Nancy Kress, Fountain of Age (2008)

Fountain of Age is a SF novella, but in France short stories is not a popular genre, so the translated novella was published separately. I chose it because I am reluctant to invest a lot of time in a large SF novel (what if I don’t like it? what if I’m out of my depth? Evidently, even as a grown-up 40-something woman, I still have my issues when it comes to SF…). I chose it because the French publisher was the same as the great novella by Ken Liu: The Man Who Ended History. The publisher is Le Bélial, and they have all sorts of SF chunksters as well as a lot of novellas. My third criteria for this selection was that I wanted a female writer, especially after having been blown away by the creativity of Folding Beijing.

The story line couldn’t be more classical: an old man, feeling death coming soon, is looking for the love of his life, whom he met – and lost – in his youth. The old man is very rich and has his own family whom he’s not particularly close to. He has become rich by dubious means, and he has had problems with the law before, but that’s not unusual. The love of his life is a woman named Daria who has married someone else and has not seen him ever again. So, nothing particularly SF really.

The business venture, now, is not what you’d expect in a standard novel: Daria has had a sort of tumor, whose cells injected in other people let them remain young forever. And so Daria herself has disappeared from public view to become a sort of ethereal life-giving entity. Her husband has turned it into a controversial but extremely profitable business. So the meeting between the old man and Daria is not an easy endeavor.

I can’t say that the story blew me away, but it kept my interest throughout. I didn’t really enter into the future world described by Kress (I didn’t get much of a sense of place), nor did the biotechnologies interest me much. But I liked the character of the nasty old man, and particularly enjoyed his friendship with the gypsies. I will probably explore more titles in this collection of novellas, as I find it a good way to try new SF authors.

The Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021, Lee Child

It’s been quite a while since I listened to an audiobook, and this one came from Netgalley, whose app I was not familiar with. All this to say that it was not quite a smooth experience, and it has nothing to do with the stories itself. I had difficulties to focus, and I have wondered if short stories are more difficult to get on audio rather than a novel. I’d say that if your attention drifts away for a paragraph (or two?) of a novel, it’s often not a big problem because you can pick the plot line up again later, but in short stories, especially in mysteries, once you’ve missed a clue, that’s too late. But once again, all of this is my fault, and this collection has a lot of stories that kept my full attention.

As always, a short story collection, especially one gathering a wide range of writers and themes, is hard to review. Some stories I enjoyed, some I actively disliked, some left me a bit cold. The big names in the collection didn’t offer stories as dazzling as I’d thought. I was a bit disappointed by Sara Paretsky’s story “Love and other crimes”, which was not memorable. I was disappointed by the Sherlock Holmes story for which I had high expectations (“The Adventures of the home office Baby”). I was a bit thrown off kilter by the Stephen King’s story, “The Fifth Step”, which is masterfully written and nail-biting (as usual), but which to me doesn’t really fit into the mystery genre, it’s more into the horror genre. Same with the Joyce Caroll Oates’ story, “Parole Hearing”, which is a variation on the Charlie Manson’s horrific 1969 murders.

But a lot of other stories were just great discoveries from authors I had never heard about, and whose names I will track down! (That’s one of the great benefits of this sort of collections, in my opinion). Here are my favorites:

  • “The Gift” by Alison Gaylin; about a missing little girl whose rich and famous parents resort to a medium to help in the search.
  • “The 6th Decoy” by Paul Kemprecos; about a quirky PI on Cape Cod
  • “Requiem for a Homecoming” by David Morrell, about a 20 year old murder in a college town
  • “Heatwave”, with a PI who is given the seemingly easy case of a missing teenager
  • “Edda at the End of the World” by Joseph S. Walker, a sort of Thelma and Louise story (no spoiler)
  • “The Path I Took” by Andrew Welsh-Huggins, whose narrator reflects on his time studying in Ireland
  • “If you want something done right” by Sue Grafton, about a very, very organized wife who plans for her husband’s murder

Certainly I will get my hands on a full length mystery with Aristotle Socarides in the near future (Paul Kemprecos). For the other authors (except Sue Grafton of course), a little more research is required. Any name you’ve read?

