Book Reviews: “Smoke and Mirrors” and “Fragile Things” by Neil Gaiman

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fragile-things

I wanted to review these two Neil Gaiman short story compilations together. I think that with the completion of both of these books, I have read just about all of Gaiman’s full-length published works for adults! Although to call these “short story” compilations isn’t exactly fair. Gaiman fills both of these with poems, essays, and other types of writing that go far beyond just stories, which makes his work such a pleasure for me to read.

Smoke and Mirrors is subtitled “Short Fictions and Illusions” while Fragile Things is subtitled “Short Fictions and Wonders.” I found Smoke and Mirrors to have a generally darker tone though both books experiment with the fantastic and supernatural. Smoke and Mirrors is an older book (first published 1998) and for me really carried a lot of the feeling of books like American Gods. My favorite story of anything that appeared between either of these two books was “October in the Chair” from Fragile Things. I adored this story, which described a meeting of the personified months of the year as they gather to hear a rather dark tale told by the character of October. There are also many retellings of myths, fairy tales, and references to other works by Gaiman and otherwise, but of course also much that is completely unique. I read these two collections one after the other and I think they sort of just blended together in my mind but if I was going to pick one I did prefer Fragile Things slightly more.

One problem that avid Gaiman fans might have with both of these is the fact that there is not much original material in either of them, but this wasn’t a problem for me personally and just about everything was new for me – just something to think about if you do follow a lot of the literary magazines and other sources where his work appears. For me I feel like no matter how much Neil Gaiman I read there is always something totally original and very out-there for me to find. I think he has one of the most vivid imaginations of any contemporary author and hope he continues to harness this to provide more books for me to read! I’m giving 4 stars to both Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things.

Book Review: “The Complete Stories” by Flannery O’Connor

“The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” (from “The Displaced Person”)

Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1971. 579 pages.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1971. 579 pages.

I am still in the middle of my little short story reading surge. I have been working on *this* volume of short stories for almost as long as my blog has been in existence, but it has taken me quite a long time to get through. This isn’t just because it’s a much longer collection of stories than the other ones I’ve been exploring but also because the stories here are heavy and the writing is far more complex and literary than more contemporary works, so I read them slower in order to better analyze everything that’s here.

I first bought this book because of the cover on the edition I’ve pictured above. It’s so pretty and features a peacock since O’Connor raised them, which I thought was very interesting. I’ve always been interested in reading her works since I had to read her arguably most famous story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” for school. This particular collection contains each story found in her previous short story volumes as well as twelve additional ones that had been published elsewhere during her short lifetime.

All of the stories in this book are written in O’Connor’s typical Southern Gothic style, a variety of American fiction that I always enjoy for some reason despite living in an area so far removed from the South. Recurring themes include the main character often having a very racist, gender-biased, and/or generally prejudicial worldview and having this come back to get them in the end, as well as examining the socioeconomic disparities between different groups of people in the mid-century South. O’Connor was also extremely religious and her Catholicism is also quite prevalent in terms of many characters having religious experiences and finding their faith growing stronger (but I would not call this Christian fiction by any means). O’Connor’s writing is extremely blunt and often very very violent. I had some trouble adjusting to the more dated and regional language use in earlier stories but for the most part I really liked the writing style, in that each story had a moral and that for the most part characters tended to get what was coming to them.

Some of my favorite stories of the 31 were “The Crop,” “A Late Encounter with the Enemy,” “A Circle in the Fire,” “Good Country People,” “The Enduring Chill,” and “The Lame Shall Enter First.” It probably wouldn’t be too hard to find these and many of the other stories online if you are interested! I am giving The Complete Stories 4 stars and I would also like to explore O’Connor’s two full length novels in the future.

Book Review: “The Color Master” by Aimee Bender

“I will never die, thought the cake to itself, in even simpler terms, as cakes did not have sophisticated use of language.”

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Doubleday 2013 – 222 pages

I have been exploring short story collections more frequently in recent weeks. I used to think that I didn’t like them, but when I am in the right mood it is nice to have those quick bursts of creativity and emotion that can cover the realm of an entire novel in just a few pages. I think a short story is good when it makes me care about the characters by the end even though I’ve barely gotten to know them.

