Short Stories Challenge – Proving Up by Karen Russell from the collection Vampires In The Lemon Grove

Published September 16, 2014 by bibliobeth

vampires

What’s Proving Up all about?:

In a family’s disastrous quest for land in the American West, the monster is the human hunger for acquisition, and the victim is all we hold dear.

What did I think?:

So far in this collection, Reeling For The Empire has been my favourite of the short stories, but it now may have a serious competitor in this little tale, Proving Up. Basically the story focuses on the Zegner family, who used to live in a comfortable house with all luxuries and amenities they could wish for, then they changed their whole lives by colonising some land out in the American West. The move was pre-empted by a political motion known as The Homestead Act which offered many acres of land to families to do with as they pleased. They build a one-roomed mud hut with soil and grass – known collectively as a “sod,” keep their own animals and grow their own crops. The years have not been kind to them however in terms of weather and they have had to experience severe drought and famine and they have tragically also lost three female children in childbirth. Our narrator (the youngest son of the family, Miles) notes that his mother ribs are protruding and “she has not been fat for two years,” which gives the reader a mental image of how she may have looked in the past and the effect starvation has had on her body.

As with everything in life apparently there is a clause in the contract on the land. Each home owner must “prove up” to an Inspector on his rounds after five years of living in their home. There are certain objects that they must have or stipulations that they must demonstrate to the Inspector, and one of these is a glass window. In return, they will receive an official document that proves that they are the rightful owners of their particular piece of land. When we begin the story, the father of the family is incredibly excited as he has heard rumours that the Inspector is on his rounds again and he wishes to help his nearest neighbours by lending them the Zegner’s glass window so they can “prove up,” themselves before the Zegner inspection. Due to the type of land they inhabit, there is very little glass around, and sharing the window between neighbours seems to be a foolproof plan to help all families receive that crucial document. Miles, being a fast rider, is chosen by his father (much to his mother’s dismay) to ride to their neighbours, lend them the glass window and then ride back with it ready for their own inspection.

Miles’ journey on his faithful horse Nero is more difficult and dangerous than he or his family could have imagined, although it is clear that his mother desperately doesn’t want him to go, dismissing tales of the Inspector as “smoke” as she does not believe he exists. But the thought of actually owning his own land after five years of hardship and tragedy is too precious for his father to lose, so off Miles trots (or Nero trots…Miles just rides)! This is when the story started becoming incredibly eerie and it’s hard to describe without giving too much away. All I can assure you is that my heart was in my mouth the entire time, and I became stupidly sensitive and jumpy for example, at the slamming of a door. I found myself becoming so engrossed in the story that I actually had to look away for a few minutes to process everything that was going on. This is another amazing story from Karen Russell about the greed of man and his thirst for something bigger and better no matter what it costs.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

imagesCAF9JG4S

NEXT SHORT STORY – The Boscombe Valley Mystery by Arthur Conan Doyle from the collection The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

Daughter – Jane Shemilt

Published September 15, 2014 by bibliobeth

20505127

What’s it all about?:

When a teenage girl goes missing her mother discovers she doesn’t know her daughter as well as she thought in Jane Shemilt’s haunting debut novel, Daughter.

THE NIGHT OF THE DISAPPEARANCE

She used to tell me everything.

They have a picture. It’ll help.

But it doesn’t show the way her hair shines so brightly it looks like sheets of gold.

She has a tiny mole, just beneath her left eyebrow.

She smells very faintly of lemons.

She bites her nails.

She never cries.

She loves autumn, I wanted to tell them. She collects leaves, like a child does. She is just a child.

FIND HER.

ONE YEAR LATER

Naomi is still missing. Jenny is a mother on the brink of obsession. The Malcolm family is in pieces.

Is finding the truth about Naomi the only way to put them back together?

Or is the truth the thing that will finally tear them apart?

Daughter by Jane Shemilt is an emotional and compelling story about how well you really know those you love most.

What did I think?:

Daughter is the first book on the Richard and Judy Autumn Reads 2014 collection, which I follow pretty religiously and I was looking forward to diving into it. My sister and fellow blogger Chrissi Reads had already read it prior to the R&J list coming on and heartily recommended it and although this is quite a popular theme for a thriller, Jane Shemilt manages to put a new spin on it which I found refreshing and was instantly sucked into the story. The Malcolm family consists of mother and father, Jenny and Ted who are incredibly busy and hard-working parents. Jenny is a GP who insists on giving all her patients the time frame they deserve to discuss their health problems and Ted is a neurosurgeon who often works long, gruelling and anti-social hours. They have three children, the twins Ed and Theo, and their youngest, fifteen year old Naomi enjoying a relatively normal middle-class existence until their world is turned upside down one night when Naomi fails to come home after the school play where she has landed the lead role of Maria in West Side Story.

What I loved most about this book was how the time frames jolted about which was a great way for the reader to take a sneaky peek into the hours, days, months immediately prior to Naomi’s disappearance and then certain time periods afterwards, unearthing potential secrets and reasons behind what happened. I do love a chance to play detective! For me, it was like Jenny was re-playing certain conversations or incidents in her mind to try and find out how she failed as a mother, as her sense of guilt becomes overwhelming. Was it her fault? Did she not pay enough attention at the right times? Was she working too much and failed to see what was going on inside her own family? This must be questions all poor families who go through this experience ask of themselves, and the hell that not only Jenny but her father and brothers go through is presented by the author in a captivating manner that was quite moving to read.

During the time after Naomi’s disappearance, the reader sees that the “perfect” family from the outside is crumbling to pieces and a lot more secrets are unearthed than I expected, and not just about Naomi but about the other members of the family. I felt very sorry for Jenny as a character, as when her family should be supporting each other and sticking together they seemed to just break apart. A lot of people are talking about the ending but I’m still not certain how I feel about it to be honest. I am glad however, that she took the story in this direction and didn’t just stick to the storyboard happy family ending or go for the dramatic and depressing finale. As a debut novel, this is a fantastic read with a lot of depth and poignancy in the writing and I will definitely be looking out for this author in the future.

For another perspective…

To read Chrissi Read’s fabulous review on Daughter, please click HERE and for my blogger friend Cleo’s equally fabulous review click HERE.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

Too Much Happiness – Alice Munroe

Published September 14, 2014 by bibliobeth

8176673

What’s it all about?:

Ten superb new stories by one of our most beloved and admired writers—the winner of the 2009 Man Booker International Prize.

With clarity and ease, Alice Munro once again renders complex, difficult events and emotions into stories about the unpredictable ways in which men and women accommodate and often transcend what happens in their lives.

In the first story a young wife and mother, suffering from the unbearable pain of losing her three children, gains solace from a most surprising source. In another, a young woman, in the aftermath of an unusual and humiliating seduction, reacts in a clever if less-than-admirable fashion. Other tales uncover the “deep-holes” in a marriage, the unsuspected cruelty of children, and, in the long title story, the yearnings of a nineteenth-century female mathematician.

What did I think?:

I have heard the name Alice Munro around a lot, but it wasn’t until she won the Man Booker International Prize in 2009 and the Nobel Prize for Literature that I really became interested in trying some of her work. I didn’t make this collection part of my Short Stories Challenge as once I started the book I just wanted to read the entire thing at once as the beauty of her writing spoke for itself. There are ten stories in this collection and each one features one or more of the characters (usually a woman) dealing with an unusual amount of emotion in their life, for one reason or another. I’m not going to go through each of the stories, this post would turn into an essay! Instead, I’m just going to focus on a couple of my favourites.

The first story, Dimensions was definitely my favourite of the bunch. It introduces us to a female main character Doree who we become curious about right from the start. She has changed her name, regularly sees a psychiatrist and visits her husband Lloyd in prison which she finds an incredibly daunting prospect. It turns out that her relationship with Lloyd through the years they have been married has been slightly traumatic. Lloyd peeled away every inch of her self-esteem and hurled emotional abuse at her at any given opportunity. Why is he in prison and what is the big secret the author keeps from us until the last moment? I can’t say, but it was dark, dramatic and beautifully executed.

Free Radicals was also a knee-trembler of a story. A recently widowed woman is relaxing in her house when a madman manages to get in and announces that he has just killed his parents and his disabled sister. There is the danger that she may be next but our main character remains stoic and remarkably calm considering the circumstances. By the end of the story, she imparts a secret of her own…

Another favourite of mine was Child’s Play, where an old woman (Marlene) looks back on her childhood, one memory in particular still disturbs her. It regards a girl that used to live in the same house as her called Verna who continually tried to be-friend her, at some points becoming quite desperate, however Verna was slightly deficient mentally and filled Marlene with feelings of disgust:

“I suppose I hated her as some people hate snakes or caterpillars or mice or slugs. For no decent reason. Not for any certain harm she could do but for the way she could disturb your innards and make you sick of your life.”

