I finished Fantastic Women: 18 Tales of the Surreal and the Sublime a couple of weeks ago but have had trouble getting around to writing about it. Not because it is a bad book. On no, this was lots of fun. But with my house in upheaval because of the flooring project and projects at work wearing me out too, and the difficulty I always feel I have in writing about short stories, I just haven’t been able to give myself the time and brain power to compose a post. Today I figured, for better or worse, it is time to stop putting it off.

This collection was really good for a number of reasons. First, the stories are all by women. Second, they are all “fantastic” in one way or another and I always complain to Bookman from time to time about there being so few scifi or fantasy books by women that are standalone. Third, There are a number of authors in the collection of whom I’ve never heard so now I have new authors to pursue so I can find me some good fantasy fiction by women.

The stories in this collection range from fairy tales to straight out bizarre, but bizarre in a good way like “Hot, Fast, and Sad” by Alissa Nutting which begins:

I am boiling inside a kettle with five other people. Our limbs are bound, our intestines and mouths stuffed with herbs and garlic, but we can still speak. We smell great despite the pain.

There is a wonderful story called “Song of the Selkie” by Gina Ochsner. A lighthouse keeper fell in love with a woman he found on the beach. We know she is a Selkie and he pretty much figured it out too by the time his wife swam back out to sea, leaving him to raise their twin daughters. Being raised in a lonely lighthouse and the daughter of a selkie makes you not quite like the other kids, especially as the girls approach puberty, when, the legend goes, their mother will return for them. The father hires a nun who doesn’t quite fit in with the other nuns of her order, to live on the island and homeschool the girls. All the while also trying to keep the girls from the sea. But the girls find pieces of fur from their mother’s fur coat and they finally know who they truly are:

Erlen, beyond bewilderment, fingers the skins. Next to him is Sister Rosetta, her lips moving silently. Guide them, she prays. Her prayers stand tiptoe to press against the invisible beating heart of God. Guide us all. She understands, looking at Erlen, looking at the skins her folds into halves, into quarters, that none of them has ever been quite right for this world, casting about in skins they aren’t quite suited for.

Erlen turns to Sister Rosetta. “They’re not coming back, are they?

Karen Russell’s “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach” features unexplainably large flocks of seagulls appearing one day. But these aren’t ordinary seagulls, they are cosmic scavengers, stealing scraps of people’s lives for their nest.

Samantha Hunt’s Story, “Beast,” features a woman who suddenly begins turning into a deer at night.

Kelly Link’s “Light” is classic Link. It’s like looking at the ordinary through a prism that skews the world just a little bit. People with two shadows? And one of those shadows can split off and become a person? And warehouses of Sleepers, people who are found alive, but in a deep sleep from which they can’t be awoken. No one knows where they come from or who they are/were. The beginning of the story cracked me up. A man is sitting at a bar defacing a children’s library book. Our heroine sees him and…:

“Excuse me,” she said, “but I’m a children’s librarian. Can I ask you why you are defacing that book?”

“I don’t know, can you? Maybe you can and maybe you can’t, but why ask me?” The man said. Turning his back on her, he hunched over the book again.

Which was really too much. She opened her shoulder bag and took out her travel sewing kit. She palmed the needle and then jabbed the man in his left buttock. Very fast. Her hand was back in her lap and she was signaling the bartender for another drink when the man howled and sat up. Now everyone was looking at him. He slid off his stool and hurried away, glancing back at her once in outrage.

There was a drop of blood on the needle. She wiped it on a bar napkin.

Isn’t that great? It turned out she isn’t really a librarian, she works at one of the Sleeper warehouses, but I say she should be named an honorary librarian.

Other stories include one about a doll that wakes up, a drive-through house, and a trip that doesn’t end at the planned destination. There are more, eighteen stories in all, just like the title promises. Lydia Davis has a story as does Aimee Bender and Lydia Millet and Joy Miller. All the women are established writers which means the quality of the writing is top-notch. I highly recommend this collection to anyone looking for stories by women that venture off the beaten path.

In full disclosure, I received a review copy of the book from Tin House Books.

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