THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES by Aliya Whiteley

 

The Arrival of Missives
By Aliya Whiteley
Unsung Stories – May 2016
ISBN 9781907389375 – 120 Pages – Paperback
Source: Direct from Publisher


The weight and devastation of the Great War (World War I) has ended. Young Shirley Fearn looks toward her future with hopeful dreams that echo English society’s wish to transition from the bleak, meaningless tragedy of war to a freedom of bright, purposeful possibility. The only child of a village farmer, Shirley has grown up under the expectation that she would settle as a housewife, marrying an eligible young man who could take over the farm. Finishing her schooling and entering into maturity, however, Shirley feels driven towards other goals: leaving a domestic life to train as a schoolteacher at a nearby college.
A strong respect and romantic infatuation with her schoolteacher, an injured veteran named Mr. Tiller, helps fuel those goals even more. But her illusions of who Mr. Tiller is and her place in his life become shattered when he comes to her with a wild story of visions of a future disaster, and demands for actions Shirley must take to prevent its fulfillment. With the approaching village celebration of May Day, the crowning of a new May Queen, and the dawn of a new Spring, Shirley is pulled between the expectations of her family, the demands of a mentor, her developing sexuality, and the independent drives of her spirit and intellect.
When Unsung Stories contacted me about providing a copy of this for review I really hesitated. Starting in a full time faculty position has gotten me really ‘behind’ in reviews that I’m just now getting back in the groove of putting up/submitting. Did I really want to take on something more? As a novella it is a short length commitment, but the novella form is not something I gravitate toward. And the last (and unfortunately only) book I’ve read from the press previously disappointed. But something made me say ‘okay I’ll give it a look’. I am so glad that I did because The Arrival of Missives is a beautifully written story, a joy to read that actually shows me how effective an appropriately constructed novella can be.
I hadn’t immediately recognized Aliya Whiteley’s name (as accomplished as she is), though I later realized I had previously read one of her stories in Strange Horizons. In a way this is fortunate as it really did make this new novella a complete surprise. And who doesn’t love becoming enraptured with the writing of someone unexpectedly? However, whether you are familiar with Whiteley or not, this bit of literature with a touch of genre science fiction and romance is worth considering for an afternoon’s pleasure.
At its core the novella is a simple coming of age story, but Whiteley expertly constructs it to address the themes on multiple levels, visiting the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ on multiple levels from personal, societal, historical, and science fictional (time travel). Shirley is a richly drawn character who struggles with issues of identity and independence, but in a way that avoids simple answers or cliché. The other characters are less developed, and the motivations and psyche of Mr. Tiller feel uncertain beyond the need to fulfill the plot. But as a novella the focus on Shirley and her point of view – which itself is confused about Mr. Tiller’s intentions and moral authority – make this necessary.
The language of The Arrival of Missives fits its setting, characters, and themes perfectly, and is filled with a range of emotion and descriptive color that simply make the novella a pleasant and engaging read. I recommend giving it a read.

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

LAST TRAIN TO BABYLON, by Charlee Fam

20783291Last Train to Babylon
By Charlee Fam
Published by William Morrow – 28th October 2014
ISBN 0062328077 – 352 Pages – Paperback
Source: Goodreads First-Read Giveaway


