Review: Awayland by Ramona Ausubel

40778923Verdict: Strong start, disappointing second half.

My rating: 3 out of 5 star

Genre: Fabulist short stories

Published by Riverhead, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

An inventive story collection that spans the globe as it explores love, childhood, and parenthood with an electric mix of humor and emotion.

Acclaimed for the grace, wit, and magic of her novels, Ramona Ausubel introduces us to a geography both fantastic and familiar in eleven new stories, some of them previously published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Elegantly structured, these stories span the globe and beyond, from small-town America and sunny Caribbean islands to the Arctic Ocean and the very gates of Heaven itself. And though some of the stories are steeped in mythology, they remain grounded in universal experiences: loss of identity, leaving home, parenthood, joy, and longing.

Crisscrossing the pages of Awayland are travelers and expats, shadows and ghosts. A girl watches as her homesick mother slowly dissolves into literal mist. The mayor of a small Midwestern town offers a strange prize, for stranger reasons, to the parents of any baby born on Lenin’s birthday. A chef bound for Mars begins an even more treacherous journey much closer to home. And a lonely heart searches for love online–never mind that he’s a Cyclops.

With her signature tenderness, Ramona Ausubel applies a mapmaker’s eye to landscapes both real and imagined, all the while providing a keen guide to the wild, uncharted terrain of the human heart.

I have been super in the mood for short stories and decided to start with a collection I was sure I would enjoy. Ramona Ausubel’s first collection was one of my favourite books of last year – there is just something about her brand of dark and twisted but whimsy and fantastical short stories that really works for me. And for the first three stories, I was in love and sure this would be another 5 star collection – but I didn’t love many of the stories that came after.

When Ausubel’s stories work for me, they are exactly in my sweet spot for short stories: dark and mean and filled with allusions to mythology; stories that deal with motherhood and being a daughter; they are challenging without being inaccessible; lyrical without being overly wordy. My absolute favourite story of this collection was “Fresh Water from the Sea” – both an exploration of the distinct feeling of returning to a country one has emigrated from and an exploration of the complicated relationship between a mother and one of her daughters influenced by this emigration. On the other hand, when they don’t work for me I find them vague and the weirdness off-putting; I also start to stumble over her sentence structure that I loved in other stories. In the story “Club Zeus” all the things I loved about the very first story of the collection (“You Can Find Love Now” about a cyclops setting up a profile on a dating app) – whimsical but dark allusions to mythology – really rubbed me the wrong way. I could just not get on board with the story at all.

Content warning: suicide, death, incest, pedophilia, in one story a woman has this idea of getting a doctor to surgically attach her hand to her husband’s arm and vice versa

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Review: Manchester Happened by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

44290385Verdict: Slightly disappointing.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, Fiction

Published by Oneworld Publications, May 23rd 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

An ambitious and assured collection of short stories from the internationally acclaimed author of Kintu
If there’s one thing the characters in Jennifer Makumbi’s stories know, it’s how to field a question.
‘Let me buy you a cup of tea… what are you doing in England?’
‘Do these children of yours speak any Luganda?’
‘Did you know that man Idi Amin?’
But perhaps the most difficult question of all is the one they ask themselves: ‘You mean this is England?’
Told with empathy, humour and compassion, these vibrant, kaleidoscopic stories re-imagine the journey of Ugandans who choose to make England their home. Weaving between Manchester and Kampala, this dazzling, polyphonic collection will captivate anyone who has ever wondered what it means to truly belong.

I found this, sadly, highly uneven and fairly unimpressive. I adore short story collections but have fallen a bit out of the habit of reading them this year. This collection was not the best choice to try to get back into the groove of reading them. Now, these are not bad stories by any means but for the most part they did not quite work for me. Part of that is down to genre preference; I like my short stories either fabulist or hyper realistic and these were neither, combining endlessly bleak glimpses into difficult lives with stories that just left me scratching my head (there is a story told completely from the perspective of a dog – something that was never going to work for me outside of flash fiction). I found the stories’ endings often abrupt in a way that did not strike me as intentional. The language is straight forward in a way that worked for me sometimes – when this book felt real and like it could be non-fiction – and sometimes not – when the stories felt unfinished.

However, when the stories worked for me, they were absolutely incredible. I adored both “Something Inside So Strong” and “Malik’s Door” a whole lot – if all these stories had been as sharp and poignant as these I would have been in love. These stories were not only cleverly constructed, the characters felt real and interesting, and the emotional heart made me hurt.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Oneworld Publication in exchange for an honest review.

Review: New Suns ed. by Nisi Shawl

40680117Verdict: Disappointing

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, Speculative Fiction

Published by Rebellion Publishing, March 18, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

Anthology of contemporary stories by emerging and seasoned writers of many races

“There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns,” proclaimed Octavia E. Butler.

