Book Review: Her Body and Other Parties

by Carmen Maria MachadoHer-Body-And-Other-Parties

Carmen Maria Machado’s debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, has marked her out as an effervescent talent in fermentation.

Her gorgeously lubricious, fantastically deranged, genre-twisting stories explore women’s bodies and the physical violence all too frequently visited upon them. Her narratives are strewn with surreal situations masquerading as humdrum lives, and many of her characters are propelled into states of half lunacy by their circumstances.

Machado’s feminal leitmotifs progress from tales of bariatric surgery and outbreaks of a fading disease to a woman’s terrifying struggle to hang on to her sanity in the wake of a brutal attack. Nothing in these clever little fables is ever quite as it seems – and there is invariably a sinister something lurking just beyond our range of vision.

Her language is pleasingly inventive throughout. In The Resident, her protagonist describes a woman’s dress as a “shapeless frock whose fractal pattern spiralled dozens of holes into her torso and created in me immediate anxiety.”

Machado’s style won’t appeal to everyone – especially those who insist upon neat endings to their short fiction. Nevertheless, I feel sure there will be plenty of readers delighted by her virtuoso storytelling.

I look forward to the publication of House in Indiana, Machado’s forthcoming memoir, due for release in 2019.

Many thanks to Graywolf Press for supplying an advance review copy of this title.
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Short Fiction Review: The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere

by John Chu

waterfall

Every so often I like to read a stand-alone short story; one that isn’t necessarily part of a writer’s collection or taken from a multi-author anthology. A case in point is a 6,655-word composition I chanced upon while skimming Goodreads recently. It piqued my interest sufficiently for me to take time out from the novel I was then reading.

The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu first appeared on Tor.com in 2013 – a “publisher neutral” website aimed at sci-fi and fantasy readers – before going on to win the Hugo Award for Best Short Story the following year.

Almost as soon as I started reading, I realised it would be difficult to accurately fit this tale into a single genre because it was equally at home under the lgbtq+ fiction heading. Indeed, this very issue had caused (and continues to cause) consternation amongst the purists who felt it should never have won a competition voted on by members of the World Science Fiction Convention. Nevertheless, as a piece of imaginative writing, it seems to have proved enduringly popular with short story lovers.

John Chu is a writer, translator and podcast narrator who earns his living as a microprocessor architect. In his story we enter a future world where a deluge of freezing cold water plummets from the sky on to the head of any person telling a lie (evasiveness merely turns the air muggy). The downpour, however, serves only as a backdrop to the main narrative, which is about a loving relationship between two young men and the problems one of them has coming-out to his traditional Chinese parents.

I won’t give away any more of the plot, but I found it heart-warming and original. The ideal mini, literary interlude.

The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere was also published in Some of the Best From Tor.com, 2013 Edition (Tor.com Anthologies).

This story is freely available to read at Tor.com.

Book Review: The Reservoir Tapes

By Jon McGregor

reservoir13

First there was Reservoir 13, Jon McGregor’s highly acclaimed 2017 novel in which a teenage girl on holiday with her family goes missing. Eight months later we have The Reservoir Tapes, a companion piece, offering insights into the events leading up to Becky Shaw’s perplexing disappearance.

Set in a rural village in England’s Peak District – an upland area at the southern end of the Pennines – The Reservoir Tapes was first aired on BBC Radio 4 as a specially commissioned short fiction series (read by Neil Dudgeon), and has now been published as a volume of fifteen ‘prequel’ stories.

McGregor is a Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Nottingham, where he also edits the in-house literary journal, The Letters Page. Born in Bermuda in 1976, he grew up in Norfolk before moving to Nottingham, where, in 2002, he wrote the first of his four novels, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, while living on a narrowboat. Since then he has won the IMPAC Dublin Literature Prize, Betty Trask Prize, and Somerset Maugham Award, and has twice been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

He now gives us the opportunity to scrutinize the thoughts and actions of individual villagers associated with the Reservoir 13 investigation, looking back at events in their lives and focusing on their precise memories of the girl. He is a perspicacious observer of ordinary folk – in this case an old quarry worker, a cleaner, a young wife, park rangers, the local butcher, a newspaper delivery lad, an adolescent boy, a journalist, a prostitute and several others – giving us a tantalizing coup d’œil of a community with its own tale to tell.

McGregor is equally attentive of the surrounding wildlife and writes with exactitude of a deep, unstable quarry reclaimed by the natural world. A quarry at the very centre of this mystery. He leaves us wanting more.

Many thanks to 4th Estate for supplying an advance review copy of this title.

Book Review: Stories: The Collected Short Fiction

by Helen Garner

HelenGarner

Helen Garner is a versatile wordsmith. Should she ever require a curriculum vitae (unlikely as that seems), her résumé would include: novelist, short fiction writer, journalist, critic, translator and screenwriter among her superabundance of literary skills.

