Tag Archives: ARC

Reviews: Gutshot and Death, Desire, and Other Destinations

The only two books I’ve finished reading so far this month are two surreal collections of very short stories. Both contain magical and/or speculative elements, both focus on human relationships, both are divided into very small individual pieces- flash fiction. And so, I thought it made sense to review them together, and I hoped this would be an easy entrance to resuming my reviews.

I read Gutshot by Amelia Gray as a buddy read with the lovely and astute Melanie, who has also recently posted a review that you shouldn’t miss!

Gutshot

For me, Gutshot was a fun read full of creative premises and surprising events. These stories typically begin with a concept that seems ordinary or at least straightforward, and then follows the trail down an imaginative path of bizarre what ifs. Gray often uses otherworldly elements as symbolism, as an exaggerated way of pointing something out about our familiar world or human habits/emotions in a new light. A man enters a mysterious labyrinth, hoping his peers will think him brave. A damaged gravestone reveals beauty in destruction and incites a frenzy. One story about marriage is titled ‘Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover,’ in which the reader is advised to literally eat her husband piece by piece for every move he makes, because inevitably he’ll go astray anyway and deserve such a fate. The stories are designed to make one rethink assumptions: a piece about swans, those lovely creatures who mate for life, actually reveals them to be rather disgusting. I’d be shocked to find anyone who can say that Gray’s writing is ever predictable or boring.

And yet while I found the stories engaging and pleasant to read, I found the implied meanings of them either far too obvious to excite me or too vague to unravel at all- and in both cases, the lack of a nuanced concept to ponder past the end of each story ultimately meant that very few of the pieces in this set were memorable for more than bare details and their ability to amuse me at the surface level.

There are two qualities that particularly appeal to me in short story collections- the first is a touch of the bizarre, which is what originally drew me to Gutshot. I love magical or speculative elements in fiction that push the boundaries of reality; for a short story to impress me it needs to be unique and punchy from start to finish, without a lot of backstory or elaborate world building to bog it down, and a bizarre twist is usually the best way to draw me in immediately and set the story apart. It’s also typically a fun way to examine the real world at an unexpected slant; fantasy, sci-fi, and speculative elements are great for commentary on society or human nature. Sometimes Gray achieves this, but other times the moments of unreality feel too silly and unexplored.

“Flesh is siphoned into a bowl and poured without discrimination into a freestanding grandfather clock that is set on fire and rolled into the street.”

The other quality I prefer (again just a personal choice), is that while the collection may have some broader theme or style that holds all of the stories together, each story should ideally also stand on its own. For the brevity of the short story to keep its appeal, it’s best to be able to dip in and out of the set, in my opinion, without feeling you’re missing something when you don’t read it all at once. But Gutshot doesn’t quite work in this way for me. The collection is divided into sections, and the closest I came to finding any depth of meaning from the book was to look at all of the stories in a section together and consider what they had in common. This of course necessitates reading at least one full section at once, which isn’t too challenging in a book of this size (just over 200 pages, each of the stories 10 pages or less) but just isn’t quite the reading experience I hope for with short pieces.

Across the five sections of this book, I found such concepts explored as: the danger in putting one individual above the good of the group, the violent and ugly side to love, the sorrowful and deadly nature of isolation, the consequences of loving something too much, and the possibility that nothing ever really ends, but all repeats again in its own cycle. The titular piece involves a man who has been shot in the gut; the shooter is remorseful and those sought for help are sympathetic, but none can provide sufficient care for the victim’s wound. Jesus Christ “helps” him in the end by telling him about people passing in a plane overhead. This is one of the stories that didn’t entirely make sense to me- is the focus on futility and despair? Is the message that kindness only goes so far? That the individual is small, and the world goes on? All a bit grim, and are we to determine from the title that one of these possibilities is central to the whole set? My confusion here is an accurate indicator of my struggle to find thematic depth throughout this entire read. I can make out some overlying arcs between the sections, but I am left frustratingly uncertain about what the reader is meant to take away from this experience.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m undetermined on whether I’ll try more of this author’s work- it sounds like she’s got a novel that might appeal to me more, and I do generally like unpredictable and puzzling fiction, but I didn’t quite get what I came for here despite my surface-level amusement with the stories.

Death, Desire, and Other Destinations

Next, I read Tara Isabel Zambrano’s debut short story collection, Death, Desire and Other Destinations, which released September 15. The stories in this set are incredibly short, most of them 2-4 pages in length; the longest is 9 pages, and it’s an outlier. Many of these stories also include some sort of otherworldly element, infusing the work with a dreamlike quality.

