“There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights”

There WIll Be No

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Laura van den Berg’s 2012 chapbook of nine short (short!) stories. I read a 2017 Bull City Press reprint edition.

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3.5 out of 5 stars (all stories averaged).

Times Read: 1

This entire book runs the length of a short story but van den Berg packs plot, emotion, and her usual beautiful writing into each page. The stories live; the characters have a past and future and the mind tries to follow them beyond the story – the sign of a great short story writer.

I hate to admit it, but for years I didn’t think I liked female authors or main characters. This breaks my heart now and I wonder how many great books I’ve missed. I’m thankful that authors like van den Berg have shown me strong, complex, fascinating female characters that I connect to. In the past six months, she’s become one of my favorites.

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“Friday Black”

Friday Black.jpg

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s debut collection of twelve short stories, published in 2018. I read a first edition Houghton Mifflin Harcourt paperback from the library.

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 3.5 out of 5 stars. (all stories averaged)

Times Read: 1

As sometimes happens with short story collections, my ratings veer wildly from story to story. The opener (“The Finkenstein 5”, note [1]) is a stunning 5-star piece and deserves to be iconized like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”, while “Light Spitter” (note [26]), only receives 1 star. (While technically written well, the plot and execution didn’t sit well with me.)

Adjei-Brenyah covers an incredible range of reality to fantasy, from “Things My Mother Said” (note [5]) which reads as purely autobiographical to “The Hospital Where” (note [15]) which carries so much nightmare/dream logic that it is barely comprehensible. The other stories fall along this spectrum, some hardly different from reality at all (“Zimmer Land”, note [20]) to creating their own sci-fi reality (“The Era”, note [7] and “Through the Flash”, note [32]).

I love grounded stories with one or two weird elements (the more I think on it, the more moving and incredible “Lark Street”, note [12] becomes). Adjei-Brenyah delivers sharp satire and insight on being black in America today through fantastical plots. He’s a modern Weird Fiction writer carrying the mantle of 1940s/50s Ray Bradbury.

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“Mouthful of Birds”

Mouthful of Birds

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Samanta Schweblin’s short story collection, translated by Megan McDowell and published in 2019. I read a Riverhead Books first edition hardcover from the library.

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3.5 out of 5 stars (all stories averaged)

Times Read: 1

In her terrifying (and fantastic) novel Fever Dream, Schweblin infused the mundane with an aura of dread – things are almost normal but warped. Mouthful of Birds carries that same vibe throughout its 19 stories (in 228 pages! These are swift tales).

Most of the stories begin in a recognizable world but gain nightmarish elements – sometimes it’s obvious (a teenage girl whose diet consists wholly of live birds), sometimes it’s a feeling (a depressed brother in a family with impossibly good luck).

Schweblin writes dark fairy tales for adults using simple language and locations (I hardly had to look anything up for this book). Megan McDowell does another great translating job (check out her site for other translated works; in the past year, I’ve read five with her name on it and they were all fantastically translated, fascinating books).

Great short stories (the ones that become immortal), need to score high on three elements: character(s), situation, and end. Schweblin nails the first two almost every time, but the third is often vague, confusing, or flat. You cannot have a 5-star story without all three and no story in Mouthful of Birds reaches that mark, though most are above average and certainly worth spending the time to read.


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“Let the Right One In” (Post 2/2)

let me in 02

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1

Buy the Book.


[34] Reference:

Right next to the door there was a cast iron hedgehog shoe wiper with prickles made of piassava fibers.

(p.154)

 

A fibrous product of two Brazilian palms: Attalea funifera and Leopoldinia piassaba. It is often used in making brooms.

[35] Vocabulary:

“The father was in villeinage to the lord who owned the land, and had to work many days for him.”

(p.157)

 

A villein, otherwise known as cottar, crofter, is a serf tied to the land in the feudal system. Villeins had more rights and status than those in slavery, but were under a number of legal restrictions which differentiated them from the freeman.

[36]

Then Eli looked at the books in the bookcase and Oskar gave a synopsis of his favorite: The Fog by James Herbert.

(p.169)

Sounds about right for a 12-year-old! I would have loved that book at 12 (see my review). Continue reading

“Let the Right One In” (Post 1/2)

let me in 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 2


John Ajvide Lindqvist’s debut novel, published in Sweden in 2004 and translated by Ebba Segerberg in 2007. I read a Thomas Dunne Books English film adaptation paperback edition (with the alternate title Let Me In). 

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2 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

Seen the Movie: Yes. Both the 2008 Swedish adaptation (Let the Right One In) and the 2010 American adaptation (Let Me In). Both are excellent, 4-star films.

The Plot:

In late 1981, pre-teen outcast Oskar meets a strange girl while his small Swedish town is wracked with disappearances and murders.

After seeing both film versions, I went into this with too-high expectations. The movies do a wonderful job of cutting through the extraneous to find the core: Oskar and Eli and their friendship. They are the heart and soul of this thing and the most interesting dynamic.

Lindqvist gives far too many details about far too many characters and unlike Stephen King (who all reviews seem to compare him to), Lindqvist does a poor job distinguishing his characters from one another and making us care about them. For most of the book, I couldn’t keep track of the difference between Tommy and Tomas and Jonny and Jimmy. The group of friends at the Chinese restaurant are interchangeable. The payoff for these side characters also falls flat, especially Tommy. We don’t need so much buildup for such a small climax.

The style itself is lackluster and has a maddening habit of repeating the same scene multiple time from different perspectives, which slows the pace instead of adding anything. Also, the story occasionally moves to present tense, though I couldn’t figure out any plot-driven reason why.

