I thought I had another week to get this up in time for the release — which was actually two days ago. This is why I’m supposed to trust what I write down (and consult that frequently) rather than what I remember.
by Darrin Doyle
PDF, 284 pg.
Tortoise Books, 2018
Read: July 24 – August 6, 2018
The trouble I often have when talking about collections of short stories is just how to do talk about the collection as a whole. After tossing around some ideas, I think the easiest way to sum up my reaction to these stories is with his simple question: What was he thinking?!?!
Now sometimes I asked that question incredulously, sometimes in awe, sometimes in confusion, sometimes in bafflement, sometimes all of the above. But I kept asking it. Some of these are incredibly short, some are on the longer side — told from a variety of perspectives and in a variety of tones. So beyond my one question, I don’t know how to address them collectively. I won’t go into detail on them all individually (that’s just too many), but let’s take a look at some that stood out.
The collection starts with “Insert Name,” a story about the struggles of nonuplets growing up and then transitioning to adulthood in a very unexpected way. It impressed me, and made it clear that this wasn’t going to be a run-of-the-mill short story collection. By the time I got to the sixth entry, “Dangling Joe,” I knew a couple of things — Doyle’s mind doesn’t work the way most people’s does, and that I needed to toss out every expectation I had when I started each story. Whatever I was starting was going to be different from what had come before, and I needed to be ready for that.
The highlight of the book is “If the Invisible Man Dies and Nobody Sees it, Does He Really Die?” This is impossible to describe, but brilliant. He does so many things in this story — in addition to telling a compelling story — that I can’t sum it up easily. Give me 15 pages or so, and I’d be willing to give it a shot. It’s one of the best things I’ve read this year.
My notes on “Twilford Baines, Buck Hunter Unbounded” were simple, “that’s really good.” I just re-read it to see if I could expand on that, and no, I really can’t. It’s a story about a man hunting deer, who is forced into some concentrated self-reflection, and it’s really good. Re-reading it tempted me to push this off another day to re-read most of the stories, actually.
“Slice of Moon” was a great read, but personally frustrating. I think if you read it, you’ll agree. I can’t think of anything else to say without ruining it. If not for “Invisible Man,” it’d be my favorite story in the collection (given how annoyed he made me with it, however, maybe it was more effective than “Invisible Man,”).
I invoked Flannery O’Conner recently, and hesitate to do it again, however, I’m compelled to. Except for the explicit sexual content (which wasn’t really necessary), “Reborn” could’ve come from the pages of Everything That Rises Must Converge. It was powerful and strange and I’m glad I got to read it.
Were there some in this collection that didn’t work for me? Yes. There were some real clunkers — but there was nothing I wasn’t glad to read. As usual, some of the stories that didn’t work for me will work for you. And the one’s that sent me over the moon won’t do much for you (you’ll be wrong most of the time there — especially if you don’t love “If the Invisible Man Dies and Nobody Sees it, Does He Really Die?”). One thing I think everyone who picks this up will agree is: Darrin Doyle is a great writer and you should read his stories. You’ll probably also ask yourself “What was he thinking?” more than once. Go grab it.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a review copy of this collection in return for my honest thoughts and this post — which I appreciate..
by Jo Platt
Kindle Edition, 258 pg.
Read: August 28 – 29, 2018
‘Head buried in the sand,’ she said. ‘Typical Dot.’
I frowned but didn’t feel able to challenge the statement. I knew she had a point. My tendency to refuse to confront personal challenges and consider their consequences until my nose was pressed up against them was undeniable. In my defence, it was an approach that on the whole seemed to work reasonably well. It cut down considerably on the amount of time spent worrying and stressing about things, and, nine times out of ten, a last-minute fix was just as good as a lengthy, considered and, in my opinion, tortured approach.
However, like it or not, I had to admit that this was not one of those times. This was definitely the one in ten.
This is all thanks to Ian Patrick — if he hadn’t tweeted about this book on Saturday, I wouldn’t have heard about — much less read — Jo Platt’s book (or Jo Platt, come to think of it). The term “romcom” just didn’t seem like the kind of thing I should see coming from him. So I clicked the link, read about the blurb and decided to give it a whirl. There seemed very little chance that anyone would find a dead body, kill anyone or have to defend their lives — which seemed like a good change of pace.
I’m glad I took the shot on this — as you can see from the above, Dot Riley doesn’t think things through too often. And it probably seemed like a good idea to assure her dying grandmother (Nanny Flo) that, no, she’s not single; there’s no reason to worry about her at this time — in fact, she’s dating that old friend from childhood that the whole family loved so much. But faster than you can say Norah Ephron, Nanny Flo makes a miraculous recovery — and she credits the news about Felix for saving her life. Before she realizes it, months have slipped away and it’s time for Dot’s sister’s wedding. Which, naturally, her boyfriend will be attending with her.
Dot has a couple of choices here: come up with a lame excuse for Felix’s absence; telling her family the truth, which let’s be honest, would possibly kill Nanny Flo; or . . . she could track down the man she hasn’t seen since they left for university and get him to go along with the story. Because of the genre, it’s easy to guess which she’ll go for.
She tracks him down and he agrees to go to the wedding with her. You halfway expect them to hit it off immediately, or at least think about it — but Felix doesn’t seem that interested in anything about Dot as a person; and Dot is so thrown by the ridiculousness of her request and how Felix changed (as people do) in the decade or so since she’s seen him that she isn’t really that capable of getting past any of that.
You can pretty much plot out the rest of the book for yourself — but that doesn’t mean that Platt doesn’t have a curveball or two to throw at the reader. And even the parts you do see coming are handled with such aplomb, wit and charm that you’re not sitting there rolling your eyes and saying “yeah, knew that was going to happen.” Rather, you grin and admire how she did it.
The key, obviously, to all this are the characters, in particular, Dot. Platt gives us a great group of characters — whether around for a few paragraphs or for the entire book. Dot’s a mess of a character. But in a good way — she’s tardy, she’s impulsive, she’s frequently unintentionally thoughtless, and she has an uncanny ability to ruin any encouragement she tries to give anyone by poor word choice. But she’s got a big heart and great taste in friends. Thankfully, she’s got a good sister and an equally good best friend/business partner who can keep her from mucking everything up too badly.
Felix is . . . Felix is a good character, too. I don’t think I can say much more without spoiling some of the work Platt did in revealing him. So we’ll move on to . . . Dot’s mother? She tries really, really, really hard not to meddle in her daughter’s lives. Well, she thinks she does, anyway. She loves them, and wants the best for them — and will do everything she can to make sure that her daughter’s do what they need to do get their lives to work out for the best (whether or not that’s what her daughters actually want).
Dot’s father is a hidden gem — possibly the most valuable player here. He’s funny, he’s put-upon, he’s the voice of reason (and humor) working to prevent her mother’s emotional excesses from steamrolling their daughters and their daughter’s significant others.
The relationships that Dot has with her sister and partner — and their husbands — are just great. I’d have easily enjoyed another 80-100 pages of filler conversations between any of them and Dot just to enjoy their interactions. They are cozy, fun, and honest in the way you only can be with those closest to you.
This was silly, it was earnest, it was sweet, it was fun — I laughed out loud a couple of times, and even when I didn’t do that, I appreciated the humor. If you’re willing to buy into the conceit and genre (and I know some of you who wouldn’t be), I can assure you — you’ll have a good time.
Oh, yeah, and there are no killings, attempted killings or lesser crimes committed at all. It’s good to remember that you don’t need any of that to get a good story.
About the Author
Long, tiring, but good week. But there’s just nothing left in the tank for something new, so I’m going to repost about couple of books from the past that I loved. I’m pretty sure that it was McDaniel’s prompting that got me to join NetGalley so (was a few more months before I really started using it).
by Tiffany McDaniel
eARC, 320 pg.
