Author: Elizabeth Wilson
My rating: 5 of 5
She knew she shouldn’t approach the derelict old house. Everyone knew it was abandoned–probably haunted too. But Blake Callaghan’s curiosity is just too much, so she scales the wall and wanders through the overgrown, unkempt garden towards the house. You can imagine her surprise when she encounters an old man in the garden; so very old he is. He introduces himself as Mr. Donn and begins to tell Blake stories, wondrous stories of the Sidhe, of changelings, and of the Dullahan. Stories of the brevity of life and the certainty of death that change Blake somehow in the hearing of them.
House of the Dead is an incredible novella/short story collection that I would highly recommend to anyone who enjoys fantasy or mythology. It pulls from old Celtic legends, but presents the tales in a fresh, insightful way, uniting the individual stories within Blake’s story and making them part of a greater whole. I first discovered the author through her Merlin fanfics, writing under the pseudonym Emachinescat; they are wonderful, and I fell in love with the author’s writing then. This novella displays the same brilliance, but perhaps even more finely crafted. There is both a richness of imagery and a sparseness of dialogue in this book that is unusual, I think, and I found it oddly moving. There were several times when the stories moved me to the point of chills, and by the end of the novella, I was crying. The perspective on life and death offered here is truly powerful, echoing the Doctor’s idea that “we’re all stories, in the end” and the desire to really live life to the fullest, to write a good story with your life. As I said, highly recommended.
Author: Philip Pullman
Illustrator: Leonid Gore
My rating: 4.5 of 5
In a small German town, a group of townsfolk gather by the fireside in the tavern to hear a story. And a horrifying tale it is, in keeping with the usual for Fritz, one of princes and strange happenings and creepy clockwork makers. But things go from typically frightening to truly terrifying when said creepy clockwork maker walks right into the tavern in a gust of wintry air as if he’d stepped right out of Fritz’s story by magic.
I love Philip Pullmans’ writing, both the craftsmanship of it and the variety of it. I think Clockwork might be surprising–and possibly disappointing–to those who know his work mainly from the His Dark Materials books. Rather than being some big fantasy tale, Clockwork is a tightly woven, neat little fairy tale of novella length. And viewed as what it is, I think this book works excellently. The characters are distinct, and you get to know exactly what you need to about them to really appreciate the roles they play in the story. And the interwoven storylines fit together while still leaving just enough unexplained to maintain the eeriness of the story. The atmosphere and the tension that’s developed throughout is one of the strongest points of this story, to my mind–one of the reasons this works best as a novella, since this atmosphere would be impossible (or at least exhausting for the reader) to maintain through a longer story. Finally, this book has the makings of an excellent fairy tale: the sense of rightness, the magic, the darkness, and the happy ending. For those who love a good dark fairy tale, I would definitely recommend Clockwork.
Author: Lish McBride
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Matt didn’t have many friends when he was little. Actually, Ashley might have been the only person who he really clicked with, ever. That is, until she died. . . . But recently, she’s been coming around to hang out again–as Death, or as she says it, as a Harbinger. Whatever that actually is. Not that Matt actually has a clue what she does as a Harbinger. But this evening, on a trip to a diner for waffles, he might just get to find out.
Okay, so clarifications first. Necromancer isn’t actually a novella; it’s a short story “Death and Waffles” along with previews of two of McBride’s other books. The short story is a tie-in to Lish McBride’s amazing story, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer. I really enjoyed the short story. You see a good bit of Ashley in the other Necromancer books, but this story shows a bit more personal side of her. It’s nice to see more than the Harbinger in the school-girl uniform who demands payment in waffles . . . well, okay, some things never change. Point is, I love McBride’s writing and her characters. They’re fun to read, and they’re memorable long after you’ve finished reading. Plus, Necromancer is a great chance to give her writing a try at minimal risk–you can pick it up for free on Nook or Kindle (probably elsewhere too). Definitely recommended.
Author: Madoka Harumi/Translators: Chelsea Inaba & Yoshino Kazuki
My rating: 4 of 5
With her weak body and her inability to stand much sunlight, Itsuko has always stood a bit apart, sitting out of PE and carrying a parasol around to block the sunshine. Certainly, it’s a surprise when one of the most popular boys in her middle school begins showing an interest in her, going so far as to ask her out to the summer festival. Odder still, that it would be Miyano, a boy notorious for only showing up for school when the sun is shining. Talk about opposites! But when Miyano finds a cute little teddy-bear charm by the notice board, Itsuko somehow finds herself dragged along on his mad hunt to find its owner in spite of herself.