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

Hao Jingfang, Folding Beijing (2014)

Folding Beijing is an awesome novelette, and it makes me so sorry not to remember where I heard about it. I know that what decided me to read it is the translation by Ken Liu, whose short stories I enjoyed more than once (The Hidden Girl collection and in a novelette of his: The man who ended history). It’s only when I finished reading the novelette that I learnt that Hao Jingfang is a young woman, that she wrote this while studying at Tsinghua University and that she is the first female Chinese writer to have won the prestigious Hugo award. I read the story without knowing all that, but now that I do, I’m even more impressed and I humbly think that this award is very well deserved!

Folding Beijing is set in a world divided in 3 classes of citizens: the rich, the middle-class and the underworld, that lead separate lives, not only spatially but temporally. When one class of people goes to sleep, their city folds itself into the ground and it’s now time for another class to unfold above ground and get up. Everything in this division is unequal, the rich get the most of the 24 hours and enjoy sunlight, while the underclass live in cramped, dirty lodging and live only in darkness. In the story, one man from the underworld sets to “go over the fold” and sneak into the privileged world for a risky, but rewarding mission.

The premise of the story is almost more interesting that the character’s quest itself. There are so many relevant themes in the idea of spatial and temporal segregation. Some themes are nothing new ([spoiler alert!] like the idea that blue collar workers are more and more replaced by robots), but the way it is exploited in this folded world felt fresh to me. Of course, the story is not explicitly taking on a political and social stance against the current situation in China, but it’s difficult to avoid thinking about it.

What was also great about Folding Beijing is that it is not any anonymous, futuristic, slightly American city that gets folded and unfolded, I still got a sense of old Beijing in the first part when we discover the “third space” that lives during the night. I’m no big reader of Sci-fi, but there’s obviously a great potential to explore here. (And I want to also explore if Sci-fi may be an outlet for Chinese expression that might not be easy to let out in other realms). I have not yet tried famous Chinese sci-fi writer Liu Cixin, but I should probably take a leap of faith and venture into unfamiliar territory. Any recommendation?

Gale Massey, Rising and Other Stories (2021)

This is the ultimate (most cruel) test. Given that I’ve started reading this collection of short stories at the very end of August and finished it over a month ago, would I still remember them (all)? Or did they not stand the test of memory, eclipsed by fresher books? I love reading short stories but I detest writing about them, and in this case I procrastinated way too long…

The result is… yes, most of them are still fresh in my memory! (A little problem is that I don’t feel they have very memorable titles, but that’s editing, not writing: Gale Massey’s style is effective and evocative). I remember the story of the girl whose father has left during her early childhood because he was gay. She counted the time she was under her deeply religious father-in-law’s roof until she could get out of town. She enlists, finds some freedom but her stint in Iraq is cut short… I remember the story of the girl who lives in foster care where she somehow takes care of the younger girls. She thinks it’s a good idea to apply to a hostess job to get out of there but the place she gets to is a terrifying trap. I remember the title story, where a middle-aged woman, a depressed empty-nester, decides to fly solo to Peru. She wants to see a puma, an elusive and mythical animal, as if only the puma could give sense to her life. In the first story, a young daughter witnesses the rift between her father, a veteran whose best friend is a black man, and her racist mother who doesn’t see this friendship with a kind eye. I wondered when the story was supposed to take place, but I couldn’t get any clue if it was supposed to be present time or in the past. I remember many more stories, probably most of the 13 in the collection.

I’ve never been in the American Southeast, or in Florida where many stories are located. Still I feel that Gale Massey gave me a good impression of the land, especially the importance of water (sea or river) which is present even on the cover of the book. Many stories are dramatic, with young women confronted to tough choices or life-altering events. Most found a way to survive (but not all). I haven’t read anything else by Gale Massey, but I would gladly read more stories of hers.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, English Climate: Wartime Short Stories (2020)

I don’t know about fellow book bloggers, but in my experience it’s so much easier to write about a book one dislike than a beloved book, and to add another layer of complexity, it’s way easier to write about novels than short story collections. All this to say that I’m sorry to write only now about this collection I read and enjoyed in early July (!). If I delayed writing this post many times, it’s because the book is really good and I don’t want to mess it up!

This collection presents 22 stories written between 1940 and 1946, many of them published in the NewYorker for American readers. Of course, as this collection is published by beloved Persephone, it begets questions and comparisons with other women-centric short stories of the same period, such as Goodnight Mrs. Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes (which I loved). Both collections focus on women’s daily experience on the home front (more often than not the quintessential British village or the upperclass mansion – think Midsommer Murders) and what goes in their hearts and minds beyond the official “Keep Calm and Carry On”: hopes and fears, tragedies, disappointments and tiny intimate upheavals. But Mollie Panter-Downes’ stories are a bit more emotional and kind, while these stories often have a darker undertone, although often tinged with enough humor to make it more palatable.

Even though I read them two months ago now, I still have fresh memories of these vivid scenes. Evacuee children from London to the countryside don’t react to their new surroundings like the adults expect them to. Tobacconists have few cigarettes left: which customers will they favor with their treasure? Wealthy homemakers contemplate the potentially liberating destruction of the home they’ve been restricted to. Women learn to use weapons in the perspective of a potential Nazi invasion, but perhaps they shouldn’t be trusted to have such powerful tools. Burrial ceremonies – and the ensuing family reunions – get disturbed by the impromptu falling of a bomb. Women in the absence of men make unconventional lodging arrangements. And so many other stories… We get to see a bit of everything, from wealthy to poor people, from Londoners to country people, and every time Sylvia Townsend Warner takes an unusual perspective.

I don’t know why Sylvia Townsend Warner is so little known and so little read. She’s been already a favorite writer of mine since Lolly Willowes, but I have neglected her for too long. This collection convinced me to try and find more books by her, either stories or novels. I’m writing this up for the winter!

Lily King, Five Tuesdays in Winter (2021)

After reading Writers and Lovers and loving it so much last summer, it felt like an awesome opportunity to read Lily King’s short story collection as an advance review copy. I wondered if she would master the shorter form as much as she did for character development over 300 pages. In short, I’ll spoil it right away: yes she does!

There’s some things I’d enjoyed in her novel that I found again in her stories: the ability to make the reader care about these characters, the density each of the characters have, sometimes by some anecdotes that seem superfluous but that you end up remembering all too well, the sudden tragedies and a right balanced between being distanced from the characters and a certain sentimentality (but it’s definitely not a romance – see the eponymous story). Most stories resonated with me, even though I missed the point of some others (probably bad timing and fatigue on my part, you need to focus not to miss the clues, like in the story “Creature”)

This collection has 10 stories and I can say I loved 6 of them, the seventh took me into a rollercoaster but mostly for fun (“The man at the door”) and three weren’t really for me. That’s a great tally for a collection! I wanted to confirm if Lily King could use another voice than the one of a young female aspiring writer, and I was fully reassured! She can do teenage boy, Southern belle, grieving mother, she can even do a 90 year old man (“Waiting for Charlie”)!

“When in Dordogne” is probably the most striking story of the book. A lonely teenage boy stays home with two house-sitting university students while his father (a university professor) and his mother travel to France for the summer. The two students are a breath of fresh air and fun in an otherwise very dark and dull home. By the end of the summer the boy will have grown so much, an experience he will remember for years to come.

In “North Sea”, a recent German widow is taking her daughter for a vacation with the hope that the girl opens up to her and talks about her grief. In “Hotel Seattle”, a gay man agrees to meet with an old friend who had reacted strongly when he’d come out twenty years or so before. In “Timeline”, a young aspiring writer / waitress (an alternate version of the one from Writers and Lovers?) moves in with her brother and his girlfriend.

This collection has convinced me to look into Lily King’s back catalogue. I want to discover her other novels and I wish she’d had written more short stories!

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

The One with the Unexpected Voices of the Steppes

Simon Wickhamsmith, Suncranes and other Stories, Modern Mongolian Short Fiction (2021)

I pride myself of being curious and always ready to try new things, especially when it comes in short fiction (probably because I feel that I don’t commit too much time and energy if it’s bound to be over in 25 pages). But perhaps I am now getting to my limits. Talking about treading out of my comfort zone, this short story collection has been really challenging and puzzling.

I don’t think it’s the editor / translator’s fault, but I found very little to relate in any of those short stories. Wickhamsmith tries to give a large overview of the diversity of Mongolian writing throughout the 20th century, and he does it quite well in 27 stories that are very diverse in topics as in style. The English translation reads effortlessly, and there’s a useful glossary on Mongolian terms, but I could understand most of it from the context anyway. We get a bit of poetic / allegoric, a creepy ghost story, some love stories, some about family relationships… There’s also a very useful postface on each author and his/her context, but I really would have preferred to have it in a preface as most of the book felt like jumping in the pool feet first without really knowing how to swim.

I could say that I know nothing about Mongolia but that would be lying. The extent of my knowledge comes from my Asian studies and a summer internship program in 1997 where I was supposed to be churning out reports on Mongolia, but on that fateful summer Hong Kong returned to Mainland China and the Asian financial crisis hit many (other) Asian countries and my interest went far away from Mongolia. My understanding is that from the Chinese point of view, Mongolia is the poor hillbilly neighbor, although in historical terms the countries’ fate were intertwined (Genghis Khan was from Mongolia and Mongol dynasties rules over China for centuries) – and in economical terms, Mongolia depends very much on China. That I knew, but I had somehow missed the part where Mongolia had been heavily influenced by the Soviet Union, its other powerful neighbor.

That is why many stories in the beginning of the collection lean heavily on the socialist realist vein, and are clearly influenced by the later Russian literature. It’s hard to get passionate nowadays about stories speaking of production quotas and five-years-plan, although having read the equivalent Maoist stories I could get my bearing, if not my enthusiasm.

I was favorably impressed by the importance of nature in many of those stories. Pastoral nomadism is shown in its beauty and its hardships equally, and that’s the part I enjoyed the most. Other stories didn’t resonate with me at all, and I could not even get what I was reading. But again, this is entirely my fault. So this collection is a hit-and-miss for me, but I don’t regret trying.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

The One with Greater Non-Human Powers

Octavia Butler, Collected Stories, from Library of America (2021)

I jumped on the opportunity to read Octavia Butler’s short stories when I saw this Library of America volume on Netgalley. I rarely read true science fiction (I do some fantasy, some time-travel and some post-apocalyptic novels, but aliens and flying saucers? No thank you!), yet Kindred had been such a memorable book for me in 2019, and I couldn’t pass the chance to read short stories of this author. I was sad to learn that she has published so few short stories, preferring to publish bigger volumes and even series. I enjoyed this compiled edition edited by Gerry Canavan, and with an interesting preface by Butler’s friend Nisi Shawl, although the barebones ARC format makes it difficult to go back and forth within the volume. I didn’t read Fledgling, although I intend to come back to it one day.

The book collects all seven stories from Bloodchild collection, as well as Childfinder (from Unexpected stories). The themes and genres are very wide, and none are related to Kindred. Each story is followed by a short afterword by Butler who presents the context of the story, or why she chose this theme. I liked the Utopian vision of The Book of Martha, where God addresses a female writer (Octavia herself?), so that she would chose the destiny of humans. It was by far the lightest story of them all, and readers should be warned that the worlds Butler creates are often dark and disturbing. I was awed by Butler’s imagination in Bloodchild, when she imagines a sort of love relationship between a human young man and a powerful creature. Speech Sounds is more like a standard postapocalyptic book, but I liked the metaphoric themes. Childfinder felt more like an excerpt of a complete novel. And The Evening and The Morning and The Night dealt with the consequences of a rare genetic disease.

