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First-Rate Storytelling: Gush

GushGush by Yo Hemmi

In this collection of three deeply bizarre yet comedic novellas, Hemmi delicately contemplates the interconnectedness of life. Gush recounts the narrator’s relationship with a beautiful young woman who suffers from a mysterious condition that causes her body to fill with water. In Night Caravan, the narrator embarks on a midnight journey in the company of two Vietnamese prostitutes and their pimp. Piano Wire tells the story of how one family’s struggle with cleanliness and order is radically changed when a mysterious teacher shows up on their doorstep.

The Review:

As there are three separate stories in this collection, I thought I should mention each in turn:

Gush: I dislike magic realism so wondered how I would feel about a story based around a woman filling up with water. Would it be too abstract? Luckily no! An interesting story that doesn’t seem fantastical at all. I particularly liked the narrator’s strong voice. At the beginning he sounded like someone from a Victorian Sensational novel (you won’t believe me but let me tell you about the most curious thing I discovered on a regular day…) which I loved. Just the right amount of mystery! I also really liked his breaks in the story as well as the updates about his sales month in the office. How mundane!

Night Caravan: This is a short but wonderful character study that feels like Graham Greene meets Haruki Murakami. Well done sir!

Piano Wire: A great story by itself but I would have liked to see it set along a river somehow so to have a stronger link with the other two stories in the collection. I also think there was scope in this story for a more sinister tone; could the sound of the piano wire be more frequent and menacing? Is there something else about the kind stranger we should question? Regardless, it’s a slightly offbeat and enjoyable story.

 

Overall: Glad I stumbled across this collection!

 

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Think I Got It All – Revenge

RevengeRevenge by Yoko Ogawa

A woman goes into a bakery to buy a strawberry cream tart for her son’s birthday. Every year she buys him his favourite cake even though he died in an accident when he was six years old. From this beginning Yoko Ogawa weaves a dark and beautiful narrative. Each story follows on from the one before while simultaneously introducing new characters and themes. Ogawa provides us with a slice of life that is resplendent in its chaos and chilling in its cruelty.

First Impressions: I liked the writing style. The first story was good and I guessed the stories would get even better… I was right!

Highlights: I was amazed at how subtly all the stories carried on from each other and were linked. This did not feel forced or contrived as I had originally feared it would. A lot of the characters and plots appear over a few stories so it is hard to say which stories or characters I liked best but the narratives around Old Mrs J, Lab Coats and Tomatoes and the Full Moon were most memorable. Ogawa has the power to shock in these stories when you least suspect it and I did gasp out loud a few times when reading.

If I was an editor: Oh, some of the characters definitely deserve their own novel!

Overall: I think I picked up all the links to different characters and stories… At least I hope I did!

Revenge: 5 Stars

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Catching up on my J-Lit

 

After finishing Book 6 in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series I’ve been at a loss as to what to read next. The series has consumed me for the past couple of months.

I need some short reads that leap off the page so I’ve decided to work my way through a pile of Japanese novels that have been sitting on my shelf for a while.
(Ozeki isn’t really short…)

I’m far from disappointed with this decision. I’m having an enjoyable time reading these stories as I love the unexpected and surprising things that Japanese authors throw at their (Western) readers. Much to my amusement I’ve been exclaiming out loud when reading.

I anticipate a big contribution this month to my Japanese Literature Challenge!

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Leave Assumptions Behind: Heat and Light

Heat and LightHeat and Light by Ellen van Neerven

Ellen van Neerven takes her readers on a journey that is mythical, mystical, and still achingly real. Over three parts, she takes traditional storytelling and gives it a unique, contemporary twist. In “Heat,” we meet several generations of the Kresinger family and the legacy left by the mysterious Pearl. In “Water,” a futuristic world is imagined and the fate of a people threatened. In “Light,” familial ties are challenged and characters are caught between a desire for freedom and a sense of belonging. “Heat and Light” presents an intriguing collection while heralding the arrival of an exciting new talent in Australian writing.

First Impressions:  Wow. What an amazing and innovative writing style!

Highlights: In addition to getting a small thrill from all the references to place locations in Brisbane and South East QLD…

I loved the originality in the first section Heat. The author has really taken traditional indigenous story telling and turned it on its head. If you made a list of everything you would expect to find in a multi-generational indigenous story, I can assure you that you won’t find any of that here. Leave you preconceptions behind and slam the door on them! The problems and issues faced by the characters are clearly real but not not what I was expecting which made it a refreshing read. To transform a genre so much really should open it up to a wider audience (I hope, anyway). One one final note, telling the stories out of chronological order added to the reading experience.

I really admired the innovate middle section Water. Again, highly original and with the added bonus of human-plant gay sex which has been mentioned on other blogs (it shouldn’t be sexy or graphic enough to alarm). This story in a way reminds me of a zany cross between Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things (establishing the anthropology of the Plant People) and Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (for the tone and work of the narrator). The sheer creativeness of the story compounded my enjoyment. I particularly liked the background of the Plant People’s existance – so fitting for such a work.

In the final section Light I loved the very first and very brief short story (the name of which I don’t have with me now). One word: atmosphere. I wanted to learn more.

If I was an editor: This collection would confirm my opinion that there are many brilliant undiscovered writers out there. One niggle I had with Water were the few paragraphs early on providing the a political and cultural overview of Australia in the future; in my opinion, not really needed as the story immerses you in this world. The final section Light was a great collection of short stories but I don’t think they really added to the effect of final product which is unfortunate to say as van Neerven’s talent shines through. These stories did start to feel a bit similar after a  while and I would have loved this section of stories to be linked too, ideally beginning with the first story I loved for the atmosphere! I guess I was anticipating a more profound conclusion to the collection but it’s hard to be disappointed with such innovative writing.

Overall: Cutting edge – and it works!

Heat and Light: 5 Stars

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Charming Stories: Close to Home

IMG_4237Close to Home by Robin Barker

I have been a huge fan of Robin Barker’s baby and toddler books – the best on the market as far as I’m concerned – so was incredibly curious to read her first foray into fiction.

Stories of life, love & family from the bestselling author of Baby Love.
A distraught father is prevented from comforting his little boy. A baby’s life is put in danger by a well-meaning but offbeat couple. Two mothers fight each other for the love of their son. A couple’s desperation for a child leads to a chain of unpredictable events … 

First Impressions: I flicked through the book and liked how the stories were in chronological order from 1955 to the present based on the setting rather than when they were written. The first short story was enjoyable in an old-fashioned way so I looked forward to seeing how this tone progressed and developed across the decades.

Highlights: My favourite stories in the collection were the two personal memoirs. Not only were they interesting, they flowed really well and were tender and heartfelt, as you would expect. My favourite short stories were three set more recently: First Love, Baby Royal and Mother’s Day most likely because they are about problematic contemporary issues with no obvious solutions.

If I was an editor: The collection works really well as a whole but I would have liked a bit more subtlety in some of the stories. I thought some of the descriptions were too obvious and intended casual references to race were a little artificial. However, I certainly didn’t find this distracting enough to even consider abandoning the collection.

Overall: A mix of 3 and 4 star stories

Close to Home: 4 Stars

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Beautiful Grit: Foreign Soil

 Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke

A desperate asylum seeker is pacing the hallways of Sydney’s notorious Villawood detention centre, a seven-year-old Sudanese boy has found solace in a patchwork bike, an enraged black militant is on the war-path through the rebel squats of 1960s’ Brixton, a Mississippi housewife decides to make the ultimate sacrifice to save her son from small-town ignorance, a young woman leaves rural Jamaica in search of her destiny, and a Sydney schoolgirl loses her way.

First Impressions: The first story, David, had me hooked. I kept turning the pages just knowing it was going to be an upsetting (I have a son) yet worthwhile read. I liked the juxtoposition between the two characters’ stories too. I didn’t realise this was a technique the author excelled in.

Highlights: There is no weak story in this collectioin. All of the stories were thought provoking and I was always torn between pausing for a while after each story to reflecct, and charging on to the next story. Some stories like Hope were excellent but I wasn’t necessarily moved by the ending, and the tititular story, Foreign Soil, was not necessarily moving until the end. However, in all situations the stories were brilliant. Do I have a favourite story? Maybe Foreign Soil but I did enjoy the 90s pop culture references in Shu Yi.

