Three new stories by Diana Gabaldon

Well, June was quite a month for fans of Diana Gabaldon, who has graced us with with not one, not two, but three new stories! Actually, that should probably be 2 1/2, since the 3rd is coauthored. No matter! We fans will take what we can get.

Most excitingly, for Outlander readers, is the publication of Seven Stones to Stand or Fall, a collection of stories set in the Outlander-verse. Five stories have been published previously in anthologies and as stand-alones:

  • The Custom of the Army (a Lord John story)
  • The Space Between (about Fraser relations, Master Raymond, and the infamous Comte St. Germain)
  • A Plague of Zombies (more Lord John)
  • A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows (about Roger’s parents during WWII)
  • Virgins (about Jamie and Ian as young, virginal mercenaries in France, prior to the events of Outlander)

Having read all of these previously*, I’ll just focus on the two new pieces from Seven Stones:

A Fugitive Green: A 100+ page novella about Hal and Minnie — that would be Lord John’s distinguished older brother Harold, Duke of Pardloe, and his beloved wife Minnie. This is their origin story, of sorts. In A Fugitive Green, we get the tale of how Minnie, the daughter of a spymaster and book dealer, met and ended up married to a young, newly widowed British officer on the verge of utter disgrace. Minnie is sent by her father from Paris to London to carry out some book deals as well as some espionage, with the ulterior motive of getting her a rich and well-placed husband along the way. Meanwhile, Hal is dealing with the aftermath of a scandalous duel and his wife’s death, and Hal’s best friend is busy trying to get Hal cleared of any guilt related to the duel. When Minnie and Hal meet, sparks fly. We’ve certainly seen both of these characters as adults and gotten a taste of their fiery marriage, and their unusual meeting and marriage has been spoken of, but here we see it first-hand (and yes, the famous hearth rug too.) It’s all quite delicious, and I enjoyed seeing Hal in his 20s, with a certain amount of romance and vulnerability that his older, more hardened self rarely (if ever) displays. Hal has become a favorite of mine over the course of the main Outlander series as well as in the assortment of Lord John novels and novellas, and I appreciated getting this new view of Hal and Minnie and the start of their relationship.

 

Besieged: In which Lord John, wrapping up his governorship of Jamaica, is informed last minute that not only is his mother Benedicta unexpectedly in Havana, but that the British fleet is about to invade Cuba. What’s a devoted son to do but sail off with his trusted valet Tom Byrd and rush to the rescue? I’ll be honest — despite my love for John and my joy at another adventure with Tom Byrd, this story left me cold. It was mostly people (well, John) rushing from place to place, lots of military talk, and not a whole lot of character depth. The action felt a bit mind-numbing after a while — haciendas and forts and rushing around — and I just didn’t enjoy it. Sure, it’s wonderful to spend time with John, but I would have liked to see him interact more with his mother and Tom rather than being caught up in an action story the whole time. There’s also a very sad development, if you’ve read the Lord John novels and are familiar with John’s extended family, but other than that, I actually found Besieged rather skippable.

 

And finally, a Gabaldon story that’s only kind of a Gabaldon story. In the new anthology MatchUp, bestselling authors are paired up — one male, one female — to create stories together featuring some of their well-known characters. For those who are into these type of stories (crime thrillers), I’m sure there’s lots to enjoy from authors such as Sandra Brown, Charlaine Harris, etc etc etc. For me, I picked up MatchUp at the library strictly for the sake of Herself.

In MatchUp, Diana Gabaldon is paired up with Steve Berry, and together they’ve written a story — Past Prologue — centered around Berry’s lead character, Cotton Malone. In Past Prologue, Malone is in Scotland (to be clear, that’s modern-day, 21st century Scotland) for a private book sale. When he wanders away from Ardsmuir for a walk across the moors, he finds himself at a stone circle… and then, poof! finds himself in the year 1755. And for those who know their Outlander history, that means that Ardsmuir is a prison housing Scottish rebels, among them a tall red-haired man who stands out in a crowd. Malone ends up meeting the one and only Jamie Fraser (pausing here for hearts to melt). The plot of the story isn’t that important, but the Jamie moments are a lovely little treat, with a lot of heartbreak squeezed into one small conversation.

