The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, edited by Otto Penzler*****

TheBigBookofXmasNote to the reader: I originally posted this when my blog was just a few months old, and I was still struggling with basic issues, such as how to insert the book cover into the text. Now the holiday season is here again, and I am running my review–with some basic technical adjustments–one more time, because in the past two years, I haven’t found a Christmas book I like better than this one. It’s the only book I’ve found since I’ve been writing reviews that I found worth actually buying not just one but two copies at full price to give as gifts. For those that love Christmas stories and mysteries, this one’s for you!

I received this wonderful collection last year as an ARC from the “first read” program via the Goodreads.com giveaways. At the time, I didn’t have a blog; I reviewed it on Goodreads and because I liked it so well, I also reviewed it on Amazon. Then, while I was on the site, I bought two copies to give as gifts. I have never done that with an ARC before or since (so far), but it is so wonderful that I wanted others to have it, and I wasn’t willing to share mine.

Now the season is upon us. This blog will be punctuated by worthwhile Christmas books of a secular variety. I guess it is a typical retired-teacher behavior to decorate my home with brightly jacketed Christmas books when others are getting out their craft supplies and hot glue guns. At any rate, if you buy just one Christmas book for yourself or someone else, and if the reader enjoys mysteries, this is the best you will find.

The stories are organized according to category in a format and layout that is congenial all by itself. There are ten sections, starting with “A Traditional Christmas”, with the first entry being one by Agatha Christie; it is a story that has aged well, and I don’t remember having read it even though I thought I’d read everything by that writer. There are a few more, and range from just a few pages, double columns on each page, to 25 or 30 pp. Then we move on to “A Funny Little Christmas”. The first there is a story by the late great Donald Westlake, and I gobbled it up and then felt bad that I hadn’t saved that story for last, because I adore his work and he’s gone and can’t write anything more. But I perked up when I noted that yet another section, “A Modern Little Christmas”, has an unread (by me) story by Ed McBain. There are many others. The final section, “A Classic Little Christmas”, bookends the anthology neatly by finishing with Dame Agatha. All told there must be about sixty stories, maybe more.

The anthology, edited by the brilliant and acclaimed Otto Penzler, is billed as having a number of rare or never-published short stories, and I think it’s a true claim. There are many mystery writers I’ve read and enjoyed here, and others I had never even heard of, but found immensely entertaining. I haven’t skipped any yet, but even if I find something I don’t care to read, the book is worth owning. I know that already. It is also billed as an anthology to warm the heart of any grinch, and indeed, there has been at least one story with a satisfyingly creepy ending.

One of the charming things about anthologies is that one can read a single story in a sitting and not feel too bad when it’s time to put the bookmark in and go get something done. Then it waits there to greet us as we return from executing less pleasurable tasks, a reward that invites us to sit down, curl up with good cup of coffee or the dog or both and have a cozy read. It also makes the book a lovely thing to keep where guests can access it, because they can enjoy it even if they haven’t time to read more than a story or two in between other activities.

…but I’m keeping you. You could be reaching for your car keys, your bus pass, or even better, going to another window to find this book online and order it. Once you see it, you will most likely feel as I do…unwilling to part with your own copy, yet yearning to get at least one more for somebody else! Get the plastic out and do it right away.

Doctorow: Collected Stories, by EL Doctorow*****

doctorowcollectedEL Doctorow died last year, and the literary world—well, at least the English-speaking part of it—mourned. I know I did. He was one of the finest writers ever to grace the planet, and so when I spotted this collection of stories, even though I understood that I had probably read most or all of them already I snapped it up. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. The collection will be available to the public November 1.

I am bemused by “The Writer in the Family”; I had read it before, but it’s worth reading again. Families are complicated, and Doctorow deftly creates a deeply dysfunctional dynamic with this one. Check out the premise:

“In 1955 my father died with his ancient mother still alive in a nursing home. The old lady was ninety and hadn’t even known he was ill. Thinking the shock might kill her, my aunts told her that he had moved to Arizona for his bronchitis…And so it came about that as we mourned him in our stocking feet, my grandmother was bragging to her cronies about her son’s new life in the dry air of the desert.”

But Grandma can’t understand why her son isn’t writing to her; this will never do. Thus the aunts approach the protagonist. “You’re the writer in the family,” they open, and then present the obligation to him, that he must forge a letter to Grandma from his late father. The aunts will go to the nursing home and read it aloud to her; all he has to do is write something. And of course one letter isn’t enough; there must be more, more, more, and so even as he is grieving his father’s loss, our protagonist, the good son, nephew, grandson that doesn’t make waves, is required to plagiarize one letter after another in his father’s name, until a shift alters the equation.

Because Doctorow wasn’t just any writer, I visited his Wikipedia page before writing this review, and I learned that his first name was Edgar and that he was named for Edgar Allan Poe; he was expected to become a writer. I trust his parents were satisfied. At the same time, I found myself wondering how many times he had been told that since he was the writer in the family, it was up to him to do this, that, the other. All speculation, of course, but they say to write what you know, and perhaps to some extent, he did.

On my actual bookshelves, the ones made with wood and that have books made of cardboard, cloth, and paper on them, I have half a shelf devoted to this writer’s work, and so when I downloaded this DRC, I went and retrieved the collection of his short stories that I already owned (and paid for), All the Time in the World, which was published in 2011. I wanted to see what difference there was. I found that this new collection has two stories I hadn’t read before, and so that was where my focus began. For those that also already have this author’s complete works up to now, the new short stories are “Baby Wilson” and “Child, Dead, in the Rose Garden”. The other difference is that the short story on which his outstanding novel The Waterworks is based is presented here. That one is short indeed, and it’s strong enough that it’s easy to see why he selected it to expand into novel form (which I highly recommend).

Ordinarily I would say that I’d have been annoyed had I paid full jacket price for this one, with a dozen reprinted short stories I already own; the premise for a novel I already own; and two lonely stories that are new to me. But this is Doctorow, and so my rules are different. Were I not a book blogger and able to get a DRC, I would probably wait for this one to turn up in used bookstores so that I could buy it on the cheap, but one way or another, I would have to have it. And to be sure, both stories—though maybe not good choices for the pregnant reader, given that they involve a dead child and an abducted newborn—are absolutely brilliant. Baby Wilson in particular builds irresistibly and is a masterpiece, but the voice in the Rose Garden story is guaranteed to produce chills.

I also reread my old favorites, among them “Walter John Harmond”. Whoa.

As always, Doctorow’s writing is hyper-literate. If you try to read this while doing something else, you will be lost, and I don’t recommend it to anyone for whom English is not the mother tongue unless the reader is so steeped in the language as to be comfortable with heavy literary fiction.

Don’t try to skim; savor it.

Highly recommended to the fluent reader that loves great literary fiction.

A Long Time Dead–A Mike Hammer Casebook, by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins*****

 alongtimedead  “The evening sky was gray and growling but I had left the trenchcoat behind and my suit coat was unbuttoned. This was the kind of sketchy gin mill where I wanted easy access to the .45 under my arm. The waterfront bouquet greeted me, salt air, grease, oil, sweat and dead fish drifting like a ghost with body odor.

“If you needed to know anything about the harbor facilities stretching from the Battery to Grant’s Tomb, or wanted a line on anybody in the National Maritime Union or the Teamsters, this was your port of call. If you wanted to get laid or make somebody dead, that could be arranged, too. You know the place. They have them in London and Mexico City and Rome and Hong Kong, with smaller variations in smaller locales. But none were meaner or dirtier than the bar run by Benny Joe Grissi.”

Spillane was the prototype for noir fiction, and even though he’d been hiding in plain sight, I never read Spillane because he wrote so many books that I assumed he was cranking out something formulaic, a pot boiler special. I am delighted to find I was mistaken; this set of short stories, an atypical medium for Spillane, was provided to me free courtesy of Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media in exchange for an honest review. I’ve had a few DRCs that didn’t measure up to my expectations lately, and this particular galley was my bright spot, the reading I considered my dessert after I had dutifully choked down the stuff I was only reading because I’d said I would.

Collins was a close friend of Spillane’s, and at the author’s request, he rounded out some rough drafts that had been left behind when Spillane died. Collins suspects that they had been left dormant because the author’s church would not have approved of the brief—and by today’s standard, very tame—sexual content included. Whatever. We can read them now, and Collins has used Spillane’s style seamlessly. Only one of these stories is more his than Spillane’s, and he tells us which one it is. He did a great job with it.

