Monday, October 25, 2010

"Catch and Release" by Lawrence Block

"Blood-chilling" and "creepy as hell" are the phrases that come to mind after reading Lawrence Block's story about a fisherman with "unusual" tastes. You see I put "unusual" into quotation marks because, of course, I don't want to spoil the surprise.

Although this story has nothing in the way of the supernatural or fantastic, it is horrifying. Block's character emerges fully-formed from the story and is easily its strongest aspect. "Jack" is both a metaphorical and actual fisherman somewhere in the backwoods of America.

He used to be a normal fisherman, and he would prepare his catch each time, scaling, and deboning what he caught. But, no longer! Now, he's a catch and release man.

But he has a secret.

The secret isn't really that much of a secret, and knowing that the metaphorical fishing refers to his luring of women into positions of weakness is only part of the story.

Like I said, it's creepy good. Great Halloween-time story too.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

"Mallon the Guru" by Peter Straub

Peter Straub is one of the greats genre writers I've never read before.

This is a tasty bit of his writing, but really it just left me wanting more. Which is a good thing. Sometimes.

Sometimes too, though, it makes the little bit seem insignificant and unworthy of attention. That's basically what happened here. It's a fine story. It's interesting and somewhat thought provoking, but I know that it won't be sticking with me the way "Goblin Lake" or even "The Knife" has. (And those weren't even the best in this collection.)

It's all about a self-absorbed American guru-wannabe, Mallon, together with his spiritual leader, Urdang, on their way to meet up with a real guru in India. An omen and a slight shift in the cosmic dance between life and death leaves Mallon on the wrong side of the spiritual equation.

It's not that it was a bad piece. It's not that it didn't entertain me. It's more that this is a book filled with big fish, and this is just a medium-sized fish. Not good, not bad. But forgettable. And, in the end, it's too abrupt. That's the only real criticism I can level against it.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Goblin Lake" by Michael Swanwick

A good old-fashioned fairy tale.

Sort of.

Swanwick's story is set in the seventeenth century somewhere around modern-day Germany. The perfect place for a fairy tale.

But it takes a kind of meta-twist when the characters engage in a discussion about their roles as characters in their respective stories.

It's a harmless tale, really, and one that ends sweetly, and perhaps not as bitter-sweetly as Swanwick intended. For Jack (arguably the prototypical name for a fairy tale character) winds up outside his story. Happy, but not immortal as he would have been were he to remain inside his tale.

Ultimately, it's a story about stories, which can be very good, or not. And I think it does well, reflecting on the nature of different character types, the power of characters within stories, the reader's power - or lack thereof - to effect those stories. It's no surprise this story made it into the collection, for it's just the kind that Gaiman would love.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Weights and Measures" by Jodi Picoult

Easily the most poignant and touching of the stories in Stories to this point.

"Weights and Measures" tells the story of Abe and Sarah (yes, like in the Bible) following the death of their daughter.

As usual, only more so this time, I hesitate to reveal much of anything. Frankly, the story is wonderful. It's heartfelt and deeply sympathetic. Picoult portrays the loss of a child as though she had experienced it herself. Perhaps it's not so hard to conjure those feelings of loss and grief if one has something to love deeply. Perhaps a parent has no trouble at all imagining what kind of devastation would result in the death of one's child.

So I figure either Picoult is a parent, has lost a child (God forbid), or is just that bad ass of a writer.

In any case, the title and story cleverly relate in a way, somewhat like "The Stars are Falling," which I reviewed here a couple of weeks ago. Here, the fantastic elements of this story tie intimately to the loss of the daughter, as does the title. The beauty of the story is that the death of the child physically manifests itself in the parents. Ultimately they embody their loss.

I'm not sure that this is the best writing. But it does fit Elmore Leonard's rule, "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." "Weights and Measures" does not sound like writing. It's simple, elegant in places, gentle, but persistent, and quite touching.

Monday, October 18, 2010

"The Knife" by Richard Adams

Yes, I do believe this is the very same Richard Adams of Watership Down fame.

This story is short. Really short. Not like Gaiman's "Nicholas was..." short, but only about two pages in this particular edition.

The story is intended to be somewhat disturbing, I think, and in that it somewhat succeeds.

I think.

We have a knife. A young man who wants to use it. And the thoughts of that young man as he considers his fantasies and the knife that is, in fact, very real.

