Scoundrels Among Us by Darrin Doyle: An Impressive Array of Short Fiction

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.

Scoundrels Among UsScoundrels Among Us

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..

—–

4 Stars

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Brief Cases by Jim Butcher: ‘Scuse me while I unleash my inner fanboy

If you’re a Dresden fan still working their way through the series and haven’t gotten to the end of Skin Game yet, DO NOT READ this post. Go catch up first.

Brief CasesBrief Cases

by Jim Butcher
Series: The Dresden Files, #15.1

Hard Cover, 448 pg.
Ace Books, 2018
Read: June 13 – 16, 2018

Being a wizard is all about being prepared. Well, that and magic, obviously.

Generally, when I start a book, my question is: how much am I going to like this? (Occasionally, the question is: I’m not going to hate this, am I?) But there are a few authors that I ask a different question with: How much am I going to love this book? Jim Butcher is probably at the top of the latter list, and the answers are typically: a lot, a considerable amount, and WOW, SO, SO, SO MUCH. I make no bones about it, I don’t pretend to be anything like objective. I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and I’m not looking to convince anyone to give him another shot (but I’m willing to give it a shot if someone wants me to), but for many, many reasons, I’m an unabashed and unashamed Jim Butcher fan and Brief Cases gives several reasons why I continue to be one.

Incidentally, I started this collection assuming the answer would be “a lot.” It ended up being on the other end of the spectrum of love. I’ll explain that shortly.

This is not a novel (alas!), it’s another collection of short stories and novellas, like Side Jobs. It’s been awhile since I’ve read or thought about that collection much, but I believe that this is a stronger batch on the whole. I’ve only read “Cold Case” from Shadowed Souls before, so this was a lot of new material for me — and I enjoyed it immensely. It was great spending a few days in the pages and world of probably my favorite ongoing series.

Five of the twelve stories here were told from the point of view of a supporting character in the series. Anastasia Luccio told “A Fistful of Warlocks” about a little adventure she had in Dodge City, which opened the collection on a fun note; we got to know “Gentleman” John Marcone a little better than we wanted to in “Even Hand,” (which doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the story). Molly got to shine in “Bombshells” and the aforementioned “Cold Case.” And Waldo Butters’ opening lines to “Day One” — the tale of his first adventure as a Knight — will go down as one of my favorite opening lines of 2018. I really got a kick out of all of these — “Bombshells” and “Day One” were probably the most effective for me, but I’m not going to complain about any of the rest. Actually, after reading “Day One,” I figured I got most of my money’s worth just for that one.

Which leaves us with seven others from Harry’s perspective — there are the three Bigfoot stories that were published in various collections and then in Working for Bigfoot. I’ve been kicking myself for a while for being too budget-conscious to get that collection when it came out, yet unable to bring myself to get the e-book. Thankfully, I have them now — and they were great. Not worth the $80 that used copies seem to go for now, but still pretty good. I really liked the characters in these stories and would gladly see them again. “Curses,” was a lot of fun; “AAAA Wizardry,” was a good story that I’m glad I read, but I can’t say it was great; and “Jury Duty” was okay, but had its moments.

Which leaves us with “Zoo Day” — the only original piece in this anthology, a novella about Harry taking Maggie and Mouse to the Zoo. And it was great. Just great. I know I’ve got a healthy dose of recency bias working here, but I think in 5 years if you ask me for my favorite pieces of Butcher writing that it will be in the Top 10 — maybe Top 5. Watching Harry try to figure out how to be a good dad, while watching Maggie try to not drive him away, while Mouse just wants the two of them to understand each other . . . it just melts your heart. Yes, there’s still supernatural and dark things afoot — many of which we’ve never encountered before that could really mess things up for all three of these characters (and the rest of the Dresden Files cast, come to think of it) — and there’s at least one scene that creeped me out in a serious way. But mostly? I just loved the characters interacting with each other. My “Day One” affection and excitement remain intact, but they pale compared to what I thought about this novella. My notes (again, recency bias may play a role here) read, “A little slice of perfection. I didn’t know a 50 page story could make me so misty-eyed and so happy all on its own.” But it did, and I feel the heart-strings being tugged again as I write this.

Simply, this was a joy for me, and I imagine most Dresden Files fans would feel the same way. If you haven’t read Jim Butcher’s books about a Wizard P.I. yet, and have somehow read this far into the blog post, you really, really should. This collection isn’t the place to start — but it’s a great place to hurry up and get to.

Loved it, loved it, loved it.

—–

5 Stars

Not Talking Italics by Russell Day: This Short Story contains enough entertainment value to carry a novel.