Unlike Gutshot, this collection manages to accomplish both of the things I enjoy in short story collections- it is packed with bizarre details that effectively further a point about the human experience, and each of the stories stand alone well, though the style and themes are consistent throughout the book, linking them all together.

The stories in this collection tend toward the sapphic, though there are a fair amount of exceptions. Zambrano doesn’t shy away from sexual descriptions in the relationships that unfold across these pages, which I liked in principle but occasionally found overbearing in practice. The characters are diverse or unspecified, which gives the set a very inclusive and limitless aura. As the title indicates, most of the stories focus on death and desire in some form; there are many losses and longings in these pages, including miscarriages, breakups, and various other endings and false starts. A woman who goes for a bikini wax would rather forget about her husband and enjoy the touch of the esthetician. A widow believes her husband, upon death, became one with their house. A poisonous courtesan who can kill with a kiss but not feel love becomes entangled with a girl even more deadly than she. One girl removes the heart from her chest in order to get to know it properly.

What I liked most about these stories is that each one digs into a particular emotion that is easy to comprehend and even relate to, never mind the fact that the characters include aliens, snakes, ghosts, and more. Zambrano writes about the nuances of the human heart, with an otherworldly slant (just the way I like). Her writing is full of unusual imagery, especially involving the body and weather/atmosphere, and I found her metaphors constantly thought-provoking even if sometimes challenging to decipher. Though these moments contain impossibilities, they always paint a clear and intriguing idea.

“The shining dust from the rubble streams in and mixes with your breath. Like a fish swimming to the surface for oxygen, you open your mouth wide, eat the day slowly.”

If I had to pick a genre I’d say these stories are speculative overall, though there’s a timelessness to them that makes appearances of modern devices and futuristic scenarios (like weddings on the moon being a common practice) feel shocking in the reminder that these narratives are grounded in real possibilities- in essence, if not in details. All of these stories are separate and complete in themselves, though none of them seem mutually exclusive, and small details (like a particular animal or object or personality) popping up casually later on gives the whole collection a beautiful sort of flow.

I think there will be a particular sort of reader best suited to this collection; so much of it is melancholy and possibly triggering (CW: miscarriage, death of a loved one, cheating, mild body horror), the writing is gorgeous but oblique, and the reader needs a certain willingness to accept things that don’t make literal sense. It’s dreamy and evocative, but also strange. I know this won’t be to every reader’s taste, but for the right reader I think there’s a lot to love in this collection and in Zambrano’s style. I know I enjoyed my time with it, and I hope others will too.

“Abandoned, I hold on to the shape her body has left behind in me, part home, part grave.”

If you’re curious to learn more about the author and her work, Melanie hosted an interview with the Zambrano a few weeks ago on her blog!

I received an eARC; it’s possible that quotes and details could be different in the final version of this book.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. So much about this collection was just perfectly tailored to my short story tastes, and I had a delightfully sad time reading it (I love sad books). Though there are too many stories for me to say I’ll remember them all individually, I can already tell that the broader topics and emotions will stick with me.

The Literary Elephant

Review: Mother Daughter Widow Wife

I don’t often read ARCs, but when I get a physical copy of an anticipated book from The Library Hotel I read it! The premise of Robin Wasserman’s Mother Daughter Widow Wife sounded so good to me that I’d been looking forward to it for months and was thrilled to see it offered during my stay in New York earlier this year. Unfortunately the experience was a bit more mixed for me than I expected from the synopsis.

Disclaimer: quotes and thoughts are taken from the ARC, and may not reflect the content of the final copy.

motherdaughterwidowwifeIn the novel, Wendy Doe arrives in Philadelphia without any identification or memory of her life up to that point. After a few weeks of struggle to find a safe place to stay and an idea of how to proceed, she agrees to live at the Meadowlark, a place of psychological (specifically focused on memory) study. Lizzie, a brand new fellow at the institute and looking for a new research project, takes on Wendy Doe’s case. While studying her, Lizzie builds an unexpected friendship with Wendy, and a relationship with the man who runs the facility and oversees her project. Years later, Lizzie’s career has taken a sharp left, her husband is dead, and an eighteen year-old girl comes knocking at her door, claiming that her mother was Wendy Doe, who’s disappeared from her “real” life again.

“Wendy Doe, as capable of taking care of herself as she was without material means to do so: no money, no social security card, no ID, no chance of legal employment or government subsidy. Not ill enough to be permanently housed by the state, not well enough to house herself- the kind of liminal existence Strauss’s institute was made for. Strauss gave her a bed, an allowance, supervised liberties, in exchange for her willing participation in the research. Our research, he’d suggested Lizzie make a habit of saying, as if a pronoun could fool Wendy into believing she was studying herself.”

