Review: The Scent of Cinnamon – Charles Lambert

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041 - The Scent of Cinnamon

Rating – 3*

Firstly, it’s been a while since I wrote a review, so I’m more than a little rusty. Secondly, welcome to the first review in a series I’m going to be calling my Summer of Salt.

The Scent of Cinnamon is a short story collection published by Salt and is full to the brim with stories which completely boggled my mind. As with all short story collection there were some which I didn’t enjoy as much as others, but the collection as a whole is full of mysteries and things which made me think.

The titular story is one which on the surface didn’t seem all that deep, in fact it came across as a little meek and mild but come the end I was really engaged, I loved the direction it went in and genuinely didn’t see the end coming. This was a recurring theme with the whole collection – each story took it’s own path away from what I had cooked up in my head and I don’t think there was even one story in here which was predictable.

The collection spans time and genre, the only thing which really linked each of the stories together being the general writing style and I actually really enjoyed that. I enjoy a themed collection as much as the next person but sometimes it’s nice to have stories which really stand on their own.

My only criticism is that a lot of the stories end very abruptly, and as someone who likes all loose ends gathered up and neatly put in a bow that was really frustrating. I also found several of the stories haven’t really stuck with me, which isn’t great.

Overall this was a pretty solid collection, and if you enjoy very varied collections I’d definitely suggest this. There, I think, is something for everyone – maybe more for some than others. For me it was very middle of the road overall, but it was definitely worth a read!

Review: A Guide to Being Born – Ramona Ausubel

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029 - A Guide to Being Born

Rating – 2*

This is one of those books which has been sitting there, itching to be read, for a number of years. I think I bought this way, way back on a friends recommendation and have had such high hopes for it since that I just didn’t want to pick it up – it wasn’t quite the right time.

I think I may have gone in to this book with expectations far too high because, well, I didn’t enjoy it. Ausubel’s writing is beautiful, there’s no escaping that. How she uses language, her turns of phrase, her imagery and atmosphere is incredible but the actual stories as separate entities? Those I didn’t enjoy so much.

So many reviews of this collection say that they (as readers) were swept up in her worlds, and loved the creativity and whimsy of what she created. Said that stories in here were beautiful. For me, I didn’t get that. Some of the stories physically repulsed me – and I get that that was the intention, to blur those lines between reality and fiction, to have questionable ethics and plots to make you think. But, honestly, some of it for me went too far over the line for me to enjoy.

I so wanted to love this book, but in the end I carried on reading out of a sense of obligation. Not because I necessarily wanted to. I hoped – fruitlessly – that I would find that story in here, that one that made me forget all the faults and issues I had, the one that swept me up and made me love this collection as everyone else on my GoodReads friends list seems to. But it didn’t happen. The stories did get better, but not enough for me to recall them at any given moment – never mind a week after the event in a review! And the stories I do remember I don’t particularly wish I could, I wish I could erase them from my memory.

As I said, Ausubel is clearly a talented writer to evoke this emotion from me – because I don’t think I’d feel so passionately about a book being packed full of stories I disliked if I hated the writing. I’d have just thrown it to one side and forgotten about it. But, with this book, I didn’t feel I could do that. Only go in to this book with a strong stomach and preparation that it isn’t quite the ‘Cath Kidston’ of short story collections like many of the reviews make you believe.

Review: Kissing the Witch – Emma Donoghue

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Rating – 4*

What can I say about this collection other than I absolutely loved it? Some background first, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with Emma Donoghue in that I either really love, or really dislike, her books. Room was amazing, so was one of her historical novels, then came along Frog Music which is one of the few books I have DNF’d over the years. This was definitely a hit, in spite of my trepidation going in to it.

Essentially this is a collection of fairy tale retellings – people like Kirsty Logan have cited it as a source of inspiration for their work. High praise like that really puts a book on a pedestal, but on reading it I fully understand why it is so highly regarded. All of the stories in this book, or rather snippets in to the characters lives, twist the well known version of the story in to feminist, slightly queer retellings which still (somehow) keep the character of the original. How Donoghue worked all of the fairy tales in to the same world, and had them seamlessly flow in to each other was genius and it made the collection flow absolutely perfectly.

Each tale is the story of a female character before they became the trope in the original fairy tale – their story before they were witches, stepmothers, crones or spinsters; their stories of being girls, sisters and daughters. Each story flows in to the next by the protagonist simply asking who they were, and we go through generations of women, and ending with the origin of the kiss-seeking witch.

