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: The Madwoman Upstairs, by Catherine Lowell

BOOK REVIEW: The Madwoman Upstairs, by Catherine LowellTitle: The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
Published by Touchstone
Published: November 22nd 2016
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 368
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

In Catherine Lowell’s smart and original debut novel—“an enjoyable academic romp that successfully combines romance and intrigue” (Publishers Weekly)—the only remaining descendant of the Brontë family embarks on a modern-day literary treasure hunt to find the family’s long-rumored secret estate, using only the clues her father left behind and the Brontës’ own novels.
Samantha Whipple is used to stirring up speculation wherever she goes. Since her eccentric father’s untimely death, she is the presumed heir to a long-rumored trove of diaries, paintings, letters, and early novel drafts passed down from the Brontë family—a hidden fortune never revealed to anyone outside of the family, but endlessly speculated about by Brontë scholars and fanatics. Samantha, however, has never seen this alleged estate and for all she knows, it’s just as fictional as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights.
But everything changes when Samantha enrolls at Oxford University and long lost objects from the past begin rematerializing in her life, beginning with an old novel annotated in her father’s handwriting. With the help of a handsome but inscrutable professor, Samantha plunges into a vast literary mystery and an untold family legacy, one that can only be solved by decoding the clues hidden within the Brontës’ own works.
A fast-paced adventure from start to finish, The Madwoman Upstairs is a smart and original novel and a moving exploration of what happens when the greatest truth is, in fact, fiction.

 This was not an office. It was a small library, two stories high, with thin ladders and impractical balconies and an expensive ceiling featuring a gaggle of naked Greeks. It was the sort of library you’d marry a man for.

Catherine Lowell’s The Madwoman Upstairs has been on my radar for a while, and when BookSparks sent me a copy of this book and a lovely Penguin English Classics edition of Jane Eyre to celebrate Charlotte Brontë’s birthday, I was super excited to finally read it. I mean, how could I not? It’s about the last descendant of the Brontë family and the discoveries and revelations the main character has along the way.

The Madwoman Upstairs is literally a literary treat to me. In some ways, it reminded me of a light-hearted, quirky version of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, and I adored reading it. The narrator has such a great voice, and I thought Lowell captured the voice of a young, headstrong, stubborn woman thrown headfirst into a world she has been trying to avoid since her father’s death. But as it happens, it’s entirely difficult to leave the past in the past, and inevitably it will come back to you.

Generally, when one thinks of the Brontë family, one might think of Charlotte or Emily before thinking of Anne, so I liked the twist of Anne being more of the focus of this treasure hunt Samantha Whipple goes on after receiving a strange little bookmark from her father’s papers. The Madwoman Upstairs is very much a fun campus novel with twists of romantic comedy and literary intrigue, and it was an enjoyable read from start to finish!

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

BOOK REVIEW: Goodnight From London, by Jennifer Robson

BOOK REVIEW: Goodnight From London, by Jennifer RobsonTitle: Goodnight from London by Jennifer Robson
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks
Published: May 2nd 2017
Genres: Historical, Fiction
Pages: 400
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Book Sparks
Goodreads

From USA Today bestselling author Jennifer Robson—author of Moonlight Over Paris and Somewhere in France—comes a lush historical novel that tells the fascinating story of Ruby Sutton, an ambitious American journalist who moves to London in 1940 to report on the Second World War, and to start a new life an ocean away from her past.

In the summer of 1940, ambitious young American journalist Ruby Sutton gets her big break: the chance to report on the European war as a staff writer for Picture Weekly newsmagazine in London. She jumps at the chance, for it's an opportunity not only to prove herself, but also to start fresh in a city and country that know nothing of her humble origins. But life in besieged Britain tests Ruby in ways she never imagined.

Although most of Ruby's new colleagues welcome her, a few resent her presence, not only as an American but also as a woman. She is just beginning to find her feet, to feel at home in a country that is so familiar yet so foreign, when the bombs begin to fall.

As the nightly horror of the Blitz stretches unbroken into weeks and months, Ruby must set aside her determination to remain an objective observer. When she loses everything but her life, and must depend upon the kindness of strangers, she learns for the first time the depth and measure of true friendship—and what it is to love a man who is burdened by secrets that aren’t his to share.

Goodnight from London, inspired in part by the wartime experiences of the author’s own grandmother, is a captivating, heartfelt, and historically immersive story that readers are sure to embrace.

 

 

 

 

In Goodnight From London, Ruby Sutton is an American journalist who moves to London from New York in 1940 to report on the war as a staff writer for publications in both cities. In a series of vignettes, we see Ruby through her struggles and growth in her new job as a foreigner and as a woman. Goodnight From London is a captivating story about a young woman finding her own ground in the midst of war.

Even though the novel was told in little glimpses of her every day life, I felt like I really connected with Ruby Sutton as she navigated her way through a foreign city besieged by war, raid sirens, air strikes, destruction, rationed food, and as she found a determined, resilient hope in the people she met. For me, one of the best parts about this book is the development of her work and personal relationships. None of them felt forced, and each of them felt genuine, especially for that era. Ruby is an orphan of sorts and never really knew what it was like to have people who cared for her, and in the midst of the terror that was WWII, finding people who had been through hell but still were able to show their humor, their love, and their friendship was such an eyeopener for Ruby. We see her adjust, sometimes awkwardly, to the generosity of those around her. As a reader, I wanted to see her succeed, to see her overcome her fears and reservations, and to fall in love with that mysterious Bennett.

While not as grim and heavy as some other WWII novels I have read, I enjoyed that the setting and the struggles felt realistic. Robson’s writing style is effortless and crisp, and the writing made it clear that she has done her research. If you like historical fiction that isn’t so heavy and dark and heroines you can root for, I think you’ll enjoy reading Goodnight From London.