There’s no consistency to the main characters; at the beginning, Oskar is presented as overweight, mentally imbalanced, and incontinent, but after meeting Eli, he just seems like a moody kid. Eli also seems to change whenever the plot requires.

Lindqvist does add some interesting elements to vampire mythology; explanations of why certain rules exist and how they work. He refreshingly keeps religion mostly out of it (at least the infected’s reaction to crosses/churches/holy water, etc).

Overall? I might be giving it a below-average rating, but I spent the better part of a weekend reading it, which says something for the entertainment value.

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“First Love, Last Rites”

First Love, Last Rites

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Ian McEwan’s first published collection of short stories, released in 1975. I read a 1976 Picador paperback.

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2.5 out of 5 stars (all stories averaged).

Times Read: 1

This did not go as well as I hoped. McEwan goes for shocks in many of these eight stories but the shocks usually involve sexual abuse or violence against women or children. And I’m just done with it. I’ve read enough rapes from a male narrator’s point of view.

A couple of the stories (“Last Day of Summer” and “Butterflies”) rise above an average rating but I was mostly unimpressed and uncomfortable.

Also, a quibble: McEwan’s style in this collection has crazy, ambitiously long sentences and paragraphs, especially for short stories. If I had been assigned any of these for school, I would have lost my mind trying to write papers.

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“The Woman in Black”

The Woman in Black

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Susan Hill’s 1983 novel. I read a 2011 Vintage Books Edition from the library.

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2.5 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

Seen the Movie: 1989 TV movie – no. 2012 version – yes (a couple of good scenes but mostly underwhelming).

The Plot:

Arthur Kipps is dispatched to the isolated Eel Marsh House to settle the affairs of recently deceased Alice Drablow.

The Woman in Black is a slim 164 pages. If it had been any longer, I probably would have abandoned it halfway through. Hill’s language isn’t challenging (I hardly had to look up any vocabulary for this one) but she uses a classic Olde-England first-person narrative that is tiresome if it’s not already your cup of tea. The closest to this style I like is Stephen King’s short story Jerusalem’s Lot (which sticks to the right length).

WiB opens at Christmas Eve decades after the events at Eel Marsh House. Arthur lives in a beautiful home with his second wife and step-children, which establishes immediately: (1) Arthur will survive his time at Eel Marsh House (2) His first wife died around the time of this adventure. Knowing these things removes all tension from the story.

The setting of a house isolated with the tides is amazing, but Hill doesn’t utilize it. We should feel so claustrophobic and isolated and abandoned when Arthur’s at the house but someone always comes for him before he’s at a point of panic to leave. He seems no more isolated than if he was a couple of miles out of town without a car.

Why not make this an epistolary novel of Arthur’s notes, his journal as he’s sifting through Alice Drablow’s documents? This would create tension, at least (will Arthur escape? Will he survive?). Continue reading

“Strange Weather” (Post 2/2)

Strange Weather

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1

Buy the Book.


“Aloft”

2 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

A sky diver is trapped on a mind-reading cloud.

[24] Reference:

The drogue chute had deployed automatically.

(p.249)

 

A drogue parachute is a parachute designed to be deployed from a rapidly moving object in order to slow the object, to provide control and stability, or as a pilot parachute to deploy a larger parachute. It was invented in Russia by Gleb Kotelnikov (1872-1944) in 1912.

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“Strange Weather” (Post 1/2)

Strange Weather 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 2


Joe Hill’s 2017 short novel collection. I read a first edition hardcover from the library.

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2 out of 5 stars (overall average).

Times Read: 1

None of the four stories in Strange Weather connected with me. After about thirty pages of each, I found myself checking to see how much more there was to go. Each time I was flummoxed; how was the story not wrapping up? Why was Hill dragging it out?

A good short story is built on a compelling “what-if” and doesn’t outstay its welcome. A good novel is built on engaging characters. Novellas are a difficult form because you need to be strong on both fronts. Hill nails the “what-ifs” but never gives us characters. These stories should have been shaved and tucked into a short story collection. Instead, we get the book equivalent of the fourth season of the Twilight Zone, when the episodes were stretched to an hour not for artistic or creative reasons, but because an hour-long slot needed to be filled.

I expected to like Strange Weather a lot – I wanted to like it a lot. I love short stories, I love novellas. To Joe Hill fans: I’m not happy to be writing this review, either.

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“There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby”

There Once Lived a Woman

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

The first English-translated collection from prominent Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, selected and translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers. I read a 2009 Penguin paperback (from the library).

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3 out of 5 stars (average).

Times Read: 1

The Introduction explains: From over a hundred stories we chose pieces with a common fantastic or mystical element (…) The stories in this volume were composed over the last thirty-plus years, but many of them are from the past decade (p.x).

As an entry to Petrushevskaya’s writing, this may have been a mistake. The collection becomes repetitive in mood and execution with a majority of stories ending on “it was all a dream”/ “dead the whole time” motifs. Full-on dream logic is frustrating; if anything can happen at any moment, there’s no tension other than wondering when the protagonist will realize they are asleep/dead. Also, unfortunately, some stories feel like confusing translations rather than an expression of Petrushevskaya’s style.

The language and plots have a timeless simplicity, making most stories feel like they could exist anywhere in the 19th or 20th century, but then Petrushevskaya surprises with the occasional reference to a cassette tape player or cell phone.

There are gems in here and most stories work on their own, it’s putting them up against so many of the same that weakens them. But the stories are so short that the duds breeze by. Continue reading