Review: Dreams of Distant Shores by Patricia A. McKillip

Author: Patricia A. McKillip
Title: Dreams of Distant Shores
Format/Source: Paperback/library 
Published: June 2016
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Length: 274 pages
Genre: Fantasy of all sorts
Why I Read: Author highly recommended; book spotted at library
Read If You’re: Looking for some fresh creativity grounded in traditional fantasy 
GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

Patricia A. McKillip has been on my radar since I read wonderful things about her work by Lianne. I added a couple of McKillip’s book to my TBR way back in 2014, thinking she’d be worth getting around to some day! I didn’t have plans to get to her in 2016. When I spotted this title while browsing the new and noted section at the library, the cover grabbed me and I couldn’t leave it on the shelf. I was in the mood for some new fantasy. This collection of short stories was just what I needed. Dreams of Distant Shores contains seven pieces of fiction (“Mer”, “Edith and Harry Go Motoring” and “Alien” being original to the collection) and a short essay (also original to the collection).

I enjoyed the variety of this collection. “Weird” is perfectly titled, an intriguing piece of weird fiction to open the collection. “Mer” is a fine story about a witch trapped as a goddess then as a mermaid statue in a seaside town, but not my favourite. I enjoyed “The Gorgon in the Cupboard”, a sweet tale about a painter and artists society in Victorian times – not a setting I usually encounter. “Edith and Harry Go Motoring” tells what happened one day when Edith, Harry and their driver cross over a bridge in the countryside and find a strange house. “Alien” may or may not feature aliens. (It’s not the type of story that may spring to mind when you hear that word.) “Which Witch” introduces us to a monster-battling punk rock band of witches (!!). “Something Rich and Strange” comprises the bulk of the collection – I’ll discuss it further below. Most of the stories have semi-open ended conclusions; you receive some closure but could also easily imagine more to the tale. Though I enjoyed some stories more than others, I found all of them to be creative answers to “What if X character did this?” or “What if X setting met Y characters?” I think it’s true that all stories can be formulated in terms of “What if?” but McKillip seems to have a gift for answering that question.
The centrepiece of Dreams of Distant Shores is the novella “Something Rich and Strange”. The final work in the collection, I didn’t realize it was a novella until I was 40 pages in and wondering when it as going to wrap up. Because I anticipated the story to be a third of its actual length, I felt it dragged on at times. Perhaps if I had a closer look at the table of contents I wouldn’t have felt that way! Overall, I loved the atmosphere of the tale – the ocean imagery, the seaside setting, the grey mood. I felt a similar stirring as I felt when reading The Ocean at the End of Lanemake of that what you will. I imagine “Something Rich and Strange” to be some sort of distant adult relative (the theme’s are different and there’s no touch of childhood in “Something Rich and Strange” but something draws the two to my mind). 

McKillip’s creativity also shines through her prose. Here is an author you might read for her style, even if her plots and characters seemed infinitely dull to you. Though their styles are distinct, Catherynne M. Valente and McKillip invoke the same sort of wonder and delight that I find in particular fantasy prose.

Jonah stood inside the mermaid’s song. It was wild and bitter and desolate, a song without words, of spindrift whipped from heaving water washed with colors not even Megan would use; of the cries of battered seals, wind-battered birds screaming over great schools of fish, blind and still, sliding like leaves across the surface of the storm; of the voices of whales and porpoises as they fled the relentless stalking shadows above them that tracked their every move. Brine lashed his eyes, his mouth; kelp torn from the sea bottom tangled around his hands; barnacles and starfish struck him, clung. An empty moon shell, tumbled through the water, caught painfuly over his ear; even I its pale, lovely hollows he heard the mermaid’s storm. (251)

Another aspect of McKillip’s writing that I really appreciated is her ability to make things that would look cool, also sound cool. To clarify – sometimes I read passages in a novel and think, “This sounds like stage directions” or “This sounds like someone just tried to describe the movie in their head.” It doesn’t always translate to the written word. But McKillips manages to write some great scenes, especially in “Which Witch”, that could easily have ‘looked cool’ but read dull.

“A note came out of Pyx that I’d never heard before. But I recognized its power and sod in one of the pins on her vest. The spiral of blackened silver and garnets started spinning, covering the open-mouthed crowd with gyrating red stars. Everybody applauded wildly. I felt the colourful force shoot past me and added something of my own: a shriek of bowed string and a word my mother taught me early on to yell in emergencies. Of course it was the Sprineel G string, and it promptly broke. Liesl added her version to mine, and Madrona walloped a cymbal so hard the reverberations scudded like fast flying golden ripples across the air at the incoming magic. Rune hit the lowest note on the bass while a deep demonic sound came out of his mouth, making the crowd go crazy again.” (110)

The last piece by McKillip in the collection is a short essay titled “Writing High Fantasy”.  I love McKillip’s attitude towards the fantasy genre! I think we will get on well. Here are two points she made that make me think that:

 “I wanted the reader to see the and Morogon lived in and how it shaped him before he left it and changed himself. So I let him talk about grain and bulls; beer and plowhorses, and his sister’s bare feet, before I let him say fairy-tale words like tower, wizard, harp and king, and state his own driving motivation: to answer the unanswered riddle.” (264)

“At its best, fantasy rewards the reader with a sense of wonder about what lies within the heart of the commonplace world. The greatest tales are told over and over, in many ways, through centuries. Fantasy changes with the changing times, and yet it is still the oldest kind of tale in the world, for it began once upon a time, and we haven’t heard the end of it yet.” (268)

The Bottom Line: Dreams of Distant Shores seems to be a solid introduction to McKillip’s work, if you are a first time reader like me. I enjoyed the stories and look forward to delving into her novels. I think I will enjoy those even more.

Further Reading: 

Review: What is Not Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

Format/Source: Paperback/Purchased
Published: March 2016
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton 
Length: 325 pages
Genre: Short stories (literary/magical realism)
Why I Read: Favourite author
Read If You: Like new and fresh short stories, with a hint of the surreal about them
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is Helen Oyeyemi’s debut short story collection. The book contains a number of excellent tales that demonstrate her maturing talent. Her prose exemplifies this growth best. This is the first time I’ve followed a young author’s works as they are published, and been able to experience the evolution of their writing. White is for Witching (which Oyeyemi published in 2009 at 25 years old) will always be my favourite Oyeyemi tale, but a distinct difference exists between that story and the ones in WINYINY. I feel that Oyeyemi’s prose has become even more of what it was – she has grown into her style (and will hopefully continue growing).

Mr. Fox is also, to some extent, a ‘short story’ collection. Mr. Fox‘s stories strongly connect through an overarching storyline and characters. WINYINY‘s stories do connect, but in a far looser manner. Some characters who feature in their own story may receive a brief mention in another. My understanding of WINYINY will likely benefit from rereading – for the individual stories themselves, and for how they connect together.Overall, I enjoyed WINYINY a lot more than Mr. Fox. I didn’t find myself enjoying any story less than the others.

Oyeyemi’s vivid creativity impresses me. I could hardly begin to imagine stories like the ones she pens. Her writing doesn’t usually take grand or unexpected turns. Her creativity exists in something more refined than that, little details or small turns in action that truly fuel the story. I thought about giving an example, but that spoils the effect. All the stories in WINYINY exemplify that creativity.  It imbues her stories with something refreshing, allowing their reader to feel like they’ve experienced something new (at least for this reader of few short stories).

All of Oyeyemi’s works demonstrate diversity, and these stories feature a varied cast of characters. Just as she did in White is for Witching (which features an interracial lesbian couple),  the ‘diverse’ aspects of the character’s feel natural and almost incidental (not in a bad way) to the story. Sexuality and racial identity are not used as token diversity markers. But, the stories would not be the same without these aspects of identities. I suppose what I’m trying to get at is, Oyeyemi has found the balance between writing diverse characters who are only their diversity and writing diverse characters who are wholly separate from their diversity.

On that note… If you’re familiar with Boy, Snow, Bird, you may recall the problematic portrayal of a trans character. This collection contains one minor trans character in “A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society”, whom I identified mostly from this statement: “Pepper wasn’t always on the surface, but whether [Day] was with Pepper as Pepper or Pepper as Michael, Day had found one she’d always be young with […]”. Day initially meets and dates Michael, who transitions to Pepper. This transition is not a major plot point or a catalyst for another character’s development. I think Pepper’s portrayal is realistic and not transphobic, but I would be interested to hear a trans person’s opinion on the portrayal of a trans character in this story vs in Boy, Snow, Bird.

The Bottom Line: Though I understand Oyeyemi’s work is not for everyone, I recommend this collection for those who are curious about her writing. Her creativity and prose are at their strongest in the stories of this collection.

Further Reading:

Brief Thoughts on Some Fables

During last week’s Bout of Books, I read two books that you might call fables. The Magician’s Elephant is an extended middle grade fable, while Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day puts a contemporary, speculative twist on the fable form.

  • The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo
    • Rating: ★★★½
    • Goodreads | Indiebound | Chapters | Amazon 
    • Kate @ Bookish Illuminations review | NY Times review
    • My first time reading something by Kate DiCamillo
    • A cozy tale, perfect for a winter’s night with a big mug of hot chocolate. I took comfort in the slow, quiet story with its pleasant characters. 
      • I liked how the police officer Leo Matienne, down on the sidewalk, would talk to Peter up in his apartment and call him “little cuckoo bird  of the attic world” (79).
    • DiCamillo writes gentle yet evocative prose. She creates a charming setting of an Eastern European town long ago. I can’t imagine the tale in any different setting.
    • In the author description, DiCamillo shares that she “wanted, needed, longed to tell a story of love and magic”. She succeeds in this task.
    • The handful of full-page illustrations by Yoko Tanaka suit the story well.
    • One dark moment when the elephant decides she wants to die startled me.
    • This is not a tale for everyone – certainly not if you don’t like ‘novel-length fables’, as one Goodreads review describes it, but it delighted me. Admittedly, even for me this was a mood book. I tried it previously and couldn’t get into it. I’m not sure what a 10 year old would make of this story (too dull?). While not particularly exciting, and not particularly deep, you may find this a pleasant little tale.
  • Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day by Ben Loory
    • Rating: ★★★
    • Goodreads | Indiebound | Chapters | Amazon
    • From the publisher: “This collection of wry and witty, dark and perilous contemporary fables and tales is populated by people – and monsters and aliens and animals and inanimate objects – motivated by and grappling with the fears and desires that unite us all.”
    • A brief and easy read containing 40 small tales (averaging perhaps four pages), it’s hard not to recommend this even though many of the stories fell flat for me. You’ll probably find a few tales to adore and even if you don’t, reading the entire book won’t have taken much of your time.
    • The first tale – “The Book” – convinced me to sign this out from the library. It’s my favourite in the collection.
      • Other stories I really liked: “The Tunnel”, “Bigfoot”, “The Little Girl and the Balloon”, and “The Poet”
      • A few stories aren’t suited to my tastes, such as “The Man and the Moose” and “The Octopus”. I suppose I don’t like animals that fit in just as normal humans/talking animals.
    • I enjoy the atmosphere and style (dreamy, fog induced) of all the stories, if not the substance. I like the absence of names and succinct, matter-of-fact prose. I like the open ended-ness of most of the tales. I can barely tolerate open endings in long-form fiction, but I love it in short-form.  Loory’s stories are bare bones fables, containing just enough to fire your imagination. I can fill in the gaps however I like and if I can’t fill them in to my satisfaction, then I can take comfort in imagining that the author knew just what was happening in their tale even if the reader can’t figure it out. These are just the kind of stories you might expect from a collection with this title. Though they do not explicitly interconnect, their themes and moods fit well beside each other.
    • All that being said, some of the stories don’t manage to pull off what the most successful do. The sparseness doesn’t satisfy; the oddness feels a bit too weird; my imagination needs a few more tidbits to be satisfied.
    • Why three stars? I liked this collection, some stories more than others, and the writing is my style, but the tales themselves didn’t really click any deeper for me. Probably a good read if it intrigues you at all, but nothing deeply memorable for me.

Once there was a man who was afraid of his shadow.
Then he met it.
Now he glows in the dark. (58)