The Goat Fish and the Lover’s by Knot Jack Driscoll

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..she insisted nobody ever won: “Nobody, Sam. Remember that. Above all else, remember that when the fairyland dream smoke clears, women like us, like you and me, we always, every single solitary time, wake up elsewhere. And that other life we wanted so badly? The one back there? It’s nothing more than a mirage, the simple-sad story of our botched and misguided lives.”

The writing in this collection of stories is wonderful, the characters are raw, some stuck in their hopeless lives and old enough to know it’s not going to get better, others are scratching to escape households where their parents are miserable with the struggle of staying afloat, some still altered after being burned by love physically, bottom dwellers and those just ‘knocking around’. The children are just as perceptive and believable as the grown ups, maybe a little criminal but for good purposes.

Young boys ‘speak with bigger words ‘ than their mother’s loser boyfriends, those ‘stand ins’ they’re stuck with until the real father’s might possibly return, women remember their vanishing youth and wonder at the turns life takes-this is full of human reflection. Some mother’s look for and clip miracles, while her child laughs behind her back. A fourteen year old boy finds in his mother’s friend a mermaid like soul as she shares an intimate moment with him on the water.  People are let down, so many try but just can’t be good, just can’t shake the misery induced by a life that isn’t turning out right. Some homes are alive with quiet violence. “I hated how every conversation took on the urgency of a hurricane or tornado drill, and all I really wanted was to get as far away from the dangers of that house as quickly as I could.”  There are big moments and small moments we carry with us. The reader climbs inside so many character’s minds that they are dizzy with emotions: their hatreds, loves, regrets, hopes -all of it. Heavy stuff.

This collection is from the Made In Michigan Series, set in Michigan. The author is very perceptive, the characters are birthed fully in his imagination but feel like real people. Like all of us, in spite of their struggles they still cling to hope, and their fictional lives live parallel to our own in a strange manner. I have to read his other books, not every writer can capture the essence of people in sentences.

Available Now

Wayne University Press

 

Sour Heart: Stories by Jenny Zhang

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“She looked like an alien. (But then again, I was an alien, too; that was the box I had to check on every form. Did aliens have unalienable rights? Were we entitled to liberty and justice?)”

Let’s get this out of the way, there are a couple of stories at the start of the collection that some readers may find disturbing, particularly the sexual encounters between Lucy and Francine and the horrible treatment of Frangie. In fact, some people will stop reading there. But not all the stories carry on in that vein and it would be a shame to miss out of Zhang’s solid writing. Too, the children running wild on the streets of Shanghai, coming into power, turning in parents, abusing and punishing their elders, naming any and everyone at their whim as a counterrevolutionary is beyond humiliating and horrific. History is not pretty. I will revisit this collection in coming months, because it’s not out until the fall of 2017 and I want to wait to finish my review when it’s closer to the release date. But I was riveted by their struggles against poverty, trying to acclimate to a completely new culture and how it touched the lives of their children. Every immigrant experience is different,  I have much more to say when we’re closer to the actual release date. These are not light stories. When I got deeper into the book, they changed tone- the characters were fascinating. Watch this space.

Publication Date: August 1, 2o17

Random House Publishing

Lenny

Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages

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“She intends to be a good girl, but shrubs and sheds and unlocked cupboards beckon.  In photographs, her eyes sparkle with unspent mischief; the corner of her mouth quirks in a grin. She is energy that cannot abide fences. When she sleeps, her mother smooths a hand over her cheek in affection and relief.”

I am not going to be alone in loving the first story  The Education Of A Witch in this collection.. In fact, is it crazy to cling to some malingering hope that Klages might be inspired to write a full novel about this wicked little girl?  In another story a girl tumbles into Clue and other childhood games and dice plays a wicked “ROLL” , another two little girls have a sleepover and explore a place in the closest with a strange man named Hollis. All of these stories have a strange little bend in them but the magic isn’t overwhelming, they are ‘curiouser and curiouser’ still. None are as fantastic to me as the first but all are playful in their own right.

In Singing on a Star one could easily manipulate the story, look deeper into it. Could it all be a fantasy a little girl conjured about the sleepover to explain what happened to her friend? That’s the fun part in reading these sort of tales. We can put any meaning we want on them or just enjoy their playfulness. The lovers in Echoes of Aurora filled me with tenderness. Is she in love with a real person or her youth? “Everything was as familiar at it was alien, and in that setting, in the early spring twilight, logic and Rory could not co-exist. Rory smiled, and logic lost.” Logic truly is the murderer of our fantastical childhood. I enjoyed the originality of this collection. So many lyrical/magical stories try too hard, just throwing in weird happenings for the sake of being weird. Not so here. They aren’t outlandish in the telling-they sit just right in their strangeness.

Publication Date: May 23, 2017

Tachyon Publications

The Stone Collection (The Debwe Series) by Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm

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“We’re all relations you know. We got that blood, that same blood. Remember that. And remember the land don’t belong to anybody. We belong to her.”