Past Prologue isn’t essential to the Outlander canon, but for fans, it’s a fun way to get a glimpse of familiar characters and settings. Not a bad way to pass the time!

 

*If you’re an Outlander reader but haven’t yet read the five already-published stories, I’ll just say that my two favorites are A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows and Virgins.

**Further note: As always, I’ll mention that the audiobooks are a great option for enjoying the Gabaldon novellas. Jeff Woodman is particularly wonderful narrating anything related to Lord John, and I really enjoyed the Virgins audiobook as well.

***I’ve written about a few of the these stories/novellas in other posts. Check them out:
A Trail of Fire
Virgins

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Stars Above: What’s Inside?

Stars AboveThe fantastic Lunar Chronicles series came to a close in 2015 with the publication of the final novel in the series, Winter. But wait! It’s not quite as finished as it seemed… because here we are in 2016 and we have a final FINAL volume in our hands.

Stars Above is a collection of stories that tie in and around the main characters and events of the novels, with most taking place in the years prior to the start of the series. The collection includes four previously published stories and five that are brand new.

So what’s inside Stars Above? Read on…

“The Keeper” (new): Ah, some backstory! “The Keeper” focuses on Michelle Benoit and her role in Cinder’s early years. As readers of the series know, Cinder was rescued from an almost successful murder attempt by her aunt Levana and hidden on Earth for years, while all of Luna believed her dead. In “The Keeper”, we see how Cinder was first entrusted to Michelle’s care and how she kept Cinder hidden and safe, all the while trying to provide a loving, secure home for her niece Scarlet. It’s a sweet story, and gives us a glimpse of events that we’ve heard reference to, but which we’d never learned many details about.

“Glitches” (previously published): “Glitches” follows “The Keeper” chronologically, as we see Cinder’s arrival in New Beijing and her introduction to the family of Linh Garan, her protector and adoptive father. Cinder is newly awakened and adjusts both to her new environment and her new status as a cyborg.

“The Queen’s Army” (previously published): This story shows Wolf’s transition from ordinary Lunar child to fierce, modified soldier serving the queen, showing his physical transformation and emotional struggles as well as his development into the pack Alpha.

“Carswell’s Guide To Being Lucky” (previously published): What was Carswell Thorne like as a teen-aged boy? Probably exactly what you’ve imagined — a total flirt, a guy who uses his charm to get his way, and a consummate swindler who seems to always know how to work the crowd. But even as a self-satisfied teen, Carswell still dreams of his future in space…

“After Sunshine Passes By” (new): Oh, so sweet and sad. This new tale introduces us to 9-year-old Cress, a Lunar shell kept alive with other outcasts like herself just for their value as scientific specimens. But Cress is a sweetie and a dreamer and imagines someday being of actual value, maybe even finally being accepted into society. What she gets instead is years of isolation in an orbiting jail… and this story shows how it all came about.

“The Princess and the Guard” (new): Lovely little Princess Winter’s early years are shown in this story, as we see her growing up in the palace and being trained to use her Lunar gift, until she begins to become aware of the danger and cruelty inherent in having such manipulative power. We see Winter’s decision to abandon her gift, even at the risk of madness, the cruelty of Levana, and how Jacin set his course in life with protecting Winter as his top priority.

“The Little Android” (previously published): I loved this story when I first read it, and I love it still. “The Little Android” is only tangentially connected to the characters of the Lunar Chronicles, as the android of the title has a brief meeting with the mechanic Linh Cinder. What this story truly is is an imaginative and moving retelling of the Little Mermaid fairy tale — not the pretty Disney version, but the tragic yet lovely story by Hans Christian Andersen. “The Little Android” makes a great stand-alone, but as part of this collection, shows yet another side of the Lunar Chronicles world.

