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Like A Charm, Karin Slaughter
on 21 October 2004
The basis of this short-story collection is an original and intriguing one: each story, while entirely independent, follows the life of a charm bracelet, from its creation in Georgia in 1803, through time and across oceans, until it eventually ends up back in Georgia again. In each story, the bracelet plays its part, almost always brining bad luck to the one who has come to possess it. It's a short-story collection that could almost be read as a quirky novel. The only downside to this idea is that the connections of each story, through the life of the charm bracelet, should in some cases be made a lot clearer - once or twice it was hard or impossible to create a logical connection between one story and the next, and the old "so and so bought in an Pawn/Antique Shop" device was greatly overused - then as a whole this collection would be more powerful than it is.
The stories are incredibly varied; set in times and places as different as the American South in the 19th century to wartime Leeds in the 20th. In one, an accusation has dire consequences. In another, a train journey becomes anything but mundane. A sax player ends up getting more than he bargained for when he does a favour for a friend. A school-teacher's outing to London turns altogether more twisted. And a desperate writer makes a fateful purchase in exchange for inspiration...
I am very much a devotee of the short-story; they are perfect for slotting into a dead half-hour, ideal if you want a single-sitting read. Quick pleasure, instant satisfaction - if they're of quality. And, if you pick right - maybe one of Ruth Rendell's beautifully twisted masterpieces, of Ian McEwan's elegant, concise works - then they can be just as good as a novel. While the stories here aren't really of that quality (well, except for one; I'll get to that in a minute) they do align into a very good, entertaining and satisfying collection. Each piece is taut and well-tuned, written with the sharp succinctity and ability to shock that marks out the best of the form. Some of the writers you will have heard of: Peter Robinson, Mark Billingham, and Lee Child, for example. Others maybe not: Emma Donohue, for example, whose story "Vanitas" is an excellent little piece set on a plantation in the South. And Peter Moore Smith, or Jerrilyn Farmer, writer of the penultimate story "The Eastlake School", a twisted piece of brilliance. There are definitely a couple of writers here whose work I will be endeavouring to find out more about after reading this. You may too.
Here, all the stories are good (that is pleasing in itself - in every collection there are normally one or two mis-fires) but some of them are excellent: Robinson's "Cornelius Jubb", for example, or "Plan B" by Kelley Armstrong, to name just two among several. However, one story here does stand far, far above them all, and that is John Connolly's "The Inkpot Monkey". It's the sort of story of which one might say "it alone is worth the price of this book", but for the fact that it would be rather silly to actually contemplate spending $20+ on just 15 pages of text. The sentiment remains the same, though. It is an eerie, slightly surreal tale about a man suffering writer's block who goes to great lengths in order to rediscover his muse. Told with flair and punch, is explores several themes, such as, What does it mean to be a writer? More precisely, What of themselves do writers put into their work? What is required of them, what must they give in order to create and be inspired? And, ultimately, Is it worth it? And, having given it, What then? It is a brilliant, remarkable story, and is the real gem of this pleasing, ingenuitive collection. Despite the fact that the sometimes poor linkage takes away from the concept of this collection, Like A Charm is worth a look for fans of this form.