New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color showcases emerging and seasoned writers of many races telling stories filled with shocking delights, powerful visions of the familiar made strange.  Between this book’s covers burn tales of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and their indefinable overlappings.   These are authors aware of our many possible pasts and futures, authors freed of stereotypes and clichéd expectations, ready to dazzle you with their daring genius

Unexploited brilliance shines forth from every page. 

I have read quite a few anthologies published by this publishing house and while short story anthologies are nearly always a mixed bag, I have always found some brilliant authors to follow. This book though did not work for me. I found most of the short stories disappointing and I did not finish reading all of them. I think I would have liked this more if there had been some kind of theme here. While I appreciate the idea of publishing short stories by authors of colour, I do think more cohesion would have improved my reading experience.

There were nonetheless a few stories that stood out for me and I feel the need to highlight them. I really enjoyed Rebecca Roanhorse’ take on the Deer Woman (“Harvest”) and thought the story was both poignant and impeccably structured. She is fast becoming one of most exciting SFF authors out there (I still have not read her Hugo winning short story but will have to remedy this as soon as possible). I found Chinelo Onwualu’s short story “The Fine Print” impressive in its interesting exploration of family and the ties that bind us. As always, the short story by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (“Give Me Your Black Wings Oh Sister”) was by far my favourite. I really do like the way here prose flows and her imagination sparkles and will definitely have to pick up some of her novels this year.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Rebellion Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Outcast Hours ed. by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

40680026Verdict: Some brilliant stories but also many that did not work for me.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, Anthology

Published by Rebellion, February 22nd, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

Bold new anthology from the acclaimed editors of The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories

We live our lives in the daylight. Our stories take place under the sun: bright, clear, unafraid.

This is not a book of those stories.

These are the stories of people who live at night; under neon and starlight, and never the light of day.

These are the stories of poets and police; writers and waiters; gamers and goddesses; tourists and traders; the hidden and the forbidden; the lonely and the lovers.

These are their lives. These are their stories. And this is their time:

The Outcast Hours.

I adored the first anthology by the editor duo so much that I did not hesitate for a single second before requesting this one and immediately starting to read it. Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin do have a great way of building anthologies and even though I did not love this one as much, I will still be on the lookout for more work by these two.

These stories all take place at night, in the liminal spaces that entails, and span a wide array of genres. For me, the first half of the anthology was by far the stronger one with some absolutely stunning stories that make me excited to check these authors out. The second half and the micro-stories by China Miéville who are interspersed throughout did not work for me, however. Here I found myself skim-reading and often not caring at all.

The anthology starts very strong with a quiet horror story by Sam Beckbessinger, Lauren Beukes, and Dale Halvorsen: The Book Will Find You. I adored this story about grief and anger and supernatural beings, and the brilliant way it climaxes. I have been eyeing Lauren Beukes’ books for ages and really need to check her stuff out. I found Will Hill’s It Was A Different Time incredibly angering and wonderfully constructed. My personal favourites of the bunch were Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Sleep Walker and Frances Hardinge’s Blind Eye, both authors whose work I have wanted to read for ages. I should really get on with it.

I appreciate how varied this anthology was and how widely different in tone and style the stories were allowed to be. For me that is always a positive in an anthology because it gives me the opportunity to read outside my comfort zone without having to spend hours reading things I am not enjoying that much.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Rebellion Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

Review: A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel

16158505Verdict: Vicious, weird, wonderful.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, Magical Realism

Published by Riverhead, 2013

Find it on Goodreads.

Major new literary talent Ramona Ausubel combines the otherworldly wisdom of her much-loved debut novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, with the precision of the short-story form. A Guide to Being Born is organized around the stages of life—love, conception, gestation, birth—and the transformations that happen as people experience deeply altering life events, falling in love, becoming parents, looking toward the end of life. In each of these eleven stories Ausubel’s stunning imagination and humor are moving, entertaining, and provocative, leading readers to see the familiar world in a new way.

In “Atria” a pregnant teenager believes she will give birth to any number of strange animals rather than a human baby; in “Catch and Release” a girl discovers the ghost of a Civil War hero living in the woods behind her house; and in “Tributaries” people grow a new arm each time they fall in love. Funny, surprising, and delightfully strange—all the stories have a strong emotional core; Ausubel’s primary concern is always love, in all its manifestations.

I have lamented before how difficult I find reviews for short story collections, even the ones I love. And it is a shame because I want to do this justice: I loved this. Ramona Ausubel has written the best short story collection I have read this year and I want to convince as many people as possible to pick it up.

This collection is pretty much custom-made for me: it combines lyrical language and stark imagery with themes of family, lost and found; the stories are weird and poetic and in parts disturbing, but they are also so very beautiful and profound. The stories center families in such a wonderful way while also being incredibly unique, I am just so in awe.

