Irregular Verbs and Other Stories, by Matthew Johnson

Irregular Verbs and Other Stories, by Matthew Johnson
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
ISBN: 1771481773
340 pages, paperback
Published 18th June 2014
Source: NetGalley

“Irregular Verbs”
“Another Country”
“Public Safety”
“Beyond the Fields You Know”
“What You Couldn’t Leave Behind”
“When We Have Time”
“The Wise Foolish Son”
“Long Pig”
“Talking Blues”
“The Face of the Waters”
“Outside Chance”
“Closing Time”
“The Dragon’s Lesson”
Au coeur des ombres
“Jump, Frog!”
“The Afflicted”
“The Coldest War”
“Written by the Winners”
“Heroic Measures”
“The Last Islanders”

 The cover to this collection popped out to me on NetGalley, and the name Matthew Johnson immediately rang a bell of vague familiarity. I knew I’d read a lot by the author, mostly in Asimov’s Science Fiction, and also in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and respected online publications like Strange Horizons and Fantasy Magazine (the latter now merged into Lightspeed).

I recalled his name with fondness, not a sense of trepidation. But I couldn’t really remember any particular story clearly from a title, nor did I have any sense in my head of what kind of story Johnson writes.

Going through this grand debut collection of twenty-two stories spanning over a decade of productivity, I begin to get a sense why. Johnson’s writing doesn’t fit neatly into a single sub-genre mold, nor within the confines of any particular style (to my note). His stories are incredibly varied within the vast SF/Fantasy field and the breadth of markets where he has published is a testament to how well he can move across the spectrum.

While reading the contents didn’t jog specific memories, several of the stories became immediately familiar once starting them anew in this collection. With that special joy of rediscovering something beloved but neglected I savored this group of stories, notably “Another Country” and “The Afflicted”. Though I recalled loving each originally, I had never connected that they were written by the same person, likely because these two stories are very different on the surface – one an alternate history or time travel mashup of sorts and another a post-apocalyptic zombie tale.

Yet both feature a strong emotional resonance that reaches beyond the plot. For Johnson’s stories are full of realistic characters with basic human struggles that readers can relate to. Even when those characters are temporally displaced Romans struggling in present day culture and bureaucracy, or a young woman trying to provide medical aid and hope to the populace of a plague-ravaged wasteland.

Others, including in the introduction to this collection, have discussed the importance of language and communication as a defining characteristic link between Johnson’s stories. This theme is certainly present in several stories here, mostly notably the title piece of the collection, “Irregular Verbs”. New to me, this opening story is profoundly powerful and moving, the type of short story that should be featured in a Best of… literary collection regardless of the fantasy ‘created’ world in which it is set. A perfect tale tot start this collection, because you don’t want to stop reading after it closes.

The plot and culture of Irregular Verbs rests on this theme of linguistic communication, of words. I believe a better (well more accurate) common theme between Johnson’s works, however, involves the setting. It isn’t so much as Johnson’s characters are struggling to find the proper precise words to communicate, it is that they are struggling to exist in a time and a place where they are not really meant to be. His characters are ‘fish out of water’ or ‘strangers in a strange land’.

For instance in the wonderfully spooky “Beyond the Fields You Know” (the sole story I’d classify as horror in the collection) the child protagonist is enticed into a dark, magical realm of slavery, a place and position he should not be in, and that of course he is trying to find escape from. And sometimes the character learns that the setting they are trying to free themselves from is actually what they need most (“Closing Time”). In others (“The Dragon’s Lesson” or the previously mentioned “Another Country” and “The Afflicted”) the characters struggle to maintain a personal culture or moral outlook that is in direct opposition to the society they find themselves within.

With such a large collection as this with stories varying in every way imaginable, including from humorously light to deeply serious, it is likely that there will be some things in this collection that you might not like as much as others. And that’s okay. There are a few authors out there who I can adore for each thing they produce, but many quality writers like Johnson who will produce something amazing one day and something that just isn’t my cup of tea the next.

The high points of this vast collection, though, make it an easy recommendation for any fan of speculative fiction, particularly if you are someone that normally doesn’t read the shorter published works out there. A handful of exceptional tales that deserve universal note beyond the realms of genre (such as the lead-off “Irregular Verbs”) also should give this collection a certain broader appeal.

Four Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from ChiZine Publications via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories, by Elizabeth Hand

Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories, by Elizabeth Hand
Publisher: Open Road Media
ISBN: 149760186X
251 pages, eBook
Published 3rd June 2014
(original publ. 2006)
Source: NetGalley

“Cleopatra Brimstone”
“Pavane for a Prince of the Air”
“The Least Trumps”
“The Lost Domain: Four Story Variations”
“Calypso in Berlin”
“The Saffron Gatherers”

There is a wonderful duality on display in this fabulous collection from Elizabeth Hand and a complexity of readings that make it a powerful piece of literary fantasy. First there is the title alone. Saffron and Brimstone evokes the biological and chemical. Or two forms of the biological (botanical and animal as in the brimstone moth).  Or two forms of similar animals (brimstone moth vs. butterfly). Or two conflicting aromas, pleasantly fragrant and sulfurous foul. Or two conflicting styles held in careful balance, the achingly dark and the moments of peace and hope.

These are indeed Strange Stories. They fit into the typical paradoxical mold of Hand’s work, new interpretations and celebrations of the classical and old, for example the New Age or neo-paganism themes of “Pavane for a Prince of the Air”or the mythological inspirations behind “The Lost Domain”. The organization of the collection itself represents a dichotomy, four thematically-linked novella length works followed by another set of intentionally linked (though originally published separately) tales that make up “The Lost Domian”.

Yet, there is nothing outlandish about any of the stories here, despite fantastic or mythological elements, they all seem so familiar. This oxymoronic effect of strange familiarity is achieved through Hand’s mastery of the novella length. With all of their strangeness, or even horror, Hand fills her stories with details that verge on the mundane, that could be thrown away to achieve a short story that had the same plot and even themes, but would then end up horribly disfigured in style and tone. It is this extra space of the novella and details of the ordinary moments of the character’s life that grounds the stories in a reality and provides humanity to the characters. Again, a duality between the fantastic and the mundane, sometimes splitting the story (as in the opening “Cleopatra Brimstone”) into something that feels like two separate linked plots, a before and an after.

This transition between before and after characterizes the themes that link the first four novellas of the collection. Metamorphosis is rendered most literally in “Cleopatra Brimstone” with its symbolic inclusion of butterflies and the transformation of the protagonist into an agent of dark revenge fantasy after the trauma of rape. Representing the most blatant duality with Hand the author herself, “Cleopatra Brimstone” is brilliant and staggering despite its overt themes and clear autobiographical aspects.

The three novellas that follow continue this theme of metamorphosis, albeit with increasing subtlety. “Pavane for a Prince of the Air” is more akin to literary short fiction to anything genre, chronicling a man’s transformation into death from cancer and the transitional effects this has on his partner and friend. This beautiful tale is an emotional wringer, exploring death and mourning from a holistic point of view that shows how human lives and deaths have the power to transform. “The Least Trumps” and “Wonderwall” continue this exploration of transition, focusing on female protagonists at two stages of life, when older in relation to a mother and friends from the past, and when young at the height of rebellious angst. Each are exceptional and begin to thematically bridge with the second half of the collection by moving further from a focus on metamorphosis and increasingly onto desire.

I personally did not enjoy “The Lost Domain” nearly as much as the other half of Saffron and Brimstone. (Aside: The reason is their relation to Greek myth. I wasn’t a lit or Classics major, haven’t read much of mythology since high school, and what I have read drove me nuts or to boredom with its complex interconnected characters. Classical myth in literature is like immunology in biology to me – full of headache-inducing names and memorization.)

However, I do recognize the quality of each of the pieces here. As story variations, I read them as treatments on the theme of desire, much like Blatnik’s Law of Desire collection that I recently reviewed. Again here, Hand is exploring desire from its inherent property of being ultimately unattainable. Of the four variations I appreciate “Echo” the most, due in part to my actual familiarity with that myth, its apocalyptic setting, and having read the story at least twice before (its original publication and its recent inclusion in The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2 that I also just reviewed. Getting to read “Echo” again in conjunction with the other stories of this series is worthwhile, given their original separate publications.

I’ve enjoyed previous works by Hand that I’ve had the opportunity to review through the same publisher: Last Summer on Mars Hill and Chip Crockett’s Christmas Carol. I enjoyed them both, but this collection has impressed me the most with its focus and purity. Though Saffron and Brimstone has been out for a number of years, this new eBook  release by Open Road Media offers an excellent cheap option to either introduce yourself to Hand’s talents or revisit her superb prose.

Five Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from Open Road Media via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2, Edited by Gordon Van Gelder

The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2
Edited by Gordon Van Gelder
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
ISBN: 1616961635
432 pages, paperback
Expected Publication: 15th July 2014
Source: NetGalley


“The Third Level” by Jack Finney
“Fondly Fahrenheit” by Alfred Bester
“The Cosmic Charge Account” by C. M. Kornbluth
“The Anything Box” by Zenna Henderson
“The Prize of Peril” by Robert Sheckley
“—All You Zombies—” by Robert A. Heinlein
“Green Magic” by Jack Vance
“The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth” by Roger Zelazny
“Narrow Valley” by R. A. Lafferty
“Sundance” by Robert Silverberg
“Attack of the Giant Baby” by Kit Reed
“The Hundredth Dove” by Jane Yolen
“Jeffty Is Five” by Harlan Ellison®
“Salvador” by Lucius Shepard
“The Aliens Who Knew, I mean, Everything” by George Alec Effinger
“Rat” by J. P. Kelly
“The Friendship Light” by Gene Wolfe
“The Bone Woman” by Charles de Lint
“The Lincoln Train” by Maureen McHugh
“Maneki Neko” by Bruce Sterling
“Winemaster” by Robert Reed
“Suicide Coast” by M. John Harrison
“Have Not Have” by Geoff Ryman
“The People of Sand & Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi
“Echo” by Liz Hand
“The New York Times at Special Bargain Rates” by Stephen King
“The Paper Menagerie” by Ken Liu

Compiling any collection with the title “Best of” is never an easy task, the category is just too subjective, particularly in something like the arts and a short story collection. Though delving only into the pages of one literary magazine, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (F&SF), the breadth of stories falling within the genre confines of its pages is huge. Compared to something like “The Best American” series, which F&SF has appeared within, the tales and writing styles here are far more diverse, but just as mighty.

The difficulty in really having a definitive, all-encompassing, all-pleasing ‘best of’ collection has in the past simply led me to avoid reading short story anthologies. I already read the new stories that come out, and after a while isn’t that sufficient? If you’ve been reading these longer than I (and most fans have) there’s probably even less new or unfamiliar out there. Thinking it wasn’t really worth it, I remember simply ignoring the first volume compiled by current F&SF editor Van Gelder.

But since then I’ve come to develop an appreciation for these anthologies, even when they aren’t full of stories I would consider to be ‘the best’, or even if there are a few in there which I don’t particularly enjoy. I’ve discovered there are other reasons to read a “Best of” collection despite that term not aligning with my personal opinions.

First, as alluded to within the intro to this volume, the stories here are all notable in the history of the genre, and the authors are ones any interested fan should have some experience reading. It simply is a matter of education. This collection gives an excellent survey across the decades of F&SF publication with tales that have largely withstood the test of time, right up to modern classics that sent ripples of wonder through the reading community upon their publication (like Ken Liu’s beautiful story here). There are so many authors whose names I know, but I have never read. I have a hard enough time reading interesting new things to also go back and read all the range of classics. Now, at least I can check a few more classic authors off my list – or perhaps more honestly add them to my list of things to read more of ASAP.

Second, this sort of “Best of” collection gives new readers the opportunity to discover that wide breadth of the fantasy and science (speculative) fiction genres, experiencing notable stories that vary from hard SF, to humor, to high fantasy, to urban fantasy, to dark horror, to genre mashups, etc. You don’t have to like everything. But if you like to read in general, you’ll probably find appreciation for most of the stories here.

Because all of the stories here are most certainly notable, even if not ‘the best’. They show to all readers, both new initiates or seasoned veterans who are re-experiencing, what a well-crafted story can look like in its myriad forms. With the chronological presentation through the decades of F&SF publication, the collection also gives glimpses into the changing styles or motifs of eras, and demonstrates just how greatly the earliest stories in the genre continue to inspire and shape current writing.

At least four of the stories here I have read before (and “Echo” I am about to read again in another collection of Elizabeth Hand’s work). Three of those four I recall liking greatly, but Stephen King’s story I had no particular memory of, other than that I had read it. I wondered if its inclusion (and King’s) was simply due to the celebrity of his name, to attract more readers. When I first came to F&SF, the knowledge that King, as a popular author I knew, had published works in its pages was a huge draw to trying it out.

So I wouldn’t blame the editor for putting King in for that primary reason. Perhaps it is the wisdom of experience from a few scant years, but I was pleasantly surprised to be so affected by his story here, to read something far more resonant and profound than I had expected based on a memory (or lack thereof). This just goes to show how re-reading notable stories – even if from the opinion of someone else – is beneficial. It’s been awhile since I’ve read King, but this made me wish he’d continue getting inspiration for short fiction writing – and publication in markets like F&SF.

The other stories here that were new to me I responded to much as what I would expect from a typical stellar issue of F&SF: many excellent, a few enjoyable but throwaway, and a couple that just weren’t my thing. You may react differently to individual stories here than I, but I suspect that if you are a fan of the genre, then you’ll also enjoy a similar high percentage of these.

If you happen to be rather new to the genres, have never read the magazine, or are just a casual reader who only recognizes Stephen King in the table of contents, give this collection a try and discover what literary universe is out there for you to enjoy and explore further.

Four Stars out of Five

I received a free electronic advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Fearful Symmetries, Edited by Ellen Datlow

Fearful Symmetries
Edited by Ellen Datlow
Publisher: ChiZine
400 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2014
Source: NetGalley


“A Wish From a Bone” by Gemma Files
“The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud
“The Witch Moth” by Bruce McAllister
“Kaiju” by Gary McMahon
“Will The Real Psycho In This Story Please Stand Up?” by Pat Cadigan
“In the Year of Omens” by Helen Marshall
“The Four Darks” by Terry Dowling
“The Spindly Man” by Stephen Graham Jones
“The Window” by Brian Evenson
“Mount Chary Galore” by Jeffrey Ford
“Ballad of an Echo Whisperer” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“Suffer Little Children” by Robert Shearman
“Power” by Michael Marshall Smith
“Bridge of Sighs” by Kaaron Warren
“The Worms Crawl In,” by Laird Barron
“The Attic” by Catherine MacLeod
“Wendigo Nights” by Siobhan Carroll
“Episode Three: On the Great Plains, in the Snow” by John Langan
“Catching Flies” by Carole Johnstone
“Shay Corsham Worsted” by Garth Nix

Ellen Datlow’s name to me is synonymous with horror anthology. I see the two together so often, and usually with accolades, that I decided I really did need to just read one of her collections. This one really impressed me in its variety and its quality. I typically enjoy reading horror stories like these around Halloween time, and this collection would be suited well for that kind of celebration. The hard decision will be whether to reread this one or try out another one of her collections.

A review of each single story seems excessive, and there isn’t a single story that failed here. There are no common themes uniting this collection other than the very general fitting into the category of horror or dark tales. They range from very realistic to paranormal, from gruesome gore-filled feasts to nuanced, atmospheric tales, from pulp to literary. Fairly well-ranged in background and style, this is an ideal volume to discover new authors or names that you may merely recognize.

Frankly, it is hard to even pick out favorites from this. For someone like me who has a wide range of tastes across the genre, each of these represents top contributions to their respective category of story type. If you are discriminating regarding the type of horror you like then this may not be the best collection. There will certainly be some or several stories here that you like, but others may hold no interest, in which case you might search elsewhere for a themed collection or just read certain selections here. But for those wanting an intro or return to the range that the horror genre has available, “Fearful Symmetries” is absolutely perfect.

Five Stars out of Five

Return of the Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett

Return of the Thin Man,
by Dashiell Hammett
Publisher: Mysterious Press
ISBN: 080212156X
256 pages, paperback
Published October 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

The “Thin Man” movies are among my favorite, and I can always go for a good film noir, but I haven’t yet read Dashiell Hammett, the writer responsible for so many of the classic characters and styles of these movies. It was a pleasure to finally read some of his work, though when it says “novella” it really does mean the ” “.

The two stories here are really informal scripts, written in a distinctive simple style intended for film production, in this case what became the movies “After the Thin Man” and “Another Thin Man”. The eventual films produced (that you should see if you haven’t) are not far removed from these treatments by Hammett. The witty dialogue was left largely intact in the screen version and surprisingly few details of the plot were taken out or altered.

As such, reading these is just as fun as watching the movies. So, if you are a fan of “The Thin Man” series and are open to experiencing them in a slightly different version in a different medium, then I’d highly recommend reading these. Similarly, if you haven’t seen the films but like crime mysteries and good humor and wit, then these will be entertaining stories to read, particularly the first, which is a bit more original than the second ‘novella’, which is largely a re-working of another Hammett story.

If you are familiar with the movies inside and out, then I’m not sure how much will be gained from reading these, other than that experience through a different form or getting to note the deviations from the final film product where they occur. It is interesting to note that those in control of enforcing the Production Code of the day were just as arbitrary and illogical as the MPAA today.

Three Stars out of Five

In the Company of Thieves, by Kage Baker

In the Company of Thieves, by Kage Baker
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
288 pages, Kindle Edition
Published November 2013
Source: NetGalley

Kage Baker is a name I was familiar with, but I had only read one of her stories in an issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine years ago. Interested in experiencing more of her work I was excited at the opportunity to read this collection, but ended up feeling ambivalent during most of the time reading it. Yet for fans of Baker I am sure this will be a welcome and highly enjoyed volume, particularly in the absence of further works following her unfortunate death from cancer at a relatively young age.

Part of my difficulty of appreciating these stories likely stemmed from my ignorance about this “Company” universe that her stories mostly fit into. This is probably not an ideal book to start out for an introduction to Baker’s works. Oddly, the last story in the collection, written by Baker’s sister from notes and fragments that Baker left prior to her death, does the best job at imparting a background to this universe and the rules that defines its characters and their abilities. Sadly this comes at the end, and is written in a very stated fashion rather than anything particularly literary.

The second hurdle inherently facing these stories is their length, primarily novellas. The novella is a tricky beast, too long for the artistry and impact of a short story, too short to develop complexities and overall meditative themes that a novel can afford. Really it fits best stories that are pulpish, prolonged, multi-staged adventures that mix lightheartedness with bits of excitements and thrills. For me most of the stories here dragged, and simply wore out my interest, perhaps because I just don’t have an appreciation for Baker’s style of humor.

Nonetheless, there were a couple of high points to the collection that I enjoyed. The opening story, “The Carpet Beds of Sutro Park” was engaging and sublime, and succeeds in part because it maintains an appropriate length. Rather than going for word count the story stays on point and has a profound hook in its investigation of a character with characteristics of autism who is immortal and is exploited for his unique abilities. “The Women of Nell Gwynnes” was the most enjoyable of the novella length pieces, really a combination of two intriguing stories. First it covers the history and recruitment of a srong-willed independent woman into a secretive organization and then for the second portion goes into her first ‘mission’ with this group. Here the story is exciting and the additional portions of text and background that fill out the main ‘action’ are of note for Baker’s no nonsense tackling of the feminine.

Two-and-Half Stars out of Five

Beyond the Rift, by Peter Watts

Beyond the Rift, by Peter Watts
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
240 pages, Kindle Edition
Published November 2013
Source: NetGalley

I count myself very fortunate to have discovered the work of Peter Watts through NetGalley. I don’t recall hearing of or reading this Canadian author before, but his writing is something that I know I will be returning to both for new works and reference back to these incredible stories. Watt’s writing is some of the most literary science fiction I have read, while also maintaining a strong undercurrent of ‘hard’ sci fi details. With so much sci fi being grounded in astronomy, it is nice to read these stories by someone with a background in biology and puts the focus on science and speculation from that point of view in particular.

This point of view, coupled with his writing talent, allows Watts to excel at writing stories that feature the truly alien. This is no small thing, and actually rather unique amid the wealth of SF out there. So much SF contains aliens that are really easily recognized as human, or humanoid at least. Or they are described in terms of familiar creatures we know, like lizards or fish or bears. Most writers need this crutch to make the story and characters – even if alien – still relatable. Make them a little bit abnormal, or give them some familiar characteristic in extremis and go with it.

Watts doesn’t settle for that. Most all of the stories in this collection feature alien life that is far more unique, bizarre, and unfamiliar than the norm. Using his command of realistic biological extrapolation he is able to describe things that are novel and foreign while allowing the reader to understand and still even sympathize at times with that alien Other. This skill is nicely made clear with the opening story, a take on the film “The Thing” told from the perspective of the alien. In each story that follows that alien perspective remains at the fore.

In the afterward portion Watts discusses how his work is often described as dark, or horrifying, intense, disturbing, etc, and how these labels have some merit, but aren’t completely or singularly accurate. I think this label is attached to his writing not because of the overall plots or the tone of the stories, but the ease at which he writes that alien mind, mysterious and kind of unsettling in just how unrecognizable it is to our notions of culture, society, or biological behavior. The aliens are intelligent, but they don’t have a human-like civilization, making them more ‘animal’ and frightening to the reader than other common alien depictions.

Despite the point of view of things alien, the stories ultimately lend one to consider what it is to be human, both in terms of biology and culture, and in that sense these stories are fantastic literature with a scientific bent.

Five Stars out of Five

The Best American Short Stories 2013, Edited by Elizabeth Strout

The Best American Short Stories 2013,
Edited by Elizabeth Strout
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
387 pages, Kindle Edition
Published October 2013
Source: NetGalley

The announcement that Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature came as I was reading this new collection, right as I was about to start her story within it. I began it with some trepidation, because I have yet to read a story by her that I enjoy or appreciate (though I have only read a handful), and again, I found it hard to keep my attention within it. I felt this way about several stories in this year’s collection, with a few exceptions none seemed particularly strong.

Oh they are all good. And I know that Munro writes expertly. But they aren’t what I would consider the ‘best’. The story by Millhauser disappointed most severely. I typically adore his stories because they are filled with a certain magical wonder and tackle themes commonly present in sci fi or fantasy. The story here however, alternating between a Biblical retelling and a writer’s insomnia felt abnormally excessive and flat with a melancholy in place of the wonder I expected.

The stories I most enjoyed were “The Provincials”, “Malaria”, “Magic Man”, “Miss Lora” (my awaited intro. to the popular Diaz) and “The Tunnel, or the News from Spain” the latter one I previously enjoyed in Glimmer Train during its initial publication. This year’s editor of this collection, Strout, comments that the stories picked are united by having strong voices that are true to the characters and the time/place those characters find themselves in.

That is absolutely accurate, and I enjoyed these stories for precisely that reason. The other stories she picked have that quality, but simply are not voices I found that compelling or cared to hear much from. This was most evident with Saunders’ “The Semplica Girl Diaries”, a voice I found painfully awkward and dull to read.

Like each year’s collection, one isn’t going to love every choice. Strout met her criteria for inclusion, but those criteria leaned a bit too heavily on style over substance or enjoyment for the reader giving the 2013 edition a bit more narrow of a reader base that will adore it.

Three  Stars out of Five

The Baby in the Icebox: and Other Short Fiction, by James M. Cain

The Baby in the Icebox:
and Other Short Fiction
by James M. Cain
Publisher: Open Road Media
220 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
(Original Publication: 1932)
Source: NetGalley

The name James M. Cain never registered on my radar, although I was already familiar with some of his work: “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and what is often considered the epitome of film noir, “Double Indemnity”. Upon opening this I expected more of the same, but was surprised to see a greater variety and depth the Cain’s writing and fiction plots/genres. Several days after finishing this and I wish I had more of his work at hand to read, both the original stories that birthed those classic noir films and his other less known output.

This particular collection is an excellent primer on the scope of Cain’s writing, being split into three sections of form: dialogues, short stories, and one serial novella. Each section is preceded by an introduction to Cain’s use of the form, and a general introduction opens the entire collection. These introductory essays are skimmable if you are really just interested in the meat of the fiction, but they are useful in grounding you in why Cain wrote each style of fiction, the merits he viewed in each, and how they were received by critics and fans.

