THE WORLD BEFORE US, by Aislinn Hunter

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The World Before Us
By Aislinn Hunter
Hogarth – 31st March 2015
ISBN 9780553418521 – 432 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Blogging For Books


My latest review is up today on Strange Horizons, a great weekly SFF eZine. Hunter’s The World Before Us is a literary novel with dabs of historical and fantasy genres, written in a voice that I really enjoyed.
“…Within the corridors of a small, present-day London museum that is dying from lack of funds, thirty-four-year-old archivist Jane Standen seeks solace in a final research project. She is investigating the mysterious disappearance from a Victorian-era mental institution, Whitmore, of a woman known to history only as “N.” Though records mention the woman in a mere passing whisper, Jane feels compelled to uncover the truth of N’s identity and ultimate fate…”

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via Blogging For Books in exchange for an honest review.

MUSIC FOR WARTIME: STORIES, by Rebecca Makkai

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Music for Wartime: Stories
By Rebecca Makkai
Viking – 23rd June 2015
ISBN 9780525426691 – 240 Pages – Hardcover
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
“The Singing Women”
“The Worst You Ever Feel”
“The November Story”
“The Miracle Years of Little Fork”
“Other Brands of Poison (First Legend)”
“The Briefcase”
“Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart”
“Couple of Lovers on a Red Background”
“Acolyte (Second Legend)”
“Everything We Know About the Bomber”
“Painted Ocean, Painted Ship”
“A Bird in the House (Third Legend)”
“Exposition”
“Cross”
“Good Saint Anthony Come Around”
“Suspension: April 20, 1984”
“The Museum of the Dearly Departed”

Roughly one year ago I read and reviewed Rebecca Makkai’s second novel The Hundred-Year House. Looking back to those recorded thoughts compared to my memory I realize that a large part of my response to her novel stemmed from the power and promise of Makkai’s writing overcoming some flaws in the construction of a full novel. As impressive as the novel was, it really does resembles a collection of shorter stories interwoven around the history of a family and home. I wasn’t looking forward to another novel by Makkai (and I still haven’t read her first), but was rather really itching to see what she could do with short fiction.
Her new collection Music for Wartime: Stories affirms that initial sense. Makkai writes an exceptional short story, filled with evocative language with plots that often take slight steps into the fantastic or surreal:
“When the nine-fingered violinist finally began playing, Aaron hid high up on the wooden staircase, as far above the party as the ghosts. He was a spider reigning over the web of oriental rug, that burst of red and black and gold, and from his spider limbs stretched invisible fibers, winding light and sticky around the forty guests, around his parents, around Radelscu the violinist.” 
As in The Hundred-Year House, there are not necessarily actual ghosts here, and the rest is metaphor. But these opening lines to “The Worst You Ever Feel”, the first major story of the collection, set the atmosphere for Makkai’s collection. The opening very short tale, “The Singing Women”, also serves as a sort of introduction, serving as a modern fairy tale, an anecdote that establishes repeating, unifying elements of Music for Wartime. Many of the stories, with their hint of oddity, will appear like fairy tales. Interspersed with the main longer stories are shorter flash-type stories. Of these, three are marked as “Legends” in their titles, and they carry a semi-biographical relation to the Makkai family history. These three short ‘legends’ recall elements of “The Singing Women” where the relation between the number three and fairy tales – their emotion and power – is brought up.
These shorter stories in the collection, particularly the three anecdotal ‘legends’ taken with “The Singing Women” will likely be the one aspect to Music for Wartime that divides reader reactions. Some may find them too short, and unnecessary. I however found their interludes to be among the most engaging, and they do help form the only structural coherence to the collection. For the stories of Music for Wartime are very distinct from one another. They range in emotion and humor, plots, and protagonists. Stories feature different ages, genders, and relationships. Though some aspect related to ‘music’ crops up in most (indeed all the stories I ended up mentioning in this review), there is no overarching theme to the collection. Similarly, the plots of any single story are somewhat difficult to summarize quickly. Each of the major stories has a healthy dose of complexity and can go in unexpected directions from the setup. Yet Makkai manages to keep firm hold of the reader without dropping any of the balls she has in the air.
Each of the main stories are great, but I do have some favorites. “The November Story” is about a woman involved in producing a reality show, who is tasked with manipulating contestants to form a relationship together, all while she struggles in managing her own real-life relationship with her girlfriend. “The Miracle Years of Little Fork” reminds me of the TV show Carnivale, with a blend of historical and hints of magic as a circus comes to a small town. “Couple of Lovers on a Red Background” may be the most surreal and memorable story in the collection. In this one a woman finds J.S. Bach living in her piano. She starts introducing him to the modern world, and soon enters into a sexual relationship with the goal of creating a child with an artistic genius. There is no explanation to this odd situation, it just is. And Makkai does exceptional things with it, digging into her protagonist’s psychology and themes of basic human drives. In “Cross” a cellist discovers near her driveway one of those memorial markers, placed after the death of a teenager in a car accident. Her annoyance with its presence contrasted with grief over a tragedy leads to a sort of crossroads in her own life: rediscovered friends and new opportunities.
I’ve noticed several other readers remark that they thoroughly enjoyed Music for Wartime despite not normally being fans of short fiction. Like those that would make a blanket statement of ‘I don’t like vegetables’, until they happen to taste vegetables cooked properly and deliciously, Makkai’s collection is likely to have a similar effect. The stories are well-written, engaging, and varied. They are literary, but approachable and have just enough of a twist of weirdness to be intriguing but not off-putting to a broad audience. I’ll join others in highly recommending this.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

CALLIGRAPHY LESSON: THE COLLECTED STORIES, by Mikhail Shishkin

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Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories
By Mikhail Shishkin (Translated)
Deep Vellum Publishing – 12th May 2015
ISBN 9781941920039  – 180 Pages – Paperback
Source: Edelweiss


CONTENTS:
“The Half-Belt Overcoat” (Translated by Leo Shtutuin)
“Calligraphy Lesson” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“The Blind Musician” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“Language Saved” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“Nabakov’s Inkblot” (Translated by Mariya Bashkatova)
“Of Saucepans and Star-Showers” (Translated by Leo Shtutin)
“The Bell Tower of San Marco” (Translated by Sylvia Maizell)
“In a Boat Scratched on a Wall” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)

        –

This book from Deep Vellum Publishing marks the first collection of Mikhail Shishkin’s stories in English. Shishkin is a highly-regarded writer in contemporary Russian literature, a winner of multiple literary prizes whose name comes up with the likes of Haruki Murakami and Krasznahorkai László for potential candidacy for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Shishkin’s writing is typical of the literary genre in its skillful achievement of complex, stylistic prose to evoke poignant themes common to all people, including love, life, family, and death. His particular style is impressionistic, which matches the characteristics of his dominating theme: language. The translation required for bringing these stories to Anglophones who cannot read Russian is wonderfully fitting with the primary concern of Shishkin’s prose. Through the narrators Shishkin argues that language is a barrier, something imperfect that can never express an exact truth. Twice he points to the story of the Tower of Babel as emblematic (the start of) the separations that language engenders.
Yet Shishkin’s stories explore this concept a bit more deeply, particularly in light of what language is able accomplish, despite its limitations through the art of prose, of the story. His debut 1993 story that gives the Calligraphy Lesson collection its name most strongly delves into this. In this story Shishkin considers words and their formation, whether through the process of basic writing, the art of calligraphy, or spoken and the power that they have to convey meaning both implicitly and explicitly. Moreover, he explores how language can be used to interpret complex human emotions and experience, such as the soul-numbing violence faced by the police investigator in the story.
Language allows organization of fragments, it allows the impression of a truth to be conveyed through imperfect means through the interpretations it permits. In one brilliantly written courtroom scene in the title story characters consider one word in Russian and the meaning, the ‘baggage’, that each letter of that word brings along with it, how they resonate in sound and appearance when written. Earlier in the story, Shishkin alternates scenes describing the composition of calligraphic text with scenes that mirror points in aspects of human interactions. Thus language itself is a translation, a transformation of ideas.
Aside from the repeated theme of language in general, Shishkin’s stories are also firmly embedded within the historical context of Russian literary history. (Footnotes and one brief, but very informative afterward are provided by the translators to give some grounding to readers.) The most recent story from Shishkin, 2013’s “Nabokov’s inkblot” illustrates this condition most directly with a character-driven tale that features a man considering his present, the weight that we attach to memories of the past, of historical significance broad or personal, and how they may be viewed quite differently in the light of the present moment.
The only limitation from the collection, from perhaps Shishkin’s short fiction in general, is the question of where it has grown – or can grow. His mastery of themes shines here, and he follows that dictum of writing what one knows best. His stories all feature male protagonists that resemble their author, literary-inclined Russians, some of whom like the author spend time residing in Switzerland. Can he write more than this? Does he need to even, if this where he excels, where he has something to say. For immediate purposes such questions are somewhat moot. This particular collection is short enough that the thematic repetition doesn’t try the reader, it is the perfect length for the stories to remain engaging. Additionally, stories vary in how far they extend the themes symbolically into the characters. For instance “The Blind Musician” considers language further within the realm of sight, with both the fallibility and unique abilities that blindness could offer.”In a Boat Scratched on a Wall” on the other hand is less of a narrative, something closer to an essay.
Books like this make me thankful for publishers of all kinds that support and facilitate translation of the world’s literature into English for the US market. In this case it offers accessibility to a major figure who I would otherwise be ignorant. Deep Vellum Publishing is a Dallas-based nonprofit literary arts organization that specializes in getting translations to market. You can find out more about the organization, their books and their translators at their site. One translator of many of the stories in Calligraphy Lesson, Marion Schwartz, was just shortlisted for the 2015 Read Russia prize for her translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
Through 5th June 2015 you can enter to win a copy of the Calligraphy Lesson collection through Goodreads’ Giveaway program.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Deep Vellum Publishing via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