The author is legendary for the call-and-response style dialogue associated with the genre as a whole now. His use of it and other figurative language is so sweet that I found myself—a retired language arts teacher whose highlighter is the modern day equivalent of the red pen—noting passages where it’s artfully used, and sometimes I got so caught up in watching the language that I had to go back and reread a few pages, because I had lost track of the plot. But it was worth it. Here are a couple of examples:

“’Sure you aren’t seeing ghosts?’

“’Once I’ve killed this guy—really killed him—then maybe I’ll see a ghost.’”

And on the same page, more of the same; Lincoln followed by Lincoln, salesman followed by salesman. Together with the alliteration and the brisk, no nonsense yet curiously intimate prose, I found myself mesmerized. Spillane doesn’t care about preserving evidence, and he usually won’t call cops, at least not until his own business has been concluded. Given today’s social climate and mistrust of urban cops, I suspect this newly issued work by the famous writer will find a wide audience.

Although it’s been decades, I can nearly swear that the Carol Burnett show did some spoofs of this type of narrative during the 1970s, when I was just a kid. If one uses too much of the repetition it becomes ridiculous, and of course Burnett and her colleagues could spot fodder for satire a mile away. But although I kept my antennae up, I never found a weak place in the text that took the lyrical repetition to the point of silliness. It’s carefully meted out so that it reels the reader in rather than appearing ridiculous and distracting. And if you look at my last sentence, I can promise you the alliteration there was unintentional. Good writing stays with us, as any teacher will tell you; this is one reason we have students read something before they write. And thus it is that a tiny nugget of Spillane’s technique has made its way into my review.

Most people don’t want to analyze detective stories; they just want to read them. If so, then you should be good to go here. I was additionally pleased by the lack of racial and ethnic slurs which some writers of the genre would include in the name of authenticity. Likewise, the gorgeous receptionist is actually Spillane’s partner in both senses of the word, and she listens to what people reveal when they believe no one important is listening.

This is the very best of the noir genre. If you enjoy great detective fiction and can stand some graphic violence, this book is for you.

A Death in the House and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak****

adeathinthehouse.jpgClifford D. Simak wrote fiction, mostly science fiction in the form of short stories, for more than fifty years.  Thanks to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media, I’ve been binge-reading for the better part of a year. I received this DRC, as I did the others, in exchange for an honest review.  This is my fourth Simak collection; most of its stories are brilliant and have stood the test of time, though a couple of them haven’t aged as well as the rest.

The collection begins with one of his best, “Operation Stinky”, which is about a skunk with supernatural ability. A hallmark of a truly brilliant science fiction writer is his capacity to take a truly preposterous premise and make us not only believe in it, for a short time, but respond to it emotionally. I laughed out loud at least once at a wry moment here, and in other places I was really moved. Simak does that to me a lot.

Another favorite was “Green Thumb”, about a plant that comes from outer space and is horrified to learn that its new host is actually—dear heaven—eating plants! Again, Simak plays this string like the sweetest violin, and at the end I had to put my reader down and assimilate what I’d read before I could read anything else. “The Sitters” made me think of Stephen King, though of course Simak’s story was written before King had published a novel at all. I also enjoyed the title story as well as “Tools” and “Nine Lives”, but the one I liked best was “Target Generation”, a longer story about a huge spaceship that had hosted so many generations of people, many of them born right there on the ship, that an entire origin myth had become the basis for the ship’s culture and the beliefs of its residents…all but one. When the character—if we can call it that—called ‘The Mutterer’ came, I could not move until that story was done.

That said, there were some weak places. In some respects this may be unfair of me, because I don’t think Simak wrote with the knowledge that anyone would ever sit down and binge-read his stories end to end; he submitted one story at a time to magazines and earned his living that way. Nevertheless, I really wish he’d write more stories in which nobody gets named “Doc”.  And the story titled “War is Personal”, while I am sure it was well received by many readers when he wrote it during World War II, really upset me. I found the “J” word a couple of times and together with the overall flavor of the story, was disturbed enough to straight-up skip to the next entry. I began the lengthy novella, “When It’s Hangnoose Time in Hell”, and was absorbed, but part way through it was shot through with some unbelievably bad dialogue and trite expressions. And although “The Birch Clump Cluster”, the final entry, wasn’t bad, it didn’t measure up to most of his work.

Two stories give unfortunate titles to disabled people and refer to them in a disrespectful way. Again, it was common at the time the stories were published, but as a society we are more enlightened now, and so this aspect of his work hasn’t aged well.