“The Mechanic” (new): We’ve seen Kai and Cinder’s first meeting in the marketplace from Cinder’s perspective already. Here in “The Mechanic”, we get the same meeting as seen through Kai’s eyes. It’s fun to get the royal view, and to see the crown prince already struggling to fulfill his responsibilities to his people while at the same time being a teen boy who has just spotted a fascinating and surprising girl.

“Something Old, Something New” (new): As the title suggests, this final story in the collection is all about the Happily Ever After that our beloved characters have truly earned! The whole gang gathers for Scarlet and Wolf’s wedding, and there are romantic moments galore for all of the couples. This story really ties up the entire series with all the hearts and flowers and giddy joy we readers could possibly hope for.

Stars Above includes an excerpt from Heartless, the new stand-alone novel by Marissa Meyer scheduled for publication this coming fall. The blurb reads:

Long before she was the terror of Wonderland — the infamous Queen of Hearts — she was just a girl who wanted to fall in love.

Sounds good, right? I generally prefer not to read excerpts, so I skipped this one… but for those who can’t resist a sneak peek at the next book, it’s yet another reason to pick up a copy of Stars Above.

All in all, Stars Above is a must-read for fans of the Lunar Chronicles. It’s like Marissa Meyer has given a final gift to her readers…

present-307984_1280… and as a grateful reader, my response to Marissa Meyer is:

thank-you-907818_1920

 

Audiobook Review: Trigger Warning

Trigger WarningI’ve said it a bazillion times already on my blog: I suck at short stories. My attention wanders. I get impatient. I feel as though I’m just serving time until I can get back to my “real” reading… meaning reading a full-length novel.

And yet — after attending a talk by Neil Gaiman last spring and coming home with a signed copy of his latest book, I felt compelled to actually READ Trigger Warning, instead of just sticking in on a shelf to be admired for its prettiness.

Trigger Warning is a story collection (or, as the cover states, a collection of “Short Fictions and Disturbances”). While I love Neil Gaiman’s writing, pretty much always and no matter what, my dreaded aversion to short stories was keeping me from starting Trigger Warning, until I finally had the brilliant idea of listening to the audiobook.

Success!

I listened to (almost) the entire audiobook of Trigger Warning during the past week, and I must admit that I really enjoyed it.

Of course, the fact that Neil Himself is the narrator does not hurt. Nope, not one bit.

Neil Gaiman is in fact a terrific, animated, nuanced narrator, and his reading of the stories is never dull. I loved the tiny inflections and emphases, the slight accents for different characters, and the pacing and delivery. And there’s an odd sense of rightness in hearing the author read his own book. He, of all people, should know which parts are meant to be spoken boldly, which to trail off, when to be quiet, and when to practically chant. The eerie stories were read eerily; the funny bits had laughter hiding in the tone of his voice. Simply marvelous.

As for the stories themselves, this is really a very mixed assortment. Most (all?) appeared elsewhere originally, whether in other anthologies or written for special projects or events. I’d read two stories previously, “Orange” and “The Thing About Cassandra”, and enjoyed them immensely here in spoken format.

Other standouts for me are “Down to a Sunless Sea”, a short but entirely chilling tale told by a mysterious woman one rainy day along a wharf. “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains…” is a long, mythical-feeling piece involving a quest for gold, truth, and revenge, and I loved it. “A Calendar of Tales” grew out of a Twitter project, with a brief story for each month of the year. I especially loved the March tale, about the pirate Anne Bonny, and the wonderful October tale about a genie.

Weird, scary, funny, epic — the stories in Trigger Warning range from fairy tale to science fiction to horror, but all have a twist and a tone that make them surprising, entertaining, and captivating.

The only small irksome thing about the audiobook is that the description of the context for each story appears in the book’s introduction, and with an audiobook, there really isn’t a good, easy way to flip back and forth. I was glad I had the hard copy on hand so I could reference the intro again and again, and would suggest that if you’re going to listen to the audiobook, get your hands on a printed book or e-book so you can follow along.