What I found most striking about Fam’s debut literary novel is just how effectively she takes the strengths of the short story format and applies them to the longer form. The plot of Last Train to Babylon is basic: Aubrey Glass, a young woman with a history of mental darkness and suicidal sentiments returns home for the funeral of her former best friend Rachel who has recently killed herself. Aubrey’s struggles to get through the present collide with traumatic memories dredged up from her past as she reunites with family and former classmates in the wake of Rachel’s funeral and questions over what had finally pushed her to take her life.
Alternating between events from the past and Aubery’s current situation Fam uses Aubrey’s point of view, flawed personality, and simple, honest narrative voice to delve into incredibly important themes revolving around young women growing up in America. Many of these issues are uncomfortable, ferocious and dark and Fam manages to balance this all with a certain touch of light humor and irony. The seriousness of some elements: suicide, rape, assault, bullying, shaming are treated responsibly, but it does bear mentioning that for readers who have experienced any of these to extremes in their own life may find this a difficult or triggering novel. For it seems so real, with a sad beauty that comes from delving fully into what humanity is capable of, in this case specifically how young girls can treat one another and how society pressures them to behaving or being in expected ways.
A short story can typically manage to address one, perhaps two, specific elements such as these for a protagonist. Fam extends that literary focus on characterization to encompass more temporally, and a greater network of issues that young women can be faced with. She doesn’t change the heart of a good shorter work, she just keeps up the same brilliance for the expanded explorations possible in a novel.
On the one hand both Audrey and Rachel are sympathetic, relatable characters and they have certain aspects that one may find likable. But they are each so powerfully realized as realistic humans that they are filled with flaws and cruelty to the point that they can also at moments completely disgust. Some readers may shun this kind of literary realism, but surely that is exactly how each of us are, filled with moments of exquisite nobility one time and ugly savagery another.
The Last Train to Babylon has its darkness, but it is emotionally moving to all ends of the spectrum of empathy. How much of this is personal for Fam or creative genius is unclear to me, but I will happily reach for her next publication based one how strongly this one makes readers feel, and how relevant and important the themes she tackles are.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from William Morrow via the Goodreads’ First-Reads Giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

Her, by Harriet Lane

Her, by Harriet Lane
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
ISBN: 031636987X
272 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 6th January 2015
Source: Goodreads’ First-reads

Alternating each chapter between the points of view of two women, Harriet Lane’s Her is a  subtle, slow-building thriller that exudes a sense of foreboding and imminent disaster. When crises does actually drift into the plot it is easy to gloss over amid the now familiar unease of the women’s narratives.
Nina is a fairly successful painter who radiates a refined elegance and control. With an older husband and aloof teenaged daughter, she seems often left alone with her own thoughts and memories. As Her opens, Nina spots Emma, a woman from Nina’s past who for reasons unknown to the reader induces a rush of nervous and fearful excitement in Nina. Increasingly obsessed with Emma, Nina manipulates events to insert herself into Emma’s life. As a young, overwhelmed mother impressed with Nina’s status and grace, Emma appreciates Nina’s presence and seeming friendship.
The stalking and twisted maneuvers of Nina to gain the companionship and trust of Emma (who apparently doesn’t recognize Nina from her past as Nina does Emma) makes Her‘s slow crawl forward in plot deliciously unsettling. Only upon the novel’s close is the past relationship between the two women made clear, and all questions in the reader’s mind are addressed.
With a longer work, the alternating and at times overlapping points of view of events from chapter to chapter could grow tedious, but Her is kept short, simple, and sweet. The personalities of each woman are made clear throughout, and only key events are kept from the reader to maintain a sense of mystery and intrigue in the story, and to retain that uncertainty of just what will go wrong.
Her is thus a sort of psychological thriller, focusing on the twisted mind of Nina and the relative ignorance and inherent trustfulness of Emma. While it doesn’t contain much in the way of action, the pace of the novel stays quick – even with replaying scenes from Nina’s view and then Emma’s, the novel does not linger on unimportant matters but proceeds directly to the next important event in time of the two women’s’ relationship. It is a quick, easy read (as long as you pay attention to the nuances of emotion) – and Lane uses moments of levity or irony break the creepy tension or play with the reader’s expectation that now is when something bad is going to happen.
Readers that want lots of action, twists, and rapid payoff will probably be frustrated by this novel, but those that appreciate a quiet little understated horror, Her is masterful.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from Little, Brown & Company via Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

So Much a Part of You, by Polly Dugan

So Much a Part of You, by Polly Dugan
Publisher: Little, Brown & Co.
ISBN: 0316320323
240 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 10th June 2014
Sources: Goodreads

Are you still friends with the people you grew up with? Those whom you were inseparable through elementary school? High school? Is your current life where you planned for it to be when you entered into college? Or graduated? Is it even heading in the direction you originally planned?

