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Our Favorite 2017 Small-Press Short Story Collections (Plus a Few Others)

Our Favorite 2017 Small-Press Short Story Collections (Plus a Few Others)

Jan Stinchcomb & Alyssa Bluhm

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This has been an extraordinary year for the dark, the weird, and the speculative, especially by women writers. It's easy to feel lost and frozen while facing a daily carousel of political crises, but nothing gives us more hope and strength than the brave women who share their art and stories in spite of it all. Here we focus on a few of our favorite short story collections of the year, with a focus on those from smaller presses—and a couple others we can't get enough of.


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Understand Me, Sugar

Jane Blunschi (Yellow Flag Press)

I first became obsessed with Jane Blunschi after reading her story "Sheena" (forthcoming from Paper Darts), wherein a drag queen seduces a woman with a strip tease as she pops off her press-on nails—luckily, this collection immortalizes that story on paper. In these pages you'll find stories of all kinds of women it's impossible not to love: an older lesbian couple tries to have a baby in "The Goods"; in "Snapdragon," a woman explores her bisexuality; a girl meets her biological mother for the first time in "Edwin Edwards and the Lady from Dallas." The title of the collection borrows a lyric from Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get it On," and the stories are fittingly equal parts sexy and charming. —AB


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The Missing Girl

Jacqueline Doyle (Black Lawrence Press)

You can read this chapbook of line-perfect flash in one breathless night, or you can read it over and over, as I have. Doyle explores everything from kidnappings to inappropriate relationships to the casual violence of bars and college parties. She pays careful attention to class issues and the vulnerability of the adolescent mind. Flash is a great form for this project (we don't want the horror of a girl regaining consciousness after a brutal rape to go on for even a syllable longer than necessary). Doyle frequently employs a chilling use of the second-person point of view, but all perspectives in these tragic situations are represented, including that of the predator. This collection challenges us to define what we mean by "missing": should we be concerned about literal disappearance or the ways girls lose huge chunks of themselves under violent misogyny? Read "Nola," in which the narrator tries to find a friend lost after an episode of childhood cruelty. —JS


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Vessel and Solsvart

Berit Ellingsen (Snuggly Books)

There is more astonishing description packed into this little book than there is in most of the novels I read. The title story is a walk through a hellscape that is disconcertingly familiar, and while I won't spoil it for you, suffice it to say that a copy of Vessel and Solsvart should be on the desk of every member of Congress. Ellingsen's stories, reminiscent of folk tales and legends, often treat the natural world as a main character, as in "Blue Star, Singular Fire." Read this if you are looking for truly original writing that celebrates the uneasy balance between life and death. —JS


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Things We Lost in the Fire

Mariana Enríquez (Hogarth)

If you like that old-fashioned, black-and-white kind of evil, you'll find comfort in the refreshingly one-dimensional antagonists in Enriquez's collection of spooky stories based in South America. Here, murderers are murderers, and haunted houses that eat little girls alive are just that—you won't waste time reconciling the humanity of clear-cut villains. What you'll find instead are stories that explore how we are both manipulated by and complicit in these disasters. In "The Dirty Kid," a woman becomes obsessed with the murder of a child in her alley, who she's convinced is a homeless boy she knew; a student in an all-girls school hallucinates (or does she?) a man who compels her to hurt herself in "End of Term"; the protagonist of "No Flesh over Our Bones" finds the discarded skull of a child and aspires to give it a full skeleton as she turns herself into one too. If you loved Carmen Maria Machado's Her Body and Other Parties, you'll be pleasantly sated by Enriquez's collection. —AB


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Dead Girls and Other Stories

Emily Geminder (Dzanc)

If you think you've read too many books with "girl" in the title, you need to make room for one more. Geminder's heroines travel all over the world, from an American teenage runaway who can't go home to women fighting to survive in Cambodia and India. Failing families, wrenching emotional situations, and repeated lines link these stylish, haunting stories. My two favorites: "Dead Girls" is a cultural autopsy of the different kinds of violence enacted on women, while "Edie" is a tiny coming of age novel nestled in the middle of this ambitious collection. Read "1-800-FAT-GIRL" to sample Geminder's elegantly weird prose. —JS


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The Doll's Alphabet

Camilla Grudova (Coffee House Press)

This collection, familiar and strange at once, swept me away with its spooky urban atmosphere and dedicated examination of gender politics. In these stories a surreal horror has taken root in some unspecified time and place that could possibly be our future under patriarchal capitalism. Images of poverty and societal dysfunction are juxtaposed with long lists of worthless yet intriguing objects. Intimacy persists even in this uncertain universe, resulting in strange couplings and even stranger children. "Waxy," a story I will never forget, features a surprisingly hilarious nightmare universe where men are coddled yet granted all power, with typically doomed results. —JS


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Too Much of the Wrong Thing

Claire Hopple (Truth Serum Press)

Hopple tells wistful yet eerie stories of various characters living through disappointment and disaster, and somehow she leaves us wanting more. She lets us luxuriate in her imperfect universe, conveyed with a light touch even in its darkest moments. I’ve never laughed so much while reading about people’s troubles, and I found myself cheering for the most unlikely heroes. "Fifteen Signs of the Cocktail Generation" presents a series of mini-dramas in list form. In "Recovery," a young woman and her grandmother navigate their respective traumas with ambiguous results. "Of Course" perfectly captures the always unreal experience of being a new mom in a new neighborhood. Read "Quilled," which chronicles the unraveling of relationships in a supposedly close-knit community. —JS


