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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Knockout Debut, May 24, 2012
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Mark Krieger (West Bend, Wisconsin) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Fires of Our Choosing (Paperback)
Busy as I've been lately I thought I'd sit down and read a page or two of Eugene Cross's story collection... just a little I told myself. Nevertheless I read one story after another in rapid succession. And every night before bed I couldn't wait to read the next. I didn't want the book to end. The last time I remember being that excited and hooked on a collection was reading Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son, another magnificent book.

Reading stories like these, especially ones like "Harvesters" but even "Hunters" and "Come August" I'm pleasantly reminded of what made Steinbeck's writing so powerful and pleasing to the eye and heart. Like Steinbeck Cross writes of human sadness that subtly consoles rather than depresses and doesn't leave the reader with a grim after-flavor as so much modern literature does. This bleeds through beneath each story from the essence of the writer himself: someone who has deep empathy for nature and humans. He has an uncanny ability (reminiscent of Tolstoy) to understand human beings and their plights as they fumble towards change.

Each of these stories are beautifully put together and one feels no pretensions in its literary aspects. When symbols arise they arise completely naturally and from the essence of the characters themselves. Stories where a setting, a field of tilled hay, or a stuffed bear in a bar display case, a dying dog, can speak as much to us about the interiors of the characters as the dialogue and narrative itself. A field harvester who reaps the fullness and beauty of the earth but never bothers to look back to see what he might've wrecked; a bear in glass display case can't help but become the perfect emblem of the future emotional reflections of a narrator recalling the meeting with a charming woman at a bar who ends up unveiling an ugly side.

Cross has the uncanny gift for getting beneath the skin of what's happening--of showing us characters who are at a cross roads in life, floundering in transitional stages--with such lucidity you can't help but sit back in moments of recognition as we've all been there at one point or other blundering for the right way out of our predicaments.

Each of these stories capture the silliness, the sadness, the utter pathos and the plain trueness of human life you can't help but feel he's somehow lived all the lives of the characters he's written and had a lot of time to reflect.

This is a knockout debut collection. Eugene Cross is a name that we're going to hear a lot more of. Fire of Our Choosing marks the start of a brilliant career. It's a book that stays with you.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Could not put it down!, April 16, 2012
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A great book from a promising young author. Eugene nails it with a collection of short stories that keep the reader engaged like only he can. Consider me a fan and I can't wait to see what comes next.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent read!, July 21, 2012
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This review is from: Fires of Our Choosing (Paperback)
Fires of Our Choosing is a terrific new book by a former classmate of mine, Eugene Cross.

The book is a collection of several short stories, "literary fiction" style, full of beautifully-crafted characters and situations. The title is apt: we see the fiery passions - either expressed or suppressed - of nearly every character Cross creates. It's one thing to write a believable situation, quite another to write a believable character. Cross has excelled at both. It takes an extremely skilled author to make the reader really feel what the character is feeling. Cross has pulled that off in his very first book.

One thing that struck me about each of his stories is that they all have a very strong sense of place. It probably helps that I've driven those stretches of Route 20, been to that pool hall (or one very much like it) on upper Peach Street, and seen what an Erie winter does to the land and the people around you. Cross is able to make those settings come alive.

I won't summarize the stories here, but any reader will get to them all soon enough. Even for my voracious reading habits, this was a page-turner.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Writer to keep an eye on..., August 8, 2012
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J. Burris (Hollywood, CA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Fires of Our Choosing (Paperback)
WHOA! Very rarely do I listen to the advice of my "book snob" friends, but enough of them were raving endlessly about Eugene Cross and his debut book that I decided to see if the accolades were worth it... and, boy, they were dead on. Eugene Cross may be the new kid on the literary block, but it looks like he's found fertile ground and he won't be moving any time soon. He's a talent to keep an eye on.

"Fires of Our Choosing" is a fantastic collection of stories with a ton of heart, passion and genuine character. Don't pass it up.

3 stories to thumb to immediately: "Rosaleen, If You Know What I mean." "The Brother." "Only the Strong Will Survive."
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Outstanding!, February 14, 2013
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Not much of a short story enthusiast, but heard of Mr. Cross' work and had a read. Each story unwrapped its own raw and unique emotion; but they became a whole, visceral body that touched me as the reader. To say I was amazed this was Cross' first work would be an understatement. "Fires" almost instantly shows the promise of this author and I look forward to his future work.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Memorable, affecting debut collection from a promising author..., July 31, 2012
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I hadn't heard of Eugene Cross' affecting and well-written short story collection, Fires of Our Choosing, until an author I follow on the Goodreads website recommended it. I'm really glad I pay attention to those recommendations, because otherwise I would have missed out on a collection I'm still thinking about a few days after completing it.

The characters in Cross' stories are all dealing with some type of struggle. Whether it's a young boy so overcome with rage at his brother leaving following the tragic death of their father that he severely beats up another classmate, a widower who finds a renewed sense of excitement by visiting a casino about an hour from the retirement community he lives in, a teenage babysitter just on the verge of college whose routine babysitting job has bigger ramifications than she is aware of, or the middle-aged man locked in a battle of wills with his girlfriend's son, whose temperament is all too similar to the boy's father, who used to beat the narrator up when they were in high school, each story has its main character facing a test of emotional (or sometimes physical) strength. Some of my favorite stories in the collection included "Rosaleen, If You Know What I Mean," "Only the Strong Will Survive," "Come August," "The Brother," and "The Gambler."

