March 18, 2017
Recommending short story collections always feels risky. They aren’t a popular choice among readers. Rarely does a short story collection appear on the best-seller list. (Exceptions that come to mind are the stories of Nobel Laureate Alice Munro and The Stories of John Cheever.) Put another way, I’ve never met a reader who said they stayed up all night reading short stories.
Even so, story collections continue to hold a firm place in literary publishing, with the industry releasing respectable numbers of collections by new and known authors every year.* One of them, in the “new” category for this year, is The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead by Chanelle Benz, who creatively employs elements of crime and mystery in her assorted plots.
An example is a story that takes place at a monastery in the 16th century. An English monk must denounce his abbot and deny his vow of obedience. That’s because Thomas Cromwell is at work, declaring the king’s supremacy over the church. The destruction of the monk’s beloved home and livelihood challenges his faith and, later, drives him to take unholy revenge.
In another story, this one set in the 19th century, children attempt to reunite an aging, beautiful woman with her one and only true love, a man whom she says turned out to be quite mad. “It was a bad plan,” the children tell us. “A wicked plan. We did not know if it came from us or the Devil so full was it of deceit.”
These collected stories are mini page-turning dramas that sparkle in their diversity of settings, including not only England during the reign of Henry the VIII, but also 19th century American cowboy towns, the 21st century Middle East and a future created by climate change. The characters are widows, thieves, holy men, siblings and survivalists. They are colorful, and we care about them, which increases our need to learn their fates.
In one story set during the present day, a girl leaves home to do missionary work in the Middle East; however, an instance of violence causes her to join forces with a brutal, manipulative mercenary. She trains as a sniper and assumes different identities. Sections of the story are disturbing but skillfully handled to keep us focused on the worry of what will happen to her.
One of the most powerful stories builds toward moral outrage and violence in the pre-Civil War South. It’s a stunning depiction of an educated black poet from Boston who visits a Louisiana plantation to give a poetry reading. She trusts her companion, a Northern white man, who assures her safety.
There are 10 stories in all, and what binds them into a cohesive whole is the similar enticing narrative style. The author writes as effectively in the present as in the near and ancient past. Weapons, notably guns, come into play in most of the stories, heightening the dramatic danger. I’m tempted to slap the author’s hand for using such easy tools to incite page-turning urgency; and yet, these stories fall together so intelligently it’s hard to find fault.
So many story collections, especially debuts, reverberate with themes of modern relationships, lost and displaced souls, and broken hearts. While two of the stories in The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead could fall into this category, for the most part, what’s at stake in the others lifts the collection away from thoughtful snapshots into secrecy and lawlessness. Some of the story titles, like that of the book, are colorful adventures in and of themselves. The title of the unforgettable story involving the monk is, delightfully, “That We May All Be One Sheepfolde, or, O Saeculum Corruptissimum”.
January 28, 2015
Nominees for the 2015 Edgar® Awards were announced last week. These awards honor the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and television. Sponsored by the Mystery Writers of America, they are widely acknowledged to be the most prestigious in the mystery genre.
The full list of nominees can be found on TheEdgars.com in a handful of categories that includes Best Novel, Best First Novel by an American Author, Best Paperback Original, Best Fact Crime and more. If you’re a Mary Higgins Clark fan, you might want to take a look at the nominees for The Simon & Schuster Mary Higgins Clark Award. Of note is that Invisible City by Julia Dahl is nominated for both the Higgins award and Best First Novel by an American Author. Marilyn Stasio, Crime columnist for The New York Times Sunday Book Review, describes it as “a harrowing tale.”
Even though novels are raised up to “award nominee,” this doesn’t guarantee a five-star reading experience. As I always say, one person’s great read is another’s epic bore. Kirkus Reviews went negative on World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters, nominated for an Edgar Best Paperback Original, saying, “This final installment in Winters’ trilogy (Countdown City, 2013, etc.) is the weakest, marked by a falling off of both the writing and the story that made the first entry worthwhile. ”
I’ve selected one novel from each of three Edgar categories, based on indications of a page-turning thriller (Best Paperback Original, The Day She Died), smart plot complexity (Best Novel, Saints of the Shadow Bible) and a unique perspective (Best First Novel by an American Author, The Life We Bury). Below you’ll find brief descriptions of these three.
