Christmas is a great time not only for ghost stories but also for mysteries. This collection, gathered by The Mysterious Bookshop’s owner, Otto Penzler, is a fine place to start if you are looking for crime fiction short stories set during the holidays.
Penzler has compiled a selection of mysteries from classic authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Thomas Hardy (of all people), Damon Runyon, G. K. Chesterton, and Ngaio Marsh, as well as contemporary masters of the crime story, including Peter Lovesey, Mary Higgins Clark, Ed McBain, Ellis Peters, Donald Westlake, and Catherine Aird. There are well-known tales here like “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” (my favorite Christmas mystery of all time), as well as a host of excellent stories I have never read before, all set in the Christmas season.
Penzler has put the stories in clever groupings — traditional tales, modern narratives, humorous stories, Sherlockian adventures, noirish pulp fictions, and of course ghost-centered mysteries. There will be something here to delight any crime fiction fan, and if you have a mystery reader on your Christmas list, you can do you shopping early this year and order a copy of The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries for the 2015 holidays.
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What exactly makes a hero? Take Johnny Hiro: he works paycheck to paycheck as a busboy/dishwasher in a sushi restaurant, has a strained relationship with his parents, and is being sued by his ex-landlord for damage done to his last apartment by a Godzilla-like monster reptile who was taking revenge for sins perpetrated by the mother of Johnny’s current girlfriend, Mayumi. All pretty typical stressors in the life of a New Yorker.
Mayumi is the bright spot in his life, and Johnny strives not only to make ends meet, but to get ahead for her, much more so than even for himself. After a day spent leaping across rooftops with a stolen lobster, engaging in a high speed chase with a van full of stolen fish, or fighting off 47 samurai, he gets to go home to her peppy optimism. She keeps him grounded, and full of hope, despite his many misadventures.
Several celebrities make cameos throughout the pages, which is sometimes played for laughs (Alton Brown, especially) and sometimes rather random. All together they all read as a fond nod to popular culture, especially the continually quoted hip hop lyrics. This might cause the stories to age badly, but for now they are still relatable.
Fred Chao, who is both the author and artist of this series, provides commentary throughout the story that grounds the often absurd plot into humanistic realities. Some of these comments are little gems, which help elevate situations above their most basic reading. Two of my favorites are “Most of the things that affect us will never be explained. They are simply the trickle-down effects of the unknowing decisions made around us.” And “Those hours…hold the most potential for change. That is if we just look up, instead of simply hoping to make it to the next day.”
Sometimes heroes are just normal people who have something to fight for. “Fortunately or unfortunately, there are few happy or sad endings. Most stories simply go on.”
Recommended for readers who like humor and humanism.
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Did you ever pick a book up off of your parents’ bookshelves and find yourself wondering about their reading interests? It happened to me when sometime in my early teens I pulled down a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories and started to browse around. I was horrified. There were hitchhikers killing old ladies, grandfathers killing granddaughters, salesmen stealing hearts and prosthetic legs. Was this what my mother was reading? Well, it was, and as I grew older, I came more and more to appreciate what she found in these stories, and what I missed in my earlier reading of O’Connor.
Faith is a serious business, and it has serious implications for those who profess their beliefs. Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, both short stories and novels, is all an exploration of the way our beliefs shape our actions, for better, and for worse. In the darkest or most grotesque parts of these stories, I think that O’Connor is asking her readers to consider how the actions that might appall us seem perfectly reasonable to those who are taking them. These characters, like Martin Luther, “kann nicht anders.” They can only hope, again like Luther, that God will help them.
The stories also are about grace, and I think that this is the part that I missed when first reading them. It is through the presence of grace that a sense of redemption can be found in O’Connor’s work. For O’Connor, and her characters, grace is simply there; it is not to be earned or merited. So she calls us to live our lives open to the experience of that grace. My mother was right (as always): these are great stories that challenge us to look into our own lives and see where our beliefs are leading us, and also to be open to the daily grace that pervades the world.
Check the WRL catalog for The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor
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Babette from the library’s Outreach Services Division provides today’s review:
Russell Banks’ new collection of short stories, A Permanent Member of the Family, is one of the best books I have read recently. The characters and the moral dilemmas in which they find themselves entangled continue to simmer in my mind.
Intentional or not, as a reader, I noticed the theme of death emerge as I read this collection of short stories. That being said, I must report that reading this collection of stories is not depressing, but rather a thought-provoking experience. Whether we like to acknowledge this or not, death is a permanent member of every family. Death reveals itself in an array of forms: death of a person or animal, death of a relationship, an image, a dream, a fabricated life, and so on.
Banks’ writing engages the reader swiftly into the lives of the characters presented in each of the stories who find themselves in a variety of perplexing situations.
Here is a sample of some of the situations… In Former Marine, adult siblings realize their father has committed an outrageous crime and ask themselves, “Can this be my dad?” The story Blue presents a woman alone and inadvertently locked overnight in automobile sales lot with a ferocious pit bull dog… is she a criminal or victim, how will this situation end? Top Dog explores the effects of success bestowed on one member of a group and the repercussions to the dynamics of their longstanding friendship.