And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe

Gwendolyn Kiste (Journalstone)

If you're in the mood for literary horror with a feminine vibe, check out the spare and graceful stories in this collection. Kiste covers territory well known to horror fans: death and loss, the perils of being different, and the danger of conformity. Stories after my own heart include "All the Red Apples Have Withered to Gray" and "The Tower Princesses," both of which examine gender roles through a fairy-tale lens. The title story traces a fan's obsession with a murdered starlet and brings audience participation to a new level. Overall there is something wholesome about Kiste's horror: She is unafraid of emotion and focuses on the promise of love as much as she does on the dark corners of the human psyche. Listen to Kiste read "Something Borrowed, Something Blue," a story of motherhood. —JS


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The Tower of the Antilles

Achy Obejas (Akashic Books)

In this slim collection, all roads lead to—or away from—Cuba. In "Kimberle," two women who have left the island are romantically drawn together by their shared histories; in "The Cola of Oblivion," family members commiserate about being left behind after the Cuban Revolution. But no matter which side of the ocean they end up on, dark events lead them to believe that life isn't necessarily better either way. As Obejas writes, "where we come from the greatest achievement is to leave." These stories will resonate with anyone who feels troublingly nostalgic for their constricting hometown. —AB


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The Worlds We Think We Know

Dalia Rosenfeld (Milkweed Editions)

Dalia Rosenfeld's stories came to me at a time when I was sorely in need of some beautiful words, and this book delivered. This collection jumps from America to Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, stirring up tiny adventures imbued with subtle humor along the way. The beauty of these stories helps to take the edge off the sharp pain of isolation plaguing the characters as they try (and fail) to build relationships around the world, navigating assumptions about others as well as themselves. Reading this collection, I felt like Rosenfeld was personally pressing her thumbs on my own bruises—but in the best way possible. Read "Contamination" to find out why solitude keeps you safe. —AB


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There's So Much They Haven't Told You

Michelle Ross (Moon City Press)

I first discovered Michelle Ross when I read "If My Mother Was the Final Girl," which won the Gulf Coast Fiction contest in 2003. This story is both a guide to slasher films and an uncomfortable look at the rituals of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. Ross's varied collection runs the gamut from realism to speculative fiction. In "Key Concepts in Ecology," workplace politics play out as a threatening creature lurks near an office building. "Stories People Tell" begins as a statutory rape scenario and evolves into a situation of even greater moral complexity. Ross never lets the reader off easily: We emerge exhausted and grateful from each of her well-earned conclusions. —JS


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Kiss Me Someone

Karen Shepard (Tin House)

Karen Shepard writes with incredible insight to the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. Who deserves our love and sympathy? What drives women to date horrible men ("Don't Know Where, Don't Know When")? Why do women stay friends after backstabbing each other ("Girls Only")? This collection is hyper-focused on human flaws, making room to go easy on ourselves and find the best path forward toward self-improvement. As Shepard would say, we do stupid and hurtful things until we figure out not to. —AB


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The Passion of Woo & Isolde

Jennifer Tseng (Rose Metal Press)

This is a tiny collection filled with tiny flash fiction, tiny magical realism, and tiny characters—but the stories have a big, lasting impact. Each piece ends up in a different place than it began, warranting endless rereads to figure out how you got there: in "Past Lives," a man's marriage splits when he realizes he was someone else's wife in a past life; in "Zealots," the title characters use their cat's spirit to solve arguments; in "Last Words," two characters literally draw their own paths of recovery. Tseng's collection won this year's Rose Metal Press short chapbook contest, judged by Amelia Gray, and the comparison couldn't be more accurate. If you love Amelia Gray, you'll love Jennifer Tseng. Read "The Fence," a story about semi-masochistic sheep. —AB


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Wait Till You See Me Dance

Deb Olin Unferth (Graywolf Press)

Unferth's collection masters short fiction of all lengths, but no matter the word count, the stories read as fast as ripping off a bandaid. With incredible voice, Unferth introduces readers to a bevy of absurdly relatable characters falling short of success: two magicians failingly perform meta-magic in "The Magicians"; in "Vice President of Pretzels," pretzel enthusiasts investigate a change in the recipe of their favorite brand; in "Voltaire Night," an offbeat study group meets to compete over the worst events they've ever endured. You'll feel less alone in your own struggles with this book in your hands. —AB


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Sour Heart

Jenny Zhang (Lenny/Random House)

The female voice carries these seven stories, many of which feel like novellas. This is a picture of immigrant life in New York City as told by various girls from Chinese families, with the spotlight on a type of maternal love that is at once soul-killing and life sustaining. These often-violent stories force us to witness uncomfortable scenes, sometimes between children, but anyone would enjoy "We Love You Crispina," about the impossibility of hanging on to life in America, or "Our Mothers Before Them," in which we see the horrors that caused these families to leave communist China for a different version of hell and hope. Added bonus: Zhang never lets us forget the burden of the narrator for whom English is a second language. Read "Hold On, Sour Grape" for a taste of what Zhang can do. —JS


 

And don't miss these big titles
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Jan Stinchcomb is a writer currently living in Southern California with her family. She is the author of numerous short stories and a novella, and her heart belongs to all that is dark, weird and feminist. She believes, at the end of the day, that art and literature can save the world.

Alyssa Bluhm cannot control her Virgo and has overwatered many plants to death because of it. She builds books from scratch by day and freelance edits by night. You'll find her in Minneapolis, never too far from chocolate cake.


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