ETTA AND OTTO AND RUSSELL AND JAMES, by Emma Hooper

21412221Etta and Otto and Russell and James
By Emma Hooper
Simon & Schuster – 20th January 2015
ISBN 9781476755670 – 320 Pages – Hardcover
Source: NetGalley


 At 82 years old Etta gets up one morning, packs some supplies, and heads out on a walking trek to fulfill her unfulfilled dream of seeing the sea, thousands of kilometers away from the Saskatchewan home she shares with her husband Otto. As Etta makes her gradual journey step by step, Otto remains at home reminiscing over the past that he has shared with Etta and their neighbor and long-time friend Russell.
Starting off toward her goal solitary, with no fanfare, Etta begins meeting people who have heard of her walk and lend her some support and companionship as she passes through towns. In the empty Canadian wilderness between she becomes joined by James, a talking coyote. Meanwhile the reader discovers through the reflections of Otto’s and Russell’s past that love and passion exists both between Etta and Otto, and between her and Russell. Amid the tides of war and the expectations of society Etta, Otto, and Russell experience difficulties and tenderness alike.
There is a lot to appreciate in this gentle literary novel. The elderly are not frequently featured or explored in novels in any serious way, and in film/TV they are mostly used for jokes. Having protagonists who are elderly – and one who is female and actively doing something amazing that even the young would be hesitant to attempt – is refreshing. The three human characters of the novel, both at their present old age and in the recollections of their younger years are well fleshed out, and really interesting, beautiful.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James is also marked by a distinct lack of conflict. Despite the love triangle featured here, there is nothing disastrous that comes about. The hardships, the longing and the guilt over having given into some of these are viewed in the novel through the long stretch of decades that have passed. In their old age the characters have become much more wise, patient, and forgiving to themselves. Having characters that are largely at peace, non-resentful, and appreciative of the life they have gotten to live even with its notes of sourness makes the novel feel similar, slow and optimistically contemplative despite that sadness over missed opportunities, unfulfilled desires.
It is Etta’s journey in the present – an attempt to satiate one desire that still remains possible – that creates some of the largest tension, in the worry of whether she will be able to make such an arduous journey without her health failing, physically or mentally. The appearance of James, a talking coyote companion injects the ‘magical realism’ into the novel. If merely a construct of Etta’s mind, is it something beneficial akin to a spirit guide, or a sign of danger? The line between real and fantasy blurs more as the novel reaches its conclusion, leaving an ending that can be interpreted in unique ways depending on the reader.
For readers who don’t mind the oddity and openness this novel contains or a lack of action, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a meditative, emotionally complex novel that invites reflection and discussion. Even accepting the type of novel this is, I’m most uncertain how vital James is as a character, but rereading it with everything in mind with the coyote as an aspect of Etta’s mind may reveal more here than a first read was able to pick out. A good length for a book club, the novel would certainly be an ideal consideration for one.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Simon & Schuster via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis

The Zone of Interest, by Martin Amis
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 0385353499
306 pages, hardcover
Published: 30th September 2014
Source: Edelweiss