The Debwe Series features Indigenous writing by authors in Canada. The Stone Collection has stories are about the modern day Anishinaabe.  There is loss, violence, death,  and stones. Stones that are full of spirit. The horror that happens to an old woman, who is like a grandmother to all the children is strange, and the suicide attempt isn’t the point in Justin Root’s tale- it’s what led him there. Salvation could be the earth, in a tree’s ‘weakness’. Some of the stories didn’t hold my attention and then I would read one that moved me. The story Chloe made me think about houses all over the world, the ones you stay away from, the poor children that are trapped in them and the world turns a blind eye to. I thought too about the men who ‘make your hair stand on end’. Men who have access to children, be them their fathers, stepfather, etc.  A brother who is looking for his sister he wasn’t strong enough to leave with, knowing she may have come to a terrible end. It’s a story the traverses all cultures, isn’t it? It’s a fast read and was a break from the short stories I’ve read lately. There is a taste of a different culture I knew nothing about. Stories about life on and off the rez. My favorite was Mashkii- akii because sometimes it’s beautiful to be saved by something outside yourself, like a tree.

Available Now

Portage & Main Press

HighWater Press

Last Day On Earth: Stories by Eric Puchner

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“We collected their shells in our shirts and made necklaces that we wore around like witch doctors.” 

Something about the first story, Brood X, hit me with nostalgia. My guess, the cicada necklaces. I was one of those strange kids that used to marvel at the empty husks they left behind, clinging to branches, trees, walls, you name it. I was a bit of a tom boy, running around barefoot and in love with nature. When the cicadas take over in this story, it seems every animal (human too) goes a bit crazy with it. I wanted this short story to be a full novel, I loved everything about it.  As the boy in the story tells us of his mother, “Normally a lovely and compassionate woman, she took a devout interest in the deterioration of other people’s homes.” I laughed. It’s because everything about the characters in the story are believable, even in their obnoxiousness. The children are funny, talking about the ‘screwing’  bugs. Sometimes I forget how shocking information is to young ears, even something as natural as the fact that bugs  ‘joined’ together are having sex! I admit to once telling my little cousin on a walk that we had now entered Russia. I wasn’t a mean kid, just silly but it scared her – kids love to see what they can convince others are true. I was sad when it ended. Somehow it managed to give off a strange feeling, then sadness hits you for the strange new family that moved in, inspiring rumors.

Each story has it’s own tinge of disturbing, even in small ways. I think I loved Beautiful Monsters as much as Brood X. It comes off as terribly sad but creepy too. In Mothership, Jess comes off as selfish but troubled- she’s always wanted to crawl into the seeming perfection that is her sister. She is damaged, and in staying with her sister and her precocious children she may just see her sister’s life in another light. Doesn’t seem strange but an encounter she has gave me a gasp, because the ideal of it, what it reveals about her sister’s ‘perfect’ life. Who really has it all together? Who doesn’t have struggles? Something is wrong with Jess, for some people the simple things are a big struggle. It’s just a reality for some people. If I am honest, I have to admit I would eat up a full novel about the family in Mothership, I even loved the precocious niece. If you can write a short story with characters people would love to follow longer, I think you’ve nailed it. Nothing enormous had to happen, it was the small stuff that moved me.

These stories are ordinary and not. The youngsters are confused, and misunderstand so many things as they slowly shed the skin of their youth, as in the story where the young boy thinks his mother is a robot. Maybe a robot mother is easier to believe in than one that has human failings and needs. The writing is lovely, and the stories made me feel as ‘off’ as the characters, and I think that’s what I liked most about them. They just made me feel strange, and in many ways most of us are- at our core- a bit strange. From crippling depression, a world where parents no longer exist, mothers that may or may not be robots to a dad partying with his baby this collection takes a skewered look at the ordinary. What is stranger than being a creature with the ability to think so much about the meaning of everything, and to ponder the roles of everyone we are connected to?  I really enjoyed this collection, it’s the first book I have read by Puchner. This wonderful book of short stories will be available to buy next week.

 

Publication Date: February 21, 2017

Scribner

 

 

 

Things We Lost in the Fire: Stories by Mariana Enríquez

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“I think about Adela every day. And if during the day her memory doesn’t visit me- her freckles and her yellow teeth, her blond, too-fine hair, the stump of her shoulder, her little suede boots- she comes to me at night in dreams.”

This a strange, eerie collection of stories. My favorite is Adela’s House because it’s the oddest of them all. While it is true there are similarities to the macabre stories of Shirley Jackson, I feel they have a taste of Joyce Carol Oates too. Mariana Enríquez’s characters aren’t pretty and if they once were, for some even a ‘fire’ has changed that. A strange house that children explore, mysterious dirty children, witches, a man obsessed with a murderer… from Adela’s House on the stories are dark- the first few stories are strange too, even when just writing about young intoxicated girls a bit jealous of their friend’s love for her boyfriend with the drunken spins in a van it comes off as quietly brutal, an unwanted husband in another. In Green Red Orange a young man suffers a different sort of disturbance, mental illness. It is heartbreaking, not just his shut in behavior but how it eats away at his loved ones. Will he come out of his room, is he still alive? The last sentence at the end says so very much, with so few words.