For a book that is actually everything the synopsis claims it to be, this was not at all the read I expected. I think the biggest thing to note is that Mother Daughter Widow Wife is not a mystery. The question of who Wendy Doe is and what has happened to cause her diagnosed dissociative fugue hangs constantly in the balance, but Lizzie and co. are not trying to work backwards to piece together Wendy’s former identity, they’re more interested in who she is at present. The dissociative fugue itself is being studied; this is not an attempt to return Wendy to her previous life or seek justice for whatever trauma incited the fugue. That would, actually, be detrimental to the study. And thus, there’s very little actual plot to the tale; rather the book is a more introspective, scientific and philosophic look at identity and relationships that straddle the line between personal and professional. Think Helen Phillips’s The Need, another science-y novel about identity that focuses primarily on the protagonist’s frame of mind.

In Mother Daughter Widow Wife, we have several protagonists, and two timelines, about 20 years apart. The chapters shift between the main perspectives and the crucial years. We see a few journal entries from Wendy Doe, addressed to her unknown “other self,” but otherwise the novel mostly focuses on the characters around her, their perceptions of Wendy and of themselves after interacting with her. The writing is intelligent, and I found many of the points made through the narration deeply interesting. It’s clear that Wasserman has done a fair amount of research into the science and history of memory (and beyond), but the result of this careful attention to facts and ideas is that the novel feels more like a series of thoughtful ruminations than a story with a proper hook. There’s so little momentum. The pace is so slow. We don’t know what we’re reading to learn or to see solved, because the stakes are low and the plot lacks a central question. Those with an interest in memory, psychology, or the history of “hysterical” women will likely have the highest level of enjoyment from this read.

“The brain takes its pleasure from remembering. Even a bad memory, after enough time has passed, feels like home.”

There is also a strong feminist focus, which works to great purpose in descriptions of the history of women who have been locked away and taken advantage of and cruelly “studied” essentially for men’s entertainment, but I found the modern applications less convincing. Much could be made of the patriarchy’s role in Lizzie’s career change and marriage, of Wendy’s treatment at Meadowlark, of Alice’s very existence, and more. But the book focuses on relationships and character dynamics to make these points, and this is where the theme falters for me. So much of the drama surrounding the friendships and romances begun and ended felt inauthentic to me. Forced, for the sake of commentary. I never believed that Lizzie loved her husband, which made her drastic decisions and responses revolving around him difficult to accept. While I could agree with Alice that seeking unhealthy relationships and exhibiting destructive behavior can be a normal reaction to major upheaval, she explores the way her questionable new lover is helping her to heal without acknowledging the accompanying damage. Wendy is undeniably in a vulnerable position, but her take-no-shit attitude and complete disregard for her “normal” self makes it hard to understand why she would choose to protect what she does, in the way that she does it.

I know I’m being vague, but revelations about characters and their relationships are the biggest “twists” Mother Daughter Widow Wife has to offer and I don’t want to spoil those by going into detail about the toxicity and lies involved in basically all of them. Ultimately, despite my great fondness for imperfect women, these characters seemed needlessly problematic (i.e. problematic in ways that aren’t interrogated to any sort of benefit) to the extent that the potential complexities of their emotional journeys felt undermined by their conflicting behavior. To what extent a reader believes a character and/or takes narrative statements at face value is certainly subjective though, so I’m sure other readers will have a range of different experiences in this regard, and I hope my disappointment will be in the minority.

“He says we, as if they are one person, and that one person is him.”

While I loved the concepts here and got along well enough with the writing style, the very intriguing individual pieces did not make for a compelling whole in my experience. I wouldn’t say this is a bad book at all, and I hope other readers will find more to appreciate in it, but while I was reading  Mother Daughter Widow Wife I found it easy to put down and hard to pick back up again. Perhaps my expectations were too high.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. On paper, there’s so much that I should have loved about this book, but unfortunately, confusingly, the reality just didn’t pan out with any of the promise the synopsis showed. I so wanted to love this one. It’s certainly possible the final copy turned out a bit more exciting (I believe it is out now!), but I don’t think I’m invested enough to check it out.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: November Road

Lou Berney’s new historical fiction/suspense novel November Road was a Book of the Month selection for September. I did not choose this book through BOTM, but I did add it to my Goodreads TBR to keep it on my radar. I saw that there was a giveaway going on for it, so I thought, “Why not?” and entered. And won! I received an advanced copy a couple of weeks before publication (it releases October 9) and read my first ever ARC. I usually prefer finished copies and don’t even seek out ARCs, but who knows, that could change.

novemberroadAbout the book: Mobster Frank Guidry is just doing his job, but his boss has put him in a bad situation. John F Kennedy has just been assassinated, and Frank knows that what the public knows isn’t the truth. He dropped off the getaway car for the real assassin, and now he’s got to destroy it– before his boss destroys him. Frank is on the run, fully aware that his boss has connections in every major city of the US and that none of his old friends can be relied on to resist cashing in on the reward for turning Frank over to his boss. He’s going to need some help getting out of the country, and finds the perfect disguise when he meets a woman fleeing her drunk husband with her two daughters and their dog. They set off on the road as a “family,” dodging trouble along the way.