I wanted to read some of Aimee Bender’s stories after a recommendation from a friend, and this was the only one of her collections available at the library the last time I was there. This is actually her most recent book of short stories and the first that I’ve ever read. My first impression as I got through many of the stories was that they were… weird. But that’s not necessarily bad. Some of them I did think were awful. But some for me really struck that wonderful balance I always want to find in good magical realism. A lot of the stories were reminiscent of Gaiman to me in many ways but I think that Bender’s were a bit more real than magic and kind of a bit more depressing to me. Many stories here were also very sexual, but I thought that everything of that nature was well-written, except the first story Appleless. I didn’t see the point to that one at all.

Most of my favorites within the book were mentioned in the cover description: “A woman plays out a prostitution fantasy with her husband and then finds she cannot go back to her old sex life” (The Red Ribbon); “Two sisters travel deep into Malaysia, where one learns the art of mending tigers who have been ripped to shreds” (Tiger Mending); “A company of tailors endeavors to capture the colors of the sun, moon, and sky” (The Color Master). In those latter two I felt that Bender’s true writing skills really came out. I mean: “That’s the thing with handmade items. They still have the person’s mark on them, and when you hold them, you feel a little less alone. This is why everyone who eats a Whopper leaves a little more depressed than they were when they came in” – just beautiful – this is from Tiger Mending where the narrator manages a Burger King and her sister is a seamstress. I also really liked the story Americca, which describes a family that becomes a victim of “reverse robbery” – finding weird/random things in their house that no one in the family has purchased.

I am rating The Color Master 3 stars. Although there were for sure some standout stories in this collection, many of them also left me feeling a little unsatisfied and… violated? I think that the description that I see floating around in other Bender reviews as “fairy tales for adults” is really accurate because there are not many happy endings to be found here. I’m not sure that I will read Bender’s other works but I’m not completely ruling them out either.

Book Review: “Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances” by Neil Gaiman

“Many of these stories end badly for at least one of the people in them. Consider yourself warned.”

Hardcover edition; William Morrow 2015. 310 pages.

Hardcover edition; William Morrow 2015.
310 pages.

I was first exposed to the world of Neil Gaiman in my seventh-grade English class when I chose to do a book report on his newly released children’s book, Coraline. I waited until law school to explore his adult works and found that each of them provided a fantastic escape from the assorted stresses and pressures of school, and he quickly became my absolute favorite author. Neverwhere, Good Omens, and American Gods would all be among the books I would take with me if stranded on a desert island. This new short story collection, although the most recently published, was the first of his three sets that I decided to read. I was never that into short stories, but I’m trying to diversify my reading habits and get more into them, and figured that this book would not disappoint since it is, after all, Neil Gaiman. Although some of the stories in this collection were better than others, I didn’t think that any of them at all were “bad.” Several of the stronger ones were truly amazing to me, and this was a solid 5-star read that has motivated me to read Gaiman’s other two short story sets ASAP.

The title of the collection refers to the increasing frequency with which the term “trigger warning” itself is appearing, particularly on the internet so as to warn sensitive readers and users of potentially upsetting content. Rather than waiting for others to give the stories this label, Gaiman wants us to know from the forefront that this collection is dark. Some of them (“Click-Clack the Rattlebag”; “My Last Landlady”) are just a few pages long and perfectly creepy. Others (“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains”) are more substantial and developed, with horrors that take a bit longer to reveal themselves. The closing tale (“Black Dog”) was excellently crafted and deeply disturbing, returning us to the world of Shadow and a few other characters from American Gods. Some stories are a bit lighter and led me to ponder rather than shiver (“Orange” in particular made me laugh out loud). It’s probably no surprise at all that my two favorites were “Nothing O’clock” which was a perfect Doctor Who story, featuring the 11th Doctor and my favorite companion (Amy Pond), originally written for the 50th anniversary, that could have so easily been an episode, and “The Case of Death and Honey” which took a closer look at Sherlock Holmes’ beekeeping hobby in his old age. I could continue, but I think that at least some of the stories should come as a surprise to those who choose to read them 🙂 Suffice it to say that in my opinion Gaiman has a true gift and I will continue to read and probably adore anything that this man will ever write.