Monthly Archives: May 2014

Short Shrift

short_stories_195010-25q3ffzShort stories have gotten short shrift in recent years for some reason. The beauty of the short story is that it can introduce you to characters, tell a story, and resolve itself in the course of a few thousand words as opposed to over 100,000 like a novel does. And unlike a poem, short stories aren’t written in subjective verse, and thus are easier to understand. Yet, how many of us can name a current short story writer who isn’t also a writer of longer works?

For comparison, look at someone like Edgar Allan Poe. Yes, he wrote poetry as well, but he was famous in his time for such works as “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Black Cat,” which are all short stories. Indeed, he never wrote a full-length novel, and yet he’s seen as one of the premier writers not just of his time but of all time. Another example is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famous writer of the Sherlock Holmes series of short tales. His tales have spawned a slew of movies and television shows that have been wildly popular as well.

But name me someone in the 20th or 21st centuries who is renowned as a short story writer in his/her own right. The odds are that you can’t, or maybe you’re one of the few faithful readers of short fiction. Time was when we would go to the library and get out a magazine where there would be short stories, or a condensed book that had several novellas/short stories in it. Then in school we would read stories like “The Monkey’s Paw,” and we would be fascinated by it. But even that was written ages ago, in an age long before this modern world.

John_Grisham_Ford_County(2)I remember when John Grisham released his book, Ford County, and how I was looking forward to it with such excitement and anticipation, because it was a collection of short stories instead of his standard novels. You see, I have something to admit. I absolutely adore short fiction (even short short fiction), and I don’t care who knows it. I love the nuance of the genre, how a good short story writer can weave the tale in such a way that it’s both intensely detailed and succinct in ways that novels could never capture.

Another one of my favorite authors — Bentley Little — also came out with a book of short tales, entitled The Collection, after many of his fans specifically asked him to do just that. You see, he was a short story writer first, and had many of his short stories published in various magazines and journals. Eventually someone saw his work and signed him to write novels, but he always remembered his roots. And the short stories he weaves are phenomenal.

When I was studying to be a teacher, I had a mentor teacher who knew I enjoyed short stories so she bought me a collection of Best Short Stories (of whatever year it was) as a goodbye present. I devoured those short stories, even though there were over 30 of them in one volume. Some were good, some were bad, and some were in-between, but none of them was boring. They kept my interest, for one reason or another, all the way through the book. Since then I have begun collecting those volumes, and now I have over 10 of them from different years. Their spines are worn from my reading and re-reading them almost religiously.

You’ve probably guessed it by now, too. Even though I have two of my novels published, my first love was the short story. In fact, I’ve written over 100 short stories already in my life, each one as special as the next, every one like one of my children. Just the ability to write about these characters who have lives before they meet me and lives after is magical. I imagine I’m just a photographer taking a snapshot of a moment in their lives, and they become my friends for that small moment. Even if I don’t like them as people, I at least get to know them, and I enjoy the learning experience.

So, why are short stories getting short shrift these days? I think too many people don’t want succinct tales, especially in this age where the serial novel is king. We want more, not less, from our reading experience. We want to get a character and follow them over the course of several really big novels instead of over the course of well-written short stories. Holmes wouldn’t last in this world, I’m afraid. Or maybe we should just try and revive the short story, resuscitate it like we did the ’80s. It could happen, and if it does, I’ll just say, “I told you so.”

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Checked Out

requiemI just realized not just that I read a lot of series books, but that there are also a plethora of series books out there, more so than it seems like there were back in the day. We’ve come a long way from Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew. I even recall reading the massive horde of Star Trek books that were out there once upon a time. It was even interesting to read the ones by the same author, or to compare the different authors’ styles of that series.

So, last week I was reading the second book in the Divergent series, and this week it’s on to the third (and final) book in the Delirium series. Requiem has been out for a little while now, but I was caught up reading a bunch of other stuff. In fact, it’s been so long since I read Pandemonium that I had to go and read a synopsis of that book to re-familiarize myself with the fringe characters and the plot at the end of that book. Ah, the glory of series reading!

Here’s what I have Checked Out this week:

  1. Requiem, by Lauren Oliver. After I got caught up on the series again I realized once again why I liked it in the first place. Society is breaking down, which makes sense since the society is based on this “cure” that will stop people from falling in love, because they say that love is a delirium that makes people do stupid things. Well, duh! I’m really interested to see how this one winds up.
  2. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan. This one is strange, but it still has my attention enough that I renewed it from the library. Ooh, that would make a good entry. Renewed. Anyway, this store is a magic portal to another dimension, or something like that. Okay, so I’ll admit I’m slightly confused. I may just start this one over from the beginning again.
  3. The Sound of Things Falling, by Juan Gabriel Vasquez. This book club selection reads like just what it is, a book club selection. It is literary without being too stuffy, so I’m enjoying it. I just hope others in the group appreciate it as much as I have been so far.
  4. Running Blind, by Lee Child. This is the fourth book in the Jack Reacher series (see, another series book!) and I happen to be reading them in order, but I just got this one and I’m excited to get started on it. I think I may finish Requiem first, though, and get that series finished.
  5. Psychos: A White Girl Problems Book, by Babe Walker. I might be about to check this one back in. It’s the second book in a series, but I haven’t read the first one yet, and I thought it wouldn’t be a problem, but this is not a standalone book. I’m getting quite a bit confused as I read along, so I might just return it until I’ve read the first one. I’m going to read a few more chapters and then make the decision.

