Short Fiction for Fall: Key Collections from 18 Authors, Both Veteran and New

redstarBarkan, Josh. Mexico. Hogarth: Crown. Jan. 2017. 256p. ISBN 9781101906293. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781101906309. Short stories
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A winner of the Lightship International Short Story Prize and other short fiction honors, Barkan turns in a near-perfect debut collection that’s addictive, delicious, and confounding in its knife-edge ride through the hard lives of its characters. Set in a vividly depicted Mexico, where Barkan lives part-time with his Mexican painter wife, it opens with a chef who must think fast to create the perfect meal—and save the lives of his customers—when a notorious narco walks into his restaurant. The teacher who’s told he’ll be killed if he allows two students to continue their affair; the plastic surgeon who knows that by altering a notorious gangster’s face, he’s freeing the man to kill again; the elderly painter who needs a street tough to point out the damage he’s done to his own family—all must recognize that they’re in the power of others and ultimately face impossible choices. VERDICT Highly ­recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 7/11/16.]

Bertin, Kris. Bad Things Happen. Biblioasis. Jul. 2016. 224p. ISBN 9781771960540. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781771960557. Short stories

Backwater towns and ratty urban neighborhoods. Marginalized characters making the best of it, like the teenage girl desperate to get out of town and the somewhat older convenience store man whose story rubs uncomfortably against hers. Or the garbage man new to his job, trying to master the rules, and quickly learning that garbage is the least of what’s ugly about his work and the families he services. It sounds grim, but the stories in this debut collection from award-winning Canadian author Bertin are smart and nuanced, pulsing with humanity. Bertin doesn’t condescend to the damaged lives he carefully portrays, and, like the limo driver here who reimagines versions of a single work night, he’s got a bristly imagination. VERDICT A writer to watch who effectively captures lives lived achingly beyond the glamorous.

Collins, Kathleen. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? Ecco: HarperCollins. (Art of the Story.) Dec. 2016. 192p. ISBN 9780062484154. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062484161. Short stories

A groundbreaking African American filmmaker and playwright, Collins died in 1988 at age 46, and this previously unpublished collection of her stories will have many readers wishing they’d seen her work before. Offered here are acute and lucidly rendered narratives spanning the civil rights era, often illustrating personal fallout. In the masterly title story, a young woman (“the only ‘Negro’ in her graduating class”) contemplates marrying her white lover but senses her father’s displeasure at this “indecent commingling.” Elsewhere, a daughter who lets her hair frizz shocks her father by looking “just like any other colored girl,” and a young woman devastated by the collapse of an adored uncle finally realizes that he proudly “refused to overcome his sorrow”—forced on him by society owing to the “blunt humiliation of his skin.” VERDICT With a quick but searing touch of the brush, Collins crosses racial, gender, and generational divides, and her readers will, too.

Doyle, Brian. The Mighty Currawongs & Other Stories. Red Hen. Sept. 2016. 160p. ISBN 9781597090520. pap. $15.95. Short stories

In the brief but effective story that introduces this new collection from Doyle (Mink River), the protagonist experiences a moment when “everything cracked.” It’s hardly filled with swelling strings or the promise of happily ever after, but it does signal a real divide. In his quiet and economical way, Doyle excels at capturing such moments. Sometimes the change is momentous, as when a jazz band’s singer suddenly loses a certain key texture to her voice; other times, as when the archbishop loses his faith, the consequences aren’t as thunderbolt-shattering as expected. And yet other times, it’s the reader’s consciousness that cracks; an increasingly rancorous exchange between a couple that seems sure to end in violence or breakup surprises us by ending “Did you remember to buy toilet paper and coffee beans?” Relationships can be like that. VERDICT Solid and enjoyable reading for those who want well-crafted stories about everyday life.

Hyde, Allegra. Of This New World. Univ. of Iowa. Oct. 2016. 124p. ISBN 9781609384432. pap. $16. Short stories

ofthisneworld.jpg82916In Hyde’s opening story, an exasperated, take-charge Eve rallies sulky Adam while secretly acknowledging that she will “feel shame and be bent by it.” This brief piece is both tough and magical, like all that follows. Hyde frequently explores teetering idealism, from the Caribbean combination eco–base camp and school run by a former Navy SEAL to the teenager rescued from her parents’ hippie commune to an Englishman upended by 19th-century American Shakers. Hyde is good at developing her ideas fully, though occasionally a piece is more portrait than story; the tale of one young woman’s move away from a former best friend is so achingly memorable one wants more. In the end, though, we see “the sheer horror, the ecstasy of being alive.” VERDICT A luscious collection (and John Simmons Short Fiction Award winner) promising more good things to come.

Jarrar, Randa. Him Me Muhammad Ali. Sarabande. Oct. 2016. 216p. ISBN 9781941411315. pap. $15.95. Short stories

You have to hand it to Jarrar, author of the Arab-American Book Award winner A Map of Home; the heroines in her brave, bright, tell-it-like-it-is collection are generally not submissive. When forced, the sharp-tongued unwed mother who narrates “Lost in Freakin’ Yonkers” chooses her baby over her traditional family; the heroine of “Building Girls” may work for her parents in Egypt, knowing she’ll never leave, but she finds an imam who declares, “Nothing in the Koran says a woman can’t love a woman.” Elsewhere, a girl in Alexandria aims (literally and figuratively) to reach the moon, another in Paramus, NJ, gets kidnapped from a Pathmark, a kestrel found in Turkey with an Israeli tag tells its story, and a college graduate contends with a famed Egyptian feminist. VERDICT Impressively varied in style and content, Jarrar’s collection is recommended for a wide range of ­readers.

Kleeman, Alexandra . Intimations. Harper. Sept. 2016. 256p. ISBN 9780062388704. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062437532. Short stories

Winner of the 2016 Bard Fiction Prize for You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, Kleeman returns with 12 edgy stories that have a surreal, even primal feel. A young woman, sitting in a dining room with her parents, is confused by the increasing number of unrecognizable men (one murderous) claiming to be her suitors, while a dancing-master in an unspecified time and place is smugly convinced that his art can civilize a feral lad who’s staggered into the village. Elsewhere, a journalist fails to connect with a man she’s met while trying to write a story about a dairy farmer, and meteorological events have a scattered impact on family in a too-fragmented narrative. VERDICT Disturbing and fantastical in concept if not in language, these stories have the same disaffected feel as Kleeman’s novel and won’t convince all readers. For Kleeman fans. [See Prepub Alert, 3/21/16.]

Lawson, April Ayers. Virgin and Other Stories. Farrar. Nov. 2016. 192p. ISBN 9780865478695. $23; ebk. ISBN 9780865478701. Short stories

In Lawson’s lengthy closing piece, “Vulnerability,” a young artist confesses to her dealer that the disturbing figures she draws or paints resemble the man who abused her as a child. Later, caught in a triangle with the dealer and the mysterious H., she muses on “men whose powers of observation and inner tension suffuse the air.” That tension, that acute observation, that sense of damaged and damaging sexuality all suffuse Lawson’s accomplished stories. In “The Way You Must Play Always,” a teenager condemned to the rigors of piano lessons after being caught fooling around with her older cousin wreaks havoc when she boldly approaches her teacher’s seriously ill brother. In the title piece, a Plimpton Prize winner actually somewhat less successful than the other tautly strung and full-bodied stories here, a woman abused as a child fears sex with her new husband. VERDICT For all fiction readers.

redstarMacArthur, Robin . Half Wild. Ecco: HarperCollins. Aug. 2016. 224p. ISBN 9780062444394. $24; ebk. ISBN 9780062444417. Short stories

In MacArthur’s polished debut, the women generally want up from the backwoods, even if their mothers have settled in and the men around them cling to forest and field from conviction or perhaps stasis and fear. Angel, who both loves and hates her hard-drinking mother, sees the fields stretching outward and thinks of walking. Katie, whose mom dreamed of being a poet in college but can’t persuade her husband to bring in electricity, is just starting to rebel. After miscarriages and a wild affair with her husband’s best friend, Maggie really does leave. So does Sally, saddened that her shiny new ways irritate her father and that she’ll lose his “wild and unsettling hunger to go deeper, and deeper yet into the heart of the woods.” But things don’t get too sentimental; Cora is aghast at her sweet grandson’s easy racism. ­VERDICT Complex and eminently satisfying stories of rural life; for all readers.