The Day She Died by Catriona McPherson
A young woman gets romantically involved with a man whose wife killed herself. But not everything she learns about his family adds up. This mystery received mixed reviews, but the positives are raves. Kirkus Reviews describes it as “a creepy psychological thriller that will leave you breathless.” Library Journal gives its verdict as: “Keep the lights on and batten down the hatches, for McPherson’s psychologically terrifying stand-alone demands to be read all night. … Scottish author McPherson has written a top-notch tale of modern gothic suspense that is sure to please Charlotte Brontë and Daphne du Maurier fans.” Whoa. Count me in.
Saints of the Shadow Bible by Ian Rankin
I’ve not read Ian Rankin, and it’s time I did, although I’m jumping in with #19 in his Inspector Rebus series here. Hopefully, I’ll not lose any of the thrill, being a latecomer — Rebus is coming out of retirement. He’s been demoted from Detective Inspector to Detective Sargent. A case from long ago that involved his team is being questioned and re-opened. Publisher’s Weekly loved this book, saying: “The immense and intricate canvas includes dozens of characters, plots within plots, and multiple themes, from Scottish independence to the insidiousness of corruption, public and private. Too much may be going on at times for some readers, but distinctive characters (including Edinburgh itself) make the book memorable.” Paperback will be available end of this month.
The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens
Suspense Magazine listed this mystery among its Best of 2014 books. The publisher, Seventh Street Books, writes: “A young man, caught in the dark maze of circumstances surrounding a crime that occurred thirty years ago, must confront several ugly truths as well as direct threats to his own life.” That young man is Joe Talbert, a junior at the University of Minnesota, who receives a class assignment to write a biography of someone who has lived an interesting life. His subject is Carl Iverson, a Vietnam veteran dying of cancer in a nursing home, who has been medically paroled after spending thirty years in prison for murder. The combination of old connecting with young in storytelling calls to me, as well as the promise of a good mystery. Kirkus Reviews writes, “Eskens’ debut is a solid and thoughtful tale of a young man used to taking on burdens beyond his years—none more dangerous than championing a bitter old man convicted of a horrific crime.”
The Edgar Award winners will be announced April 29.
May 8, 2014
Winners of the Mystery Writers of America 2014 Edgar Allan Poe Awards, honoring the best in mystery fiction, non-fiction and TV published or produced in 2013, were announced last week. Their categories include not just best novel but also best first novel and best paperback original. Also, they give an award to a best short story, something you don’t typically see in national awards.
Each year, I vow to read a few of the nominees ahead of the award ceremony but never seem to select those that win; however, this year, I got it right with my reading picks in three of the categories. (You can see the full list of all awards given last week, including the nominees, on The Edgars.com.)
Best Novel: Ordinary Grace
by William Kent Krueger
Ordinary Grace is an enveloping literary novel with a mystery at its center. The warm yet complicated life of a preacher’s family and the drama of a small town from a boy’s perspective make the reading seductive and “unputdownable.” Set in New Bremen, Minnesota, in 1961, narrator 53-year-old Frank Drum looks back to that summer when he was 13 and driven by curiosity to get involved in the adult world unfolding around him. This includes a wide exposure to death, which, in separate incidents, happens accidentally, naturally and criminally.
The first death is that of young Bobby Cole, run over by a train on the railroad tracks where he often played. The terrible accident hovers over the hot summer days with police officer Doyle wondering if it was indeed an accident. Frank, with his younger brother Jake, wanders to the tracks and the nearby river to investigate on his own and discovers the second death of the summer, an itinerant man whom Frank’s father buries in one of the best places in the cemetery. Frank’s father is the town’s Methodist minister. His patience, adherence to truth and spiritual steadiness epitomize the ordinary grace one can live day in and day out, even when tragedy occurs. That tragedy is the most shocking death of the summer, at the heart of this moving story.
William Kent Krueger’s style is pitch-perfect in creating engaging action tucked within a nostalgic tone. Much of that action we are advised of by Frank’s compulsion to eavesdrop, which eventually becomes transparent as a writer’s technique. At least, it did for me, but this awareness of technique didn’t interrupt my engagement with the story, nor change my admiration for it – the eavesdropping occurs naturally within the plot, and effectively. So far, Ordinary Grace is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year, a kind of story you fall into and don’t want to leave once you’ve begun reading it.
