/Soldier series, he equals the mystery and the nuanced feel of the first two volumes. Latro is one of my favorite Wolfe characters and I found his development (such as it could be) here to be fascinating. There was a more palpable sense of urgency in Wolfe’s story than there was in Kushner’s, however it was trumped in my opinion by what Valente manages to achieve in her first major-release book.

Valente’s prose is very poetic and flowing, but more importantly, her story was easily the most inventive of the five in regards to how the book was structured. Eschewing a linear approach, Valente takes The Arabian Nights as a model and then just mods the hell out of it, akin to what video game fanatics would do with their machines in order to fit in other appliances and thus applications. Valente’s tales within the overall frame story structure begin as familiar motifs. Quickly, however, those motifs are torn apart and we are thrown into a wild and often unpredictable melding of Eastern and Western fables that have a multitude of twists. I came out of that with a very deep appreciation for the chutzpah that Valente displayed and amazed at how well she managed to accomplish all of that. For those reasons, I choose Valente as my #1 read out of the WFA finalists.

Books That Merited Consideration or Should Have Made It:

It is a very difficult choice for the judges to select among hundreds of books each year, and individual tastes will play a major role in determining which books are shortlisted each year. Doesn’t mean, however, that reviewers and genre fans such as myself cannot provide a list of books that would have made good alternates for those ultimately chosen. So below are some of the books that I believe were deserving of at least consideration for the shortlists:

Jeff VanderMeer, Shriek: An Afterword. Out of the 2006 books that I read in 2006, this was my #1 choice for Best Read of 2006. VanderMeer expands upon a character introduced in his City of Saints and Madmen mosaic novel, the Ambergris historian Duncan Shriek, and this “afterword” of his life, mysterious disappearance, and his relationship with his sister Janice was told in a fashion that I found to be engaging and wanting more. It had just enough of a balance between the rather unique style of “edits” and backstory to make for a read that I felt was very “personal” in tone and thus one that has remained in my thoughts well after I finished reading the last page back in late December.

It is rather fitting that Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s first novel in almost twenty years, Wizard of the Crow, is next, as it was due directly to VanderMeer’s mention of it in a Locus Online article back in January that made me aware of a novel that already is one of my top choices for my Best Read of 2007 for a Prior Year. A “magic realist” novel set in an imagined African country (but which has quite a few parallels with Kenya’s post-colonial history), it is in turns a comic and a heartbreaking novel about the corruption and grandiose dreams of those from the immediate post-colonial era whose desires for a different political reality became corrupted by the lure of power and wealth. The eponymous “wizard” is an everyman of sorts who manages to make his way through this land of torture, paranoia, and graft and it is his story that makes this tale a perfect complement for Dave Eggers’ What is the What, which I hope to review shortly on my other blog.

I was surprised to see that Neil Gaiman’s most recent short story collection, Fragile Things, did not make the WFA shortlist, especially since many of the stories contained within had won multiple awards in recent years. I certainly found it to be better than American Morons and I believe that a collection containing major award-winning stories such as “A Study in Emerald” and “Closing Time” (which I believe deserved their wins) ought to have been considered for this prestigious award. Surprising that it was not.

Campbell Award-nominated author Sarah Monette’s second volume in her four-volume The Doctrine of Labyrinths series was a very enjoyable read whose dual first-person narratives within each chapter allowed for a greater ability to depict other characters and scenes while still maintaining the strong personality approach that makes the use of first-person narratives effective on occasion. Monette is a very talented writer and perhaps in the very near future, whether on her own or writing in collaboration with Elizabeth Bear, or perhaps for her own short fiction, I think she might develop into one of those authors who appear regularly on the awards shortlists.

M. John Harrison’s 2006 UK release, Nova Swing, merits mention here because of its selection as the 2007 Arthur C. Clarke Award winner for Best Novel. Although perhaps it’ll be eligible for the WFA (although I suspect that may not be the case) next year, after reading it recently after its recent release here in the US, I cannot help but place it on this alternate list. I’ll try to write a review of it in the coming weeks, once I’ve given my mind enough time to process everything that happened within that excellent novel.

Since a secondary value for awards and their shortlists is the discussion value and the prompting of alternate selection mentioning, it is my hope that my comments on each of the shortlisted books/collections and this list of five alternates that I would have held up for consideration will be of some interest and perhaps benefit. Please feel free to share here what you thought of the books, my alternates, and perhaps post other deserving books that I too may have overlooked among the many excellent 2006 releases. I hope to have a similar list for the Best of 2007 coming up in late December or early January 2008.

WFA Best Collection Finalist: Susanna Clarke’s The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories

October 28, 2007 § Leave a comment

When Susanna Clarke released her charming first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, in September 2004, it quickly was lauded as being one of the wittier and more genteel of fantasy novels to have been published in recent years. Many readers noted the stylistic similarities to Jane Austen, Ann Radcliffe, and Anthony Trollope among others, and it is this Regency/Early Victorian style of writing, with sentences and phrases that appear to be as well-mannered as the characters that people her stories, that perhaps was one reason why Clarke very quickly became a crossover success, becoming a bestseller and winner of the 2005 Hugo and World Fantasy Awards.

However, there have been many fans who have been clamoring for more stories set in that Regency period world of magic’s “reawakening” and the mysterious figure of the Raven King. Although most of the eight stories contained within were first published before Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, the recent release of The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories ought to serve as a good appetizer while we await further news of more Strange and Norrell (mis)adventures.

The stories themselves are structured in much the same way as events in the novel. There are many sly turns of phrases, the satire is subtle and yet usually spot-on, and the stories feel as though they are extensions of the copious footnotes found in the novel (in fact, the title story explains in full a certain footnote found in Ch. 43 of the novel). While only the first story explicitly refers to Strange and Norrell, most of the others in this collection hark back to events that were mentioned in passing in the novel, especially those related to the Raven King. Related in tone but not in events to the others, there is a story about the Duke of Wellington that originally was included in an extension of sorts of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust.

I am of two minds when trying to evaluate this story as an award finalist. While I do believe the stories are uniformly well-written and well-told, there just was not that “spark” in them that I got out of a couple of the other finalists. This is not a criticism of Clarke, who fairly much accomplished her story goals, but rather a statement of personal taste. Those who were enamored with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell will very much like these tales, but others might find them to be a bit too well-mannered and dressed-up for the rough-and-tumble sort of fantasy short that many laud as being the best in the genre. The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories certainly has to be one of the favorites for the WFA Best Collection Award, but I hold it as being slightly lower in my personal appraisal of the finalists.

WFA Best Collection Finalist: M. Rickert’s Map of Dreams

October 28, 2007 § 1 Comment

All life is death. You don’t fool yourself about this anymore. You slash at the perfect canvas with strokes of paint and replace the perfect picture of your imagination with the reality of what you are capable of. From death, and sorrow, and compromise, you create. This is what it means, you finally realize, to be alive.

This quote, taken from near the end of “The Chambered Fruit,” the last story in this wonderful debut collection by World Fantasy Award-nominated short story writer M. Rickert, serves as a recapitulation of sorts some of the themes that run through its 313 pages. Fantasy does not have to be about re-creating down to the tiniest detail facets of our shared life on this planet. It can, and does here in Map of Dreams, illustrates just what imaginative wonders and horrors that we can conjure up from the depths of our hurt, anguish, frustration as well as from our joys and hopes. The stories contained within Map of Dreams are not always cheerful ones. Some very bad things are happening to the characters, but yet even through this we come to see allegories to our own worries and troubles in our own lives and in the lives of those near and dear to us. The word “fantasy” originally had a meaning of “revelation” or of the unveiling of mysteries that bedeviled people. Rickert has written these stories collected in Map of Dreams.

The collection begins with the eponymous story, which is really a 100 page short novel dealing with a woman witnessing her daughter’s murder and her real (and imagined) flight across the globe trying to relive the event and to prevent it. From Australian Aborigine dreamscapes to the familiar world of family and friends deserted in her quest, the story becomes haunting, with literal and figurative illusions marking Annie Merchant’s Quixotic quest. By the time the powerful ending is revealed, the tone has been set for the other stories in this collection.

