Book Reviews: Unnatural Creatures, The Woman who Married a Cloud, Practical Magic

Cross-posted from my Goodreads account

Unnatural Creatures

I really like short stories. Conventional wisdom in publishing has it that short story collections don’t sell, but personally I seek them out: there are some ideas that aren’t really meant to be novels, and a well-crafted short story can pack a huge depth of emotion and resonance into just a few pages. A short story is just the right length to meet a character, explore an idea, or pay off a simple plot twist. And a short story collection can either show off an author’s versatility, or it can showcase variations on a single theme.

Unnatural Creatures does the latter. It’s an anthology featuring stories by some of the biggest names in fantasy—along with some new-to-me authors—and each story features a different fantastic beast. There are unicorns, dragons, werewolves, and a bunch of less-standard creatures (the dimension-hopping carnivorous plant was rather memorable). The stories were selected by Neil Gaiman and are almost all excellent. In fact, Gaiman’s own contribution (which has been published before in his own short-story collections), while amusing enough, was one of the weakest of the bunch. Taken as a whole Unnatural Creatures is everything a satisfying anthology should be: both broad and deep, and full of characters that are interesting to meet and don’t outlast their welcomes.

The Woman Who Married a Cloud: The Collected Short Stories

This collection, on the other hand, failed from my perspective. I surprised myself by disliking it as much as I did, since I thought Carroll’s novel Bones of the Moon was haunting and masterful. But these stories were choppy—one ended so abruptly, and with such pointlessness, that I actually wonder if the Kindle edition might not have dropped some pages—and were mostly unpleasant even when they felt complete. I don’t need all my stories to have happy endings, but me to there’s a distinction between fiction that looks at the struggles and sorrows of human existence and finds some kind of meaning or redemption or catharsis there, and nihilistic fiction that simply wallows in unhappiness. These stories felt like wallowing, to me.

Practical Magic

As guilty-pleasure books go, this one is aces: it’s written in a breezy, catchy style that keeps the pages turning, and the plot is loaded with magic and romance. I say it’s a “guilty” pleasure because it’s really a chick lit book at heart—there’s nothing the least bit challenging here, and the male characters especially come across less like believable human beings and more like Love Interest-shaped tokens dropped into the narrative at the appropriate points. But it’s a great beach or airplane read.

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