She attends summer camp with one of her best friends and is dismayed to discover that Verna is there also. Then things turn a little bit darker with a gripping finale that will have your eyes practically glued to the pages to find out what happens. Well,  that’s what happened to mine anyway.

It is obvious that Alice Munro is a true master of the short story, she is precise, deadly accurate and the timing of the “huge events” in these few stories is executed with perfection. Yes, there were a few stories that I didn’t really get on with (Wood, Too Much Happiness, Fiction) hence the three star rating but I cannot deny that while I didn’t enjoy these tales as much, I really appreciated her writing style and her obvious ease with words. I will definitely be checking out some of her other work.

Would I recommend it?:

Probably!

Star rating (out of 5):

3 Star Rating Clip Art

Short Stories Challenge – Child Of Light by Randy Taguchi from the collection Fujisan

Published September 13, 2014 by bibliobeth

15033811

What’s Child Of Light all about?:

Child of Light is a story about a nurse who struggles as she comes to terms with her role in the oft-brutal cycle of birth, life, and death.

What did I think?:

This story is the last in this spellbinding collection by Randy Taguchi, and is a beautiful little tale with several dark moments. Child of Light opens with our narrator visiting a Buddhist shrine for the Bodhisattva of Compassion, the Goddess of Mercy, where she happens upon another woman praying for the soul of her child which she sadly miscarried. The two women begin talking and we find out that our narrator is a nurse working in the gynaecological field, mainly with pregnant women. She is struggling to deal with a build up of hatred and disbelief at how easily young girls become pregnant and abort the foetus in such a matter-of-fact manner. One patient is particularly troubling her at the moment, a young girl who is five months pregnant but appears extremely laissez-faire about her condition, insisting that she has to have an abortion. As the girl is so far advanced with her pregnancy the abortion process is slightly trickier and has to be carried out under general anaesthesia. While the girl is recovering, our nurse attempts to hide the disgust that she feels for her patient but her emotions are clear enough for the young girl to see. After a horrific incident with the girl’s father, our narrator finally begins to feel some kind of understanding and sympathy towards her charge.

Our narrator’s state of mind in the story is causing her great difficulties, and when she happens upon the woman praying at the shrine, we learn that she has visited to pray for all the aborted babies souls so that they reach heaven, to try and ease her own internal trauma somewhat. As the two women talk, our narrator learns that the reason the praying woman miscarried was because she was brutally stabbed and can no longer have children, despite her intense longing and desperation for one. Both women decide to join a group climbing Mount Fuji where they meet another woman who has advanced and terminal cervical cancer but is determined to reach the summit of Mount Fuji as one of her final tasks. Our narrator starts to realise the extent of other people’s suffering and reaches some sort of peace in her own mind after the journey to the top.

I thought this was a lovely story to conclude a short story collection which I have thoroughly enjoyed. Some parts of the tale are slightly dark, but intensely enjoyable, even though some images for example, the description of the abortion of the young girl will probably stay with me for a while, but this is proof of the power of the author’s writing. Although my views differ slightly from the nurse regarding abortion, I appreciated and understood her views on the subject, and found her fight to appease her own emotional state deeply moving. I think the inclusion of other female characters in suffering allowed our narrator to put her own problems in perspective, and find some stability in her own life. Lovely story, beautiful writing and a general “thumbs up,” from me! I’m definitely looking forward to exploring more of Randy Taguchi’s writing.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

NEXT SHORT STORY: Proving Up by Karen Russell from the collection Vampires In The Lemon Grove.

The Ship Of Brides – Jojo Moyes

Published September 11, 2014 by bibliobeth

1373381

What’s it all about?:

The year is 1946, and all over the world, young women are crossing the seas in the thousands en route to the men they married in wartime – and an unknown future. In Sydney, Australia, four women join 650 other brides on an extraordinary voyage to England, aboard the HMS Victoria, which also carries not just arms and aircraft but 1,000 naval officers and men. Rules of honour, duty, and separation are strictly enforced, from the aircraft carrier’s captain down to the lowliest young stoker. But the men and the brides will find their lives intertwined in ways the Navy could never have imagined.

What did I think?:

On my quest to read the entire back catalogue of one of my favourite authors, Jojo Moyes, I came across this little gem, The Ship Of Brides which is set immediately after the end of the Second World War. The majority of the story is set on-board HMS Victoria, a Royal Navy aircraft carrier due to be retired soon after its final journey which attempts to take hundreds of brides from Australia back to England to meet up with the husbands they married during the war. Many of these women have not seen their husbands for months, have never met their families, in fact, some barely know them at all! Still, they left their own family not knowing when or if they would see them again, to undergo a voyage at sea for many weeks to (hopefully) meet up with their spouses. (That is, if they didn’t receive the dreaded telegram whilst on-board – “Not wanted, do not come.”) which happened more regularly than you would expect. I have a bit of giddy love for stories set within war-time so I sensed I was going to enjoy this book but what I didn’t realise that it was based on an actual voyage on HMS Victorious with memories taken from the authors own grandmother. This, along with the journal entries/notes that began each chapter being from genuine passengers on the above mentioned voyage, only add more authenticity to an already compelling story.

There are a range of juicy characters for the reader to get their teeth into, the four main ones are brides on the crossing. There is Margaret, heavily pregnant and desperate for the voyage to be over so that she can get stuck into her new family life with her new arrival in earnest. Margaret was raised on an Australian farm, so we get a no-nonsense, no frills, airs or graces but warm and generous woman who is fiercely loyal to those that she be-friends on the journey. Then there is the other side of the coin, so as to speak with wealthy Avice, quick to look down her nose and sneer at others, the mysterious Frances, a former nurse who has more than one skeleton in her closet and appears cold and unyielding and sixteen year old Jean, young, slightly foolhardy, up for a good time (especially with all the MEN on board, oh my goodness!). These four ladies are forced to room together which leads to unlikely friendships, secrets, tragedy and some good old fashioned bonding as they learn that there’s nowhere to run and definitely nowhere to hide whilst at sea. A couple of intriguing male characters are thrown into the soup – a Marine who stands guard outside the ladies door with a bit of a chip on his shoulder and a lot of sadness in his life. This is much the same for the Captain of the ship who harnesses a terrible guilt about a previous voyage when something went badly wrong.

As we follow the brides through their voyage we get a mixture of just about everything to delight the reader, high drama and tension, tragedy, death, a sprinkle of romance and even a lovely legs competition. Well… there’s not much else to do at sea, is there? I loved watching the characters grow throughout the journey as they begin to bond and help each other through tough times while preparing themselves for the unknown which lies ahead. The author has a wonderful way of making you feel something for every character, no matter how horrid and I really enjoyed the little surprises around each corner which I never seemed to anticipate. As a war-time novel, it’s a fantastic piece of fiction with those lovely elements of potential truth attached knowing that a similar voyage actually happened.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

NEXT JOJO MOYES READ: Silver Bay coming soon!

Scarlet (The Lunar Chronicles #2) – Marissa Meyer

Published September 10, 2014 by bibliobeth

13206760

What’s it all about?:

Cinder, the cyborg mechanic, returns in the second thrilling installment of the bestselling Lunar Chronicles. She’s trying to break out of prison–even though if she succeeds, she’ll be the Commonwealth’s most wanted fugitive. Halfway around the world, Scarlet Benoit’s grandmother is missing. It turns out there are many things Scarlet doesn’t know about her grandmother or the grave danger she has lived in her whole life. When Scarlet encounters Wolf, a street fighter who may have information as to her grandmother’s whereabouts, she is loath to trust this stranger, but is inexplicably drawn to him, and he to her. As Scarlet and Wolf unravel one mystery, they encounter another when they meet Cinder. Now, all of them must stay one step ahead of the vicious Lunar Queen Levana, who will do anything for the handsome Prince Kai to become her husband, her king, her prisoner.

What did I think?:

This is the second novel in Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles, which I was very excited to get to as my sister and fellow blogger Chrissi Reads has been quite enthusiastic in her praise for it. And yes in my opinion it’s even better than the first, Cinder, with another kick-ass heroine to get excited about. And this is a feisty, fierce and incredibly likeable character called Scarlet who has swapped her little red cape for a little red hoodie and her wicker basket for a handgun – just for protection, and only to be used in dire circumstances, you understand! When we first meet Scarlet, she is devastated as her beloved grandmother who has raised her from a child has gone missing, later we find out she was abducted so Scarlet immediately goes on a mission to find her, damning any consequences. On her journey, Scarlet meets the enigmatic Wolf, a lone fighter who makes money at brawls which he rarely loses, but his back story will prove vitally important for Scarlet so he may be a handy man to have around.