For the most part, these stories live up to the promise of the first (or rather, since the first tale was published last, it lives up to the promise of the other stories). There are scenes of obsession and terror, but also tender and moving moments. In his Afterword, editor Gordon Van Gelder compares Rickert’s stories to those of the great magic realists, such as Gabriel García Márquez, especially for how the events in “The Chambered Fruit” unfold and conclude. There is something to this, I agree, but I ought to note that Rickert is not slavish in holding to this form, as each of her stories shows a willingness to experiment. The results may not always be pretty, but I found them to be enjoyable, provocative stories that have stuck in my head perhaps a bit more than the others. Definitely worth consideration for the WFA this year, maybe as a top 3 selection.

Publication Date: October 1, 2006 (US), Hardcover

Publisher: Golden Gryphon Press

Review of Jeffrey Ford’s WFA-nominated The Empire of Ice Cream

October 3, 2007 § Leave a comment

Lately, it seems that every time that I click on Locus or search through the usual suspects on the Blogosphere, that I encounter Jeffrey Ford’s name. It might be for a story of his being published in some upcoming anthology, or perhaps a recommendation on a website for readers to read his excellent trilogy of stories that star Cley the Physiognomist. Sometimes, I’ll read a glowing review of his Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque or his recent 2007 Nebula Award-nominated novel, Girl in the Glass. The guy is prolific and based on what I have read of his works, he is a very talented writer.

But until I decided to purchase his 2006 short story collection, The Empire of Ice Cream, after learning it was up for the 2007 World Fantasy Award for Best Collection, I never had read more than excerpts of any of his short stories. After recently completing a read-through of the 14 stories contained in The Empire of Ice Cream, I regret that I had procrastinated in reading them, as these are some of the more moving and well-written short stories that I’ve read in quite some time.

Although these stories were written over a period of years, there are some common characteristics that the stories share. In particular, I noticed that the narrators tend to have this sense of wonder, as if the world they are experiencing is totally new and unexpected to them. After reading many cynical and self-referencing stories over the years, this is a refreshing change of pace.

But without a gripping story told with a measured pace, the stories would mean little. However, although it’s been almost a month since I read it, I can still see visual images such as that of the title story, where the narrator “smells” a new world with each fragrant whiff of coffee that floats to his nose.

Or perhaps I ought to spend some time discussing the novella “Botch Town” that is also up for a WFA for Best Novella this year. It is one of the cornerstones of this collection and it is, as Ford himself says in the story notes, a homage of sorts to the town where he grew up and to the various people, good and not-so-good alike, that he came to know during his time living there. This story in particular “lives” in the sense that one can connect with the narrator, empathize with what is going on, connect the supporting characters with people we’ve known growing up, all with a style that makes it feel both comfortable and mysterious at the same time.

As a whole, The Empire of Ice Cream reads very fast, as it was very difficult for me to read just one or two stories at a time. No, I wanted to read them all, to embrace them as old friends, to just reflect upon the emotions that reading these tales invoked in me. This was a damn fine collection from one of the more criminally-overlooked authors of the fantastic out there today. Go out and buy this ASAP.

Summary: The Empire of Ice Cream is a 2006 collection of short stories from 2002-2006, most of them reprints from earlier anthologies, that is up for consideration for the 2007 World Fantasy Award for Best Collection. Ranging from nostalgic whimsy to something a bit darker and almost sinister, these fourteen tales are superbly-written, with the title story and “Botch Town” (itself up for a WFA for Best Novella) being the two firsts among equals in this collection. Might be one of the favorites to win in this category. Highly, highly recommended.

Publication Date: April 2006 (US), Hardcover.

Publisher: Golden Gryphon Press

Review of Glen Hirshberg’s WFA-Nominated American Morons

October 3, 2007 § Leave a comment

Is this a dagger which I see before me,
The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee:–
I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.
Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible
To feeling as to sight? or art thou but
A dagger of the mind, a false creation,
Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?
I see thee yet, in form as palpable
As this which now I draw.
Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going;
And such an instrument I was to use.
Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the other senses,
Or else worth all the rest: I see thee still;
And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,
Which was not so before.

MacBeth, Act II Scene I

Horror is more than just a sudden visceral image of splattered guts or corpse faces forever locked into twisted images of bloodcurdling terror. Horror is something of the mind, perhaps present, perhaps just a figment of an overexcited imagination. In some of the best horror stories, we do not know until near the end whether or not the sensations that the characters are feeling are due to real or imagined stimuli.

In Glen Hirshberg’s World Fantasy Award-nominated short story collection, American Morons, there are moments in each of these stories where the characters have a palpable sense of dread. Sometimes, this sense is false and the characters move on, shaken but still alive, while at other times, the dread proves to be a harbinger for something more ghastly than what the characters (and by extension, the reader) might expect.

American Morons contains seven stories within its 191 pages. The strongest of these is the title story, which deals with an American couple whose car breaks down in Italy and their “help” may have other things on their minds than being Good Samaritans. This story manages to hit all of the emotional buttons at the right time, causing the reader to take heed of the characters’ plight, of their psychological problems, of the rising tension where the heart starts to pound and the breaths come out ragged and quick. “American Morons” serves as the perfect introduction to this collection.

However, many of the other stories do not fulfill completely the promise of the first tale. Sometimes things are explained a bit too much, letting the perceptive reader see the mirrors being employed for the narrative illusion due to take place. Other stories, like “Safety Clowns,” take too long to develop and that crisis moment feels more like a “this sucks” moment rather than a “OMG! What can I do?” one.

Although these relatively minor flaws in pacing prevent me from believing American Morons to be the best of the five collections nominated for the WFA this year, the stories are worth reading and considering.

Summary: American Morons is a 2006 story collection that is up for a WFA for Best Single-Author Collection. Comprised of seven stories over 191 pages, American Morons takes “real-life” settings and twists and warps them in ways that provide moments of terror for the characters. Despite the strong promise of the opening title story, the other stories vary somewhat in mood and in quality, leading to a reading experience that ranges from superb down to merely good. Despite this, the stories have enough positives going for them to merit a read. Recommended for short story aficionados.

Release Date: October 2006 (US), Hardcover

Publisher: Earthling

Review of Margo Lanagan’s WFA-Nominated Collection, Red Spikes

August 25, 2007 § Leave a comment

Margo Lanagan is an Australian storywriter with two previous story collections, White Time and Black Juice, to her credit (in addition to some YA novels). Red Spikes, recently nominated for the 2007 World Fantasy Award for Best Collection (single-author), is her third collection of short stories and after being released in Australia and the UK in 2006, is due to be released in the US in October 2007.

Although this is the only book of hers that I’ve read, from what I can tell from other reviewers is that this collection continues Lanagan’s focus on the “normality” of the quite strange. The opening tale, “Baby Jane,” involves a rather typical teenage boy, a figurine of a queen wearing “maternity armor” that comes to life, and oh, there’s also this bear that pokes its head in every now and then during the course of the story. The queen has a certain situation that she has to handle, while we find ourselves within the mind of the boy, wondering if Immigration would be after the Queen. It is this juxtaposition of the fantastical with the very mundane that makes for an interesting opener and which serves to set the tone for the remaining nine stories in this collection.

As I read through each of these, I noticed certain themes reappearing in various guises. In most of these stories, Lanagan’s narrators are not all that confident in themselves or in the outside world and the shadings of dialogue and internal thoughts reveals this ambiguity that colors the settings with a sense of mystery, dead, and wonderment all rolled into one. Or in other words, she often captures the feel of our own confusion about the world and our “place” within it. The characters generally are wanting more in these stories, perhaps a sense of fulfillment or maybe a desire to understand just what it was that they had in the first place. These stories are deceptively simple in appearance, as Lanagan’s direct prose serves as a Trojan Horse for all sorts of mischievous interpretations to enter our brains and to become lodged there.

Summary: As a collection, each of Red Spikes‘ stories stand well by themselves and there are not any really weak or “off” stories. These are stories that find the characters questioning themselves, not always finding answers, but yet still moving on in hopes of a greater resolution off-stage. A fine collection that is worthy of its nomination for the WFA.

Release Date: Available now in the UK, Australia, October 9, 2007 in the US. Hardcover.

Publisher: Knopf Delacorte Dell

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