Miller, Mary. Always Happy. Liveright: Norton. Jan. 2017. 256p. ISBN 9781631492181. $24.95. Short stories

Enduring dead-end jobs or relationships, living in trailer parks or rented houses, overdoing it on drugs, liquor, or bad sex, Miller’s affectless heroines don’t lead quality lives. It’s hardly surprising when one of them says, “I try to be as unlikeable as possible.” Well, yes, and their stories can make for depressing reading. But these portraits are also mesmerizing and exactly rendered, and Miller (The Last Days of California) tartly reminds us that for many people, life is defined by hardship, surprise, and just getting by. Says one thoughtful young narrator of the wealthy women who gingerly visit the children’s home where she works, “It makes me want to steal their husbands so they can see how quickly life can rearrange itself into unfamiliar and unpleasant patterns.” VERDICT Despite an occasional sense of sameness, excellent reading for fans of the genre. [See Prepub Alert, 7/11/16.]

Moshfegh, Ottessa. Homesick for Another World. Penguin Pr. Jan. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9780399562884. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780399562891. Short stories

In an early story here, a man encounters the would-be girlfriend of his wastrel younger brother at his parents’ mountainside cabin and “let[s] her do whatever she wanted to do” with him. He concludes, “It was disgusting—just as I’d always hoped it to be.” Moshfegh herself goes fearlessly after the disgusting or uncouth, whether she’s chronicling a widower who works at a residential facility for developmentally disabled adults, a slacker failing to look for a job while half-heartedly picking up girls, or anxious Mr. Wu, who cannot bring himself to profess love to the video arcade woman. As she proved with her Fence Modern Prize in Prose–winning novella, McGlue, Moshfegh excels at going dark; Eileen, a National Book Critics Circle finalist, was downright disturbing. Now she ratchets up her particular gifts in an in-your-face new collection sure to catch attention. VERDICT Not all readers will love, but most will admire Moshfegh’s craft and gutsiness. [See Prepub Alert, 7/25/16.]

Neuenfeldt, Eric. Wild Horse. Univ. of Massachusetts. Sept. 2016. 240p. ISBN 9781625342362. $24.95. Short stories

Lots of tough dudes in this cogent first collection, young men growing up in has-been towns, barely able to keep their blue-collar jobs, even the temp work, or to stay in school for all the rage that’s in them. There’s Champ, finally consenting to sign on for the tree-clearing crew, whose Pop is persuaded to sell the family home by boorish cousin Terry, and the narrator of “Temper,” whose aunt Gloria has hanged herself at the sanatorium, putting him in the way of especially mean cousin Jeep. In the heartbreaking final story, a prison guard’s son acts out after his California-hip mother vanishes. The ending hints at tragedy, while other stories don’t so much resolve as culminate in violence suggesting more to come. VERDICT Winner of the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction, this heartland-set collection is uniformly fine reading.

Oldshue, Robert. November Storm. Univ. of Iowa. Oct. 2016. 140p. ISBN 9781609384517. pap. $16. Short stories

In his debut, an Iowa Short Fiction Award winner, Oldshue demonstrates a nice talent for taking an idea and running with it; these aren’t just spiky little scenarios but fully developed stories. He opens with an older couple who rush out to pick up Thanksgiving dinner as a snowstorm threatens and get involved in a minor car accident, creating a sense of tension on both sides that is gracefully, realistically resolved. Edgier stories follow, with a male prostitute’s encounter with a reluctant client ending tragically and a man’s kooky request to enter a cemetery at night to see where his dying wife will lie turning dangerous. As Oldshue practices family medicine in Boston, it’s hardly surprising that several stories involve the medical profession, e.g., there’s a psychiatrist bored with a fearful patient and the disappearance of a quadriplegic at a nursing home. VERDICT ­Accessible stories that many will enjoy.