Unless you are a diehard Simak fan, skip the introduction. It was written by a close friend of his and has to do with a break from writing on the part of the author. I didn’t care at all and decided not to finish it, because trying to slog through it was going to prevent me from getting to the stories themselves.

The good news is that most of the stories here are fantastic, and this collection was published this summer, so you can have it now. Recommended for those that love good science fiction.

Good Night, Mr. James: and Other Stories by Clifford D. Simak*****

goodnightmrjamesSimak was a prodigious writer of science fiction during the middle of the twentieth century; he was the third Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and won numerous other awards, among them the Nebula and multiple Hugo Awards. His short stories are being republished digitally, and as fast as Open Road Integrated Media can publish them, I snap them up, having already read two volumes; this is volume eight. Thanks go to ORIM and to Net Galley, from whom I received a DRC in exchange for this honest review.

There’s a special sort of satisfaction that comes from reading science fiction written during the era that followed World War II, and in seeing what technology science fiction writers imagined might be around the corner. Many times we read stories of passenger flights to other planets and galaxies, stories of mind control, and yet nobody ever imagined that one day we would each have a small telephone in our pocket that would double as a camera, wristwatch and telegram service. But the musings and imaginings of old school science fiction are just plain fun, and they don’t require the technical proficiency that some of today’s writers often require in order to read, understand, and enjoy the stories they produce.  Sometimes a bit of philosophy and world view sneaks into these stories, and we may find kindred spirits in the most unlikely places.

The title story used to open this collection is a fun one, and the tension that accompanies Mr. James as he approaches the enclosure where he believes he’ll find the ‘puudly’, a creature from another world unwisely snuck into the present one, is almost unbearable.  What follows on his journey home is absorbing as well. But this wasn’t my favorite story. There are two others I found even better, but first, let’s get this other news out of the way.

The bad news is that there is just a trace of the racist stereotyping common to white folk of this time period, but it’s limited to one story, and it’s scarce. If you read my reviews often, you know that if I see it, I call it out, and my tolerance level is much lower than that of most reviewers. It’s in one story which isn’t all that good anyway, and it pertains to Asians that are featured briefly. The story is “The Gunsmoke Drummer Sells a War”, and it’s a cowboy tale of the sort that was popular in the USA during the 1950’s. A man of Chinese origin is referred to as ‘The Chinaman’, and during his short tenure in the story, he is untrustworthy.  He speaks in a “sing song” cadence. This story cost the book half a star, but it’s my view that you could buy this collection, skip this story, which is overlong and contains some less than stellar dialogue, and you’d still get your money’s worth. That’s all the bad news there is here.

“Reunion on Ganymede” made me tremble with mirth, nearly causing me to wake Mr. Computer, who slumbered peacefully beside me. In this story Gramps is dying to go to the reunion of veterans of a war that took place between the “Marshies” (Martians) and the “Earthies” .  His family is trying to dissuade him from taking his flame gun with him. They tell him the weapon is too old to be trusted, but clearly it isn’t the gun, but rather the owner that they’re worried about. As developments take an unexpected turn, it becomes obvious that there are some things for which one just can’t plan. Eventually we see that Gramps and other characters unforeseen by his kinfolk are on a collision course, and what follows is pure poetry.

However, my very favorite story is “Kindergarten”. A man has bought a cabin and retreated to it; he’s been told he has a short time to live, and so he’s determined to do it in pastoral solitude. Imagine his surprise when he goes for a stroll one day and finds the mysterious machine on his property! It’s certainly not a saucer, yet it’s also not from Earth. It couldn’t be. And the whole thing unspools in a way I interpret as being subversive and delicious. Please note that the entire collection is edited and introduced by a close friend of the author’s, the latter having died in 1988. The editor’s spin on this story is completely different from my own, and yet knowing this didn’t make me enjoy it any less.

If you’ve had the pleasure of reading the We Install story collection, or Grotto of the Dancing Deer collection, you know what kind of prose Simak spins, and if you like old school science fiction, you almost have to like most or all of his. If you haven’t dipped a toe in the water yet, hop on in. Between this collection and at least nine others, there’s plenty to keep you reading happily for quite some time.

As a last note to teachers looking for suitable classroom stories, there’s no sex or foul language here, but be prepared to discuss or explain some of the slang of the period in question.

Highly recommended and available to the public now.

The Fat Artist and Other Stories, by Benjamin Hale*****

Happy release day! Today this title and another winner, Everyone Brave is Forgiven,  hit the shelves. I don’t reblog all titles upon release; only the ones I really like. Don’t let the cover scare you away, because once I had gotten into the title story, I understood why this was exactly the right cover art. Happy reading!

Seattle Book Mama

thefatartistI like short stories. My Goodreads library tells me I have munched my way through 89 collections and anthologies; yet I can tell you that there is nothing even remotely similar to what Hale offers here. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for permitting me to view the DRC for the purpose of an honest review. You should get a copy May 17, 2016 when it is released, so that when it is immediately banned by various school boards you will know what they’re screaming about.

The ribbon that binds these brilliant, bizarre tales is that each of them features a social outlier as a protagonist. We start with the airline flight from hell in “Don’t Worry Baby”; you have doubtless flown at least once on a flight with a small child whose mother you long to smack upside the head for her dreadful parenting skills, but…

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The Fat Artist and Other Stories, by Benjamin Hale*****

thefatartistI like short stories. My Goodreads library tells me I have munched my way through 89 collections and anthologies; yet I can tell you that there is nothing even remotely similar to what Hale offers here. Thanks go to Simon and Schuster and Net Galley for permitting me to view the DRC for the purpose of an honest review. You should get a copy May 17, 2016 when it is released, so that when it is immediately banned by various school boards you will know what they’re screaming about.

The ribbon that binds these brilliant, bizarre tales is that each of them features a social outlier as a protagonist. We start with the airline flight from hell in “Don’t Worry Baby”; you have doubtless flown at least once on a flight with a small child whose mother you long to smack upside the head for her dreadful parenting skills, but this one wins the prize. The second story that deals with Judgment Day didn’t work for me; first there were some hyperliterate science references that zinged right over my head, and then the sick factor got the better of me, and so I skipped that one and moved on to the title story. Having read the rest, I am inclined to chalk that second one up to my own quirks rather than Hale’s skill set.

When I came to “The Fat Artist”, I could only bow in awe. I was overcome with frustration because no one else in my household enjoys literary fiction, and so I couldn’t share. In a nutshell, the protagonist, a performance artist, seeks to eat himself to death while setting a worldwide fatness record. I actually gasped several times while reading this one.

Although the writing within this collection provides outstanding examples of every imaginable literary device, those that teach high school literature would be wise not to place it on classroom shelves unless you work at an alternative school. A very alternative school. A very, very, very…well, hopefully my meaning is clear. There is so much edgy material, from language, to explicit sexual description, to sexual roles and gender ambiguity, that I can see the villagers coming with their torches, their hot tar, their feather pillows. Teachers, don’t do this to yourselves. Get a personal copy; take it home and enjoy it; then pass it on to someone that can be trusted to appreciate it. Seriously.

Four more stories follow, and they’re all strong. “Leftovers” deals with a middle aged man in the midst of an extramarital affair when his problem child unexpectedly appears, ready to ransack the family vacation home for valuables to sell in order to feed his addiction. The way this tale unfolds gives me goose bumps.

The next two tales deal with sexual roles and ambiguity. I came away from “Beautiful Boy”, which made me realize, whether by the author’s intention or not, that men that choose to cross dress only as a diversion are looking at the best of both worlds, never having to confront the glass ceiling because they’ll be at that office meeting clad in their conservative suit and tie like always; it reminds me of white actors that wore black face.

The final story of a troubled brother that lands in the basement of his brother, the MIT researcher, and is provided with a job driving squid from the docks to the laboratory, is as brilliant as all the others, and equally esoteric.

Hale is wholly original, but if I were to compare his writing to any other author, it would be to that of Michael Chabon.

Bring your literary skills to the feast that Hale has laid for you; you will need them.  It’s one hell of a banquet.

The Pier Falls: and Other Stories, by Mark Haddon*****

thepierfalls.pngMark Haddon has already left his mark on the world with his well known novel and play, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. I haven’t read that book but I will now, because this new collection is impressive. Thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the DRC, which I received in exchange for a fair and honest review.  At times like this, when I get to review stellar writing, it’s a great pleasure to do so.

Note the title first, because it serves to set the tone for all of the stories here. It’s dark out there. On the one hand, a collection filled with cataclysmic tragedies and crimes can make our own troubles look small; yet the reader that tends toward serious clinical depression might be better served to read something lighter. I could imagine how immersing oneself in these stories, which seem quite immediate because they’re so well done, might make a depressive start dwelling on other things, like whether to reach for the rat poison or the razor blades. So if that’s you, get a different book, seriously.