In all those stories, I could not help but wonder at the unique point of view that Butler takes. A bit like Ken Liu, humans are often weaker creatures who have little choice but to obey to greater alien powers, but the relationship with others is not just a confrontation, there are complex feelings on both sides and plot twists that are voluntarily uncomfortable for the reader.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

The One with the Vietnamese Americans

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees (2017)

I’d heard a lot about these stories when they first came out, and I’m glad I stumbled upon this French translation at our local library. These eight stories are deep and subtle, dealing with difficult pasts, traumas and family relationships in a beautiful, spare language, and it’s hard for me to tell you which one I loved best.

There’s the first of the collection “Black-Eyed Woman”, whose narrator is a ghost writer for celebs who write memoirs, but she has her own traumatic past she tries hard to forget, until one day the ghost of her dead brother visits her.

I also loved “I’d love you to want me” with an ageing couple. The husband, an old university professor, has Alzheimer’s and starts to call his wife with another woman’s name. She gets to wonder if he had an affair in his past, and if it hurts her so very much to doubt whom he really loved more.

Nguyen captures the culture shock between Vietnamese who have escaped the war and have rebuilt their lives in America. The distance between the two countries illustrate some misunderstandings and illusions / projections that Americans have on Vietnamese immigrants, and vice versa (see the shock of this young refugee arriving in the US at the end of the war to be welcomed by a gay couple, “The other man”), and Vietnamese in Vietnam have on the emigrants who may (or may not) have a grand, easy life in the US (“Fatherland”). I also loved to see Nguyen tackle the divisions amidst the immigrant community, as they are no monolyth. In “War years”, a teenager boy watches how his hard-working parents in their small grocery shop are being harassed by a Vietnamese woman who collects money for the anti-communist fight. Will his mother give her some hard-earned cash? (No spoiler here for you, but the story is a rollercoaster of emotions)

After these stories, I’m now more tempted to try Nguyen’s prise-winning novel, The Sympathizer, although it was not on my radar before. Have you read it?

The One with the Projects Kids in the Mansion

Elizabeth Taylor, The Devastating Boys (1972)

Short stories collection are tough to speak about especially when they are so different, so this time I’m just going to tell you about the most memorable ones in the book. Yet I feel that I should start with a sort of warning, because among these stories, several central characters are Black, and the way she writes about them is quite dated and awkward to read nowadays, although she clearly condemns the racism of other people for these characters.

“The Devastating Boys”: A university don’s wife with an empty nest receives, upon her husband’s insistance, two underprivileged kids from London for a fortnight, supposedly to offer them a holiday but also to give herself a project as she feels a little adrift. The two boys are very boisterous, not instantly loveable but they do settle in. We don’t quite know how the boys will or won’t be changed by this short vacation, but we see the influence on their hosts and this is quietly moving. I felt that this self-effacing character had so much potential!

“The Fly-paper”: A girl has to take the bus to go to her weekly music lesson across town. This does not go as planned. This short story is very, very creepy, and could well feature in a Halloween collection. I won’t say more because Taylor is a master of “less is more”.

“In and Out of Houses”: a girl on a school break visits all her neighbors in her village. She thinks she does it out of kindness and charity, but what she does is actually spread gossips from one house to the next and break havoc in the village. This one is laugh-out-loud material.

“Miss A. and Miss M.”: well, I loved this story, but I had totally forgotten that I had read it 13 years ago and reviewed it on this very blog! How embarrassing… yet I still fully agree with what I wrote back then, at least.

“Sisters”: Mrs Mason is a banal, respectable ageing woman busy with tea and cards with her friends. Nobody knows that Mrs. Mason’s sister is Marion, a famous and scandalous (dead) writer, until a journalist comes knocking at Mrs. Mason to ask questions and write Marion’s bio. Once again, Taylor is so good at taking an unexpected direction.

Actually, I could tell you about most of those 11 stories, because Taylor is such a talented writer! I want to explore Virago collections to see what else I have missed.