This is a superbly picked collection of shorts by Connie Willis. I think one of the things that delighted me most as I read was how accessible this book would be to readers who either hadn’t read any of Willis’ other novels, or even to people who don’t really like fantasy or science fiction. While most of the stories had that little tiny slant to the “different” that makes it legit to review for a speculative fiction site, I would say most, though not all, of the stories could also have been passed off as mysteries. Only one or two were downright speculative.
I’d argue calling the collection, the “best” might have been a bit of mistake. I think anyone who’s read even a handful of Willis’ novels would agree that the longer form is what really gives Willis’ talents full reign. However, unlike a fair number of novelists, she is very good at short stories as well. In fact, the “best” of Connie Willis is probably a set of her complete works. It’s also clear that her ability to craft words extends beyond all forms of fiction. Her introduction to the collection, afterwards at the end of each story, and the transcripts of her speeches at the end would be worth the price of the book all on their own.
It’s tricky to review a book like this since it changes every thirty pages or so. And a full review of each short would probably give too much away. However, I haven’t seen a complete listing of the different stories anywhere yet, so here are the titles and few thoughts I had on each.
A Letter for the Clearys
This is an interesting short since it starts by hinting at there being something wrong. However, the “something” is only revealed in the tiniest of bits and pieces along the way. In first person, it’s definitely something of a character sketch.
At the Rialto
This short works on two decidedly different levels. On the one hand it’s full of dry humor (most of which is aimed at Hollywood), but on the other, it’s full of scientific theories and some character that end up remarkably well rounded in such a short time.
Mostly an Agatha Christie tribute with a dash of Lost, this is about a group of people setting out to tour Egypt. Only, aren’t those Pyramids in the wrong place? It’s one of the longer stories and actually divides into “chapters.”
The Soul Selects Her Own Society
This was brilliant. Reading just like the literary analysis papers we wrote in college, it’s full title is The Soul Selects Her Own Society: Invasion and Repulsion: A Chronological Reinterpretation of Two of Emily Dickinson’s Poems: A Wellsian Perspective. Basically, it’s an essay proving Emily Dickenson lived through H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
The story is essentially about the fire watchers keeping St. Paul’s Cathedral standing during WWII. However, it’s rather ingeniously structured as a journal. Unlike other stories, there are less hints and teases about what’s to come. Rather, the story unfolds in the thoughts and occurrences of each day.
Probably my favorite story in the book. It’s also the other longer entry. A duo of professional skeptics and debunkers attend a channeling only to have the clearly staged show interrupted by what claims to be an actual spirit. And not just any voice from the beyond the grave…he claims to be the greatest skeptic of them all.
Even the Queen
This is a great little piece that suggests no matter how much society changes, families and family dynamics never will.
Probably the most emotional piece of the set. This story centers around a couple revisiting London after a trip they too as newlyweds. They find more and more of the town has changed, not to mention the people. And then there’s an odd wind that comes up from the Tube.
All Seated on the Ground
The. Best. First. Contact. Story. Ever! I might never be able to sing Christmas carols again without grinning like a manic, but this is worth it.
The Last of the Winnebagos
Okay, maybe The Winds of the Marble Arch isn’t the most emotional story. This is character piece about the owner of the one of the last dogs on Earth coming to terms with its death many years later.