Thursday, June 9, 2022

Mini Reviews of Short Story Collections: How Strange a Season & Sword Stone Table

Megan Mayhew Bergman is a short story writer whose previous two collections received great acclaim. I really enjoyed her 2015 collection Almost Famous Women, so I was intrigued to see what she would do in this book as she wrote about women who are learning to chase what they want and overcome tradition and history. While these aren't connected stories, I have the feeling that a discerning reader who read through the collection a second or third time would find a lot of threads to follow. 

In "Wife Days," Farrah negotiates with her husband for some days to just be her own person instead of following his whims, or those of her trainer or family. After Holland's girlfriend leaves for a research project, Lily decides to take on her own project with a conservation group in North Carolina and tries to come to terms with her mother leaving their family when she was young in "A Taste for Lionfish." Bergman's novella "Indigo Run" might be my favorite piece in the collection. Helena-Raye Glass finds herself unexpectedly pregnant and married as Skip Spangler considers selling her family home generations later. Each of these protagonists is wondering what it would mean and what it would feel like to put themselves first, to follow their own desires, and to leave the burden of care and the expectations of others behind them.

How Strange A Season
By Megan Mayhew Bergman
Scribner March 2022
320 pages
Read via Netgalley 

In the introduction to Sword Stone Table, editors Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington wrote about their search for Arthurian retellings. They wanted tales that bent the race or gender of the characters, or introduced queer characters to these beloved stories. So they set out to create their own, and asked sixteen writers to contribute their own takes on Arthur and the Stone Table. Writers from Sarah MacLean to Alexander Chee said yes, and Sword Stone Table came to life.

As with almost any collection of short stories, I found some stories excellent and some only okay. The authors set their tales either in the past (once), the present, or the future. Roshani Chokshi reveals a new side to the tale of Elaine and Lancelot in "Passing Fair and Young," Waubgeshig Rice places a young Arthur in an Anishinaabeg community where he learns about his culture and traditions from his mysterious Uncle Merle in "Heartbeat," and Silvia Moreno-Garcia writes of a woman in a a tower many years in the future who savors memories from a beautiful young man she calls Lancelot in "A Shadow in Amber." There are two kinds of readers who will be wowed by this collection--people who are looking for new-to-them science fiction and fantasy authors, and those who are die-hard Arthurian nerds. Kudos to the editors and writers for bringing new life to these well-loved stories and characters.

Sword Stone Table: Old Legends, New Voices 
Edited by Swapna Krishna and Jenn Northington 
Vintage July 2021
480 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Review: When Women Were Dragons

Alex Green is a girl who is growing up in the 1950s. She is navigating many familiar things--going to school, having a first crush, fending off an overly protective mother, and looking out for her younger sister. But in this version of America, things are a little different than you might expect. On a seemingly normal day, thousands of women suddenly turned into dragons and flew away, including Alex's Aunt Marla. Alex's "sister" Beatrice is actually her cousin, but no one is allowed to talk about the women who turned into dragons or the pain and confusion their leaving caused. Alex sets out to find the answers about just what happened that day, for herself, for her aunt, and for her beloved Beatrice who is showing signs of becoming a dragon like her mother.

For readers who like all of the answers, this might be a frustrating experience. Alex's own failed attempts as a child and young adult to get more information are interspersed with a scientist's reports as he tries to research the phenomenon of turning into a dragon and is thwarted at every turn by politicians and other scientists who want to keep everyone in the dark. But it rings very true to that experience of knowing that something bigger is going on and having your questions ignored because you're not old enough, or it doesn't concern you. 

Kelly Barnhill's writing is excellent. She clearly depicts the anger of a girl and then a woman who is kept from answers, left without support, and then belittled as she tries to use her intellect and skills. This is obviously a book about feminism and female anger. In America in May 2022, when women are dealing with parenting during a multi-year pandemic, a formula shortage, multiple mass shootings, and the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade, many of us are very angry. Reading When Women Were Dragons can give readers hope that they are not the only ones who are angry; in fact, women have been angry for a very long time. But it also reminds us that we aren't alone, and that we can make bold choices to protect and defend ourselves and the women we love. 

When Women Were Dragons
By Kelly Barnhill
Doubleday Books May 2022
352 pages
Read via Netgalley