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.

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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!

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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!

Review: Public Library + Other Stories – Ali Smith

Public LibraryAli Smith is probably my favourite living author. The way that woman can turn a sentence is just incredible and I honestly think her work just keeps getting better. Her short stories are always masterpieces and this collection is no different.

I will start with a simple statement; this isn’t her best collection, not by a long shot. But it is, nonetheless, amazing. I really liked the layout of this book in that each story is separated by an interlude from various people and how much libraries mean to them. The stories themselves were all perfectly readable but they were primarily 3* stories to start with and, in my opinion, the stories became stronger as the book moved on. The final 3 or 4 were amazing and if the whole book – or even just a couple more stories – were of that calibre I would very easily be able to give this 5*.

However, my final feelings with this book is that is was good, I loved it, it gave me everything I went in to it expecting but I didn’t feel it gave me much more which is what I was holding out for. Ali remains one of my favourite authors and I will read anything she writes, short story collections are notoriously hard for me as a reader to give 5* and this sadly just missed out (I gave it 4* if anyone cares!)

Final words are a big thank you to my lovely friend Sar for gifting me this for my birthday. It was very much loved & appreciated!

Review: A Portable Shelter – Kirsty Logan

PortableShelterSo I read The Gracekeepers, I also read The Rental Heart; both of them got 4* from me so it was given that I was going to pre-order this because Kirsty is just fabulous, her writing is beautiful and I just needed this in my life. However, I didn’t expect this to be quite as wonderful as it was. I went in with trepidation, I had such a good feeling about this collection that I just didn’t want to be disappointed. I wasn’t disappointed – how could I have been, this is just beautiful – and it’s my favourite short story collection of the year – without doubt.

This is a collection of short stories told within a novella. So it’s a bit inception-y in that there is stories within a story. Ruth and Liska are having a baby, they have promised to only tell the truth to their child but both want to tell their unborn child fairytales and things they have learnt from them. So Ruth tells stories to her unborn child when Liska is at work and Liska tells them to the child inside Ruth when Ruth is asleep, so neither get caught breaking their promise.

How this series of stories was told was inspired. The fact that it’s stories within a story, that between each fairy tale we get an introduction from either Ruth or Liska to the story directed at the unborn child is just such an interesting way to approach a series of short stories.

This collection was a 5/5 for me – even though it is full of fantastical tales of witches and werewolves and fairies it was really relatable. The messages that Ruth and Liska were telling their unborn child through these tales hit me. I was so emotionally invested in some of these stories, the emotions were raw (the last story made me cry, it was about grief and really just hit me in the gut after losing my grandmother at Christmas. Reading that last paragraph of the book I couldn’t see straight.)

This is an incredible collection and I really, really recommend it. The hardcover was a limited run of 1000 from an independent publisher in Scotland but I think Amazon still have a few copies left. If not, Vintage will be publishing the paperback next year. Seriously, try and get your hands on this because it’s the best of Kirsty’s work that I have read and the best short story collection in a long time, if not ever. This woman is a marvel and I really can’t wait to find out what she’s writing next because I already feel bereft!

Review: The Rental Heart & Other Fairytales – Kirsty Logan

9781907773754frcvr.inddAfter reading The Gracekeepers not so long ago, I fell in love with Kirsty’s writing. It was a couple of people, but mainly Christie who encouraged me to actually buy this. I’m so glad I read it. I had mixed feelings about The Gracekeepers, her writing was beautiful but this – these – are fabulous.

The titular story, The Rental Heart, featured first and I just devoured it. It was a great start to the book; there were so many great things in it – a bit of the sci-fi, fluidity of sexuality, a great character and ultimately, beautiful prose. It’s set in a world wherein you just rent a heart, when you go through a breakup you just get  your deposit back and get a new one. This story made me very excited to read the rest of the book so… on I went!

I always feel I should avoid doing a point-by-point breakdown of books like this, because I feel it ruins the surprise. All I will say is on the whole this was fantastic. The book contains a total of 20 stories, covering a variety of themes. Throughout the book she you move backwards and forwards in time, playing with sexuality, fairy stories, myths and folklore. Everything is told with this beautiful, sometimes flowery, prose and offset with a sudden burst of straightforwardness. Something I appreciated a lot is while there is a focus on same-sex relationships it isn’t the focus of the story, the point is it’s love and the emotions are the same whether the two people involved are of the same or opposite genders – I loved that. There are also stories of varying lengths, some are quite lengthy while others are more flash-fiction, which I really appreciated. It was a collection I had to keep putting down between stories because I just wanted to think about what I had just read.

Reading this, I really cannot wait for Kirsty’s next collection which I have on preorder. I read a review on goodreads which compared her short stories to the early work of du Maurier and, honestly, I can see that as a lover of du Maurier’s work. This collection was honestly one of the best collections I have read in a long time, there were a few stories that I didn’t enjoy which ultimately brings this down to a quite harsh 4* – I may end up changing it to 5* with more time to think on it!