St. Martin’s Press, 2016
Read: July 18 – 19, 2016
The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.
Yeah, Keyser Söze’s paraphrase of C. S. Lewis’ appropriation of Charles Baudelaire isn’t part of this book, but it might just encapsulate it. Maybe.
It’s the summer of 1984 in Breathed, OH, and it’s hot. Really hot — and about to get a lot hotter. 1984 is a big year — HIV is identified as the virus that leads to AIDS, Apple releases the Macintosh, Michael Jackson’s Pepsi commercial shoot, and the following advertisement runs in the local newspaper, The Breathian:
Dear Mr. Devil, Sir Satan, Lord Lucifer, and all other crosses you bear,
I cordially invite you to Breathed, Ohio. Land of hills and hay bales, of sinners and forgivers.
May you come in peace.
With great faith,
Autopsy Bliss is the local prosecutor, who wants to see for himself what evil looks like. Hence the advertisement.
So who shows up in response? A bruised, short black boy dressed in tattered and torn overalls who simply seems to want some ice cream and to say hi to the man who invited him. Autopsy’s son, Fielding, is the first one in town to meet the boy and takes him home to his father (sadly, no ice cream is available in town — unbelievably — for the remainder of the Summer). The Bliss family ends up taking the lad in, and starts calling him Sal. He and Fielding become fast friends and are almost inseparable for the rest of the summer. One by one, almost everyone in this sleepy community is touched by the appearance of Sal — either first-hand or by proxy — demons (figurative), troubled family and personal histories are exposed, latent corruptions come to light, and accidents strike many. No one in Breathed will be the same after the day Sal first appears to Fielding.
The book is narrated by Fielding about 70 years after that summer looking back on the time, thinking of all the regrets he’s had since then and all the ways his time with Sal has overshadowed the ensuing decades. It honestly reminded me of A Prayer for Owen Meany because of this — little kid who talks oddly, is smarter than any of his (apparent) peers, and divides a community, while leaving an indelible mark on his closest friend (who’s not always a friend).
Almost every name (maybe every name, and I’m not clever enough to get it all) is rich in meaning and symbolism — there’s symbolism all over the place, but McDaniel gets her money’s worth with the names in particular. This book will reward close readings, and probably repeated readings as well.
There are so many depictions and descriptions of child abuse and spousal abuse that it’s almost impossible to believe that there households in that world where someone isn’t getting hit on a pretty regular basis. Thankfully, we’re spared watching characters going through it (the vast majority of the time), but there are many mentions of it.
This is not fun read, really, but I loved the whole experience, it is a rewarding read. McDaniel writes with such richness, such depth, there are phrases throughout this that will knock you out. There’s one sentence that I went back to at least a half-a-dozen times one evening — not because I needed to try to suss it out, but because I just liked it so much. The variety of ways she can describe the horrible and debilitating heat wave that struck that part of Ohio those months is pretty astounding — I’m just glad I had some sort of air conditioning most of the time I spent reading the book. Sal’s descriptions of Hell and his fellow prisoners there are full of haunting images that will stick with me for a while (some good haunting, some less-so). I’m troubled by some of what this book said about God, but since the Devil is the one who told about God, I’m not sure we’re supposed to trust his characterizations. On the other hand, just about everything that the book says about the devil seems to be spot-on.
There are no easy answers to be found here — is Sal the devil? Is someone else in town? Is there a devil at all? Are the naturalistic explanations offered here and there throughout enough? I just don’t think you can think about this book without dealing with the Baudelaire/Lewis/Söze thought.
Can’t help but wonder how things would’ve gone if he’d just gotten a little ice cream.
Disclaimer:I received this eARC via NetGalley at the author’s invitation in return for this post. My thanks to NetGalley, St. Martin’s Press, and Tiffany McDaniel for this.
N.B.: As this was an ARC, any quotations above may be changed in the published work — I will endeavor to verify them as soon as possible.
