Book Reviews

Reviews: 'The Color Master,' 'Byzantium' And 'This Is Paradise'

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Reviewer Alan Cheuse brings us three short story collections to consider — The Color Master by Aimee Bender, Byzantium by Ben Stroud and This is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. Each year, stacks of short story collections are published and our reviewer Alan Cheuse is fond of digging into those piles to find the standouts. And he has discovered three new collections, with stories that range from the historical to the fantastical.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: First, I want to focus on a new collection by Aimee Bender. It's called "The Color Master" and the title story dovetails with the events of Charles Perrault's late 17th century fairy tale, "Donkey Skin." In that story, a widower king finds himself driven to marry his own daughter. Bender's story fuses fairy tale - it's got folk artists and royalty - and a parafantastic element, the manufacture of colors that reflect fleeting states of nature and states of feeling.

Other pieces in the collection rush about their business with pleasurable urgency - a story about a seamstress who repairs torn up tigers, a one-of-a-kind story about the world from an autistic boy's point of view, and the story of a human woman married to an ogre out of a fairy tale that introduces a magically self-regenerating cake that you can just keep eating forever.

All these stories made my mouth water. Two new first collections stand out, one from Hawaii, by writer Kristiana Kahakauwila, and another from a Texan named Ben Stroud. "This Is Paradise," the Hawaii book, gives us a raw view of local color in all of its perplexities and pleasures. In other words, in this paradise, a lot of local people wrangle about their water rights, watching their native land being eaten away by developers as the narrator of the title story laments.

Other stories wrestle with family problems, alcoholism and questions of identity. There's a murder on the beach. Not every story works well, but taken together, they give us a picture of island life quite disturbing at the heart of things, the other side of paradise. Talk about a debut, the title story in Ben Stroud's "Byzantium," is not only the best in the book, it's the best story by a new writer I've read in years.

It's historical fiction, as are most of the fine pieces in this collection, a brilliant recreation of a wounded young man's quest for a place at the court of a wicked late 6th century AD Byzantine emperor. A recreation that reads like something with all of the vital force of an original, as all of these historical stories do. The few stories set in the present are okay, but I hope Mr. Stroud stays stuck in the past.

SIEGEL: The story collections are "Byzantium," "This Is Paradise," and "The Color Master." Our reviewer, Alan Cheuse, teaches writing at George Mason University.

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