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Short Stories

Book Review: The Mark-2 Wife by William Trevor

10562183Title: The Mark-2 Wife

Author: William Trevor

Genre: Short Stories, Fiction

“It’s like gadgets in shops.  You buy a gadget and you develop an affection for it… but all of a sudden there are newer and better gadgets in the shops.  More up-to-date models.”

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review

I had no idea that Penguin did a mini classics collection, so stumbling upon this book was really exciting.  I’m not all that familiar with William Trevor (I seem to spend most of the time accidentally calling him Trevor Williams for some reason), but this collection of three ‘slice of life’ short stories really appealed to me.

The first story, ‘The Mark-2 Wife’, was probably my favourite.  In this story, the longest in the collection and oldest (it was first published in 1972), a woman waits alone at a party full of strangers for her husband, and becomes increasingly more paranoid that he is cheating on her as the hours pass.  She is looked after by an elderly couple who grow concerned for her health throughout her anxious episodes.  What I loved about the story was that the focus quickly shifted from Anna Mackintosh onto the elderly couple, General and Mrs Ritchie, and their quiet conversations conveying their worried thoughts for Anna.  As a reader, I spent much of the story wondering whether Anna was suffering from mental illness (the way her anxieties spiraled out of control was very convincing) or was actually right about her husband, and the events are wrapped up with a surprising and clever ending.

The second story, ‘The Time of Year’, didn’t really do much for me.  It follows the thoughts of a university student at an end-of-term party, who reminisces back with great sadness to an idea she had with her first love to go swimming at Christmas, which ended in tragedy.  However, I found that most of the story didn’t move me at all, and I think this was because there were so many characters at the party, and so many things going on that I found too distracting.

The final story, ‘Cheating at Canasta’, luckily redeemed the collection for me, in which a middle-aged man revisits a restaurant in Venice he used to enjoy dining at with his wife.  During the visit, he overhears an unhappy conversation between an American couple, which prompts memories of his own.  It wasn’t an exceptional story, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.  There was also a line in it that I found particularly poetic: ‘Belittling melancholy, he shook his head.’  ‘Cheating at Canasta’ was certainly the saddest story of the three, and ended the collection with a bittersweet note that I found quite effective (ye olde book hangover strikes again).

Marriage was an uncalculated risk, Mallory remembered saying once.  The trickiest of all undertakings, he might have called it, might even have suggested that knowing this was an insurance against the worst, a necessary awareness of what unwelcome surprises there might be.

The collection as a whole had a very melancholy feel to it – it wasn’t necessarily the easy read I thought it would be, in that sense.  I think overall, particularly with that completely unmoving middle story, I wouldn’t rush out in search of more William Trevor books, but the mini classics concept by Penguin is ingenious and it made a perfect read for my daily commute.

Star Rating: ★★★½ (3.5/5)

Have you read any of the stories in this collection?  What are your thoughts on them?

Emma

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September 26, 2016
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Book Review: Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine

Killing and Dying

Title: Killing and Dying

Author: Adrian Tomine

Genre: Fiction, Graphic Novel, Short Stories

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Review

Killing and Dying is a collection of six short stories about relationships, identity and loss – and indeed, the title can apply to all three at time.

It is quite an eclectic assortment of stories.  In the first story, A Brief History of the Art Form Known as “Hortisculpture”, a man puts his marriage on the line chasing his obsessive vision of selling plant sculptures.  In another, a girl who shares an uncanny resemblance with a porn star tells the story of how it has affected her life.  The stories are very different, but they all share a kind of rawness – real people dealing with real problems.

My favourite story in the collection was Killing and Dying – for whatever reason it seemed to impact me the most.  In the story, a cynical man’s daughter takes classes in stand up comedy.  He fears she will be humiliated, as she stutters under stress, but when her mother passes away he decides to support her nonetheless.  The ending in particular was very moving, and the story as a whole was certainly worthy of its name on the cover.