There was this biography of Johnny Carson that I picked up last week from the local library that I really want to read, but it’s a “new” book and I just don’t have the time to read it right now so I sent it back. I put it in my phone’s list app, however, where it joined 10 other books that I need to get back to when I find the time to read them. Also on the list of books I need to get to pronto is the final one in another series, The One, by Kiera Cass. I was enchanted by the other two, so I look forward to when it finally comes in through the library.

Happy reading to you!

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Why I Like Jack Reacher

jack-reacher-boxed-set-6-books-I’ll admit it. I’m a fan of Jack Reacher. It took me ages to pick up the first book and give it a thorough reading, but that was two weeks ago and I’m already more than halfway through the third one in the series. That’s what I do with series that I like, I’ve discovered. It’s how I plowed through 16 tomes of Stephanie Plum misadventures in less than three months. I guess I just like to play catch up.

And yes, I’ve employed a tactic of reading all the reviews for each book after I’ve read the book. I’ve never really done that before, and it’s an interesting exercise, I’ve found, because people are so wide-ranging in their feelings about the character, about the series, and about each individual book. Apparently Reacher himself, as written, is just such a polarizing figure, and attacking Lee Child’s writing believability is en vogue as well.

Having read all of the reviews for the first two books, absorbed all of the information from other readers, and compared it to my own reading, what changed about my own view of the character? Absolutely nothing. In fact, I laughed at both the people who say Jack Reacher is a fully realized character, and at the people who say he’s as flat as a pancake. I chuckled when I saw someone claim the books were formulaic and boring, as well as at the guy who hailed the books as “perfectly written.”

Because, no, the books aren’t perfectly written, but neither are they so vapid as to make them unreadable. They’re pop fiction, right? Take a lot of action, a bit of sex, and a little Sherlock Holmes, and you’ve got pretty much every Jack Reacher novel, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Child is not the second coming of Faulkner, nor should he be. There’s a place in the market for his type of fiction as well as whatever else is being trotted out there as well.

If you’re not familiar with Jack Reacher, I can sum him up in six easy points…

  1. He’s ex-military police
  2. He’s smart about the obscure stuff and stupid about the obvious stuff
  3. Apparently girls drop their panties when he’s around
  4. He’s a HUGE, yeti-type dude
  5. He’s the classic drifter who enjoys living “off the grid”
  6. He falls into most of his adventures by coincidence (um yeah)

That there (#6) is one of the biggest issues those who hate the books have with the plots. Most of the time some incredible coincidence leads him into the adventure, and yet somehow it is also connected to him in some way. Apparently even though he’s spent nearly his entire life in the military, either as a brat, or as an officer, he somehow still found time to make impressions on a cadre of diverse individuals throughout the length and breadth of a country he hasn’t spent much time in.

But I’m a fan, because I like the action. I can suspend my belief enough to go along with the coincidences, to avert my gaze when he has sex with yet another bombshell, and to follow him into impossible situations that he gets out of in creative ways that may or may not actually work in real life. But, see, Reacher doesn’t live in real life. He lives in a series of books, so he can do those things, and I follow him through every single one of them without blinking an eye.

Oh, and the movie, don’t even get me started on the debate surrounding that one!

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THE CUCKOO’S CALLING | A Review

jk-rowling-the-cuckoos-callingLet me start at the end and work my way backwards, which is pretty much what happens in a detective thriller, at least a classic one anyway. Someone is dead, and the detective is hired to trace the story back to its origin. Why is that person dead? What was the motive, be it suicide or homicide? Then, the story ends when the detective susses out the true cause of death, the motivation that would surely be the beginning if it were most other sub-genres of fiction. That’s what happens when the detective genre works well, which it does for J.K. Rowling (pseudonym Robert Galbraith), in the beginning of her new Cormoran Strike series.

First, I’ll admit that I knew it was Rowling when I first read the novel, and of course that changed the way I approached it had I thought it was simply a new writer named Robert Galbraith. That being said, I had recently tried reading Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy and it was not the page turner I had expected from her, even without the famous Mr. Potter in the narrative. So, my recent history suggested that I should be more open-minded about this book, to not expect a Harry Potter, but also not to expect anything like Vacancy. Otherwise, why would she have chosen a pseudonym?

The story is simple enough. A supermodel’s adoptive brother hires private detective Cormoran Strike to figure out what really happened to his sister when she sailed to her death out of a high-rise window. The police had ruled it a suicide, but the tale just didn’t ring true to the brother, so he sees Strike. What I loved about the story from the beginning was its vivid descriptions that didn’t linger but that simply explained and then moved on. That’s what I’ve come to expect from Rowling, and she returns to form from the very start of this one.

