The Horror of the Ordinary by Richard Krause

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Nothing is as it seems in Richard Krause’s second collection of stories, The Horror of the Ordinary.

The 23 stories play with appearances, ironies and mysteries.  Some stories deal with masks characters hide behind. Fur coats or good deeds or fat or escape conceal ulterior motives.  Sometimes the crimes characters obsess over bringing to justice are the very crimes they fear they commit. Other stories turn perceptions on their heads.  A sniper’s target is mistaken as Osama bin Laden. A restaurant customer can hardly eat his food imagining it was made by Israeli operatives, when, in fact….  The stories reference Kafka, only, in these tales, animals are personified rather than people turning into animals. The final narratives are longest and most self-reflective and existential, asking questions about identity and the nature of storytelling.

First sentences tantalize.  “It was like he was visiting them,” one story begins.  What is “it”? Who is “he” and “them”? The narrator is often tangential to the main character, a distant yet invested observer.  As the stories progress and pronouns become persons, the point is not for the plot to become clear; rather, the point is the act of uncovering layers that obscure and complexify the truth.  The texture is rich and thoughtful. 

Much contemporary literature taunts readers to deduce the target its symbols point to.  Instead, Krause is candid with symbols, fileting them open and exploring their depths. Beetles, cockroaches and splinters explode into infestations.  Political and personal atrocities plague the text, from the treatment of animals to concentration camps to orphanages to food hoarding during the Great Depression to the current obesity crisis.  Sexual fantasies turn perverse. Pedophiles lurk in plain sight. Victims inflict revenge when perpetrators least expect it. Be ready to confront a disturbing dark side in these stories. The bright side is the book’s careful, artistic attention to visceral and psychological detail developed into stories as intricate as a Japanese puppet show.

The Horror of the Ordinary is a collection of surreal, grotesque and beautiful short fiction breaking open the mundane as a carrier for the absurd.   Find the book on Amazon

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The Colonel and the Bee by Patrick Canning

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Hold onto your hats for this 19th century hot air balloon adventure hosted by a dapper detective and an escaped aerial artist!

The story begins in Switzerland as Beatrix (Bee) awaits a routine beating from her boss, circus ringleader, Ziro.  That is, after she wows dinner guests at a mountain mansion, on behalf of the circus. Bee and one guest, the Colonel, a tall chap in a top hat, both find themselves fleeing the evening’s gathering.  Bee joins the crew aboard the Colonel’s floating home, the Ox, on a hunt for just what or whom she will have to deduce as she goes along with the Colonel’s (literal) fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants approach.

An alchemy of exquisite detail and colorful characters yields a robust plot.  Bee and the Colonel build up as characters from the outside in. Bee’s scant circus attire and the stench of the Colonel’s yak urine lip balm concealed by fresh flowers tucked in his suit’s crevices reflect complex inner traits.  Bee’s acrobatic single-mindedness offsets the Colonel’s larger than life demeanor. The hard working Scottish couple, a scatterbrained lighthouse attendant and a host of animals also inhabiting the Ox compete with the Weasleys from Harry Potter for best supporting roles.  The entourage serve each other well traveling through Europe and Northern Africa on a scavenger hunt with warring treasure seeking families. Drawings at the end of each chapter highlight the playfulness of the story.

The story steers clear of moralizing.  The treasure hunting families are clearly the bad guys up against a dynamic family of free spirits.  But winning or losing is not the point. Set in the 1800s, the book is a refreshing break from dystopias, saving the climate, and other subjects of much current young adult fiction.  Steering a floating building, training birds, planning prison raids and sewing torn envelopes are the stuff of this book’s adventures. Romantic intrigue takes a back seat to a deeper love; the book celebrates the age old virtues of friendship.  

A coming of age story for all generations, The Colonel and the Bee entertains and warms the heart.       Check of the author’s website

Circe by Madeline Miller

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Goddess Circe, daughter of Helios, discovers her magical powers after she is banished to the island of Aiaia for meddling in mortals’ affairs.

Well known tales of Odysseus, Medea, Athena, the Titans versus the Olympians take surprising turns from Circe’s perspective.  Ancient myth is brought to life in Circe’s first person account of finding out who she truly is.

This book dignifies humans and keeps divinity in check.

The Cracks in Our Armour by Anna Gavalda

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In Anna Gavalda’s eleventh book, The Cracks in Our Armour, ordinary moments open up to timeless revelations.

