Short Stories (2015)

The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora

For fans of Desperate Housewives, the “Real Housewives of" series and anyone who has ever wondered what goes on behind the closed doors of their neighbors, The Wonder Garden is a recommended read. Set in the wealthy town of Old Cranbury, Connecticut, author Lauren Acampora delves into the dark side of everyday people’s lives in suburbia. 

At once creepy and revelatory, twisted and insightful, the flawed lives of these residents are far different from the manicured appearances of their houses. Meet Harold, a successful businessman who bribes his wife’s neurosurgeon to be present during her surgery so that he can touch her brain.  Say hello to Cheryl, a woman so absorbed with the historic preservation of the buildings in her town she vandalizes a neighbor’s property in order to ensure restoration. And please make the acquaintance of Madeleine, a newlywed and new mother whose husband abandons his advertising career to search for his spirit animal and open a holistic healing center. Adding to the small town feel, these stories are presented as an interconnected collection, with characters from one story reappearing seamlessly in others, creating a sense of entirety from disparate events.

Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III
Don’t Cry by Mary Gaitskill
Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor

Jill Wylie, Hauppauge Public Library 

The Best American Short Stories 2014 edited by Jennifer Egan

An annual anthology of 20 stories chosen by guest editor Jennifer Egan, a writer of short stories for 21 years who previously made it into the "Best of" series and is a 2011 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award winner for fiction.

The tone of the book is depressing with most of the stories being sad and joyless. In David Gates' A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me, an alcoholic musician lives the rock and roll life until one day he realizes he needs someone to care for him. Or the almost adult young man in Lauren Groff's At the Round Earth's Imagined Corners who lives alone in the family home after his abusive father dies. Incredibly he thrives, but we are left to wonder why no one helps or even cares.

One of the best stories is Laura Van Den Berg's Anarctica. Dealing with grief after her brother dies in a work accident, she regrets a secret she kept that could have eased his mind. She makes us think when at the end of the story she states, "Who will remember us if all our loved ones are dead?" In Peter Cameron's After the Flood, grief numbs an elderly couple that lost their only child. At the request of their pastor they shelter a young family but completely ignore them when showing them kindness may have eased their own grief.

The sad stories go on and on - divorce, dog attack, a veteran contemplating suicide; it was almost too much. Overall the stories were good, but I would have preferred more upbeat or humorous stories which may have made the book more enjoyable for all.

The Best American Essays series
The Best American Mystery Stories series
The Best American Short Stories series

Eileen Gazzola, Huntington Public Library

A Darker Shade of Sweden edited by John-Henri Holmberg

This is a collection of short stories from famous Swedish crime writers. Some are well known in the U.S. like Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and Hakan Nesser, but most are only famous in Sweden with their books having been turned into television series and movies. The stories are a mixture of thriller, mystery, crime fiction, ghost story, etc. with a few of the authors writing stories together for the first time.

The writing overall was well done giving the reader a look into Swedish lives, the police system and some of the customs. The stories themselves tended to have a lot of similarity with several of them taking place around Christmas time and almost all of them taking place in the winter. Stieg Larsson’s story was written when he was seventeen and is a science-fiction tale about a man picked by the government to have a brain transplant so an important scientist who is dying can live on. The story by Mankell and Nesser has their series characters Wallander and Van Veeteren respectively meeting at a restaurant on Christmas Eve then playing bridge with the authors who are in the restaurant as well – no mystery or crime involved. There’s also a story about a boy who witnesses a murder, one about a woman who seeks revenge on her co-workers and one about a serial killer. Several other stories keep you on the edge of your seat trying to figure out what’s going to happen and the majority of the entries are 15-20 pages making the book easy to pick up and put down as time allowed.

The book is best for lovers of Swedish and British crime fiction as the pacing is a bit slow compared to American crime novels. This is a good introduction to the genre for a reader looking for books outside of their usual American authors and interested in trying something new.

Read alikes:
The Patrik Hedstrom series by Camilla Lackberg
The Kurt Wallander series by Henning Mankell
The Inspector Van Veeteren series by Hakan Nesser
The Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbo

Azuree Agnello, West Babylon Public Library

Faceoff edited by David Baldacci

Rather than facing off against each other, these 23 popular thriller writers pair their characters together to solve crimes. With 11 short stories, the reader can get a taste of the writers and their characters and determine whether they like a certain author, or they can simply enjoy these new stories about their favorite characters.

The stories range from 19-37 pages, with one exception. Rhymes with Prey is 67 pages long and unites Jeffery Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme with John Sandford’s Lucas Davenport, as they try to find a serial killer in New York City. The story is complete with both sidekicks, Amelia Sachs and Lily Rothenburg.

The stories take place all over, from New York City and New Orleans to Mexico and South America, and all concern some kind of crime, from murder to kidnapping, to theft.

These authors are not known for writing short stories. Rather, they are snippets of their favorite characters playing with other favorite characters. The writing is good, the stories compelling, and short enough that you can pick the book up and put it down as your time allows. This book is a great way to discover a new favorite writer.

Watchlist edited by Jeffery Deaver
Thriller edited by James Patterson
Thriller 2 and Thriller 3 edited by Clive Cussler and Sandra Brown, respectively

Lori Ludlow, Babylon Public Library

Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is the best storyteller I've read in a long time. Each story picked me up and transported me to another world filled with magic, menace or monsters. He has the imagination of a child, often a very scary child. 

Smoke and Mirrors is the first book I've come across that prefaces all of the stories in the introduction; it's there you find out what inspired him and from which folk or fairy tale it has been spawned. Its title comes from the metaphor for a deceptive, fraudulent or insubstantial explanation or description and is evidenced in the story The Gold Fish Pond in which a write is stuck in L.A. trying to change his inventive story into a schlock story by the people turning it into a movie.

This book is geared towards adults with a good imagination and a dark sense of humor.

Something Evil This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Neil Gaiman's other works

Kathy Carter, Mastics-Moriches-Shirley Community Library (Retired)

Dear Life by Alice Munro

Most of Munro’s stories take place in small towns of her native Ontario. But the settings could be anywhere in North America. The themes she writes about are universal as well. She explores relationships between men and women, between children and parents, betrayals and the idea of sex or romance and its affect on characters lives.

Munro’s stories have compact plots and characterizations that have the impact of novels. Characters can be psychologically and emotionally complex. After reading one of her stories, the reader will go away still trying to understand the characters or the problems they faced. Often the ending is somewhat ambiguous and the reader will have to draw their own conclusion as to motives and outcomes. She may not tell you everything about a character either and the reader is left come to their own understanding. For example, in the story Train we meet Jackson who is something of a drifter. When he leaves Belle abruptly after living with her for many years, Munro says, “She was a certain kind of woman, he was a certain kind of man.” The meaning of this statement might pass over some readers. Not fully comprehending the meaning does not take away from the story either. Reading Munro is like looking at life in its full complexity and marveling at how life is quite unpredictable and surprising. Many of these stories will resonate with the reader long after they have finished reading.

Munro’s tone is calm and the stories reflect ordinary people dealing with ordinary events. Each story is told in an uncomplicated manner, almost as if someone were telling it plainly to another person. The complexity Munro reveals is of human emotion.

The plots of the stories do not always follow a chronological pattern. Munro can begin a story in a certain setting with minor characters and then connect this character to the main part of the story as she does in Leaving Maverly. This story opens in a small town movie theater where we find the theater owner thinking of who will replace the ticket girl who is leaving. He considers Leah, a plain girl who comes from a religious family and isn’t allowed to see or hear the movies that are shown. The main story actually involves the night policeman, Ray, who walks Leah home at night, and has a sickly wife at home.

The last four stories of the collection Munro says are autobiographical in feeling though not always in fact. She explains they are the first and last she has to say about her life. These stories give us some insight into the author’s life from when she was a child up to, as an adult, she recalls her mother’s illness and death. Munro writes that her life was busy with her family and her writing.  She did not go home for her mother’s funeral. She ends the story by saying, “We say of some things that they can’t be forgiven, or that we will never forgive ourselves. But we do-we do all the time.”

Dear Life is a collection of stories that reveal so much of what is wonderful about ordinary life and ordinary people.  Munro is a master short story writer who has said publicly that this is her last book.  For readers who enjoy short stories that are well developed with unforgettable characters there are thirteen other collections of Munro’s stories still to read.

Moral Disorder by Margaret Atwood
The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie
The Golden Apples by Eudora Welty

Myrna Velez, Brentwood Public Library

Burning Bright by Ron Rash

The author's family has lived in Southern Appalachia since the 1700's and it is this region which is the primary focus of his writing. The stories in Burning Bright span the years from the Civil War to the present day. Many are imbued with the stark financial hardship during the Great Depression and the Second World War. . . People with few resources, who were already living from hand-to-mouth, reduced to terrible extremes with no hopes for the future.