Best Paperback Original: The Wicked Girls
by Alex Marwood
I purchased this book a few months ago, after the nominees were announced, but it’s still waiting to be read. I tend to hesitate when picking up a book written in the present tense, which this one is, for reasons I can’t really grab onto other than I have to be in the mood for that immediate kind of narration. Once I begin reading, I’m fine – the tense doesn’t bother me – but I have to jump in. It’s like hesitating before you jump into the cold water of a Canadian lake for that wonderful swim.
Alex Marwood’s story is about two girls who meet for the first time when they are 11 years old, and by the end of the day they are charged with murder. They meet again, 25 years later, about which the book description says: “… it’s the first time they’ve seen each other since that dark day so many years ago. Now with new, vastly different lives – and unknowing families to protect – will they really be able to keep their wicked secret hidden?”
What made me select this book as my nominee pick was the sense I’d be surprised by the ending and gripped to the very end. Considering it won the Edgar, likely that’s the case, and if I don’t get to it before summer begins, The Wicked Girls definitely will go in the proverbial beach bag.
Best Short Story: The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository by John Connolly
This short story is published by Mysterious Bookshop as #12 in its series of bibliomysteries. It’s a delight, a story about Mr. Berger who lives an ordered life with books as his constant companion – a life in which the most difficult decision is selecting the next book to read. <big sigh!> When his mother dies, he moves into her house in a new town and becomes acutely aware of his isolation, having chosen the world of books rather than the company of people all his life. He begins to think he may be going insane when, one night, taking his usual walk along a railroad track and then waiting for the evening train to pass, he is sure he sees a woman commit suicide by throwing herself under the train. Only, there are no remains after the train passes. He sees her on another night, again attempting suicide by train, and assumes she is a woman with an Anna Karenina fixation. His pursuit of her leads him to The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository, where the line between the worlds of our beloved books and daily reality disappears.
Those who, like Mr. Berger, enjoy books as a constant companion, as well as book collectors, will relish a plot dedicated to their passion, and also enjoy the brief descriptions of valuable classics in their first editions. The Caxton Private Lending Library & Book Depository is printed by the Mysterious Bookshop. It is available in electronic format as The Museum of Literary Souls via Amazon.
April 24, 2013
Oh how I wish book-selling would forever stay in the trusted hands of the independents. This bookshop is a perfect example for the why of that. It’s a spacious room with floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with new, collectible and signed mystery and crime books. In the center are tables displaying new, old and favored books to browse, and working behind desks is that rare species, the knowledgeable bookseller.
This is The Mysterious Bookshop in New York’s Tribeca, or TriBeCa, referring to the district that’s the “Triangle Below Canal Street.” The photo to the left below was taken by my traveling companion while I browsed the shop in a state of hysterical joy. On the main display table, I discovered not only American editions of new books, but also their British counterparts in first editions.
For book collectors, that’s a big deal. If you’re collecting the works of a British author, say, Ian McEwan or Hilary Mantel, the American first edition of their novels sold here are not the real firsts, and online access to those real firsts is not always easy, or guaranteed.
A few years ago, British author A. S. Byatt spoke at a local university. Knowing about this in advance, I purchased her new novel The Children’s Book from the London Review Bookshop, so I could get her signature on the British edition. The British edition cost double the American edition, mostly due to shipping, but I didn’t mind. Also, I knew it was a gamble as to whether or not what came in the mail would be a first edition because the novel had been out for several months in the U.K. If the LRB shop did have a first, it was likely buried under a group of later printings. In other words, if I had lived in London, I would’ve gone to the store and digged for the possibility of it, which often proves fruitful. Alas, the gamble didn’t pay off. I now have a signed fourth printing of the British edition of The Children’s Book and a signed first American edition.
So here, on the main display table of books at The Mysterious Bookshop, was the recognizable dust jacket of Kate Atkinson’s new novel that’s been getting a lot of attention. Beside it, a completely different dust jacket for the same book, which I knew was the British edition – and it was a first British edition, signed by Kate Atkinson. I flipped through and petted that book so many times the bookseller casually remarked, of all the books I was deciding to buy, obviously that was the one I really wanted. He was right.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is about a girl named Ursula Todd born in 1910 only to die and be born over and over again throughout the century. From Atkinson’s website: “What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of chances to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?”
I also bought The Beauty of Murder by British author A. K. Benedict. This is Benedict’s debut and not yet published in the U.S. (The bookseller told me it’s not confirmed whether or not it will be.) The premise of this mystery was too intriguing to pass up. From inside the dust jacket: “As [Stephen] Killigan [a senior lecturer at Cambridge] traces a path between our age and seventeenth-century Cambridge, he must work out how it is that a person’s corpse can be found before they even go missing, and whether he’s being pushed towards the edge of madness or an astonishing discovery.”
