Friday, February 28, 2014

After the Apocalypse

Maureen McHugh
Small Beer Press
Reviewed by: Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


The apocalypse was yesterday. These stories are today.

Following up on her first collection, Story Prize finalist Maureen F. McHugh explores the catastrophes, small and large, of twenty-first century life—and what follows after. What happens after the bird flu pandemic? Are our computers smarter than we are? What does the global economy mean for two young girls in China? Are we really who we say we are? And how will we survive the coming zombie apocalypse?

My Review
I’m not sure why I haven’t read more of Maureen McHugh’s stories. She has a subtle, quiet style and writes with a graceful economy of language that is powerful but not overwhelming. There is no filler here, no unnecessary words or overly descriptive scenes. What these haunting stories have in common is their exploration of various ways in which the world could fall apart and how humanity copes. I loved these wonderfully character-driven stories and am thrilled I was able to find this at the library.

This collection definitely has more hits than misses.

The very first story, The Naturalist, is not your typical prison or zombie story. The humans were definitely scarier.

Special Economics takes place in a China ravaged by bird flu. Young Jieling is desperate for money and takes a job in a biotech company that sounds perfect until she discovers the reasons why people can never quit.

Useless Things is about a dollmaker who lives in a southwest severely affected by drought. She is alone in her house, protected by several large dogs.

“I make reborns. Dolls that look like newborn infants. The point is to make them look almost, but not quite, real. People prefer them a little cuter, a little more perfect than the real thing. I like them best when there is something a little strange, a little off about them.”

The dolls creep me out, almost as much as clowns do, but the real strength of this story is the arid atmosphere, the loneliness, and the sense of danger.

In The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large, dirty bombs explode in Baltimore and a young boy remembers nothing about his family.

The Kingdom of the Blind is an intriguing story about two programmers who work in a medical facility and discover that they can’t outsmart their computer system. Too much tech talk and too many acronyms kept me from truly enjoying this one.

Going to France went over my head, just like the people who were flying.

If I could pick out one favorite from this collection, Honeymoon would be it. A wedding that never happened, the start of a new life, and a need to save money for a trip to Cancun. This is a taut and disturbing story that made me miss my bus stop.

A young girl’s mom is dying of Avian Prion Disease (APD) in The Effect of Centrifugal Forces. This chilling story makes me never want to eat chicken again.

After the Apocalypse is the perfect conclusion to this collection. A mother and daughter do their best to survive in spite of homelessness, unemployment and a constant threat of danger.

I typically take short breaks between short stories, but I found myself immersed and had difficulty putting the book down.

Highly recommended to those who like thoughtful short fiction that feels intensely real. 

Also posted at Goodreads.