The most interesting feature of this book is that it is told in alternating chapters between the perspectives of Charlotte (the woman leaving her inadequate husband), Frank (the man who’s using her to escape his own problems), and Barone (the hitman sent to take Frank out). The timeline jumps a bit to allow the characters to explain what’s happening on their end at the same time as something is happening with one of the others, but the chronology is easy to follow and the characters are distinct. Seeing all sides of the situation removed some of the suspense for me, perhaps because I found Barone’s character the most interesting (he’s like a cat with nine lives, nothing keeps him down) and found myself rooting for him against all odds. I just couldn’t connect with the other characters– Frank is a bit of a macho man, and Charlotte, despite her willingness to leave her life behind, is a somewhat passive character who exists in this novel mainly to increase Frank’s vulnerability as he falls in love with her on the road.

Frank is clearly the main character, which is perhaps why I didn’t love this book. I don’t know exactly how to articulate what I didn’t like about him other than he’s simply very male. He’s in love with his power, and his life is a string of days spent exercising that power and nights spent in bed with women he has no interest in seeing again. He’s charming and he knows it– everyone knows it– but… I wasn’t charmed. I know this book is set in 1963, a time with a considerably different feminist atmosphere than I’m familiar with today, and Charlotte is certainly an attempt at including a strong woman. But there are a few gross male-dominance moves that I just can’t get past: the worst being Frank’s scheme to separate Charlotte from her car. He wants her to ride along with him, so he pays off the mechanic to tell Charlotte her car is totaled even though it could have been easily fixed. It’s a slimy thing to do, and the year doesn’t excuse that sort of character flaw. I had a hard time caring about him after that. For more context, here are his first thoughts about Charlotte:

“The woman by the pool wasn’t bad. He’d had a look at her yesterday when they crossed paths at the pay phone. Big serious eyes, rosebud lips. She needed to let her hair down, switch to a brighter shade of lipstick, and get out of that dress– a modest high-waisted number that Donna Reed would consider square. At another time, in happier days, Guidry might have enjoyed warming her up, feeling her melt in his palm.”

But beyond a few issues with gender dynamics (and these weren’t prevalent), Berney’s story is solid. The twists are unpredictable, though I would hesitate to classify the book as a thriller. Each character’s motives are specific and clear, their paths entertainingly tangled. The ending isn’t neat and happy, though everyone gets what they deserve. It’s a readable page-turner with plenty of casualties to keep things interesting. I was not at all reluctant to continue picking it up once I’d started reading.

“He thought about what Leo had said: With every decision we create a new future. We destroy all other futures. Guidry had made his decision. He’d destroyed all futures but this one.”

Before I close, I want to mention something that may have influenced my opinion of this book– I’ve read JFK assassination fiction before: Stephen King’s 11/22/63. I had such a good time reading King’s novel that the assassination conspiracy in November Road‘s premise was a big part of what drew me in to Berney’s. But there’s so little about JFK, and what few details are mentioned seem an afterthought, the alternative explanation thin and far-fetched. Sure, the point of this novel is that Frank is on the run, but I expected when JFK’s assassination came up in the first sentence of November Road’s synopsis to be immersed in details from that political atmosphere. I felt that way with 11/22/63, but not with November Road. Frank could have been running from any crime, though the clothing and dialogue is clearly (sometimes cringe-worthily) 60’s; but after the first news of Kennedy’s death, he’s hardly mentioned. Granted, King’s novel is more than twice the length of November Road, and preconceptions are rarely beneficial to one’s reading experience.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This one just didn’t make much of an impression on me either way. It was perfectly easy and engaging to read, but it didn’t excite me. I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it, and it probably won’t stick with me very long. I’m not interested in reading more from Berney, though I did appreciate the chance to read this book early. I think I just wasn’t the right audience for this book, and I hope it finds more suitable readers.

Further recommendations:

  • I highly recommend Stephen King’s 11/22/63 if you’re interested in JFK fiction, though King’s novel has a strong science fiction element tied into the history. Namely: time travel, and a sort of personification of the past. But it’s an incredibly character-driven story with plenty of 60’s details and conspiracies, and one of my favorite King novels.

Have you read a book recently that you wanted to like but just wasn’t to your taste? What do you do when an ARC you were excited about disappoints you?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant