Mini-Review: You Will Never Be Forgotten by Mary South

Verdict: Bleak, hopeless, not for me.

Published by Pan Macmillan, August 6th 2020

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

In this provocative, bitingly funny debut collection, people attempt to use technology to escape their uncontrollable feelings of grief or rage or despair, only to reveal their most flawed and human selves

An architect draws questionable inspiration from her daughter’s birth defect. A content moderator for “the world’s biggest search engine,” who spends her days culling videos of beheadings and suicides, turns from stalking her rapist online to following him in real life. At a camp for recovering internet trolls, a sensitive misfit goes missing. A wounded mother raises the second incarnation of her child.

In You Will Never Be Forgotten, Mary South explores how technology can both collapse our relationships from within and provide opportunities for genuine connection. Formally inventive, darkly absurdist, savagely critical of the increasingly fraught cultural climates we inhabit, these ten stories also find hope in fleeting interactions and moments of tenderness. They reveal our grotesque selfishness and our intense need for love and acceptance, and the psychic pain that either shuts us off or allows us to discover our deepest reaches of empathy. This incendiary debut marks the arrival of a perceptive, idiosyncratic, instantly recognizable voice in fiction – one that could only belong to Mary South.

This collection was very much not for me – and I had been close to just putting it down, when the third story (Frequently Asked Questions About Your Craniotomy) was just brilliant and I spent the rest of my reading time chasing that high (which never came). South takes already uncomfortable premises and somehow makes them worse – and I do not like fiction that makes me feel like I need to take a shower. I admit that this is very much a me-thing and looking at other reviews made that very clear – there is a lot to love here, if you don’t mind sitting with discomfort.

I left the collection wondering if South does like the internet, at all, or even people, for that matter. Most of her premises lean into the possibility of technology making everything worse, while most her protagonists are genuinely awful people, or at least people at the whim of other horrible people. Her men are self-involved and rarely able to look outside their own problems, her women are often victim of either their own bodies or patriarchy. I did not enjoy my time with this book as it was way too bleak and hopeless for me.

Content warnings: rape, miscarriage, SIDS, trolling, depiction of graphic violence, killing of a cat, alcohol and drug abuse, fat shaming, death of loved ones, stalking, cheating

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

Mini-Reviews: Short Story Collections Part 2

Daddy by Emma Cline

50984842Published by Random House, September 1st 2020

I am having troubles writing this review. I really enjoyed Cline’s debut novel and thought I would adore this – I thought her writing style (vague, filled with weird metaphors) that worked well for me in novel form would work even better in the short format; this, however, was really not the case. I found this disappointingly and surprisingly bad. The prose was clumsy, filled to the absolute brim with unecessary commas, and the stories felt unfocussed, as if the interesting stuff was happening just off page.

The stories, as the title alludes to, often feature father figures – and most of those were horrible. This could have worked for me as I often enjoy difficult characters in fiction but here I did not find them drawn vividly enough (or too vividly, having them remain vague might have worked better for me). The stories are, without exception very grim in a way that felt hopeless to me.

I did not get on with this at all.

My rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars

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

I Hold a Wolf by the Ears by Laura van den Berg

48126820._sy475_Published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, July 28th 2020

I adored this! These stories were often sad, sometimes creepy, always impeccably structured. Van den Berg tells her stories unchronologically, often circularly, but always in a way that feels very deliberate and I appreciated this. The stories are told with a conscious darkness but never feel hopeless. Van den Berg focusses on characters that seem unmoored but are still anchored by something, often a sibling (I adore this!). Even when the subject matter is dark (and it is!) it never felt gratuitous or unnecessary to me.

