BOOK REVIEWS

White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

Readers who enjoy the works of Zadie Smith or Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar may find White Dancing Elephants to have some merit. If you are thinking of reading this collection I recommend you read some of the more positives reviews as my one is alas a negative one. For those who liked or loved it, I hope you will not feel the need to leave comments on the lines of ‘your opinion are invalid because I disagree with you’.

Anyhow, moving onto my actual review: this is, in my opinion, an execrable collection of short stories. These stories are poorly written, populated by boilerplate characters, deeply vitriolic and exceedingly vexing.
White Dancing Elephants follows the usual ‘short stories collection’ formula, so that we have a few stories experimenting, with not so great results, with perspective (of course, a story is told through a 2nd pov because that is what every other collection out there is doing so might as well follow their lead), a story about miscarriage (bursting with metaphors about ‘brokeness’), a story about a character grappling with mental illness, and a story that earns this collection the LGBTQ+ badge (ahem not all queer representation is good representation). If you’ve read any collections of short stories published in the last 3 years, you have already read stories like these ones.

There was nothing subversive or unique about White Dancing Elephants. Attempts at ‘edginess’ came across as insensitive, for example, the author’s treatment of mental health was, to use a trendy word, deeply problematic.
What irked me the most however was how unclear these stories were. The author seemed unable or unwilling to stick to a certain perspective, so that it would be unclear who was telling the story. And, these stories managed to be confusing, which is impressive given how short they were. This is probably due to the nebulous povs and the amount of info-dumping we would at the start of each story (informing us of a character’s heritage, their parents backgrounds, their friends’ genetic makeup or whatnot). Knowing who these characters were related to, most of the time at least, added absolutely nothing to each respective story as ‘family’ never seemed to be the plot’s real focus. Instead, each story seemed set on being as impressionistic as possible, so that we have ripe metaphors are intent on being ‘visceral’ but seem like mere writing exercises, and a plethora of ‘shock-value’ scenes. Personally I was unimpressed by the author’s language. We have oddly phrased things, such as
“it gave her flickers of amusement” (while I get that you can observe on someone’s face a ‘flicker of amusement’ the ‘gave her’ in that sentence brings me pause), clichés such as “smiling the smile”, “smiling her gorgeous smile”, “my father a stranger until his death”, “ Nothing has changed since. Everything has changed.” (UGH! Give me a break). A lot of the stories start with very eye-grabbing statements, that tease some dramatic event that once explained or explored will feel deeply anticlimactic. Also, I could not help but be offended by the author’s garish depictions of rape and its aftereffects. And don’t even get me started on the role that same-sex attraction has in two of these stories. Puh-lease. There is a lot of women-hating-women, which can happen…but in nearly every story? (and WHY do we always have to get women making snidey remarks about other women’s stomachs?). Last but not least, I did not appreciate that the one story where a black man actually plays some sort of role, ends up portraying him as a racist and a predator.
The author’s prose (if we can call it such), the derogatory tone, the detestable and showy characters, the uninspired stories…they all did nothing for me.
To be perfectly frank the only thing that surprised about this collection was that it managed to get published in the first place.

Collections I can recommend that explore similar themes: Milk Blood Heat and Sarbina & Corina: Stories<a href=”https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3452687849
.

MY RATING: 1 out of 5 stars<a href=”https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3452687849

<a href=”https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3452687849

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Deceit and Other Possibilities by Vanessa Hua

Hua’s stories explore, however superficially, the experiences of Chinese and Chinese-Americans in the United States: the generational and cultural differences between immigrant parents and their American-born children, the struggle to assimilate into a different country, especially one which will treat you as Other, the desire to adopt new customs vs. the pull towards traditions. These were all potentially interesting avenues, sadly, none of the stories delves deeply into them. Each story follows the same formula: we have a main character who is at a turning point, and they are forced to or decide to ‘deceive’ others or themselves. With one exception, they all commit some selfish or unscrupulous act. At times they do so because of monetary reasons (“VIP Tutoring”) or because they believe they have no other options (“Accepted”) or for some obscure reasons that I personally did not find all that convincing. They usually try to excuse their behaviour, but inevitably, they are exposed as ‘frauds’.
I didn’t like the fact that all of these stories unfold in the same way, so that within the very first pages I would guess the story’s inciting incident, trajectory, and conclusion. Perhaps I wouldn’t have minded as much if the characters had struck me as sympathetic or realistic, but for the most part they were rather one-dimensional, all a similar shade of self-deceiving and egotistic. Yet, even if I did not like them, I wasn’t gratified by their eventual comeuppance. The moralistic tone of these stories was really off-putting, and while I found “The Responsibility of Deceit” to be the most ‘decent’ story of the lot, I thoroughly disagree with the author’s equating a man’s closetedness to ‘deception’ (coming out can be dangerous, and chances are that it will make others treat you differently or even condemn you for your sexuality).
I wasn’t take by the author’s writing style, which relied on clichés such as “asking for an apology was easier than asking for permission”. Personally, I find descriptions such as “the air was muggy, swollen as a bruise” to be overdone.
While I’m sure that there is a reader for these type of stories, that reader is not me.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang

While browsing a charity shop I picked up this collection of short stories. What drew me the most to Home Remedies was its cover (bright pink in my edition), and while I wasn’t expecting to like every single story, I hoped that I would find a few to be memorable. Sadly, none of the stories drew me in. Wang examines some serious—and potentially compelling—themes (generational differences, dislocation and deracination, familial expectations vs. personal identity) but her stories never led anywhere interesting, they meandered without focus, loosing themselves in details or exchanges that did not really contribute to the overall storyline, only to reach anticlimactic conclusions.

The collection is divided in three sections (‘Family’, ‘Love’, ‘Time & Space’), each containing 4 stories. One would think that these stories somehow focused on the topic of the section they are in, but they don’t. Take the story ‘The Strawberry Years’, I don’t think it had anything to do with ‘Love’, and yet it was in that section (the story is a surreal ‘someone is taking over my life’ kind of thing). One would think that a father-daughter story would fit in the ‘Family’ category but no, we find it in ‘Time & Space’ instead. But this is a minor, and I recognise, ultimately superficial ‘quibble’. It probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much if I found any of the stories interesting or affecting…but they left me cold. The author’s prose presented us with some pretty phrases, and some lucid imagery, but her characters and their experiences felt flat. Characters who belong to older generations are traditional, conservative, hard-workers. Younger characters are materialistic, lazy, opportunistic, and keen to emulate Western ways.
I read Home Remedies less than a week ago and I can hardly remember any of its stories.
Anyway, just because the author’s style did not really resonate with me doesn’t mean you should skip this one.

MY RATING: 2 of 5 stars


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Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: Stories by Kevin Wilson

A very Wilsonesque collection of stories: dysfunctional families, spontaneous human combustion, surreal scenarios, and plenty of eccentric characters. Each story in this collection held my attention, and while they share similarities, they also showcase Wilson’s range: from lighthearted tales (such as “Grand Stand-In” and “Tunneling to the Center of the Earth”) to more bittersweet stories (such as “Birds in the House”) and even ones that I can best describe as heartbreaking (“Mortal Kombat”).
Regardless of their tone, each story is permeated by surrealism. At times the surreal elements are overt (such as with the first story in this collection), while in other times they are more covert. Ordinary moments or exchanges are injected with a dose of the bizarre, and this weirdness was a delight to read. Wilson vividly renders his characters and their experiences (however unreal they were), and his mumblecore dialogues always rang true to life (even when the discussions veered in seemingly absurd territories).
This was a wonderful collection of short stories. They were extremely amusing and always surprising. Each story had a certain focus, and didn’t meander in other directions, seeming committed to expanding on specific feelings or ideas. My favourite ones were “Mortal Kombat” (as sad as it was), “Birds in the House”, and “The Museum of Whatnot”.
Funny, original, and tender, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth is a marvellous collection of stories, one that I would thoroughly recommend it to readers who enjoyed other works by Wilson, such as Nothing to See Here.

MY RATING: 4 ½ stars

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Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz

“She was of that special age where she knew both nothing and everything, and no matter where or at whom she looked, she saw her own reflecting glimmering back like a skim of oil. She could be anyone, still.”

Milk Blood Heat is a promising debut, one that I’m sure will be well-received by readers who enjoy lyrical proses. While I personally found Moniz’s style to be occasionally a bit too flowery and/or impressionistic (“she’s Frankenstein’s monster. She is vampire queen. She is newly thirteen, hollowed out and filled back up with venom and dust-cloud dreams” / “my mouth a black cave, ugly and squared” / “I want to swallow my mouth—to fold in my lips and chew until they burst” / “my body felt made of stars”), I was nevertheless absorbed by her rather mesmerising storytelling.
Like most collections of short stories, some aren’t as memorable or well-executed as others, but even in the stories that I didn’t find particularly affecting there were moments or scenes that stood out (in a good way).

