Right away Greg Gaines, the "Me" of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, fires a warning shot for readers unaware of what they are about to step into.
I learned absolutely nothing from Rachel's leukemia. In fact, I probably became stupider about life because of the whole thing.
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.
The Sirens of Titan might be one of Kurt Vonnegut’s lesser-known novels, but it deserves just as much praise and attention as Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat’s Cradle. Vonnegut’s tendency to combine satire and existential inquiry gives Sirens an invigorating edge. It is an inventive drama, one that successfully incorporates space travel, dark humor, apathetic deities, and bleak ruminations on the futility of human progress.
Shambling Towards Hiroshima is a brisk and inventive novel that incorporates elements of science fiction, humor, historical fiction, and moody introspection. James Morrow utilizes these disparate narrative modes in order to portray the life story of a B-movie actor named Syms Thorley. Thorley has spent most of his screen time bringing monsters to life. His devoted fans fondly remember him as “Kha-Ton-Ra the living mummy, Corpuscula the alchemical creature, and Gorgantis, King of the Lizards.” However, no one suspects that Gorgantis, a grotesque fire- breathing lizard, originated as a top secret military project designed to swiftly end World War II.
Most people know what it feels like to be stuck in limbo somewhere between departure and destination. Even if your journey was perfectly planned, there are so many things that can easily go awry and impede your progress. In Dear American Airlines, that agonizing stasis is symptomatic of much more than an airline’s incompetence or a missed connection. It characterizes the 53 years that Benjamin R. Ford has been living and drawing breath.
While en route from New York to Los Angeles, Bennie’s flight is abruptly canceled. Even though the sky is bright and the clouds look picturesque, rather than ominous, American Airlines claims foul weather has interfered with the scheduled flight. As a consequence, Bennie finds himself trapped in Chicago’s O’Hare airport with no way out. But he does have a pen, some paper, and the desire to complain to American Airlines.
The entirety of Jonathan Miles’s poignant and humorous novel is written in the form of a letter of complaint. At first, Bennie’s explicit goal is to write and get his ticket refunded. As the letter progresses, however, it becomes quite clear that a check from American Airlines will not resolve Bennie’s existential crisis.
Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby will not comfort you, or soothe you, or ease you into a restful slumber. It will most likely disturb and haunt you, though. Palahniuk is a master of modern horror, as clearly demonstrated by the fact that this novel’s title refers to a sweet song which has the power to obliterate humankind.
Lullaby is narrated by Carl Streator, a bitter misanthrope who works as a journalist. When Streator is assigned to investigate a series of crib deaths, he fixates on the minute details associated with each case. This strategy allows Streator to keep thoughts of his deceased wife and child from overwhelming him, but it also brings him closer to a terrible revelation. Each time he visits another stricken home and memorizes another tragic scene, he gets closer to identifying the pattern lurking within these seemingly random deaths.
If you enjoy dark humor, dry wit, tales of the occult and rooting for the bad guy, then you need to start reading Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard right away. Cabal is a "scientist" obsessed with destroying death. Toward this end, he has traded his soul with the Devil for knowledge of necromancy. Unfortunately, it turns out that Cabal actually needs his soul to perform his experiments and so returns to the Devil, this time agreeing to collect 100 souls within a year or forfeit his own life for good. To aid Cabal in his quest is a demonic carnival, his vampire brother Horst (one of Johannes' early experimental whoopsies) and an insane asylum’s-worth of escaped psychotics. Johannes Cabal has one year in which to trick, bribe, extort, charm, bedazzle, bully, bludgeon or otherwise convince 100 people to sign their souls over to the Devil or he is dead and Hell-bound to boot.