Although sharing with his previous novel Time’s Arrow a setting of the Holocaust, Martin Amis’ The Zone of Interest takes a distinct path more grounded in realism and history that comes far closer to humanizing the Nazis and collaborators. Such a theme is unsurprisingly controversial with the Nazi machine and atrocities achieving a distinction of being often considered as closest to pure evil and inhuman horror that something non-supernatural could get. Yet, while the scope of the Holocaust presents a type of extreme, the actions underlying it were not unique to its setting, but have recurred in various forms, to various degrees throughout history. It’s important to remember that actions such as these were perpetrated by humans that forever reason consciously chose to go down a path. Typically considered monsters, they nonetheless had (mostly) rationality, emotions, love, humor.
Tackling such dark settings in historical is a tall order. Previously I’ve only read Amis’ London Fields, a superb literary treatment of the apocalyptic genre. Rather than comparing The Zone of Interest to his Time’s Arrow, I rather found myself more frequently recalling Les Bienveillantes (The Kindly Ones), the Prix Goncourt-winning behemoth by Jonathan Littell. Similarly ensconced in controversy, Littell’s detailed historical novel tried balancing humanization of a Nazi protagonist with characteristics one part of an unreliable narrator and another part of a figure from Classic mythology. The hurdle that both these novels are faced with based on their subjects and points-of-view is conveying literature of meaning, keeping historical details respectful and accurate, honestly portraying ugliness with knowledge that some will be sensitive, and simply telling a good story.
Despite its immense size I felt that Littel’s novel (which I read in the French, so can’t comment on the English reliably) was mostly captivating. With Amis’ The Zone of Interest, I merely found portions here and there to really hold my interest and then mostly because of a profoundly well written sentiment or phrase. The language is great, the setting and desire to portray things from the point of view of Germans at a concentration camp is really interesting, but the plot of the story was hard to engage and even moreso an issue for something ‘literary’, the characters failed to engage.
The Zone of Interest is told from the alternating points of view of three characters. First is Paul Doll, an emotionally unstable Commandant who has little regard for, and no respect from, his wife Hannah. Second is Thomsen, a more sympathetic, but rather unambitious, Nazi who falls into a clandestine relationship with Doll’s wife. Finally the third is Szmul, a Jewish prisoner who is given a role as Nazi collaborator (basically in exchange for the chance to biologically continue existence). Szmul is responsible for implementing the Final Solution by sending his fellow Jews to the gas chambers and dealing with their remains.
This trinity of narrators is perhaps the largest reason why I found The Zone of Interest difficult to fully appreciate. Each narrator is quite distinct in personality and role. But they are also all recognizable in sharing glimpses of bittersweet humanity – even humor – in this darkest of settings, and also all manifest some deplorable moral condition. With three, it is hard to become familiar and drawn strongly to the point of view of any particular one, making the novel more like an interlaced trio of separate novels of a shared theme and loose plot. The love triangle plot line is present more for symbolism and revelation of character rather than entertainment from a story to follow.
Of the three sections I found myself most fascinated by Szmul, because of his unique position as a Jew turned to enacting these horrors upon literally himself. Seeing this and comparing it to the similar or unique decisions made by other Germans or Nazis is enlightening and I do wish the story had been told more uniquely from his point of view, rather than switching.
All of these issues are worth considering for any potential reader of The Zone of Interest, and hopefully if you are reading this it gives you a sense of whether you would give it a try. I do think it is a novel where you could start reading and realize fairly quickly whether it was for you or not. For readers new to Martin Amis I would also recommend that you not judge his work simply by this, he is a complex and gifted author whose works won’t necessarily fit into a ‘love one and love all’ or vice-versa equation.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

The Blood of Angels, by Johanna Sinisalo

My latest review for Skiffy & Fanty is up, on Johanna Sinisalo’s The Blood of Angels.

“Most readers could fly through Lola Rogers’ translation of The Blood of Angelsby Finnish author Johanna Sinisalo in a handful of hours. Yet, as the relatively brief enjoyment of a spoonful of honey belies the phenomenal labor of countless bees, so too does consumption of this novel’s simple, flowing prose hide the rich, complex depth of its construction and significance. Sinisalo’s novel captures an apocalyptic, large-scale focus on humanity that is typical of speculative fiction, yet keeps a keenly literary focus on the psychological trials of an individual and family…”

Read my entire review at Skiffy & Fanty!

“Cyber Monday” eBook deals from Open Road Media

You’ll likely hear about lots of book deals today, but this is one that may not make it across your radar, so I thought I would share the info:

Open Road Media has provided me with many great Mystery, SciFi/Fantasy, and Literary fiction eBooks (and physical copies) for review in the past, but these just brush the surface of the large catalog of quality works they have available, particularly many wonderful reissues.

Their normal prices are quite fair, but if Cyber Monday splurging is your thing and you are looking to discover/rediscover some books at a REALLY cheap price, today is the day, with more than 2,000 Open Road ebooks on sale. Today only, readers can get amazing deals of up to 80% off regular price.

You can find my reviews on the books that I’ve gotten from them under the Open Road Media tag category. One addition, My review of Black Swan, White Raven is still coming, but it and most of the other volumes in Ellen Datlow’s and Terri Windling’s collections of fairytale-inspired fantasy stories is included in this big sale. I really loved the first of these, and will be taking advantage of this sale to pick up the rest.

I also just noticed several of Sherman Alexie’s works in the literary fiction section. If you haven’t ever read him, please get one of these and remedy the deficiency. Now.

To start browsing, you can find their editorial selections of best picks here.

Finally you can also browse selections at your retailer of choice, such as on Apple, Barnes & Noble, or Kobo.