Like most collections of short stories Mouthful of Birds has some stories that are hits and ones that are misses. I think the collection definitely showcases Samanta Schweblin’s creativity and versatility. While most of the stories are permeated by the surreal they differ in tone and subject.
Schweblin makes the familiar feel unfamiliar. Many of the stories examine recognisable scenarios from an unexpected angle and it often takes a little time to catch up to what is going on. One of my favourite stories, ‘Toward Happy Civilisation’, had some very strong Kafkaesque vibes and the creepy yet bizarre atmosphere I would except in a story by Shirley Jackson. Another favourite of mine was ‘The Merman’, an unapologetically offbeat tale involving, you guessed it, a merman and that reminded me of Kevin Wilson.
As much as I appreciated Schweblin’s dark humour and the weirdness of her stories, there were a few unmemorable ones. The title story was a bit of a letdown (I didn’t find it all that ‘shocking’ or subversive) and the really short ones were rather, if not completely, forgettable. I also did not care for that story that relied on animal cruelty. Not only did I not find it to be ‘horrific’ but it just came across as gratuitous and voyeuristic (gore and violence are cheap ways to ‘inspire’ fear). Nevertheless I would probably pick up more of Schweblin work as this collection did show some promise.
Where the Wild Ladies Are is a collection of short stories that traditional Japanese folktales a modern and feminist twist. The premise behind these stories is certainly interesting and I would probably recommend it even if it didn’t quite ‘work’ for me. Most of Aoko Matsuda’s stories are interconnected as they feature recurring characters and places. I quite liked this aspect of the collection as I was curious to discover how certain stories were related to other ones. The surreal atmosphere and zestful tone lend this collection a rather offbeat quality that brought to mind authors such Kevin Wilson and Hilary Leichter. These stories are unapologetically weird as they are populated by quirky characters facing some peculiar scenarios. Ghosts seem to be the norm and many characters undergo fantastic transformations.
My favourite stories were the very first two in the collection. One stars a woman who has been recently ‘dumped’ by her boyfriend. She spends time and money in order to enhance her looks (hair removal galore) but finds herself questioning existing beauty standards when her body hair begins to have a life of its own…and yeah, she also happens to talk who to her aunt who is a ghost. The following story has a vaguely Kafkaesque feel to it as it focuses on a unemployed man who finds himself answering the door to an unusual sales duo. The subsequent stories, in comparison, were very uneven. They had some interesting elements but they would eventually peter out, leaving me kind of wanting more and questioning what was the point of story itself. The writing was okay. It wasn’t particularly funny or insightful. The feminist ‘twists’ were kind of there…but kind of not. At the end we get brief summaries of the folktales that inspired each chapters but I still could not really see how Matsuda’s stories were all that empowering for women (yes, she acknowledges sexual misconduct in the workplace or that woman are often regarded as wives or mothers but acknowledging these things hardly means challenging them). Still I do think Matsuda presents her readers with a vivid portrayal of Japanese culture and society today. If you enjoy eccentric stories with a dose of magical realism you might want to give this collection a chance.
“I had always understood, of course, that the task of rooting out evil in its most devious forms, often just when it is about to go unchecked, is a crucial and solemn undertaking.”