For the rest of us, this is amazing fiction. The title story is the best:

The noise, when it comes, is like the noise of a redwood being felled, wood and metal bending and splitting under pressure. Everyone looks at their feet, feeling the hum and judder of the struts. The noise stops and there is a moment of silence, as if the sea itself were holding its breath. Then with a peal of biblical thunder…a woman and three children standing at the rail drop instantly. Six more people are poured, scrabbling, down the half-crater of shattered wood into the sea.

The story is written so intentionally that not a word is wasted. The result is a tale that is like having a pile of snapshots fall out of your wallet. There it all is in one cruel moment after another, laid bare for all to see. And you have to see it, because once you start, you cannot possibly look away.

Haddon’s capacity to develop a character within a short space is part of his magic, as is his brilliance with setting. The Gun has won an award already, and reminds me somewhat of Peter Straub’s spellbinding facility in combining children with horrible circumstances; the distinction between the protagonist and the new friend that his mother has warned is a bad influence point to class difference and the sometimes-terrible pragmatism that poverty creates. And in two other stories, Bunny  and Breathe, we see a crackling combination of genuine good intentions in a protagonist grappling with great pressure and suppressed rage.

None of it is pretty, but it’s too good not to read!

Another personal favorite is The Woodpecker and the Wolf, which veers into science fiction, starting off gently with the notion of space travel that involves sitting on a sofa, playing Scrabble a lot, and not doing much but observe, but then there are other developments and once again, things grow darker.

There have been times when I have had to speculate about whether it would be worth the purchase price of a book to read one really good short story that’s in the collection, or two really good stories. That’s not an issue here. While I confess that I didn’t finish The Island because it was so horribly dark—and one could perhaps argue that Haddon just did his job a little too well for me there—everything else here is simply admirable.

This outstanding collection is available to the public May 10, 2016, and it’s highly recommended.

Grotto of the Dancing Deer, by Clifford D. Simak*****

grottoofthedancing This is the second time I’ve been fortunate enough to get a DRC of Clifford D Simak’s short stories, courtesy of Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media. (The last collection was titled We Install and Other Stories; I have reviewed it also.) Simak’s short stories are my kind of science fiction, the old school variety where there are no clever double entendres intended for–oh, for example–programmers that write obscure, difficult types of code. No, this is the stuff that is born of a fertile imagination and an excellent facility with words, and I enjoyed it start to finish, skimming nothing. And it’s for sale now, so you can get your own copy.

There’s an introduction by David W. Wixon that is probably intended to bring readers of the present up to date in understanding Simak, who wrote from 1930 until around 1980. I have to admit I don’t care for the tone of the introduction, although I have no doubt that Wixon is fond of Simak’s work. The irritation I experience in reading it is that it seems he is apologizing for Simak–this bit of dialogue is bad, for example, because Simak was so new at it–and I don’t think anyone needs to apologize for this writer, a hugely creative, intelligent man whose prose can stand up for itself. Get onto another page and check the list of awards Simak garnered over his lengthy career; it isn’t my imagination. He’s a terrific writer, and I cringe that anyone would be so supercilious as to apologize for his old friend as if Simak weren’t quite on his game.

But enough of that.

Time travel is always great fare for a short sci fi tale, and it’s used abundantly here. I think deep in his heart Simak must have also wanted to write some historical fiction, because time travel isn’t usually between the present time, even allowing for the fact that his present time when he was writing was quite some time before the present present time. He takes people from the future back to covered wagons, or to changed planets that have the habits of early American pioneers, particularly those of the wild west. And his characters are so tangible and so believable that they make the science fiction aspect of the story approachable to the reader whose science knowledge is limited. This inclination makes humanities-grounded individuals like myself so stinking happy, I can’t begin to tell you how much it pleases me. I never like to have some aspect of literature cut off from me because I am not sharp enough to handle it, but when sci fi becomes hugely technical, there’s nothing to do but to close the book and (if it isn’t a DRC) pass it on to someone more scientifically proficient than I am.

But Simak is accessible, all the time. His work isn’t dumbed down, but it is friendly and approachable. Anyone that has the ability to read at the level of a high school senior should be able to read this riveting collection without more than perhaps one or two Google searches, and those will likely be historical questions rather than technical ones.