Whether it Rains or Shines Tomorrow is such a cute, ordinary sort of story that it’s actually quite delightful in a way. It’s a story about normal, modern-day Japanese kids in a suburban sort of environment just living their daily life, sorting out problems with friends, handling problems, falling in love, and dealing with all those crazy emotions that are just part of life at that age. Itsuko, Miyano, and Itsuko’s friend Mana are all fairly ordinary kids although their personalities are anything but dull. They’re easy to relate to, which is a good thing. The plot is nothing crazy, just a shoujo slice-of-life romance/drama, but it’s cute. It’s nice to see a light novella in a shoujo style; there’s such a preponderance of seinen light novels on the market it seems (which isn’t a bad thing, but variety’s nice). My one complaint is that the whole “sun allergy” thing was a bit weird . . . but it mostly worked pretty well. Whether it Rains or Shines Tomorrow is a cute, short light novella that would be a fun read for readers in middle school and up.
Note: As far as I know, this light novella is currently only available digitally (I’m pretty sure it’s available on iTunes and Google Play). For more great information, see the review at englishlightnovels.com.
Author: Charlie Higson
Based on Doctor Who, Series 1
My rating: 4 of 5
*SPOILER ALERT* In this review, I will be spoiling a major plot surprise in this story because I have no idea how to effectively review the author’s writing without doing so. So if you want to read this story without having it spoiled first, do NOT read this review until you’ve read the novella.
Ali is having a pleasant, quiet picnic with her family one day when this strange man who’s clearly “not from around here” comes barging in, disturbing their meal and telling them they’re in great danger and to go home now. Not something Ali would normally take well, but there’s something about this man that makes her want to do what he says . . . especially when he goes dashing off to handle this monstrous shadowy beast that takes up half the sky. Using her keen intelligence and interminable curiosity, Ali discovers that this man is none other than a Time Lord–a race of time travelers who had long since been relegated to the realm of myth. She follows his trail and, finding him after he’s sent the “monster” to another dimension, introduces herself properly to “the Doctor” as he calls himself. . . . And convinces him to let her travel with him. Unfortunately, the beast the Doctor got rid of has an equally dangerous cousin that’s about to take out the kingdom of Babylon back in Hammurabi’s time, and the Doctor and Ali race off in the TARDIS to take care of it. It should be a fairly manageable, peaceable job . . . except that Ali isn’t exactly human or naturally peaceable.
I’m not normally one to go in much for fanfiction and spinoff stories, but this collection of Doctor Who novellas released by Penguin is a definite exception–have you seen some of the incredible authors who are writing for them? I certainly enjoyed reading The Beast of Babylon, although it’s the first Charlie Higson I’ve read to my knowledge. The story itself is well written and readable, although nothing particularly outstanding (thus 4 instead of 5 stars in the rating). Basically, it’s pretty standard story for Doctor Who. What’s most notable about this story is Ali herself and the way Higson goes about developing her character. You’re first introduced to her as a smart, inquisitive college girl out enjoying lunch with her family. The writing and the Doctor’s treatment of her gives you no reason whatsoever to suspect that she’s anything but human, although it’s clear that she’s living on an alien world somewhere. Then as you go, you start to get a few references to physical characteristics that aren’t exactly human, but they’re small enough that you can write them off as Ali’s being alien but fairly human-like at least. And then you get to the point where they’re in Hammurabi’s court and actual humans see her for the first time . . . and when you see her through human eyes, you’re shocked by how utterly alien she is. More shocking is how alien she acts when threatened–not what you’d expect from a companion of the Doctor at all, and worse, somehow, because you weren’t expecting it at all. I think Higson did a great job pulling the reader along with this device. I also appreciated his timing, setting the story in the few seconds of “Rose” between when the Doctor first invited Rose to come with him and when he came back for her again. Since he’s a time traveler, there’s no telling how much time might have passed for him in what was a few seconds for her, after all. The Beast of Babylon actually gives a lot more weight to his coming back that second time for Rose–it was cleverly done. I would recommend The Beast of Babylon to those who already have enjoyed at least the first series of Doctor Who; it’s really mostly for fans of the TV show, although written well enough to be enjoyed by anyone who likes science fiction.
Author: Jane Yolen
In this varied collection of short stories, esteemed author Jane Yolen takes a page from Alice, bringing us a selection of impossible, unexpected, and wonderful things. In Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast, you will actually encounter Alice, forced to face the Jabberwock herself. You’ll also meet the girl who threw Peter Pan’s smoothly-greased workforce into turmoil, the boy who saw the aliens first, a bridge seeking a resident troll, and many others.
I found this collection of short stories to be exactly what I’ve come to expect from Jane Yolen: excellent. Truly, her writing never ceases to amaze me in both its originality and in the consistent quality of the writing. The stories in this collection are hugely varied–which is nice because short stories that are all alike can get boring very quickly. Yet all of the stories ring with a sense of wonder and creativity. There’s a mix of original ideas and outtakes on traditional stories. Some of the tales feel quite dark and eerie, while others are sweet or funny. I was particularly amused by “Brandon and the Aliens” which has a strong flavor of Bruce Coville (intentionally, I think). It’s fun that she has a section at the end where she explains where the stories came from, what sparked the ideas. I would definitely recommend Twelve Impossible Things Before Breakfast to anyone who likes short stories full of wonder.