Thoughts on “Shades of Grey”

This is a requested review of a short story collection that is horribly, shamefully late. I apologize to the author who asked me to review it for the delay- my only excuse is finals, and even that doesn’t hold up terribly well under close scrutiny. Regardless, here is the review, and hopefully it will be useful!

Shades of Grey:

It’s hard to feel sympathy for a hit-man under any circumstances. Usually they don’t have personality, or else have a false one that feels contrived and imposed on them by the writer (or director). Mooks generally don’t get much attention in storytelling, which is interesting given that they seem to be present in almost every action, spy, or war story and present a good way to show the workings of whatever they happen to be working for through the eyes of an everyman. One of the strengths of “Shades of Grey” was that it captured such a character with exceptional clarity. John works for an organization whose purpose is unnamed other than that it has some kind of bearing on the government. He knows his boss only as The Guv’nor, and doesn’t hold him high esteem. We learn through flashbacks that John has incited riots and taken out various targets for this organization. There’s no hint as to the point or purpose of it, and I think the story works better for it, because the main focus of the story is the man involved- and how he struggles to keep going through his work as he’s being tortured.

John’s wandering thoughts from sight to question and back to the things he was most concerned with were very believably written and contributed to making the scenario of a secret organization that operates on behind-the-scenes domestic terrorism more believable. Because the man’s thought process was very believably written, it made it easier to accept what he was remembering, which might otherwise have degenerated into a knock-off a cheap paperback thriller. I was intrigued by his warped way of looking at the world and, for the most part his reflections on life and his actions rang true.

The main problem that I had with this story, though, was that I wasn’t entirely sure what the point of it was. John’s explanation of his morals, given towards the end, felt incomplete, almost as though there should have been something more in his thought process that was left unspoken. It’s hard to put a finger on precisely what feels lacking, but the best way I can describe it is that John seems to recognize that his life is very far from perfect. He shows that he’s willing to fight for what he believes is the right thing to do in his messed-up circumstances. I think that in the end I was expecting more from him than the attitude of “life’s tough and we have to deal with it.” It wasn’t out of character or unbelievable for him as he’d been portrayed throughout the story, but I can’t deny that it left me somewhat unsatisfied. I felt like his self-exploration could have been expanded and taken a step further into the ramifications of his way of living- though again I’d have a hard time explaining why if pressed for an answer.  While I enjoyed reading the story, I don’t know how much it’ll stick in my memory.

There and Back Again:

This was my favorite story of the three in this collection.

I love military history, especially that of World War I and World War II. The chain of events leading to the actions of each country, the various generals, the battle terrain, the experience of those in the trenches and under fire- I love learning about these things. So when I saw “There and Back Again” open with the words “May 1940, somewhere along the French border” I became very excited.

The greatest strength of this particular story was how well it conveyed the atmosphere of the war zone, both in quiet, battle, and retreat (the story culminates in the Dunkirk evacuation). It’s told through the eyes  of two soldiers, James and David, who both have their own ways of looking at and coping with the battle. David tends to laugh things off and use that tendency to make it through the endless gunfire and stress. James tends to convert his stress into action, though he’s rather finicky about which actions, occasionally shirking some of the more unpleasant duties of the battlefield. Some of the best writing comes from his viewpoint, such as the description of the adrenaline and power that surged during an attack by the German forces. Sensory details- smell and sound especially- are used to very good effect to convey the guns, the crowds, and the hasty retreat to the coast of France. The vividness of the writing is what lends it impact- I actually felt as though this story could have been expanded to a novella or possibly its own short story series.

I did have a few nitpicks- the dialogue between James and David felt more modern in tone than it should have been for the 1940s. I felt like there would have been slang unique to that time period that should have made an appearance at some point in their words. The lack of it wasn’t enough to throw me out of the story, but it was something that would have made it that much more believable. As with “Shades of Grey,” I felt that the ending to this story was weak, but that was largely because of my desire to see more of it. It felt a bit abrupt compared to the immersive nature of what had come before. I wanted to see even more images and memories, and how the eventual return to the battle had affected the characters and their outlook on life. This would have been hard to convey in a short story, admittedly, but given the rest of the writing, it would have been nice to see something more than a summary of the fact that the British soldiers would eventually return to fight in France.

However those are all minor. This story was easily my favorite, and it’s one I’ll probably read again sometime. It’s standard procedure for me when I wish there was more of a story.

Down the Rabbit Hole:

I wish I could have enjoyed this story more than I did, as it has the potential to make a very nice spooky story about an inanimate object coming to life and influencing things around it- in this case, the little boy who is the owner of said inanimate object. The object in question is a rabbit that the boy relies on as a help to escape from the abuse of his father. At first the toy rabbit seems benevolent, but as time wears on, it becomes apparent that it’s just manipulating the child into being destructive.

This was the weakest story of the three in this collection primarily because it was the sloppiest. All the stories suffer a bit from awkward sentences and poor punctuation (more on that below), but this story was hit the hardest by the poor writing. There were sections of dialogue that had no capitalization, independent clauses joined by a conjunction instead of a semi-colon, and some really poorly written sentences that I had to read a few times to make sure I’d understood what they were saying. From a sheer technical standpoint, this is a major obstacle to enjoying a work of writing, Unfortunately this story had other problems.

“Down the Rabbit Hole” is primarily told from the viewpoint of an abused child, Tom- but it didn’t feel like a child was telling the story. I had no sense of how old he was or what he was like as a person. It’s commented in the story that he feels afraid, but he shows little personality or emotion, reading like an automaton, without much to distinguish him or make him stand out. I know that sometimes people who have faced abuse will try and close off their emotions, but Tom didn’t seem as though that was part of his method of coping. He seemed more like a conduit through which we saw the evil toy and the mother and father, both of whom were also rather flat. The character I found most interesting in this story was an unnamed girl who Tom’s rabbit convinces him to bully, and we never find out very much about her other than the information with which she is taunted. On the whole, it was a struggle to get through this story and at the end there was no sense of loss, gain, or even relief at escape. It just came to a close with Tom leaving the rabbit behind, which was a disappointment given the slow build of the toy rabbit’s evil nature.

***

On the whole, I liked the stories as I read them, but apart from “There and Back Again” I’m not sure I’d revisit them. The main reason for this is that, as I mentioned, they’re rather unpolished. There are numerous missed commas and punctuation issues, which distract the reader. The vocabulary and diction is rather bland, and many of the sentences, while technically correct, are awkward and somewhat jarring. The stories each have potential and strength, but none of them seem like they realized their fullest potential to make an impact. They feel like rough drafts that are about to be gone over and revised, not the finished product which they are.

On a more personal note, some of the cursing- especially in “Shades of Grey” feels rather gratuitous, like coarseness for its own sake, and I didn’t feel as the stories reached full closure. However that’s subjective to viewpoint; others might disagree. On the whole these three stories are good. But they are a bit of a chore to read, to the extent that some might not see it as worth the effort.

“Shades of Grey” can be purchased here, and you can find out more about the author, Michael Cargill, here.

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