Meanwhile, our heroine from the previous novel, the cyborg mechanic Cinder is languishing in prison. Not for long. With (not much help really) from fellow convict and first-class flirt Captain Thorne, Cinder manages to escape from prison and the two hop aboard Thorne’s ship and now must fight to escape detection from the authorities as a certain someone, Queen Levana, our villain of the piece is not a happy bunny and is looking for Cinder’s head on a plate. Cinder’s history is also a little complicated, and it turns out she’s actually someone quite important, the fact of which could also see her dead, if uncovered by the wrong people. Fortunately, she has lots of lovely new Lunar powers to keep her occupied before Scarlet and Cinder meet for the first time and the connection between them is fully explored. Meanwhile poor Prince Kai, the ruler of New Beijing, has a terrible decision to make. Will he think of himself or of his people?

Comparing both novels in The Lunar Chronicles so far, Scarlet has the edge for me. Not that I didn’t enjoy Cinder, as I have most fond memories of it and would probably re-read it, but I just loved Scarlet as a character. Marissa Meyer has written such a spirited, independent and strong female that also has a soft and vulnerable side, so that she does not come across as too hard. This came across very vividly in the way she cares about her family, her relationship with Wolf, and what she is prepared to sacrifice for someone she loves. It’s great to see the return of old characters like Cinder, Prince Kai and even baddie Queen Levana, who were welcomed into my imagination like old friends/enemies you love to hate. As a bit of a fairy-tale junkie, I have a bit of an obsession for fairy-tale re-tellings at the moment, and the author does a mighty fine job of digging up those classic childhood stories and blending them with a mixture of science fiction and adventure. It seems to be the perfect recipe for success at the moment in my opinion. If you don’t believe me, just ask her legion of fans.

Would I recommend it?:

But of course!

Star rating (out of 5):

four-stars_0

Short Stories Challenge – Lights In Other People’s Houses by Lucy Wood from the collection Diving Belles

Published September 8, 2014 by bibliobeth

download (3)

What’s Lights In Other People’s Houses all about?:

Lights In Other Peoples’s Houses is about a young couple who receive the ghost of a ship wrecker in their home as inch by inch the sea returns to re-claim it.

What did I think?:

This is the fourth story in Lucy Wood’s debut collection, and by now you would think I would be used to the fact that her stories are a little bit strange and very fantastical. Yet still I find myself surprised at the beginning right through to the end of each tale. It tells the story of a young couple, Maddy and Russell who moved into a flat eight months ago but are still not quite at home there. This is especially true of Maddy who misses living near the sea dreadfully and experiences its loss as an almost physical ache, kidding herself that she can still smell it within the four walls. Maddy may not be far off with her imaginings however as on one particularly non-eventful day she comes face to face with a ghost who decides to inhabit the house with them. Maddy has promised Russell repeatedly that she would sort through some boxes of her parents items but has been putting the task off, and finds the ghost (who was a “wrecker,” in life), sorting through the boxes himself and deciding what is good enough to keep, as he had once perhaps scoured shipwrecks for hidden treasures.

As the wrecker continues his stay with Maddy and Russell, more and more of the sea enters the house, in the form of physical objects such as shells and stones, and the damp that begins to gradually rise on the walls, as water rises over sunken ships. The wrecker also appears to be getting more and more upset as the days pass, demanding to know where he is and where all the water has gone to, mirroring Maddy’s own memories and fondness for the sea, and exacerbating her own heart-break as she feels herself being dragged further away from it. As the wrecker prolongs his visit with the couple, their own relationship begins to suffer as a result, with Russell leaving earlier and earlier for work, and Maddy feeling increasingly “lost and cast adrift.”

I’m not sure why, but I didn’t gel with this story as much as I have done with the previous tales in this collection. There is no mistaking the haunting beauty of the author’s words to set an imaginable scene in the readers minds, but for some reason, I felt slightly disconnected from the story and the characters which spoiled my enjoyment of it as a whole. The ending, as always, is abrupt and somewhat ambiguous, and while I have enjoyed this sort of ending from Lucy Wood in the past, it didn’t feel right in this story. That being said, she is an incredible writer with bags of talent and oodles of imagination and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work.

Would I recommend it?:

Maybe.

Star rating (out of 5):

3 Star Rating Clip Art

NEXT SHORT STORY: Child of Light by Randy Taguchi from the collection Fujisan

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 610 other followers