Born in the port city of Geelong, Australia, in 1942, Garner (neè Ford) worked as a high-school teacher from 1966 until she was sacked for “giving an unscheduled sex education lesson to her 13-year-old students” in 1972. She published her first novel, Monkey Grip, in that same year, since when it has become an important, though fiercely disagreed upon, part of the Australian canon. She is now widely regarded as one of the foremost Antipodean writers of her time.

Stories: The Collected Short Fiction – released to coincide with Garner’s 75th birthday – is a selection of neoteric tales from a hugely accomplished storyteller. Her characters are finely portrayed and believable, because flawed, and the narrative is wholly absorbing, often intense, although never to the point of seeming contrived.

Her protagonists tend to be lonely or desperate people who have Freudian-type dreams and bouts of anxiety, but an undercurrent of humour is detectable in each piece. Her stories never lack wit. Garner reaches her zenith in La Chance Existe and Dark Little Tales, but there are no weak parts to this collection – it is simply that some stories are more brilliant than others.

I started reading this book as a Helen Garner greenhorn. Appetite now whetted, I am keen to explore her substantial back catalogue, starting with The Children’s Bach, which is held by many to be one of the greatest short novels ever written by an Australian.

A truly bonzer discovery!

Many thanks to Text Publishing for supplying an advance review copy of this title.

 

Cursory Comments on ‘Cat Person’

A controversial 4,000 word tale by Kristen Roupenian appeared in The New Yorker

Cat PersonCat Person by Kristen Roupenian

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This story is currently causing a great deal of online chatter about fattism and bad sex. I read it to see what all the fuss was about. All I can say is that it’s a well crafted story with competently-drawn, entirely believable characters – and it kept me reading until the end. If it shocks, disturbs, annoys or amuses, then it has probably achieved what it set out to do.

Read the story here. Genius or drivel? Essay or fiction? What are your thoughts?

View all my Goodreads’ reviews

Book Review: A Maigret Christmas

by Georges Simenon, David Coward (Translation)

My 84-year-old mother is a great crime fiction buff. When she saw I was reading A Maigret Christmas by Georges Simenon, she commented that it was a great pity “Mr Bean” had been given the part of the French detective in ITV’s recent adaption, because “although he [Rowan Atkinson] is a very good actor, one keeps on expecting him to remove his trousers or do something equally silly in the middle of an important case.”

Mr Bean aside, the TV drama has merely brought renewed interest in Simenon’s shrewd, trilby-hat wearing, pipe-smoking commissioner of the Paris ‘Brigade Criminelle’. In 2013, Penguin Books started releasing new translations of his seventy-six Maigret novels, originally published between 1931 and 1972, and this collection of seasonal stories is the latest in their Classics’ series.

Simenon (1903-1989) was a prolific author, his novels, novellas and autobiographical works numbering almost five hundred. He was Belgian born, the son of an accountant, starting out as a cub reporter for the Gazette de Liège, before moving to Paris in 1922 following the death of his father. However, it was during his time as a young journalist that he came to know the seedier side of his city – his familiarity with local prostitutes, criminals and notorious drinking dens prepared him well for his profession as a writer of detective fiction.

A Maigret Christmas is the title story from this newly translated book of short fiction, in which the burly detective receives an unexpected visit from two ladies on Christmas morning. Maigret and his stoical wife, Louise (referred to throughout as Madame Maigret) are a childless couple in their fifties, endeavouring to be festive, though actually feeling rather melancholy in their soulless apartment. He is thus quietly relieved when his services are required by his neighbours following the appearance of a sinister intruder in their home. An intriguing case ensues.

The gruff but kindly Maigret was apparently based on Simenon’s good friend, Chief Inspector Marcel Guillaume, a man said to be the greatest French detective of his day. Whether “Mr Bean” was quite what he had in mind for his serial protagonist, we shall never know, but his most famous fictional character would appear to be more popular than ever.

Many thanks to Penguin Books (UK) for supplying the ARC of a single story from this collection.

Book Review: Grimm’s Fairy Stories

by Jacob Grimm & Wilhelm Grimm

Taken from the East European oral tradition, and first published in 1812, these stories were originally collated and published in Germany by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.

Although softened to appease Christian sensibilities of the day, this compilation still became a sort of cult horror anthology for children. Indeed, returning to these gruesome little tales as an adult, I can see that they are indeed ‘grim’, and make curious bedtime reading.

Even allowing for the Grimm brothers sanitisation of the stories, they remain far removed from Disney’s cinematic versions of Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and all the other fluffy, uplifting animations so popular with modern movie-goers. Here, incest, cruelty, starvation, torture and violent death vie for space with the happily ever afters. (Decapitated gee-gee anyone?)

Thankfully my seven-year-old self was far less squeamish, and I dwelt not at all on the many sadistic happenings, but simply enjoyed reading about talking bears, heroic giant-slayers and sharp-witted wolves in red bonnets. In short, I was a typical child reader.

NB I don’t wish to appear a pedant, but surely the title, Grimm’s Fairy Stories, is grammatically incorrect. Shouldn’t it be Grimms’ Fairy Stories? I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong.