Sunday 1 January 2023

Short Story Spotlight 1st January

Well, here we go again. After 2 years without touching this blog, I wanted to get it going once more. Not sure how frequent posts are going to be. But hey, here's hoping.

To start off with, I wanted to focus on some short stories I love. The last decade or so have been incredible for fans of YA and MG who like reading shorts; there've been so many outstanding collections published. Today, I'm taking a look at three of them, and sharing a few picks from each, as well as a novella I just reread for the second time.

One quick note - I'm limiting myself to three stories for 'personal favourites' for each book. They're not necessarily the three I think are the absolute best, simply because in many cases it would be nearly impossible to make a choice here. But in each case, they're three that really spoke to me, even above the rest.

Our Shadows Have Claws, edited by Yamile Saied Méndez and Amparo Ortiz. 

(Content warnings for body horror, death - including pet death - murder, racism and homophobia.)

I have to admit to being too easily scared to read stories about horrifying creatures too often, but the idea of an anthology focusing on "Latine mythology's most memorable monsters" was too intriguing to resist. (And even if I'd been on the fence, the fact that it was co-edited by the authors of Furia and Blazewrath Games, two recent favourites of mine, would definitely have been the deciding factor!)

From Chantel Acevado's opener, "The Nightingale and the Lark", which is a superb Romeo and Juliet story about a girl from a family of monster hunters, and a boy whose own family shelter the creatures they hunt, hoping to redeem them, certain themes recur. Among many of these tales, we see monsters who seem very much human - and sometimes humans who seem themselves to be monstrous, teenagers growing up entwined in family legacies, and the accompanying troubles they bring, racism, and gender issues, especially gender-based violence. With Ricardo Lopez Ortiz providing a black and white illustration for each story, it's not only a wonderfully well-written book, it's also a really stunning one. And despite all of the stories having the theme of monsters, there's a real variety in the moods here, from the creepily unsettling atmosphere of “¿Dónde Está El Duende?”, to the sparkling action-filled climax of "The Boy From Hell", via the anti-corporate activism of "Leave No Tracks".

Personal favourites:

"La Patasola" by Racquel Marie - Racquel Marie's Ophelia After All is one of my favourite contemporaries of recent times, and this story of a girl on a senior camping trip, whose boyfriend has distanced himself from her after she came out as queer, confirms her as a major talent. I love her narrator here, who tells the story she's learned from her father - about a woman who takes revenge on her husband after he and other men of the village accuse of cheating and leave her to die - in a way which gives a very different emphasis to it from when her father told it, leading to yet another conflict with the boy who claims to love her. Also, it has one of my favourite climaxes of all of the stories.

"The Boy from Hell" by Amparo Ortiz - The accomplished Amparo Ortiz gives us a superb vampire story with a memorable heroine, trained to kill vampires and hired by a boy to deal with the mysterious creature who left a white rose for his little sister, sixty years after a similar white rose being refused led to a family's slaughter. As Blazewrath Games fans will know, Ortiz is a stellar writer and her style works just as well in a short story as in a novel. The main character's voice here is outstanding, and from the first full page, in which she describes attacking numerous people "on the lookout for white hideousness" after being told that vampires always wear something white, and usually ugly, I was totally hooked.

"Dismembered" by Ann Dávila Cardinal - After her abuela dies in a car accident, an 18-year-old girl is left devastated, but the return of a friend she lost touch with long ago brightens things a little. Then, a mysterious knocking starts... Despite the grisly way in which the main character's abuela dies, as suggested by the title, this is a warm-hearted story and I loved the rekindling of the friendship between the two teens. I'll be eagerly seeking out more from Cardinal, who's a new to me author - starting with Breakup From Hell, which comes out in just a couple of days.

Ancestor Approved, edited by Cynthia Leitich-Smith

I love interconnected anthologies - one of my most anticipated of the year to come is Lauren Gibaldi and Eric Smith's First-Year Orientation, having adored their Battle of the Bands. It's really cool to see characters recur between stories, and different authors' takes on the same events. One of my favourites of this type of collection is MG anthology Ancestor Approved, edited by Cynthia Leitich-Smith, centered around a powwow, in which a variety of Native authors write about the event itself, and preparations for it. Opened and closed by two beautiful poems, by Kim Rogers and Carole Lindstrom, the stories start with Monique Gray Smith's "Fancy Dancer", which is a gorgeous opener - a warm and comforting narrative which encapsulates the book's main themes of celebration, heritage, resilience, and community perfectly. So many of these stories are superb, looking at the different ways in which people relate to the powwow, from first-timers, to established participants, from a wide variety of Native tribes. A really delightful read. 

Personal favourites:

"Rez Dog Rules" by Rebecca Roanhorse - Ozzie loves being a Rez dog, with no master and no leash. Just because he's free - 'majestic and untamed' - doesn't mean he can't have a soft spot for certain people, though, and when he realizes that Mrs Cruz, the best human he knows, may lose her house, he teams up with her grandson and his friend to sell T-shirts to raise money for repairs. Ozzie is a gorgeously-written character, utterly adorable, and it's so sweet to see the way that - despite minor setbacks such as being a dog who can't actually talk - he's able to help Marino and Eli with their sales. I've read this about six times since I first read the collection, and it's one of my all-time favourite shorts, always leaving me with a massive smile on my face when I finish it.

"Indian Price" by Eric Gansworth - A middle-schooler who lives on a Rez heads to the powwow with his family, staying with his uncle and 17-year-old cousin. He finds out that his cousin is a member of the Order of the Arrow, who many Natives have criticised for cultural appropriation of American Indian practices, but who his cousin feels are the only friends he can rely on. This feels a little jarring compared to most of the other stories, but in a good way - it's a thought-provoking look at microaggressions, trying to fit in, and friendship. 

"What We Know About Glaciers" by Christine Day - The younger sister of a girl who was homecoming queen, cheerleading captain, president of the Indigenous People's Club, and leader of a canoe family, tries to come to terms with the changes she sees in her sibling after some time at college. This stands out in some ways because it feels, to me at least, perhaps the least connected to the powwow. Despite this, it's a stellar story - it uses the setting as a backdrop for the girls to reconnect with each other, the main character trying to cope with what she sees as being somewhat abandoned by her sister Brooke, and Brooke helping her see how the glaciers she's 'obsessed' with fit in with their culture's traditions and beliefs. Despite the anger shining through from the MC at the start, it's a warm, sweet and tender read. 

Once Upon A Crime by Robin Stevens

As a long-time fan of school stories and detective books, any time I see a novel that's both, I'm excited - and back in 2014, I was thrilled to learn of Murder Most Unladylike. As much as I loved it when I read it, I could never have guessed it would give birth to quite such an outstanding series, but Robin Stevens's follow-ups - and recent spinoff The Ministry of Unladylike Activity, starting another set of stories - are some of my absolute favourite MG books of the last decade or so. 

When it comes to crime, I've always preferred reading short stories to novels. I don't know if it's because my first introduction to the genre was Sherlock Holmes, followed by many fantastic Poirot and Miss Marple stories, maybe? There's something so satisfying about a mystery which can be read in one sitting, letting me fully focus on solving it before the detectives I'm reading about do. (Even if I rarely manage to do so!) So, as good as the nine novels in the Murder Most Unladylike series are, in some ways the two short story collections are my absolute favourites.

The second of these collections, Once Upon A Crime, follows the Detective Society of Daisy and Hazel through four cases, set at various times during their school careers, and also gives us one story about their friends/rivals the Junior Pinkertons, and another about May Wong, Hazel's little sister (and star of the Ministry of Unladylike Activity series, which this is a precursor to.) Each and every one of them is a delightfully clever caper, which kept me guessing right the way through, but has a really satisfying solution. They also flesh out the novels nicely, adding even more depth to some of the central relationships. And, as much as I love Hazel as a narrator, it's great to read others here, with Daisy, Alexander, and May each telling the tale of one story, and Daisy and Hazel having alternating sections of another. 

Favourite stories: 

"The Case of the Missing Treasure" - Narrated by Daisy, this is about a treasure hunt which she, Hazel, George and Alexander are sent on by her Uncle Felix and Aunt Lucy for her 15th birthday. Initially, they're disgusted - especially Daisy - by the childish game, but they quickly get involved in a more serious mystery. I'm not sure that I'd enjoy reading Daisy's narration for an entire novel - I think the utter self-confidence which makes her such a wonderful character to read about might get the tiniest bit grating if she was writing at length - but for a short story, it's great to see the details of a case from her point of view rather than Hazel's.

"The Hound of Weston School" - The only one of the stories not to feature Daisy or Hazel at all in the action (Hazel plays a small part in the one May narrates), this is told as a letter from Alexander to Hazel. Bookended by a sweet start, in which Alexander tries to find the words to say something to Hazel, and an ending in which he finally gets some of those words out, the main part isn't a murder mystery - it's a story of how they try to track down and help the person who's hidden a dog near their school. The dog, who they name Baskerville - in tribute to a certain Sherlock Holmes story - is fabulously cute, and there's a fabulous cast of suspects here.

"May Wong and the Deadly Flat" - May, who appears in a couple of the earlier books as a minor character, makes a stunning debut as the narrator here. I originally read this before the Ministry of Unladylike Activity, and it's a wonderful introduction to May as a central character. She's an intriguing mix of Daisy and Hazel, in some ways, having Daisy's belief in herself and impatience with other people, but feeling just as out of place as Hazel does in England at times. The World War II setting, and the involvement of spies, makes it a perfect bridge between the interwar period crime novels of the first series, and the war stories of the new one. And the actual solution of the mystery is perhaps the most intriguingly plotted of all of the half dozen stories here.

Unlucky in Lockdown by Julianne Benford

A bonus, non-anthology, recommendation - adult contemporary novella Unlucky in Lockdown, by Julianne Benford. I will admit to being super-biased here, as Julianne is one of my closest friends, but I just read this story - written and published early in the pandemic - for the third time and find more to love about it each time I do. 

Flatmates Cora and Xandra, who've lived together for some time without really managing to become friendly, have to turn to each other for comfort as the UK goes into lockdown. Starting just prior to the announcement, and mostly taking place in the ten days immediately following it, the story admittedly brought back some painful memories of those early times for me. The pair try to stay close to their friends despite not being able to see them in person, deal with the changes in their jobs, and support each other, gradually growing closer.

I reread this immediately after reading a novel dealing with a pandemic - which was also interesting and enjoyable, and which I'll no doubt talk about at some point. I think it gave me a new appreciation for the skill with which Julianne brings the strangeness of the time to life and uses it to develop the central friendship between Cora and Xandra. Because - despite the pandemic being the backdrop, and the changes in both of their lives playing such a major part - it is the friendship between the two, who initially seem mismatched, which is the central focus. I loved seeing them go from uneasy around each other, to becoming supportive friends helping each other deal with their mental health issues, and with the impact lockdown has on them and the other people in their lives. And those people - particularly Cora's best friend, and family, and the elderly lady Xandra talks to after volunteering to provide companionship to lonely people - are delightful characters, even those who appear only briefly. A truly wonderful read and I'm excited for more from Julianne. 

(This book is actually available for free download, by the way - check out the links at the author's webpage.)

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