Unusual Suspects – ed. Dana Stabenow

I’ve never liked short stories, as a class. (This might be why I’ve never tried writing them.) There are certainly exceptions; several writers are always exceptions to the rule, and other stories have come out of the blue and surprised me. I found several authors through Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Sword and Sorceress series, for example. But on the whole short story collections are not my favorite creatures, usually picked up to fill in a gap or for something to read quickly. (Also, in this case, to incidentally provide the “U” for my alphabet challenge.)

My problem with anthologies is that unless they are single-author collections they are, by nature, so wildly variable. It could be argued that it’s worth reading every collection because there might be a gem in there which would otherwise be missed. It could also be argued that some of these have to be pretty spectacular to make dragging through the rest of the muck worthwhile. There was nothing spectacular in Unusual Suspects. Some were good, but nothing great. If I’d had higher expectations, I’d be disappointed.

Scanning through the author bios at the back of the book – which do not, by the way, place these stories within their authors’ series, as applicable – shows an interesting concentration of writers from Alaska. Apropos of nothing, I guess.

“Lucky” – Charlaine Harris
I don’t like Sookie Stackhouse. There, I said it. I wanted to; I like Harper Connelly and Lily Bard. But Sookie’s first-person voice irritates me. And this was such a slight story it seemed a heavy sigh might blow it away. It was kind of a mess.

“Bogieman” – Carole Nelson Douglas
I don’t like anthologies: case in point. My God. The writing? I don’t know. I’ve read a little Douglas before: Irene Adler wasn’t bad. However, just the descriptions of the cat mystery series (POV cat) nauseate me, and I’ve never gotten around to trying her fantasies; now, evidently, she’s glommed on to the urban fantasy chick detective bandwagon. In this story, the concept and mistakes in data were so bad the quality of the writing is simply irrelevant. First of all, you want me to invest time in a world where corpses are smuggled in from Mexico, reanimated with images of 40′s movie characters, and then put to work in bars, restaurants, presumably theatres – – and brothels?? (I need to repeat that: Corpses. Brothels.) There are so many problems with that I don’t even know where to start.

What offended me even more, though, was that in a story centering around film of the 40′s, Douglas made two outrageous gaffes. No, not the shallow comment about Bogart not being very good-looking; that was inexcusable (he was Bogart, he didn’t have to be pretty), but not technically inaccurate. The first one, which made me mutter for a couple of pages, was stating that Nick Charles was “The Thin Man” of the series so named. He wasn’t. The second, which made me make incredulous incoherent disgusted noises and skip to the next story, was misquoting Lauren Bacall’s line from To Have and Have Not. Ms. Douglas, it is NOT “Just pucker up your lips and blow”. That is unmitigated carelessness, and makes me want to slap someone. Hard. The offense here lies in that not only did the writer not bother to do the research, she – and everyone involved in getting this garbage in print – seems to have assumed the audience was too dumb or uncaring to notice.
The upside? I can clear a little space on my overcrowded bookshelves by getting rid of the Douglas books I’ve collected over the years.

“Looks Are Deceiving” – Michael A. Stackpole
Michael Stackpole: one reason I requested this book in the first place. “Looks Are Deceiving”? Hm. Decent story; some great lines; interesting world – it was just difficult to adjust to a fantasy set utterly elsewhere after two set in the here-and-now (or future) (and followed by another one). I have no idea if this ties in to any of Stackpole’s other writing (turns out I prefer it when each story in a collection like this has an introduction); it probably does. I liked it, once I finally adapted.

“The House of Seven Spirits” – Sharon Shinn
Sharon Shinn: another reason I wanted this book. Not bad as a story; as a mystery story, not great. It pulled a hitherto unknown fact out of thin air, and the mystery happened to hinge on that. I certainly didn’t see the end coming – but then, no one could. The story is strong for the book, but weak for the author.

“Glamour” – Mike Doogan
Cleverly written from the point of view of a clueless main character, so that everyone, especially the reader, knows more than he does. Once again, I don’t know if this takes place in a world already established in other work of Doogan’s, but if not it’s rather odd: medieval peasant-iness blended with finishing schools and djinns. And then there’s the Spamiard, which reduces the whole thing to farce. Confusing.

“Spellbound” – Donna Andrews
Nice, if inconclusive. I like the magic; I like the complete lack of regret for the murder victim; I like the method and the result of the murder. This story doesn’t outweigh the garbage of the first two and the meh of most of the rest, but – nice. I’m a bit disappointed that Donna Andrew’s books seem to be mostly cozy mysteries, with no fantasy element – I’d like to see more.

“The Duh Vice” – Michael Armstrong
How very creative – Armstrong uses “ass” three times in three different ways in just the first couple of pages. Charming. (He does repeat himself a few times in the continuing love affair with the word, though.) Interesting idea; I like the moral of the story (though it feels familiar). I would call the “duh-vice” (which annoys me) the very model of a maguffin, except maguffins are usually explained or debunked or some such. This was just … there, from an alternate dimension, no real explanation of how it was obtained, nothing. It just is.

“Weight of the World” – John Straley
Santa’s Boxing Day relaxation and recuperation is disrupted by the murder of one of his elves. I loved the idea; I loved the story… I did not love how it was told. The only thing I can think is that a certain level of crudeness (Santa constantly being referred to as “the fat man”, and the strain of contempt he seemed to show for his helpers, for starters) was intentional to cut the possible over-sweetness of a tale about Santa Claus. Which wasn’t necessarily … necessary. Pity – this could have been extraordinary. (Though a Christmas-centric story in the midst of this collection was very odd.)

“Illumination” – Laura Anne Gilman
I didn’t care for the first-person narrator; I resent the fact that this is almost purely a teaser for the author’s new series. Want the explanation for the voices in the main character’s head? You’re out of luck unless you read the books. I don’t like this method of trying to drum up sales. A story in an anthology should be independent, stand-alone. You’re a lot more likely to tempt me to spend some of my few book-buying dollars if you present me with a well-crafted, complete-in-itself slice of your world that makes me want to know more about it without leaving unsatisfying clumps of loose ends flapping in the breeze. This did the latter without at all succeeding in the former.

“The House” – Laurie R. King
There’s often one story for which I buy an anthology, and Laurie R. King’s was the main reason I wanted this. And it was a good story – a little predictable, but good. I suppose my expectations were high enough that I was almost bound to be disappointed, and I was, a little. It wasn’t worth the price of admission, but I did like it.

“Appetite for Murder” – Simon R. Green
I didn’t know Simon R. Green when I requested this book, but read The Man With the Golden Torc since, so I was really looking forward to this. It was … all right. I liked the clues planted about the killer’s identity, and I liked the superheroine and her secret, and I liked the method of capturing the killer. And yet the story as a whole didn’t do much for me. Welcome to the Nightside …

“A Woman’s Work” – Dana Stabenow
I am apparently the most unoriginal writer there ever was. Having already had one of the characters in the book I’ve been trying to write forever stolen by someone else, now two names and an object I’ve been using for years pop up in this story. I wonder if she swiped Nyssa from the same place I did (though I changed the spelling for mine). Once I got past that … Once again, it was okay. It took quite a while to dig into it; exposition was a bit lacking, I felt, as I was a little lost for several pages. I was still a little lost later, as I found it puzzling that in the general worldview shown representatives of the King’s justice (rather like Lackey’s Heralds, or a couple of other examples I could name) would be held in such contempt. The Message was rather heavy-handed, but I suppose once you’re embarked on a story like this it’s hard to exercise a light touch. I wasn’t thrilled with the resolution of the story: the murderer was a bit too purely evil, was not very thoroughly punished, and the rest of it just seemed like one whole heck of a lot to dump on a single person, boyfriend or no boyfriend. It was a bit too much like these two women marched in from far away, waved their hands and declared that changes were going to be made, nodded to themselves in smug satisfaction, and marched back out again, still smug, leaving a huge mess of resentment and fear behind them. It wasn’t a terrible story, but I just had a sudden unbidden vision of how Barbara Hambly might have handled it, and – once again – it could have been something rather better.
Yeah. I don’t like short stories much.

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