As much as it pains me to admit this…I didn’t particularly care for this novel. While it is written in Kazuo Ishiguro’s trademark prose, which is both eloquent and introspective, the more I read and the less invested I felt in the story and in particular in Christopher Banks, our narrator and protagonist. It saddens me not to have enjoyed When We Were Orphans as I consider Ishiguro to be an excellent writer and certainly a favourite of mine. Then again, Ishiguro himself said that “It’s not my best book”. Still, while I wasn’t expecting When We Were Orphans to be as poignant as The Remains of Day or Never Let Me Go, I hoped that I would at least find it to be an engaging read. At first I was intrigued by the narrative. Although Christopher is a famous detective his investigations are only alluded to. This itself is very unusual and it subverts the reader’s expectations. Usually, when a book revolves around a detective chances are that whatever case(s) they are working on will be a central part of the story. Here instead Christopher’s job is treated like any other job. It is Christopher himself who is a mystery. Ishiguro introduces us to certain aspects of his life, for example at first we read many scenes in which he is socialising at glitzy parties or events. The story begins in the 1930s England and Christopher is slowly making a name for himself. We learn that he is an orphan and that he grew up in the International Settlement of Shanghai. As with other novels by Ishiguro our narrator finds himself recollecting a certain period of his life, in this case is childhood. He reconsiders figures and scenes from his past, scrutinizing and questioning his own memories, re-experiencing specific episodes both through the uncomprehending eyes of a child and through his newly acquired adult perspective. Scenes from his past are interspersed throughout Christopher’s narrative. In the present he meets Sarah, a young woman who also happens to be an orphan. Sarah seems intent on upward social mobility or so we can assume given that she expresses a wish to marry someone of importance. We also learn more of Christopher’s circumstances. Throughout his careful examination of his past Christopher remains a somewhat remote and cautious narrator. Usually I find cold or detached narrators to be right up my street (such as with Brontë and Kincaid’s Lucys) but Christopher’s opaqueness seemed a bit contrived at times. He remains a half-formed thing for much of his narrative. For instance, when he is thinking of childhood it is Akira who steals ‘the sh0w’. Child-Christopher remains an amorphous figure, who possesses no discernible traits. Still, I appreciated the way he considers the limitations of memory, how certain events are coloured by later ones, how some incidents will always remain unclear. What seems to drive his remembrance is the loss of his parents (the exact nature of which we learn quite late in the narrative). The second half of the novel sees Christopher back in Shanghai and here things take on a hazy quality. While in the first half there are many time skips, I never felt that I was missing out on any vital scene. Once Christopher is Shanghai however I started to feel mildly annoyed by how many things happened off page. Nothing is explained to us, we are simply made to go along with Christopher and his outlandish plans. He finds himself in the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War and kind of loses his marbles. He makes foolish decisions and behaves in an abhorrent fashion. I could not for the life of me believe that he felt any particular strong feelings for Sarah. During his earlier reminiscence I did not feel his grief or anguish when he considered his parents. And yet, all of a sudden, it seems imperative for him to uncover the truth. The more ill-behaved he became the more antipathy I felt for him and the book as a whole. This character change was abrupt and doubtful. While Christopher never struck me as a particularly likeable or kind person he seemed a level-headed and sensible person. And then he just becomes this increasingly tyrannical, inconsiderate, and impudent man. The mystery was anti-climatic and the story lacked a cohesive structure or at least a rewarding storyline. Christopher remains undeveloped and uninteresting, while the secondary character seemed mere devices. Take Akira for example…his role in the story is disappointing. At the end especially he just ‘puffs’, vanishes, disappears. Christopher doesn’t think of him or their last encounter. Nevertheless Ishiguro’s prose is certainly refined and, to begin with, thoughtful. His dialogues always ring true, from the words they use to express themselves to the vernaculars they use, even when the motivations of his characters don’t. He certainly succeeds in evoking the society in which Christopher moves, as well as the cultural differences between England and China. While I didn’t particularly enjoy this novel I still consider Ishiguro to be one of the best writers ‘out there’.
As I highly rate Joyce Carol Oates I was quite looking forward to Cardiff, by the Sea, a collection of four novellas ‘of suspense’. While I have only read a few of Oates’ works Patricide, a novella of hers, is a favourite of mine. The novellas collected in Cardiff, by the Sea have more in common with Oates’ The Pursuit as they are not only just as depressing but they are also written in a similar ‘stop and start’ type of prose. We have staccato sentences that often elide their subjects (such as “Chewing, trying to swallow but can’t.” or “Seeing the apprehension in the child’s face.”). While this style worked in the first novella, the longest in the collection, it felt a bit repetitive and overall less convincing in the following ones. In the first one we follow a deeply traumatised young woman and because of this the prose perfectly conveyed her ‘disturbed’ psyche. There were scenes where Oates’ choppy prose worked well, especially in terms of visuals and pacing: “Mia felt a stab of excitement. Following the flashlight beam. Shining light on ugly gouged tire tracks. Broken and shredded trees.”. As I’ve said however I do wish that this collection could have showcased Oates’ impressive stylistic range. These novellas also share many other similarities outside of the way the are written. They feature women who are traumatised, abused, sexually assaulted, and/or gaslighted/manipulated. All of the male characters in these novellas are awful human being. They are pedophiles, rapists, murders, opportunists….the lists goes on. The women in these stories lack agency. There are one or two incidents that suggest otherwise but throughout the course of their narratives they are very much confined to the role of victims.
