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Short stories are a tricky business. When done well, just a few pages of text can offer a tantalizing glimpse of another world, or immerse you in a scenario so familiar it feels claustrophobic. Creating a brief narrative that contains depth and nuance is a significant accomplishment. I’d venture to guess that only a few writers have managed to master the craft. For several years, my dependable favorites have been Ray Bradbury, Raymond Carver, Miranda July, Flannery O’Connor, and Etgar Keret. Since reading Smoke and Mirrors, this list now includes Neil Gaiman.
Smoke and Mirrors brings together a wide variety of Gaiman’s short pieces. In the introduction, Gaiman writes that “Stories are, in one way or another, mirrors. We use them to explain to ourselves how the world works or how it doesn’t work. Like mirrors, stories prepare us for the day to come. They distract us from the things in the darkness.” I’d like to think that most of Gaiman’s stories live up to such lofty ambitions.
How would George Washington behave in New York society in the 1930s? The ladies and gentlemen of post-Depression-Era New York have had to reinvent the old rules of order in Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility. The women are experimenting with new freedoms where they don’t want to figure out how to marry the man with the power and money—they want to be him.
In this story, partly a Sex in the City romp, Katey Kontent, daughter of Russian immigrants, and her friend Eve Ross, who is trying to escape her Midwestern small city blues, make a brand new start of it on New Year’s Eve 1937 in the greatest city in the world. They meet banker Tinker Grey that night. They think he is the “King of the heap/top of the list,” and he has a well-studied copy of Young George Washington’s 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation to guide him. The three form a friendship/love triangle, but Tinker’s secrets will test their loyalty. Katey and Eve are not afraid to meet their futures, but Tinker is stuck in the past.
"In Darkness I count my blessings like Manman taught me.
One: I am alive,
Two: there is no two."
In Darkness, by Nick Lake, is set in Haiti immediately after the devastating earthquake of 2010. It is the story of Shorty, a boy who has grown up in a violent slum of Port-au-Prince called The Site. But Shorty's life is somehow interwoven with the spirit of Touissant l'Ouverture, visionary leader of Haiti's slave revolution of 1791 to 1803.
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The Expats by Chris Pavone is an international spy thriller about a former CIA agent who moves with her family to Luxembourg where everything is suspicious and nothing is as it seems.
If you like The Expats, you may also like these titles:
An American Spy by Olen Steinhauer
When the CIA's Department of Tourism is dismantled by an elaborate Chinese intelligence scheme that has caused numerous agent deaths, survivor Milo Weaver is placed at risk by his former boss, Alan Drummond, who uses one of Milo's aliases to exact revenge. (worldcat.org)
The Blackhouse by Peter May
When a grisly murder occurs on a Scottish island, Edinburgh detective Fin Macleod must confront his past if he is ever going to discover if the killing has a connection to another one that took place on the mainland. (worldcat.org)
Luciano Anastasini had been a circus performer from the time he was a child until the day he fell fifty feet from the high wire, ending his days as an acrobat. Stay: The True Story of Ten Dogs, by Michaela Muntean, is the story of how Luciano got a second chance at a circus career by giving stray dogs a second chance at life.
Bowser was a thief who could even open cupboard doors to steal food. Penny walked into walls. Stick was a stray, knocking over garbage cans for food. Tyke was just ornery, and Cocoa kept digging giant holes in her owner's yard. The one thing they had in common was that no one wanted them—until Luciano took them home to the circus.
It is fascinating to trace the domino effect caused by something so seemingly small and insignificant as a bolt of cloth. In Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague, by Geraldine Brooks, this bolt spreads misery in the form of the bubonic plague from London to a small, remote English village in 1666. Anna Frith, a young widow who has already seen her share of misfortune, is spared the fatal boils while all around her, family, friends, and neighbors succumb to the terrible disease.