I did enjoy the first half of the book more, but even the stories that did not completely work for me were never a chore to read. I am very happy to have two more short story collections of hers ahead of me as collections that work this well for me are rare.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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

Mini-Reviews: Short Story Collections

Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons

43152994Published by Atlantic Books, August 6th 2020

This hyper-realistic short story collection is dark and depressing and with prose not always sharp enough to work for me. The stories are mostly about people in the middle of bad decisions; not necessarily life-threatening bad decisions but rather smaller, mundane ones. Often these decisions involve neglect, neglect of their own bodies, their living environment, or most tragically their children. In subject matter it reminded me of Lidia Yuknavitch’s writing (who makes an appearance in the acknowledgements) but writing wise it could not reach her brilliance. I did not love the way Parsons wrote about weight and sadly too many of her protagonists were unkind about either their own bodies or the bodies of others.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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

Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang

P51199867._sx318_sy475_ublished by Atlantic Books, July 2019

Really really good! These mostly realistic stories worked exceedingly well for me – especially those that were told unchronologically in a way that I have not encountered in short stories before. This way of telling a story is something I particularly enjoy, so I was very pleased when I realized what Wang was doing. Not every story did work for me but enough did that I will be reading whatever she writes next. I also cannot get over the absolutely stunning cover.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

How To Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

51323315._sy475_Published by Bloomsbury Publishing, April 16th 2020

I enjoyed these stories a lot with their thoughtful explorations on families, focussing on the lives of Laos immigrants and their children. I particularly enjoyed that the parents depicted really do try to do the best for their children (especially contrasted to the horrible parents in this years crop of Women’s Prize longlisted books) even if they sometimes miss the mark or sometimes cannot be the parent they would love to be if they had more time/ money/ knowledge.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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

Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch

45280901Published by Riverhead Books, February 2020

Sadly disappointing. My expectations were mile-high: I love Yuknavitch’s writing and had been anticipating her first short story collection in years (her earlier ones are our of print and I haven’t manage to find a copy yet) but while her prose is sharp as ever, for some reasons many of these stories did not work for me. Part of that has to do with the inherent cynicism of her stories that was not tempered by the endless capacity for empathy that her other books of hers I read possessed. I left the collection feeling kind of sad.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Review: And I Do Not Forgive You – Stories and Other Revenges by Amber Sparks

45894105Verdict: I still love her.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short stories

Published by Liveright, February 6th 2020

Find it on Goodreads.

Exciting fans of such writers as Kelly Link, Karen Russell, and Carmen Maria Machado with prose that shimmers and stings, Amber Sparks holds a singular role in the canon of the weird. Now, she reaches new, uncanny heights with And I Do Not Forgive You. In “Mildly Happy, With Moments of Joy,” a friend is ghosted by a simple text message; in “Everyone’s a Winner at Meadow Park,” a teen precariously coming of age in a trailer park befriends an actual ghost. At once humorous and unapologetically fi erce, these stories shine an interrogating light on the adage that “history likes to lie about women”— as the subjects of “A Short and Speculative History of Lavoisier’s Wife” and “You Won’t Believe What Really Happened to the Sabine Women” (it’s true, you won’t) will attest. Blending fairy tales and myths with apocalyptic technologies, all tethered intricately by shades of rage, And I Do Not Forgive You offers a mosaic of an all-too-real world that fails to listen to its silenced goddesses.

As always, these stories are brilliant. There is just something about the way in which Amber Sparks writes short fiction that hits all the right spots for me. This is the third collection she has written and she still does everything I adore in the format: her stories are weird enough to be exciting and realistic enough to be grounded, she focusses women and their experiences, her sentences are as wonderful as they have always been. Of the three collections, this is the one most grounded in reality – and it works because it is also the most angry collection and anger is needed at the moment (or possibly always, but there is just something about these last few years that particularly make anger feel neccessary). Amber Sparks is angry, viciously so, and I love it. I love what it does to the tone of her stories and to the premises she chooses, but most of all I love how her anger does not mean her stories are any less beautiful, quite the opposite actually.

Sparks’ short stories are on the shorter side, something that I am learning is my personal preference. She tells her stories in vastly different ways but I always find something to adore. Often she hooks me from the very first sentence in a way that I do not encounter very often. I cannot quite put into words what works about her first sentences, but just look at the brilliance of “I’ll bet you think ghosts are so fucking romantic.” or “At the end of the world, you discovered words could change.” or “The queen woke up one morning to te furious sound of the Future invading.” I have said it before and I will say it again, Amber Sparks is my favourite short story author and I eagerly awaited this collection and I will read whatever she chooses to write next – because I can just trust her to wow me.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Liveright. This did not affect my opinions. Quotations are taken from the unfinished copy and might have changed during the final edit.

 

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

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?