Grim Christmas

A Midnight Clear by [Hooker, Sam, Leyva, Alcy, Morrison, Laura, Windwalker, Cassondra, Storm, Dalena, Jane, Seven]Title: A Midnight Clear
Authors: Sam Hooker, Alcy Leyva, Laura Morrison, Cassondra Windwalker, Dalena Storm, & Seven Jane
Genre: Short Story Anthology (5 Fantasy & 1 Mystery)
Pages: 250
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/5/19 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of my review.)

Black Spot Books tapped six of their authors to pull together this short story anthology under the overarching theme of “not-so-merry Yuletide whimsy.” The result is truly a mixed bag [insert lame Santa’s sack joke].

The Good: The opening story by Sam Hooker is far and away the best of the lot. Who knew you could combine a sugary cute version of the North pole (reminiscent of what it’s like in the movie Elf) with a visit to R’lyeh? Laura Morrison’s hellish (yet humorous) riff on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is imaginative and entertaining as well, and Dalena Storm’s dive into Slavic mythology wasn’t bad. I wouldn’t take my theology from any of these stories, but they were a lot of fun to read.

The “Meh”: The other three stories left me cold. In a couple, the Christmas element felt shoehorned in, and they all had the kind of pacing that I associate with lousy Christian fiction: the majority of the page count taken up with the protagonist moping, sulking, or mooning around followed by a burst of action at the very end that may or may not connect well with all the repetitive morbid introspection that came before it. Obviously, your mileage may vary.

Overall, the oft repeated descriptor for short story anthologies is “mixed bag,” and that holds very much true here. If nothing else, you need to read Sam Hooker’s cutesy elf/Cthulhu mythos mashup.

Noir, Old and New

The Baby in the Icebox: And Other Short Fiction by [Cain, James M.]Title: The Baby in the Icebox:
And Other Short Fiction
Author: James M. Cain
Genre: Classic Crime Noir (and other random short stories)
Pages: 312
Rating: 3.5 of 5

James M. Cain is best known for gritty crime tales like The Postman Always Rings Twice. If watching guilt-ridden criminals spiral downward into self-destruction is your thing, Cain is your man…though not so much in the first part of this book. This volume collects short stories from various points in Cain’s career, so the first half features vaguely humorous social commentary and back-hills rubes rather than the crime noir you might expect from the title and the ominous fedora-clad silhouette on the cover. Overall, it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing to have some lighter fare at the start because a full 300+ pages of Cain’s typical seedy protagonists and trainwreck lives may have been a bit much. As it was, it was entertaining enough for 3.5 stars, and I can check this off my list for the TBR Pile Challenge.

Title: My Sister the Serial Killer
Author: Oyinkan Braithwaite
Genre: Modern Crime Noir
Pages: “240”
Rating: 3.5

The title gives you the main plot point: our protagonist’s much doted upon younger sister would appear to be a serial killer, and the book follows her life and thoughts as she decides how to handle it. The plot jumps right in with her cleaning up after the her sister’s latest killing. From there it is by turns tense, humorous, and disturbing.

Both the “bond of sisterhood” theme and the Nigerian setting gives a slightly different feel from similar crime noir books, which I appreciated. As far as cultural and language differences go, a few small words such as exclamations, kinds of food, and articles of clothing go untranslated but enough can be gathered from context that they add “color” instead of being annoying.

This is really more of a novella than a full length novel. The page count says 240, but the tiny chapters that cover 1-3 pages with widely spaced lines and manage to spill a few lines onto the next page seem designed to seriously pad the page-count. As a noir story, it is competently executed and worth a read if you don’t mind moral ambiguity, a little grim humor, and loose ends.

“Success to Crime”

Today I will be giving a couple of quick reviews of story collections featuring successful criminals…sort of.

Title: Sleep No More
Author: P. D. James
Genre: Murder Mystery Short Stories
Pages: 208
Rating: 4 of 5

Sleep No More collects six short stories that defy standard expectations for “cozy” mysteries. The settings are what you would expect: manor houses, small English villages, etc. However, in each story the point of view is not that of the primary investigator, and the murderer is not necessarily brought to justice (which does not always mean truly “getting away with it” in the sense of avoiding all consequences). The stories provide a quick, entertaining read as long as you don’t mind your fiction a touch dark and morally ambiguous.

My one criticism would be that the stories are so similar in subject matter that after the first two or three it’s pretty easy to guess where the last three or four are going very early on in the story. It seems a shame to lessen the impact of cleverly out-of-the-ordinary stories by packing them all into one collection rather than interspersing them with more standard fare.

This was my first P. D. James, and I was impressed enough that I’ll definitely have to try one of her full-length books in the future. Any suggestions?

Title: The Saint: Five Complete Novels
(The Man Who Was Clever, The Lawless Lady, The Saint Closes the Case, The Avenging Saint, The Saint vs. Scotland Yard)
Author: Leslie Charteris
Genre: Pulp Vigilante Fiction
Pages: 663
Rating:  2.5 of 5

My previous exposure to the character of Simon Templar, aka the Saint, was the 1997 movie starring Val Kilmer (my wife’s distant cousin). This book stars the original, and there’s very little resemblance to the movie version. Charteris’s Saint is a suave vigilante whose goal is to bring seemingly untouchable criminals to justice, usually also relieving them of a significant amount of money which he donates to charity …after taking his 10% cut, of course.

Simon is reckless and debonaire. He trades snarky quips with criminals who have the drop on him, laughs in the face of death, and uses his agility and physical prowess to save the day, though not always without personal loss. He seems to be the author’s conception of the ideal manly man in a world full of sad sacks, moral cowards, and sensitive snowflakes. It was definitely a mistake to read all five novels close together as his charmingly contemptuous man-boy act wore thin pretty quick (and some casual racism in one book and plot-centric antisemitism in another didn’t help matters). I generally enjoy snarky pulp heroes, but I’ll probably give the Saint a miss from now on.

A Fantasy Sampler

Title: The Overneath
Author: Peter S. Beagle
Genre: Fantasy short stories
Pages: 336
Rating: 4 of 5

This was my first time reading anything by Peter S. Beagle. Judging from the stories in this book, I would say he has versatile writing skills, a good sense of humor, and an obsession with unicorns (I guess when The Last Unicorn is your biggest hit, why not milk it?…not that there are any stories about milking unicorns).

Anyway, this collection offers a wide variety of fantasy stories from folktales to visiting worlds created in previous novels to steampunk(ish…he admits he doesn’t really understand the genre) to urban. No matter the sub-genre his narration has a light touch either in a “isn’t this a folksy charming tale” way, lightly mocking narration, or some combination of the two.

As with any short story collection, I found some stories to be more enjoyable than others, but the difference in enjoyment here had more to do with topic and sub-genre preference than variation in writing quality (e.g. I’m not a fan of stories that celebrate adultery/affairs and there was at least one of those, and the Schmendrick stories were only moderately interesting to me since I have never read The Last Unicorn). Overall, this is well worth reading as a fun sampler of fantasy sub-genres, and I’m glad to have found an entertaining author I hadn’t read before.