The dying days of summer—hot and bright or fog-drenched and rainy—are a suitable time to escape to another century and into the Old World where vampires lurk in musty tombs and sometimes in the candlelight of high society. Michael Sims' collection, Dracula’s Guest, does include Stoker’s title story, but it is also a gathering of kindred pieces that lay out tales both plain and highly-embroidered of the pernicious beings known as vampires. These old school blood-drinkers do not sparkle handsomely in daylight and are decidedly and viciously carnivorous.
In Megan Whalen Turner’s Instead of Three Wishes, mere mortals go up against crafty fey and magical mayhem with only their mundane wits to protect them.
Selene was only trying to help the cantankerous old man across the street. He seemed frozen by passing cars and probably would have been hit were it not for Selene taking him carefully by the arm. She did not realize that that she was escorting elfin royalty.
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.
He was happy enough to share his dinner with the lanky man as they were both seekers. He sought the beauty of the Wisconsin countryside in the early autumn. The fellow who sat down beside him, his wool shirt buttoned tight though the day was a warm one, sought the relief of his misery in the beginning of The Illustrated Man, a collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury.
At last he stripped off his shirt in the heat.
"…he was a riot of rockets and fountains and people, in such intricate detail and color that you could hear the voices murmuring small and muted, from the crowds that inhabited his body. When his flesh twitched, the tiny mouths flickered, the tiny green-and-gold eyes winked and the tiny hands gestured. There were yellow meadows and blue rivers and mountains and stars and suns and planets spread in a Milky Way across his chest. The people themselves were in twenty or more odd groups upon his arms, shoulders, back, sides, and wrists, as well as on the flat of his stomach. You found them in forests of hair, lurking among a constellation of freckles, or peering from armpit caverns, diamond eyes aglitter. Each seemed intent upon his own activity; each was a separate gallery portrait."
He was an Illustrated Man, he explained tiredly. A witch from the past and future had stitched the glowing colors into his flesh forty years ago. He had wanted it done so he could always find a job at a carnival, but the pictures, all eighteen of them, came with a curse, and ultimately no traveling show would hire him and no man or woman would be his friend.
Junot Diaz's versatility enables him to effortlessly shift from elaborate epics to intimate, micro-level storytelling. Just a few years after his sweeping epic, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Diaz is back with This is How You Lose Her, a collection of overlapping and intersecting short stories that offer brief, nuanced glimpses of complex characters, emotions, and situations.
Although the stories contained within This is How You Lose Her are arranged in a non-linear sequence, they create a fragmentary portrait of Yunior's life and progression from a young immigrant learning English from Sesame Street to a middle-aged man reflecting on a hollow life and deteriorating body.
Some wishes are traditional – to be the fairest in the land or find a handsome prince. Some are personal – for a family member to get better, to be a doctor, learn the piano, fall in love. Some are never identified as wishes, but are rather the silent longings of the heart. Written by a truly stellar cast of authors with a foreword by Mia Farrow, What You Wish For is a collection of short stories that center on children who wish.
The collection ranges from Meg Cabot’s wry and humorous “The Protectionist” – which starts with the protagonist lamenting that the school bully has taped a note to his sister’s back which reads, Boobies: Get some; to the quietly poignant “Rules for Wishing” by Francisco X. Stork, where a young boy is celebrating his birthday in the foster care system, after his mother gave his sister up for adoption when his father could not control his fists.
You can tell a book by its cover. So, if a book’s cover or title “calls” to you, it's karma - pick it up! A couple of years ago I was in the library and a book by a debut author was in display. The Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill was definitely calling to me. I thought, “Who is this Joe Hill? I don’t know him and maybe his book isn’t good.”
A couple of weeks later a patron came into my office and asked me, “Have you ever read anything by Joe Hill?”
“No. Why? Is he good?” I asked.
“Well, you know that he is Stephen King’s son. I wanted to see if he writes like his father.”
Now I am kicking myself mentally! I should have listened to the book calling me! I ran to the display and thankfully it was still there!
“He was a big and incredibly powerful collie, with a massive coat of burnished mahogany-and-snow and with absurdly small forepaws (which he spent at least an hour a day in washing) and with deep-set dark eyes that seemed to have a soul behind them. So much for the outer dog. For the inner: he had a heart that did not know the meaning of fear or disloyalty or of meanness.” – Albert Terhune
Humor, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. What makes one person snicker or guffaw might leave another stone cold. Thankfully, the new short story collection Guys Read: Funny Business presents many different senses of humor throughout its pages.
The brainchild of writer Jon Scieszka (of Stinky Cheese Man fame), Guys Read is a project that finds and suggests books that will inspire boys to read, to enjoy what they’re reading, and to seek out more. Different authors contributed their own pieces that will, with any luck, put you in stitches without requiring the mandatory hospital visit.
Funny Business is not just for boys, but it has a lot of things that they might like. It has goofiness and gross-outs. It has suspense and action. It has evil turkeys and chocolate swimming pools. This installment of the new series focuses on humor, but the group plans to release books that are focused on mysteries, sports, and real life stories as well.
My paperback copies of Ray Bradbury's wonderful fantasy collections--The Illustrated Man, October Country, Dandelion Wine, The Machineries of Joy, and The Martian Chronicles--are in sad shape. The pages are brittle, yellowed, and, yes, a bit musty. But I keep them because his lyrical words matchlessly probe humanity at its worst and best. When friends of mine gifted us with 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales one Christmas, I was happy to have many of those beautiful stories collected together in a hardback edition to last for years--and so was the local library for we own several copies of it.
I certainly won't go through every one of the one hundred, but I'll mention several pieces that stuck with me time and again. One of the first stories in the collection is "The Rocket," in which a poor junk man gets hold of a prototype rocketship and dreams of somehow going into space with his family. "The Sailor Home from the Sea" is a tale of loss and love and the imagination to reconcile them. "The Sound of Summer Running" is the opening piece for Dandelion Wine, and it brings back the time of year and the time of life for one young man who feels as if his whole town might capsize, go under, leaving not a trace in the clover and weeds of burgeoning summer.