My favourite stories (in a collection where there was not a single story that I did not enjoy) were the very first story, “Safe Passage” about the end of a life which I found heartbreaking and heartwarming (First sentences: “The grandmothers – dozens of them – find themselves at sea. They do not know how they got there.”), and “The Ages” about young love which I found incredibly moving (First sentences: “When the girl and the boy moved in together, they had sex in the bed and everyone could probably hear it. Houses were pretty close together and there were a lot of open windows.”). But like I said, the stories are all very strong and if you can stomach a little weirdness (well, ok, a lot of weirdness) I would absolutely recommend these stories.

Recommendations: Short Story Collections

I love short stories. I only started properly reading them a few years ago but I have developed such an appreciation for the format. When a short story is done right, it can pack an unbelievable punch.

16158505I am currently reading A Guide To Being Born by Ramona Asubel, a rather brilliant collection, with twisty, dark, wonderful, magical stories (I understand why Jen Campbell names this as one of her favourites) and the reading experience got me thinking about what I like in the collections I adore. I gravitate towards short stories with a bit of a magical twist – I find these stories to be super mesmerizing. I also appreciate more realistic stories but here I often find that these collections are overall rather bleak which can get too much for me.

Here are some of my favourite short story collections, in case you are (like me) always looking for more collections to read.

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

28818921Nobody is surprised to see this collection of this list: I adored every second of it. I am in general a huge fan of Roxane Gay’s writing and these stories are a perfect example for her prose and her characterization, which I am just in awe of. The stories are well-plotted and purposefully structured. You can find my review here.

 

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

29236311One of my all-time favourite books, everything about this spoke to me. Marra tells an overarching story in wonderfully structured short stories. His command of language is impressive, his way of characterising people with a sentence and a half something that I find fascinating, and his sense for pacing and plotting is absolutely on display here. Be warned though, the book and its subject matter is bleak (it is after all set in Chechnya and unblinking in its depiction of war and atrocities), but Marra infuses it with just enough hope to be a stunning ode human connection. I cannot wait for his next book.

The Brink by Austin Bunn

22693283I loved this (and its perfect cover!). The stories all deal with some sort of Brink – often the end of the world as we know it. I adored the vagueness of the stories and the punch they had. Bunn is a another of those authors whose next work I am eagerly awaiting. You can find my review here.

 

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

32874103Another set of interconnected short stories where I found the whole even greater than the sum of its parts. Strout shows great tenderness for her characters while being unflinching in her portrayal of their short comings. Her stories are wonderfully structured and impeccably paced. She excels especially in depicting families in all their dysfunctional glory. I adored this. My review is here.

Tales of Falling and Flying by Ben Loory

33570520These stories are peculiar. They feature anthropomorphic animals (amongst other things) and revel in their weirdness. But for me, these stories worked exceedingly well and I had a blast with this collection. There is just something poetic and lyrical in the way Loory’s language flows and his imagination is glorious. My review can be found here.

 

The Unfinished World and Other Stories by Amber Sparks

25622828These stories just combine everything I adore in short fiction: they are magical and weird, wonderfully written, and often feature sibling relationships (I adore that). Her language flows wonderfully and every story in this collection is strong on its own. My review can be found here. (Sparks is apparently working on a new collection, an angry, feminist collection, which I cannot wait for.)

Do you read short stories at all? What are your favourite collections?

Review: Young Skins by Colin Barrett

23346874Verdict: Beautifully written, unbearably bleak.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction, Short Stories

Published by Vintage Books, 2014

Find it on Goodreads.

This magnificent collection takes us to Glanbeigh, a small town in rural Ireland – a town in which the youth have the run of the place. Boy racers speed down the back lanes; couples haunt the midnight woods; young skins huddle in the cold once The Peacock has closed its doors. Here the young live hard and wear the scars. It matters whose sister you were seen with. If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time, it matters a very great deal.

Colin Barrett’s debut does not take us to Glanbeigh alone; there are other towns, and older characters. But each story is defined by a youth lived in a crucible of menace and desire – and each crackles with the uniform energy and force that distinguish this terrific collection.

Colin Barrett has a stunning way with words. Some of these sentences are unbearably beautiful. As such I can absolutely see why this collection comes this highly praised. But, for me personally, the stories were just too bleak in the end and in their bleakness too similar to each other.

The stories focus young men and not so young men who for one reason or the other are unhappy in their lives. There is a sense of hopelessness that infuses these stories, a sense of roads not taken and lives not lived. All stories are impeccably crafted but maybe too similar in tone. Short fiction is often a format that plays with hopelessness and sadness, but even so, this one was too sad for me.

Barrett infuses his stories with a great sense of place in a way that I really appreciated. His depiction of small town Irish life rings true (as true as it can ring for me who has never lived there).

My favourite story was the very last story of the collection: Kindly Forget My Existence was just the perfect way to end this collection. Here two former bandmates meet again at a pub in their hometown, trying to drink their cowardice away and attend the funeral of their ex-girlfriend and ex-wife respectively. The whole story is just pitch perfect and nearly had me up my rating. If you only read one story of this collection, make sure it is this one.