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

BOOK REVIEW: Into the Water, by Paula Hawkins

BOOK REVIEW: Into the Water, by Paula HawkinsTitle: Into the Water by Paula Hawkins
Published by Riverhead Books
Published: May 2nd 2017
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 386
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Publisher
Goodreads

A single mother turns up dead at the bottom of the river that runs through town. Earlier in the summer, a vulnerable teenage girl met the same fate. They are not the first women lost to these dark waters, but their deaths disturb the river and its history, dredging up secrets long submerged.
Left behind is a lonely fifteen-year-old girl. Parentless and friendless, she now finds herself in the care of her mother's sister, a fearful stranger who has been dragged back to the place she deliberately ran from—a place to which she vowed she'd never return.
With the same propulsive writing and acute understanding of human instincts that captivated millions of readers around the world in her explosive debut thriller, The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins delivers an urgent, twisting, deeply satisfying read that hinges on the deceptiveness of emotion and memory, as well as the devastating ways that the past can reach a long arm into the present.
Beware a calm surface—you never know what lies beneath.

 Some say the women left something of themselves in the water; some say it retains some of their power, for ever since then it has drawn to its shores the unlucky, the desperate, the unhappy, the lost. They come here to swim with their sisters.

This summer I am participating in Book Sparks‘s Summer Reading Challenge, and the first book of the summer is Paula Hawkins’s Into the Water. I have been eagerly waiting to read this after reading The Girl on the Train last year, and I feel like she met my expectations with her sophomore novel. Into the Water is a slower-paced novel compared to the runaway feeling that I got while reading The Girl on the Train, and I think that the pace and atmosphere of each book fits the title. Into the Water unfolds slowly through multiple perspectives and all of the details float around until the final few chapters when everything comes together.

Into the Water‘s strength lies not in the driving force of the plot but in its undercurrent. The main plot revolves around the death of a single mother in a pool of water in which other women throughout the town’s history have also died. To me, the most interesting aspect of this novel is the history of that pool and the stories of the women who died there. I would have loved for the novel to revolve more around the histories of those women because their stories were nuanced, engaging, and compelling. I wanted to know more about the lives of those women and what led to their downfalls.

The major drawback for me in this novel are the narrators. I felt like there were too many narrators (eleven! I wrote the names down to keep track of them, and I’ve never felt like I’ve had to do that before), and that many narrators lead to a jumpy, sometimes jarring plot. I like stories with multiple perspectives, and I think eleven narrators can work if it’s a longer book or a longer series, but when a book is less than four-hundred pages, I find that eleven narrators eventually blur and lose their distinctions.

Overall, this is a solid read for me, and I breezed through it on a lovely spring day with my cat on my lap on our deck.

An advance reader’s copy was sent to me on behalf of Riverhead Books and Book Sparks for my honest opinion.

BOOK REVIEW: The Paper Menagerie, by Ken Liu

BOOK REVIEW: The Paper Menagerie, by Ken LiuTitle: The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu
Published by Saga Press
Published: October 4th 2016
Genres: Science Fiction, Fantasy
Pages: 450
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Purchased
Goodreads

Bestselling author Ken Liu selects his multiple award-winning stories for a groundbreaking collection—including a brand-new piece exclusive to this volume.
With his debut novel, The Grace of Kings, taking the literary world by storm, Ken Liu now shares his finest short fiction in The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories. This mesmerizing collection features many of Ken’s award-winning and award-finalist stories, including: “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” (Finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Theodore Sturgeon Awards), “Mono No Aware” (Hugo Award winner), “The Waves” (Nebula Award finalist), “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” (Nebula and Sturgeon Award finalists), “All the Flavors” (Nebula Award finalist), “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” (Nebula Award finalist), and the most awarded story in the genre’s history, “The Paper Menagerie” (The only story to win the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards).
Insightful and stunning stories that plumb the struggle against history and betrayal of relationships in pivotal moments, this collection showcases one of our greatest and original voices.

 Time’s arrow is the loss of fidelity in compression. A sketch, not a photograph. A memory is a re-creation, precious because it is both more and less than the original.

Ken Liu’s The Paper Menagerie is one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read, period. It’s rare for me to read a short story collection and find something to enjoy and marvel over in each story, but I did with this one. I think the only other one that matches that ‘I love every story in this’ is Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others. After finishing The Paper Menagerie, I just wanted so much more, and I’m so looking forward to reading his Dandelion Dynasty series.

I think the thing I liked most about this collection of stories, aside from Liu’s deft skill at writing in and blending several different genres, is that so many of the stories focus on the idea of storytelling and what that means for us as people and as a society. In the collection, you’ll read about the ways in which species across the universe record their stories for the present and the future (“The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species”), the ways in which society tells us stories to keep us controlled and how difficult it is to break the illusions (“Perfect Match”), the literal power of words (“The Literomancer”), and the literal preservation of memory to be “read” and its upsides and pitfalls (“Simulacrum”).

This solid collection has fiction in all genres, and one of the heaviest stories to read was “The Literomancer,” because while it’s got a flavor of magic and magical realism, it’s firmly rooted in history, and it’s difficult to read about and stomach the atrocities people can do to one another, and it adds another layer of heaviness when the story is mostly from a child’s, an innocent’s, perspective, because we’re watching that loss of innocence unfold before us. I also really liked “The Waves,” and I found it one of the strongest recent science fiction stories I’ve read in a while.

Part of the joy of short story collections is the discovery within the covers, so I don’t want to go into too much detail about the stories themselves. But I will recommend this to you and everyone you know because it’s just that good.