Little List of Reviews #6: Short Fiction

It’s time for another little list of reviews! This time I’m focusing on some short fiction that I’ve read recently, from a classic, to science fiction, to a modern fairy tale.

Little List of Reviews #6: Short FictionTitle: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Published by Riverhead
Published: March 7th 2017
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 231
Format: Hardcover
Source: Borrowed, Work
Goodreads

In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair and are soon cloistered in a premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As the violence escalates, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through.

Exit West follows these characters as they emerge into an alien and uncertain future, struggling to hold on to each other, to their past, to the very sense of who they are. Profoundly intimate and powerfully inventive, it tells an unforgettable story of love, loyalty, and courage that is both completely of our time and for all time.

 Exit West seemed to be all over the place once it was released, and with everyone I knew talking about it and a lot of people at work buying it, I thought I should give it a go because it sounded timely and relevant to today. Mohsin Hamid’s lyrical writing draws you into a world that ultimately you as a reader only catch glimpses of the heartache, the fear, and the love each of the two main characters experience for themselves and with each other. In a style that bends time and space to fit the journey, the two main characters escape what is a war-torn country in the Middle East, and we follow them as they make their way westward. It is all at once a tale that speaks of the plight and routes refugees take from Syria and other nearby places and a tale that speaks to the ultimately human journey to adulthood and discovering oneself. It is a story of discovering what it means to have an identity and of holding onto love when it’s necessary and learning to let go when it’s time to let go, no matter how unprepared you might be for the end.

 

Little List of Reviews #6: Short FictionTitle: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Published by Penguin Modern Classics
Published: October 1st 2009
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 158
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

 We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a Gothic novella about the Blackwood family home and the lengths Merricat, the youngest Blackwood, goes to in order to preserve their way of life. Throughout the book, you get the sort of foreboding feeling that something is not quite right about Merricat’s behavior, especially when cousin Charles comes to visit, and while the story plays into a lot of the Gothic genre’s tropes, it doesn’t fail to thrill. It’s an exacting commentary on the preservation of oneself and one’s family in the midst of change, either in the house or in the world beyond. It asks the question what does identity mean? The meaning of identity is not generally answerable in itself but in the implications and complications that arise in the midst of everything else. Why else would Merricat say she put “death in their food and watch them die?”

 

Little List of Reviews #6: Short FictionTitle: We Who Are About To... by Joanna Russ
Published by Penguin
Published: January 1st 1970
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 128
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

When I saw the covers of the Penguin Worlds science fiction classics collection, I knew I had to get them all. Not only for the covers but for the selections as well. One of my areas of research is science fiction because I feel like it’s an underrepresented genre in the grand scheme of the great literary canon, and Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About To… is a masterful novella about the agency a woman has, doesn’t have, and should have over her own body. Instead of conforming to the little civilization her companions decide to form in the wake of a spaceship crashing on a relatively unknown planet, the narrator decides to learn how to die when all hope is lost. Reading this book today feels very trope-y and cliché at times, but it’s important to put this in the context of the genre today. It plays with those tropes, gives a woman agency over her own life instead of submitting her body to be a vessel for reproduction, and shows us the very humanity in deciding on whether or not to live or die when you know there’s ultimately no hope for rescue or survival anyway.

BOOK REVIEW: New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier

BOOK REVIEW: New Boy, by Tracy ChevalierTitle: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
Series: Hogarth Shakespeare #5
Published by Hogarth
Published: May 11th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Retellings
Pages: 204
Format: Hardcover
Source: Blogging for Books
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling author of Girl with a Pearl Earring comes the fifth installment in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, a modern retelling of Othello set in a suburban schoolyard

Arriving at his fifth school in as many years, a diplomat's son, Osei Kokote, knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day so he's lucky to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one student can't stand to witness this budding relationship: Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl. By the end of the day, the school and its key players - teachers and pupils alike - will never be the same again.

The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970's suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practice a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Peeking over the shoulders of four 11 year olds Osei, Dee, Ian, and his reluctant girlfriend Mimi, Tracy Chevalier's powerful drama of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying and betrayal will leave you reeling.

 You are not my brother, O thought. He hated it when white people used that word, trying to take on some of the coolness of black culture without wearing the skin and paying the dues.

Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy is the latest installment in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, and I think it’s one of my favorites of the series. Having studied and taught Othello, I felt as if I were able to deconstruct the novella as I was reading it and delight in the correlations of the novella to the play.

Osei, or O, is a Ghanian diplomat’s son, and he is attending a new school in the 1970s in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. when a series of dramatic events unfold on school grounds from first bell to the final bell. It’s evident from the beginning that O is one of the only black students to attend this school, and that sets him apart immediately. Racial tensions are high, and everyone from the students to the instructors harbors some kind of prejudice toward O either through their own ignorance or through something that happens during the span of the day.