Even if you’re — like me — not normally into story collections, it’s worth the time to give Trigger Warning a try, especially if you’re a Neil Gaiman fan. The audiobook definitely worked for me, and I’m so glad that I had the idea of listening to the stories rather than trying to force myself to concentrate on reading them in printed book form. An added bonus for me, based on my experience with Trigger Warning, is that I think I can use audiobook listening in the future to enjoy story collections that I might otherwise have skipped.

And even more than that, having now listened to Stardust and Trigger Warning, I’m super motivated to listen to even more by Neil Gaiman. I’ve been wanting to re-read The Graveyard Book for a while now, and I think audio might be just the ticket!

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Trigger Warning
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: February 3, 2015
Audiobook length: 11 hours, 1 minute
Printed book length: 310 pages
Genre: Stories
Source: Purchased (hard copy)/Library (audio download)

Flashback Friday: Self-Help

ffbutton2Flashback Friday is a weekly tradition started here at Bookshelf Fantasies, focusing on showing some love for the older books in our lives and on our shelves. If you’d like to join in, just pick a book published at least five years ago, post your Flashback Friday pick on your blog, and let us all know about that special book from your reading past and why it matters to you. Don’t forget to link up!

Going back to those far-distant 1980s for this week’s Flashback Friday!

self help moore

Self-Help by Lorrie Moore
(published 1985)

 Synopsis (Goodreads):

In these tales of loss and pleasure, lovers and family, a woman learns to conduct an affair, a child of divorce dances with her mother, and a woman with a terminal illness contemplates her exit. Filled with the sharp humor, emotional acuity, and joyful language Moore has become famous for, these nine glittering tales marked the introduction of an extravagantly gifted writer.

Full disclosure: I am not a short story person. I almost never read them. Okay, maybe grudgingly, once in a while, if they’re by an author I love — but before long, I can feel my eyes rolling back in my head and I have to grit my teeth in order to force myself to finish.

A major exception to the rule was Self-Help, accomplished author Lorrie Moore’s first published work. Not only did I read them all, I practically swallowed them whole. Many of the stories in Self-Help are written in the style of — you guessed it — a self-help guide, but each sparkles with wit and word play, even in the saddest of the lot. From the second I started reading the first story in the collection, “How to Be an Other Woman”, I knew I had stumbled onto something special. A random example:

When you were six you thought ‘mistress’ meant to put your shoes on the wrong feet. Now you are older and know it can mean many things, but essentially it means to put your shoes on the wrong feet.

Or how about this opening line from the story “How to Become a Writer”:

First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/missionary. A movie star/ kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably.

The women in these stories struggle, find and lose connections, and take good, hard looks at themselves and their lives. The writing is delightful, especially to a word-freak like me — meanings and double meanings and puns galore, and all enhance the stories, rather than acting as distractions.

I’ve read several other books of stories by Lorrie Moore, and need to read her most recent novel, A Gate At The Stairs (2009). Still, Self-Help remains my favorite of her works — and remains one of the few books of short stories that I actually loved.

What flashback book is on your mind this week?

Note from your friendly Bookshelf Fantasies host: To join in the Flashback Friday fun:

  • Grab the Flashback Friday button
  • Post your own Flashback Friday entry on your blog (and mention Bookshelf Fantasies as the host of the meme, if you please!)
  • Leave your link in the comments below
  • Check out other FF posts… and discover some terrific hidden gems to add to your TBR piles!

♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

Do you host a book blog meme? Do you participate in a meme that you really, really love? I’m building a Book Blog Meme Directory, and need your help! If you know of a great meme to include — or if you host one yourself — please drop me a note on my Contact page and I’ll be sure to add your info!