Frankly, this collection is genius – and having read a lot of works which have been influenced by it, I can now see the influence it has had on some of my favourite authors (particularly Kirsty Logan’s A Portable Shelter). It is definitely up there with my favourite short story collections, and one I will be reading again in the future for certain.

I listened to this as an audiobook and can’t recommend it highly enough – it was narrated beautifully and while it was the same narrator for each story, every character had their own voice, it wasn’t flat or monotone like a lot of short story collections, or multiple personality audiobooks suffer with!

Review: Mythos – Stephen Fry

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Rating – 5*

When I saw this book on Audible I knew I had to get it – it’s one of the few audiobooks I’ve actually preordered this year. My thoughts were it is Greek mythology and Stephen Fry; sounds like a perfect combination. I wasn’t far wrong.

Greek Myths have an awful habit of being very dull reads – this however was not dull. The familiar tales were told in a much more modern, approachable way than the starchy collections I’ve read in the past. What I love most about this collection is how seamlessly he wove modern culture, and what we have obtained thanks to classical myth, in with the story – literature and music are referenced in abundance, but then there is also origins of elements and compounds in science which I had absolutely zero idea about prior to reading this! It’s both fiction and non fiction simultaneously because, actually, I feel I learnt a lot about what shaped humans (given that modern civilisation has a lot to owe to the ancient Greeks!)

The collection is told in a round-about chronological way, starting with the creation myth of Chaos, on to the Titans and the Olympians. The way the stories are put across is like a multi-generational saga, it makes it so much more modern than other collections I’ve read which are essentially the same stories. We get those familiar stories of Pandora and her box (or vase, as it was a mistranslation), Midas, Echo and Narcissus… so many of the stories which I adored as a child (and on reading this, love again).

Not only is it more modern, it’s so much more fun and I can’t help but think that’s entirely down to Stephen Fry as an author putting a bit off lightness in all the characters and having a bit of fun – and I loved it. I listened to this in the space of 2 evenings and it was a joy to listen to as he narrates it himself, making it twice as much fun as it would have been otherwise. I can only hope that he does more like this because, damn, it was so much fun!

I’d highly recommend this to anyone who likes Stephen Fry, classical myth, audiobooks, or is generally curious because actually while this is fiction I feel I learnt a lot of (useless) information from it which I can now use to impress my friends!

Review: Fly Away Home – Marina Warner

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Rating – 3*

After reading what I can only describe as an incredible book published by Salt earlier this month, I decided it was high time I started making headway on the collection of books I have published by them sitting on my shelves. It was this one which caught my attention.

Fly Away Home is a short story collection containing 20 stories. I had very few doubts going in to this collection, frankly I didn’t even know what it was about, I saw it in a local bookshop a few months ago, saw Salt’s logo on the side and picked it up. As discussed previously, I love them as a publisher and whenever I see a book when I’m out, I do have a tendency to pick it up!

Unfortunately, this collection wasn’t for me. It wasn’t that it was bad, it was just that there were only a few stand out stories in the 20 which I really enjoyed, everything else just didn’t hit all the right buttons for me. I love stories which tread the fine line between fantasy and reality. As a whole, the collection had this but I felt that the balance of the two was slightly off. There were so many stories in here that I wanted to love but just lacked something – it’s hard to put my hand on what it was because I loved so many of the ideas, it was just the execution of them which lacked.

Warner’s writing is engaging, it’s interesting and how she interprets myth and fairytale is really something I enjoyed. I just wish there had been more exploration in some stories (Mélusine: A Mermaid Tale for example is one I wish could have had more context and more exploration because I wanted to love that one so, so much) and explored less in others.

It’s by no means a bad collection, I did give each story a rating which, on average, was a 3*. One of my favourites was one of the earlier stories A Chatelaine in the Making which for me had the best balance of fantasy and realism in the collection; it was just the right amount of fantasy to make it read like a fairy tale, but enough realism there to make it dark and twisty.

It isn’t my favourite short story collection, but as with all books (especially short story collections I find) there is a large matter of subjectivity. If we all loved the same thing, then the world would be a boring place! If this book sounds like something you might be interested in do pick it up because I appear to be in a minority – at least according to goodreads!

Review: Moss Witch and Other Stories – Sara Maitland

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Rating – 3*

The premise of this short story collection is so, so up my alley. It’s honestly an incredible idea; it fuses fiction and science in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever found in another book. It’s a collection of short stories, each based around scientific fact and discovery – and each story has an afterword by a renowned academic in the field of science that the story focuses on. When I read the synopsis I knew I just had to have this book, I needed this book, and while it fell a little short of my high expectations I really did enjoy it.

As with most short story collections, this is very hit and miss. What surprised me most is the different narrative structures of each story. Some are very conversational such as The Geological History of Feminism which is a story of a young girl who goes to stay with her Aunt and gets an education on both geology and feminism (and has an absolutely fantastic title if I do say so myself). Another – How the Humans Learned to Speak – is very reminiscent of fables, and stories such as those written by Rudyard Kipling and explains in a very fun, if not simplistic way, how speech evolved in early hominids (pre-homo sapiens). The stories vary from the very realistic to full on not realistic; some are completely original whereas others are twists on myth and legend. It’s such a vast array of stories, and they all stand out completely independent of each other.

However, as much as I loved the structure and the science, sometimes it was a bit textbooky in the middle of a story and that ruined it a bit for me. The afterwords were great and such a novel idea, but when there’s quite a bit of wordy science in the middle of the story (even as a scientist) I found it a bit off-putting. Sometimes, the science seemed shoe-horned in and it was a bit difficult to get through – wading through treacle is a good analogy for some passages.

On the whole I did love this book. I loved the idea. I loved the structure. I loved that the stories were all so different from each other yet had that connecting theme of science. I generally loved how the science was incorporated in to the stories. But I only liked it overall – which is why it’s a 3* read.

I’d encourage anyone who is curious to pick this up. I do realise it’s probably not a book for everyone, but it’s something different and sometimes we need that in our reading lives!

Review: The Other World, It Whispers – Stephanie Victoire

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Rating 3*

I picked this book up for a number of reasons. One, it’s published by Salt – who are amazing and one of my favourite publishers (also, local and when you order direct from their website you get wonderful little postcards, never fails to cheer me up!) – I’ve yet to read a book published by them that I didn’t like – be that poetry, short stories or a novel. Second, just look at that cover – it’s gorgeous and the quote is from Kirsty Logan. Third, the blurb on the back really appealed to me. Fairy tales and folklore, spirits and witches. Definitely up my alley.

However, for me, as a whole the collection felt a little underbaked.

Now, there were a few stand-outs for me; it was just that a few stories felt a little underdeveloped. I  think this would have been incredible had some of those underdeveloped stories been a little longer, just to give them a chance to grow! This book was a mass of incredible ideas and I wasn’t wrong, it was completely up my alley, it just needed something more.

A story I adored was Layla and the Axe – for me it felt like one of the more complete of the collection which is a little odd as it’s one that ends on quite an open note leaving the reader to make a decision of what ultimately happens. It had tones of Hansel and Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood – mainly because there’s a forest and a house in it. But it’s much darker than even they are and I really loved it.

I also felt that she dealt with gender and sexuality well in a fairytale context. In Shanty our protagonist is a girl born into a boys body, and finds comfort in mermaids, and longs and wishes to be a mermaid, to have that freedom and liberation – that story alone contained some incredible prose which I read over and over. There is also the final story of the collection which is Morgana’s Shadow which deals with a young girl who is caught kissing another girl in a forest. “It was a kiss to seal a deal”, she explains, that deal being that in exchange for a kiss she acquires the power of shapeshifting. It was essentially a story which was one long metaphor which – in conjunction with Shanty – sort of puts in to words the emotional and physical struggles of breaking free and coming to terms with gender identity and sexuality.

I’ve read that the author is currently at work on a novel and, honestly, if it is anything like some of the stories in this collection I can’t wait to read it because I’m sure, with more pages and some heavy editing, this woman is capable of something incredible. I wanted more from this, and I’m certain a novel by her will give me that.

If you love short stories, love something a little bit on the odd-side. Something magical and captivating, I think this is definitely worth giving a go.

Review: The Thing Around Your Neck – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Rating 3*

I finally finished this book and, I have to admit, I’m a little disappointed. Now, don’t misunderstand me, this collection is incredible and her writing is beautiful but I think I went in to this with far too high expectations. Previous to this, I didn’t really get along with Americanah; I didn’t enjoy it and the problems I had with that I felt were also present here in some respects.

The collection primarily addresses Nigerian immigrants to north America. The stories were all powerful but having read The Alphabet of Birds which addresses a lot of the same themes, I found this just didn’t quite hit the mark when compared to it.