Go Owls, the longest story in the book, was also very powerful.  It is about a girl and older man who meet at a support group, which quickly develops into an abusive relationship.  It is easy to overlook the early signs of abuse, but reading it through a second time it is apparent from the start that the older man has some issues.

This is an almost flawless collection that approached the graphic novel in a whole new way.  I’ll definitely be seeking out more of Adrian Tomine’s work – I think he is a genius.

Star Rating: ★★★★★ (5)

Emma

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August 8, 2016
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Book Review: ZOO by Otsuichi

Zoo by OtsuichiTitle: ZOO

Author: Otsuichi

Genre: Fiction, Short Stories, Horror

Source: Net Galley (I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review)

“Love and death are not different things, they are the front and back of the same thing.”

INFO | Goodreads

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Review

ZOO is a translated collection of short horror stories by Japanese writer Otsuichi.  Don’t be fooled by the bright and cheery front cover – many of the stories focus on death, and will shock you, or at the very least get you thinking.

Otsuichi adopts a minimalist writing style throughout the collection.  Sometimes this works better than other times, but mostly I enjoyed using my imagination to fill in the gaps – this works particularly well with horror I think.  The stories range in length from half a dozen chapters to just a couple of pages, but they all have one thing in common: they all challenged my preconceptions of the horror genre.  There is a brilliant quote in the afterword by Amelia Beamer that sums this up well:

“So here’s what I know about horror: it’s a genre without rules.”

That’s definitely what it felt like reading through ZOO.  Otsuichi was making up his own rules, with such interesting results.

Most of the stories in the collection are very well written, and most of them have a twist or two!  One of the first stories is ‘In A Falling Plane’, about two passengers haggling over the price of a euthanasia drug while their plane is being hijacked.  I particularly enjoyed the slither of humour with the rolling can that keeps tripping up those who try to tackle the gunman.  That’s an element of the collection that I feel is very unique – most stories have an injection of humour into them, which makes for an interesting contrast alongside some quite gruesome themes.

My favourite story was ‘Song Of the Sunny Spot’.  I would say it is more science fiction than horror, and is about a synthetic being who is created to care for a dying man.  As time goes on, the android develops through experience, aned begins to understand what death really means.  It was an exceptionally good and thought-provoking short story, and I didn’t see the twist coming at all!

Following on from this great story is another favourite of mine, ‘Kazari and Yoki’.  It is a sad tale of twins who are not equally loved by their mother, which ends in tragedy – though not how you would expect.  This was a gritty story of abuse in the home and though it can’t be considered horror in the traditional sense, it is still a chilling tale of inequality.

The collection is not for the faint-hearted.  Some stories made me flinch, others I simply had to tell someone about, as they were just too awful to keep to myself.  It isn’t a perfect short story collection, and there were a few stories that I skimmed through, and one that I didn’t finish.  Nevertheless, ZOO definitely stands out, and I recommend it to any horror fans out there who want to tackle something a little different.

Star Rating: ★★★★ (4/5)

Thank you so much to The Geek Undergraduate for recommending this one to me!

Emma

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June 28, 2016
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Book Review: The Opposite of Loneliness

18170549Title: The Opposite of Loneliness

Author: Marina Keegan

Genre: Non-fiction (essays, memoir), fiction (short stories, contemporary)

Format: Hardback

Source: Library

First Published: 8th April 2014

‘What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over.’

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_Summary

(From Goodreads)

Marina Keegan’s star was on the rise when she graduated from Yale in May 2012. She had a play that was to be produced at the New York International Fringe Festival and a job waiting for her at the New Yorker. Tragically, five days after graduation, Marina died in a car crash. As her family, friends and classmates, deep in grief, joined to create a memorial service for Marina, her unforgettable last essay for the Yale Daily News, ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’, went viral, receiving more than 1.4 million hits. She had struck a chord. Even though she was just 22 when she died, Marina left behind a rich, expansive trove of prose that, like her title essay, captures the hope, uncertainty and possibility of her generation. The Opposite of Loneliness is an assemblage of Marina’s essays and stories that articulates the universal struggle we all face as we work out what we aspire to be and how we can harness our talents to make an impact on the world.

