short stories

Reading in Threes: New Short Stories

It’s taken me some time to really appreciate short stories, but I’ve been on a great streak so far this year. Here are three new collections I enjoyed in varying degrees.

in the country
In the Country by Mia Alvar
Published by Knopf on June 16th, 2015
Source: Library
Pages: 368
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The “a-ha!” moment in my short story journey was realizing that I really loved collections with weird, off kilter tales, so I was a bit nervous that I wouldn’t like the straightforward style of In the Country. I was wrong, wrong, wrong. This collection is a perfect example of all the life and love that can be packed into a few short pages, without feeling cheated of story by the length.

In the Country tells the stories of Filipino immigrants and exiles, many starting new lives in New York and the Middle East or returning to the Philippines after long stretches away. Alvar looks at many different types of people, who become vividly alive in a collection that is strong from start to finish. In the Country is hands down one of my favorite books of the year.


beneath the bonfire
Beneath the Bonfire by Nickolas Butler
Published by Thomas Dunne Books on May 5th, 2015
Source: Publisher
Pages: 272
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Much like my experience with In the Country, I initially resisted Beneath the Bonfire over worries that it wouldn’t be my style. Thankfully, I’m surrounded by plenty of pushy readers and I eventually got the message to give it a try.

Once again my instinct proved wrong. Though Beneath the Bonfire lacks the oddity I usually look for, Butler makes up for it with the unmistakable sense of place he mastered in his novel Shotgun Lovesongs. The stories in the collection have a wide range, but circle around the same Midwestern mood—both dark and heavy, soft and sweet. A must-read for fans of Butler and readers resistant to the short story format.


Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson
Published by Random House on August 18th, 2015
Source: Publisher
Pages: 320
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Despite it’s bright, poppy cover, Pulitzer Prize winner Adam Johnson’s new short story collection is shrouded in feeling of gloom. Not knowing what to expect, I was very excited by the first few stories in Fortune Smiles, which reminded me a bit of George Saunders but much darker. That excitement started to dwindle toward the middle of the collection, as the stories lost a bit of their pacing and began feeling overlong without a sense of completeness.

But Dead Meadow, the fifth story in the book, reeled me back in with its super eerie premise. Told from the perspective of a child porn addict, the story follows the narrator as he strives to be a better person, both personally and by helping to track other distributors of pornography. It’s incredibly unsettling, and a fantastic example of Johnson’s talent. Had I felt as challenged by all of the stories in Fortune Smiles, it would have been a home run, but the collection was fairly uneven for me in the end.


  • Really fancy In The Country. Love good short stories. Such an art to them.

  • I struggle with short story collections, too… Perhaps I just haven’t discovered what it is that makes a collection really click for me! Great excuse to do some more research.

    These sound great, and I’m glad that Fortune Smiles had a gem or two for you, even if the overall effect wasn’t fantastic.

    • I think it’s taken some practice to learn how to read them and what I really like, but I think I’m getting there.

  • Short stories have been tough for me as well…until Beneath the Bonfire. I just love his ability to make me feel the Midwest even though I’ve never actually been there. Maybe I should give In the Country a shot…I’ve been hearing good things!

  • I LOVED Beneath the Bonfire and In The Country just came in at the library so I might be ignoring the stack I already have to start that one.

  • I have In The Country checked out from the library, and I’m just not sure I’m going to be able to get to it before I have to bring it back. Sadface. I will keep giving short stories a chance, as I think I just haven’t found my niche with them yet. But as you point out, maybe there’s really no such thing… and maybe it’s a just a matter of “good” or “bad” in general, having nothing to do with what I *think* I like, or don’t. Wow, did that even make any sense….?

    • It did! I’m starting to think maybe I’ve just learned to read them properly, so some work and some don’t but for different reasons.

  • Amanda

    I’m hit or miss with short stories, but I always want to try more. just added Beneath the Bonfire to my list!

  • Malcolm Avenue Review

    Interesting to see so many commenters have issues/troubles with shorts. I no longer feel like the odd man out! You know my feelings about Bonfire. I’ve seen so much publicity about In the Country, but it hadn’t really made my list yet. Now it has. If you put it up with Bonfire, you know I’m adding it to the list. I had no desire to read Johnson’s collection (no idea why, that cover didn’t really speak to me is maybe one stupid reason) and reading what fellow bloggers have to say didn’t change that. But damn if I now don’t want to read that fifth story!

  • Well, you know how I feel about short stories, sign me up!! I’ve heard similar feelings about Fortune Smiles, btw.

  • Uh-oh Fortune Smiles doesn’t sound too promising now. Was it lond-winded with bleak or disturbing characters? I’ll have to rethink if I’m going to go there …

    • I thought parts of it were a little long and it’s definitely bleak and disturbing. I’d say if you read/enjoyed The Orphan Master’s Son to give it a shot, but otherwise maybe wait it out.

  • I, too, have a new appreciation for short story collections, Shannon; I loved The Wonder Garden, earlier this year, and I was excited to receive a copy of Fortune Smiles. I’ll be on the lookout…I’m around the halfway mark, so I’m curious to see how the stories change; I really enjoyed the first two, especially the one set in Lake Charles, Louisiana (my hometown is just 40 minutes away).

  • Wow, Dead Meadow sounds like a crazy premise! It obviously sounds similar to Lolita and I think even with the main character trying to be better, I’d be similarly creeped out.

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