If I have any criticism about the collection, it's that I felt that some of the stories ended just before something key was going to happen, but the stories didn't leave you in suspense wondering what that something was, I just felt disappointed. Luckily those instances were outweighed by some powerful, fully fleshed out stories that affected me. Eugene Cross is a tremendously talented writer, and I hope this collection is just the start of a terrific career in fiction. I'll be watching.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Can't put the book down!, April 30, 2012
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Eugene's book is absolutely amazing. I could not put the book down! He tells great stories which cover heart ache, violence and adolescent behavior. I definitely recommend this book!
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5.0 out of 5 stars A collection that drives compassion toward loneliness, April 7, 2013
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"Fires of Our Choosing" is written in such a deceptively simple style that you're surprised when each story hits with such impact.
There's something deceptively simple about this book and Eugene Cross's writing style. When you first read the collection, the stories appear un-intrusive, deadpan, easy picking. But there is something complex that surprises you every time.

(By the way, Eugene Cross offered to send me a free copy of the book, but because I'm a believer in supporting indie authors, I actually purchased the book on Kindle.)

If you're a writer, like myself, at first you fool yourself into thinking, "I could do this. I could write this story," only to be hit in the chest with a depth of emotions you didn't realize was actually there at first.

The two major themes that this collection tackles are ideas of loneliness and abandonment. Almost every main character in each story has either been abandoned or has lost something, whether it's a house that burned down or a mother who abandons her son to go apologize (alone) to the boy he beat up nearly half-to-death in school. Or the woman who has to clean up after her brother committed suicide. Or the harvester who travels the country to earn a living but always tries to return to the same woman.

The writing itself is sharp, deliberate and at times cunning.

"I knew also what it was like to wake up in a hospital room, one arm connected to an IV, the other handcuffed to the bedrail, your best friend dead in a car you were driving. I knew what it was like to have a policeman look at you like you wer ethe lowest thing on earth and tell you the wreck was so twisted that emergency crews had to cut the legs off the corpse to remove it."

Other times you're forced to re-read the same story two or three times before you're sure you caught all the subtleties.

was first introduced to Cross in a fiction writing class at Pitt and I didn't even know it. It wasn't until I hit about halfway through his collection that I realized I had read one of his stories before.

The story was "Hunters" -- which is now a personal favorite.

"Hunters" is about a narrator who revisits the memory of the time he committed adultery with a woman he met at a bar. But the driving force behind this piece is not the drunken, sexual tension, but rather the confession-style approach the narrator takes as soon as he discovers whom the woman left behind at her house. The discovery is almost haunting. There's a complex sadness and selfishness that takes over, and Eugene never once tells you how you must feel about the situation. You just feel it.

As the narrator begins to tell his story he says, "But on this night, the one I'm going to tell you about..."

And as the reader, you wonder, who's the "You" in this story?

And I realized that answering that question would unlock the answer to the rest of the stories: the entire collection. When the narrator in "Hunters" says "you," he says it directly to the reader. After all, it is the reader who is the listener to all of these tales of sorrow, loneliness and abandonment. Why? Because we, as the readers, are meant to feel remorse, compassion and maybe even hope for these characters. The stories intend to connect and communicate with the reader directly. It is by joining these two identities (characters and reader) together that these stories are truly resolved. The one thing that these abandoned people need most is for someone to listen to them.

The same is true for the stories that end without a real ending: Without a conclusion.

Eugene Cross - Photo by Spark + Tumble
One story ends like this:

"He heard footsteps come thumping across the floorboards, and he waited, not knowing in the slightest what might happen next."

That's it. Nothing after that.

In the other story, a man hands his wife a rifle and then:

"When he reached the truck, he climbed into the cab, shut the door, and watched her, waiting to see what she would do."

Why would an author do this to his readers? Why would he torture them with an "unfinished" work. The reason is (and the answer lies) in the details of the story brought forth up until that crucial moment.

So often Cross makes you feel like a Literary Sherlock Holmes, one who tries to find answers in the clues of the story's details. Every gesture means something greater. Every memory and moment holds momentum to propel you forward to a conclusion.

So even when two of the stories are complete cliff hangers, you (as the reader) are meant to feel alright, because the answers have been given to you all along. Whether the message is about a man finally taking chances without unknown results or a man (who loves routines) embracing the unpredictable, these stories end right where they should.

There was only one story where I felt the ending was unwarranted by the "clues" leading up to it, in "The Brother." That was the only time I wish that more had been revealed between the two main characters to justify the twist at the end of the story.

Otherwise, the collection overall is believable and enjoyable.

I've often reflected about short stories and whether they are still pertinent today. Eugene Cross proves that they are. Short Stories are relevant to our culture not because they're big money makers (quite the contrary in fact) but because it forces readers to think more clearly. Something our society deeply needs.

Cross's stories not only make you think, but they make you feel human and extend compassion to a lonely bunch, reminding you that even when you feel lonely, by sharing your own story with others you can feel more connected.

A solid 5 stars for this collection. Nicely done.

Visit Eugene Cross's website here, and please support him by buying a copy of this fine collection.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable read., May 20, 2012
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This review is from: Fires of Our Choosing (Paperback)
Mr. Cross should visit the casino in Erie before using it again as a location for one of his short stories. No coins in or out of slot machines. No Keno. No harness races. No entertainment during the day. And no free coffee at the snack bar. :-) Otherwise, I did enjoy his short stories. The Gambler was my favorite, even with all the errors.
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Fires of Our Choosing
Fires of Our Choosing by Eugene Cross (Paperback - April 3, 2012)
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