Things We Lost in the Fire, for which the collection is titled, made me smell  burning flesh. Immolation, horrific abuse, a strange feminism that overtakes burn victims,  there is twisted meaning in this story. My skin crawled thinking about it. This was a clever story, and the women are serious about the stand they decide to take, so to speak. These stories of Argentina start of a bit strange only to plunge the reader into creepy darkness. There is something off about every story, and I loved it. I look forward to a full novel by Mariana Enríquez, I find myself curious about her mind. How did she come up with such weird tales? This author is one to watch!

Publication Date: February 21, 2017

Crown Publishing, Hogarth

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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“The dead move on,” he had said, coiled in his armchair, hands between his thighs. “But the living, we just stay here.”

My American adolescence was filled with tales of woe like this, all of them proof of what my mother said, that we did not belong here. In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories.

The immigrant experience is one of displacement, one foot in their homeland the other in the country they have fled to. There is more than cultural struggles and differences, it is as if when you are uprooted, you take the soil that fed you wherever you go. It can be said of every immigrant experience, you can never fully erase your origins, and though you can grow where you have been planted, you will always carry the past with you. It’s a strange existance, being between two worlds and regardless of the years between, it remains like a second skin… the memories, the history of your family, the news of your old country. Culture is a fascinating character, for all of us, and some families won’t let you forget what used to be, what is so different from your adopted land compared to the place you came from.

The first story got me the most. A ghostwriter who is similar yet different from her mother, both have an affinity for words- one, written and the other, spoken. The ghost that visits is one that won’t harm and yet, the reader aches with the tenderness and brutality of loss. “Never turn your back on a ghost.” It is much like never forget, never turn your back on your history. Those left behind hurt so much more, and just who dies? The ghosts we carry live on in our memories of what happened, in our regrets and our longings. The horrible thing that changed her life, that took her brother’s is a different truth for one immigrant family and yet it isn’t her tale alone. How many such experiences? How unjust and violent, how many? Such things happen, but it doesn’t lessen the pain, it doesn’t make it any easier to accept and live with.

Each story in the collection is different from the next, and much to absorb and ponder. The wife who is tormented by her husband’s dementia and his confusion about an old lover of his, the son in another story is 13 and just beginning to understand that parents aren’t right all the time, don’t know everything. Though the stories his mother tells about starvation, war is hard to digest for someone who only knows of it second-hand. When Mrs. Hoa wants support, fighting the communists, money isn’t free flowing but the threat of being seen as communist rattles his mother who won’t throw away what little money they have on a ‘lost cause.’ The humiliation his parents undergo that he witnesses with a break in is poignant because as he says ‘this was neither the first nor last time someone would humiliate them like this.’ I am reminded of the stories my father has shared with me over the years from his youth of his own humiliations when he was a young boy just learning English, and those of his parents, some I witnessed in how my grandparents were treated as ‘stupid’ for their accents even after decades as American citizens. It changes you, and yet there are those who helped too, let that be said. How do our own people push us, how are we influenced, almost bullied into giving or not?

In The Other Man, the misunderstandings that happen when  Vietnamese Liem comes to live with a gay couple in San Francisco tickled me to the core. I can relate with the language and cultural barriers because when I lived in Okinawa I was the outsider that was clueless. Sure, sometimes they laugh at you, but sometimes with you. Some experiences are eye opening, and as he goes forward in his ‘Americanization’ it is strange to think how vastly different life is from one country to another.  It is less heavy than the other’s in the collection but a welcome diversion from the emotional tales.

Someone Else Besides You was another I enjoyed, which is strange since Thomas has a father that seems distant and dishonest until you read further along. He doesn’t really know the full story about his father nor his time in the war, his father seems severe and strong and still carries a dangerous air yet somehow he wants to push Thomas back into Sam’s arms but his actions are questionable and criminal. I smiled a strange smile reading about the father and son.

It’s no mystery after having read The Refugees why Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Pulitzer Prize Winning author. I go further and think about the conversation between Sam and Mr. P after Sam talks about having gone to visit Vietnam. “I will never go back.” He rapped his bottle of beer on the coffee table. “You do not know the Communists. I know the Communists.”

“They’re not so bad. They just want to move on with their lives.”

My father shook his head emphatically, “You are a foreigner. You know nothing. They take your money and say nice things to you.”

Those who haven’t lived through it, whatever it may be, whatever war… the foreigners can never truly understand how hollow a thing it is to tell someone to go back, to get closure, etc. It’s a different country for those who have left, even after it seems ‘safe’ to go back, not so for those that fled. Some of us will only ever be tourists… as close as we can get is through stories, much as children of refugees have. The past is full of ghosts for them, both living and dead, including ghost selves which are not so easily put to rest. Moving collection from a gifted prized writer.

Available February 7, 2017

Grove Atlantic

Grove Press