Last year, this very blog floated the idea that, perhaps, reading short stories should be a new summer tradition. They’re every bit as engrossing as a novel, but you can read one and then go do something else if you need to; they travel easier; and they can sometimes be more experimental in form and substance than a full-length book, providing you with a thousand unique adventures as you laze out in the warm sun. A tradition isn’t a tradition if you only do it once (I checked), so by popular demand and fresh for 2016, here are some of this year’s best short story collections to make the year’s longest days that much better.
Get in Trouble, by Kelly Link
While not really a recent collection, Link’s latest offering of strange and magical stories is relatively new in paperback, and it did just get nominated for a Pulitzer, so there’s no time like the present to dive into her vibrant, beautiful worlds. Shepopulates her stories with a variety of eccentric characters and situations, but her strength has always been conveying the mood and atmosphere to draw readers in, and holding them with engaging and believable characters. Get in Trouble is Link at her best, spinning stories of trailer park seances, futuristic teenagers in an Egyptian-influenced culture, superheroes, and ghost ships, all with a unique eye to fantastical detail and a quick wit.
Standout stories: “I Can See Right Through You” “Two Houses”
A Natural History of Hell, by Jeffrey Ford
Jeffrey Ford is probably writing your dreams. It’s the best way to describe his surreal style, which frequently relies on an internal structure and logic to convey images that teeter between odd fantasy and unsettling horror, while remaining impossibly grounded in a tangible reality. A Natural History of Hell (out in July) goes to some odd places, with genre-bending stories about artists trapped on a rocket ship, imaginary serial murderers, and God being torn apart by an angry mob, but it leaves plenty of room for beauty, however dark. It also contains one of my personal favorite stories from last year, “Word Doll,” in which children are lured into a world of make-believe. If you’re looking for something you haven’t seen before, look no further than these 13 stories.
Standout stories: “A Rocket Ship to Hell,” “The Blameless”
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The People in the Castle, by Joan Aiken
Renowned fabulist and children’s author Joan Aiken had a long and prolific career, and it’s easy to see why her career endured across decades. Her stories have a timeless feel, whether screwball romantic comedies about ghosts, or tales of confounded faerie royalty. If you’re an Aiken neophyte, this offers an amazing starting point, with stories running the gamut of fantasy, horror, comic fantasy, reimagined fairy tales, and legends. If you’ve experienced Aiken before, this is a selection of her best work. Either way, The People in the Castle is a great example of why her stories still hold up.
Standout stories: “Sonata for Harp and Bicycle” “Some Music for the Wicked Countess”
The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu
Earlier this year, we were thoroughly impressed by Liu’s collection of short stories, which use a variety of styles and viewpoints to explore rituals, culture, and empathy for other beings. But while Liu’s command of style is reason enough to read Menagerie, he also fills each tale with striking images—souls stored in a variety of objects, the eponymous menagerie who serve as toy companions to a young boy, a recurring theme of a Go board—and swells of genuine emotion, giving each a very human core. With Liu’s novel-length work gaining more and more attention, there’s no better (or faster) way to sample his unique style and vision.
Standout stories: “State Change,” “The Paper Menagerie”
Mash Up, by Various Authors, edited by Gardner Dozois
A few years ago, a group of authors got together to record an audiobook collection called Rip-Off!. The idea was simple: take the first line of a famous work, and use it as a jumping-off point for an original science fiction story. The results are now being released in printed format as Mash Up, allowing those who might have missed it to experience the insanity firsthand. While the gimmick offers a quirky genesis for a story idea, the resulting stories transcend novelty through their sheer originality and range, from a conspiracy thriller using the first line of Edward II, to a story about an aging astronaut that shares a first line with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The list of contributing authors reads like a “who’s who” of SF talent, including Elizabeth Bear, Nancy Kress, John Scalzi, Mary Robinette Kowal, Tad Williams, Lavie Tidhar, and many others.
Standout stories: “The Big Whale,” “Lady Astronaut of Mars”
Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang
Ted Chiang’s classic short story collection, originally released in 2002 to near universal acclaim, is back in a new edition from Vintage Books in anticipation of the release of a film adaptation of the title story, coming later this year. Even at a remove of more than a dozen years, the work has lost none of its power. Chiang’s use of language and structure draws in readers with beguiling ease, and while his concepts have a certain basis in rationality and a firm grasp of the sciences, he soon expands upon them in unexpected ways and in new forms, from a grounded and mechanical depiction of ancient peoples building a tower to Heaven, to a linguist learning how to appreciate time by studying an alien language, to the Ligotti-esque tale of a man whose heightened brain capacity forces him to see the deeper meaning of absolutely everything he experiences.
Standout stories: “Hell is the Absence of God,” “Story of Your Life,” “Understand”
Dreams of Distant Shores, by Patricia A. McKillip
Patricia McKillip writing style ranks with the most beautiful and lyrical in fantasy or elsewhere. In her long and celebrated career as a fantasist, she has written some of classics of the genre—The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, The Riddle Master series, and Ombria in Shadow. This recent collection records some of her best shorter work, including stories about an artist and his peculiar muse, an odd storytelling session during a massive storm, haunted houses, and mermaids. McKillip excels at layering sensory details into her work, but beyond that, her prose is just gorgeous to behold, with each word embellishing an ever richer tapestry before your eyes. Even if you’re a long-time fan, Dreams of Distant Shores delves into never-before-seen territory; it’s a chance to rediscover the work of a master, all over again.
Standout Stories: “Weird,” “Something Rich and Strange”