3 out of 4 stars
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Illustrated Short Fiction of William H. Coles 2000-2016 is a collection of thirty-three of the author’s short stories, two graphic novels that depict the events of two of the short stories and a novella. These short stories take place across varied settings and time periods including characters of different age, race, religion, status, wealth, nationality and outlook on life. This author explores the themes of grief, death, love, family and the human condition through the obstacles faced by each unique character. A sorrowful tone colors the stories as most narratives take on a tragedy’s characteristics. William H. Coles takes ordinary characters and places them in extraordinary circumstances to provide riveting narratives. An illustration or two precedes each story and on occasion succeeds some of them. Illustrators featured in the book include Peter Healy, Betty Harper, David Riley, Anna Sokolova and Dilleen Marsh. Peter Healey provides the illustrations for the two graphic novels in the book. “Sister Carrie” is the title of the novella which details the experiences of the sisters Jessie and Carrie. When their parents pass away Jessie acts as a surrogate mother to Carrie. The relationship among the two sisters deteriorates as Carrie falls for a foreigner whom Jessie gives no approval and Jessie deals with her disappointing life.
My greatest enjoyment from reading the book was the unpredictability of the stories. Stereotypes and commonplace tropes were absent and the stories the author crafted were matchless. Unexpected endings made sure that when I thought I knew where a narrative was heading I was subsequently proved misguided. Characters provided distinct portraits of personalities and while different from each other they remained realistic. William H. Coles rejected a ‘black and white’ approach to the design of his subjects and thus the people portrayed in the stories were complex and distinctive. Each story evoked in me a wide range of emotion and I found myself at times becoming sympathetic towards some characters and their stories and feeling hate and disgust towards others. Heroes are few in this collection and where present proved ‘grey’ on the morality spectrum but this was a quality I much appreciated as it was true-to-life. I must mention that the author makes a delightful habit of embellishing his narratives using witty commentary either via characters or as the narrator and this adds considerable humor to these dark tales. Illustrations provided for every story are all beautiful, distinctive and capture the sweeping tone of the story it intends to represent. Various styles utilized for each picture ensured that images weren't monotonous.
My favorite stories in the collection include “Nemesis”, “The Perennial Student” and “The Thirteen Nudes of Ernest Goings”. “Nemesis,” tells the tale of an insufferable man who earns the hatred of everyone in his life. Eventually, this unlovable man gains a mild-mannered woman’s affection that ignites in him an intense love but by an act of karmic revenge, misfortune upends what should have been a happy existence. The story turns a loathsome character into a man who elicits the greatest sympathy. You want this character to get what he deserves in the end and learn his lesson but when tragedy does strike him little satisfaction comes of it as he becomes a pitiful subject. “The Perennial Student,” tells of the struggles of a university professor aiming for promotion. His bane comes every day to his class as one young, unpolished girl who challenges his professional and emotional abilities. This story induces both hilarity and pity simultaneously as it follows the professor’s attempts to tame and understand the singular student wreaking havoc on his professional life. “The Thirteen Nudes of Ernest Goings,” explores the workings of a wealthy but broken family. Their relationship and lifestyles hang together by fragile threads which become undone by nefarious conduct, a few paintings, and an emotional breakdown. Intrigue lines this story until its conclusion and escalates in scandal as the story continues. These three are small examples of what future readers of the book can expect.
The two aspects I hadn’t appreciated concerning the stories were their persistent dismal tone and the pointlessness of certain narratives. Happy endings existed in the narrative but proved rare. Most of the stories were either depressive or bittersweet at best and the few happy endings proved underwhelming. Some of the stories seemed to have no clear purpose, meaning or underlying message and events seemed to unfold in erratic fashions. Captivating stories rendered this particular element undetectable most of the time, however, the stories which featured tragic event after tragic event, made me feel as though I had gained nothing from the story.
I would give this book 3 out of 4 stars. These stories and characters are all created with great care and a range of emotional responses came with each narrative. Featured illustrations add to the enjoyment of the work and help to set a mood for the stories they portray while being interesting as stand-alone pieces. Mr. Coles’ collection, however, wonderful it may be is imperfect by a small margin and in addition to issues referenced a few grammatical errors existed. Overall these errors were neither so plentiful that they were striking or few enough to ignore. Most typical was the lack of spacing between words and the absence of articles before nouns. The things that made me enjoy it outnumber any issues I had with the collection of stories and I would read any one of the stories multiple times over.
I would recommend this book to people who either lack the time or patience to sit through long pieces of literature. In addition to these stories being short stories, the author wastes no time with excessive description or dialogue without sacrificing the quality of the work which makes it a quick and interesting read. For those fans of ‘Realistic Fiction’, I would recommend this book as it is a great example of such works. I don’t think, however, that this book is for everyone. If you are unenthusiastic concerning tragedies or intense narratives I would dissuade you from this book. The book follows dark and melancholy premises providing little variation and as I stated while the book contains happy endings they are infrequent.
Illustrated Short Fiction of William H. Coles: 2000-2016
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