Review 2179: A Shock

If I hadn’t been reading A Shock for my James Tait Black project, I certainly would not have picked it out based on its description on the back cover: “a rondel of interlocking stories . . . both deracinated and potent with place, druggy but shot through with a terrifying penetration of reality.” How pretentious.

The stories are unusually linked, by characters but also by stories told in a pub. Although I found some of them interesting, I did not find them emotionally engaging, and the explicit sex in some of them is not my thing.

Notice that I haven’t said what they are about. That’s because it’s hard to describe, and a short recap of each story wouldn’t help. Although not exactly magical realism, some of the stories, while apparently set in reality, become a little fantastical.

And that’s what I have to say about that.

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Review 2171: Stories for Christmas and the Festive Season

Although May is an odd time to review a collection of Christmas stories, I didn’t receive a copy of this book until much after the season. This entertaining collection is ordered by when the story occurs during the festive season and includes works by women published during the 20th century. Some of the authors are well known and others are only remembered now for a specific work. The introduction by Simon Thomas discusses each story in turn and tells something interesting about it.

The first story, “The Turkey Season” by Alice Munro, provides insight into a side of the holidays we may not have considered, factory workers processing turkeys. As usual, Munro is a masterly storyteller.

Some of the stories are amusing, such as “This Year It Will Be Different” by Maeve Binchey, about a housewife who goes on strike during the holidays, or “Skating” by Cornelia Otis Skinner, about a woman’s attempt to learn ice-skating. Others start out amusing but have a deeper meaning, for example, “The Christmas Pageant” by Barbara Robinson, about what happens when “the worst children in the world” get involved in the pageant or “Christmas in a Bavarian Village,” which subtly foreshadows World War II.

I especially liked “The Little Christmas Tree” by Stella Gibbons, about how a solitary woman’s Christmas plans are changed with the arrival of some children and “The Christmas Present” by Richmal Crompton, about an unusual gift passed down in the family from mother to daughter. The book finishes with a sprightly monologue by a black maid in “On Leavin’ Notes” by Alice Childers.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 2167: Weir of Hermiston. Some Unfinished Stories

I wasn’t aware when I picked up Weir of Hermiston that it was Robert Louis Stevenson’s last and unfinished novel. But unlike The Mystery of Edwin Drood, only nine chapters of it exist. It has been packaged in the slim volume I found, dated 1925, with several other unfinished novels or stories, but of the others only one or two chapters or partial chapters exist. Between most of the fragments is a note from the editor containing what is known about the fragment and Stevenson’s intentions.

Weir of Hermiston tells the story of Archie Weir, whose mother brought him up to fear and distrust his father, the Lord Justice-Clerk. As a young man, Archie reacts in a disgraceful way, possibly treasonous, to a hanging, so his father sends him to his estate in Hermiston to learn to run it. Archie is ashamed and is not socially adept, so he becomes a bit of a recluse. However, he meets Christina, a cousin, and begins to fall in love with her. He is joined by Frank, a financially embarrassed friend, who decides to give him some competition for Christina. Things aren’t looking good when the fragment ends.

The next fragment is Heathercat, about a young boy whose mother keeps disobeying the law in regard to religion—I didn’t really understand the details—to the point where his father is being ruined by fines. She is using her son, whose nickname is Heathercat, to run illegal errands and keep guard on illegal services of worship. The notes explain that this novel was going to be based on a true story about a young boy who was married to an older girl to prevent her being forced to marry someone else.

Other stories are about a beautiful wife of a wine seller who falls in love with an aristocratic customer, a prince, presumably Prince Charlie, who tires of waiting around and decides to act; a man who takes over the household of a friend who has fled the country; and so on. The fragments are set in Scotland, England, or France during the 15th to 17th centuries, except Weir of Hermiston, which is set in the 19th.

I forgot to add that my copy begins with a description of Stevenson’s death and funeral, written by his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, who was apparently very fond of him.

I found a book composed of fragments to be frustrating, but it made me want to read more of Stevenson’s adult novels.

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Review 2153: #1940 Club! Three Early Stories

For the 1940 Club, I picked J. D. Salinger’s Three Early Stories because I hadn’t read any Salinger in so long. My memories of Salinger’s stories, which were a favorite in college, was of funny yet striking tales about a family of brilliant children written in sterling prose. The stories in this volume are not like that.

In “The Young Folks,” two strangers size each other up at a college party. Salinger tries to reproduce their sloppy speech patterns.

In “Go See Eddie,” a brother tries to talk his sister into taking a chorus line job and lets her know she’s getting a reputation for playing around.

In “Once a Week Won’t Kill You,” a man leaving for the war asks his wife to take his beloved aunt to the movies while he is gone.

These three stories seem a little immature, although they were picked up by various publications in 1940. I’m not sure if they were published together until much later, though, which might mean they aren’t appropriate for this club.