‘Cardiff, by the Sea’: 4 stars As I’ve said the best story in this collection is the very first one: ‘Cardiff, by the Sea’. This novella was creepy and atmospheric. We follow Clare a woman who receives a call informing her that her grandmother has died…except that Clare has never met or know of her having been raised by adoptive parents. When she visits her newfound ‘blood relatives’ in Cardiff she becomes increasingly obsessed with the death of her birth parents. She stays with her two great-aunts, who very much reminded me of April Spink and Miriam Forcible from Coraline (except they are far more sinister). They are perpetually arguing and interrupting one another. Perhaps their creepiness is due to Clare’s susceptible state of mind, perhaps not. Clare’s uncle also lives with them and soon enough Clare becomes convinced that he played some sort of role in her family’s demise. This story is pure Gothic. Unease reigns supreme. Clare’s fragmented and unreliable memories contribute to this unsettling atmosphere. Oates’ prose her works really well as it reflects Clare’s psyche. Her trauma and shock definitely give her an alienated view of things. If you enjoy Shirley Jackson’s work or macabre stories such as the ones penned by Mariana Enríquez chances are you will appreciate this novella which is equal parts suspenseful and disturbing.
‘Miao Dao’: 3 stars This story had potential. I mean: cats killing pervy men? I’m sold. We follow Mia who has just turned thirteen. Her father recently separated from her mother and she now rarely sees him. Her male classmates begin to harass her and her female peers are not all that supportive (if anything they perceive as either a loser or a potential ‘threat’). As Mia is ‘shamed’ for body she begins to feel deeply alienated. Mia finds momentary solace when she is among a group of feral cats that has taken residence in her neighbourhood. When her mother gets together with a seemingly ‘good’ guy things take a turn for the worse. Mia ends up taking in a kitten, whom she names Miao Dao, and weird things start happening. This story was kind of miserable. Even more so that ‘Cardiff, by the Sea’ as it focuses on sexual abuse. It also reminded me of my own adolescent, a period of my life I never wish to relive again. The ‘leering’, the comments, the physical harassment. The way all of these make the victim feel ashamed and embarrassed (as she perceives herself guilty since it is her body that is making these boys and men act this way). So, given all the horrible things that happen to Mia, I was hoping for the story to present us with a satisfying revenge storyline…and it kind of doesn’t. The ‘cat’ element was definitely underused, and I think that the story would have benefitted from venturing more into the paranormal. Still, the ending does kind of make up for some of my initial frustration towards this story.
‘Phantomwise: 1972’ : 2 ½ stars This seemed a rehash of the previous two stories. We have a nondescript young woman—who similarly to Clare and Mia is mostly defined by the fact that she is being ill-treated/abused as opposed to having a discernible personality. The story follows a student who becomes involved with a professor (yes, this is that kind of story). As things sour between the two of them, the young woman becomes close to an older man who likes to talk about Lewis Carroll and his ‘Alice’. This isn’t a gripping or even suspenseful tale. Oates doesn’t really subvert this tired female student/male professor dynamic, if anything she goes full on misery porn. Misery and more misery. Women are helpless and men are predators. Great stuff.
‘The Surviving Child’ : 2 ½ stars This last novella seemed a mix between Rebecca and Verity. We follow the new wife of a man whose previous wife not only committed suicide but she killed their daughter too. She spared the son and the new wife wonders what could have driven her to do so. The prose is once again full of Yoda-like sentences which didn’t really add anything to my reading experience. Kind of predictable but not as miserable as the previous novella.
With the exception of the titular novella I didn’t particularly care for stories in this collection. Oates can certainly write but her style here could have been more varied. Her female characters are passive, even pathetic at times, and I found myself wanting these stories to be more subversive.
“Like I said already, I hunt monsters. And I got a sword that sings.”
