BOOK REVIEW: When We Were Birds by Maria Mutch

When we were birdsI was thrilled to review the new book from Maria Mutch—best known for Know the Night, the memoir that landed her on the shortlist for Governor General’s Literary Awards 2014.

Why? Well, when an author’s debut work receives praise and accolades, or gets nominated for prestigious literary prizes, that author’s sophomore book is often a collection of her best short stories or essays—works that have helped the author get the notice and traction she deserves from the literary world. When We Were Birds is just that—a vibrant, innovative collection of stories that reveal the mastery and keen eye of the author.

Themes of predation and freedom (caged or wild, hunted or be hunted) are ever-present in Mutch’s stories. So is her infusion of lyrical language and wild, enchanting characters. Her visceral writing thrums with life and yearning. With violence and foreboding. With a bright, gorgeous intensity deserving of such a dazzling cover illustration.

This collection will appeal to both fans of magic realism, like that of Etgar Keret, and seekers of dark fairytales, like those twisted by Joyce Carol Oates. Grab a copy, out on May 24, 2018, and let your imagination run wild.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Thank you to Simon & Schuster Canada for providing me with an advanced reader’s copy in exchange for an honest book review.

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BOOK REVIEW: Starlings by Jo Walton

starlings-jo-waltonProlific novelist of speculative fiction,  Jo Walton, will soon debut her first collection of short stories, Starlings. In the book’s introduction, Walton explains how writing short stories is new turf for her—a struggle even—and that writing novels comes much easier. That was unexpected, since I often think of this form as an apprenticeship of sorts for writers. After Walton’s confession, I wondered if I’d be disappointed. That trepidation disappeared with a “Poof!” after polishing off the first story.

Her clever, modern fairy tales, with hues of Angela Carter, charmed the curl of my mouth into a conspiratorial smile. I fell under the spell of a man made of moonlight in “Three Twilight Tales”and the enchanted mirror who sees a whirl of trees through the seasons in “On the Wall”. I took my time and paid attention to the startling, tiny details that lurk in the shadows of plot and characterization.

Other stories showcase problems seemingly particular to Sci-Fi or dystopian settings that got me thinking about messy implications of the future. “Sleeper” delves into how the manipulation of AI simulations of historical figures could influence future generations—a perfect premise for an episode of Black Mirror. I also loved “Turnover,” in which occupiers of a spacecraft yearn to preserve their arts and culture after they’ll settle on their destination planet.

Flash fiction with sly punchlines pepper the book–most made me chuckle while others fell a bitflat. And, her Sci-Fi poems didn’t engage me as much as her stories, but that’s due to my usual struggle to connect with poetry.

I would recommend this collections to lovers of short stories instead of fans of Walton’s novels. With such varied settings and modes, it’s a book best savored story by story instead of in one or two sittings.

Now, which Walton novel should I read first? Any recommendations?

Thank you to Tachyon Publications and NetGalley for providing me with an advanced reader’s copy in exchange for an honest book review.

Rating:  ⭐⭐⭐⭐

BBT’s Best Books of 2015: Favorite YA Books

Molecules_CoverMy favorite YA novel of 2015—BY FAR—was We Are All Made of Molecules by Susin Nielsen. It’s a story of two very different people—Stewart and Ashley—who must eventually join forces it they want to make their newly-meshed family work. The book’ll make you laugh out loud and sob aching sobs. I wrote a gushing review back in May claiming that with yet another great title under her belt, Susin Nielsen is quickly becoming the John Green of Canada. I still think that’s true. If you have young teens on your holiday gift list, grab this book (Full of feels!) for each of them. Girls and guys will like it. So will you!

Issues tackled: divorce, bullying, sexual harassment, homosexuality, mourning

 

Cover_AnnAngelAnother great YA read was an engaging collection of short stories about teenage secrets.  Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves was edited by Ann Angel—curator of fells, laughs, and ah-ha moments. These stories vary in style and genre, but each one shows us how the struggles of teens deeply impact their emotional lives. Read my review to learn about my three favourite stories. It’s a must-read collection for teens, teachers, and parents alike.

Issues tackled: hoarding, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted deseases, eating disorders, friendship

 

A VIP READING EXPERIENCE: Welcome to the Circus by Rhonda Douglas

Circus_Cover Welcome to the Circus by Rhonda Douglas Freehand Books May 2015, 196 pages 

Reading Rhonda Douglas’ collection of short stories Welcome to the Circus is a VIP experience at a series a of intimate performances: the live fantasy shows in the family-run Porn Emporium, the execution of a famous exotic dancer during WWI, and the confessional of anger-prone God. Sharp, dark humour livened up the dialogue. Lush, poetic phrases dotted the narrative. Always was I surprised by the strange and alluring stories crafted by Douglas.