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Review 2091: Final Acts: Theatrical Mysteries

British Library Crime Classics’ latest collection of mystery short stories has some connection to the theater. Some stories are only peripherally connected—feature an opera singer, perhaps—while others are set there and show a deep knowledge of that environment. As usual, the stories are ordered chronologically, beginning with a 1905 story by Baroness Orczy and ending with one from 1958 by Christianna Brand.

Baroness Orzcy’s “The Affair at the Novelty Theater” is a complicated story about the disappearance of some priceless pearls.

“The Affair at the Semiramis Hotel” by A. E. W. Mason is one of the super-complicated crime stories common in the earlier years involving people in costumes, a robbery, and a burglary.

“In View of the Audience” by Margarite Steen is a creepy one about a young man who gets on the wrong train and ends up accompanying a strange man to a derelict theater, where he hears about an old unsolved murder.

“Blood Sacrifice” by Dorothy Sayers leaves the reader to decide if there is a crime or not. Young playwright John Scales is furious with Mr. Drury, who has bastardized Scales’s play to make it a success. Then an accident places Drury in Scales’s power. This is the first story in the book in which characterization plays much of a role.

“The Blind Spot” by Barry Perowne is about a playwright who had a brilliant idea for a locked room mystery when he was drunk but can’t remember it sober.

“I Can Find My Way Out” by Ngaio Marsh probably shows the most knowledge of the theater, as a leading man is murdered in his dressing room.

“The Lady Who Laughed” by Roy Vickers is a strange story about a clown who murders his wife for finding him funny.

I enjoyed the satisfying surprise ending of “The Thirteenth Knife” by Bernard J. Farmer.

In “Credit to William Shakespeare” a poisoning onstage is solved through a man’s knowledge of Hamlet.

I think my favorite story was “After the Event” by Christianna Brand, where her detective, Inspector Cockrill, ruins the Great Detective’s favorite story by explaining how he got it wrong.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 2083: Heads of the Colored People

I read Heads of the Colored People for my James Tait Black project. It is a collection of short stories, many linked by common characters, that explore black identity in the middle class, a hyper-aware Californian middle class.

In “Heads of the Colored People,” what starts out as a somewhat comic clash at Comicon ends up as headlines because of Fighting While Black.

In “The Necessary Changes Have Been Made,” Randolph, one of the few black professors at an HBUC, learns that the problems he has had with his office mate are probably race-related.

In “Belles Lettres,” two highly educated black mothers duke it out by letter over their two schoolgirls.

In “The Body’s Defense Against Itself,” Fatima, one of the schoolgirls now grown, sees a woman in her yoga class who reminds her of her old arch-enemy. This makes her remember her years of body self-hatred.

In “Fatima the Biloquist: A Transformation Story,” Fatima, now a teenager, feels too white, as one of only two black children in her school. She meets Violet, an albino black girl. who offers to teach her how to be black.

And so on.

Some of the stories are funny but usually with a bite, such as “Suicide, Watch,” about a woman so obsessed with social media that she hints at suicide just to see if her numbers go up.

Some of theses stories verge on the bizarre, but I think most people can find something to relate to in them. They are insightful and original.

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Review 2066: The Candy House

The Candy House is billed as a follow-up to A Visit from the Goon Squad, but at first, aside from its structure as linked short stories, I wasn’t sure why. Bix, a wealthy high-tech entrepreneur, is not one of the characters from the original novel, I don’t think, nor is Alfred Nollander, whose quest for authenticity leads him to scream in public just so he can see the expressions on people’s faces. (Although later I realized he was a child in the first book.)

However, as I continued reading, I encountered familiar names and realized I was dealing mostly with descendants and connections of the original characters. A lot of the novel deals with social media run amok, a world where it is common for people to upload their unconsciousness to the internet using the software provided by Bix’s company, Mandala, and the opposition to this and other such practices by the company formed by Chris Salazar, the son of Benny of the previous book.

The novel doesn’t seem as experimental in form as the original, although there is a chapter constructed in Instant Messages and another of a recorded manual, but that’s really because Egan’s approach, which was unusual when the previous novel was published, is more common now. Set from the 1990s to roughly the 2030s, the novel is more futuristic.

Although I wasn’t blown away by this book as I was by its predecessor, I was happy to revisit the lives of its characters, all of whom eventually reappear, even those from the ridiculous tale that parodied the P. R. field. Another good one for Egan.

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Review 2032: The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime

The Edinburgh Mystery and Other Tales of Scottish Crime is the latest British Library collection of crime short stories, edited by Martin Edwards. These stories are either set in Scotland or written by Scottish writers, like the first, “Markheim,” by Robert Louis Stevenson. They are arranged in chronological order by publication date, ranging from 1885 to 1974.

