Review: By Light We Knew Our Names – Anne Valente

20949596Verdict: Beautiful but relentlessly bleak.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Published by Dzanc Books, September 2014

Find it on Goodreads.

From ghosts to pink dolphins to a fight club of young women who practice beneath the Alaskan aurora borealis, By Light We Knew Our Names examines the beauty and heartbreak of the world we live in. Across thirteen stories, this collection explores the thin border between magic and grief.

I have been trying and failing to write this review for days now. I don’t quite know how to review it still. I can say this though: I wanted to love this. But I didn’t.

The cover is beyond beautiful (even more so than it looks on the pictures) and Anne Valente’s writing is stunning but I struggled with how bleak this book was, relentlessly so. Short stories are often sad and often bleak but this felt unnecessarily cruel.

The stories focus loss and trauma. This is done extremely well but made it necessary for me to take long breaks between the stories. People lose somebody or something important to them and are suspended in this world of grief. I can intellectually understand how well structured the short stories were but reading them did not often give me pleasure. I also found the stories repetitive in their bleakness and their near hopelessness.

There were a few stories that I enjoyed – and these were the ones that were more hopeful and less devastating. Here Anne Valente’s talent for creating characters and stories really shone. The first story in this collection of a child finding out just how special they are worked exceptionally well and remained my favourite until the end.

 

Review: Her Body and Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado

33375622My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date Read: November 4th, 2017

Published by Graywolf Press, October 3rd, 2017

Verdict: Beautifully written, poignant, sad, feminist short stories with a supernatural side.

Find it on Goodreads.

A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague slowly consumes humanity. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery within the seams of the store’s prom dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted houseguest. And in the bravura novella Especially Heinous, Machado reimagines every episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show we naively assumed had shown it all, generating a phantasmagoric police procedural full of doppelgangers, ghosts, and girls with bells for eyes.

I was really looking forward to this book ever since I saw a review by Roxane Gay for this; then when I read and loved one of these short stories earlier this year I was even more excited – and I was not disappointed in the least. I absolutely adored these stories and what Carmen Maria Machado has to offer. She writes just the kind of slightly unsettling and very upsetting short stories that I just adore. Her stories are twisted and mean but also beautiful beyond words. They have a core feminist message while also being stylistically awesome and never losing sight of the humanity at the core of them. The stories are highly inventive, can be read both as a social commentary and often as love stories, her characters feel real and her language is precise and wonderful.

As is usually the case I adored some stories more than others but overall this was a very strong collection and I can absolutely understand the praise it has garnered (it has been blurbed by Roxane Gay and Jeff VanderMeer among others).

I loved “The Husband Stitch” (this is the story I had read before), maybe even more so the second time around: this inventive rumination on what secrets women are allowed to keep made me mad and sad at the same time.

In “Inventory” a woman looks back on her past lovers as the world comes to an literal end around her. This story felt very different than the rest of the collection but I loved its wistful melancholy and the bleak surrounding Carmen Maria Machado evoked.

My favourite of the bunch was the novella “Especially Heinous”, written as short blurbs for a TV show (think “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” ) filled with ghosts with bells for eyes and doppelgängers that are eerily similar but very creepy. This story was unsettling and creepy but also packed an immense emotional punch.

PS: This is book is so beautifully produced; the pictures online do not really do it any justice.

Review: May We Shed These Human Bodies – Amber Sparks

15701573My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Published by Curbside Splendor, September 2012.

Verdict: I am in love with Amber Sparks’ imagination.

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I love Amber Sparks’ imagination and her way with words and the vagueness of her stories. She writes stories that are super short but filled with meaning and metaphors and hints of deeper darkness and I adore this. She writes longer stories that resonate deeply, often filled with fairy-taleness in a way that makes them feel both familiar and wonderfully original; I adored this too. The stories in this collection all share her special brand of weirdness – and weird short stories are my favourite.

My favourite story was hands down “when the weather changes you” – I loved the setting of a never-ending coldness and the desperate decisions resulting. I loved how this story is fairy-tale-like but grounded in reality. The framing device of a family myth really worked well for me.

Amber Sparks’ manages to write stories that deeply resonate with me and I am somehow not capable of putting this resonance into words. I always struggle with reviews for short stories. I can say, however, that her brand of writing is highly fascinating to me and hat I am eager to read whatever she produces next.

Review: The Age of Perpetual Light – Josh Weil

34496925My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date read: 31 May 2017

Published by Grove Atlantic, September 2017

Verdict: Absolutely stunning short stories.

Find it on Goodreads.

This is an absolutely stunning collection of short stories; brilliant, enlightening, poignant, and very very sad. The eight stories in this collection are all a wonder to read but some stories did not quite work for me. Maybe if the brilliant stories hadn’t been so fantastic I would have been more lenient; as it stands, this a near perfect collection – but not quite enough for 5 stars for me.

Josh Weil tells stories set in transitory moments – where something, often some invention, changes everything about a person’s life, for better or for worse. Be it the advent of electric light in a rural community in the middle of nowhere in the US or the invention of satelite mirrors that end night as we know it in exchange for never-ending light (and productivity).

There were two stories that particularly moved me and that once again showed me what a brilliant medium the short story can be:
“Long Bright Line” – about a woman who always feels observed and at the side line finding her calling and her destiny in her brilliant art. Weil manages to paint such vivid pictures of the art she creates that I felt a profound sadness at the fact that it doesn’t exist. Juxtaposed with the advent of air travel and the way women were left out, her story was an absolute wonder.
“The Point of Roughness” – about a husband whose relationship with his wife is forever changed when their adopted daughter turns out differently than he hoped. It is a story about love and loss and about unhealthy obsession and about how some people are unable to deal with change. This story made me reel with emotions and unable to look away. It is beyond stunning and one of the best pieces of writing I have read in my life.

The stories all had a profound effect on me. I adore the way Josh Weil makes his characters come alive in the few pages we get to spend with them and how every single one of them felt unique and real, even if exaggerated in their current situations. His language is vivid and unique and full to the brim with feeling and beauty and metaphor. I am beyond impressed with this book.

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I received an arc of this book curtesy of NetGalley and Grove Atlantic in exchange for an honest review. Thanks for that!

 

Review: The Relive Box and Other Stories – T. C. Boyle

34121921My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Date read: September 20, 2017

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing, October 2017

Verdict: Unpleasant characters, derivative storylines.

Find it on Goodreads.

In a nutshell:
Unpleasant characters in situations of their own making feeling sorry for themselves while screwing others over.

I do not think there was a single main character in these stories that was not seriously unpleasant, self-important, arrogant, and whiny. While this might not be a problem for other readers, I have recently come to accept that I do like my characters to have some redeeming qualities. This is especially true for short stories where you only have a limited amount of time with the characters. For the stories to resonate, I have to have some understanding for the characters. These did not feel real in the sense that I sure hope that people are more well-rounded than this (call me hopelessly optimistic if you will).

I also found the stories’ plots left a lot to be desired; the premises felt derivative and not inventive enough to distract from the characters I found unpleasant. Here I enjoyed the more speculative stories more than the realistic ones. This is especially true for the last three stories: these did not work for me and I finally gave up and skim-read the rest.

I have been reading a lot of short fiction this last year; it is a genre I have found a whole new appreciation for. When short stories are done well, they pack an unbelievable punch – but on the other side, if the stories do not work for me, they absolutely do not work for me. This time, I struggled. A whole lot.

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I received an arc of this book curtesy of NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing in exchange for an honest review. Thanks for that!

Review: Tales of Falling and Flying – Ben Loory

33570520My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date read: 20 August 2017

Published by Penguin, September 2017

Verdict: Addictive, wonderful, quirky.

Find it on Goodreads.

Ben Loory returns with a second collection of timeless tales, inviting us to enter his worlds of whimsical fantasy, deep empathy, and playful humor, in the signature voice that drew readers to his highly praised first collection. In stories that eschew literary realism, Loory’s characters demonstrate richly imagined and surprising perspectives, whether they be dragons or swordsmen, star-crossed lovers or long-lost twins, restaurateurs dreaming of Paris or cephalopods fixated on space travel. In propulsive language that brilliantly showcases Loory’s vast imagination, Tales of Falling and Flying expands our understanding of how fiction can work and is sure to cement his reputation as one of the most innovative short-story writers working today.