Not too much more to say, frankly. Just glad to be back. Hopefully I can keep things up for a bit, though this weekend will be tough as we jaunt off to Texas for a short spell.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

"Juvenal Nyx" by Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley is most well-known for his detective fiction and the like, but in this case we have something akin to a vampire story.

So far this was by far my least favorite story in Stories. The strength of it, however, lies in the mythology of the creatures that, for lack of a better word, are vampires. They drink blood, they are paralyzed by sunlight, they can command humans using their voice. Very Bram Stoker-y.

But then there are some key differences. (Please pardon this digression, for I am a sucker for discussing the minutiae of various mythologies.) These vampires bite not by using either extendable or extended canines (a.k.a. "fangs"), but by an extendable tooth in their lower jaw that humans simply don't have. Therefore, these vampires leave just a single, tiny prick in the victim. Furthermore, these vampires are drawn to procreate (see, "create a new blood-sucker") by the smell of the intended progeny. This smell is so strong that the vampire falls in love. Then, because the creator will just keep drinking from their newly-created lover until said lover is dry as dust, the creator must abandon its creation.

To be fair, this is another story that feels like Mosley was working on creating a world for a novel. Too many characters for a short story. Too many undeveloped details.

More importantly, the story itself fizzles around the middle. The pace of it bogs down. It loses direction and strangely morphs into a new love story. Then Mosley (misguidedly) attempts to transform the character into a philanthropist, then (if the latter two diversions weren't enough) it ends with a subterranean hunt for a supernatural dog-rat-beast. The end itself feels tacked on to create a pseudo-circular story, too neatly ending precisely the way it began.

Monday, October 11, 2010

"The Stars Are Falling" by Joe R. Lansdale

Never heard of Lansdale before. You? I think I like him, though, after reading this short story, the longest of the bunch so far.

The main character, Deel, is a WWI vet, coming "back from the dead" to his rural farm, wife, and child. The story essentially deals with Deel's unfamiliar life, his unfamiliar wife, and his inability to rejoin society effectively. In that way it has a similar feel to many post-war short stories, such as Tim O'Brien's.

What sets this story apart are the masterful connections throughout the story. The title, which is one of the recurring motifs, ties together the farm and the battlefield, as well as life and death, which find Deel in both places.

Another excellent aspect of the story, and one that I respect whenever I encounter it, is the way Lansdale openly and obviously reveals the plot's trajectory. It's a kind of dramatic irony that allows the audience to see what the character(s) cannot. The move takes some of the mystery out of the ending, but replaces it with a different kind of question. Instead of "What is going to happen?" the audience wonders, "How is it going to happen?" It's a subtle but interesting reversal of audience expectation, and I almost always like it when it works as well as it has here.

"Unbelief" by Michael Marshall Smith

This is a short one but a good one.

Two men meet in a park. Faith is discussed. It's Christmas Eve.

In a way this story reminds me of "Hills Like White Elephants," by Hemingway. Two nondescript people sitting across from each other at a table. This one goes further, though. Much further in exploring one character over the other. Here, we have a first-person narrator, who we follow past the table scene into his home on Christmas Day, into his life, to see his family, and how his choices have affected his relationship with them.

One of the best things about this story is the mystery. A character says, "Disbelief is easy.... It's faith that takes courage, and character." Clearly both characters have faith in something. Different things, really. But they both end up at the same table. The narrator and dialogue allude to the characters' pasts, but the audience does not know - cannot know - what has come before. All that is evident are the dissimilarities between the two characters. Smith has taken two familiar archetypes and muddled them up, confusing, and blurring their once distinct moral boundaries. All that's left is to question what is right.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

"The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains" by Neil Gaiman

I actually had no idea that Gaiman contributed to this book, but I wasn't surprised.

This story, like every one of his that I have read, was wonderful. Gaiman manages to capture an entire world in a single sentence.  The details and language conjure fully-imagined characters and settings. And, as every good writer does, he makes it seem so easy. For example, "First, there was the valley on the mainland, the whitewashed house in the gentle meadow with the burn splashing through it, a house that sat like a square of white sky against the green of the grass and the heather just beginning to purple." Unlike Harris's story "Wildfire in Manhattan," Gaiman's never seems forced. It's lyrical, it's full-grown, it's meticulous, but it also feels spontaneous and creative.

What's more is that Gaiman has the ability to always keep us guessing. Knowing his writing as I do, I've come to expect the twists and turns, but here, as elsewhere, he manages to foreshadow without hinting. He leaves clues, but they answer different questions than suspected. Perhaps its his way of playing with his audience, but I really think that it's just his way of telling a good story.