The twelve stories in this collection encompass a diverse selection of characters from a cross-section of society. A Permanent Member of the Family is a satisfying read. Be sure to add it to your reading list.
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Volume 22 of the Graphic Novel Classics series contains twenty-three stories and poems written by famous early black authors and poets, including Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others. Each tale is then adapted and illustrated by notable contemporary black writers and artists including Jeremy Love, who wrote and illustrated the stunning Bayou graphic novel (review here), Trevor Von Eeden, who wrote and illustrated the two-part graphic biography The Original Johnson about the early boxer Jack Johnson, and Mat Johnson, who wrote the graphic mystery Incognegro (review here). With such a talented group of contributors, I had high hopes as I turned the pages of the first story, and I was certainly not disappointed.
Without a doubt, the stories are still as powerful today as when the words were first put onto paper. Sometimes sober, sometimes funny, and always heart-searing, even without the artwork this volume would stand alone as a fantastic collection of literature. But it is the illustrations, framing and woven into the lines of words, that really make the selections shine. Each artist brings their own unique style of lines and coloring to their work, which helps separate the stories from each other in tone and pace. Authors who have multiple contributions have their work drawn by different artists, and the contrast of styles give each piece a different life.
I would be hard pressed to select an absolute favorite among the works, but The Two Americans starts off the book with a powerful, wrenching emotional blow. In contrast, The Negro is simple, beautiful, and cosmic in its elegance. Each of its mere six panels could be justifiably framed and put on a wall as standalone art, something you don’t often get from a graphic novel.
Recommended for readers of poetry, short stories, and/or with an interest in American culture presented by the unflinching voices of those who experience it’s ugliest side.
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Barry has written about Wendell Berry and the Port William Membership in earlier posts, and while I’m usually reluctant to encroach on another WRL blogger’s turf, in this case I must. Full kudos to Barry for introducing me to Berry.
Watch with Me is a collection of short stories centering on Ptolemy “Tol” Proudfoot, a reticent man proud of his farming skill, but without the need to expand beyond the beautiful and successful farm he can run by himself. The last leaf of his family tree, he doesn’t have the joyfully rambunctious persona that Port William remembers of the Proudfoots (Proudfeet?), but he does have deep feelings whose few expressions become affectionate stories shared among his neighbors. His late-to-wed wife, Miss Minnie, is the pole star of his life, and Berry’s descriptions of their wagon rides together are simple and affecting. Tol has a mischievous side that emerges in one particularly funny tale of deadpan revenge. But the story that gives the collection its name is a tension-filled hike through the mountains and valleys around Port William as Tol and several neighbors try to keep an emotionally distraught man from harming himself. The fact that Thacker “Nightlife” Hemple is eating and quenching his thirst while the followers go without adds a measure of humor, but Berry sustains the suspense.
Berry’s descriptions of Tol—how his clothes are eternally rumpled no matter how well Miss Minnie cares for them, the hair that pokes out in all directions regardless of his grooming, his quiet strength, his steadfastness—are accomplished in brief passages that nonetheless give the reader a lasting impression of Tol. Miss Minnie is better known to us by her actions than her physical presence, so I always thought of a younger Aunt Bee when I read about her.
The narrator relates these tales with an intimacy that pulls the readers in and makes them part of the Port William community, even if only for a short time. The outside world intrudes very little, but Tol and Miss Minnie use their innate grace to recover when it does. Those incidents only serve to remind us that people who are regarded as unsophisticated hayseeds really do have a place in this world, even if it is shrinking.
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While watching the Avengers movie in the theater (I admit, twice), I was intrigued by the characters of Hawkeye and Black Widow. Not having much knowledge of the Avengers outside of Iron Man and Thor, I found it interesting that there were members of the team who did not possess any superpowers or special flying suits. Experience and training will only get you so far when facing a massive army of technologically superior aliens from another dimension. Hulk may smash, but normal humans should be running in the other direction while screaming.
As expected, when a movie piques the public’s interest in specific characters from a comic universe, new material often follows. I picked up a copy of the first volume of the new Hawkeye graphic novel series, titled Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon. The series covers Hawkeye’s life away from the Avengers, where he lives quietly as Clint Barton in a rather crummy apartment building. He is assisted in many of his exploits by Kate Bishop, who is a member of the Young Avengers, and had previously stepped in for Clint when he took some time off from the Avengers. She is an equal, if not better, bowman than Clint.
Unlike other human superheroes like Batman or Iron Man, Hawkeye isn’t angsty, and there is a lot of humor injected into his interactions, especially with Kate. He fights mainly with his bow and an array of sometimes ridiculous specialty arrows, a method which is used smartly against him by the authors in a humorous segment where he keeps firing random arrows with somewhat unbelievable abilities. He tries to live as normally as possible, enjoying rooftop BBQs with his neighbors, buying a used sports car, and practicing his archery, but generally finds ways to get himself in trouble much as he might try to avoid it. It seems once you are identified as a superhero, groups of ninjas can’t help but attack you.
This volume is a quick but fun read. Recommended for fans of the Marvel Universe and anyone who is tired of having perpetually disagreeable and tormented superheroes.
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