Park, David. Gods & Angels. Bloomsbury USA. Dec. 2016. 304p. ISBN 9781408866078. $27; ebk. ISBN 9781408866108. Short stories

Notwithstanding its title, this new work from the multi-award-winning Park (e.g., The Poets’ Wives was selected as Belfast’s One City One Book read) features ordinary people in not exactly extraordinary circumstances, just tilted enough to be revelatory. A private eye who stresses how boring surveillance really is breaks into the home where he once lived with his now estranged wife and child; an educated young man crosses paths with some shady types at a leisure complex, trading his knowledge of the perfect wedding poem for their encouragement in learning to swim; and a 17-year-old dreads his annual Boxing Day visit with his mentally imbalanced mother, on which his cherished father insists. These stories reveal our constant longing amid life’s imperfections, but Caravaggio himself says here, “There is no sense of achievement, no lasting satisfaction.” VERDICT Thoughtful scenarios, polished prose; for all story collections.

redstarSmith, Ali. Public Library and Other Stories. Anchor. Oct. 2016. 240p. ISBN 9781101973042. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781101973059. Short stories

publiclibrary.jpg82916In one surreal if lucidly rendered story in this distinctive collection from Man Booker finalist Smith (How to be both), a woman whose body has sprouted roses says, “I had surprised myself by crying about, of all things, how beautiful a word can be.” In fact, all the stories here are word-drunk; etymology is ever at stake, and one story mourns the loss of British Isles dialects since World War I even as it shows how the poetry of that era captures its “gone voices.” Sharing and preserving such voices are central themes here. As Smith’s introduction explains, “This happens to be a book that celebrates the communal impact on us of books and of reading,” and upon its publication it became part of the campaign to defend UK public libraries from politically motivated service cuts. Included are reflections on the library’s importance from ordinary readers and major authors like Kate Atkinson. VERDICT Original and always surprising. [See Prepub Alert, 4/25/16.]

Sneed, Christina. The Virginity of Famous Men. Bloomsbury USA. Sept. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9781620406953. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781620406977. Short stories

In the opening story of this collection from a Grace Paley Prize winner also noted for her novels (Paris, He Said), a mother exasperated by what she sees as her son’s stubbornly inappropriate love interest suddenly slaps him. They move off “as if nothing had happened, but she knew that something irrevocable had.” Throughout, Sneed repeats that sense of the irrevocable, of the consequences coming from acts large and small, inadvertent or not. A man scouting movie locations in Mexico gets entangled with a beautiful young woman who follows him back to Pasadena and displaces a more appropriate girlfriend. A functionary serving wealthy, conniving men feels trapped, yet he knows that he would be replaced by “a newer version of himself” if he quits. The first, modest writer wife of a gorgeous film star knows she will be replaced but can’t stop her coming downfall. VERDICT Juicy, readable stories for the genre’s fans.

Stone, Laurie. My Life as an Animal. Northwestern Univ. Oct. 2016. 224p. ISBN 9780810134287. pap. $17.95. Short stories

At Yaddo, the famed artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, NY, a 60-year-old writer named Laurie meets charming Englishman Richard, long estranged from his family and a professor in Arizona. They bond over a sense of feeling “not all that alive,” and soon they’re a couple. Through linked stories that are fitted together not by chronology but sensibility (and feel very much alive), the narrator chronicles her relationship with Richard while also revisiting her Jewish upbringing in New York and her earlier adult years, offering rich time-and-place detail along with an intellectual autobiography. It’s not every writer who can move successfully from studying with Kate Millett to freeing a trapped goat to dealing with a mother’s death. VERDICT In the opening story, Richard teases, “This story is a jumble of impressions. You need a plot.” But this diary-like collection by novelist and longtime Village Voice writer Stone proves to be relentlessly readable.

Williams, Joy. Ninety-Nine Stories of God. Tin House. Jul. 2016. 220p. ISBN 9781941040355. pap. $19.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941040362. Short stories

As Pulitzer finalist Williams observes, “Franz Kafka once called his writing a form of prayer,” and these stories are indeed prayer-like in their sculpted simplicity—and proverb-like in their investigation of the world’s mysterious ways. A humanist goes mad countering the idea of intelligent life elsewhere, a brilliant painter continues her work after a debilitating accident, a child and a lion discuss near-death experience, and a man denies his long sober mother a martini on her deathbed as “she’d regret it.” From a reading of Dante’s Inferno on Good Friday to Philip K. Dick’s asking about a girl’s golden fish necklace, belief figures as both backdrop and content here. But the Lord’s intervention in our lives can be uneven. VERDICT Perfect little gems; it’s rare when such short works (many the length of this review) can truly satisfy.

Barbara Hoffert is Editor, Prepub Alert, LJ

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Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (bhoffert@mediasourceinc.com, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.