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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