Lois McMaster Bujold, Proto Zoa (author recommended by pbristow)
This is a collection of five early short stories. The first three are prosaic modern-life tales of woe in which the petty problems of ordinary people are solve humourously by the intervention of powers sufficiently advanced to look like magic. I was amused, but not engaged enough to consider reading something novel-length by this author.
Then I read the fourth and fifth stories.
These make the leap to wonderfully developed future worlds and hint at the potential for masterfully crafted space opera. The first, "Dreamweaver's Dilemma", is a psychological/technical suspense thriller in which an artist tries to solve a crime before it is committed. The second, "Aftermaths", is a gentler character exploration that deals, with melancholy tenderness, with the unpleasant business of post-war tidying up. It could easily have been transplanted from its setting in space to many points in humanity's history. I understand these last two are related to the Vorkosigan saga. As an introduction to and appetizer for those books, this pair of short stories performs beautifully.
Verdict: Moar please. What's the first book in the Vorkosigan cycle?
Maureen F. McHugh, After the Apocalypse (author recommended by pax_athena)
The first of these stories seemed promising. It reminded me of "I Am Legend", with a main character of unelevated social status (a convicted criminal) forced to survive in a collapsed society overrun by zombies. But the unsatisfying ending was, unfortunately, a harbinger of what was to follow in the remaining stories. Many of them can't rightfully be called short stories, but are vignettes. I couldn't find one that had a clear resolution and some of them seemed to be character sketches that made little sense without the context of a larger work. I found a few characters appealing enough to overlook the thinness of the plot, such as the Chinese girls taking on their corporate masters (and winning). But the attraction was to the characters rather than their context.
Verdict: I'm glad I sampled this, but I probably won't seek out more by this author.
Lauren Beukes, Zoo City (author recommended by ceb)
Ah, now this was satisfying to read. It's set in alt-present Johannesburg, with a highly intelligent sharp-tongued cynical ex-junkie anti-heroine (whom most other authors would probably have made male) named Zinzi December. Outcast in more ways than one - she's an aposymbiot as well as being an indebted ex-con - she ekes her living off her uncanny ability to sense what other people would very much like to keep hidden. Until someone hires her for an improbable sum and she senses that something is very wrong indeed. The twisted cyberpunk setting is well developed and woven cleverly into the plot, which can be read as a highly enjoyable detective novel or as a complex exploration of cultural mores or both. I note that some reviews of the book found the ending abrupt or slightly unbelievable, but I found it perfect. The good guys don't always win. And they're not always good. Or guys.
Verdict: There is only one other novel available, Moxyland, which I'll certainly be reading.
Up next are Octavia Butler, Seanan McGuire and Ben Aaronovitch. Further suggestions are most welcome.