Flashback Friday: Smoke and Mirrors

Flashback Friday is my own little weekly tradition, in which I pick a book from my reading past to highlight. If you’d like to join in, here are the Flashback Friday book selection guidelines:

  1. Has to be something you’ve read yourself
  2. Has to still be available, preferably still in print
  3. Must have been originally published 5 or more years ago

Other than that, the sky’s the limit! Join me, please, and let us all know: what are the books you’ve read that you always rave about? What books from your past do you wish EVERYONE would read? Pick something from five years ago, or go all the way back to the Canterbury Tales if you want. It’s Flashback Friday time!

My picks for this week’s Flashback Friday:

 Smoke and Mirrors

Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman

(published 1998)

From Goodreads:

In the deft hands of Neil Gaiman, magic is no mere illusion… and anything is possible. In this, Gaiman’s first book of short stories, his imagination and supreme artistry transform a mundane world into a place of terrible wonders — a place where an old woman can purchase the Holy Grail at a thrift store, where assassins advertise their services in the Yellow Pages under “Pest Control,” and where a frightened young boy must barter for his life with a mean-spirited troll living beneath a bridge by the railroad tracks. Explore a new reality — obscured by smoke and darkness, yet brilliantly tangible — in this extraordinary collection of short works by a master prestidigitator. It will dazzle your senses, touch your heart, and haunt your dreams.

I know I’ve said about a thousand times that I just don’t do short stories. Smoke and Mirrors is one of my happy exceptions. This collection includes pieces short and long, creepy and mysterious, and just about all are genius. In my humble opinion. My very favorites are Nicholas Was,  a one-page story that will guarantee that you never think about Christmas in quite the same way, Snow, Glass, Apples, the most disturbing version of the Snow White story that I’ve ever read, and The Wedding Present, which is actually a wonderful story embedded in the book’s introduction.

Really, you can’t go wrong with any of the stories in this superb collection. And coming from a person who just does not get into short stories, that’s saying a lot!

So, what’s your favorite blast from the past? Leave a tip for your fellow booklovers!

Note from your friendly Bookshelf Fantasies host: To join the Flashback Friday fun, write a blog post about a book you love (please mention Bookshelf Fantasies as the Flashback Friday host!) and share your link below. Don’t have a blog post to share? Then share your favorite oldie-but-goodie in the comments section. Jump in!

Book Review: Magic for Beginners

Book Review: Magic For Beginners by Kelly Link

After finally putting down the borrowed copy of Magic for Beginners which I’d been reading on and off for the past week, I can make two definitive statements:

1)      Kelly Link is a very gifted writer.

2)      I suck at short stories.

I really gave it my all, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to read all eight stories in this collection. I managed to get through six (although for two, my reading might better be described as skimming). If you read my blog post from a few days ago (see it here), you’ll know that I pick up short story collections rarely and reluctantly, but in this case, I’d heard enough high praise for Kelly Link to decide to give it a go.

I absolutely loved the first story in the collection, “The Fairy Handbag”, narrated by a teen girl whose recently deceased, oddball grandmother has appointed her the guardian of a magical handbag. According to Grandmother Zofia, the people in her little village of Baldesziwurlekistan all picked up and moved into the handbag hundreds of years ago in order to escape a terrible invasion, and have lived there happily ever since. “The Fairy Handbag” is weird and wonderful, and I was thoroughly enchanted.

Also very good was “The Stone Animals”, about a family who leaves Manhattan and moves into a country home upstate, only to discover that, slowly but surely, all of their possessions have become haunted. I’m not sure what any of it actually meant, but I love some of the imagery used, especially this brief glimpse of the pregnant wife who can’t stop painting and repainting the rooms in the house:

He found Catherine standing on a ladder in the kitchen, one foot resting on the sink. She was wearing her gas mask, a black cotton sports bra, and a pair of black sweatpants rolled down so he could see she wasn’t wearing any underwear. Her stomach stuck out so far, she had to hold her arms at a funny angle to run the roller up and down the wall in front of her.