Is your life what your ancestors imagined would come from their struggles and success? Are you building a life and family, looking at your own children or grandchildren and hoping for what type of future life they will have?

Despite all we put of ourselves into relationships, could everything turn out terribly different from what we desire?

These are the types of questions explored by Dugan in the short collection of chronological stories. Connected one-to-the-next with shared characters, the collection as a whole spans across a few generations and families to reveal the broad effects of the passage of time and changing circumstances on individuals and relationships.

So Much a Part of You is not a reading experience where you follow a protagonist through an exciting plot and get to live vicariously through the adventures and how much you ‘like’ the character. This is a literary collection, about matters more general, and deeper. The situations in the stories of this collection may include tragedies or condition you’ve never experienced, from physical accidents, to alcoholism, to one-night-stands, or an abortion. The characters may make choices that you have never faced, or think you would never make.

What is relatable, what is emotionally resonant and evokes reflection  is the general effect these situations and choices have on the characters in the stories and that the reader can then apply to their own personal life. For we have all faced rough situations and tragedy. We have all made choices, good and bad.

So too with the characters in So Much a Part of You. None of them end up where they may have expected. In some cases this is unfortunate, and in others it becomes clear that a new and better relationship has opened up in their life, that they would never have foreseen, but which for that particular time and place is exactly what they need, and dearly precious.

With the connected format of the collection, readers are able to see some characters from different perspectives and periods, creating a complexity that would be harder to obtain from a single short story. Dugan’s writing is fluid and conversational, making this a relatively quick read. The overall emotional reflection it could engender will last longer.

Four Stars out of Five

I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher through the Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program.

All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu

All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 0062300709
272 pages, hardcover
Published March 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Understated and deceptively simple, “All Our Names” is the type of novel where you need to stop yourself and allow sentences and passages to digest fully before moving on. It is all too easy to enter this story, fly through its pages without ever becoming engaged and simply write it off as insubstantial. It is not a novel where you enter the narrative flow of its plot and it to sweep you away. It requires attentiveness and personal reflection.

In other words, for its appreciation, Mengestu’s novel requires the reader behaves completely unlike its characters. In “All Our Names” the two point of view characters, Helen and Isaac (who has many names), have become disengaged from their lives. In the case of Isaac, this occurs through the process of living through a tumultuous period in post-colonial Uganda, where through a dear friend he becomes involved in political revolution. This history, leading to the violence and trauma that ultimately brings him to flee to the United States as an immigrant, is related in chapters that alternate with those from the point of view of Helen, a social case worker who is assigned to Isaac upon his arrival in the US Midwest. Helen has an almost immediate attraction to the distant, kind, and out-of-place Isaac. Their relationship pulls Helen further from her familiar job and relations in favor of experiencing simple existence in the company of Isaac.

This creates an interesting juxtaposition. On the one hand the characters are extremely distant, from one another and from the reader. We know few details about them, and even after learning the full story of Isaac’s past, we still no so little of him, not even his ‘real’ name. We learn little more about Helen. And each seems strangely indifferent to the lack of knowledge about one another. They are largely strangers, and while they have a certain curiosity, the point is not pressed. It doesn’t drive apart the relationship. Because ultimately, despite this distance of knowledge, emotionally the two are profoundly close. Isaac’s relationship with his friend in Uganda (also named Isaac, whose name he ‘took’ when fleeing to the US) is similarly based on a deep love without knowing the precise details of one another’s history.