Most of these stories seem to possess an ambiguous quality, offering little resolution or at times clarity on the characters’ feelings and/or futures. With the exception of two stories, most seem to be centred on either a young girl or woman whose lives are about to change or are in the process of changing. In the first one, ‘Milk Blood Heat’, follows a young girl, Ava, who spends her days playing with her white best friend, Kiera and begins to question their differences: This year she’s become obsessed with dualities, at looking at one thing in two ways. Although Ava’s mother disapproves of Kiera and her wild ways, the two girls are inseparable, or they are until tragedy strikes.
The second story, ‘Feast’, a woman is the deep thralls of depressions after having a miscarriage. She begins to resent her partner, as he seems not as affected by their loss. Moniz renders the uneasiness and sadness that have become backdrop to the woman’s every thought and action, revealing how deeply her miscarriage has altered her state of being. Her grief, the disturbing visions she has, her numbness are hauntingly conveyed through Moniz’s sharp yet poetic language (which in this instance worked perfectly with the kind of story she was telling).
Most of the other stories explore similar themes (grief, identity, motherhood, friendship) without ever seeming repetitive. Two stories seem centred on a girl’s passage from youth to adulthood, one that forces them reconsider their worldview and notions of good and bad (especially in terms of their sexuality), and each one gives us a different take on ‘growing up’.
My favourite stories were probably ‘The Heart of Our Enemies’ (which focuses on a fraught mother-daughter relationship) and ‘Snow (in which a young woman is having second thoughts about her marriage). The two I liked the least were ‘The Loss of Heaven’ and ‘Exotics’ (which was short and employed a first-person plural perspective, ‘we’, that came across as an exercise for a creative writing class).
Even if Moniz’s prose was a bit too sticky and snappy at times (a la ‘girls are daggers/my eyes are full of stars’), I still was able to appreciate the majority of her stories and I look forward to what she will write next.

My rating: 3 ½ of 5 stars

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Vida by Patricia Engel

“I lay in the darkness, the song of Bogotá humming several stories below the window.”

Patricia Engel’s Vida is a collection of nine short stories centred around the Sabina, daughter of Colombian parents, who grows up in the suburbs of New Jersey. Each chapter reads like a self-contained story, capturing a particular phase or moment in Sabina’s life. Although they are not chronological, they are ordered in a fairly linear way. In the first story, ‘Lucho’, Sabina is a teenager. After her uncle is convicted of murder Sabina becomes persona non grata. As the only non-white kid in her neighbourhood Sabina is already made to feel isolated from others. Lucho, a boy slightly older than she is, strikes up a friendship with her. He has a bit of ‘bad boy’ reputation, he cares little for rules, doesn’t wash much, wears tatty clothes. His home life is less than peachy, and perhaps this is why they feel drawn to each other. ‘Lucho’ was my favourite story (a 5 star read). Engel’s understated prose perfectly conveys Sabina’s teenage languor, her sense of otherness, and her attraction to Lucho.
The other stories were far less striking. Two of them seem writing exercises (one is narrated in the 2nd person, while in other one Sabina refers to her current lover as ‘you’) as they seemed to emphasise style over substance. Most of the stories follow Sabina as she moves from city to city, from lover to lover. All these boyfriends and sexual partners blurred together, their personalities somewhat insipid. I wish that this collection would have focused more on Sabina’s family. Sadly, the only two stories that seem to feature her parents are the first and last ones in the collection.
Still, with the exception of those ‘you’ chapters, I really liked Engel’s style and her wry humour. It is simultaneously muted and touching. And even in the more forgettable stories there were moments that spoke to me (it may be something Sabina is thinking about or a conversation she’s having with someone else). Engel also manages to incorporate quite a few topics throughout the course of her stories. Rather than providing hurried assessments or observations, she tends to centre an entire chapter to a certain event/theme: from eating disorders and domestic abuse to 9/11. While not overly sentimental, she showcases empathy in the way she treats her characters and their behaviours/experiences.
If you enjoyed Frying Plantain by Zalika Reid-Benta, chances are you will also like this.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club by Benjamin Alire Sáenz

“No one had ever taught me how to love. And perhaps, in that department, I was uneducable.”

Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club is heartbreakingly beautiful collection of short stories. These stories have Benjamin Alire Sáenz written all over them: Mexican-American boys and men struggling with their identity (not feeling Mexican or American enough), their sexuality, their self-worth, and who have complex relationships with their parents. There is a focus on the dynamic between fathers—of father-like figures—and sons, on family history, on trauma, on feeling lost and disconnected.
I read a review criticising this collection because the stories aren’t varied enough, and I guess that they are narrated by boys and men in similar positions. They are conflicted, hurting, and confused. They have parents who are troubled (by depression, addiction, trauma). Most of the narrators also like thinking of the meaning of words and doing creative things. Yet, in spite of these similarities, these stories never blurred together. But if you do prefer collections that offer a wide-range of different styles and themes, maybe Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club won’t appeal to you. I just happen to be the ‘right’ kind of reader for these stories. Sáenz’s subtle yet striking prose always gets to me. I love Sáenz’s empathy, the tenderness he shows to his characters, the thoughtfulness he demonstrates in discussing trauma, addiction, and abuse. I also liked the Kentucky Club would pop up in each story as did discussions concerning Juárez.
Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club is a moving collection that will definitely appeal to fans of Sáenz.

My rating: 4 ½ stars

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Sabrina & Corina: Stories by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

Sabrina & Corina is a touching collection of short stories. In these 11 stories Kali Fajardo-Anstine depicts the lives and experiences of Latinas in the United States (mainly in Denver, Colorado). Their everyday realities are marked by many social injustices: poverty, racism, sexism, addiction, parental neglect, emotional and physical abuse. While Fajardo-Anstine doesn’t shy away from portraying their bleak circumstances, the stories never felt pessimistic or overwhelming depressing. As the characters are contending with grief and trauma—personal and generational—they find some solace in moments of connection, a sense of understanding or kinship, with others. The women in these stories also find comfort in taking part in or looking back to family traditions. These scenes gave the stories a rather bittersweet tone, one that perfectly complemented Fajardo-Anstine’s tender yet bold prose.
Motherhood, sisterhood, and female agency are at the heart of these 11 stories. While these over-aching themes gave a sense of unity to the collection, their similarities—in tone, topics, and style—caused the less memorable stories to blur together (some of these were ‘Sisters’, ‘Julian Plaza’, and ‘Any Further West’). The stories that really stood out to me were ‘Sugar Babies’, ‘Sabrina & Corina’, and ‘Tomi’. ‘Sugar Babies’ was easily a 5 star read and my favourite in the whole collection (perhaps because Fajardo-Anstine faithfully renders the perspective of a young girl)
Sabrina & Corina is a heart-rendering debut and I will be on the lookout for Fajardo-Anstine’s future work.

My rating: 3 ½ stars

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Monstress by Lysley Tenorio — book review

Monstress is an evocative collection of short stories, most of which are set in the United States and the Philippines. These stories revolve around Filipino and Filipino-American characters as they try acclimatise and make a living outside of their homeland or as they try to reconcile cultural and familial expectations with their personal desires. Lysley Tenorio vividly renders the times and places in which he sets his stories, regardless of whether they take place in 1966 in Manila or during the 1980s in L.A. While the stories are all narrated in the first-person, and many explore similar themes of identity, displacement, and human connection, Tenorio showcases great versatility by giving each of his stories a particular tone. The story that lends its title to this collection, ‘Monstress’, has this nostalgic quality, this melancholic atmosphere, that makes for a bittersweet read. Although ‘The View from Culion’ possesses a similar tone, it feels much more tragic. ‘Superassassin’, in its eeriness, seemed closer to something by Shirley Jackson.
While I appreciated the themes Tenorio explores in this novel, I did find some of the stories to be unremarkable. Stories such as ‘The Brothers’ left me wanting more (this story in particular given that the narrator seems to have a sudden ‘change of heart’ at the end).
Still, I’m eager to read Tenorio’s upcoming novel and I would recommend this novel to readers who enjoy short stories.


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Revenge by Yōko Ogawa — book review

12987389.jpgHaving read two novels by Yōko Ogawa, I was curious to read Revenge, a collection of interconnected short stories. Ogawa’s magnifies the sense unease that usually permeates her narratives (even The Housekeeper and the Professor has its unsettling moments), as these stories seem intent on unnerving their readers. The characters within these pages are morbid, obsessive, prone to macabre thoughts and obscure actions.
What drew me the most was to ‘discover’ what linked these various characters together. I believe Ogawa succeeded in creating interesting connections between these different, or perhaps not so different, people. However, truth be told, I found that at times she sacrificed potentially terrifying moments for gratuitously grotesque scenes. Personally, I find that relying too much on obvious sources of ‘discomfort’ (such as detailed descriptions of dead animals or torture methods) is a ‘cheap’ way to repulse your readers. I wasn’t horrified or afraid, merely disgusted. The characters also seemed to have the same excited way of envisioning tortured bodies…which got old fast.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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