Pianos and Flowers, by Alexander McCall Smith**

Well, heck. I have so loved this author’s most famous #1 Ladies Detective series, and more recently have loved his new, satirical series starring Mr. Varg. When I saw this stand-alone collection of short stories—a genre I enjoy—I leapt at the chance to read and review it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday, but this one fell flat for me.

The collection is scaffolded by vintage photographs from The Sunday Times. Smith provides one of these photos at the start of every story, and then writes something (fictional) about the people and events displayed. I am initially deflated by these, thinking it might be a good fit for some readers, but for me more of a cure for insomnia, because Zzzzzz, when I find the italicized portion, which is intended to be a you-are-there insert. Why, why, why does every Caucasian reader under the sun think that the best way to add some World War II spice to a story, is to interject some of the racist slurs used widely at that time against Japanese people? True, it was a much more mainstream practice back then for white people to use nasty, racist terms to describe anybody and everybody that wasn’t Caucasian; you weren’t entirely safe if you were from Eastern or Southern Europe, so predominant was this tendency. Yet every author understands that if your book is to see wide circulation, you’d better not go tossing anti-Black references in as casual conversational terms. But ah—the Japanese! Now, that’s different. The Japanese don’t fight back all that much, so probably it means they don’t care. (Pause while I retch for a moment or two.)

This cheap-and-easy bit of vile, racist pop culture took this collection down from three stars to two. However, I can assure the reader that had it initially been a four or five star read, it would nevertheless have dropped to an unfriendly rating when I ran across such ugly language.

I am so done with that.

This thing is for sale if you really want it.

The Awkward Black Man, by Walter Mosely**

I had intended to read this author’s work for some time now, and collected a couple of his paperbacks that have sat unread for years. I’ve been so busy reading galleys, with the goal of being done by their dates of publication, that I read very few of the books I’ve bought for myself. When this galley came available, I figured my problem was solved; and in a way, it has been. My thanks go to Net Galley and Grove Atlantic for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Like some other reviewers, I assumed that these short stories would be from the detective fiction genre that has made Mosely famous. As it happens, they aren’t. I could live with that; they aren’t especially compelling, but they’re not badly written. If not for one problem, I would go with three stars, or perhaps even three-and-a-half and consider bumping it up. However.

Mosely seems to have a problem regarding women. It isn’t that he hasn’t gotten the memo that women would like to be regarded as human beings; his writing gives one the impression that he simply disagrees. The first story of the collection is the title story, and it’s one of a physically large but socially clumsy African-American man that takes a liking to a receptionist where he works. His duties take him to her desk now and then, and he begins finding extra reasons to drop by. He chats with her a bit, but her response is unenthusiastic, and she doesn’t make eye contact. Believing that his intentions aren’t plain, he commences leaving a gift at her work station each day, beginning with a simple token and culminating, at the end of the week, with a Bonsai tree that costs him hundreds of dollars. She never thanks him for any of these, which confuses him. When he approaches her, she deals quickly with his work business, and then asks if there’s anything else she can do for him. His every overture is politely turned aside. Eventually, he is called into the boss’s office; he is accused of sexual harassment. The young woman he’s been trying to woo is scared to death of him, and only then does he realize that she actually can’t leave her station when he approaches her. It’s her job to be there. But he is distraught at having his reputation at work sullied, his position nearly terminated. He’s pretty sure it’s because he’s large and Black.

Huh. Well, perhaps the thing to do here, would be to not hit on women he works with. Maybe that’s the best plan for any man in any work setting, unless someone is clearly, plainly interested in him, has, for example, offered him a phone number. But I remind myself not to dismiss an author, especially one so well regarded for so many years, on the basis of a single story. So I read the others.

Indeed, the other stories don’t overtly demonstrate the same dismissiveness toward sexual harassment in the workplace, but the stereotypes never stop with this guy. Women that appear in his stories do so exclusively in relation to men. Even when they show up as mothers, their worth is in relation to their families; sons, grandsons, nephews, and of course, husbands. Women can be vixens, scheming and deceiving for their own evil ends; they can be victims. What women never are in Mosely’s stories are respected professionals, or community members, or anything else that suggests that they make a valuable social contribution that stands alone, that doesn’t bear directly on the life of whatever male character the story is really all about. It’s almost as though the last fifty years of the women’s movement and its achievements never. Fucking. Happened.

So, who wants my paperback copy of Devil in a Blue Dress? Cause now I know I won’t be reading it.

Recommended to those that love short stories and have no respect for women.

Love and Other Crimes, by Sara Paretsky*****

Sara Paretsky is a venerable author, one who—along with the late, great Sue Grafton—reframed the role of women in detective fiction nearly forty years ago. When I saw this collection available for review on Edelweiss, I jumped on it. It’s for sale now, and you should get it and read it—although there’s a caveat coming up that should be considered first.

Sometimes when a favorite writer releases a book of short stories, I find that I’ve already read a lot of them in one form or another. This time, nearly every story is new to me. One forms the basis of a full length book that I read a long time ago and have forgotten much of. Another is a reworked version of the short story “Wildcat,” which I purchased a short time ago. These are the only duplicate stories I can detect, and I am a voracious reader where this author is concerned.  Some of her work was included in Sisters in Crime anthologies, but I haven’t seen them. Not all of them feature the iconic V.I. Warshawski. The signature elements that include social justice issues such as women’s rights, immigration, racism, and the homeless are here in abundance, as one might hope.

My favorite selection is the second, “Miss Bianca,” a mystery in which a little girl saves a research rat and ultimately uncovers a dangerous conspiracy. Paretsky gets the tone of the child’s voice just right, making her bright within the bounds of what a child that age is capable of, and registering the thought processes and perceptions of her protagonist flawlessly.

There’s an historical mystery that involves a Sherlock Holmes retelling, and like all of that ilk, it bored the snot out of me, a first where this writer is concerned. I abandoned it halfway through. The five star rating is unchanged, because the reader can skip this story and still get her money’s worth and then some; also, I am aware that not everyone is as averse to this type of writing as I am.

Another story is set during the late 1960s, and the Civil Rights Movement is center stage. In order to convey the horror of the backlash by some Caucasian Chicagoans during this tumultuous period, the *N* word is included several times. I used the audio version of this book for some of the stories, including this one, and I feel as if it should have a warning sticker of some sort because hearing that word shouted angrily sent a cold finger right up my spine, and I don’t like to think of other readers, especially Black readers, listening to it within the hearing of their children. I don’t deduct anything from my rating, because the author includes a note about its use and her reasons for it at the end of the story; in fact, there is an author’s note at the end of many of these that makes the story more satisfying. But you should know that this word is there, so be ready for it.

When all is said and done, there are few authors that can deliver the way Paretsky can. With the considerations above included, I highly recommend this collection to you.

Dogwinks, by Squire Rushnell**

The old saw about not judging a book by its cover has come home to me in a big way. I was invited to read and review, and although I usually do some homework before accepting or disregarding such offers, I saw the beagle on the cover and leapt on the widget. And somewhere out there, at least one publicist must have my love of said dogs on file, because otherwise it would make absolutely, positively no sense to offer me this book. Dubious thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books; I know you meant well. This book will be available to the public October 20, 2020.

Here’s the thing I didn’t understand when I signed on. This is not merely a book of dog stories, as I had supposed. Apparently, there is a “much-loved” series known as “Godwinks,” and so the title of this one is a play on that name. Since I read no religious material ever, it’s unsurprising that this fact eluded me.

Having foolishly committed myself, I tried to keep an open mind, because in addition to being religious in nature, this is also a collection of dog stories.  I want to be fair, and I hoped I could disregard the preaching and focus on the hounds.  But it’s impossible to enjoy these stories; the writing seems formulaic, the sort of thing you’d read in Reader’s Digest. The figurative language is stale, and the story arc of each is transparently manipulative. Guys, I just can’t.

By wild coincidence, my current reading includes Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and I’m finding it to be better written and infinitely more agreeable than this superstitious bilge.

If you have a MAGA hat in your closet and a firm belief that your prayer group is protecting you from COVID19, then this collection may suit you down to the ground. Otherwise, I’d suggest you steer clear.

Daddy, by Emma Cline***

In 2016, Cline published the hugely successful novel, The Girls, which I read and enjoyed. When I was invited to read and review this collection of her short stories, I was sure I’d be in for a treat. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the early read. This book is for sale now.

Sadly, I am not in love with this collection. First of all, I have seldom enjoyed an open ending, and whereas there are those who admire this style for its authenticity and subtlety, to me it feels as if I’ve eaten a nothing sandwich on a nothing bun. Give me a story with an ending every day of the week. So there’s that.

Then too, there’s the way she deals with sex. I’ve never used the word “tawdry” in a review before, but there’s a first time for everything. Sex, sexuality, and the human body don’t have to be a deal breaker for me, but if it’s written in such a way that I want to gargle after I’ve read it, then less is more. Of course, there are times and places when sex is ugly; in one story a working class girl is struggling and eventually finds she can subsidize her miserable wages by selling her used panties to skeevy men. Fair. It’s certainly memorable. But if we’re going there, then I’d like the next story to either avoid sex, or else have it be a positive experience. When a book gives me a sour gut without delivering a message, I’m out.

There are passages where Cline’s facility with words and her originality shine through. She is a fine writer when it comes to setting, and her character sketches are clear and believable. This is where the third star comes in.

It’s something, but it isn’t enough. If you decide to read these stories, I suggest you get the book free or cheap; don’t pony up full jacket price this time. Save your dollars for the next novel Cline writes, because likely as not, it will be terrific.

Full Throttle, by Joe Hill*****

I’m late to the party, so by now this book has a pile of accolades; every one of them is earned. I received a review copy courtesy of Net Galley and HarperCollins. I am fond of short stories, all the more so when the stories are as riveting and suspenseful as these. How else could the reader get any sleep at all, if there wasn’t a natural stopping point at the end of each story? If you like this author’s work, or if you like horror stories—not all of them, strictly speaking, fit into the genre, but we can consider the collection horror, nevertheless—or if you just like a good short story collection, reach for this one.

Hill begins with the title story, “Full Throttle,” a gritty tale of parenting gone wrong. I couldn’t put it down, and friends, I can always put a book down. I read too much to obsess over my fiction, but this story owned me till it was over. The next story, “Darkened Carousel,” a story of slightly thuggish teens encountering carousel horses with unusual powers was every bit as strong. Another favorite is the one about wolves on a train, and I especially appreciated the line, “You smell like privilege and entitlement…this is first class, after all.”

In fact, all of these are excellent. I had read “In the Tall Grass,” and to be honest it isn’t my favorite, so I skipped it this time. That’s the only story I don’t wholeheartedly recommend, and the collection gets all five stars from me because I consider the book to be worth every red cent it costs, even without it.

The only downside of a collection like this—and this only applies for reviewers and others with a finish date in mind—is that it’s easy to set the book aside whenever a story ends. I sidelined this collection after the first two stories in order to conquer a pair of 700 page tomes that were on the brink of publication, and eventually this book became the one that made me feel guilty every time I looked at it. Recently I checked out the audio book from Seattle Bibliocommons, and since I had enjoyed the first two stories so much, I decided to begin again from the start. There’s a string of excellent readers, some of them famous, and those that like listening should consider this version.

As is generally true of the genre, there are triggers all over the place, and there’s some R rated material. If in doubt, read it yourself before handing it off to the middle schooler you are trying to home school during this pandemic.

To those that love the genre, this book is highly recommended.

The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak***-****

Clifford D. Simak was given the third Grand Master Award by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; he wrote short stories proliferately for several decades in the last century.  His work was generally published in magazines, but with the digital age comes the release of his collected work in twelve volumes.  My thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road, from whom I received a review copy…two years ago. Ouch. As you might expect, this title is for sale now.

Here’s the thing about this collection as a whole: not all of it is science fiction. Simak wrote a lot during the 1940s and 1950s, and back then it was Western stories that sold big. For fans of science fiction, then, these stories are definitely a mixed blessing. The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories is the twelfth and final collection in the series.

The tltle story is excellent, and it shows why the editor has not chosen to separate Simak’s sci fi and Western stories into separate volumes: some of his stories—some of his best ones in fact—blend the two genres. In this one, Daniels sits on his farmhouse porch and chats with the sheriff; there are concerns about chicken thieves in the area. But even at the outset, small references here and there tell us that this is no ordinary Western story. For one thing, up North is an area casually referred to as “the Canadian Shield.” And as the sheriff departs and the rest of the story unfolds, Daniel learns that he is not alone, and his visitor is an unusual one indeed. This story contains a beautifully written inner monologue, and I find myself rereading passages out of admiration for the word smithery involved.

The next two stories are fun ones. “The World of the Red Sun” is suspenseful, and “Skirmish”, which is a man-versus-machine tale with a degree of prescience is laugh-out-loud funny in places. These stories, alas, are followed by an interminable Western—not blended, just cowboys and more cowboys—that I finally gave myself permission to skip. The rest of the stories offered after it are good, but the first three are the ones I like best.

Should you buy this collection? I suggest that if you are new to Simak’s writing, you purchase the first collection in the set, I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories. It doesn’t matter whether you read the collections sequentially, but this is a solid short story collection and his best selling one also. I have read and reviewed eight of the twelve volumes in the set, and although The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories is well written and entertaining, there are five volumes, all reviewed here, that I rate as five stars. Of course if you have the opportunity to buy the entire set and have a serious love of old school sci fi, you won’t be disappointed.

Best Horror 2018

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The Water Diviner and Other Stories, byRuvanee Pietersz Vilhauer****

ALT.FINAL_The WaterI read this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and University of Iowa Press. This distinctive collection is for sale now.

All told there are fifteen stories, all of them featuring Sinhalese Sri Lankans, most of them expatriates that have moved to the United States.  Before commencing I knew very little about the culture of this small island country, apart from its having been colonized by Britain earlier in its history. I still know very little, but this collection is an approachable way to introduce oneself, in addition to being well crafted fiction.

Several of the stories are dark, dealing with the racism and ignorance with which immigrants are often greeted. The angriest of the stories is “A Burglary On Quarry,” in which a student is accused of burglary by her well-to-do, bigoted landlord who doesn’t want to face the obvious perpetrator: her own son.  It reads like a manifesto, and it makes me want to pump my fist and yell, “Tell it!”

This, however, is something none of the characters in these stories would do, apart from the privileged Caucasian American in “Accident.”  David nearly comes to great harm while visiting his new wife’s homeland, largely due to his own obliviousness; it hasn’t occurred to him that he himself might be deemed unacceptable for his race and nation of origin, having lived all of his life as an affluent member of the dominant culture. He is from Texas, and he’s drunk, and he doesn’t even try to understand discretion or subtext. As his wife’s neighbors ogle him suspiciously and the police consider that he may have caused an auto accident for which he is not responsible, he continues to assure his wife—in English—that everything is just fine. He says nothing quietly, ever, and it takes a political connection on the part of his wife’s relatives to extricate him from the hard place he doesn’t know he’s in.

Other entries are also bittersweet, and “Sonny’s Last Game” stands out as one of these. However, “Leisure” literally made me laugh out loud. Well, guffaw, actually: “Cutex! Who does she think she is!”

The last entry, “Hello My Dear”, is both funny and bittersweet, as Prema is faced with the question of whether an email from a stranger is a scam or the real deal.

I enjoyed this collection tremendously and would read Vilhauer again in a heartbeat.