_review

Knowing the circumstances behind the publication of this book, it is difficult to review it. Marina Keegan had all the qualities of a great journalist, and her essays are thought-provoking and honest. She talks with intelligence and honesty and with a sense of hope that I can relate with as a twenty-something graduate myself.  For this reason, I carried a sadness with me as I read through the stories and essays, and that has no doubt added a great deal of bias to my review.

I’ll start by discussing the short stories, as they appeared first in the book.  Many of them were exceptionally well-written, confirming the accepted belief that she would have been quite successful had she not died.  However, I did skip over two or three of them – some themes and characters felt repetitive, and the meaning of the stories weren’t always clear.

“I miss dreaming forwards,” Anna said.
“What?”
“I dream backwards now. You won’t believe how backwards you’ll dream someday.”

Reading Aloud was by far my favourite short story, about an aging, ex-ballerina who secretly undresses in front of a blind young man while she reads aloud for him (the story is available to read on Yale News).  I was impressed by Marina’s ability to produce a convincing narrative of such a mature and accomplished character when the author herself was so young.

Every generation thinks it’s special – my grandparents because they remember World War II, my parents because of discos and the moon. We have the Internet.

However, I think I preferred the essays to the short stories.  A personal favourite is Song for the Special. This short essay talks about how we all think we are special, we all quietly want to be – Marina Keegan admits her fears that she will never be anything, and will run out of time to do something defining.  It is easy to empathise with her worries; we all think we are special and all want enough time to do meaningful things.

Star Rating: ★★★★½ (4.5/5)

Have you read any of Marina Keegan’s stories or essays?  What are your thoughts on the publication of her work after her death?

Emma

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March 9, 2016
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Short Story Review: Tiger Mending by Aimee Bender

Tiger Mending

Title: Tiger Mending (from The Color Master short story collection)

Author: Aimee Bender

Genre: Short story

‘That’s the thing with handmade items.  They still have the person’s mark on them, and when you hold them, you feel less alone.’

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_review

Caution: spoilers ahead!

I didn’t realise The Color Master wasn’t a novel until I got home and started reading (I really should be more observant).  My only previous experience of Aimee Bender was The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which was both very original and just a little disappointing, though there was certainly enough there to make me want to read more of her work.  But The Color Master certainly didn’t disappoint, and I was absolutely blown away by many of the stories in the collection.  Even so, however unusual it is for me to review a single short story, I want to specifically talk about Tiger Mending, as it made quite the impression on me.

Tiger Mending is about a girl who is asked by her sister to travel to Malaysia for a secret project – to sew up injured tigers who seem to be tearing themselves open mysteriously, again and again.  As her sister is so distraught by the situation, the girl decides to find out what is happening to the tigers.  I had so many questions, and hurried through the rest of the story for answers.  Who or what was hurting the tigers?  Poachers?  Barbed wire fencing?  What could possibly tear them open in such a savage way?

I finished the story and closed the book, feeling quite disturbed.  My questions had been answered, though they didn’t sit well with me.  The wounds the tigers had were self-inflicted; they were hurting themselves, again and again.  The pain, it seemed, was not enough for them to learn to stop.  Each time they were hurt, they crawled back to be sewn together once more.  An endless cycle.  When she finds out this information, the girl, always so dependent on her older sister, leaves the next day and flies home.  I thought this was very interesting – the older sister found flying alone very frightening, and it would have taken a lot of strength for the girl to leave her.  I interpreted it as her breaking the cycle of dependence she had in her own life.

I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on this intriguing short story.  Are there other ways the story can be interpreted?

Emma

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July 1, 2015
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