Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Grimm Tales a Tasty but Mixed Bag of Treats
Grimm Tales is based upon an intriguing premise: recasting classic fairy tales as modern-day crime short stories.
The first, "Joseph and Jasmine", is clever and fun. The dark, whimsical quality reminds me of Richard Matheson, and the dialogue has the stamp of authenticity. Why the story's hoodlums would go to such extremes on behalf of the story's "witch" is never quite satisfactorily explained, however.
The characters are endearing, however; enough so that if this were the intro chapter to a full-length novel, the story would certainly draw readers in, and provide an opportunity to explain the central crime. I can see such a novel easily becoming a hit, if the protagonists grow up over the course of a novel or even a series - something along the lines of a Walter Mosely "Easy Rawlins" treatment. I would definitely buy the writer's work, and hope he has more to offer in the future.
Unfortunately, I can't be as kind regarding the second story - "You Dirty Rats" by Absolutely Kate - when "malevolent narcissism" and "deleterious duo" appear within the same sentence of the first paragraph, it can't be a good sign. The story opens with a number of irritating anachronisms, making it difficult to place the era. The main character conducts an inner dialogue that reads like lyrics from West Side Story and wears a fedora, while a secondary character wears a "Dominos Delivers" t-shirt - and attempts to be seductive while wiping peanut grease on her clothes.
Alliteration and rhymes bulge, poke and sprawl everywhere throughout this story, and not to positive effect. By the third page I found myself practically face-palming and wanting to shout, "For Christ's SAKE lady! Just tell the damned STORY!"
Ms. Kate could be kinder to her readers by turning down the polysyllabic descriptions and "catchy phrases" about eight notches: providing a whole lot less style and a whole lot more substance. There are far, far too many idioms and too much slang, in a mishmash from different eras, cultures, regions, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and it's confusing, distracting and extremely annoying.
Orwell's advice would be of great benefit, a ruthless excision of cliches like "cut that one off at the pass", "clear outta Dodge", and "see that coming down the pike" and replacing them with phrases from the author's own mind, particularly phrases which don't make use of rhyme, alliteration, slang or cliches from various conflicting eras. People simply don't talk like that, and never have. If the idea is that the story is set in make-believe land, like "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?", there needs to be some consistency to the language in terms of era, region, ethnicity and socioeconomic background.
Ms. Kate clearly has some ideas to offer, but she needs to stop endlessly cartwheeling, and to use decorative phrases much, much more sparingly, to avoid turning her characters into confusing, clownish cartoons. By the end of her story, I still wasn't sure which era it was set in, had no clear picture of the characters or plot, and was irritated to the point the author's assurance of "more to come" read more as a warning than a promise.
The third story, "The Flying Trunk", by Jack Bates, is much smoother, with believable, natural dialogue, a genuinely shocking twist, and an almost poetically neat wrap-up. There were a couple of tiny bumps (such as the girl pulling her hair over her ear twice within the same paragraph), but all-in-all, this is a very nice read, reminding me of something by John Irving. Mr. Bates has a chance at gaining widespread popularity if he continues, I think.
"Coal Black", by Eric Beetner, is gritty, lean and fast-paced. It was (like a number of its characters) cleanly executed. I liked it. Smacks of Ed McBain. There is power in brevity and that's a lesson Beetner has mastered.
Nigel Bird's "Sing a Song of Sixpence" is a dark but nicely packaged little vignette, based around the old nursery rhyme. A little rough around the edges, but fun, original and well arranged.
Loren Eaton's "King Flounder" opens with a Latin phrase which isn't translated for the benefit of the reader, so its purpose and meaning aren't clear. If a writer is fluent in a second language, sprinkling in quotes that are relevant to the story (and being charitable enough to explain them to the reader) seems fair play, but if not, it seems to serve no other purpose than to display a writer's purported cleverness, and to subtly imply the readers' lack of such sophistication.
Fortunately we have Google, and so I was able to find out what the opening phrase meant. It would have been much more effective if Mr. Eaton had simply added the English translation. The story that follows, however, is polished and enjoyable, so I'd be happy to read more of Eaton's work.
"Henry, Gina and the Gingerbread House" was cute and fun, but the wrap-up, involving a swindle by a pair of ten-year-olds, is highly implausible to say the least. Additionally, the use of Victorian era phrases seems a bit out of place, such as "swab the kitchen floor" "took them each by an ear", "two threadbare blankets" and "they huddled together for warmth", although if this is taken to be a modernized fable, it's excusable. I liked the story and hope Ms. George will produce more in the future, as she shows style and her stories are bound to get better and better.
