Short Fiction : Gems from the North Carolina Digital Library

As a reader, I’ll read fiction and nonfiction in approximately equal amounts.  And when I just have snippets of time to indulge, short stories are hard to beat.

The North Carolina Digital Library has you covered if your yen for fiction goes for the shorter works, and whittling down your search to short story specifics is easy – just click on the Subjects link on the upper left hand side, and then scroll down to the link for short stories, and you’re there.  You can sort by popularity, author, title, and more.

Here are some suggested titles to get you going.  Some of the authors you might recognize.  Included are collections by specific authors and some anthologies (collected works by different authors).   Genres include general fiction, westerns,  science fiction/fantasy, and mystery.  This list is not comprehensive, but a jumping off point for further reading adventures.

Dear Life by Alice Munro – winner of the Nobel Prize in 2013, Canadian writer  Munro continues honing her craft of the short story in this collection.

Ford County by John Grisham – proof that the writer of courtroom thrillers can try  his hand at shorter fiction, and succeed.

The Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy 2019 edited by John Joseph Adams and Carmen Maria Machado – sometimes you might want to switch up your authors, and have your reading to be more…otherworldly.

Tenth of December by George Saunders – the acclaimed author in Lincoln in the Bardo shows his prowess in the short story form.

Unexpected Stories by Octavia Butler – two stories previously unpublished by the author of Kindred and Parable of the Sower.  Also, take a look at Bloodchild and Other Stories.

Law of the Desert Born by Louis L’Amour –  for those readers who like the Western genre – the king of them all shines in this collection.

For the Sake of the Game edited by Laurie R. King and Leslie S. Klinger – this anthology reimagines the world of Sherlock Holmes through the eyes of a variety of authors, who either stick to the Holmes/Watson script, or go off on their own tangents.

A People’s Future of the United States edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams – another collection of speculative fiction, with an emphasis on new visions for our country.

Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch – the author writes of children, outcasts, and the desperate in this startling collection.

Where the Light Falls : Selected Stories of Nancy Hale edited by Lauren Groff – mid-twentieth century writer Hale gets her due in these twenty five tales that showcase the talent of a writer who won several O. Henry awards in her time.

As I mentioned before, this is not a comprehensive list of short story collections, but a beginning point for lovers of short fiction.  All of these and more are part of the ebook collection of the North Carolina Digital Library, accessible through the Greensboro Public Library.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

The Dresden Files : A Series by Jim Butcher

Last year I found myself in the Central Library’s Science Fiction & Fantasy section Storm Frontbrowsing for my next read when I happened to come across a series by author Jim Butcher called The Dresden Files. I leafed through a few pages of one I picked out randomly and found myself curious enough that I located the first book in the series, titled Storm Front, and checked it out.

The premise of the series is straightforward enough – Harry Dresden is an actual wizard living in modern day Chicago.  He works as a magical private eye of sorts; his office being located downtown in one of the older buildings.  His advertisement in the Yellow Pages lays it out rather succinctly what he does:

Harry Dresden – Wizard
Lost Items Found.
Paranormal Investigations.
Consulting.  Advice.
Reasonable Rates.
No Love Potions, Endless Purses, Parties,
Or other Entertainment.

Harry is written as a mildly gruff person, but with a good heart.  I always picture him in my mind as being like Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart in the movie the Maltese Falcon), only very tall and wearing a weathered long black leather duster.  He’s not there to hold long, polite conversations – he’s there to solve the mystery he’s working on.

Harry Dresden lives in our ordinary world, but has access to a magical realm inhabited by creatures with powers beyond our understanding.  There is a backstory to this series that is filled in slowly, book by book, helping the reader to appreciate Harry’s unique position in the universe.

As you dive into Storm Front you quickly learn of Harry’s second job – consultant to a special branch of the Chicago Police Department that investigates bizarre crimes caused by magic.  The head of the department, Lieutenant Karrin Murphy, is barely five foot tall, and a determined woman with courage, and skills in the martial arts.  She’s friends with Harry, and a proven ally against the darker sides of the magical realm.  These cases often prove dangerous for Harry, but then it wouldn’t be a proper adventure without a generous helping of danger!

In Storm Front Harry is brought in by Murphy to investigating the murder of two lovers who were killed rather spectacularly during a very intimate moment.  Ordinary police crime scene tools can’t solve this case; only Harry’s wizardly gifts can help lead them to the culprit before they strike again.  At the same time, he is hired as a private investigator to help a woman find her husband, who has been missing for several days.

Fool MoonA common theme in The Dresden Files series is that Harry never seems to have a weekend off, or time to play.  You know the old saying, “if it’s not one thing, it’s another!”  Harry has a small number of friends to draw strength and help from, but an equal – if not larger – number of enemies.

From his constant problems with modern day electronics or technology, to the numerous times he escapes a horrible fate by the skin of his teeth, Harry’s adventures prove to be both thrilling and enjoyable.  In his second book in the series, Fool Moon, Harry finds himself pitted against a pack of modern-day urban werewolves.  Forgive me for saying this, but it’s a howling good adventure.  And the ending comes as a pleasant surprise, too!

The Greensboro Public Library owns most of the books in The Dresden Files in our print collection, as well as our ebook collection through the North Carolina Digital Library.  If you are stuck at home looking for a fun fantasy read with lots of adventure, please check the series out!

(Robbie Owens, Information Services)

The Changeling by Victor LaValle

A father loses his wife and infant child and goes to near-mythological lengths to findchangeling them.

Apollo Nagwa is the son of a Ugandan woman and an American father.  His dad left them when Apollo was quite young; memories of his father reverberate in repeated nightmares throughout Apollo’s childhood.  His only connection with his dad are his nightmares and a nondescript box with mementos and a favorite Maurice Sendak book.

Being of a bookish sort, Apollo parlays his knowledge into a used and rare book business.  Most of his stock he buys from estate sales and such, and the occasional rare book is just that – a rare tidbit that keeps his business barely running.

It’s during his browsing of a book sale at a library branch that he meets the love of his life.  Emma is a small woman of determination, a librarian who steals Apollo’s heart.  They marry, she gets pregnant, and they have a most unnatural natural birthing on a broken down subway car.  Brian, named for Apollo’s long-gone father, is their new addition.

Sounds like the beginnings of young family bliss?  Think again – things quickly become crazy.

Emma has a period of postpartum depression.  She then loses interest in the baby almost entirely.  By contrast, Apollo is the doting daddy – he takes their child everywhere, and posts an insane amount of baby pictures to Facebook.

In an unspeakable act of violence, Emma tears apart what’s left of their idyllic existence, and she and the baby are gone.  After hospitalization and imprisonment, Apollo goes on his own hero’s journey through the five boroughs to find his wife and child, helped by his friend Patrice, a war veteran turned computer geek, and egged on by a nerdy stranger interested in a crazy-good book find of Apollo’s.

The Changeling uses themes from myths and fairy tales, along with modern takes on technology and race, to spin its intriguing yarn of betrayal, love, and hard knocks.  The book is a rambling read, well-written and with plenty of unnerving jolts – it kept my interest up, even when reading it on an iPhone.

There be witches and monsters in the Big Apple.

The library has The Changeling in book form and eBook.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

name of the windKote is an innkeeper in a rural village where mostly nothing happens and news of the world comes from bigger places.  He has his regulars, a loyal assistant named Bast, and the quiet respect of the townspeople, even though he is relatively new to the area.

Kote also has a past that he’d rather keep hidden, which he does, up until unearthly things begin happening, and a stranger known as the Chronicler arrives, wanting to know more of Kote’s background.

Kote is actually Kvothe, a figure of legend.  Born within a troupe of wandering performers called the Edema Ruh, Kvothe proves to be a quick study of song and stage practice that his parents teach him – actually, he’s a quick study of practically anything, be it languages or more esoteric arts.

When Abenthy, a self-professed arcanist, begins to travel with Kvothe’s troupe, the young boy makes fast friends with him, and learns far more than he’d have dreamed from Abenthy.  Abenthy also raises Kvothe’s awareness of the University, and the possibilities of the knowledge he could acquire from studying there.

Abenthy eventually settles down and leaves the troupe, and tragedy hits, in the form of demonic beings known as the Chandrian, who kill all of the troupe except Kvothe.  In a daze of mourning, he makes it to the insanely big city of Tarbean, where he lives by his wits, until by luck and sheer chutzpah, Kvothe makes it to the University and begins his work in earnest.

Now, if only he could stay out of trouble…

A gradual hero of sorts, Kvothe becomes a master of public perception, while he scandalizes the masters of the University, makes enemies (and sometimes some powerful ones), secures a coveted musician’s rating in the nearby town, and gets the girl (or not).

The Name of the Wind is a sprawling yarn of a vaguely medieval world where magic of a sort is real and legends grow more fanciful  with each telling.  You probably won’t finish it quickly (the book clocks in at 660-some pages) but be prepared for quite a journey.  There’s some slogs in places here, but for the most part, I felt The Name of the Wind to be worth my while.

The Wise Man’s Fear is book two, if you want more.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

The Vine That Ate The South by J. D. Wilkes

vine that ate the southThere is a mythical part of western Kentucky knotted by rivers where the supernatural reigns supreme.  Angels and monsters lurk here, time forgets itself, and stories tell of a vicious vine of kudzu that has eaten an older couple in their own house.

Our nameless hero, a man-child in his thirties, is a shy and shamed member of his small town.  Fatherless at an early age, he has existed into adulthood without much of a mark in the world.

His friend Carver Canute is a societal outsider like himself, but stranger and crazier, with an Elvis pompadour and bad teeth.  Together, our fabulous duo travel on an epic bicycle ride to find the legendary vine and do battle with the supernatural critters that populate the Deadening, the forest of mystery in which they journey.  Along the way, they encounter torrential rain, rideable dust devils, gun-toting property owners, snakes, and a haunted Masonic temple.   What they intended as a day lark becomes an odyssey of horrors.

Suspend all belief when reading The Vine That Ate The South.  Instead, just dig in and enjoy this hillbilly hero’s journey to the dark side.  The humor is earthy and profane, the imagery that of old-time religion and the natural world, all slammed together into a ghastly, funny conglomeration.  Oh, and the pictures are interesting too.

To see what the author is about, check out J. D. Wilkes’ website here.  He appears to be about as crazy as his book.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

It is to be expected that a graveyard comes alive with ghosts at night-time.  One wouldlincoln in the bardo imagine they congregate and converse in a social manner, and perhaps gossip about new arrivals.

This book expands on this idea, the setting being Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown in the year 1862.  It is the aftermath of  Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie’s death at the age of eleven.  Obviously, his parents were devastated.  The rumor was that President Lincoln would visit the crypt his son was interred in and actually remove the body from the coffin to mourn over.

The night time residents of Oak Hill take note of their human nocturnal visitor, as well as talk to the ghost of his son, who is bewildered as to why he can’t interact with his father.  And as Willie lingers here, in this purgatorial state or “bardo“, his soul is increasingly in peril, as the ectoplasmic denizens of Oak Hill experience in graphic detail, when they try to help Willie along the next leg of his journey – and find theirs as well.

A cast of dozens tell the tale here in Lincoln in the Bardo, a sad yet playful view of the afterlife.  The book alternates between events of the “real” world (White House parties, the Civil War, Willie’s sickness) and the drama of the spirit world, populated by dandies, preachers, slaves, miscreants, and others.  The narrative is fanciful and occasionally confusing, but let your mind go…well, back to the 1860s, put things in context, and the subject matter will make more sense.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

 

Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle

Abe and Joanna have had an arrangement for over twenty years.  He lives with his books summerlongand homebrewed beer on Gardner Island in Washington State, and she lives in a condominium in Seattle.  Togetherness is only a ferry ride away.  They are reasonably content growing old with each other; their main challenge is Joanna’s grown daughter Lily, luckless in love and still growing up.

Disruption of their routine comes in the form of Lioness Lazos, a mysterious young woman who waits tables at their favorite restaurant.  Both Abe and Joanna (and Lily, for a different reason) are immediately taken with Lioness.  Initially homeless, Lioness gladly accepts the offer of Abe’s garage as a residence, and the once moldering building transforms into a real home of sorts.

The island changes as well.  An unheard of stretch of warm weather segues into a lengthy spring and summer.

Other people are beguiled by Lioness, including the neighbor’s children.  Abe and Joanna discover hidden desires of their own.  Lily, at first in love with Lioness, finds a strange and sweet bond with her.  But there are uncanny things that people start noticing, and powers lying beyond the island eventually catch up to Lioness and her idealized corner of the world.

Summerlong brings together classical myth and old love to create a quiet, satisfying fantasy.  In the meeting between the otherworldly and the mundane, all are changed, sometimes unexpectedly.

This one, surprisingly, is my first go at a Peter Beagle book.  He’s been writing novels and short stories, sometimes sporadically, since The Last Unicorn way, way back (OK – 1968).