Some of the stories, like “The Field Bazaar” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, are simple puzzles. In this one, Sherlock Holmes explains to Watson how he knows what is in the letter he just received. Others, like “The Running of the Deer” by P. M. Hubbard, are about the supposition of crime. “Madame Ville d’Aubier” by Josephine Tey tells the story of the heavy atmosphere emanating from a woman at a bakery and how later this woman murdered her sons and husband. In “Footsteps” by Anthony Wynne, a man figures out the connection between apparently ghostly footsteps and an attempted murder.

I liked some of the stories more than others, but they altogether make an enjoyable collection for an escapist evening.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a free and fair review.

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Review 2031: Attrib. and Other Stories

I found Attrib. and Other Stories, which I read for my James Tait Black prize project, a little intimidating, as I find reading poetry. That’s because, although I enjoy language, I use and understand it more straightforwardly.

Williams, on the other hand, clearly loves to play with language while also understanding the moments when it fails you. Two of the stories demonstrate this: “Alphabet,” in which a sufferer from aphasia is forgetting her words along with her lover, and “Spins,” where the narrator contemplates her inability to find the right word as her lover stomps out the door.

“Smote,” subtitled “(or when I find I cannot Kiss You in Front of a Print by Bridget Riley)” was a bit much for me in the verbal gymnastics department, but then its ending was so simple. The most straightforward story and the one that affected me most was “Spines,” about a family on vacation that can’t be bothered to remove a drowning hedgehog from the swimming pool.

Williams is playful and imaginative in her writing. Most of the stories (all except “Spines”) are written in the first person and feel very personal.

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Review 2022: Literary Wives! Red Island House

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs.

Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

My Review

It seems I’ve been reading books set on islands lately—Greenland, Manhattan, and now Madagascar. Like Madagascar, Red Island House is lush and mysterious, the story of a disintegrating marriage.

Shay comes to the Red House newly married to Senna. They seem an inexplicable couple. She is an American of mixed race, educated, thoughtful, tall, and beautiful. He is much older, short, white, Italian, uneducated, and self-made wealthy, also loud and impulsive. On impulse, he has bought this oceanfront property on a small island off Madagascar. He has built an overpowering but beautiful house, which will be the Senna’s summer home.

In this novel constructed of short stories, Lee tells the story of the Sennas’ marriage in terms of their relationship to the house. Shay feels sympathy for the Malagasy people, and is torn by the feeling that her situation in this huge house waited on by many servants in one of the poorest nations in the world is not very far from colonialism. Thus, from the first, she has an ambivalent relationship with her own role as mistress of the house.

The novel begins with Shay’s understanding that the man Senna has hired to manage the house, Kristos, is her enemy. When the Sennas are in the house, her husband spends a lot of time with Kristos, off fishing and probably carousing, and after Senna has been around Kristos for a while, he snaps and shouts at Shay. Shay is conscious of disappearing goods and money, but when she tries to talk to Senna, he is rude and dismissive. On the surface polite, Kristos undercuts her.

Shay learns from the housekeeper, Bertine, that Kristos, who has contacts in bad places, is using magic against her. So, Bertine takes Shay to see the Neighbor.

As in each story Lee explores some colorful character or incident, the novel covers 30 years in the Sennas’ marriage. Shay’s relationship with the island gains ambivalence after the couple converts the Red House into a bed and breakfast, and it slowly becomes the haunt of Senna’s male friends, who shift their focus from fishing to teenage sex workers as they age.

The novel is gorgeously exotic, serious, and eloquent. It’s about race, class, hope, betrayal, and the couple’s finally divisive approaches to moral problems.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

Lee uses Shay’s relationship to the Red House as a symbol for the Sennas’ marriage. In the beginning of the novel, the couple goes to see its foundation on their honeymoon, and at the end of the novel, she makes a last visit to it to say goodbye to it and her marriage, and I think to meet its inheritor, her husband’s illegitimate son by a Malagasy prostitute.

I find Shay and Senna an inexplicable couple from the beginning. They are such opposites that it’s hard to believe they would even like each other, let alone love each other, but we are informed that they do. And they remain married quite a long time, although Shay has to overlook a lot.

Lee tracks the relationship to the house in one insightful chapter at the end, where she takes it through the newness of the honeymoon period through the burgeoning of having children and farther until it becomes a fantasy playhouse for a bunch of pathetic, randy old men—Senna being one of them.

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Shay’s relationship to Senna also varies as she considers the role she has taken at the Red House. She is too informed about her family’s and race’s past heritage in slavery to feel comfortable in what she sees as a colonial role in Madagascar. Although she feels she can’t understand the country, she understands it much better than Senna, who views it as a place of fantasy. As he spends more time there, she spends less.

Shay is an independent woman, so it beats me why she doesn’t leave Senna earlier. We are told she has been coached by her Italian friends to accept his infidelities, but it isn’t until she has that burst of hurt and jealousy toward the end of the novel that we understand there is still a lot of feeling there.

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