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Lindsay Hunter owes as much to Denis Johnson as she does to Mary Gaitskill. Her short stories, collected in Don’t Kiss Me (FSG Originals) do not hesitate to descend into the primal urges and dark, lusty behaviors that make us all animals at our core, but they also shine a light on the truth, a nugget of goodness at the center of what is quite often a lonely, depraved and tragic journey, one blanketed in a desire to be seen, to be loved—no matter who we are, or what we’ve done. Hunter’s characters work at diners and long to be included, they take care of their children while embracing their shortcomings, they chase boys into cornfields and kiss their best girlfriends, all the while longing to feel special and included.

My Education by Susan ChoiSusan Choi is known for novels centered around what’s been called “the American experience”: moments or events in contemporary history that are familiar to all. One of her previous books, A Person of  Interest, was about an Asian-born academic suspected of Unabomber-like activity; another, American Woman, was a fictionalized account of the Patty Hearst kidnapping. My Education, her latest novel, just out from Viking, is a departure in that it doesn’t have an event tie-in, unless it’s meant as a comment on a rampant and particularly contemporary sort of narcissism. Set at a Cornell-like upstate university, the education of the title is Regina Gottlieb’s, the book’s narrator, and refers less to an academic education than to one that is sexual and emotional.

0513-red-moon-book-coverRed Moon is not merely about the werewolf, that familiar history and archetype—no, Red Moon (Grand Central) by Benjamin Percy is a brilliant blend of genre horror and literary poetics that reveals the creature in us all, and a debate about what it is to be human and where our priorities rest. Weaving a hypnotic tapestry of connected stories, Percy allows us to follow a cast of characters, good and bad, on an epic journey that distills the heart and soul of other classic post-apocalyptic tales such as The Stand, The Road, and Swan Song. Part of the new movement of genre-bending work that is dominating publishing today, Percy has written a novel that is approachable and yet layered, familiar and yet unique, ancient and achingly visionary.

Bobcat and Other StoriesThere is something deeply likeable and satisfying about the eight stories in Bobcat and Other Stories, the new collection by Rebecca Lee. Each one is a full landscape peopled by believable characters who stumble along in recognizable ways. Lee takes her time developing the stories and they deliver the more complete satisfactions of longer works. But it’s the writing itself that is the real standout here. Lee writes in a way that is profoundly clear one minute and deeply strange the next, meaning her observations and descriptions can be startlingly unexpected – and they are wonderful for that.

halfhappyShort stories can be as satisfying to read as longer fiction, but I usually prefer them one at a time. Collections, for me, can be difficult to get through. I have to really like a writer’s voice to stick with it through story after story where the characters, settings and themes will likely change but the voice, probably, will not. That consistency of voice – necessary, pleasurable in a novel—can be relentless in a collection.

imagesI can’t write this review without disclosing that After Visiting Friends is my story. Or so it felt, as I read. Like Hainey, I am a member of what he calls the DFC, the Dead Father’s Club. Hainey was six when his father died at age 36 in Chicago. I was seven when my father died at 32 in Detroit. A veil of silence hung over the details throughout Hainey’s childhood. And mine.

donnybrook

If your best chance of securing a future is to fight in a “Donnybrook,” a three day fighting match where ponying up $1,000 gets you in, and your chances of getting out in one piece are slim, then maybe you need to reconsider the path you have chosen. Frank Bill’s gritty, violent, and grim debut novel, Donnybrook (FSG Originals) is not for the faint of heart, as the body count is high, and the actions desperate and brutal. But buried in the bruised flesh are the stories of Jarhead, a desperate fighter, Angus, a drug dealer, and Fu, a martial arts enforcer—men with a strange sense of honor that lurks beneath their questionable actions, doing what they have to do in order to survive, to protect their own, and to please their employers. Meth cookers and dealers, drunks and addicts, whores and hustlers, they all scrounge for a meager existence, one that inevitably leads them to the Donnybrook.

In a small town it’s normal for everyone to get in your business—for the community to know about the women that run around, the men that abuse, the spoiled kids with their sense of entitlement, and the loners who belong to nobody. Set in Roma, Kentucky, The Next Time You See Me (Touchstone Books) by Holly Godard Jones is a literary thriller that links a variety of perspectives into a complicated web of deceit and lies that replace hope and peace with bittersweet longings for what might have been. But buried in there is a lesson about perseverance, a glimmer of optimism, and the eternal complications that are the duality of man. This is the mirror that Holly Goddard Jones holds up, as we bear witness to these defining moments of destruction, as well as revelation.

978-0-9836932-6-0-Stupid-Children-cover-low-Emergency-Press-214x300The first thing I did after finishing Lenore Zion’s Stupid Children was get in the shower, and the second thing I did was cry.  Like Zion’s first book, the collection My Dead Pets Are Interesting (published by TNB Books), Stupid Children is atypical in nearly every sense, but these eccentricities work in its favor, and work only because Zion is such a capable writer, rendering Stupid Children with a refreshing brutality, in both subject matter and also in her merciless scrutiny of the novel’s diverse cast of characters. Though brief, the book demands time and attention, triggering far more thought than its 150-page count will lead any reader to expect. I laughed to the point of pain on multiple occasions, and to get the tears out, which before Stupid Children, and Lenore Zion, I hadn’t thought possible.

In order for a collection of short stories to work, the reader must be pulled into the narratives and settings as quickly and thoroughly as possible. In Vampire Conditions, a slim volume of grotesque stories by Brian Allen Carr, the immersion and compassion is palpable from each opening sentence. We are past the tipping point, along for the ride, and the destinations are always unexpected. These are cautionary tales bound with bruised human flesh, taut and cracking from the tension.

There is something equally freeing and unsettling about the wide-open desert—the horizon stretching out forever is both unattainable and inspiring. In Battleborn, a collection of stories by Claire Vaye Watkins, we get to explore all aspects of Nevada, from the sad allure of a brothel to nights out in Vegas that can only lead to trouble, told in an honest and yet lyrical voice. We bear witness to those moments in time beyond which there is no return. And what comes after this tipping point—that is our salvation.

EJ Levy’s new story collection, Love, In Theory, is a powerful array of contradictions: sensuous yet wry, bruising yet brainy, perfectly precise yet voluptuously messy. Her characters inhabit not-so-ivory towers of academia and hospital hallways; they chase after lovers they’re lucky to be rid of and fuck up happy homes; they laugh at themselves and they love without hope. Everyday actions—flirting with a salesman at a camping store, shaking hands with a partner’s co-worker—pitch them into moments of existential crisis that Levy describes in prose that fuses the muscular density of Mary Gaitskill’s best work with the sardonic buoyancy of Lorrie Moore.

Winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, At-risk (University of Georgia Press) by Amina Gautier is a heartbreaking, eye opening, and endearing collection of stories that focus on African-American children in turmoil. Fathers leave, or if they stay, fall apart—addictions and failure all around them. Mothers ignore, or distance themselves, pushing their own agendas. Brothers and sisters either die in the street or get out by whatever means is necessary. And somewhere in the shadows of these events sit the boys and girls who try to make sense of it all—and try to survive it, unscarred.

As its title suggests, May We Shed These Human Bodies (Curbside Splendor) by Amber Sparks is a collection of stories that is grounded in reality, but often has a hint of the surreal, the supernatural, woven into its fabric. The power in these stories comes from the awareness that a life is at a tipping point, and the assignment of emotional weight to everyday events we typically ignore. Just out of sight, behind the curtain, in the shadows, strange things are happening—dark moments that echo our secrets and lies.

Winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, Little Sinners and Other Stories (University of Nebraska Press) by Karen Brown is a collection of tales set primarily in the supposed domestic bliss of quiet, suburban life. But these tales are anything but mundane and conservative: they reach out into the shadows and chipped sidewalks that surround these cookie cutter lives that fall apart all around us. Death and betrayal, loneliness and desperation, dreams dissolved and love left cold on the doorsteps of our everyday existence—these are the stories we are given.