The novel thereby seems to resonate around this idea that identity is superfluous, ultimately inconsequential, particularly when looking on this grand scale of national politics and social upheavals, from the revolutions of Uganda, to the racism of Jim Crow America. The characters in “All Our Names” have discovered that these labels that we use to identify one another: black, white, rebel, patriot, nationalist, immigrant, native, Isaac, Dickens, whatever – they ultimately are agents of division. Isaac (while either in Africa or North America), and Helen through association with him, have found deep human relationships of love to carry them through the tides of events, of uncertainties and new lands. They are no longer engaged with what is happening around them, they are not trying to control it, they are simply abiding, and living in a hope for a future. And they seem to have a realization that this relationship can transcend place and time.

Typically, I will enjoy novels more that achieve a sort of beauty coherent with the story that will also make the plot and characters a bit more developed and intimate. However, here I can’t criticize Mengestu for not doing this, because I read it as necessary to what he is trying to accomplish with this novel. While this isn’t my personal favorite kind of novel to read, I can appreciate the power and control of the writing he has produced here.

Five Stars out of Five

The Johnstown Girls, by Kathleen George

The Johnstown Girls, by Kathleen George
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press
ASIN: B00J2D60W8
348 pages, Kindle Edition
Published January 2014
Source: NetGalley

Coming from Pennsylvania (even the other side of the state) I’m familiar with the Johnstown Flood. This entered heavily into my decision to request the novel; in addition its concept itself seemed promising.

Kathleen George seems known for her mystery/crime genre writing, so this is a departure from her normal literary pool. “The Johnstown Girls” is an exploration of three female protagonists, linked together through a shared region of birth. Set in part in the present, Nina returns to her hometown with her boyfriend Ben, a fellow newspaper reporter doing a feature on the anniversary of the catastrophic Johnstown flood. Together they interview Ellen, one of the last surviving flood survivors and learn of the mysterious loss of her sister May (Anna). We the reader then are shown that the sister has survived, with few memories of the disaster, no knowledge of her true origins and relations. Despite the literary shift then, this still has elements of crime and mystery in minor ways, displaying George’s touch and appreciation for the genre.

For the elderly Ellen and May/Anna, the narrative is split between present day and recollections of the past from their separation at the flood through the decades following. The novel is therefore historical in its backdrop and link between past and present narratives. Leading similar, but quite distinct lives of circumstance, Ellen and Mary/Anna display a shared kindness and intelligence, and a progressive independence that make them strong and decisive characters. They thereby reflect an optimistic example born from experience that mirrors Nina’s precarious situation in her own life still relatively early in progress, trying to make a relationship with Ben work. This contrast is evident to the reader between Nina and either sister, though to Nina only in regards to Ellen who she has met, driving her to help and determine the truth of what happened to May/Anna those many years ago and where she is now.

This overall theme of the story works tremendously well. The trio of female protagonists are fascinating, complex, and touchingly real. The verisimilitude of character, the contrast between the elder sisters’ optimistic certitude and Nina’s uncertain fears make the relations in the novel work emotionally, bright without any false rosy perfection. This authenticity is helped by the historical framework of the flood and the photos of real average people who lived through the event that George peppers between chapters.

Despite these strengths there are aspects to “The Johnstown Girls” that seriously detract from it. The primary difficulty is the Ben-Nina relationship. Though it complements/contrasts the relationships and experiences of the elder sisters, this doesn’t crystallize until the end. For much of the novel the scenes between Ben and Nina seem superfluous, particularly when extending to Ben’s family. Some of these portions could be left out probably, but at the very least the organization of the novel between multiple protagonists/relations across two times could have had connections strengthened via reorganization. Secondly, to augment the ‘historical’ nature of the novel, ‘copies’ of Ben’s articles are reproduced, largely repeating information already conveyed in the main narrative, or revealing information that could be better revealed through character interactions.

The regional familiarity of this novel for certain readers and an interest in the Johnstown flood make this a worthwhile read. For those that really appreciate novels with strong female characters and the travails of realistic relationships you will likely enjoy this a great deal, enough to look past the imperfections of the novel’s construction, much as the situation is in human interactions.

Three-and-a-Half Stars out of Five

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry,
by Gabrielle Zevin
Publisher: Algonquin Books
ASIN: B00GU2RLMC
272 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

Typically I do not enjoy warm-hearted, feel-good stories, but there are always exceptions that avoid becoming saccharine and remain sincere. “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is a novel that I rapidly fell in love with. The writing is not fancy, though filled with literary allusions, most basically in its structure with chapters named after key famous short stories. Between this construction and the overall plot, the novel is simply full of passion for all things bibliophilic.

A key strength of the novel is in its eponymous protagonist, a persnickety bookseller who doesn’t get along well with most people and is in the midst of alcohol-infused mourning over the death of his wife. The growth of Fikry from this state to the ultimate person he becomes, mediated through the unexpected appearance of a baby girl in his life, is a pleasure to read, reminding one what can be good and beautiful about people and the power that literature can have over lives. While reading this (and several other things) I found myself most eager to return to these pages and these characters who even evoked several laughs and smirks as I got to know their quirks.

I’m not at all surprised that Zevin has written children’s books, because this novel in a sense IS a children’s book: a simple story filled with joy and heart and wonder at life, a life filled with books, a life well-lived.

Five Stars out of Five

Asunder, by Chloe Aridjis

Asunder, by Chloe Aridjis
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ASIN: B00BUB5DLO
208 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2013
Source: NetGalley

Barely reaching 200 pages, “Asunder” is a short novel and a quick read, but it will linger in your memory long after completing those pages. Its length is ideal, because it has precious little plot to stand upon, and a character who is largely defined in her commitment to inaction. Instead, Aridjis fills her pages with richness of mood, with a style that ends up conveying themes in place of a plot that would more commonly be employed.

Yet, to say this novel is all just an exercise of style over actual substance rather does it wrong. It is literary, but is not weighed down in any sort of self-aggrandizing complexity. The style isn’t put in to show the reader what Aridjis is capable of, but serves to accurately portray the character she has created to touch, subtly and briefly on topics of humanity.

The inaction of Marie, the protagonist, is enough to cause some readers to tear their hair in frustration, I imagine. Those that want a character to progress step-by-step into a better life, into a romantic relationship, etc, will be left wanting. Instead Aridjis flirts with these reader expectations, creating throughout a mood of unbalance, of something being on the edge, ready to tip over into some kind of catastrophe, hell, even some kind of activity. This all is embodied perfectly in the character of Marie, a guard who presides over the artwork at the National Gallery in London, spending her days in silence watching the same rooms, the same works, and the varied people of the world who flitter through, a tedium of inactivity and observation. During her times off she creates art of her own, or wanders the streets of London, watching while even off work, resistant to change despite the passage of time.

Hence, the resolutions don’t happen immediately. They are continually delayed, up until the close and the heights of tension (for the reader and for Marie) are reached with a violence that is foreshadowed in events of the past. Throughout the novel this overall construction is patterned in many short sections of the narrative. We follow Marie’s thoughts or routines at work or in London as they build towards something. We read on, expecting the paragraph to end with a conclusion, some clever combination of words that summarizes her current state of character, or prewarns where she is heading. But, we find those lines aren’t there. The paragraph has ended, the chapter has ended, with Marie still apparently in midthought, or yet again firmly in a state of doing nothing particularly new.

I fear that I make this all sound terribly boring, when the novel is anything but. They are different beasts, but it is somewhat like saying Seinfeld is a show about nothing, but is hilarious nonetheless. This is a book about a character named Marie that finds it hard to move past what she is, where she is in life. Yes, somethings eventually do happen, but you have to read to the end to get there. The beautiful journey on the way makes it worth it.

This is also one of those rare books that I think I would actually prefer as a film. Despite the deceptive simplicity of the writing, its frequent moments of beauty, and its perfect synchronicity with the character of Marie, I feel so much could be conveyed even more though images in the hands of the right director. That this could so easily inspire a transition from one medium to another speaks volumes to me at how artistic and special this novel is.

Four Stars out of Five