Not Talking ItalicsNot Talking Italics

by Russell Day
Series: Doc Slidesmith

Kindle Edition
2018, Fahrenheit Press
Read: May 7, 2018
In a couple of months, I’ll be taking part in a book tour for Russell Day’s debut novel, Needle Song, and I’m really looking forward to that (and am having a hard time not reading it now). But today, we’re going to look at a short story featuring the protagonist of the book, Dr. James Slidesmith. A little something to whet our collective appetities.

I know very little about Slidesmith after reading this short story, and I can’t wait to find out more. Here’s what I do know — 1. He has a PhD in Psychology, and is touchy about those who don’t consider him to be a “real” doctor; 2. He owns and runs a tattoo parlor/shop; 3. he plays poker; 4. He’s very smart; 5. He has the gift of gab.

All five of these are important, but in this short story, that last one is essential. Everything in this is dialogue — no dialogue tags, no narrative, no descriptive passages — just characters talking. Which will involve all that other stuff, but that’s not how the story is told. It takes place in a police interrogation room — you’ve got a Detective Constable, a Detective Sergeant and Dr. Slidesmith talking about an incident at a poker game earlier that night. Things got nasty and two men died, given the small number of people at the game, the Police are looking to quickly identify the killer(s) and wrap this up quickly.

But first they’ve got to get past the silver-tongued Slidesmith. That won’t be easy. He offers a detailed explanation of the night’s events — including doing some educating on Texas Hold-’em, the ins and outs of betting in the game (and how to manipulate betting). There are a couple of characters that we only learn about from questions and answers in the interrogation, and I feel like I ahve a pretty good handle on them, without seeing them speak for themselves. That’s a nice move.

As it’s just dialogue — and well-written dialogue, at that — this is a fast, breezy read (so fast, you might miss a thing or two the first time through). It’s not so much a book that you read, it’s one you hear with your eyes. I’m not certain that makes a lot of sense, but it’s the best way I can put it. These are fast-moving conversations, they have a certain rhythm, a certain feel — and you just want to keep reading more and more of it. This could’ve been twice as long and I don’t think my attention would’ve wavered an iota. Imagine your favorite scene written by Aaron Sorkin, then imagine it changing into an interrogation in a British Police Station — that’s what this story is.

This is good stuff, my friends — better than good. There’s an extent to which the reveal seems “oh, sure, I should’ve seen that coming” — and it wouldn’t surprise me if many readers get there before Day wants you to (I was not one of them) — but it’s so satisfying, so well-executed, I can’t imagine a soul complaining about it. If Needle Song is anything like this, I’m going to have to go down to the superlative store this weekend to stock up before I write anything about it.

Stop whatever you’re doing — including reading this — and click the links at the top of the page to go get this story. You’re welcome.

—–

5 Stars

Pub Day Repost: Like a Champion by Vincent Chu

Like a ChampionLike a Champion

by Vincent Chu
eARC, 238 pg.
7.13 Books, 2018
Read: January 31 – February 2, 2018

The man across from Henriette read a book. It was a very big book, a Hunger Games or Game of Thrones kind, with a sword and flame and chess piece on the cover. Dean had never read such a big book. The man was on the very last page and Dean felt guilty suddenly for spying on him during this personal moment, but he did not stop. It was not often, he reasoned, that he would get the opportunity to observe another person at the exact moment they finished a book, a big one at that. But, after the last page, the man, without so much as a satisfied nod or pensive stare, shut the thing and immediately put in his iPhone buds. This disappointed Dean.

That’s just one of any number of paragraphs throughout these stories that don’t advance the plot, reveal or describe much in the way of character — but man, the little bit of flavor they add to the story makes it worth it. And don’t you just want to shake the man who finished the book by the shoulders and ask what is wrong with him? The guy appears for one paragraph, and I have a strong reaction to him. With short stories, you don’t typically get to do that kind of thing the way you can with novels, because every word has to count — and typically, that’s what Vincent Chu does, but every now and then, he stretches a bit. Typically, like the best short fiction writers, Chu gets his bang for his buck when it comes to his words — tight, economical prose that strikes just the right tone each time.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Like a Champion is a collection of eighteen short stories featuring all sorts of people — underdogs in one sense or another — getting a taste of victory. Some of this victory is very short-lived, some is quite Pyrrhic, but it’s there. The stories are varied in tone, in voice, in setting, in types of character — and that’s such a strength. Some will make you smile, some laugh, some are sad, some are tragic, some are somber, all are incredibly human.

There’s a lot I could talk about — if I could, I’d spend a few hundred words on “Squirrels”, the fourth story in the collection. I don’t know why, but that one sealed me appreciation for this book, and it stands out as a high point for me. There’s just something about it that worked for me, the same kind of thing that lead me to write three papers for three separate courses in college about one Updike short story. There were a couple of other stories that I could point to that were as as outstanding, but I’ll stick with “Squirrels” — a story about one man’s childhood basketball triumph in the midst of defeat — because I enjoyed it more.

With one exception (at least one that I noticed, I might have missed others), these are independent of each other. The two stories that are connected are so different in tone and subject matter that it takes you by surprise when you notice the connection — but it really works (and the connection is of a lesser importance, that not much changes if you don’t make the connection). It was a nice little touch, I would’ve liked a part three, however.

I’m not crazy about Chu’s depiction of older characters. Maybe if I only got one of the stories in this collection featuring an older character — I wouldn’t have commented. Or if I took a few more days to read this than I did, it wouldn’t have stood out to me as much, but when you get the same note or two being played so often with elderly characters it sticks out.

I don’t usually spend much time talking about the publisher of the books I post about, but when it comes to some indie presses, I should. A couple of months ago, I know I posted a link to a profile of 7.13 Books in a Saturday Miscellany, and before that I talked about another short story collection they put out. And come to think of it, I have one more book from them on my schedule in the coming weeks. If Like a Champion is indicative of what they are publishing (and it seems to be), there’s something in the water there, folks, keep an eye out for their books.

Like with every collection — be it full of short stories, essays, poems — there are some in this collection that don’t work for me — two because I didn’t get what he was going for; a couple that I’m pretty sure I got what he was going for, and just didn’t care for it. And I’m very sure that many people will get those I didn’t and will like the ones I didn’t care for — and even dislike the stories that I enjoyed, and maybe even someone’s nuts enough to not care for the ones that filled me with joy. There’s enough variety in these to appeal to all sorts of tastes — and that’s a compliment, Chu’s nothing if not versatile. But on the whole, this is a great collection of short stories, full of compassion, humanity, and talent. You’d do well to grab this one.

Note: I received a copy of this eARC in exchange for my honest opinions as expressed above.

—–

4 Stars

Like a Champion by Vincent Chu

Like a ChampionLike a Champion

by Vincent Chu

eARC, 238 pg.
7.13 Books, 2018

Read: January 31 – February 2, 2018

The man across from Henriette read a book. It was a very big book, a Hunger Games or Game of Thrones kind, with a sword and flame and chess piece on the cover. Dean had never read such a big book. The man was on the very last page and Dean felt guilty suddenly for spying on him during this personal moment, but he did not stop. It was not often, he reasoned, that he would get the opportunity to observe another person at the exact moment they finished a book, a big one at that. But, after the last page, the man, without so much as a satisfied nod or pensive stare, shut the thing and immediately put in his iPhone buds. This disappointed Dean.

That’s just one of any number of paragraphs throughout these stories that don’t advance the plot, reveal or describe much in the way of character — but man, the little bit of flavor they add to the story makes it worth it. And don’t you just want to shake the man who finished the book by the shoulders and ask what is wrong with him? The guy appears for one paragraph, and I have a strong reaction to him. With short stories, you don’t typically get to do that kind of thing the way you can with novels, because every word has to count — and typically, that’s what Vincent Chu does, but every now and then, he stretches a bit. Typically, like the best short fiction writers, Chu gets his bang for his buck when it comes to his words — tight, economical prose that strikes just the right tone each time.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Like a Champion is a collection of eighteen short stories featuring all sorts of people — underdogs in one sense or another — getting a taste of victory. Some of this victory is very short-lived, some is quite Pyrrhic, but it’s there. The stories are varied in tone, in voice, in setting, in types of character — and that’s such a strength. Some will make you smile, some laugh, some are sad, some are tragic, some are somber, all are incredibly human.

There’s a lot I could talk about — if I could, I’d spend a few hundred words on “Squirrels”, the fourth story in the collection. I don’t know why, but that one sealed me appreciation for this book, and it stands out as a high point for me. There’s just something about it that worked for me, the same kind of thing that lead me to write three papers for three separate courses in college about one Updike short story. There were a couple of other stories that I could point to that were as as outstanding, but I’ll stick with “Squirrels” — a story about one man’s childhood basketball triumph in the midst of defeat — because I enjoyed it more.

With one exception (at least one that I noticed, I might have missed others), these are independent of each other. The two stories that are connected are so different in tone and subject matter that it takes you by surprise when you notice the connection — but it really works (and the connection is of a lesser importance, that not much changes if you don’t make the connection). It was a nice little touch, I would’ve liked a part three, however.

I’m not crazy about Chu’s depiction of older characters. Maybe if I only got one of the stories in this collection featuring an older character — I wouldn’t have commented. Or if I took a few more days to read this than I did, it wouldn’t have stood out to me as much, but when you get the same note or two being played so often with elderly characters it sticks out.

I don’t usually spend much time talking about the publisher of the books I post about, but when it comes to some indie presses, I should. A couple of months ago, I know I posted a link to a profile of 7.13 Books in a Saturday Miscellany, and before that I talked about another short story collection they put out. And come to think of it, I have one more book from them on my schedule in the coming weeks. If Like a Champion is indicative of what they are publishing (and it seems to be), there’s something in the water there, folks, keep an eye out for their books.