I thought Chevalier’s transposition of the dramatics of Othello to a schoolyard playground with all of its hormone-fueled rage, jealousies, and love was spectacularly done. Somehow the age of the major characters seemed to elevate the drama to something at once so believable and frightening. The final scene in the novella is heart-stopping and ends abruptly. I only wish there was more, a few pages of the aftermath, but as in the play, the reader is left with a quick cut to a black screen without that neat resolution.

In such a small book, Chevalier weaves a depth in each of her major characters, and her talent really shines in her development of O’s struggles at home, with himself and his place in the world, and how those struggles clash with the reality he faces at his new school. You feel his awkwardness, his intelligence, his anger, his love, and his wrath in a mere two hundred pages, and you’re left wanting to know more about this young man by the time the book ends.

New Boy is a masterful retelling of one of Shakespeare’s most racially charged plays, and it had me hooked from page one.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review by Blogging for Books! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: It’s Always the Husband, by Michele Campbell

BOOK REVIEW: It’s Always the Husband, by Michele CampbellTitle: It's Always the Husband by Michele Campbell
Published by St. Martin's Press
Published: May 16th 2017
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 320
Format: Hardcover
Source: Book Sparks
Goodreads

Kate, Aubrey, and Jenny. They first met as college roommates and soon became inseparable, even though they are as different as three women can be. Twenty years later, one of them is standing at the edge of a bridge . . and someone else is urging her to jump.

How did things come to this?

As the novel cuts back and forth between their college years and their adult years, you see the exact reasons why these women love and hate each other—but can feelings that strong lead to murder? Or will everyone assume, as is often the case, that it’s always the husband?

Michele Campbell’s It’s Always the Husband has a blurb on the cover that compares it to one of my favorite books of all time, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, so that was one of the big excitement draws from me toward the book. I like campus stories, especially involving societies on campus and the terrible things that end up happening as a result of their collective behaviors because let’s face it, going to college and living on campus is one of the first times a lot of us experience living on our own without our parents to help guide the way. And a lot of the time, that innocence and lack of experience translates into some pretty catastrophic stuff.

This is a hard one to review, because I think I expected too much by having that comparison given to me from the get-go, and usually I’m pretty good about being wary of such comparisons because very few things do actually compare. Anyway, it’s very obvious from the beginning that Campbell knows her stuff. She’s very familiar with the ins and outs of prestigious schools and established, wealthy families. She’s done her research on twisted murder cases and the lengths people go for self-preservation. Campbell’s history as a federal prosecutor gives her that knowledge and makes this story seem entirely plausible.

But. I didn’t really connect with any of the characters or feel sympathy for them. I thought the title was a bit of a misnomer, because it’s not always the husband (and if that’s the joke, I feel like it’s a little off the mark). It seems like this could have been two separate stories, or even a fully-developed college story, and then a sequel of what comes after. It’s odd because it felt both drawn out and really rushed, depending on what was going on. I either would have liked everything to have taken place on campus or have had a shorter flashback sequence with more focused on who the women became in the present.The writing is taut and sharp and kept me reading even though the plot was a little heavy-handed at times; but based on the advertising and blurbs and comparisons to Tartt, Flynn, and Ware, I was expecting a thriller, and instead I got a thrilling character-driven novel. Not a bad thing, but not what I was ultimately expecting or hoping for.

A copy of this book was provided to me for review by Book Sparks and the publisher. All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Best of Adam Sharp, by Graeme Simsion

BOOK REVIEW: The Best of Adam Sharp, by Graeme SimsionTitle: The Best of Adam Sharp by Graeme Simsion
Published by St. Martin's Press
Published: May 2nd 2017
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 314
Format: Hardcover
Source: Book Sparks
Goodreads

From the #1 bestselling author of The Rosie Project and The Rosie Effect, an unforgettable new novel about lost love and second chances

On the cusp of turning fifty, Adam Sharp likes his life. He’s happy with his partner Claire, he excels in music trivia at quiz night at the local pub, he looks after his mother, and he does the occasional consulting job in IT.

But he can never quite shake off his nostalgia for what might have been: his blazing affair more than twenty years ago with an intelligent and strong-willed actress named Angelina Brown who taught him for the first time what it means to find—and then lose—love. How different might his life have been if he hadn’t let her walk away?

And then, out of nowhere, from the other side of the world, Angelina gets in touch. What does she want? Does Adam dare to live dangerously?

 The Best of Adam Sharp is the latest by Graeme Simsion, the author of the highly-acclaimed The Rosie ProjectThe Best of Adam Sharp follows the life of a British man at fifty-something reminiscing about a relationship he had twenty years ago with Angelina Brown, an intelligent and beautiful actress. When the two had a chance to be something more than just a passionate fling, Sharp doesn’t take the chance and the two part ways. Twenty years after the two part ways, Adam receives a message from Angelina, and it causes him to wonder about the stability of everything in his life.