Ring Shout is an action-driven historical novella that combines horror with the kind of anime that have magical swords & monsters-posing-as-humans in them. The story takes place in Georgia during the 1920s and follows a group of black women who hunt monsters who take the form of KKK members. This is neat concept and I would definitely encourage other readers to pick this one up (I particularly recommend the audiobook version as I found Channie Waites’ narration to be spot on). The story did strike me as a rather rushed and somewhat formulaic. Maybe I shouldn’t have read this so soon after finishing another novella by P. Djèlí Clark but Ring Shout shares much in common with his other work. If we leave the setting aside we have a young woman who is the ‘chosen one’ or happens to be the ‘only one’ who can save the world. The stakes, dare I say, are too high for such a short format. If this had been a full-length novel, I wouldn’t have minded as much. Here the side characters have rather one-dimensional personalities (we have the joker, the handsome love interest, the more level-headed in the team, the German who is Marx aficionado, three aunties reminiscent of the Moirai). Still, at least they had personalities. The main character, on the other hand, is very much defined by her ‘chosen one’ role. Nevertheless I obviously rooted for her as she slays KKK monsters. While it wasn’t a particularly thought-provoking novella (the whole discussion on good & evil was somewhat condensed) it makes for a quick and relatively gripping read starring badass black & queer girls/women. There is gore, some pretty-epic fight sequences, a few moments of respite, and a lot of banter. The author present his readers with some real creepy visuals (the mouths, enough said) and some subversive ideas. Overall, if you are new to his work this is definitely worth checking out (it will make for a solid Halloween read).
Nothing Like I Imagined is collection of lighthearted essays by Mindy Kaling. Being quite a fan of Kaling and her shows I knew that these essays would be fun. If you like Kaling’s humour chances are you will also like her essays. In ‘Kind of Hindu’ she writes about not feeling Hindu enough, in ‘Help Is on the Way’ Kaling hires a baby nurse in spite of her initial reluctance, and in quite a few essays she recounts awkward/funny episodes set in the Hollywood world. She writes about herself in an honest and lightly self-deprecating way. I had a fun time with these. While they certainly weren’t in-depth essays they make for some entertaining reading material.
“It’s my belief that everything in this world has its own language. We have the ability to open up our ears and minds to anything and everything. That could be someone walking down the street, or it could be the sunshine or the wind.”
Durian Sukegawa’s Sweet Bean Paste is a gentle and life-affirming novel (novella?). The book’s central figures are discriminated against because of their pasts: Sentaro is a middle aged man who works at a dorayaki shop has a criminal record; Tokue, an elderly woman, had leprosy as a teen and was subsequently forced into exile in a leprosarium. Sentaro is unenthusiastic about his job and future, seeming resigned to a life of despondency. This changes when Tokue begins working alongside him. Although Sentaro is initially reluctant to let Tokue work with him he changes his mind once he tastes her delicious bean paste. Tokue’s dedication to this culinary process earns his respect and loyalty but the shop sees an increase in customers. However, gossip about Tokue’s disfigured hands threatens Sentaro’s newfound happiness. As the cover and title suggest this was a very sweet read. While the tone of the story was by no means schmaltzy, there were times in which the narrative struck me as a bit too fluffy (i.e. not particularly deep). Sentaro is a fairly simple character and to be honest I didn’t find him nearly as half compelling as Tokue. The narrative does shed light on how harmful stigmas can be as well as providing information relating to the history of leprosy in Japan. I do wish that Tokue had remained the focus of the narrative as Sentaro and the schoolgirl (who was an entirely forgettable character) were very dull by comparison. Still, even if this isn’t a particularly complex or thought-provoking story I do think that it will appeal to fans of The Housekeeper and the Professor as it has a similarly tranquil atmosphere.
When No One is Watching is a gripping read, think Hitchcock by way of Liane Moriarty. The novel is set in a predominantly black neighbourhood in Brooklyn. After her divorce Sydney Green, who is her 30s, returns to her old neighbourhood in order to take care of her ailing mother. Soon Sydney can’t help but notice that her beloved neighbourhood is changing, and not for the better. Her friends and neighbours are disappearing, only to be replaced by white and well-off couples and families. After taking part in a walking tour of the neighbourhood Sydney is understandably frustrated by its selective approach to history so she decides to create her own ‘revisionist’ tour, one that will delve into the city’s colonial past. She reluctantly lets her new white neighbour, Theo, help her in her research. Theo is in a rocky relationship with his obnoxious white girlfriend, a woman who has a framed portrait of Michelle Obama in her living room and is more than capable of threatening to call 911 on her new black neighbours, just for kicks. And if anyone calls her out on her racism, let the tear-ducts open. Sydney grows increasingly paranoid as more of her neighbours disappear, seemingly overnight. She knows that something is wrong, and that her community is under siege.