Long, tiring, but good week. But there’s just nothing left in the tank for something new, so I’m going to repost about couple of books from the past that I loved.
by Andy Abramowitz
Hardcover, 338 pg.
Read: June 30 – July 3, 2015
In most instances, space between people grows like mold, neglected just long enough to be noticed. You intended to wipe it clean, but the more of it there is, the more daunting a task it becomes to erase it. Not so with me and the band. I’d discontinued those people as if they were a premium cable channel that I’d finally realized was broadcasting nothing I wanted to watch.
From passages like that, a nice mix of thoughtful, sentimental, with a bit of a grin; to the out-and-out funny, like the funniest suicide attempt I’ve read in a long time, possibly ever (something worthy Save Steve Holland’s Lane Myer, but longer); this book covers the spectrum. Not only covers it, but does so with assurance and panache. It’s one of those first novels that makes you wonder what could possibly be done as a follow up.
Teddy Tremble is a successful enough lawyer for someone who’s heart isn’t really in it, while still being good at it. He’s sort of coasting through life — being good enough at his job, good enough with his girlfriend of forever, good enough for his social circle, but not good enough for his father (but after meeting him, you understand that’s just a given). He’s forty-ish and realizes that life is going to pretty much stay this way. On the whole, he seems okay with that — but in the back of his mind he knows he’s not. He won an Academy Award. His band was huge for a little while in the 1990’s, before his hubris ruined things. Sure, things are good enough now, but once upon a time they were great.
Then through a truly humbling and bewildering set of circumstances, Teddy comes across a group of huge Tremble fans. Seriously, die-hard doesn’t begin to describe these people. Think something akin to the kind of people that organized the first Star Trek convention back when it wasn’t a cultural phenomenon, just a short-lived and then canceled show. This changes everything. The adulation, the attention, the satisfaction of performing gets under his skin and he starts writing music for the first time in a long time.
Pretty soon, he’s (forgive the cliché) trying to get the band back together — his agent and producer are on board, convinced that what he’s written exceeds his former quality. Incidentally, both of these characters are the kind that we readers hope to come across — supporting characters that threaten to steal the entire novel, but when used properly just make the whole thing better.
Anyway, with these two on board — Teddy just has to convince the rest of the band to give it a shot, to trust him. Maybe even to forgive him for what he did to them so long ago. Then he has to convince music fans to take them seriously. Neither of these tasks is going to be easy. Both are practically impossible, really.
The book starts out as pretty entertaining, definitely amusing. But it doesn’t stop there — it gets better, deeper, emotionally richer all the while. By the time I got to (and through) Chapter 20, I tweeted that, “Not sure I need to read another word (am going to), but that was as close to perfect as it gets.” I’m still thinking about it a month later.
At various places through the novel, Teddy observes: “One day I’ll die, and this will be one of the things I did with my time.” I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen one sentence used so many different ways with so many different meanings depending on the context. Sometimes he’s says it wryly, sometimes caustically, sometimes wistfully, sometimes with pride. It’s one of those writerly things that when you see it in action, you wonder why more people don’t try it.
Each of these characters — the agent, the producer, the bandmates, their (sometimes very odd) families, Teddy’s girlfriend, associates in the law firm, and others — are well-drawn. Occasionally familiar, without being stock characters or cliché, each character ends up being strong enough that you want to spend at least a little more time with them. But Abramowtitz is too capable of steward of his resources and gives us just enough to leave us wanting more.
I’ve seen a lot of comparisons of Thank You to Hornby’s High Fidelity and Tropper’s This is Where I Leave You. I don’t get that. Maybe it’s just because these people haven’t read anything else by these authors — they should be comparing this to Hornby’s Juliet, Naked and Tropper’s One Last Thing Before I Go (to be fair, I have seen a little of this comparison, but no one else that I’ve seen has tagged Juliet). These three cover some of the same territory, and Abramowitz comes out looking really good in that company. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked Juliet, I know I liked it more than most people I know. But I don’t think it was as good as it wanted to be or as it thought it was. Thank You seems to do the things that Juliet was wanting to do but didn’t get done. I’m not necessarily saying it’s a better book (I might lean that way), but this is more successful in the areas they overlap. Similarly, while I wouldn’t say that One Last Thing is a bad book, it can’t hold a candle to this one. I’m not trying to make this a competition, but for this first-time novelist to get things better than old pros like Hornby and Tropper says so much about him.
One day I’ll die, and reading this will be one of the things I did with my time. I’m so glad it was.
by Gail Honeyman
Penguin Books, 2018
Read: July 31, 2018
I steeled myself as best I could, and, with teeth gritted, using only one finger I typed:
C U there E.
I sat back, feeling a bit queasy. Illiterate communication was quicker, that was true, but not by much. I’d saved myself the trouble of typing four whole characters. Still, it was part of my new credo, trying new things. I’d tried it, and I very definitely did not like it. LOL could go and take a running jump. I wasn’t made for illiteracy; it simply didn’t come naturally. Although it’s good to try new things and to keep an open mind, it’s also extremely important to stay true to who you really are. I read that in a magazine at the hairdressers.
I went into this expecting the next Where’d You Go, Bernadette — it’s “quirky,” “wacky” “hilarious” “warm and funny” “warm and uplifting”, Honeyman is the next Fredrik Backman, etc. I did not find it. I’m not sure I laughed at anything — I might have smiled at something sweet, but nothing more amusing than the above quotation. Do I think I’d have liked it more if it had been funny? Probably not. I probably wouldn’t have read it, however, if I hadn’t thought it was. This is not a bad thing, not every book has to be funny. I’m just saying I went in expecting a chuckle, a wry smile, something amusing and didn’t get that.
Instead I got a sad, but ultimately nice story about a poor, lonely, shy and socially awkward woman dealing with her personal (and repressed) demons the best she could — which really wasn’t all that well. I didn’t find her amusing, I pitied her. I felt bad for her. I got annoyed when people made fun of her. And I wanted her to figure her life out so she could be an amusing character.
Eleanor is 30, has been doing the same job as a finance clerk for a graphic design firm since she got out of university — she goes to work, talks to her “mummy” Wednesday evenings, gets a frozen pizza, some wine on Fridays and knocks off two bottles of vodka each weekend (spread throughout Saturday and Sunday so that she’s “neither drunk nor sober”), then repeats the cycle. it’s not much but it’s her life and she’s fine with that.
Her life goes in that way with very little variance for about a decade, until she’s befriended by an IT worker, Raymond, in her company. Through him, and other accidents, she meets people. She also does things like get a smartphone, go online for things non-work related, and sorta cyber-stalks a musician. Shortly before meeting Raymond, she’d attended a concert of some local bands (won tickets in a drawing at work) and became infatuated-at-first-sight with a singer — in the way that a thirteen year-old girl does when encountering NKOTB/’NSync/One Direction/insert your time-appropriate band. Eleanor’s childhood was such that she delayed this stage until now. On the one hand, I thought this was a great instigation for Eleanor’s life to change, but man, I kept cringing every time the story came back to it.
Minor, very minor, spoilers: Her social life is the best it’s ever been, things are picking up at work, but there’s this delayed adolescence thing lurking — all the while she’s having problems with mummy. Things go horribly, horribly, horribly awry — but then there’s a chance for her to put her life together again, and maybe discover what went wrong in her very bad childhood, so that she can have a better adulthood.
The characters are well-drawn, well-executed, and pretty realistic. The situations — all of them — ring true. Honeyman can write really well. I thought the story moved well, and the reveals, the twists, the heart-warming moments (and the tragic ones) were all spot-on. I just didn’t enjoy the book that much, it wasn’t bad, it wasn’t great. It, like the title character, was completely fine.
Your mileage may vary — and judging by reviews (professional and otherwise), sales, and attention this book is getting, there’s a great chance you’ll think I’m out to lunch on this. I may be.