Unable to stop thinking about what might have been, Adam takes the chance and reconnects with Angelina, only to find out that it’s probably better to let what happened in the past and what fizzled out in the past remain in the past because it’s never going to be what you think and hope it will be, because Angelina is with someone else and really has no intention of ultimately shaking up her own life just to have a taste of that “what could have been.”

As I was reading this, I kept thinking I am not the target audience for this book. I’m about twenty years too young to really relate to anything that’s going on in the story, except for the flashbacks to Adam and Angelina’s initial romance. I think this would be a better read for someone who is a bit older than I am, someone who has had the chance to love and let go in this kind of way or for someone who is a little bit more of a romantic than I am. I also found it interesting that it played with the idea of polyamory and extra people in a relationship for a bit, and that’s the first time I’ve seen it in commercial fiction in a somewhat positive light. Then again, I don’t always gravitate toward commercial fiction with a romantic bent, so I might be completely off the mark in that! However, the writing made this a highly compulsive read, and I definitely wanted to see how everything played out for Adam and how it resolved itself. In the end, I felt that Adam got what he wanted and what he deserved as fairly as the universe could possibly present it to him. It’s never easy coming to terms with a lost love and the chance and failure of reconciliation, but sometimes it’s the journey that really matters.

I received this book from Book Sparks and the publisher for review! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Woman No. 17, by Edan Lepucki

BOOK REVIEW: Woman No. 17, by Edan LepuckiTitle: Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki
Published by Hogarth Press
Published: May 9th 2017
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 320
Format: Hardcover
Source: Book Sparks
Goodreads

A sinister, sexy noir about art, motherhood, and the intensity of female friendships, set in the posh hills above Los Angeles, from the New York Times bestselling author of California.

High in the Hollywood Hills, writer Lady Daniels has decided to take a break from her husband. She’s going to need a hand with her young son if she’s ever going to finish her memoir. In comes S., a magnetic young artist, who will live in the secluded guest house out back, care for Lady’s young toddler son, and keep a watchful eye on her older, teenage, one. S. performs her day job beautifully, quickly drawing the entire family into her orbit, and becoming a confidante for Lady. But as the summer wears on, S.’s connection to Lady’s older son takes a disturbing, and possibly destructive, turn. Lady and S. will move closer to one another as they both threaten to harm the things they hold most dear. Darkly comic, twisty and tense, this mesmerizing new novel defies expectation and proves Edan Lepucki to be one of the most talented and exciting voices of her generation.

“You think you know how a story begins, or how it’s going to turn out, especially when it’s your own. You don’t.”

I’m participating in Book Sparks’s Summer Reading Challenge this year, and Edan Lepucki’s Woman No. 17 is one of the books I read as part of the challenge that I couldn’t put down. I’m branching out of my reading comfort zones by participating in this challenge, and I think it’s helping me figure out why it is I gravitate toward certain genres and styles of fiction and it’s also showing me that branching out every now and then is an amazing palate cleanser.

Woman No. 17 explores the upsides and pitfalls of self-expression in the name of art, and I liked that S was not that likable of a character from the beginning, but she’s also a character a reader can empathize with because I feel like so many of us go through all of those loops and twists to try to understand our parents without actually going to the source because that’s awkward and uncool. It seems more interesting to our weird brains to do the roundabout thing and figure things out for ourselves when a lot of the time, our answers can be easily gained with time and the right questions. Anyway, I digress.

S, following in her mother’s footsteps, becomes a nanny to Lady, a woman living in southern California, and her youngest son. S finds out that Lady has an adult son, Seth, who is mute, and it’s revealed throughout the novel that Lady has a difficult time letting Seth go and grow up. The dynamic between S’s projection of her vision of her mother’s self, Lady, and Seth becomes pretty predictable by the middle of the novel when Seth and S begin communicating with each other without Lady’s knowledge. I think this is where the novel ultimately lost me because it was so predictable, especially in the connection between S and Seth by the end, and I felt that just one more twist in the whole thing might have made me enjoy this book that much more.

There’s a lot of drinking and a scene of animal abuse that caught me off guard (I’m not generally disturbed by these things, but it is worth mentioning for those who might be), but the writing itself is sharp, well-paced, and kept me reading even though I found myself rolling my eyes at S’s behavior. Lepucki shows her familiarity with the southern California landscape and the sorts of people who inhabit it and the people it attracts, and I really enjoyed that aspect of it. The characters, while ridiculous to me at times, seemed realistic within the setting and I didn’t feel as if it was completely unbelievable. Woman No. 17 is an enjoyable summer read that will take you away from the world for a few hours and leave you feeling quite entertained.

I received a copy of this book from Book Sparks and the publisher for review! All opinions are my own.