This is a bit of an unusual read for me. For the first time since I was 19, I read a collection of short stories (or novellas, depending on definitions).
This wasn’t entirely random, though. One of my favorite authors (Maggie Stiefvater) was one of the three contributors to the book. I knew from following her on the Twitter that she was part of a writing critique team, the other two being Tessa Gratton and Brenna Yovanoff (who’s actually the root for a character in The Raven Cycle). They had a previous collection published together, but I’ve never read it.
For some reason, I bought this one, though. I feel like there must have been something going on. Who knows?
The Anatomy of Curiosity is a little weird to review for this reason. What I’ll do is review each story (Ladylike by Stiefvater, Desert Canticle by Tessa Gratton, and Drowning Variations by Brenna Yovanoff) and then review the whole book.
This is the story that has the least in it and has something simmering beneath the surface the whole time, and you know it. You just don’t know what it is yet.
On its surface, this is a story of a girl finding her pride and her backbone. She finds a mentor, someone who can show her the way. From here, it’s a buddy story between a teenage girl and an old lady who’s a shut-in.
The twist isn’t all that much of a twist. The real value in this story is getting to know the characters, which is appropriate given this is the characterization portion of the collection.
This story had the details, as expected by the world-building section. You’re in a foreign land in an alternate reality. It’s our world but it isn’t, like many fantasy worlds that just throw magic in and move things around. It’s not lazy, but it is something you see.
As a standalone story, this one was my favorite. There was a good ebb and flow to the pacing of the story, and it did a good job of making you look forward and backward beyond what the real timeline of the story was. You knew why the narrator made his decisions because it was grounded in his past, and you knew just enough to make that plausible.
The twist in this book was a twist for me. You saw it, but you ignored it. Or at least I did. That made punch of it just a little firmer.
This was a story about developing a story. As such, you get more than one iteration of a story, and the iterations don’t strongly resemble each other. As a standalone story, this was probably my least favorite if I only looked at the story that was told. But I looked at this as a story about telling a story, and that actually made the whole section my favorite. The meta element was interesting and is something I want to steal as a writer. There’s a “wait, let me tell you that again” element that you want to add in as an unreliable narrator. That record scratch element is something I liked. The imperfection is what you made you notice it.
In reviewing the whole book, you’re really looking at the whole experience, and you have two ways to address this: You can judge it by the stories being told or you can judge it by the advice they were trying to exemplify with their stories. Or you can look behind door #3 and judge it on both. Let’s do that.
In their totality, these are interesting stories. The Drowning section doesn’t fit in quite as well because it’s really a story about how she arrived at a story, but what she landed on was still an interesting little read. The other two stories are a little easier to judge as stories alone. You’re not going to see a whole new world, but the stories have interesting points of view.
As for the advice, I’d say it’s relatively helpful. There’s an intro for each story, notations within each story, and little advice vignettes after each one. All of this advice is just an introduction to advice, but it’s interesting to see how the show their concepts within the stories.
Ladylike was the story about characterization. I honestly see Stiefvater’s characterization better in how other books than I did here, but it was interesting see the deliberate actions she takes to build a character. An interesting characterization trait not in this book but in The Raven Cycle (and in Desert Canticle by Gratton in this anthology) is how characters call each other different names and the rules for when that occurs. Gansey in that series uses different names for the same people depending on the situation. There was a similar thing in Generation Kill in the interactions of the Marines. It allows a variability you don’t see in most novels that adds realism (hence showing up in the nonfiction Generation Kill).
Desert Canticle was the story about world building. For a short story, there was a surprising amount of detail. You have political structures. You have climate. You have international conflict. You have gender roles. You have magic. This is the only one of the stories that exists in a separate world, so it stands apart in its goal. The other goals (characterization and ideas) show up in bits and pieces in the other stories but not world building. As someone who likes to write, this basically has me swearing off fantastical lands. I’m too lazy.
Drowning Variations was about idea development. This was the most thorough. This was a drunk telling a story and then changing the story again to make it better. I mean that in the best possible way. You’re given the initial seed of the idea, a version of the story, and then a bigger version of that story. From a writer’s standpoint, this one was the most helpful. You see the iterative process, similar to how Leonard Cohen developed Hallelujah over the years, which was then adapted by John Cale and finally adapted for the best-known version by Jeff Buckley. (Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting podcast episode related to iterative development). I think this is something people need to see more of. Final products are often the result of an idea sitting and simmering for years. I had a string of chords that took years to finally become the song they were trying to be all along.
Reading the stories is not an easy thing. There are notes everywhere. And that’s kind of the point. You can read the stories on their own, but you miss the fun off the collection. The authors do a good job of noting their thoughts on decisions and where they made changes. I think the one thing I would have liked would be to see their feedback to each other. A couple of times they reference advice from others, but it would have been interesting to hear things straight from the horse’s mouth even just as a brief blurb at the beginning or end of each story.
All in all, it’s worth the read if you can hit some combination of the following: you like supernatural books, you like YA fiction, you like short stories, or you like writing.