The Collected Short Stories by Jeffrey Archer

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The Collected Short Stories of Jeffrey Archer is the compilation of his three acclaimed collections of short fiction:  A Quiver Full of Arrows, A Twist in the Tale and Twelve Red Herrings.  Though he’s a bestselling, prolific writer, this was the first I’d read of Jeffrey Archer, and though I enjoyed the book I doubt I’ll be reading anything else of his.  Maybe it’s because short stories overexpose a reader to an author’s methods of story and character development that I feel like I’ve gotten my fill of what he has to offer.
 
I appreciated Archer’s attention to creating individuals in each story.  He always spent time on the main characters’ backgrounds before launching into the heart of the various narratives.  It was easy to keep the protagonists separate from one another as each had his or her (mostly his) own eccentricities.  Nearly all of the stories take place in England in the 1990s and involve the likes of duplistic socialites, saavy businessmen, ruthless killers, jilted lovers and Oxford men.  In flavor, they are all VERY British and a smidge sexist.  (Are all English men really such philanderers?  It was a recurring theme.)  One story was written almost entirely in the language of cricket and I have to admit I didn’t follow that one very well.  It also seems that Archer is of the opinion that a story isn’t any good unless it has a surprising twist at the end.  Because it came to be expected, the “surprise” endings sometimes fell flat.  The ones that still managed to surprise me ended up being my favorites.
 
Short stories are great for vacations…car trips, plane rides, lying on the beach…you can finish a quick story and then go do something else.  Archer is a good storyteller so I’d recommend this collection if you’re going to be somewhere that may call for a quick fiction fix without commitment.  It’s pretty pulpy-feeling so don’t expect great intrinsic value, just to be disctracted and entertained.
 
Jeffrey Archer’s novels include Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, Shall We Tell the President?, Sons of Fortune, Kane & Abel, The Prodigal Daughter, First Among Equals, A Matter of Honor, As the Crow Flies, Honor Among Thieves, The Fourth Estate and The Eleventh Commandment.

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Published in: on April 26, 2009 at 8:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead

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As the fourth person in the family to read this novel I gave this one a 4 out of 6 on the “Christmas Bag” scale.  The comments of the previous readers (my parents and my husband) were mixed and rather lukewarm so I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did.  It’s always nice to be surprised.

Coal Black Horse is the story of Robey Childs, a fourteen year-old boy who lives with his mother on their small farm in the West Virginia mountains during the time of the American Civil War.  His father has been away fighting for many months.  His mother has a premonition of his father’s death and sends Robey, her only child, to bring her husband home before he can be harmed.  The novel follows Robey as he sets out as an innocent boy and tells how he is forced to mature quickly as he learns difficult lessons about human nature, death and the horrors of war.  Through a stroke of luck or fate, he acquires a magnificent coal black horse which proves a great source of strength throughout his journey as he searches for his father.

Robey’s search takes him to Gettysburg, just a day or two after the battle there and the descriptions of the battlefield are really amazing…I don’t recall having read anything of this era that compares.  Olmstead seems intent on portraying the scenes of war as grisly and macabre, but also as beautifully human.  He refrains from romanticizing, but acknowledges that for many men and boys, war was the greatest, most magnificent adventure.  In addition to the factual descriptions of the instruments of war (weapons, soldiers and officers), attention is given to the effects of war on the people around the destruction.  The scavengers, extortionists, deserters, bereaved, bystanders and tourists…all are included to complete the portrait of a country gripped by anger and fear.  It’s the rare moments of compassion within the novel that give both Robey and reader hope that humanity will survive and remember how to forgive, love and trust.   

I have heard criticisms that the descriptions in the book are tedious and occasionally unnecessary.  I did not find that to be the case at all.  Once I was engaged in the story, which didn’t take long, the descriptions were very compelling, always relevant and really, the spirit of the book that carried the plot from one drama to the next.  Olmstead writes with a truth and poignancy that brings the reader as close to the war-ravaged people as is possible.

Coal Black Horse is a winner of the Heartland Literary Prize.  Robert Olmstead is the author of five previous books (River Dogs, Soft Water, A Trail of Heart’s Blood Wherever We Go, America By Land and Stay Here With Me.  He has hinted at a sequel to Coal Black Horse.  The trade paperback edition, which is available at noteBooks for $13.95 includes an interview with the author and a reader’s guide.

Published in: on April 8, 2009 at 9:39 pm  Leave a Comment  
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