Sunday, February 22, 2015

Review: Unnatural Creatures

Unnatural Creatures
by various authors; stories selected by Neil Gaiman

Available as: hardcover, paperback, Kindle edition, ebook
Pages: 462
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: April 23, 2013
Suggested tags: young adult, short stories, fantasy

From Goodreads:
"Unnatural Creatures is a collection of short stories about the fantastical things that exist only in our minds—collected and introduced by beloved New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman.

The sixteen stories gathered by Gaiman, winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards, range from the whimsical to the terrifying. The magical creatures range from werewolves to sunbirds to beings never before classified. E. Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones, Gahan Wilson, and other literary luminaries contribute to the anthology.

Sales of
Unnatural Creatures benefit 826DC, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting students in their creative and expository writing, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write."

{ I received a copy of this book for free through Goodreads First Reads. }

I devoured each story in this book, and as soon as I had finished the last one, I (honestly, I am not exaggerating) almost flipped back to the front to read them all again. Each one of these creepy, fantastic stories is amazing in its own way. This collection introduced me to a lot of authors that I will definitely be reading more of. I loved it. If you're a fan of fantasy, horror, and/or Neil Gaiman, you want to grab up this book as soon as you possibly can.

For my blurb about each story below, I'm putting in quotes what Gaiman wrote to introduce each story, because he says it more succinctly and more eloquently than I ever could.

Unnatural Creatures includes:

----- by Gahan Wilson (4 stars)
"One morning, beside the eggs and toast, there's a dark spot on the tablecloth, and where it came from, no one knows. The only certainty is that the moment one stops looking at it, it moves. And as it moves, it grows..."
(See what I mean about Gaiman's introductions to the stories? If that doesn't suck you right in...) The title of this one is just an amorphous shape, an "unpronounceable title" as Gaiman puts it, and it launches you fittingly into this collection of the weird and the wonderful. It's a delightfully eerie story about a mysterious spot. The writing style and dialogue really made this one for me.

The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees by E. Lily Yu (5 stars)
"In this story we encounter the mapmaking wasps of Yiwei and the colony of bees they see as their natural servants..."
A beautiful fantasy. So rich and detailed in so few pages. I am in awe of this writer and will be grabbing up anything else she's created.

The Griffin and the Minor Canon by Frank R. Stockton (4 stars)
"A lonely griffin visits a village and makes itself comfortable at the side of the Minor Canon assigned to keeping it from eating the townspeople. It insists that it will be hungry only at the equinox, but as the equinox approaches, the villages become concerned and decide to take matters into their own hands..."
A charming little story. It reminded me of a fable, and I really enjoyed it.

Ozioma the Wicked by Nnedi Okorafor (3 stars)
"Twelve years old, and able to speak with poisonous snakes, Ozioma's the undefeated champion of her village---despite the fact that everyone in it thinks she's a witch. One day, though, a tremendous serpent descends from the heavens, and tests even Ozioma's courage..."
A descriptive and mythical tale. Ozioma is a brave girl - I was scared for her when she was facing off with the snake... (But ack, Mr. Gaiman, you found my pet peeve! - snakes are venomous, not poisonous! ... I'm sorry, I'm lame, I know, I know...)

Sunbird by Neil Gaiman (5 stars)
"Lightning bugs, dolphinfish, dung beetle, unicorn flank steak...the intrepid members of the Epicurean Society have eaten every kind of animal. Or have they?..."
This is one of my absolute favorites from this collection. The idea, the writing, the dialogue - I loved it all so much.

The Sage of Theare by Diana Wynne Jones (3 stars)
"This is a story about invisible dragons, and about gods, and about a wise sage and a young man who seeks him."
This was like a mini-novel in its own right. It's so detailed and developed, it seems like it's part of something bigger. I see the name "Chrestomanci" popping up in some other books - I wonder where this story fits in in his saga? This story peaked my interest; I wouldn't mind reading some of Chrestomanci's other adventures.