"Han and Greta", by Blu Gilliand, is fun and generally reads like a professional piece, but the character attributions got a little unclear at one point (if there are two men in a conversation, and a woman interjects, using "he" in place of a name makes it difficult to determine who just spoke). The detective also seemed rather trigger happy.
Seana Graham's "Gato" is dazzling. Completely original, surprising, touching and uplifting. It reminded me a bit of O. Henry, or of one of Ray Bradbury's more sentimental shorts, like The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit. Graham shows evidence of that level of magical touch. I wouldn't be surprised to see the author's name atop a bestseller soon. This was one of my favorites of the lot.
In "Mary", Eirik Gumeny uses the juxtaposition of a nonsenscial rhyme sung to toddlers with sudden, brutal violence for an effectively disturbing, creepy short. This is the same sort of shock tactic used by Harlan Ellison and Robert Bloch, and Gumeny pulls it off well.
"Candy House", by R.L. Kelstrom, resonated with me deeply. Although very well done, it's hard to call the story entertainment; it's more like a gruesome sight you can't pull your eyes away from. The author happens to have set his tale in the very neighborhood I grew up in as a kid, and the crack addicts he describes are obviously painted from real-world experience.
To anyone who's had a brush with the seedy drug world of Vancouver's East End, this tale reads like a kick in the guts. Well crafted, but too uncomfortably close to home - literally - for me.
Fortunately, John Kenyon's "The Master Cat" followed with a much more light-hearted flim flam. A slight lack of plausibility didn't detract from the fun. This is a solid, polished, professional-caliber piece capable of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with any contemporary best-selling mystery short.
"The Bacon Blues" by BV Lawson was another slick, short and fun piece of nastiness inspired by the Three Little Pigs.
Evan Lewis' "Skyler Hobbs and the Magic Solution" is a fun bit of tongue-in-cheekery that's clever and well-crafted and will put a kid's grin of delight on your face by the end. The main protagonist suffers from an amusing case of schizophrenia, and the "crime" turns out to be... well, you'll just have to find that out for yourself.
I can't say B. Nagel,'s "Interview with the Pram Driver" sat as well with me. Perhaps it's a personal bias, but when a modern writer kicks in with Victorian England slang, they have to be extremely careful to avoid sounding stiff and contrived. It doesn't help when 20th century anachronisms such as "easy as pie" and "blowing his money" get thrown into the mix. All in all, this felt rather hastily cobbled together and unsatisfying. I suspect if Mr. Nagel used a more authentic personal voice, his stories might be more entertaining.
As for Sean Patrick Reardon's "Divided We Stand", I'm not sure I buy into the idea that street hoods use words like "tibia" and "expedient", and I had to look up "Verbal Kint", the character from The Usual Suspects (as good as the movie was, who remembers an alias from a 17-year-old action film?).
The profanity also seemed overly gratuitous - much more effective when used sparingly for shock effect, I think. I also got a little confused in mentally sorting out the characters, as Mr. Reardon dropped eight names in the space of a single page. He also switches between the consciousness of four main characters rather jarringly within the short space.
But Reardon's phrasing is pleasing, even if his pacing is a little frantic, leading me to suspect he writes great novels and novelettes, but is out of his element in the ultrashort. I'd definitely like to read some of his longer pieces, where he has a little more leisure to stretch his legs and add some depth and color to his characters.
Stylistically, Sandra Seamans stood out among the authors, in her short "Taking Back". Her language flows well, and she's deft at painting vivid scenes. The story's a home run, with surprising and plausible plot twists that provide that "wow" dopamine rush of satisfaction that comes from reaching the end of a really fine piece of writing.
Overall, Grimm's Tales is quite an enjoyable read, reminiscent of the wonderful "Alfred Hitcock Presents" series, but there were a few rough bumps that could have been smoothed out by a more merciless editor. Those flaws consisted almost solely of phrases or dialects that didn't quite work, and I believe the writers that fell short in this regard would provide much stronger pieces if they stepped out from behind the facade of artificial, handy turns of phrases and revealed a little more of themselves honestly through their characters.
Still, I wouldn't hesitate to buy or to recommend this title enthusiastically to those I know who enjoy crime fiction. Nearly all the stories are solid and fun, and a handful were quite memorable, showing gleams of talent from authors quite likely destined to produce future classics of the genre.
Here's where you can pick up your own copy: http://www.untreedreads.com/