What I loved most about this collection is that the stories are ordered like this for a reason. I have assumed this about other collections in the past but this collection just works so well. One example is that the patois in some stories increases in complexity as the stories progress. It seemed to me that the slang in each story is particular to the context. I may be wrong about this as I kept moving to the next story and didn’t have time to think about it further but from what I could gather, this really added to my enjoyment.

If I was an editor: I would want to know when the author can have her next short story collection ready to publish?

Overall: I never thought a short story collection could be such a page turner. Oh so compelling!

Foreign Soil: 5 Stars

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An Unsung Maestro: Stefan Zweig

Product DetailsJourney into the Past by Stefan Zweig

Product DetailsAmok and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig

Before reading these two books I did not know anything about Stefan Zweig. I took a chance on the author based on a recommendation and I was amazed with the quality of his writing.

I started with Journey into the Past. At a short 80 pages, I wondered how much of an impact the book would leave on me. In this short novella, Zweig’s story is comparable to a WW1 epic. It is a love story but also a story of Europe. Ludwig, an engineer with a humble past, falls in love with his employer’s wife. Their restrained passion is remarkably described as is the anxiety they both feel when Ludwig is accepts a business opportunity for two years in Mexico. Ludwig crosses off the days until he can return to his lover, only to be crushed by the outbreak of WW1. Almost ten years pass until he has the opportunity to return to Vienna to discover if the flame still exists.

Interestingly, WW1 and Ludwig’s long exile are only briefly glanced at but the skill with which Zweig writes really conjures the feeling of a long period of time passing. I feel much more familiar with the life in Mexico Ludwig was forced to create for himself than I expected I would be given the brief references provided by Zweig. Zweig also skilfully puts Ludwig’s long exile into perspective by the gentle aging of his lover with Ludwig noticing she walks slower up stairs. The timing of the story is also put into context by references to Nazi rallies and the approach of WW2.

In Amok and Other Stories the titular story reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is a story of colonialism and the narrative device of a story within a story is used. However, in this case the boat is sailing away from the darkness back to Europe. The narrator of the story spends a night listening to a doctor’s confession of how he ran amok at his station in the Dutch Colonies after an interaction with the first European woman he had contact with in many years. The doctor explains that natives use the word ‘amok’ to describe someone who cannot control his actions, usually being a danger to himself and others. As the story of the doctor’s unravelling intensifies, so too does the pace of the story. Perhaps this is why the cover image is a tile of a whirling dervish. Once caught up in this tale it was hard to put down.

After reading Amok, I needed to take a break before carrying on with the other three stories. Two of the three are rather short and it was the longer of the three, Leporella, that really grabbed me. Leporella is the story of Crescentia, a solitary and dour middle aged peasant from the Tyrol who was born out of wedlock and was raised by the charity of the church. Her unfortunate beginning set the tone for her life. Given the opportunity to leave her cook’s role in a country inn, she moves to Vienna and falls in love with the master of the house. He barely notices her but for Crescentia his presence in her life awakens an unknown spark. She lives vicariously through his actions and scurries about trying to please him. Surprisingly, this story starts to edge into thriller territory; think, ‘single white female’. It really was a page turner with a feeling of apprehension every time I turned the page.

Overall I think Zweig’s skill at writing is marvellous for with only providing the reader with hints he evokes an entire saga. In these three novellas he has mastered three completely different tales that each have their own unique pace and page turning qualities.

Journey into the Past and Amok and other Stories: both 5 stars

On my to read list:

The Royal Game. (Also published by Penguin with the name Chess). Another short novella I would like to read (94 pages). I would like to see how this compares to the other novellas I have reviewed.

Also, here are two full length novels by Zweig that sound interesting. I just hope I am not disappointed by the longer length as his novellas really seem perfect!

The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig. A slightly longer story at just under 300 pages. Post war romance in provincial Austrian town.

    Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig. 464 pages. Love story against the disintegration of the Austro Hungarian empire.