For two or three years now Nina Kiriki Hoffman has been a name that I've regularly come across in short story collections and 'year's best' anthologies. I read her contribution, love it (usually) then move on; never giving further thought to the author. It was a sort of New Year's Resolution for me to remedy this issue. Part of my purpose in reading anthologies and various collections is to come across new writers that I like who work in genres I'm comfortable with. To that end I found success with Hoffman so it only makes sense that eventually I'd want to look further into her works.
Permeable Borders is a short story collection that contains 16 of the author's works from 1993
-2012. There are many unifying elements both in a greater sense of the entire collection and on a smaller scale. We see reoccurring characters and stories collected under sub-headings such as: 'Fairy Tales' and 'Finding Each Other' and the titular 'Permeable Borders.' All the stories deal with acceptance either of a character or sometimes acceptance of those surrounding the main character who profess to care yet have great difficulty understanding a character's oddities. While this theme becomes more transparent as the collection goes on there is enough variance in each story's scenario as to not only indulge interest, but also to make the reader anticipate the twist that might strongly differentiate one seemingly similar story from another.
I'm not surprised that my favorites came from the 'Fairy Tale' section of the book. Switched is an excellent re-telling of Cinderella in which the wicked step mother is as forth coming in her intentions as possible and the poor abused pushed-to-the-side, Cinderella finds power, prominence, and most surprisingly contentment in her 'frog kissing' station. Strikes of the Heart deals with an aging all-powerful witch. While she had previously never done anything that could be conceived as less than a 'good' act, she has difficulty controlling her power while battling some obvious signs of dementia or at least something that looks like Alzheimer's. It is up to her granddaughter to assume her power and deal with her grandmother's health and the responsibility and roles she must assume.
'Finding Each Other' is a section of the book that held seven stories all of which were connected by more than themes but characters as well. Matt is a not witch (as Matt is made to say repeatedly), nor the young adult vagrant he seems. (I cracked up for a solid minute when Matt's biggest secret was revealed). Matt can talk to inanimate objects and he persist he doesn't give them life only alerts them to the fact that they are alive. Matt's occasional--and certainly accidental--friend Terry most certainly is a witch.
Terry is thirty years old and lives at home with her mother. While her mother is okay with Terry being a witch and unconditionally loves her as her daughter she, and everyone else who knows Terry, has problems with Terry's manipulative nature, the way she uses people so selfishly, and her complete lack of respect for others. Terry's witch powers are considered dark and corrupt added to which she's very powerful, however she'd tell you she's not a bad person. She's merely acting on her own inclination and interest; as most other people in the world do. Her nature and personality make for some very stark contrast with Matt's tendencies to help and look for the good in people.
Edmund is a third reoccurring character in the 'Finding Each Other' stories who is even more of a wandering hippie that Matt. Edmund has powers too but they are unlike Matt's or Terry's. He seeks to make the environment he's in at peace with itself. Sometimes it's a person that needs help, sometimes it's a wall that needs tending too. Edmund's stories were easily the most subtle in terms of what was accomplished, also the most densely written and perhaps his stories resonated the strongest when collectively looking at the 'Finding Each Other' stories. These stories work so well due to all that Hoffman doesn't share. There is an immediate story she wants to tell and she never stops to tell us about Matt's powers, Terry's ultimate objectives, or how exactly Edmund does something so simple as exist in today's world.
One could ask for more variety in the collection or considering the authors' total output being great than 250 short stories more of the occasional, startling originality such as How I came to Marry a Herpetologist, in which every time Fanchon talks she is greeted with a reptile equal to the number of words she speaks. What's given is a touch repetitious and lacking in overt conflict that some readers may expect, but each story is consistent, excellently executed, and if not terribly different from each other these stories are certainly not what you'll come across from most other writers.