Mostly men, and some women, young and old, tell these seven tales in first person.  A voluptuous immigrant girl falls for a poet at a party in Paris. A recent widow befriends a stranger, who confesses her own woes.  A truck driver buries the dog he loved despite not naming it so he wouldn’t get attached. An older man and younger girl go on a date to McDonald’s.  An insurance assessor defends his son for a misdeed at school. A worn-down businessman tries to say goodbye to a new friend discovered dead. Hungover on a train ride home after a bachelor party, a traveller’s seatmate draws his portrait.     

Gavalda’s previous books largely center around women characters (with the exception of 95 Pounds, about a boy).  These latest stories tackle the male perspective.  They are about people having difficulty talking about their feelings.  They are about coming to terms with mysteries and accepting new circumstances.  The writing finds innovative ways to elucidate what isn’t easily expressed. The jolting syntax, stream of consciousness style prose of the last story in particular, perfectly portrays the hardly-lucid narrator.        

While the heavy topics of death, torturous childhoods, financial distress and alcohol abuse are in the background of the stories, characters give each other hope.  Each “I” is clear and distinct, with slang and dialect. Each narrator’s side comments about their own storytelling shows self-awareness, self-possession. These developed narrators are able to see into other people they encounter.  The vulnerability between characters is tender, leaving a reassurance that it’s safe to open up.

The Cracks in Our Armour is a feel-good literary collection, mining the best of humanity.    

An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma

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A modern African version of the Odyssey, this is the tale of one man’s quest to show his betrothed how much he loves her.  He goes to Hell (Cyprus) and back, but where does he ultimately end up?

Narrated by his chi (daemon) testifying on his behalf to a cosmic tribunal.  Chorus played by a poultry flock.  A tragic opera of mythological proportions.

The Mourning Islands by Douglas Wells

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The Mourning Islands, setting and title of Douglas Wells’ third novel, becomes home to its lonesome characters – as well as a battleground for competing interests.

Talmon Bonnett is not long out of the hospital, recovering from service in Mogadishu, when he’s hired by investors to spy on the manager of a fancy new resort they’re building on the Mourning Islands.  But Talmon quickly befriends the manager, larger-than-life Rusty, his sultry voiced sister, Marlene, and his vulnerable fiancee, Claire. Talmon and Rusty get stuck between the real investors in the resort, shady Cuban crime bosses, the Maldonado brothers.  When Talmon’s employers reveal their true mission for him, he must decide where his motivations lie.  Loyal to Rusty, in love with Marlene and compelled by Claire, whose sad life has made her older than her age, he confronts anxiety and fear residing in him “like a coiled serpent” (149).

Talmon captivates from the start.  Understated, mysterious, a loner with a dark past that flashes behind his eyes, he reminds of Bladerunner.  Told from his perspective, the writing is observant and unemotional. He is a man of few words, allowing others to come into the foreground.  Marlene, in particular, shines in his eyes. She’s worth taking risks for. She gives him someone to dream about and plan a future around. Their attraction increases the drama surrounding the resort; whatever happens with the resort has bearing on their love.  He sees himself in Claire, running from her messy past. Rusty is a born leader, charismatic and fun-loving. Taken as a team and adhoc family, these characters elicit confidence and compassion over and against the conniving Maldonados.

This is no simple tale of good versus evil, however.  The heroes and bad guys are shades of both. There’s an undercurrent of cynicism and despair coursing through the narrative.  Rusty concludes, “You lose, you win. It’s American way” (192). Yet, the natural beauty of the Mourning Islands and budding love provide a counterargument.  Well-drawn gruesome fight scenes are offset by tender romance scenes. A complex web of backstabbing and greed make for a meaty plot to get wrapped up in. The conclusion is a realistic mix of justice and casualties.

A crime thriller, The Mourning Islands is also a thoughtful story about the lengths we’ll go to beat demons and fulfill dreams.  Author site

3 recommendations

I’ve taken a break to read for pure enjoyment, without reviewing.  But the books I’ve read have been so good, can’t pass up an opportunity to recommend them.

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Witty, gruesome, catty, and tender.  These stories let our favorite fantasies become our worst nightmares, then die.  As addictive as kombucha.

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2 novels in one; one story from 2 perspectives.  Or is it 2 sides of the same coin?  An arts high school hosts a young British theatre company…

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A traumatic, funny, feisty account of an Icelandic girl during WWII and after.  Even when she wants to, life doesn’t let her give up.