Why New Yorkers Smoke edited by Luis Ortiz

October 18, 2011 at 4:28 pm (book review, books, fiction, New York, reading, short stories)

This new collection of original short stories answers the question: “What is there to fear in New York City?”

If the writers who contributed to Why New Yorkers Smoke are to be believed there’s only one thing New Yorkers are, were, or ever will be afraid of: 9/11. Seven of the eleven stories included in this collection make mention of 9/11, with six of them using it as a major plot point.

As a life-long New Yorker – one of the few actually born and raised in Manhattan- I can tell you New Yorkers have way more to be afraid of than planes crashing into skyscrapers. Like mutant rats taking over the subway system and charging riders twice the current MTA going rate for a ride. Or a fleet of rogue taxi cabs going all “Christine” and hunting down pedestrians like a pack of hungry dogs. Or that chain pharmacies will come to constitute more than half of the City’s retail outlets.

Yes, 9/11 was a horror Stephen King couldn’t have even cooked up, but in answering the question “what is there to fear in New York City”, I wish the writers and editor of Why New Yorkers Smoke hadn’t gone for the most obvious and, let’s be honest, the most tired answer.

The strongest stories in the collection are those that don’t deal with 9/11 at all. The title story by Lawrence Greenberg is a slow burning and atmospheric piece of sci-fi that totally creeped me out. Don Webb’s “Sparrow” examines the sparkly lure of the city that never sleeps, and how quickly the shine can dull and even destroy. Scott Edelman’s “A Stranger Lying Alone” was the only 9/11 related story with any real emotional weight, told form the point of view of a man who loves the City so much he would rather die in the wreckage and become a part of history than continue to live in a world where this sort of tragedy can happen.

The rest of the collection is uneven. The opening story, Barry N. Malzberg’s “Why We Talk to Ourselves” is too esoteric to truly hook the reader. Paul Di Filippo’s “Candles in a Chianti Bottle…” is overwritten and ends without any satisfying resolution. And Carol Emschwiller’s “Bountiful City” though well written, is anti-climactic.

I wanted Why New Yorkers Smoke to upset my reality. I wanted it to take all the tiny fears city-dwellers walk around with all day long and blow them out of proportion. I wanted to see the mundane made extraordinary. And though a handful of the contributors managed to pull it off, most just offered me the same 9/11 re-hash I’ve been listening to for ten years.

Why New Yorkers Smoke boils the entire city experience down to a single, tragic event. But New York is not a one-note town. 9/11 does not define the City, its residents, or their personal fears, and I wish that was reflected in this collection.

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Men of the Otherworld by Kelley Armstrong

May 8, 2010 at 2:44 pm (fantasy, fiction, novels, short stories, urban fantasy)

In Men of the Otherworld Kelley Armstrong finally turns the spotlight on two of the most beloved characters in her popular Women of the Otherworld series. Readers get a glimpse life in the North American werewolf Pack through the eyes of Clay and Jeremy Danvers; learn about its history, and see how the organization functioned decades before Elena Michaels entered the fold.

Comprised of one novella and three short stories, Men of the Otherworld is a delight from start to finish. Long time fans will find that the tales add texture and depth to the Otherworld, and newcomers will find it an excellent introduction to series.

Savage is the crowning glory of the collection. In it, Clay tells the story of how he became a werewolf, how Jeremy rescued him from the Louisiana swamps, and how, through patience and persistence, Jeremy gained his trust, admiration, and loyalty.

Savage feels familiar and new at the same time. Fans already know the basics of how Clay came to Stonehaven. They are familiar with both Clay’s and Jeremy’s individual habits and quirks. But to actually see where those quirks came from, and hear the details of how these two seemingly disparate men built such a strong bond delivers a great thrill. Armstrong maintains an easy pace throughout the narrative, and does an outstanding job laying the foundation and building blocks of their relationship.

Even though Clay narrates two of the four stories, Jeremy is the real star of this book. He is the only character who appears in every story. Infusion tells the story of Jeremy’s conception and birth, Savage details his relationship with Clay, Ascension is about how Jeremy rose to the rank of Pack Alpha, and Kitsunegari, the only story told by Jeremy himself, is about how he discovers the truth about his origins.

Jeremy is probably my favorite guy in all the Otherworld, so reading a story written in his voice was a major treat for me. I was surprised to discover that Jeremy has always seen himself as an outsider even within his own Pack; that beneath his calm, collected, and confident exterior lies a well of anxiety. It was also nice to hear how he feels about his girlfriend, Jaime Vegas, after years of hearing all about how she feels for him. In Jaime, Jeremy has found a partner to whom he can expose the most secretive parts of himself without fear of rejection; someone with whom he can find the acceptance he has never felt.

In her review of Men of the Otherworld, Donna over at Urban Fantasy wrote that the stories reminded her of why she connected with the series in the first place, but also reminded her how disappointed she was in the last two Otherworld novels. She’s referring of course to Personal Demon and Living with the Dead, both narrated by the much bemoaned Hope Adams.

I’ve never had a problem with Hope. I don’t love her, but I don’t hate her either. She doesn’t have much personality, but she’s not as annoying as, say, Paige Winterbourne. I may not have enjoyed Living with the Dead, but I adored Personal Demon. I loved the book’s complexity, as well as the dual narration.

Still, I can’t help but agree with Donna. Men of the Otherworld was so rich, so well written, and the characters so strong and engaging they made Hope look like a shadow. When it comes to ongoing series’ what keeps me, and I believe most readers, coming back book after book are the characters. Connecting with specific chararcters is like making new friends – you want to spend as much time with them as possible. Reading Men of the Otherworld was a warm and comfortable experience, like spending time with friends I hadn’t seen in a while, and stood in stark contrast to how I felt reading Living with the Dead.

Men of the Otherworld will rekindle interest and faith in the series among long-time fans, and make newcomers eager to explore Armstrong’s fascinating universe.

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