Rating: Loved (Hated-Disliked-Okay-Liked-Loved)
(Now that I've read the book, I hate this cover. Nothing in the book is so simple or literal -- this image does the stories a major disservice.)
[I did something different with this review. The problem with reading a book of short stories is that, by the time I get to the end, I've forgotten the early ones, so this time I started writing this review after the second story. Now that I'm done with the book, I'll add any updates in brackets.]
A complaint I often have about books is that the writer doesn't trust their readers. One of the reasons I love Susan Palwick's writing so much is that she fully trusts us. Each of the book's short stories ended at the perfect point: She leads us right up to the ending, there's no doubt how the story will turn out, but she ends it a moment too soon. Every time a story ended, I had that "Arg! Wait no! That can't be the ending! It can't stop here!" reaction. And yet every story was a complete story -- you knew how it ended, but leaving it open like that made it delicious. [Unfortunately not every story did this, but most of them did.]
While each of these short stories was sci fi, it's really interesting because they were a lot more than that. Each of the stories was actually about something normal or mundane, the sci fi was just window dressing. But it really, really worked. A short story about how some men stop loving women as the women get older and less beautiful? BORING! I'd never ever read that! But couch it in the framework of a werewolf story? And I loved it! [Turns out a couple of them were "just" sci fi, without any other message or meaning, but most of them were as I had originally described.]
[I originally wasn't going to LJ cut the descriptions of the individual stories. I tried very hard to not spoil things, but really, any mention at all of the details of the stories can be a spoiler, so I'm going to cut them. I highly suggest you get the book and read it without clicking here.]
The Fate of Mice: On the surface, this was a story about a mouse who, through science, had a human IQ and the ability to speak. However, it was really about facing mortality and how scary it can be to choose to live what life you have to the fullest instead of settling for something safe.
Gestella: At first this seemed a simple story about a werewolf, but at it's core it was a chilling story about relationships. (Really chilling, it raises the hairs on the back of my neck just thinking about it now.) In the story's world, werewolves age at the speed of dogs (so they mature and grow seven human year every year -- a one year old looks seven, a two year old appears to be fourteen -- while she was a lot more mature than a one/two/three year old, she was also still very childlike in a lot of ways). A man found her when she was "fourteen" (TWO!) he entered a sexual relationship with her. He became her everything -- her alpha. She quickly aged into human-prime (he's banging a hot 21 year old and makes sure the world knows it... nevermind she was actually really THREE at that point). However she just as quickly physically matured beyond human-prime. What does a man like that do with a woman who isn't human, who turns into a "dog" (wolf) one full week every month, when he no longer wants her around?
The Old World - Suddenly, all at once, 99.9999% of people in the world turned nice. How does each group, the vast majority of nice people and the tiny fraction of "normal" people interact with each other? Interesting idea, but the story didn't really work for me.
Jo's Hair - Apparently this one is based on Little Women. There were two threads in the story, Jo and her hair (made into a wig). I never read Little Women, so most of the story was lost on me. Interestingly, the two threads weren't even kept to different sections or paragraphs, but alternated sentences within a paragraph. I didn't finish this one.
Going After Bobo - Remember what I said about the author trusting her readers? This story was another perfect example of that. Someone lost something (someone?) named Bobo, and we only slowly get clues as the story unfolds. This story was sort of the other side of the coin that The Fate of Mice was -- it was about staying in your box, accepting your life as it is.
Beautiful Stuff - Sort of a zombie story, but not really. Unlike the others, this one didn't have an emotional core for me. I finished it, but I didn't like it overly much. Luckily it was quite short.
Elephant - At first this one didn't work for me. A woman got pregnant when she never had sex, with a twist as to what the baby was. The ending made me fall in love with it.
Ever After - As the title implies, based on a fairy tale. Cinderella with a twist. This one was more just a story than anything with a theme or an emotional hook, so it didn't really work for me.
Stormdusk - Also based off a fairy tale? Or the author wanted it to seem like that. I liked it better than Ever After (the ending worked a lot better for me), but all in all didn't like the story much.
Sorrel's Heart - A very odd story, and while it worked, it didn't work quite as well as other stories in this book. I saw what the author was going for though.
GI Jesus - This story really didn't work for me. It was about religion and miracles and insanity(?).
Rereading my reviews of each story, I see I didn't like more than half the stories... which is odd, because I LOVED this book so much. Her writing was so strong that, even if the story didn't work for me, I still generally liked reading it.
One of the stories, Sorrel's Heart, had perhaps the oddest opening line I ever encountered:
He found the girl couched in a ditch by the side of the deserted road, using a jagged rock to try to sever the muscled cords that connected her heart to her body.
It was such a strong 'I know what each of those words mean, but together they make no sense...' moment.
Now I get to google her and see what else she's written! I can't wait to read more of her books!
Edit: Apparently this book is literary fantasy and not sci fi, which I suppose makes my comment about them not being very sci fi-ish make sense!