As I go back and look through the story again, I'm finding more and more details that tie the whole together. Gaiman is truly a master of his craft. Wherever you are, whatever you love to read. Find his work, and pick it up. It stays with you in the way that only good art does.

Friday, October 8, 2010

"Wildfire in Manhattan" by Joanne Harris

This short felt a lot like a chapter from a yet to be finished novel. It's a whole world (nothing wrong with that), and it's all about gods (or aspects of gods) roaming around New York City, trying to avoid these wraith-like aspects of Chaos who seem to be bent on the destruction of every other god/aspect in town.

Again we have a pair of twins here - one is the aspect of Wildfire, and the other is the aspect of Hearth Fire. Wildfire, the main character, is portrayed as a gregarious wise-ass, which is unfortunate because it adds to the intense familiarity of the story.

Gods wandering the world of man; humorous trickster-like character. If any of this sounds familiar, as in Neil Gaiman in American Gods familiar, then you're not alone. It is, in fact, a lot like American Gods. Thor even makes an appearance.

I enjoyed this tidbit, but had a hard time getting past the similarities to Gaiman's novel. Especially when Gaiman wrote in his introduction to this volume that he was so often disappointed in the ruts that fantasy writers often travel in. And, he suggested, this collection would be something different. Well, strike one on that front.

Entertaining? Yes. Surprisingly original? Not so much.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

"Fossil-Figures" by Joyce Carol Oates

If all the stories in this collection are as good as the first two, this exercise will be well worth it.

I don't think I've read any fiction by Oates before. But, of course, she's one of those authors whose name gets tossed about when discussing greats of the last twenty years or so. Still, it was a pleasant surprise to see her name listed on the cover as a contributor to this collection.

"Fossil-Figures" follows two brothers, twins actually, whose lives lead them further and further apart until, unexpectedly, they don't anymore.

Simply put, it's a kind of modern-day fairy tale. Good and evil, families, politics, corruption, all sewn up into a neat, little package — like a fairy tale.

What's especially appealing about this story are the repetitious thoughts that link the twins, as the story follows their lives. Also the theme which runs throughout the story, "Our lives are Mobius strips, misery and wonder simultaneously. Our destinies are infinite, and infinitely recurring."

The wonder is truly that Oates was able, in just a few short pages, to weave these two characters into archetypes of misery and wonder, and left me feeling both.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"Blood" by Roddy Doyle

I like to read things in order. Like, for example, when the backs of the Sandman trade paperbacks said that I could, if I desired, read any of the trades in any order, except for the last few, which, the editors kindly suggested, should be read in order.

I didn't buy it.

I read it from the beginning, and that was fine by me.

Likewise, I'm beginning my review of the stories in Stories from the beginning, which is Roddy Doyle's story "Blood."

I wasn't sure what to expect, I've only encountered Doyle once in my literary ramblings, and that was in the New Yorker a few months ago. But the title was promising, and usually the editors of a collection like this one are gonna bring the wood for the lead off position.

They did.

This is a quick, succulent (heh;) read, and has, as one might suspect, plenty to do with blood.

Fear not faithful readers, for this is not yet another in the endless line of vampire tales now festooning the literary landscape in their gory (and sometimes sparkly?) ways.

No, this is something different. (And, as I've now realized - like right this second realized - it's gonna be kinda tough to review short stories like this. I cannot reveal the surprise at the end in good conscience. Otherwise, what would be the point? I'd write and write, and end up rewriting the whole story. And then I'd be accused of's just not a road I want to travel folks.)

But, as I was saying...this is something different. The main character lives in the Irish town, near Bram Stoker's home, and he has - despite my caveat above that this is decidedly not a vampire story - developed a taste, nay a thirst!, for blood. The rest involves his attempts to procure blood in fresher forms while maintaining the charade that he is still, in fact, a normal guy.

Overall, a fast and fun way to open a collection edited by two of the masters of fantasy fiction today.

What's the what

This will be my second attempt at a blog. My last one was, perhaps, too ambitious, or perhaps my ambition for it was greater than my desire to do it.

Regardless, I'm back, and so it begins.

Here I'll be posting a review every day for a new short story. I'll be starting off by reviewing the stories in Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio's new collection called, simply, Stories.

I hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading.


Other cool stuff I like