The OF Blog: Short reviews of five books

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Short reviews of five books

Below are short, paragraph-length reviews of 2014 releases that I've read but for one reason or another did not have the time nor the desire to pad it out to 600-1000 word-length full reviews.  Many of these books are anthologies or short story collections, and most, if not all, I would recommend with some reservations to readers.  In short, these are the works that most likely will not be featured prominently in my Best of 2014 retrospective posts next month, but some may be worthy of reader attention.

David Hutchinson, Europe in Autumn

Europe in Autumn is a near-future thriller set in a post-EU Europe in which the international quasi-state has fragmented into balkanized mini-states similar to that of the seventeeth century post-Treaty of Westphalia Holy Roman Empire.  Rudi, a courier (someone who conducts semi-legal transnational transports; think a combination of message boy and spy), conducts a series of missions, each of which ultimately delve further into the tangled web of politics and business that has arisen with the demise of the EU.  Hutchinson's strongest with setting and plot, as he deftly weaves interesting situations with vividly-detailed environs.  The characterizations, while solid, are not as successful.  Europe in Autumn is a strong, solid thriller, albeit one that breaks no real new narrative ground.

Richard Thomas (ed.), The New Black:  A Neo-Noir Anthology

The New Black is a reprint anthology of twenty tales from several of my favorite authors, including Brian Evenson, Roxane Gay, Kyle Minor, and Matt Bell, among others.  I had mixed reactions to the stories included in here, however.  It's not so much that the vast majority of them weren't good or excellent (they were), it was more that the sum felt less than the component parts, as there wasn't much to unify them.  The concept of "noir," especially in its connotation of dark, rough, off-the-cuff style of writing, is not really explored much beyond what each writer chooses to explore; there could have been a stronger editorial direction given that would have allowed readers to make easier, stronger connections between themes found in these diverse stories.  As a sampler of the short fiction of several outstanding literary and genre writers, it is excellent, but it is merely a mediocre themed anthology due to this perceived lack of connecting threads between these strong stories.

Antonya Nelson, Funny Once

I had the pleasure of hearing Nelson read a section from the closing novella to her latest collection, Funny Once, at the 2014 Southern Festival of Books in Nashville this past October.  That story, "Three Wishes," was a sharp, penetrating look at relationships, familial and failed romantic, as seen through the prism of a creative writing course and two students in that class.  I remember laughing several times at scenes she read aloud; this largely occurred also when reading this and the other stories in print.  Funny Once is a very strong collection:  I could point out several stories as being excellent written, plotted, and executed.  I've spent nearly a month trying to decide how to go about describing this collection.  Perhaps I should just say that it is a uniformly good collection, with some shining moments, that will appeal to literary fiction readers who enjoy witty dialogue to go along with some poignant scenes.

Gail Giles, Girls Like Us

Girl Like Us, longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, follows the struggles of two soon-to-be-high school graduates, Biddy and Quincy, as they are about to be exited from their special education program.  Each of the girls has her own issues (Biddy cannot read nor write and had to give up a child for adoption due to her circumstances; Quincy was brain-damaged as a young child and is angry at the world, including at times Biddy) and it is their battles, accentuated by Giles' short, staccato bursts of narrative seen through each girl's PoV, that makes this a good read.  If anything, the story could have been even longer, to allow certain situations to unfold less rapidly, but this is a minor quibble to what is otherwise a very solid work of YA fiction.

Kalyan Ray, No Country

No Country is a tale that spans five generations and three continents.  Beginning with the life-altering decisions of two 19th century Irish boys, Padraig and Brendan, and the effects those choices have on descendents, biological or adopted, of the two as they move back and forth across Europe, North America, and India.  It is an ambitious family saga, one that touches upon the issue of the ultimate shallowness of national identity, and for much of the novel Ray manages to craft a narrative structure worthy of exploring such complex, complicated themes and plot developments.  However, there were times that the story lagged a bit, making No Country merely a flawed yet solid effort that will mostly reward those readers willing to devote the necessary time to processing what all is transpiring over the course of these generations and continents.

I'll likely write another set of 5-10 mini-reviews sometime over the holiday weekend.  Hopefully some of these stories/collections have piqued your interest.


Bill said...

I actually enjoyed the New Black; the lack of thematic unity didn't bother me so much.

I thought the stories themselves are overall much stronger and more consistent than any multi-writer anthology that I've read in years. I've been so disappointed in most "dark fiction"/fantastic anthologies, that I've mostly given up on them. I get the occasional Conjunctions, but it's mostly to read a few new pieces from favorite authors.


Larry Nolen said...

It might just be that since I had read several of the stories years before, my attention wandered more than usual and that could have negatively influenced me some. Certainly I think the stories are strong ones, especially since I read many of them years ago and ended up reading more by those writers (the ones I specifically mentioned).

I'm a subscriber to Conjunctions and have been for nearly six years now; still need to read more from the last two. Maybe later, after the burnout I allude to in my just-posted post fades.

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