Throughout all the forms Cain has two clear strengths. First is creating a clear, compelling conflict or plot, regardless if large-scale like a crime in a film noir, or a simple, brief confrontation in a doorway. Second is his strength in writing dialogue and regional dialects, particularly of working class people. This shines most obviously in the brief dialogues that open this collection, but even within the short stories they dominate, stretching a bit longer, and broken up from time to time with narration describing the setting or actions. Yet, even these narrations, rendered in the first person, are strongly reminiscent of spoken word, a dialogue between the working class narrator, and the reader, who can easily imagine themselves as an unnamed character in the story, listening to a yarn in a diner over a coffee, or bar over beer.

In these dialogues and short stories the genre of crime or transgression appears from time to time, but many also do not approach anything as grandiose, focusing instead on small aspects of human emotion or psychology in a pure manner. These are Cain’s most literary moments, and the ones (based on the introductions) that he was most proud in writing. What is interesting is that Cain did not set out to write honest, emotional dialogue-laden fiction per se. That is simply the only writing he was able to create that appeared authentic and sincere. He had to become the character and ‘act’, writing as if he were not Cain at all, but an imagined personality, role-playing. The result is stories and dialogues that don’t come across as fictions necessarily, but honest, imperfect recollections, most wonderfully perhaps in the story that gives the collection its name.

The collection ends with a serial novella, a style that Cain did not have any artistic appreciation for, but simply used to pay the bills, much like a serious actor doing some light, mindless blockbuster. But Cain can’t help inject some artistry into the serial, shaping a genre that would translate into the film noir and eventually the French new wave. His serials turned out immensely popular, both with general readers and critics. The serial included was made once into a film that wasn’t particularly successful, which I haven’t seen, but it does lack the spice and sordidness of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” or the precision and tautness of “Double Indemnity”. Nonetheless it is a nice conclusion to the collection, bringing it round to the style of story Cain became most noted for popularly.

Although I am interested in reading more of Cain’s work, I appreciated the length this collection kept. By the end of the dialogues and starting the still dialogue-laden short stories, that style was beginning to wear on me, much as Cain found it did when trying to use it to such a degree in his novels. By making this a mixture of styles but allowing none to overstay their welcome, this collection found a great pace. The publisher is releasing a lot of Cain’s old work in ebook format, so once I obtain an actual reader I’ll be checking out some more titles that pique interest.

Four Stars out of Five

The Last Animal, by Abby Geni

The Last Animal, by Abby Geni
Publisher: Counterpoint
304 pages, Kindle Edition
Published October 2013
Source: NetGalley

Two of the stories in this collection immediately recalled fond memories from when I first read them in Glimmer Train, so I was eager to read more of Geni’s short stories. I not only enjoyed those stories new to me, the collection gave me new insight and appreciation of those two pieces I’d already read. The Goodreads description for these stories and their unifying theme at the interface of humans with the rest of the natural world, particularly animals.

Literary fiction, particularly short stories is grounded in personal tragedy and social conflict, failures to communicate, and profound losses. Geni’s work falls easily into that cliché. However, what makes it specially unique is her juxtaposition of those personal conflicts onto humankinds relationship between the natural world and the fabrications of civilization and social nature. In each of these stories an organism (mostly animals) is used as a proxy for some role normally occupied by a human in the life of the protagonists (or a proxy for some aspect of the protagonist themselves). In this way the theme of ‘no man is an island’ is extended biologically to ‘humanity is not an island’, it exists in some sort of relationship with the natural world. This natural world is necessary, and it has the power of healing and support in the spiritual being of an individual.

Geni accomplishes this with masterful subtlety, never is the linking theme of these stories allowed to become overpoweringly overt, never is it preachy, it is an aspect linking the stories whose simple repeated presence begs for contemplation and analysis. Some readers may even come across with completely different insight into this theme of the natural world than I did, and this is the power of these stories. Her writing is precise and flowing, never convoluted or calling attention to its own cleverness, allowing the reader to ponder the themes and emotions of the story rather than cleverness of style.

Although the natural world appears as a symbol of connection, strength, and healing, many of the stories here are profoundly sad, and potentially ‘triggering’ for people who have faced the demons and losses that the characters in the story go through. The mature handling of the darker plots, (managing to powerfully convey empathy in the reader without driving them to utter despair and depression) is achieved through these connections to the natural world and the life that shares Earth with us, inviting the reader to consider how the beauty of life can similarly influence us for the better.

Five  Stars out of Five