3 out of 4 stars
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Like a literary Baskin-Robbins, Illustrated Short Fiction of William H. Coles (200-2016) has 31+ flavors of tales. Comprised of thirty-three short stories, two graphic novels, and a novella, this collection allowed my reading taste buds to sample everything from bitter to sweet to tangy.
Now, I'll admit that I was a little reticent to read this collection, as I've seen several books penned by Mr. Coles on this website, and I haven't been impressed with any of them. However, I reasoned that I do generally like compendiums, so I'd take a chance. I'm glad I did.
From the first short story, The Gift, to the novella that ends the tome, Sister Carrie, I was constantly wondering what the author would throw at me next. Every story in this compilation had me on the edge of my seat at some point, so reading this book was quite a ride. Since I obviously can't go over every story, I'll just highlight the ones that stood out to me the most:
The Wreck of the Amtrak’s Silver Service, a tale about a man, Heinrick, who hires the questionable Billie Bob to kill his wife, Agnes, is a study in perfectly balancing action with suspense and dialogue. Even though I adored the ending, I was especially impressed with the details the author gave when describing the wife's reaction to the plan; I actually had chills running down my spine! Another story that I liked a lot was The Stonecutter. In this story, we follow a fifteen-year-old boy as he experiences infatuation for the first time with the young lady who has hired his father to cut her late stepfather's graveyard statue. This tale is made even better by an undercurrent of tension in regards to what happened to the teen's mother. Why did she leave? Was it his fault? Was it his father's? Is the young lady correct in her suspicions, or is she biased? The Cart Boy was rare in its ability to make me feel every emotion known to man (or woman). While reading this story about a physically-challenged young man who organizes the buggies at an independently-owned grocery store, I laughed. I cried. I cursed. I swelled with pride. For me to feel all of these things and more in a mere seven .pdf pages was a testimony to the author's ability to pull me fully in to this story's world. Finally, I have to mention The Thirteen Nudes of Ernest Goings. Ernest is an artist who has painted several pictures of the under-aged Hester in the raw. Much of this tale is told with Ernest's daughter, Amanda, in the forefront. Both Amanda and her mother, Margaret, believe the model's assertions that the painter was in lust with the young lady (who called it “love”), and they intend to do something to preserve his reputation before the showing where his paintings will be unveiled. His art's details reveal his obsession with the young Hester, and they fear it will result in a scandal.
Though every one of these stories is unique, they all prove the author's reputation as a writer with the incomparable ability to realistically portray humans at both their worst and their best. In Sister Carrie (a book reviewed numerous times on this site), the author did a particularly wonderful job of bringing out the humanity in his characters. Of the literally hundreds of characters I read about, none of them was cliché or trite. They all had their own reasons for doing the things they did, and even when I didn't like the motives, I understood them. One thing I'd like to note is that many of the stories had unlikable women, mothers in particular. I don't know if Mr. Coles was going for this particular theme, but it is something that I noticed and wondered about.
Another thing I'll note about the tales told in this book is that very few of them have a definitive ending. While Amazon's description notes that the book involves “characters solving serious problems in challenging settings”, I didn't see many problems actually being solved. The stories would get to a certain point and then end, leaving me to draw my own conclusions or create my own endings. As an aspiring writer, I didn't mind at all, but those who like their stories tied-up neatly at the end may want to steer clear of this collection. I do want to be clear, however, that while I wouldn't go so far as to call the endings “cliffhangers”, they definitely leave room for the reader to fill in the blanks on their own. Also, as the synopsis implies, another common thread in the stories therein is that they are mostly dark. I honestly can't recall one story that was a happy, sunshine and rainbows tale. As a reader who loves dark tales, it was fine by me, but I did want to make that distinction. I'll also take the opportunity to mention that nearly all of the stories included graphic violence and/or sexual situations, so this book is not for those easily offended or grossed-out.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the illustrations mentioned in the tome's title. Each story is prefaced with a relevant picture or two done by one of the six artists commissioned for their work. I miss the picture-books that I read as a child, so reading an illustrated adult book had great appeal to me, and the artists' pictures did not let me down. I believe my favorite illustrations were the ones done by Peter Healy, who did the majority of the book's art; while they reminded me of the pictures I miss in the aforementioned children's books, they were also complex enough to belong in an adult's book. I also found that even though the illustrations were a very minor part of the book, they made it easier for me to picture certain things in each of the stories. As mentioned earlier, this tome also includes two graphic novels. The novels in question are illustrated versions of two stories from earlier in the book. While I enjoyed them, I also felt that they paled in comparison to the more fleshed-out versions of the stories they pictured.
The one thing that keeps this collection from being near-perfect is the need for more editing. While there was not an inordinate amount of grammatical errors for a book of this length, there were enough for me to notice. These errors included missteps in punctuation, usage of the incorrect word, missing words, and missing spaces between words. There were also a few instances of formatting issues, resulting in two different characters' dialogue starting and ending on the same line, causing me to have to go back and read the lines again to see who was saying what.
There is quite a bit more that I could say about Illustrated Short Fiction of William H. Coles, but I'll sum it all up in my rating of 3 out of 4 stars. While it is a great collection that covers a lot of plots, I had to subtract one star because of the errors mentioned above. Despite the aforementioned mistakes, I recommend this collection for fans of William H. Coles's works, readers who like dark tales (sometimes with a twist at the end), and those who enjoy compilations. This is truly a great way to enjoy 31+ flavors without the weight gain.
Illustrated Short Fiction of William H. Coles: 2000-2016
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