Gabriel-Ernest by Saki (4 stars)
"There's a wild beast in the woods. Or there is a boy. Or perhaps..."
Excellent. I love the feeling of impending doom as we wait for Van Cheele to slowly put the pieces together.

The Cockatoucan: Or, Great-Aunt Willoughby by E. Nesbit (4 stars)
"Primped and prodded into a too-tight dress, Matilda is sent to visit her ancient great-aunt Willoughby, but something goes wrong along the way..."
A delightful little fantasy where Matilda and her caretaker Pridmore end up off-course and in a Wonderland-esque world called the Green Land where everything is a bit off. I am embarrassed to say I don't think I've read anything by E. Nesbit before, but I found that I love her charming writing style, which is peppered with snarky little confidential asides to the reader that made me smile and hit the "highlight" button on my Kindle many a time.

Moveable Beast by Maria Dahvana Headley (3 stars)
"There's a Beast in the mini-forest, and everyone knows it, especially Angela, whose father hunts it full-time. She has no interest in anything to do with the Beast, until a collector arrives in town, attempting to use her as bait..."
The town of Bastardville, the nearby mini-forest, and the Beast are all closely connected. We learn the ways of the town, forest, and Beast as Angela deals with the Collector (you go, Angela). Intriguing story with some great lines. I wish this was a whole novel - I'd like to go back to Bastardville and read more about that crazy place.

The Flight of the Horse by Larry Niven (3 stars)
"Time-traveling backward a thousand years in order to procure a long-extinct horse, Svetz is at a loss. He's never seen a horse before. This one looks almost right..."
Quirky and clever. This one played out like a Twilight Zone episode in my head - all black and white, with lame sci-fi costumes. I'm not sure why it did that, but I didn't dislike it.

Prismatica by Samuel R. Delany (4 stars)
"A very thin and very grey man arrives in a tavern with a large steamer trunk, which contains his "nearest and dearest friend." The man offers to pay for the assistance of the quick-witted Amos in procuring the cure his friend needs. Off Amos goes, questing for three shards of a magical mirror..."
Ahh, I do love me a good questing story. I love the searching, the setbacks, the clever trickeries used by the hero to get around said setbacks, and of course, the satisfying ending. Prismatica had all this and more. This is another author I'll be researching to see if he wrote anything else I can snatch up and devour.

The Manticore, the Mermaid, and Me by Megan Kurashige (5 stars)
"There's a strange collection in the Museum of Natural History, an exhibit of rogue taxidermy, hoaxes created by the enterprising to fool people into believing in monsters. Or are the hoaxes?"
I got lost in this one immediately. Maybe it's because I love the idea of museums, of natural history, of "rogue taxidermy," of mermaids in bathtubs. I was hooked, and I know I'll be coming back to reread this one again and again.

The Compleat Werewolf by Anthony Boucher (4 stars)
"Professor Wolfe Wolf, unlucky in love, is drowning his sorrows in a bar, when he meets a magician, who informs him that he's not destined to be a professor, but a werewolf. Detectives, spies, brainy secretaries... Things, needless to say, do not go at all according to plan."
I was really impressed by the complexity of this one - it is longer than most of the other stories, but it still encompasses a lot of detail and action for being a "short story." Another author on my "must read more" list!

The Smile on the Face by Nalo Hopkinson (4 stars)
"Gilla swallowed a cherry pit, and now her mouth is full of startling words she'd never normally speak. In the old stories of the saints, trees take root through flesh, but in this one, a gift from a tree transforms into teeth."
I liked the idea of the connection between women and trees, and tying this is with a girl just starting to become a woman herself, but I think I was little confused with the transformation. (SPOILER - highlight to read: Where does the dragon thing come in? Did I miss something?) But I don't really even care where that came from, because I loved watching Gilla grow power and confidence from the cherry pit and then use it on her enemies! I like the message of the story, especially when voiced via the cherry pit from within, and I love what Gilla did with the cherry pit at the end. (And as a completely random aside, part of me would like to see Ozioma, Angela, and Gilla come together in one epic story and cooperatively kick some serious butt.)

Or All the Seas with Oysters by Avram Davidson (3 stars)
"Of course, bicycles aren't unnatural creatures. And nor are paper clips. So two bike-shop owners have to be afraid of?"
Short but satisfying, and so strange that it almost made sense. I even found myself going along with Ferd's explanation of the safety pin/clothes hanger/natural history theory for a moment. Sounds logical...wait, what?

Come Lady Death by Peter S. Beagle (5 stars)
"For years Lady Neville has thrown the finest parties to entertain the finest people, and she's bored with all of them. There's one person she's never met though..."
It was close, but this one beat out Sunbird as my absolute favorite in this collection. The idea of Death coming to a ball, and then seeing how the other guests react to her presence, and then hearing her announcement at her departure... I loved everything about it. Beautiful, elegant, dark - all my favorite things.

To calculate my overall rating, I average my ratings for all the stories, which gave me 3.9+, so I'm happily rounding up to a 4 because it was fantastic and I will certainly be rereading this collection again in the future. Thank you, Neil Gaiman, for gathering all these unnatural stories and sharing them!

Final verdict: I loved it! I thought this book was great! I might buy it for myself since I will probably be rereading it. I would definitely recommend it to others.

{ Favorite quotes from Unnatural Creatures }

From the Introduction:
"I liked real animals. But I liked the animals who existed in a more shadowy way even more than I liked the ones who hopped or slithered or wandered into my real life, because they were impossible, because they might or might not exist, because simply thinking about them made the world a more magical place."

"They were waiting for me in books and in stories, after all, hiding inside the twenty-six characters and a handful of punctuation marks. These letters and words, when placed in the right order, would conjure all manner of exotic beasts and people from the shadows, would reveal the motives and minds of insects and of cats. They were spells, spelled with words to make worlds, waiting for me, in the pages of books."

From ----- by Gahan Wilson:
"It only showed you that the tidiest lives have nothing but quicksand for a base. The snuggest haven's full of trapdoors and sliding panels, unsuspected attics and suddenly discovered rooms."

From The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees by E. Lily Yu:
"Ours is a race of explorers and scientists, cartographers and philosophers, and to rest and grow slothful is to die."

From Sunbird by Neil Gaiman:
" 'I am an academic,' said Professor Mandalay, 'and thus have no finely developed senses that would be comprehensible to anyone who has not ever needed to grade papers without actually reading the blessed things.' "

From The Cockatoucan: Or, Great-Aunt Willoughby by E. Nesbit:
"I can't see why grown-up people don't see how impertinent these questions are. Suppose you were to answer: 'I'm the top of my class, auntie, thank you, and I am very good. And now let us have a little talk about you, aunt, dear. How much money have you got, and have you been scolding the servants again, or have you tried to be good and patient, as a properly brought up aunt should be, eh, dear?' Try this method with one of your aunts next time she begins asking you questions, and write and tell me what she says."

"This shows you that even mistakes are sometimes valuable, so do not be hard on grown-up people if they are wrong sometimes. You know, after all, it hardly ever happens."

From Moveable Beast by Maria Dahvana Headley:
"The bellows of the Beat are nothing you really want to hear. Particularly when you aren't wearing anything resembling stalking gear, you've never managed to read any of Survivalism: A Primer, and you are completely, idiotically alone."

"Collector. I don't like being collected any more than the Beast does. Don't come in here, thinking you can collect Bastardville's Beast. Just be calm, go into the mini-forest, and let the Beast have a snack. You'd think people would learn."

"We're part of an old tradition, Beast Managers, and this kind of Beast requires a lot of maintenance. It needs pruning and fertilizer. It needs exercise. It needs the occasional blood sacrifice. It's no big deal. That's what tourists and collectors are for."

From Come Lady Death by Peter S. Beagle:
"The idea began to please her friends, but a young lord, very new to London, suggested timidly, 'Death is so busy. Suppose he has work to do and cannot accept you invitation?' 'No one has ever refused an invitation of mine,' said Lady Neville, 'not even the King.' And the young lord was not invited to her party."

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