Should that description intrigue you, too, you can buy The Beauty of Murder online from The Mysterious Bookshop. Also, you can sign up for their newsletter, and if you want the booksellers to make selections for you, they have seven Crime Clubs that send you a book a month. (I love those kinds of surprises in the mail!)
August 12, 2012
Partners & Crime Mystery Booksellers in NYC’s West Village is closing next month after 18 years in business. When I shopped there during one of my trips to New York, a bookseller guided me toward selections I might enjoy, and I appreciated his knowledge and advice. I so hate to hear about these closings of independent bookstores for just that reason — we’re losing shopping access to knowledgable booksellers, let alone to stores rich with discovery of all kinds of books, not just the popular ones.
At least with Partners & Crime, we have “100 of the Best We’ve Ever Read”, a list of their recommendations the store’s partners, according to their website, have updated over the years. Last updated March 2010, as of this post, the list includes classics (books by Truman Capote, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle) and crime series selections (books by Charles Todd, Sue Grafton, Henning Mankell, Peter Robinson), as well as best-sellers (The Alienist by Caleb Carr and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which, I find interesting, has been translated to a stage production).
Turning to this list certainly can’t replace the joy of turning to the booksellers for one-on-one recommendations. Nevertheless, it’s a great resource to print for future reference. But how do you make a choice, when there’s 100 books and no one to talk to? You simply have to do your own research. I selected three and threw the proverbial dart. Then I checked them out. Here’s the result.
The Way Through the Woods by Colin Dexter
Published in 1993 and #10 of Dexter’s 13 Inspector Morse novels set in Oxford, England, this crime story centers on a cold case of a missing student. The case returns to the police blotter due to new clues sent in the form of poetry to The Times. The novel’s title is from a Rudyard Kipling poem. Kirkus Reviews wrote: “Honest detection, illicit sex, puns and anagrams galore, Morse’s trademark drinking and dour byplay with colleagues and suspects, plus a plot as agile as Dexter’s best — in short, everything you could possibly want in an English detective story. Bolt the door and enjoy.”
The Marx Sisters by Barry Maitland
The detectives on this crime case are Chief Inspector David Brock and his female colleague Sergeant Kathy Kolla. This is the first book in Maitland’s Brock and Kolla series set in London. In 1994, The Marx Sisters was shortlisted for the prestigious U.K. CWA (Crimes Writers Association) John Creasey Award for the best first crime novel. Publisher’s Weekly wrote: “Two Scotland Yard detectives investigate the murder of Karl Marx’s great-granddaughters (via an illegitimate son) and the theft of the unpublished manuscript of a fourth volume of Das Kapital, in this engrossing mystery from an Australian writer making his American debut.” Kirkus Reviews wrote: “A clever, flavorsome debut with a particularly deft knack of pulling the rug out from under you in between chapters, just when you think you’re safe.”
Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey
A testament to the expertise behind the list, Josephine Tey is little-known and, according to this Guardian columnist, deserves to be rediscovered. Josephine Tey is a nom de plume for Elizabeth Mackintosh,who also wrote under the pen name Gordon Daviot. Her six Tey novels were written during the 1940s and ’50s. Here’s a plot summary from the back of the book:
“Miss Lucy Pym, a popular English psychologist, is guest lecturer at a physical training college. The year’s term is nearly over, and Miss Pym — inquisitive and observant — detects a furtiveness in the behavior of one student during a final exam. She prevents the girl from cheating by destroying her crib notes. But Miss Pym’s cover-up of one crime precipitates another — a fatal ‘accident’ that only her psychological theories can prove was really murder.”
Book critic Jonathan Yardley wrote about Elizabeth Mackintosh in The Washington Post, saying this about the Tey novels: “Each of the six seems as fresh today as it must have when it first appeared: elegantly written, populated with interesting and sometimes eccentric characters, witty but also laugh-out-loud funny, engaged with far deeper themes and ideas than one is accustomed to encounter in most mystery novels.”
According to Yardley, another Tey novel, The Daughter of Time, is “by far her best known.” It seeks truth about the crimes of England’s King Richard III. Not on the 100 list, but I’m thinking it’s one to inspect for future reading.