I really enjoyed the title story, but my personal favorite of the lot is Crying Jag. In this tale, a local man has taken to drowning his sorrows in hooch, and then when he is sloppy drunk, he sits down and cries. Aliens land and are able to take the tears and the sorrow on tap, but with similar results; they get drunk from the sad stories and the tears. I laughed out loud through this one and frankly wondered what kind of creativity it would take to dream up something like this. I just loved it.

Such whimsy!

A more philosophical tale involves reaching an alien society that has labored for a long time to be able to bridge interplanetary culture and understanding; they have the perfect library for the use of the entire galaxy, absolutely free. Earth men that land here immediately begin scheming of ways to turn the “free” library into a private library for profit; hey, who’s to be the wiser? And in the end, I was bemused to see how it worked out.

I am always a little surprised that not more people read short stories. Time for most people is limited. When you finish a short story, you can give yourself permission to turn out the light and go to sleep. And Simak’s are of top caliber; the only writer whose short science fiction I enjoyed more might be Stephen Donaldson, and his vocabulary and prose is far less accessible.

High school teachers looking for good short science fiction for the classroom should look no further. The stories are varied in length and I would say they would be rated PG 13 if they were a movie instead of text; in other words, just fine for teenagers in the classroom, with a wealth of potential for discussion.

Highly recommended to all that enjoy old school science fiction.

Interior Darkness, by Peter Straub****

interiordarknessPeter Straub is a legendary writer of horror, and has been publishing novels and short stories for decades. Those that have followed him everywhere and sought every new thing he has written won’t find much joy here. This new collection draws on earlier collections. So for fans of Stephen King looking to add a second horror writer to their favorites list, this book is a winner, and it is for this new generation of horror readers that I mark this collection 4 stars. For die-hard Straub fans like me that are looking for stories that haven’t been published before, it may be a disappointment. I read my copy free courtesy of Net Galley and Doubleday in exchange for an honest review.

The first story, Blue Rose, is one of the most chilling, most terribly great stories Straub has ever written. This is probably why once I was partway into it, I suddenly remembered the middle and ending exactly after all these years, with over a thousand works of fiction read between then and now. I also suspect this story may have been featured in multiple collections, although I don’t know it for a fact. Likewise, the stories featured from his Houses Without Doors collection were all stories I remembered having read more recently.

However, I found three stories that had been published earlier in Magic Terror that had somehow slipped my attention. In particular, “Porkpie Hat” and “Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff” are  well done. I became a Straub fan before I finished college, and also before I was a literature teacher. It is great fun to go back and look at all the miraculous ways he uses imagery and other devices in these two stories to build dread in the reader and connect us in a nearly-visceral way to his protagonists. There is only one story in this collection that pushes my ick button—that part of my gut that turns over when something goes from being sick in an entertaining way to being sick in a way that makes me really feel sick and regretful at what I’d read; this is “The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine”, originally published as a novella.

One sad thing in coming back to Straub’s work with more depth of knowledge than I had when I first read it is that I see a problem I didn’t notice before. Straub cannot develop female characters, and falls prey to every stereotype imaginable. There is one story in the “Noir” section where he deliberately uses stereotypes tongue in cheek, but this apparently hasn’t caused him to notice that he practices many of the same habits in the rest of his prose. It is this failure that denies him the fifth star in my rating.

Horror writers love to use kiddies, and Straub is no exception. If you cannot bear to read stories in which fictional children are subjected to cruelties in order to move the story forward, don’t read this book. In fact, if that’s the case for you, this may not even be your genre. Sometimes Straub rescues the kid at the end of the story, but then again, sometimes he doesn’t. And sometimes, it’s gruesome. I would not have cared to read these tales when I was pregnant or raising young children; I was way too close to his fictional characters at that time in my life. I mention this in case it’s true for you right now.

Conservative Christians won’t like this book.

Most of these stories were written for the book buying public of the late twentieth century, the majority of which was Caucasian and perhaps more clueless than most white folks are today. I could not help but notice that none of his scary characters had blue eyes. However, there’s one nicely done story involving allegory as well as wry humor titled “Little Red’s Tango”. In this story a Japanese book buyer turns up and stays awhile; Straub avoided every stereotype and the character was both believable and respectfully drawn. I appreciated it.

Between what I have said here and the table of contents that you can find online, you should know now whether this collection is in your wheelhouse and whether it’s something you want to pursue. It is available for purchase now.