Strike is in the mold of such rumpled detectives as TV’s Columbo, not stylish like Christie’s Hercule Poirot, and I think that suits him. He has a bright mind, and the rumpled facade causes others not to take him or his mind seriously, so he can really delve into the situation at hand, which in this case is a supermodel’s supposed suicide. Needless to say, he uncovers layers to the case that give him pause, in the end realizing a conspiracy of unfathomable depth. Of course this puts him in personal danger and he must figure out the true depth of things before anything befalls him or his associate/secretary Robin.

There’s of course a latent sexual tension between Strike and Robin, but it remains under the surface, unlike so many detective stories I’ve read where the P.I. is a rogueish ladies’ man who gets not only the secretary but any other woman who is even tangential to the case at hand. Oh yes, and Strike is missing a leg. While that is not really central to the story, it still affects it, however, because I sense his discomfort and embarrassment about the missing limb that keeps him somewhat humble throughout.

As for Robin, she is new to Strike’s office, but she proves herself more than adequate with her assistance. I sense the two of them will keep up their subtle tango as the series goes on, but I think the dance itself is enough to keep the energy charged without them ever becoming physical. Some of the best collaborations really exist because of that tension, and if it stretches too thin it will snap, and then their connection and the help they offer each other will be at an end.

What I love so much about The Cuckoo’s Calling is its sense of timing. It reads quickly without flying through important details. Rowling set up the pace well, and incorporates her reveals at just the right places for them. I forgot pretty fast while I was reading it that 1) it was written by the same woman who wrote Harry Potter, and 2) the characters weren’t real. That is the mark of good fiction, in my opinion, that you get so involved in the story as a reader that it blurs the line between reality and fiction.

I look forward with baited breath to the next book in the series (The Silkworm), coming this summer. I would recommend this book and series to anyone who enjoys the classic detective genre. I would leave Harry Potter expectations at the door, too, because this is a completely different kind of animal.

I give this novel FIVE stars.

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Genre Wars

bookstore_sections-550x411“What? Our book club is reading non-fiction this week? I’m skipping it until we get back to fiction. I don’t care if the book won a bunch of awards. If it really happened, I’m out.” -Nicky L.

I have several friends/acquaintances who have an aversion to non-fiction, for some reason believing like in the old days that it’s going to be sleep-inducing, as boring as watching paint dry. But I’ve found that non-fiction has changed throughout the years, so much so that those long-term fiction-only readers need to take notice. The key is finding those non-fiction books that talk about someTHING, rather than the ones that talk about someBODY.

I myself enjoy biographies and autobiographies, but only when their subjects are people I already find interesting. Case in point, I really enjoyed Decision Points because it described in detail the decisions made by former president George W. Bush, and it had really cool pictures. It wasn’t just a telling of his life story, instead being a chronicling of important events told from the “other side,” meaning from his perspective. I much prefer those kinds of stories to the ones that just go through a history of the person themselves.

Books like Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, are fascinating journeys into history in a way that defies the standard non-fiction definition. That’s because writes like Hillenbrand focus on the narrative just as much as on the facts. It’s how she tells the story just as much as it’s the fascinating story itself that sells it to readers and will make just about any hater of non-fiction reconsider. That’s the glory of any story told well, isn’t it, that it ushers its reader in and amazes that reader enough to keep interest, isn’t it? Well, non-fiction now has the power to do that just as much as fiction.

“Drama has the ability to show the true power of words, because we get to see those words walking and talking with passion and fire on stages across the world. That’s real magic.” -Theodicus

My wife, a librarian, asked me the other day to recommend a play for a book club that routinely reads novels from month to month. They want to branch out and try a play to mix things up, but they also want one that lends itself to discussion. I told her I think she should go with a play that has an accompanying visual that is available because a play was meant to be seen and not just read. When I was teaching ninth grade English and we would get to Romeo & Juliet I would always have the students act out the play for just this reason as well.

The-Glass-Menagerie-imagePlays, just like non-fiction books, get a bad rap from people who enjoy novels, but they too have changed over the years, from the dry nature of some Greek and Roman plays to the more modern plays by such masters as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. In fact, I suggested The Glass Menagerie by Williams, and A View From the Bridge from Miller as two plays that the book club would be able to digest and discuss after both reading and watching them. These plays have complex characters that are three-dimensional, and so can be identified with by just about anybody. They also don’t have happy endings, in my opinion, so they beg the questions about “why not?”

Genre wars are interesting to watch. I know people on all ends of the spectrum, from the diehard biography-only types, to the fiction worshippers, to those who have to have a mix of reading materials and genres to feed their obsession for reading and absorbing anything they can get their hands on. But the one thing we have in common is a love of reading, and that’s a wonderful thing, whether or not we decide to branch out and check out other genres. I still find it fun, though, to try and convince others to give something else a chance.

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