The standouts? My favorite was “Cancer Oratio” whose different vignettes take the form of a musical composition while the characters come to terms with the fate of their dying friend. And, despite being distracted by several typos in the French text, I loved “Nous and René Levesque”, the story that landed Douglas on 2014 CBC Short Story Prize longlist. It’s a fresh take on different point of views concerning a possible “séparation” of Quebec in years gone by. Although every story is unique in topic and form, each has a lot of heart and memorable characters. I look forward to reading other original, weird, and fiercely smart stories from this author.

*I’d like to thank Freehand Books for sending me a copy of this book.*

DARKNESS IN THE CITY OF ANGELS: Sweet Nothing by Richard Lange

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Sweet Nothing: Stories
Mulholland Books, February 2015
272 pages

In Richard Lange’s new book Sweet Nothing, the reader gets a taste of the less-than-glamorous side of life in Los Angeles, California. This book’s marketed as a collection of thriller short stories, but I don’t think it’s the right label. Lange’s previous book—Angel Baby—was a fast-paced novel of that genre. True, you’ll fly through these tension-filled stories, but not because they are suspenseful thrillers. This collection brings together raw, compelling narratives I’d peg as literary fiction.

In “Instinctive Drowning Response,” a junkie mourns the death of his girlfriend Maryrose. He looks back at their chaotic life as heroin addicts.  He blames himself, so “when he finally pops to the surface on a bright fall morning when  the tree shadows look like claws grabbing at the sidewalk” he is wretched and thinks, “I can’t come meet you there ever again.” It’s a story filled with grief and guilt with a recurring phrase that jabs under your skin, over and over again.

Blanca witnesses the murder of a toddler by a gang member in “Baby Killer”. She is too scared to report him. After all, when “it comes to the gangs, you take care of yours and let others take care of theirs.” But she can’t stop thinking about it. On top of that, she has problems controlling her uninhibited, disrespectful granddaughter. Something has to give when the nights get hotter and visions of the toddler flash in the darkness.

There are other compelling the stories involving a father-son duo on a rescue mission, an ex-con trying to rebuild his life, and a recovering addict with a night job and a 450-pound roommate. I enjoyed how the vibrant imagery contrasted the dark, yearning undercurrent coursing through these stories. Richard Lange has a knack for creating a growing sense of tension and urgency that keeps you turning pages. At times, his style call to mind that of John Cheever or Joyce Carol Oates. I’d love to read more literary fiction by this perceptive writer.

*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.*

15 EVOCATIVE YOUNG ADULT STORIES:Things I’ll Never Say edited by Ann Angel

ThinCover_AnnAngelgs I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves
Edited by Ann Angel
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published March 24th 2015 by Candlewick Press

In the 15 short stories featured in the new YA collection Things I’ll Never Say: Stories About Our Secret Selves edited by Ann Angel, the characters all struggle with a secret. Some of the secrets are a means of self-preservation while others are turning-points in dark fairy tales. Others, still, will forever change close relationships. Most of these stories had a tight hold on me. Three, in particular, will stay with me for a long time.

In the poignant story “The We-Are–Like-Everybody-Else Game” by Ellen Wittlinger, we feel the pressure rise in Lucy as she stands up to her controlling friend Claire. Claire who dictates what Lucy should say and do. Claire who knows the family secret that could shatter Lucy’s world. As the dynamics shifts and the tension builds, Lucy thinks, “I’ve never been able to stand up to Claire. She’s the only person who knows what goes on at my house, and she’s kept the secret for years.” That’s when we realize just how toxic their friendship is and brace ourselves for the wrath of a bully who wants to expose a hoarding nightmare.

An effective subway train metaphor runs throughout “For a Moment, Underground” by Kekla Magoon. The train is just like Sally’s secret. She’s a beautiful teenager struggling with an eating disorder. She thinks of the train as a “low, rumbling underground thing that once seemed invisible, but now that you’ve been away from it for a while, you realize how present it is.” Sally could just as easily be referring to the cause of her secret. The secret she relives when returning home, in the city, after being in boarding school for several months.

In my favorite story—“Three-Four Time” by Erica L. Kaufman—Imogene is a good student, girlfriend, and trumpet player who tries to hide her difficult home life. Her secret: a depressed, alcoholic mother. Imogene’s story crescendos in such a way to break your heart. Kaufman has an insightful way of grabbing your attention when Imogene talks about her mother: “I love her laugh. Sometimes I forget that there are things about my mother worth loving, that there are moments worth remembering. It’s because every good moment is really just a pause, a rest, a beat before the cacophony of the rest of her crashes in.”