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

Vellitt Boe is a professor at a women’s college in the fictional city of Ulthar.  The suddendream-quest disappearance of one of the school’s prize students throws the college’s future in doubt.  The dean wants Vellitt to find the young lady, and Vellitt, a wanderer in younger days, is game for the journey.

The man who wiled the student away is what they call a waking-world man – someone from a universe that is essentially ours.  Ulthar, by contrast, lies in a world of seething skies and a handful of stars by comparison to ours.  This world is overseen by a clutch of unpredictable gods and inhabited by a host of weird creatures.  Indeed, most people stick to what is known and traveled.

Vellitt, in contrast to others, has traveled much of their known world and some of its unknown parts, so she is perhaps the best choice for the trek, although Vellitt is now in her mid-fifties and considered old in their society.  She is, however, a person of extreme resolve, and as Vellitt makes her way through the dangerous backcountry, she feels again her youthful ambitions.

She is not alone.  A small black cat from Ulthar has chosen to make the journey with her, and as time passes, proves its worth, particularly when Vellitt meets a former lover.  He is a waking-world man himself, now king in a distant country, who may know the answer to her student’s whereabouts.  Even after their meeting, Vellitt will still endure a horrific trek through an underworld peopled by beings that are carnivorous – and that would be an understatement.

The world of this book is based on a universe H.P. Lovecraft created for a series he wrote called the Dream Cycle.  Think of The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe as a feminist re-imagining of Lovecraft’s universe.

I enjoyed this book.  It’s a quick read, definitely for fantasy fans and people who enjoy a heroine’s journey.  The ending was unexpected and a little abrupt, and I could say, a little bit out of place with the rest of the book, but that might have been the author’s intent.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

The Hike by Drew Magary

Ben is supposed to meet his vendor during a business trip at some odd mountain top hotel.the-hike  As Ben arrives first, he’s game to explore the terrain surrounding the inn.  And indeed, there is a defined path that seems tailor-made for a woodsy stroll.

Ben’s hiking bliss does not last.  And in the next few days (years) of his life, it will seem that Ben’s every nightmare and bad memory manifest themselves into things more horrific to be imagined.  He tangles with homicidal dog-faced men, a man-hungry giant (literally), and all other sorts of creatures that seem determined to steal his very being.  Ben also meets help along the way, including a vaguely familiar older woman who gives Ben some valuable seeds, and a talking crab who adds some comic relief along the way.

Ben learns, and often the hard way, that remaining on the path is crucial to his survival, and return to his real life.  It’s tough to adhere to a path that cuts through ocean and terrain alike, but Ben manages, even though he bungles along through most of his travail.

The Hike is a modern-day fairy tale, a hero’s journey of sorts, a Bildungsroman of a grown man who badly needs to let go of the horrors of childhood. The book is by turns horrific and whimsical.  Ben is a believable Everyman, an average Joe that you will cheer on even when he’s being an idiot.

I started this one after plowing through a shorter book that I didn’t like.  The Hike was a much, much better choice.

Pair this one with John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things, another good book brimming with fantastical, scary, and humorous elements.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

 

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Anansi_BoysFat Charlie Nancy has a solid life – a decent job in London, a devoted fiancée – but a life as boring as drying paint.  Then his father dies, and things change.

His dad passes away happily, as the life of the party at a karaoke bar in Florida.  At the funeral, Fat Charlie learns that he has a brother, and that his father was Anansi, the trickster god.  And when his brother Spider comes calling, Charlie’s routines end.

He goes out partying with his brother and wakes up with a stranger.  After Spider “subs” for Fat Charlie during his hangover, the job situation gets…odd, when his cliché-spouting menace of a boss takes a strong interest in Fat Charlie’s computer and suddenly gives him a bonus and time off.

Spider also takes a fancy to Fat Charlie’s fiancée Rosie and things get very strained between the two siblings, enough for Charlie to wish his charming, otherworldly brother gone.  He enlists the help of a supernatural kind, the kind that makes a flock of birds an unholy menace – and Fat Charlie realizes he’s gone too far.

In Anansi Boys, Gaiman reworks sibling rivalry into a rollicking yarn that flirts with the mythological and primordial.  Gods and nature spirits interact with and (more than occasionally) become humans.  And shy Fat Charlie…becomes a lot more himself in a bumbling and humorous hero’s journey, as he saves the day for many, reconciles with his brother, and gets the girl, although I won’t say who or how.

It’s all in the story and the song – and being sly doesn’t hurt.

(William Hicks, Information Services)