BOOK REVIEWS

Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enríquez

Well…that was disappointing. Given the hype around this collection and the comparisons to Shirley Jackson, I was prepared to read some truly unsettling tales. However, as with a lot of other contemporary authors of horror, Mariana Enríquez relies on body horror, gore, and animal violence to instil feelings of unease in her readers…and while her stories are certainly macabre, I wouldn’t call them gothic. The horror too was too splatter for me. Writing about bodily fluids, decomposing or mutilated bodies, doesn’t necessarily make your story scary. While reading these rather samey stories I merely felt a knee-jerk repulsion. Most stories are narrated by morbid and unsatisfied young women who are experience, or have experienced, something truly horrific: they loose childhood friends to haunted houses, they start seeing disturbing things such as chained “deformed” children, or they loose themselves in violent fantasies. They had more or less the same grunge-esque personality and or were aspiring to become part of their country’s counter-culture. I found their voices to be monotonous and, given all their attempts at subversiveness, surprisingly banal.

What frustrated me the most was the fact that not one of the story had a decent ending. I’m all for open endings, and I think that short stories suit ambiguous endings…but here the stories never reached their apex. Each story would have these ominous first few lines, foreshadowing the horrors to come…but then the stories seemed to cut off just when things start to get vaguely intriguing or disturbing.

Lastly, a lot of the stories relied on the appearance of “deformed” children or adults in order to unnerve its main characters…are we in the 1980s? Call me snowflake or whatever but I found the author’s obsession with deformed bodies to be rather outdated.

MY RATING: 2 out of 5 stars

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Help Yourself by Curtis Sittenfeld

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).

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars
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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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Parade by Hiromi Kawakami

In this short volume readers will be reunited with Tsukiko and Sensei, from Hiromi Kawakami’s Strange Weather in Tokyo. After sharing a meal together, Sensei asks Tsukiko to “tell me a story from long ago”. Tsukiko obliges. When she was a child two tengu started following her around. Other children in her class age were also being followed by spirits and creatures from folklore. Kawakami’s sparse prose has lulling quality. She combines quotidian moments or reflections with surreal elements. Tsukiko is regretful about her behaviour towards one of her classmates, so that some of what she recounts is given a bittersweet note.
Throughout this short story there are two-colour illustrations by Takako Yoshitomi (geometric shapes and patterns as well as anthropomorphised figures).
I love Kawakami’s prose, the timelessness of her stories, the vague sense of nostalgia that permeates her narratives. Parade felt just a bit too short.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Treasure by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Treasure is a short story story that explores the darker side of Instagram fame. Treasure is an aspiring influencer who is quite willing to present a glamorised version of her life to her follower. She likes the attention, the compliments, and the devotion of her fans. User @Sho4Sure has become particularly obsessed by Treasure and one small oversight on her part will have dangerous consequences for both of them.
Treasure is a story that is bursting with irreverent dark humour that touches upon machismo, opulence, fame, obsession, and class. Whereas My Sister, the Serial Killer took me by surprise, Treasure seemed a bit more formulaic. Still, Treasure is quick and entertaining read that cemented my belief that Oyinkan Braithwaite is an author to watch.

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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