It took me about three stories to find the rhythm of Ben Loory’s cooky, brilliant, weird, wonderful writing style – then I stopped questioning what was happening and just went where his imagination took me – and I adored this. This collection of very short short stories reads unlike any I have read before and I absolutely, totally loved it. I sped through it in two sittings and then was a bit mad at myself because I made it end so soon – but the stories were so addictive! Thankfully he has written another short story collection that I will have to check out sooner rather than later.

Ben Loory tells stories reminiscent of fairy tales and fables but always with a twist. His anthropomorphic animals are a joy to read about and reminded me of my favourite stories as a child. He trusts his reader to just follow him and go with it and he absolutely managed to enthrall me. His stories are beyond weird but still somehow grounded in something humane and real even though they are super short and quick.

As I am finding out, I like short stories with a bit of weirdness and magic in them and these fit the bill perfectly. And when they are as exquisitely rendered as these are, then I am a very happy reader.

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I received an arc of this book curtesy of NetGalley and Penguin Publishing in exchange for an honest review. Thank you so very much for that!

 

Review: The New Voices of Fantasy – Peter S. Beagle & Jacob Weisman (Ed.)

33838972My Rating: 3/5 Stars

Date read: 06 July 2017

Verdict: Sadly uneven with a couple of brilliant stories.

Ready for the next big thing?

The New Voices of Fantasy spotlights nineteen breakout writers who are reinventing fantasy right now. Usman T. Malik, Sofia Samatar, Eugene Fischer, E. Lily Yu, Ben Loory, Maria Dahvana Headley, Ursula Vernon, Max Gladstone, and other emerging talents have been hand-picked by fantasy legend Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn) and genre expert Jacob Weisman (Treasury of the Fantastic). International, crosscultural, and fearless, many of these rising stars have just or are about to publish their first novels and collections. They bring you childhood stories gone wrong, magical creatures in heat, a building that’s alive and full of waiters, love, ducks, and a new take on a bloodsucking fiend.

Sadly uneven. While there were a few really beautiful stories, overall I found this anthology not as great as it could have been. Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weismann collected short stories by authors they think will influence the future of fantasy. As such this is a very varied anthology with different outlooks on what constitutes “fantasy” as a genre. There were some really innovative story telling techniques employed and some stories I really adored – but some felt flat for me. I guess that is always going to be the case when it comes to anthologies this broad.

It took me a while to get into this collection as the first five stories did not particularly wow me. While I thought “Tornado’s Siren” (about a tornado who is in love with a girl) had a really interesting premise, the execution, especially in regards to the characters, fell flat for me; whereas “A Kiss with Teeth” just bored me to death – a vampire as a urban dad with midlife crisis just is not something I am very interested in. This is exemplary of how much of the collection read for me: many stories were just boring or not as well rounded as I would have liked.

But still, there were some stories I really, absolutely, completely adored:

Jackalope Wives by Ursula Vernon: wimsy, sad, poignant, and reminiscent of classical fairy tales with a twist: very much my thing.

The Haunting of Apollo A7LB by Hannu Rajaniemi: funny, quiet, political, unexpected, and wonderfully hopeful.

The One They Took Before by Kelly Sandoval: mean, sad, wonderful, difficult to get into at first but very rewarding in the end (oh the ending was so beautiful and hopeful and sad).

The Husband Stitch by Carmen Maria Machado: stunning, weird, feminist, sad, dark, wonderful. My absolute favourite of the bunch. And I am glad because I have been wanting to read her forthcoming debut collection for a while and now I cannot wait. This is just my type of dark magical realism that I adore in short stories. If you only read one of those stories: read this one.

I think this collection is broad enough to offer something for everybody – while this is a strength it also is a weakness as I found the anthology too uneven for my taste.

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I received an arc of this book curtesy of NetGalley and Tachyon Publications in exchange for an honest review. Thanks for that!