Friday, January 28, 2011

Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits by Cate Gardner

Full disclosure: Cate Gardner is one of my online writer friends. I've known her for years and greatly admire her writing.

Gardner's collection of short stories, Strange Men in Pinstripe Suits, came out a few months ago but I only just got around to reading it. I'm not much of a short-story reader for some reason and I tend to put off reading anthologies. Once I did pick it up, though, I devoured it utterly. The stories are quick-paced, varied, and full of the mischievous and odd characters that people Gardner's writing and make it so unique.

I'm not sure how to describe Gardner's style. She'd qualify for 'new weird' except that her fiction is so well grounded, her characters practical even when they're surrounded by madness; and while her style is poetic and playful, I never feel distance from her characters the way I often do when reading literary specfic. Nor is she precisely a horror or fantasy writer, even when zombies and fairies pop up in her stories. Her plots often follow dream-logic, where reality is a fluid concept, without feeling at all dreamy (although many of them qualify as nightmarish). She's also frequently very funny.

The stories in Strange Men are all strong, some of them reprints but many of them new for this collection. My favorites are the ones that tell one story on the surface while hinting at stranger (or at least different) realities underneath, like the truly creepy "The Scratch of an Old Record." I read the anthology over several days and there are several that I keep thinking about. I really think my favorite, oddly enough, is "The Moth Brigade," a bleak SFnal story about a firefighting robot who's facing obsolescence. I also adore the opening story, a lovely little gem only four paragraphs long called "Dandelion Fluff."

One thing I like a lot about Gardner's stories is their underlying cheerfulness. This may seem like a weird thing to say since death, dismemberment, madness, and the casual infliction of pain are recurring themes, but her characters rarely despair. They're tough, strange, stubborn people who usually remain upbeat even when the worst happens. And the worst always happens.

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