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: Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs – Lina Wolff

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Rating – 4*

This book is very hard to rate and describe, and I really don’t know what kind of person I would recommend it to. I would like to preface this very confused review with an overarching statement of I really enjoyed this, the prose is absolutely stunning and this book it just captivated me when I was reading it. But for me this was a very, very slow read. This wasn’t a particularly long book, either.

The structure of this book is what interested me the most, it’s like a Russian doll. There are stories within stories in this book, and it flits between these stories and somehow they all come together quite beautifully. In a way it’s a short story collection, or at least a collection of vignettes. It doesn’t always make sense, I did often find myself a little lost and having to reread over sections, but it works. I hazard to say this, as I hate comparing authors, but this was for me very reminiscent of both Virginia Woolf and Ali Smith. Yeah. Those are big words, because if you know me you know I love those of those women. It wasn’t the story which brought these comparisons to mind, it was the way in which it was written.

We follow Araceli Villalobos, a young girl from a sleepy Spanish town. However, this book generally focuses on her glimpses of Alba Cambó. Alba, a writer, presents as this very confident woman and acts as both a guiding influence on Araceli but also is quite vindictive towards her. Without the relationship between Araceli and Alba, this book would not work as a novel. It would, frankly, be a bit of a mess and neither a short story collection or a novel. It’s hard to pick out key points of this book because it is so many little things without much of an overarching story. Honestly, how the narrative of this book came together is incredible, it’s like a patchwork quilt!

However much I enjoyed this book, it just didn’t quite hit the mark for me. My main issue is that I found it hard to pick up where I left off when I had put it down. I wish I could have sat and read it through, I think having done that I’d have adored this book. But picking it up after a few hours away was quite jarring for me, personally. It’s a solid 4* read for me though, I really enjoyed this. I’m also hoping to get the an event with the author on Monday so I’m really looking forward to hearing her feelings and how she wanted this to come across!

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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!

Review: The Doll: Short Stories – Daphne du Maurier

The DollA readathon just isn’t complete without a smattering of du Maurier. I haven’t read any du Maurier in a while – though I’m trying to work my way through her bibliography there is such a thing as too much of a good thing! Though, I always find her short story collections a good addition to any readathon!

The Doll is a collection of her early works – written in the late 20s and early 30s in the majority – some predate her first novel. While it’s clear to tell this is early work, it is by no means awful. Her early work is very much a good indication of what is to come in her career, all her signature tropes are there and ultimately this is great. As always, it is her use of atmosphere which is prominent and, in my opinion, the most wonderful aspect of her writing.

There is great variety in the types of stories that are present in this collection; an overarching theme is romance I think, but the darker side of it. There is a lot of themes that are then further explored in some of her full-length novels (or at least the few that I have read) such as jealousy. I liked seeing that early ‘thought process’ that she clearly started within a short story format.

Some of these did feel ‘half-baked’ on the plot side of things, and it’s a good judge of what was to come from her writing. It isn’t a short story collection that I would recommend to a friend who wasn’t either familiar with du Maurier’s writing and wanted to explore her bibliography more or wasn’t all that familiar with the short story ‘genre’ (if you can call it a genre in it’s own right). It is definitely more for the du Maurier ‘completist’ than a place to start with her writing. It is a lot more varied, there is a lot more character studies, but it was good.

As for a favourite, I don’t really have one but it is the titular story that has stuck with me through reading this collection. It was the second story. It was weird. When it was written, it must have caused scandal. It was bold and showed a woman as “sexually immoral”. It is told to us through a letter; while the author is unknown, it is understood that it is a confession of sorts about a peculiar situation about a woman the writer of the letter was involved with who had a fetish for a doll. I can see why it was ‘lost’; I don’t think, back in the 1920s this would have been published, especially by a woman, about a woman! It was definitely one of the more explored and experimental of the collection and while reading it I couldn’t help but be linking things to Rebecca because it had that overall tone. I think it’s probably why it has stuck with me!

It was not an awful collection, but I don’t feel it was her best (I would say possibly The Rendezvous is her best collection, or at least the one I have fondest memories of reading, followed by The Birds very close behind!) It was definitely a good indication of where her career was heading and reading these stories was really a highlight in me reading her bibliograpgy, there was just so much that was good in these and seeing the potential that was there was really great as a du Maurier completist! This was her beginning; it wasn’t perfect, but I really I loved reading it. It’s a high 3/5 for these as some were much better than others!

Review: Faery Tales – Carol Ann Duffy

FaeryTalesI loved this collection. I absolutely adored it actually. I am so glad I picked this up to read during the bulk of my exams because it was just so beautiful to read a couple of stories before curling up to sleep!

I initially picked this book up a few months ago, simply because I loved the cover. I don’t often do that, especially when it’s a £20 book but this was so worth it. If you haven’t seen the book in person, you really ought to check out out because it genuinely is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever had the pleasure of looking at.

Anyway, the stories in this book are very short, and the font is relatively big and it is just a pleasure to read. Duffy is a master of language; the adaptations of well known fairy tales mixed in with new stories of her own creation leads to a wonderful collection that is perfect for the slightly childish grownups among us.

The original fairy tales (Anderssen and Grimm’s) were quite dark, most people are aware of the fact that Cinderella was not nearly as pretty as Disney painted it. Duffy does echo the format of these traditional tales; there is violence, questionable morals, things are black and white, good or bad – there is no in-between or shades of grey. There are also beautiful, black and white, illustrations which are so intricate… gah. I cannot express how much I loved the publishing of this book.

It wasn’t perfect, there were a few stories that were 3/5, some that were 5/5 so ultimately for me this is a 4/5.