These YA stories are fresh and thought-provoking.  So are the stories about a guy who gives herpes to his girlfriend, about a teen girl who makes advances to her teacher, and about a teenage father who gives up his baby for adoption. I relished nearly every one save for a couple fantasy stories that didn’t speak to me; they were lighter and didn’t capture the serious, heart-rending mood of the book.

I discovered new, inspiring YA authors. I urge teens and educators who enjoy raw, perceptive narratives featuring youths to get their hands on a copy of this book.

*I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.*

WRITING AT ITS BEST: The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014

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The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014
Laura Furman, Editor
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2014.
416 pages, $18.95.

The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014 showcases twenty stand-out stories that first appeared in prominent literary magazines. They were selected by a jury of accomplished authors: Tash Aw, James Lasdun, and Joan Sibler. Although these well-crafted stories have different styles, plots, and themes, they all feature vivid characters that drawn the reader in. Among these characters, you’ll meet troubled teenage girls in the midst of a robbery, a lonely widower in search of a friendly ear, and a young boy grappling for a new life in his grandfather’s home.

I savoured these stories. I was entranced by nearly all of them.  There were four or five stories that shook my core, including “The Gun”, “Opa-Locka”, and “Trust”. The one that resonated most, the one that I will revisit time and time again: “Nemecia”.

“Nemecia” by Kirstin Valdez Quade

Maria recounts the story of how her cousin Nemecia terrorized her as a child. Teenage Nemecia was abusive towards 6-year-old Maria. The older cousin always broke Maria’s new toys. She also scarred her smooth cheek when her own became riddled with acne. Worst of all, Nemecia told lies that terrified Maria, who believed every word: “I was afraid of Nemecia because I knew her greatest secret: when she was five, she put her mother in a coma and killed our grandfather.” The adults in Maria’s family withheld the truth from little girl, including her mother who claimed, “You’re lucky, Maria, to have been born after that day. You’re untouched. The rest of us will never forget it, but you, mi hijita, and the twins, are untouched.” Not knowing the truth about the dark family secret, Maria clings to the horrifying, murderous image of her abuser. This fear is mingled with Maria’s feelings of closeness and admiration for Nemecia, adding a whole other dimension to their flawed relationship.

Quade’s choice of first person narrator for this story is effective. The revelations of a grown-up Maria —who shares her story through flashbacks when manipulating timeworn photographs or an old, broken doll— help the reader better understand the cousins’ relationship. Some of us, like Maria, try finding closure or understanding by revisiting our pasts. Others, like Nemecia, run away from our pasts by reinventing ourselves time and time again. I was drawn into Maria and Nemecia’s world from the start. Though the mystery of an untold family tragedy pique my interest, it was the real, tortured relationship of the girls that kept me turning the pages.

Read the complete list of stories in this compilation:

Allison Alsup, “Old Houses,” New Orleans Review
Chanelle Benz, “West of the Known,” The American Reader
David Bradley, “You Remember The Pin Mill,” Narrative
Olivia Clare, “Pétur,” Ecotone Mark Haddon, “The Gun,” Granta
Stephen Dixon, “Talk,” The American Reader
Halina Duraj, “Fatherland,” Harvard Review
Louise Erdrich, “Nero,” The New Yorker
Mark Haddon, “The Gun,” Granta
Rebecca Hirsch Garcia, “A Golden Light,” Threepenny Review
Kristen Iskandrian, “The Inheritors,” Tin House 
Tessa Hadley, “Valentine,” The New Yorker
Dylan Landis, “Trust,” Tin House
Colleen Morrissey, “Good Faith,” The Cincinnati Review
Chinelo Okparanta, “Fairness,” Subtropics
Michael Parker, “Deep Eddy,” Southwest Review
Robert Anthony Siegel, “The Right Imaginary Person,” Tin House
Maura Stanton, “Oh Shenandoah,” New England Review
William Trevor, “The Women,” The New Yorker
Kirstin Valdez Quade, “Nemecia,” Narrativemagazine.com
Laura van den Berg, “Opa-Locka,” The Southern Review

I particularity liked the insightful essays from the jurors analyzing their favorite stories. Also, the comprehensive list of literary magazines at the end of the book is fantastic. I discovered several publications and then checked out their websites.

If you enjoy reading short stories, by all means, grab a copy of this book. There are stories to please every taste.

*I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.*