Review: Tales of the Jazz Age

Book: Tales of the Jazz Age

Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald

My Rating: 5/5 Stars

My relationship with Fitzgerald is complicated. Aside from The Great Gatsby, I couldn’t make it through any of his novels. I found them to be boring, I hated the characters and the writing was often times too elaborate for my tastes. His short stories, however, I find to be superbly written and entertaining, and Tales of the Jazz Age was no exception.

Originally published in 1922, this vintage edition contains 11 short works that tell stories ranging the full spectrum of human emotion. They explore the mundane and the extraordinary and almost every single one was a great read.

The Jelly-Bean – A slow start to the collection, the short story tells that tale of a Southern man nicknamed “The Jelly-Bean” (real name Jim Powell) due to his lazy and dimwitted tendencies. Powell gets invited to a party and here he gains the attention of a free-spirited, upper class woman whom he fancies. Throughout the night they drink together and gamble together and she takes a liking to him. His dreams, however, are shattered when the next day he finds out she married the boring businessman who had been suiting her. What’s the point? Jim was prepared to change who he was for the love a woman from a different world, but in the end she did what society expected of her and broke his heart in the process. Not everyone gets a happy ending. The interesting part of this one is that Zelda co-wrote it with her husband, in particular the bits about crap shooting.

The Camel’s Back – A very humorous tale about a man who proposes to his longtime girlfriend, and then proceeds to get rip roaring drunk after she declines the proposal. As the story progresses he ends up as the front end in a camel costume and shows up at a party where, lo and behold, his now ex-girlfriend is having a great time. Hilarity ensues. I think the message here is that alcohol can lead to bad judgment. I didn’t need that reminder, but the story was a good time.

May Day – One of the more complex stories in the collection, this one tells multiple inter-twining tales that touched on ideas that I felt were still relevant today. Clashing political ideologies, soldiers’ trouble reintegrating into society, lost innocence, alcohol abuse and false friendships. Fitzgerald says he was trying to capture “the general hysteria of that spring which inaugurated the Age of Jazz” and I felt he was successful in this pursuit. The story was interesting and engaging and again, I was able to draw many similes with today’s problems. I would strongly recommend this one.

Porcelain and Pink – A one act play about a woman taking a bath. I’m sure it ruffled the feathers of some of the more religious and prude of the time. Comical, witty and classic Fitzgerald.

The Diamond as Big as the Ritz – More of a fun fiction than some of Fitzgerald’s other stories, this one follows a young Southern gent as he is brought to the home of a classmate. Upon arrival he is introduced to extravagance he has never even heard of and discovers the mountain the family owns is one large diamond, kept secret from the government and general public by imprisoning anyone who gets close to finding their secret. Good times (read: death and fear) follow as the secret is threatened once again and this young Southerner tries to escape with his life. Well written and pretty funny – one of the best stories in the collection.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Let me preface this by saying I never seen the film adaptation of this story, but knew the general premise going in. I was pleasantly surprised to absolutely love this story about a man who is born into old age and ages in reverse. Seeing life through his eyes as he gets younger and younger was an interesting commentary on what it means to live a meaningful life and what it means to be happy. The ending was both fitting and terrifying as he slowly forgets himself into the simple joys of childhood. A quintessential Fitzgerald story and probably my favorite in the entire collection.

Tarquin of Cheapside – A very short, confusing piece of “poetry”. The one piece in the collection I really didn’t like. I couldn’t tell you what it was about if I tried.

“O Russert Witch!” – My second favorite story in the collection behind Benjamin Button, this one tells the story of a man who works at a book shop and lives in a small apartment by himself. He is essentially a stand in for everyone who wants more out of life but is too afraid to do anything about it. At various points in his life, the man interacts with a mysterious woman and the story is told mostly through these various interactions, which span young adulthood into old age. His attraction to this girl, but fear of approaching her, represents his general approach to life. In the end he realizes the truth about the woman and who she is, which leaves him feeling regret over his life’s choices. He chose an easy, boring existence over passion and excitement and as it closes he realizes it is too late to do anything about it. Typical Lost Generation themes of regret, living life to the fullest and false illusions of happiness.

The Lees of Happiness – A story about a writer and dancer who get married and move to the countryside. After enjoying life for a short bit, the man has a stroke and is left a vegetable. The woman then spends the next few decade caring for him alone in their large country house. When he passes, she is left without purpose and eventually decides to open the house up as a boarding house. There was some commentary here about life’s purpose, regret and loss. It was a little boring, but worth the read.

Mr. Icky – An old man is abandoned by his ungrateful children in this short piece. It was okay.

Jemina, The Mountain Girl – A funny story about two warring clans of bootleg distillers in the mountains. Action packed along with humorously written mountain accents. It was an interesting choice for the end of the collection, but I enjoyed it well enough.

Overall, the majority of stories here were memorable and I took a lot away from this read. Everything I love about reading stories by Lost Generation authors is on display here – regret, loss, love and the purpose/meaning of life. Fitzgerald again proves himself a master of short fiction and I highly recommend this collection for fans of his work. As a final note, the cover of this edition is beautifully bound and I love the simple cover art.

Review: All the Names They Used for God

Book: All the Names They Used for God

Author: Anjali Sachdeva

My Rating: 5/5 Stars

Anjali Sachdeva’s debut short story collection, All the Names They Used for God, is a diverse and outstanding collection of nine stories that range from mystical realism to speculative science fiction. While these stories cover a broad range of topics, I felt they all fit appropriately into this volume and they were all standouts. Sachdeva, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop who has taught writing at a variety of colleges, is an excellent storyteller and her writing style really left me feeling engaged and entranced.

The World by Night – A strong opener, this short told the story of a half-blind woman living on the frontier of early America. When her husband leaves to find work, she is left feeling lonely and sad, but quickly discovers a cave entrance on her land and begins to venture into the cave system. She feels alive in the caves as her lack of perfect sight is made up for by an enhanced sense of touch and smell. The ending was phenomenal and overall this was a story about lost dreams, the fragility of relationships and how we search for purpose wherever we can. A beautiful story that almost felt like a dream; hope and hopelessness are both found here.

Glass-Lung – Probably my least favorite story in the collection, this one is about an immigrant steel worker who is raising a daughter by himself. Things are going well until an accident at work leaves him permanently disabled. It was my least favorite because the plot was a little dull, but Sachdeva still touches on some interesting themes here. As someone who spent four years working in a factory and hearing stories of people getting seriously hurt, I felt this man’s pain at losing everything and going from someone who takes care of his daughter to having her take care of him. The idea of one’s life purpose is a strong theme here and is explored through the lens of the main character, his daughter and the man she falls in love with (an archaeologist trying to make a name for himself). This story also addresses the ideas of love, loss and again that clash of hope vs hopelessness.

Logging Lake – An interesting commentary on modern relationships, this story tells the tale of Robert, a man recently left by his long time girlfriend who decided she wanted more out of life than him. After wallowing in sadness, he meets an adventurous woman named Terri and she invites him on a poorly planned backpacking trip in the Washington wilderness. I really liked this one because I felt it was an accurate portrayal of one of the biggest problems people come across in relationships – that difference in opinion as to the purpose of life. After the breakup Robert tries to reinvent himself and here Sachdeva brings to light the idea that sometimes we need to just accept who we are because changing ourselves for others usually won’t make us any happier. As the story progresses there is a beautiful meshing of magical realism and then in the end Sachdeva asks the reader to decide what defines happiness and a healthy relationship. Did Robert find it or is it all an illusion?

Killer of Kings – I didn’t know who John Milton was before I read this story. It is about an old poet who has lost his sight and an angel visits him to help him write his masterpiece – Milton’s Paradise Lost. As I read this I was a bit confused as to the point, but after reading up on Milton and his work it made a lot more sense. I enjoyed reading her take on Milton’s development from childhood to adulthood and how his work as a writer was an important tool in political revolt. The culmination of his work with the angel leads to an interesting ending which, considering the content of Paradise Lost, was very fitting.

All the Names for God – The story which gives the collection its name is based on the true life tragedy that saw a group of Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the terrorist group Boko Haram. The fictionalized plot follows two of these girls through their slavery and into forced marriages with their abductors. As the plot progresses it begins to intertwine with magic and it is revealed that the two girls have found a way to free themselves and ultimately get revenge on the men who took away so many years of their lives. This one was obviously strongly centered around loss and how people cope with tragedy. The magical twist was interesting.

Robert Greenman and the Mermaid – In my opinion, this was one of the best stories in the collection. A New England fisherman named Robert is by all accounts happy. He has a wife who he is very much in love with, he has managed to stay away from the bottle and he enjoys his work even though it is providing diminishing returns. On one fateful voyage into the sea Robert spots a mermaid and suddenly life loses its luster and he quickly spirals into depression when not near the mermaid. Touching on themes of unhealthy emotional attachment, the human psyche and life/death, this one was one of the most memorable for me.

Anything You Might Want – A story about a man indebted to a Montana magnate and the magnate’s daughter (the protagonist). When the two fall in love and run away together, things quickly crumble and the woman is left to fend for herself in rural Florida. She quickly finds a place for herself in that society and establishes a life there, only to find herself face-to-face again with the man who left her. While there was nothing thematically special here (grass is greener, passionate love never lasts, don’t rely on other for happiness, etc…) the characters were well written and I stayed engaged in the story until the end. I liked the way it all wrapped up.

Manus – What if large fungal blobs invaded Earth and left things pretty much the same, but demanded that everyone replace their hands with metal appendages – aptly nicknamed ‘forks’? This was an interesting take on the typical alien invasion trope and brought up an interesting commentary on rebellion, loss, and again hope. Above all, this story was about fighting oppression and for that reason alone I liked it. The ending was strange and I honestly had to reread the last couple pages to make sure I understood it correctly. In the end it left me wondering if the form of rebellion humans have adapted here is worth the loss? Is it actually preferable to simply losing your hands? I think the answer will depend on your view of totalitarianism, but this story certainly left me thinking.

Pleiades – Two scientists decide to create septuplets through in vitro fertilization – one egg that would become seven baby girls. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, but this one was definitely the most heartbreaking of the collection. This one touches heavily on tragic loss, familial bonds, our will to live and humanity’s sometimes irresponsible use of science. A powerful story and a great ending to the collection. One of my favorites and one that will stick with me.

Overall, I really really enjoyed this collection. A lot of reviewers have stated that the stories didn’t fit together in one volume, but I think the thing that ties them all together is that battle between hope and hopelessness which was a major theme in every story. Sure, Sachdeva touches on a lot of other themes and the stories are all different, but that is what makes a good story collection in my opinion. Let me know what your thoughts are below!

Review: Smoke and Mirrors – Short Fictions and Illusions

Book: Smoke and Mirrors – Short Fictions and Illusions

Author: Neil Gaiman

My Rating: 3/5 Stars

Recommended for: Die hard Neil Gaiman Fans

Reading this book was like sticking my hand into a large jar of loose change. Most of the time you are going to pull out a penny or a nickel, but every once in a while you find that holy grail – the elusive quarter.

Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions is a short story collection by British author Neil Gaiman. Within its pages are 31 short stories written throughout Mr. Gaiman’s career. There is a good deal of variety between the stories, which range from poetry to micro-fiction to your standard length short story, and they all seemed to fit into this aptly named collection. That being said, my overall impressions can be summed up in one word…meh.

As a reader, I love short stories because I feel they give an author the chance to showcase their abilities in a way that differs drastically from a novel. All of my favorite authors are ones who can not only write engaging novels, but also short stories that entrap my attention and leave me wanting more. Sometimes life is moving a bit too quickly to find the time to sit down and enjoy a full length novel, so having the option to dive into a collection of shorter works and make my way through them one at a time is a nice option. Some authors (such as a personal favorite – Ray Bradbury) embrace the short story and come up with masterfully written sagas that blend together to tell an overarching narrative (The Illustrated Man) while some, like Mr. Gaiman, prefer to write stories that mostly stand apart. I enjoy both equally, but like I said above, a great number of these were duds, pennies in a jar full of change.

Minor spoilers to follow as I give small summaries for most of the stories in the collection, along with my thoughts.

Reading the Entrails – Not for me. Gaiman’s poetic style is not one I enjoy reading.

The Wedding Present – This was included with Gaiman’s introduction and was somewhat interesting. A couple gets a novel as a wedding present and each time they open it the story has changed. It kept me engaged, but it wasn’t anything special.

Chivalry – One knight’s search for the Holy Grail in modern UK leads him to an old woman’s mantle. Originally written for a children’s story collection and it shows. It was boring.

 Nicholas Was… – The first piece I really liked! A dark twist on Christmas and I think the first time I have ever seen micro fiction in a published work. I liked it a lot.

The Price – A story about a cat who protects a home from a demon. This was one of the better crafted stories in the collection and was one of my favorites. I don’t even like cats, but this was definitely one of the top three for me.

Troll Bridge – I actually read this one first when deciding whether or not to buy this collection in the bookstore. A child meets a troll under a bridge and then again and again as he grows up. The ending was fitting. One of the better stories in my opinion.

Don’t Ask Jack – This one was really boring. I suppose it was supposed to be a chilling tale of a Jack-in-the-Box, but I honestly don’t even remember what happens.

The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories – A story about a writer’s disillusioned journey to Hollywood and the hotel attendant he meets while he is there. Another hit for me, this one was a bit longer and it was entertaining throughout. I loved the way he portrays Hollywood.

The White Road – More narrative poetry – didn’t make it past the first page.

Queen of Knives – I actually finished this narrative poem, but overall it was meh.

Changes – Interesting concept. A new cancer drug has unintentional side effects when it is discovered it can allow people to change gender on a whim. I liked the dialogue it raises on the ethics of pharmaceuticals and the questions of gender in society. Execution felt like it could have been better, though.

The Daughter of Owls – Rape in olden-times. Not for me.

Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar – I kept thinking it would get better, but in the end I don’t really know what this one was about.

Virus – A short piece on video game addiction. It was also very MEH.

Looking for the Girl – I like stories where the main character goes through their life, but there is always that one constant they come back to. Here it was a girl the main character saw in a dirty mag one day. It was well written and entertaining.

Only the End of the World Again – Cult of Cthulhu tries to sacrifice a werewolf to revive the fallen God. Werewolves and ancient gods – what’s not to like?

Bay Wolf – The werewolf character returns in a different story to kill a monster terrorizing Venice Beach. This one was funny and well written. Two thumbs up.

We Can Get Them For You Wholesale – An entirely average guy finds out his girlfriend is cheating on him and finds an ad for an assassination company to kill her lover. As a man who can never turn down a good offer or a sale, he finds himself in a precarious position when the company rep offers him a deal on multiple hits…This one was funny and I liked the concept, but it kind of peters out as it ends.

One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock – I don’t know who Michael Moorcock Elric is so this one wasn’t my cup of tea.

Cold Colors – More poetry so I inevitably didn’t enjoy it.

The Sweeper of Dreams – Who cleans up your dreams when you wake so you can go about your day as a functional human? What happens if he stops cleaning up your dreams? This one was short, but I wish it had been longer. An interesting concept.

Foreign Parts – For someone with minor hypochondria this was a nightmare to read. I don’t need stories about STDs in my life.

Vampire Sestina – Even more poetry.

Mouse – Another one that I finished without really grasping if there was a point to it all. Boring.

The Sea Change – I wish I had known how much poetry was in this collection and how much his poetic prose bores me.

When We Went to See the End of the World by Dawnie Morningside, age 11¼ – Yawn.

Desert Wind – A poem about a man who sees a mirage in the desert. The only poem I really enjoyed in the collection.

Tastings – Erotic fiction is not for me, so this was not one I enjoyed.

Babycakes – I liked it. Title says it all.

Murder Mysteries – A story within a story of the first murder in Heaven. This was well crafted and entertaining.

Snow, Glass, Apples – A twist on Snow White. Another top three for me and a good selection for the closing piece. At least I will remember this one when I think back to this collection.

If you bothered to read through all of those then you will see I liked about half of the stories in this collection. Mr. Gaiman writes killer novels and is an amazing storyteller, but this one just fell flat for me. I have heard good things about Fragile Things so maybe I will give that a try some day. Unless you are a die hard Neil Gaiman fan, I would recommend passing on this one.

Review: Short Stories of The Founding

Book: The Short Stories within The Founding Omnibus

Author: Dan Abnett

My Rating: 4/5 Stars for all 3

As I make my way back through the Gaunt’s Ghosts series I am doing so with the new omnibus editions. I recently posted my review of the first three books in the series which made up the first omnibus volume titled The Founding. This tome also contained three short stories and I would like to quickly review each before moving on to the next volume, The Saint.

A Ghost Return is the opening piece for the omnibus and gives a little backstory to Gaunt before he became Colonel-Commissar of the Tanith regiment. Here we see him as a new commissar serving with his original regiment, the Hyrkans, during the early stages of the Sabbat Worlds Crusade. The plot follows Gaunt and a squad of Hyrkans as they travel deep underneath a hive city to discover a supposed shrine to Saint Sabbat herself – a site that would be very valuable to Warmaster Slaydo if proven credible. Coming in having already read most of the series, I can’t say how well this would hold up as an opener to a newcomer, but I really liked this short introduction to Gaunt. It gives the reader a good understanding of what kind of leader he is and what kind of man he is on the battlefield. It has a good sense of mystery and some action to keep things moving forward. Overall, I felt this was a very well balanced opener to the series for the length of the piece.

Of Their Lives in the Ruins of Their Cities sits nicely in between ­First and Only and Ghostmaker as the second short story of the omnibus. It tells the story of one of Gaunt’s early actions with the Tanith First and Only on the planet of Voltemand. Gaunt leads a small scouting party of Ghosts into a no-man’s land and is ambushed by enemy forces. The troopers around him still seethe with resentment for his decision to abandon Tanith to its fate and not allow them to die in its defense. Now they must decide whether to leave him out to dry and possibly fall to the enemy themselves as a result, or band together and follow their charismatic Colonel-Commissar to victory. The reader is given a look into Gaunt’s psyche as he is haunted by his past and we also meet many characters that go on to become core Tanith soldiers to the series’ later novels. The story was action packed per Abnett’s typical style, this time showing the Ghosts learning to fight as a unit in one of their first engagements. This is a solid addition to the series and I highly recommend to anyone reading along.  

In Remembrance closes this omnibus and the first arc of the story of Gaunt’s Ghosts. It is told through the POV of an artist commissioned by a Vervunhive noble house to commemorate the war that took place in the novel Necropolis. The artist was explicitly told to represent the regiment that was so pivotal to the hive’s victory, the Tanith First and Only. As the sculptor spends time with the Ghosts in the dead hive city he is given a glimpse into what the victory cost the people of the city and the soldiers who survived the defense. As he accompanies a squad of Ghosts into the dead city on a run to clear an area of potential resistance still dug in, he is subjected to the horrors of battle. The story ends with him describing the statue he ends up erecting outside of the dead hive city and how he inevitably couldn’t fully capture his feelings from that day. In Remembrance was very humanistic compared to other Gaunt’s Ghosts novels and focusses on how the surroundings and events impact this non-combatant through whose eyes we see the events unfold. It was a very fitting end to the omnibus and I felt it was a great wrap up to Necropolis specifically.