Short Story Sunday: “Araby”

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“North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free.”

Araby” by James Joyce, originally published in Dubliners.

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Review: The Shadow Queen by Sandra Gulland

cover37142-mediumTitle: The Shadow Queen

Author: Sandra Gulland

Rating: 2.5 stars

I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

For the vast majority of The Shadow Queen, I was trying to figure out why it left me so cold.

This happens to me a lot with historical fiction (especially judging from past reviews). A historical event or figure sounds fascinating to me on a book blurb, but when it comes to the actual novel, I have trouble connecting, and ultimately feel bored or frustrated. Not all historical novels are alike, and this has happened to me often enough that I think it’s become a case of it’s not you, it’s me. A certain audience will love Sandra Gulland’s The Shadow Queen. I was not part of that audience.

Claudette, the narrator, is the daughter of poor, itinerant actors. She is the glue that holds her family together, especially after her father’s untimely death, taking care of both her dramatic, unstable mother and her “simpleton” (probably autistic) brother. Eventually, she develops a relationship with Athenais de Montespan, a spoiled Parisian aristocrat. When Athenais becomes the mistress of King Louis XIV, Claudette becomes her personal maid and closest confidante, but it is a tenuous relationship that cannot last.

Let me state at the outset, The Shadow Queen was not badly written. I thought the use of first person a poor choice, but there was nothing egregious in the writing. The historical details are fascinating–especially the little, almost throwaway references that show the depth of Gulland’s research into the period. But there were a few things that really bothered me and kept throwing me out of the story.

There’s a lot of telling versus showing. Big, momentous events are glossed over, and years passed in the text in what I initially thought was the space of a few weeks. The relationship between Claudette and Athenais is alluded to with overtones of sexual attraction–especially given the fact that Claudette is at one point a thirty-something-year-old virgin who has not once expressed sexual attraction to a man (remember, she is the one actually narrating this story, you think she might have said something). At one point, the always high and horny Athenais even invites her into bed. Yet all of this is completely brushed off and not dealt with, and suddenly Claudette, who again has not once expressed actual sexual desire for a man, suddenly looks at a guy and wants to lick him. It was weird. You don’t go from being nonsexual to wanting to lick random dudes, which definitely made me feel there was some piece missing in the text.

Finally, the story was overly sentimental. A long passage dealing with Claudette nursing her ailing mother seemed to me to be less about historical concerns than shoehorned in to appeal to middle aged women caring for aging parents (Cynical? Obviously, but I’m built that way). People long assumed dead under bad circumstances re-appear improbably. Claudette has trials thrown her way, but everything ends up sunny and bright. Her brother finds his place in the world, her child is pure Plot Moppet, and as she reaches her fifties, suddenly everything is contentment.

I think that may be why these historical fiction novels are not for me. I’m not searching out unhappy endings. I just don’t want saccharine ones. The world is complex, history is complex, and in novels like this I feel that the complexity is brushed off in exposition and everything else is presented in a neat and tidy little package. Some people look for that in their fiction, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it just doesn’t satisfy me.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Most Unique Books

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The topic for today’s Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is Top Ten Most Unique Books I’ve Read. It’s really easy to get comfortable, to get into reading ruts, but some of the most rewarding reading experiences I’ve had have been with books that play with form and genre, that take me by the shoulders and shake me out of those ruts.

This one was hard. So hard, I could only come up with five!

1742157Graham Rawle- Woman’s World 

The text of this novel is entirely assembled from scraps cut out of vintage women’s magazines. It’s visually stunning, and like nothing I have ever seen before or since.

Seth Grahame-Smith- Pride & Prejudice & Zombies 

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This trend got old really, really fast. It’s certainly not original anymore to take a classic (aka public domain) work and mash it up with the supernatural. But all trends have to start somewhere, and when I first heard that Pride & Prejudice was being mashed up with a zombie tale while still using the original text, I was totally excited about it. Plus: that cover, omg.

49628David Mitchell- Cloud Atlas (and pretty much everything else he’s ever written.)

David Mitchell is the author who taught me to appreciate form, to see beauty in unusual structure, that the shape of things is important. Cloud Atlas, with it’s nesting doll structure, is the most potent example of this.

