2020 Reading Challenge

2020 Reading Challenge
Jill Elizabeth has read 6 books toward her goal of 240 books.
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Book Review: Laughter at the Academy by Seanan McGuire

I am continually amazed at the prodigious amount of writing that Seanan McGuire turns out – the woman must never sleep… She’s one of the few authors whose short work I reliably like (in such rarefied company as Neil Gaiman and Connie Willis, no less), and since she’s featured in so many anthologies, she’s often one of the reasons I decide to go against my natural inclination and pick up a book of shorts. When I saw she had a collection of entirely her own short fiction, I was naturally intrigued. This collection doesn’t disappoint – although it does prove my general position about short story collections – namely, that even if you love the author, you won’t always love all the stories…

Generally speaking, this is a fantastic collection. There’s a great mix of topics and genres covered, from steampunk to horror to supernatural to the just plain bizarre (something McGuire excels at). It felt like reading a number of different authors, but with her particular Seanan-ness touch to each one – if that makes any sense. She’s so versatile, it’s like she has 73 people living inside her head – which, given her proclivity for weird, maybe she does… Several of these felt decidedly Mira Grant (one person who clearly DOES live inside her head, since it’s her most prolific pseudonym), while others felt completely Seanan McGuire, and since I really like both voices, that was cool for me.

A number of these appear to be from her earlier writing, which was cool, because I only happened to find one story that I’d already read before. Usually if an author compiles an anthology of their own shorts, it’s to collect things that have already been published elsewhere and give their diehard fans a chance to own those myriad pieces in one book (or, I suppose, cynically – give the author a chance to double-dip on previously written work). While it’s true that many (most) of these are previously published, I personally hadn’t come across many of them, so for me this was a truly great find, even if I didn’t engaged at the highest levels with all of the stories. A couple felt like precursors or parallels to some of her Mira Grant stand-alone works like Into the Drowning Deep (hard-core mermaids) and In the Shadow of Spindrift House (Lovecraftian Others), and that was interesting because it felt like a peek behind the curtain into where those worlds came from.

I’m not a huge fan of steampunk or alien/space sci-fi, so those tales were out of my wheelhouse – although still written with McGuire panache, they weren’t as good to me simply because they’re not topics I particularly enjoy reading. I do love when she writes supernatural and Just Plain Weird stuff, and those were the highlight of the collection for me.

My favorites bar none were the doll stories – what is it about dolls and the creepy factor?! Those two – one taking artificial intelligence into exactly the kind of scary place I imagine it going (We Are All Misfit Toys in the Aftermath of the Velveteen War) and the other playing fast-and-loose in an incredibly original way with the Pinocchio mythology (There is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold) – were incredible: original, eerie, and delightfully descriptive in the darkest, best way. There were a couple of tales that riffed off of Peter Pan – one (Lost) was probably my favorite of the collection; the other (In Skeleton Leaves) was marvelously crafted but for some reason just didn’t resonate with me the same way. There’s a cool story-as-tweets that was dark and clever and creepy – and for me to admit that is a Big Deal since non-traditional narrative formats usually fall flat with me (case in point, From A to Z in the Book of Changes, a “tale” she tells through the alphabetic submissions of readers – which felt more like an attempt to be clever and inclusive than an actual story to me). She covers classic ghost tales (Driving Jenny Home) and urban legends (Uncle Sam) in her signature, take-no-prisoners style of wry wit and creepy atmospherics. And The Tolling of Pavlov’s Bells was horrifyingly timely and downright terrifying for its eerie possibility.

All in all this was a fabulous collection that I devoured in two sittings (only because I couldn’t read it as it got late or I’d NEVER have slept). McGuire is an incredibly talented storyteller – she blends original ideas with existing mythology, and the alchemical process by which she does so produces a result that is indeed golden…

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for my review copy.

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