The Big Book of Female Detectives*****

TheBigBookofFemaleDWell now, that was a meal. Penzler does nothing halfway, and this meaty collection of 74 stories took me awhile to move through. I read most, but not all, and I’ll get to that in a minute. First, though, thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The collection begins with Mrs. Paschal, published in 1864, who must find “the cleverest thieves in Christendom,” and it concludes with a piece by Joyce Carol Oates. The stories are broken down into sections, beginning with The Victorians and Edwardians, followed by Before World War I, The Pulp Era, The Golden Age, Mid-Century, and The Modern Era, and concluded with Bad Girls. Says Penzler in his introduction:

“Seeing the Evolution of the female detective’s style as it gathers strength and credibility through the decades is educational, but that is not the purpose of this book, or not the primary one, anyway. The writers whose work fills these pages are the best of their time, and their stories are among the high points of detective fiction that may be read with no greater agenda than the pure joy that derives from distinguished fiction.”

And so the reader must absorb the hallmarks of the time period, and that means the earliest entries carry a certain number of stereotypes, primarily about the nature of women, but in the end, the detective is successful nevertheless. And it’s fun to see historical details written in present tense long ago, and so we know it’s getting to be late out when the lamplighters come out to start the gas lights in the hallways of the manse, for example. It’s also interesting to read authors that were the runaway sensations of their day, the ones that sold the most and wrote the most and were on the tongues of every mystery reader—and yet now they are completely obscure. We can never tell who will stand the test of time until it happens.

And now a confession. The first time I set out to read this tome, I read the entries in the first two sections and decided I would skip the portion devoted to pulp, which isn’t my personal favorite, and I would skip forward to read an entry by one of my favorite present-day mystery writers, and then go back again to cover the sections that come after the pulp section. That was my plan. I’m telling you this because the mistake I made here could happen to you, too, so here it is.

What I did was I skipped to the last section and began flipping through it, and then I was pissed, because I thought the best female detective writers of today had been left out, and in a huff, I abandoned the rest of the book and picked up something else. It wasn’t until I sat down to write a halfhearted review, in which I would explain what I read and what I skipped and why, that I reread the promotional teaser and realized I must have missed something. I went back to the galley, moved back to the second-to-last section that is clearly labeled “Modern”, and there they all were, and it is the longest, most inclusive section in the collection. That changed everything. So reader, if you go for this book, bear in mind that the sections are not completely linear. The “Bad Girls” section at the end, which didn’t do much for me but you may like it, is made up of stories about women criminals from a variety of different time periods. The most recent time period, the one bearing selections by Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, the late and beloved Sue Grafton, Nevada Barr, and a host of others, is second-to-last.

Once I realized my error, of course I returned to read the rest of the book.

The one sorrowful note here is that those of us that love these modern female detectives enough to have bought other anthologies, for example those brought to us by the Paretsky group, “Sisters in Crime,” will run across selections we have already read. I have seen both the Grafton and Paretsky stories already, although the piece by Barr, “Beneath the Lilacs,” is new to me. However, I see authors I haven’t read and will happily watch for now. The end of the mid-century section features “Mom Sings an Aria,” and although it veers a wee bit toward stereotypes, I can’t say I mind too much, because this writer makes me laugh out loud. James Yaffe is on my list now. “Blood Types”, by Julie Smith is likewise pithy, and “Miss Gibson,” by Linda Barnes also cracks me up. And I don’t know why I am still surprised by this. After reading so many anthologies, you’d think I’d realize that the greatest charms are had by finding brand new-to-me authors, but since it’s a good surprise every time, I may allow myself not to absorb the lesson; this way I can still be pleasantly surprised over and over again.

If you buy a holiday gift for a mystery lover, I recommend you get this book. If you try to buy something by your loved one’s favorite author, you may run up against it as I did: they’ve already read it. (And you probably hate returning things as much as I do.) But what are the chances she has this anthology? It’s over a thousand pages of detective fiction, and last I saw, it’s on sale for less than twenty bucks. There, that’s one gift chosen for you, and it’s not even November yet. You’re welcome.