Ryan North- To Be Or Not To Be 17938417

I think this was the most successful Kickstarter project, ever. And it’s pretty hilarious. Hamlet as an epic choose-your-own adventure novel in North’s signature quirky style, with some great art by the best comics artists around right now. It’s definitely more interactive than most books, a new twist on the mash-ups I talked about above.

11515328Caitlin R. Keirnan- The Drowning Girl

The narrator of The Drowning Girl is schizophrenic. The story is atmospheric and haunting enough when she’s lucid, but when she decides to stop her medication it fractures and becomes an altogether unusual story. There’s a mermaid story and a ghost story and a werewolf story, and it’s all the same story. The narrator is wholly unreliable, and the book left me in knots.

What are the most unique books you have read?

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Short Story Sunday: “Saltcedars”

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“Today they will burn our tamarisk trees to the ground.”

Saltcedars” by Shannon Peavey, published in Daily Science Fiction.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Top Ten “Gateway” Books

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The topic of this Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, is top ten “gateway” books in my reading journey. I have always been a reader and a book lover, and whatever story began that is long lost to my memory or, more probably, doesn’t exist as one single book. But there are a couple stops worth mentioning on my reading journey.

The books that introduced me to the beauty of grief

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Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson and Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt

There are a number of books I read in elementary school that stayed with me, and even still sit on my shelves, but these are two worth calling out. These are two books that taught me that life and stories don’t always have a happy ending, but they are still stories worth telling.

The books that introduced me to magic

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Wild Magic by Tamora Pierce and The Darkangel by Meredith Ann Pierce.

If I hadn’t read Tamora Pierce, I wouldn’t read fantasy today. Simple as that. The Darkangel is an altogether different type of fantasy, but still pivotal to my reading life. I can still remember the first time I read each of these books, almost twenty (eep!) years ago.

The books that taught me “hard” books can be worthwhile

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The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett and The Sound and the Fury by William Faulker.

“Hard” is relative, of course. My uncle gave me The Secret Garden the Christmas I was eight years old, and I struggled with it forever, trying to crack the dialect writing. I remember puzzling and puzzling over this book and just not understanding it, until one day I did, and it became one of my most beloved books. Fast forward a few years, The Sound and the Fury was my nemesis in high school. So frustrating. But I eventually came to love Faulkner, and I return to this book often, if only for selfish, grandiose, flawed Quentin Compson, who is one of my favorite characters in all of literature.

The book that introduced me to adult fantasy 

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The Bone Doll’s Twin by Lynn Flewelling.

This was, if not the first fantasy I read written for adults instead of YA, at least the first one that made a strong impression on me.

The book from college that stayed with me

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Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion.

This is a book that shaped my college years, and I still go back to certain essays every once in awhile.

The book that introduced me to crime fiction

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The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson.

Without Larsson I wouldn’t have developed my current obsession with Scandinavians. I also probably wouldn’t have ever learned how much I love the dark stuff–I would never have read Gillian Flynn, for one.

The book that introduced me to short stories

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Among the Missing by Dan Chaon.

Once upon a time, I was a poor, deluded soul who tried to write short stories without reading them. But luckily my college writing professor introduced me to the works of Dan Chaon, and then many other great short story writers.

The book I will be rereading until I die

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Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

I’m not sure there is a better book than Frankenstein. Possibly Crime & Punishment, but I don’t reread Crime & Punishment nearly as much. Frankenstein has become almost a yearly tradition for me.

So, that’s a pretty good representation of the books that matter to me. What about you guys? What are your reading gateways like?

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Short Story Sunday: “Her First Ball”

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“Exactly when the ball began Leila would have found it hard to say.”

Her First Ball” by Katherine Mansfield, originally published in The Garden Party, and Other Stories.

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Review: Book Lovers edited by Shawna Kenney

cover38323-mediumTitle: Book Lovers

Author: Various, edited by Shawna Kenney

Rating: 3 stars

I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

You know how in my last review, I gave the book flak for focusing too much on sex? Yeah, well in this one I have to give it some flak for not focusing on sex enough. It is an erotica collection, after all, but some of the stories are so aggressively unsexy that I found myself bored and wondering why they were there.

I don’t generally read erotica collections, so I have no idea how to review them. But I try to keep an open mind about reading all kinds of fiction, and I figured a collection about people who are turned on by books and literature was tailor made to appeal to me. Worth a try, right?

Like most story collections, of any variety, Book Lovers is firmly middle of the road. The stories vary so much in quality and interest level that I can’t give it a very high review. But nothing is bad enough to knock it down to a negative review. So all that’s left is to give it a 3.

There are 23 stories in this collection. Some are purportedly nonfiction or more essay-like, and those were definitely the ones that I found the strangest. But when it came to the fiction, there were some good stories. They touch on a pretty wide range of sexual interests. Most involve strictly heterosexual relationships, but four (by my count, though there were a couple of stories where I lost interest before finishing) have same-sex relationships. Unfortunately, it’s a fairly white collection, though there are a few people of color. If you are the kind of person who judges potential partners on their bookshelves, collects books, or loves reading and literature more than most anything else, you will probably find something here that sparks your interest. You just might have to wade through a lot of other stories to find it.

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Short Story Sunday: “And Wash Out By Tides of War”

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“I am sitting at the top of the spire of the Observance of the War, one of three memorials equidistant from the Colony Center.”

And Wash Out By Tides of War” by An Owomoyela, published by Clarkesworld.

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Review: Kicking The Sky by Anthony De Sa

18266809Title: Kicking the Sky

Author: Anthony De Sa

Rating: 2 stars

I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. 

This is yet again one of those books that looks like it was designed to appeal to me, but falls flat in almost every way.

Antonio is an adolescent boy living in the Portuguese community of Toronto in the 70s. When another young Portuguese boy is found raped and murdered on the roof of a sex shop in Toronto’s seedy gay underbelly, Antonio becomes somewhat obsessed with the crime. He also has to deal with burgeoning confusions about his sexuality, strains in his parents’ marriage, and growing apart from his friends. His father uses him as a money grab, claiming that he is a saint and a healer to scam the religious community. And during all this, Antonio finds himself increasingly drawn to a mysterious 20-something white stranger who has moved into the neighborhood.

Sounds promising, right? The Portuguese community is given life through De Sa’s prose, but in the end learning about a new culture was about all I found of interest in the novel. It’s unfortunately a dull, tortured coming of age tale, obsessed with sex but not really saying anything new, with little structure or purpose. Things just happen in Kicking the Sky, and then similar things happen in different ways, and Antonio never seems to grow or learn from them. The real world may work this way, but fiction shouldn’t. Every adult in Antonio’s life uses him for their own purposes, but though he begins to understand this is happening he never does anything about it. In fact, for a first person narrator he is incredibly passive and kind of boring. Things happen to him, but I never was able to muster enough sympathy to care.

I have literally nothing original to say about this book that I haven’t already said about other books that left me feeling cold in the same way. So, here’s a list of things in Kicking the Sky.

Number of time Antonio talks about peeing: 13

Number of nipple references: 6

Number of animals that are graphically killed: 2

Number of times Antonio talks about dicks: 13

Number of people that die: 3

Number of times Antonio vomits: 2

Number of times Antonio spies on people having compromising/taboo sexual encounters: 4

It was the overwhelming preoccupation with sex that really got to me, in the end. I don’t consider myself prudish by any means, and I understand that by their very nature coming-of-age stories often deal with burgeoning sexuality. But very quickly it became the only focus of the book. Antonio is almost always thinking about sex, though he never once comes to any resolutions about his own sexual identity. He also turns into a creepy little voyeur, watching the adults around him having sex and saying nothing as one of his supposed best friends is pimped out and then raped. It was excessive, and disgusting, and I didn’t find anything of value in the story to offset the bad taste it left in my mouth.

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Blog happenings

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Hello lovely readers. I just wanted to drop you all a quick note to let you know some of what’s up with the blog. This week, I’m going to be going into the hospital for heart surgery. I have a number of already written posts scheduled through the rest of this month and April, but when I’ll get back to blogging after that all depends on how I feel throughout recovery. I’ll be back eventually, hopefully with lots and lots of books read. The TBR pile is huge–I’ll need plenty of distractions since I won’t be allowed to get out of bed for awhile! But I may not be approving/responding to comments for quite awhile. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Anyway, as always, happy reading!

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