As the year winds down, I like to take stock of the favorite books I’ve read and offer them up to anyone looking for gift ideas this holiday season.
Some of these short story collections were published in 2022; others were just new to me. Most fall under the category of speculative fiction or center on environmental themes and the natural world. Enjoy!
(And if you’re more in the mood for novels than short stories, I’ll be posting my 2022 favorites of those soon, in December.)
The Annotated Arabian Nights
edited by Paulo Lemos Horta, translated by Yasmine Seale
How do you improve upon a classic that has already influenced storytelling across the globe? Add art. And historical footnotes.
This new edition is gorgeously illustrated. It offers wonderful context for those seeking to better understand the origin and meaning of the tales. And the new translation, as the publisher promises, “breaks with the masculine dynasty” of past translations, “stripping away the deliberate exoticism of Orientalist renderings.” Most surprising to me, it also included retellings by the likes of Charles Dickens and Edgar Allan Poe.
Bottom line: If all you know about 1001 Nights is from Disney’s Aladdin, you won’t regret taking the time to appreciate the real thing. And if you’ve always loved the stories-within-stories, you’ll be gratified to see them explored so deeply and beautifully.
by Kathryn Harlan
I’m not sure I’ve ever read an opening so weird and wonderful as the title story to this collection, “Fruiting Bodies.” It begins with a woman cutting off mushrooms that inexplicably grow from her lover’s body, placing the edible blooms in a bowl for dinner. And it only gets increasingly strange and erotic from there.
Harlan has a dark and wonderfully bizarre imagination that surprises and entrances throughout the book’s pages. The theme of nature being both deadly and life-giving appears repeatedly, as do complicated female characters (many of them queer) making questionable-yet-always-fascinating choices. I can’t wait to read more from this author.
The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2021
edited by Veronica Roth
Sometimes I want an eclectic mix of stories rather than a deep dive into a particular author, and this year, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2021 fit the bill perfectly.
The anthology starts off incredibly strong, with the strange and delightful “Let’s Play Dead” by Senaa Ahmad, featuring a zombie-like Ann Boleyn who refuses to stay dead no matter how many times her increasingly desperate king/husband tries to kill her.
In Meg Elison’s story “The Pill,” anyone can have the perfect body permanently — if you take a pill that randomly kills a tenth of those who swallow it. The story imagines who would be willing to take that chance (hint: almost everyone) and what the world would look like as a result.
Mel Kassel’s tale “Crawfather” is one part monster story and three parts difunctional family reunion, as much a metaphor for screwed up family traditions as I’ve read in my life. And finally, there’s “Schrodinger’s Catastrophe” by Gene Doucette, which combined everything I love about space opera with the mind-bending concepts of quantum physics. It begins when a spaceship doctor drops a coffee cup and time seems to reverse, putting the broken cup back together. The story had me laughing through its action-packed middle and groaning with dread by the end.
Love in Color
by Bolu Babalola
I decided to pick up this collection on a whim, after the realization that I hadn’t read a good love story in a very long time. I’m so glad I did. The world has been so full of pain and anxiety this past few years, it was an absolute joy to sit down with a book that had me smiling from start to finish.
All of the stories within Love in Color are inspired by mythical tales and goddesses from around the world, including Egypt’s Nefertiti, Persia’s Scheherazade, Greek’s Psyche and China’s Zhinu. They all feature strong female characters and a more than generous dollop of wish-fulfillment.
It’s hard to pick a favorite, but if I had to it would be “Yaa,” a story with its roots in Ghana’s Asante tribe, about a woman forced to choose between two men. One she has planned to marry since childhood, the other was a college fling. In the end, her choice isn’t so much about the men as the kind of woman she wants to be, and that rang so true to me.
How Long ‘Til Black History Month
by N.K. Jemisin
I’ve been putting off reading this short story collection by N.K. Jemisin, worried it couldn’t possibly be as good as her novels. Boy, was I wrong to delay. As always, the stories are full of wisdom, humor and biting insight.
The collection made me reflect a lot on genre fiction and literary fiction and how Jemisin balances the two in a way I find so satisfying. One of my favorites was “Red Dirt Witch,” set in Jim-Crow era Alabama, in which an herb woman wrestles with one of the White Folk, a powerful fairy who wants to steal black children. I also loved “Sinners, Saints, Dragons and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters.” It’s about a poor man in New Orleans trying to save his elderly neighbor after Hurricane Katrina hits, all while fantastic beasts – both good and evil — lurk in the flood waters.
Finally, there’s “The You Train” a series of one-side phone conversations between a woman and her friend while she takes the subway home from work each night, glimpsing something mysterious. I thought the structure was so original and the subject matter – struggling to make it alone in the city when everyone else seems to have their lives together—touching.
The Shell Collector
by Anthony Doerr
I love the way Anthony Doerr captures the magic of the natural world in his novels, so I decided to go back to where it all started: his first short story collection. Now that I’ve finished reading it, I’m not sure whether to be heartened (as a reader) or insanely jealous (as a writer) how good he’s been from the very beginning.
In short, his prose is gorgeous, his observations almost impossibly nuanced, and his characters so real they make me hurt. My favorite stories in the collection were “A Tangle by the Rapid River,” about an old fisherman in the midst of an extramarital affair, and “Mkondo,” a story about the lengths a man goes to win the woman he loves, exploring the way marriage changes as person – and, also, doesn’t.
Don’t forget to shop at your local, independently owned bookstore — or if you can’t, consider buying from sites like Bookshop that support them.