I really liked the premise for this novel. Alyssa Cole touches upon many serious and relevant issues (racism, racial economic inequality, racial profiling, police brutality, gentrification, colonialism, ‘white tears’, performative allyship). From the very first pages Cole creates this air unease as Sydney rightfully alienated by her changing neighbourhood. Soon enough she’s made to feel like an outsider in her own neighbourhood by the new white arrivals. Her anxiety is exacerbated by her fraught marriage with her now ex-husband which has caused her to doubt-herself and others. She feels watched, but by whom? Although there were some really creepy moments that brought to mind Rear Window, we also had a few scenes that were kind of silly and had a more jokey tone. These mostly happened during Theo’s pov. Which brings me to the romance subplot…why?
Theo is a dullish character who is made to seem ‘human’ or flawed but ends up being straight up annoying as. His faux pas weren’t always convincing, and if anything they just made him a really bad match for Sydney. Sydney I liked. She was passionate and righteously angry. Her insecurities did get slightly irritating, especially when they lead to the predictable and avoidable misunderstanding that always happen in romance novels (usually 3/4 of the way through), but I rooted for her nonetheless. Could she have been a better friend to Drea? For sure. But given the less than ideal circumstances it made sense for Sydney to feel alienated and mistrustful. What I couldn’t get past was her supposed attraction to Theo. As mentioned above, the man was dull and kind of dense.
The ending seemed lacked the oopmh of Get Out, and perhaps it tries to follow it too closely. At the end things take a wild turn and I wasn’t convinced by the main revelations. The story, which so far had been suspenseful, spirals into violence…and it felt tacky. Scenes that should have been horrifying are delivered in a slapstick kind of way. I wasn’t against the violence per se (don’t @ me, I’ve been reading Frantz Fanon) but the way it is handled here was questionable indeed. Another thing I didn’t like was that for 70% of the novel both narrators, Sydney and Theo, refer obliquely to ‘something’ bad and mysterious they have done. Why prolong the reveal ? By then I’d already kind of guessed what their ‘secrets’ where, and I didn’t really feel all that affected or shocked by their confessions.
As much as I appreciated the topics Cole discusses, as well the story’s earlier atmosphere, I was let down by the romance, the story’s inconsistent tone, and the finale. Theo made for a terrible character, and I really did not want him to be with Sydney…sadly we get this very out-of-place ‘sexy’ scene that would have been more suited to a book by Talia Hibbert or Helen Hoang. Still, this was an absorbing read, and Cole is clearly informed on the issues she tackles throughout the course of the story. There are some illuminating, if sobering, discussions on New York’s history and those alone are worth a read.
Even if I wasn’t the biggest fan of Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible I did really like her collection of short stories, You Think It, I’ll Say It, so I was looking forward to read Help Yourself. Sadly, I did not find the three stories collected in Help Yourself to be as memorable or evocative as the ones in her previous collection. Two of the stories were probably meant to make the reader cringe, and although they kind of succeeded, they did not really have any interesting to say. Although all three narratives come across as somewhat realistic, and they do touch upon on relevant topics, they ultimately felt superficial, merely skimming the surface of the characters, dynamics, issues they were centring on.
‘White Women LOL’ : 2 ½ stars This was easily my least favourite story. We have a forgettable white suburban woman who is filmed while being a total ‘Karen’. She doesn’t think she’s racist, nor that she acted wrongly, if anything she seems to believe that she didn’t come across well in the video, and that the whole incident was misconstrued. The dog of her one black friend is missing, and this woman decides that by finding him she might ‘redeem’ herself or something. This story was very satirical towards a certain type of white American women, a type that I would rather not read about as I do not find their stupidity and cattiness to be even remotely amusing. While I do believe that people like them exist, I wonder why anyone would write a story about them, especially one that is as shallow as this. This story tried and failed to be witty and sharp.