Like with every collection — be it full of short stories, essays, poems — there are some in this collection that don’t work for me — two because I didn’t get what he was going for; a couple that I’m pretty sure I got what he was going for, and just didn’t care for it. And I’m very sure that many people will get those I didn’t and will like the ones I didn’t care for — and even dislike the stories that I enjoyed, and maybe even someone’s nuts enough to not care for the ones that filled me with joy. There’s enough variety in these to appeal to all sorts of tastes — and that’s a compliment, Chu’s nothing if not versatile. But on the whole, this is a great collection of short stories, full of compassion, humanity, and talent. You’d do well to grab this one.

Note: I received a copy of this eARC in exchange for my honest opinions as expressed above.

—–

4 Stars

The Unbelievable Story of How I Met Your Mother by Preston Randall

The Unbelievable Story of How I Met Your MotherThe Unbelievable Story of How I Met Your Mother

by Preston Randall
Kindle Edition, 40 pg.
BookRix, 2016

Read: January 20, 2018


Daniel Zurenski is 40 (or so) and lives in the same basement room he’s been in since he moved out of the crib, he has an okay job (not that many coworkers are aware he exists, but the job is okay), and is pretty out-of-shape. He seems to be an all-right guy who maybe has a problem with emotional eating, zero love life, and a less-than-healthy attachment to his mother. He’s on a little bit of a fitness kick at the moment — he ran a 5K with people from his office a few weeks back and now finds himself signed up for the city marathon.

But before he can get there, comedy strikes. Poor Daniel. But ultimately, good for Daniel (see the title, you know it’s going to have a happy ending). But before the good, comes a lot of . . . well, things he can laugh about later — and the reader can laugh at now.

Before we get to that, however, we have to get through some more character introductions, which are really just ways for Randall to set up some dominoes to knock over when the time is right. This is done pretty well, at a certain point, you understand just what he’s setting things up for, and the details approach overkill. But stay with him — they’re really not that bad, and everything he sets up has a purpose. Once he starts knocking over dominoes, it’s all worth it.

The humor is gross, quite simply. And very slap-sticky. But if you can handle the gross, and enjoy the slap-stick, it’s really well done (not the easiest thing in the world to pull off, either). And then after the slap-stick comes the title event, which is nice. I think the epilogue-esque material could lose a couple of paragraphs and be better off for it, but that’s a minor quibble.

It’s short, it’s cute, it’s more narratively satisfying than another recent work with a similar title. Randall’s short story is worth the time, give it a shot.

—–

3 Stars

Planet Grim by Alex Behr

Planet GrimPlanet Grim

by Alex Behr

eARC, 222 pg.
7.13 Books, 2017

I’ve been dreading the day when I had to write about this book for a month or so now — I just don’t know that I’m up to it. While I can’t say that I enjoyed every story, there was something in each of them that impressed me. I’d do better discussing this book over a beverage with someone who’s read the stories rather than in the abstract.

In a few sentences — at most a couple of paragraphs — Behr gets you into a world with fully realized characters, completely different situations — many of which you’ve never even thought about before. You will be disturbed, moved, saddened, surprised, fascinated, and occasionally, struck by a darkly comic moment.

I want to stress the “dark,” — Planet Grim is probably underselling it. There’s not a lot o flight to be found in these pages. I’m not suggesting that you’ll end up depressed at the end of every story, but you won’t be chuckling or uplifted. These are real people going through some pretty real problems and situations. It’s hard to slap a genre tag on these — there’s the barest hint of SF (but not really, you’ll see); these would all nicely fit in with a noir novel (without the knight errant); technically a lot would fit in “Women’s Fiction” (but . . . no); so I guess you stick it in the “General Fiction” section, but hopefully that doesn’t mean you overlook it.

A piece of advice: do not read more than two or three of these stories in one sitting. Actually, I think the volume of stories in this collection is the biggest problem with it. If there were seven of these stories in one volume, I’d probably be raving about it and demanding more. As it is, I was a little overwhelmed — there’s just too much to deal with (which is why it took me 5 weeks to get through it).

I’ve said it before here, and I’ll probably say it again, I”m not a huge short story guy. A few more collections like this could change me. There’s not a dud in the batch — there are a couple that I think I didn’t fully appreciate (or even “get”) for one reason or another — but there’s not one that’s not worth a second or third read. Alex Behr can write, period. If you give her a chance, she’ll convince you of that. I can’t say that I enjoyed this book, I don’t know if I liked it, but man, I was impressed with it, I’m glad that I got to read it, and I know it’s some of the best writing I’ve come across this year.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.