There were some stand out stories for me, I really liked ‘A Private Experience’, in which a Christian and a Muslim woman shelter together from a raging war between their faiths. It is possibly the most poignant of the collection, and even though I read it some time ago now it has stuck with me. Another I liked was ‘On Monday of Last Week’ which follows a Nigerian immigrant to America as she becomes a nanny to a wealthy family.

I found this collection very samey, a lot of the stories I felt were just the same thing told slightly differently. Once I had read one, I felt I had read them all. The characters all tended to blur together. I think it would be unfair to give it less than 3* because there were stand-outs in the collection, and the writing was beautiful even when I was feeling bored of the story. I think I’m slowly reaching the conclusion that me and Adichie’s writing are never going to fully click.

Buy this Book

Review: The Alphabet of Birds – S J Naudé

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Rating – 5*

The Alphabet of Birds was first published in South Africa and was translated in to English, from Afrikaans, by the author himself. In this there are seven short stories, however three of them link together somewhat in that characters pop up across them. This was an incredible collection.

Reviewing short story collections is always hard, especially one as varied as this was. The first story, The Noise Machine, we are thrown in to a party in Milan where there is a rare instrument and a mysterious character who makes someone address their past. In the second – Van – we have a white nurse in a predominantly black region of South Africa who wants the best for her patients who are suffering, in the main, from HIV; she throws her all in to this care as a result everything aside from this becomes minutia including her marriage and children. Then we have a couple of stories that have the main focus of close relatives dying, but they’re so much more than that; then there is a group of women who dance and a stolen dog, a deeper look in to a previous character and her family dynamic, and finally we have a performer who gets lead along a sort of dubious path. Basically, they’re all so different, yet very similar, and I loved them all.

While this is, on the whole, a collection of fiction that is very much realism there is still a little smattering of the unusual which I think works wonderfully in the short story medium. As a collection, it leaves you asking questions sometimes, most of the stories do finish open ended in order to enable you as a reader to form your own conclusions.

There is a sense of displacement in all of these stories, Naudé himself has moved about significantly and he really addresses that feeling of not quite belonging in one culture or another. There are stories set in South Africa but also in America and Europe, there is a real mix of countries and cultures which gave a really interesting perspective. My (step) uncle is actually South African and I really liked the fact that this collection, in a way, has enabled me to connect with my uncle on some level. There are other themes; music and death mainly, but these stories really do just fit together even though the themes are quite vague.

Also, something I really, really loved about this collection is there are a number of queer characters. Not as a plot device, they just are. There is nothing I love more from a book than an author just making a queer character a person not a caricature or a plot device. It is such a rare thing in any form of media – so kudos to Mr Naudé on that front!

I’m going to have to be honest, this is a short story collection I just connected with. The writing is incredible, the stories were incredible and I am so happy I discovered this. It blew me away if I’m honest and really reignited my love of the short story. A couple of the stories were 4* on their own but, on the whole, this is a 5* collection and I will be eagerly awaiting anything else this man publishes. I’m not sure how I’m going to top this book, in all honesty!

Buy this Book

Review: Don’t Look Now and Other Stories – Daphne du Maurier

don't look nowThis was, once again, an incredible collection of short stories by Daphne du Maurier. It’s also actually the penultimate of her short story collections for me to read. Thankfully I do still have one left to read, which I didn’t think I did at the start of this book – I thought I had read them all. Needless to say, I savoured this over the entirety of the month of December thinking it would be my last foray in to her short stories.

On the whole this was incredible, as with all of her short story collections. There were a couple in the collection that I didn’t click with quite as much but damn, this was good.

The stand out story has to be the first one, which sent chills down my spine when I read it. I kid you not. It starts out really mundane but then becomes really trippy and honestly it is so good. It was atmospheric and completely bizarre but so, so very du Maurier and I loved it.

I hate to repeat myself but her ability to build atmosphere is incredible and I just find myself so drawn in to her work and I just can’t tear myself away. There was a low point in the collection, there is always a weak story, but a weak short story by du Maurier is still an amazing story by the arbitrary standards I rate a book on!

Overall this was a 4* read. Alongside the titular story, my favourite was The Way of the Cross which was also a damn good read. I’d put this up there with my favourites, but honestly of her short story collections my favourite will always be The Rendezvous which I really ought to reread soon! I still have The Breaking Point to read – which I will have to get to in the near future! I’d recommend her short stories to anyone so seriously, give them a whirl!