‘Creative Differences’ : 3 stars This story was more likeable, but I once again didn’t care for the tone of the narrative. We have this millennial from the Mid-West we are meant to root for but I kind of found myself irked by her. The film crew from Manhattan are snobby towards her, and she doesn’t really challenge them as the summary for this collection would led you to believe. She sticks to her decision, but it wasn’t a particularly subversive act on her part. It seemed weird that the story followed the perspective of just one man from this crew, rather than the whole crew or the Mid-Westerner herself. This guy played a side character role and yet it was through his pov that we were seeing things through. Again, this was a satirical story, this time more focused on the film industry and the art world. It wasn’t a bad story per se but it was kind of boring and forgettable.
‘Show Don’t Tell’: 3 ½ stars The best story in the lot. This felt very autobiographical, and the first person narration added a layer of intimacy and immediacy that the first two stories did not have. I liked the narrator’s wry tone, and her dynamics between students who have very different writing styles as well as contrasting views on what good writing is. Here Sittenfeld has something to tell, and it clearly come across (so much so that it doesn’t read like fiction).
Alas, figuring out the murderer’s identity in the first 15% made this book kind of a drag.
Having highly enjoyed Jane Harper’s The Lost Man, The Survivors felt by comparison vaguely uninspired. While the setting is just as atmospheric and vividly rendered as the ones in Harper’s other novels, the characters and mystery were very run-of-the-mill. In many ways it reminded me of Tana French’s latest novel, The Searcher: we have a not-so-young-anymore male protagonist who thinks he is a regular Joe and a crime forces him to reconsider his past behaviour/actions/attitudes. The Survivors begins with a juicy prologues that is meant to intrigue readers but I was not particularly lured by it. A lot of the dynamics in this novel seemed a rehash of the ones from The Lost Man and The Dry. Our protagonist, Kieran, returns to his small coastal hometown where a violent crime brings to light secrets from his own past. Kieran is happily married and a new father, and there were a lot of scenes featuring him being a soft dad and they just did nothing for me. I guess they were meant to emphasise the gulf between teenage-Kieran, who acted like a typical Chad, and father-Kieran. The ‘tragedy’ that irrevocably changed his life did not have the same emotional heft as Nathan’s family struggles in The Lost Man. Kieran tells other characters that he feels guilt-ridden but…it just didn’t really come across. Anyhow, Kieran returns to his home, he catches up with two best-friends, one is a bit of a loudmouth and kind of a douchebag while the other one has always been the more sensible and mature in the trio. The discovery of a young woman’s body lands the community in crisis. There is a lot finger pointing and gossip on a FB-knockoff. Kieran, who is not a detective nor a crime aficionado, wants to know what happened to this young woman as he seems to be acting under a sense of misplaced obligation towards her (and her death reminds him of his own tragedy). While he doesn’t starts snooping around he’s lucky enough that he happens to hear people’s private conversation, which often reveal something essential to the mystery. For some bizarre reason the person who is actually officially investigating this young woman’s death confides in Kieran, which…I had a hard time getting behind (job integrity? None).
Anyway, chances are you’ve read this kind of story before. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded this type of boilerplate plot if the characters had been somewhat interesting or layered. But they remain rather one-dimensional. Dick guy acts like a dick because deep down he’s insecure. The cold mother is cold because she’s still suffering the loss of her son. Artistic woman fears she will never leave her ‘dead-end’ job and ‘make’ it. Kieran is they type of character who is blandly inoffensive. After the trauma he experienced and now that he is a father & husband he realises that as a teenager he acted badly. Most of the conversations he has with women seemed to exist only to make him reflect on ‘toxic masculinity’ and the harm caused by the ‘boys will be boys’ mentality. And these realisations he has about sexisms seemed forced. Also, Kieran is meant to be in his thirties…and he comes across like a middle-aged man. I understand that there are people in their thirties who may as well be luddites but really? Kieran’s voice just wasn’t very convincing. The male side characters like that writer, Kieran’s friends, and that impertinent young guy, were rather dull. The female characters were so obviously meant to be ‘strong’ and ’empowering’ but that didn’t really make them into realistic or likeable characters. The culprit was obvious, so I did not feel any real ‘suspense’ or curiosity. Sometimes, even if you know who did it, you can still be able to enjoy the ride…but here I just wanted to get it over and done with. The murderer was extremely underdeveloped and their explanation at the end was very Scooby Doo-ish.
All in all, this was a disappointing read. While it wasn’t all that bad, and the story had at least a strong sense of place, I expected more from Harper.