The story entitled “Magic for Beginners”, equally weird and oddly touching, is the tale of a fifteen-year-old boy and his friends who are obsessed with a mysterious TV show called The Library. Or is this story about characters on a TV show called The Library who are obsessed with a TV show called The Library? At one point, main character Jeremy wonders “about what kind of television shows the characters in television shows watch.” Kind of made my head spin.

Kelly Link’s writing is lyrical and full of unconventional images and similes. Just two of the many that made me smile:

He feels like a tennis ball in a game where the tennis players love him very, very much, even while they lob and smash and send him back and forth, back and forth.

And…

The disco ball spins and spins. It makes Jeremy feel kind of carsick and also as if he has sparkly, disco leprosy.

Kelly Link has great talent, and I truly enjoyed the stories I read. The fact that I couldn’t get through all of them certainly has more to do with me as a reader rather than with the quality of the book. If you enjoy short stories, and get a kick out of worlds weird and twisted, I’d definitely suggest giving this collection a whirl.

My problem with short stories

For an educated, literate person, I’m an absolute philistine when it comes to short stories.

I know, I know… according to People Who Matter, the short story is writing as an art form, a purer literary expression than the novel, forcing a writer to use an economy of words in order to convey some larger truth. Or so I’ve heard.

But here’s my larger truth: I just can’t get into them. Even when written by authors I adore, I can’t stomach more than a story or two before my eyes start to glaze over. I find myself rushing through, skipping ahead, and pining for a “real” book — aka, a big, meaty novel that I can really sink my teeth into. It happens every time, no matter how good my intentions.

I’ve had this experience countless times, whether with anthologies featuring stories by multiple authors or a book of short stories by a single author. Some recent cases in point:

Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman: I love Neil Gaiman! I read about 95% of the stories in this collection, and there are some that I know I’ll return to over and over again, especially “Snow, Glass, Apples”, “Nicholas Was…”, and “The Wedding Present”. But, finally, I just had to stop — I thought my brain would shrivel up if I read one single story more.

The Baum Plan For Financial Independence and Other Stories by John Kessel: “The Lunar Quartet” stories in this collection were absolutely brilliant. I read a couple of other stories as well, liked them all well enough, and then put the book down.

Fire Watch by Connie Willis: I picked up this collection because I’d like to read the author’s time travel novels and wanted to read the story that came first (“Fire Watch”), and actually read quite a few of the other stories as well. In addition to “Fire Watch”, I especially liked “A Letter From The Clearys” and “And Come From Miles Around”, although “All My Darling Daughters” was so creepy that I can’t quite say I enjoyed it.

After The Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh: A collection that I actually finished! My Goodreads review is here.

Black Juice by Margo Langan: Includes one of the best, most haunting stories I’ve come across recently, “Singing My Sister Down”. The other stories in the collection are good, but just don’t quite measure up to the first story’s power. And yes, I did skip one or two.

Looking at the list I just put together, I must admit that my problem is not really with individual short stories. Clearly, there are many that I like, or even love. But as a whole, I just can’t feel the same enthusiasm for my reading time when I’m sitting down with a book of stories. Maybe I’m too goal-oriented when I read — I’m always looking ahead and planning what to read next, eager to finish more and more of the books on my to-read shelf — and just don’t get the same sense of satisfaction from a story collection. Maybe it’s that I’m looking for more of a long-term commitment; when I develop a relationship with fictional characters, I want it to last hundreds of pages, not 10 or 20. Or maybe I’m just not sophisticated enough to appreciate the beauty of short fiction.

My 22-year-old daughter — to my delight — discovered the joys of Vonnegut a couple of years ago, and has been reading as much of his work as possible ever since. This week, after finishing a 1,000 page novel (A Clash Of Kings, if you must know), she decided to read something a bit shorter and picked up Vonnegut’s Welcome To The Monkey House. She seemed to love it at first, then came to me a day later to ask to borrow a book (#2 of the Jane True series, if you must know this too), saying “You know what, Mom? I think I’m just not a short story person.”

At least I’m in good company.