In Hard Times, set in the 30's, an eight-year old girl, driven by hunger, has taken to stealing eggs from a neighbor's hen house in the middle of the night. When the neighbor sets a trap, thinking to catch a snake, the child is the victim caught with a fishhook in her mouth.  The horrified neighbor removes the hook and warns her to mend her ways. That night he tries to "dream of a place worse than where he was."

In Dead Confederates, a highway worker unable to pay his mother's hospital bill has been coaxed by Wesley, a co-worker, to join him in a get-rich quick scheme. The plan is to steal valuable Confederate artifacts from a graveyard, and the story’s opening sentence makes no bones about the macabre nature of what will unfold, “I never cared for Wesley Davidson when he was alive and seeing him beside me laid out dead didn’t much change that.” Although the setting is grim, the ending has a comedic twist.

Into the Gorge tells of a man whose family’s property has long since been sold to the government as parkland. When times get tough, he still sees this place as his homestead, even if a city-slicker park ranger thinks otherwise. The narrator winds up not disobeying federal laws so much as failing to see why they outweigh his own ideas of respect and rectitude. 

In one of the other stories this kind of misunderstanding is made even worse by the presence of methamphetamine. In Back of Beyond, a pawnshop owner, who profits from the stolen goods of local meth addicts, comes to the aid of his brother and sister in law when they are threatened by their son.  

In Burning Bright, Marcie, a middle-aged widow is surprised by the ardor of her second marriage to a much younger man who arrived at her home as a handyman and wound up transforming her life. She is so unexpectedly happy that she chooses not to share her neighbors’ suspicions as to the identity of an arsonist in the area. Marcie’s trip to the grocery store, where all of the town’s malice is embodied by the checkout clerk, is a tour de force.

This collection will appeal to all readers from young adult to seniors.

Read-alikes: Recommended by the Author
Harriet Arnow        Jeff Daniel Marion
Fred Chappel          Robert Morgan
Pam Duncan           Lee Smith
Silas House            James Still

Grace O'Connor, West Islip Public Library (Retired)

Summer Lies by Bernhard Schlink

When two strangers meet at a Cape Cod beach and develop a relationship, one feels betrayed by the other because one very important fact is left unsaid. A husband accused of infidelity uses that accusation to justify his subsequent indiscretion. A terminally-ill grandfather gathers his family at a summer home for one last time before he secretly plans to end his life. In these and four more somber stories atmospheric stories, Bernhard Schlink has written a collection that addresses the many facets and consequences of the truth when it is told, and when it is hidden. How does one's own truth and perception of reality shape their world and their relationships? When is it appropriate to share your truth, and when does withholding it become a deception? Schlink's works leave the reader with more questions than answers and plenty of substance for discussion - mandatory tenets of for a well-written short story.

Dark and reflective, painful and compelling, Summer Lies is written in a literary and provocative style that will engage the reader willing to recognize and relate to the commonality they share with the characters portrayed. The choices that the protagonists make throughout this collection are universal, resound with familiarity and are most certainly difficult, but Schlink makes it abundantly clear that the truth - distorted or not - ultimately defines our world and ourselves.

There's Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter
This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz
The Lie by Helen Dunmore
Monday's Lie by Jamie Mason
The Death of Bees by Lisa O'Donnell

Deborah Fermosa, Northport-East Northport Public Library

The Water Museum by Luis Alberto Urrea

Urrea’s stories take place in an environment which had always tested settlers’ ingenuity, but which may have been degraded beyond recovery: the American West and borderlands. In the US, an old lady who can’t abandon her past decides to join it and a naïve rock fan is recruited by a drug lord. In Mexico, a fearless moralizer levitates and a dead soldier’s dreams file out of his brain. On the Prairie, a traditional farmer makes the best of a quest for “American” food in local restaurants run by Chicanos and schoolchildren visit a museum which makes the horrifying extent of a long-term drought clear.

Urrea, a Mexican-American activist and distinguished professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago, writes for and about young men who are making life choices, often across cultural lines. We see the world from their point of view. His stories are written in simple, direct language but vary widely in tone, by turns tragic, comic, otherworldly, and horrifying. His heroes are generally traditionalists who respect the environment as they soldier on in a world threatened by those who don’t.

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Camino del Sol: 15 Years of Latina and Latino Writing edited by Rigoberto Gonzalez
Charlie Martz and Other Stories by Elmore Leonard
Night at the Fiestas by Kirstin Valdez Quade
Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins 

Jackie Malone, Bellmore Public Library