Kalyanii reviews The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith

firstpersonandotherstories

My journey through The First Person and Other Stories, a collection by British writer Ali Smith, manifested as a perpetual pendulum swing between rapt attention to the tales’ unfolding and an uncomfortable sense of groundlessness mingled with a fair degree of alienation. I’ll admit, at several points along the way, I entertained the idea of abandoning the work, just before I was drawn back in. Midway through, it dawned on me. I wasn’t responding to the merit of the writing itself; I was reacting to the way in which the writing was affecting me.

Several of the most poignant stories are written in the first person, addressing “you,” which can’t help but to hit pretty close to the bone, especially given that all contextual clues lead to the understanding that “I” and “you” are former lovers. Boasting a couple of bruised egos, a few resentments and a whole lot of ambivalence, the relationship is revisited and perhaps even reconvened via the rewriting of history. If we can assume that it is the same couple featured throughout the collection, we begin to glean a deeper understanding of both women and their history as we witness their interactions at various junctures.

Among these particular stories, I found “The Second Person” to be most engaging given how very ludicrous we civilized adults can be when protecting our heart in the presence of the woman to whom we once offered it so freely. Claiming to know who the other person truly is and how she would behave in an utterly rhetorical circumstance, the first person narrator describes with utter certainty the way in which her former lover would purchase an accordion with very specific qualities “precisely because” she can’t play it. The former lover then retaliates with her own version of how the scenario would play out had the narrator been the one to make the visit to the music shop. The entire progression and escalation of the conversation is priceless.

I’d have to note “Writ” as perhaps the most touching piece within the collection as the narrator sits across the table from her fourteen-year-old self. Witnessing the expression of insolence that her younger visage “makes a thing of beauty,” she finds herself quite proud; and, while she yearns to give her a heads-up as to who she ought to trust as well as who to and not to bed, she also aches to provide assurances that things are going to turn out alright. She cannot utter any of it, however, for the journey lies in the unknown, which should be denied no one.

From my perspective, the most disturbing tale by far was “The Child,” which initially struck me as simply absurd until I picked up on the greater meaning. The story opens with the narrator’s discovery of a chubby, blond-haired, “embarrassingly beautiful” baby boy in her grocery cart when she returns from tracking down bouquet garni for her soup. As adorable as the child may be, surrounded by strangers gushing over his loveliness, his behavior in private becomes quite another matter. When alone with the narrator, who finds herself developing an increasing tenderness for him, the baby unleashes a flurry of horrifyingly misogynistic and otherwise offensive jokes and pronouncements most frequently attributed to those on the far religious right. One might deduce that the child’s attitudes serve to align motherhood with an overarching culture of women’s oppression.

I wasn’t quite as keen on “True Short Story” and “Fidelio and Bess” as well as a couple others merely because they didn’t resonate with me. They also tended toward the more experimental, and I fear I didn’t appreciate Smith’s approach as well as someone else might. There were also a few instances in which her stream of consciousness tested my patience, compromising my willingness and ability to follow along.

Smith does indeed push the envelope in exploring the boundaries, whether real or imaged, of the short story form. Time and time again, she appears to break all of the cardinal rules of writing, only to create a more profound impact than one would expect, regardless of how true-to-the-rules it is crafted. Each story is written in incredibly simple language yet contains more nuance than can be grasped in a single read-through. Just when I felt that Smith was betraying the basic tenet of “show, don’t tell,” I discovered that very little of what was happening actually appeared on the page. It was all written between the lines.

Playfully scoffing at our tendency to seek absolutes and a tidy resolution, Smith illuminates the contradictions inherent within our nature as well as the messiness of our attempts to reconcile the incongruent parts of ourselves with the most vulnerable parts of those we love. Just as there’s likely a bit of the autobiographical within the writing of The First Person and Other Stories, there’s little doubt that, as readers, we can expect to find our most imperfect selves mirrored within the “I” and “you” as they appear upon and beyond the page.

Krait reviews Winged Things: A Lesbian YA Short Story Collection by Jennifer Diemer and Sarah Diemer

WingedDiemer

WINGED THINGS is a bewitching collection of young adult short stories, ranging from paranormal to fantasy, all featuring a lesbian heroine. This collection is part of Project Unicorn, a fiction project that seeks to address the near nonexistence of lesbian main characters in young adult fiction by giving them their own stories.

Winged Things, as the blurb suggests, is part of an awesome project by Sarah and Jennifer Diemer to expand the cast of lesbian protagonists in YA fiction. Project Unicorn is currently on hiatus, but a current total of 51 free short stories are available online. Winged Things is the sixth in a series of e-zines collecting the stories of Project Unicorn, with two new stories not available online.

Generally speaking, I really enjoyed this collection. It’s the sort of thing I wish I’d been able to read growing up, where there are no tragic lesbians and everything ends on a hopeful note. There’s a lightness to the stories, no doubt helped by the motif of flying running through the collection. The protagonists are young girls growing and expanding into new and lovely creatures. (Or people, depending on the story).

On an individual basis, a few stories really stood out for me. (Some spoiler-y quotes to follow)

In “When We Flew,” our heroine Ola lives in a tiny village where everyone is born with wings, but they’re considered shameful appendages, fit only to be removed at 17. I was struck by some really gorgeous turns of phrase:

“And on the scheduled day of Removing, I removed myself. I flew on wings that had been destined for dust but grazed the stars instead.”

This particular quote is fairly typical of the narrative style, so if you prefer very precise, concrete prose, the writing might not be for you.

Both “Aphrodite Has A Daughter” and “Flower Constancy” are two stories that I would love to see expanded, whether just into a longer form or into a full novel. “Aphrodite” is a short retelling of the meeting of Eros and Psyche, where Eros is the jaded daughter of Aphrodite, the embodiment of “love-in-action.” I would absolutely love to see a lesbian retelling of the full story of Eros and Psyche, particularly in Diemer’s style. “Flower Constancy” is a historical that actually ends happily for two young women in England. I didn’t get a firm sense of what time period it was set in, but the descriptions of the house and the butterfly garden make me think Victorian.

Overall, I would definitely recommend Winged Things if you enjoy speculative and fantasy short stories, and it’s definitely suitable for young teens and up.

Elinor reviews Down on the Other Street by Jennifer Cie

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This short story collection focuses primarily on bisexual characters, and all but one of the stories star a bisexual woman. Bi and pansexual women often get short shrift as characters, and it was great to read about bi women as main characters. The women in Cie’s stories were portrayed as everything from unapologetic to in love to angry to vulnerable, and above all, completely human. Just five stories long, and some of them quite short, this book is a quick read. It’s also affecting. Cie is an excellent writer with a lovely command of language. This self-published book does have a handful of typos, and my copy had a formatting error that put one page in the wrong story, which distracts slightly from the excellent quality of the work.

Four of the stories are written to a “you,” casting the reader in a role important to the narrator. I found this technique confusing in the brief, furious story, “F&F.” The vignette “The Five: Time With Red Freckles” pulled it off better, though I wished the story were a little longer and included more background information. “Intellectuals Are Fools,” a story documenting every person the narrator had ever kissed and retelling the tales to a former caretaker, reminded me a little of a Thought Catalogue article circa 2012. (That can be good or bad depending on your preferences). The technique worked best in the opening story “The Photo.” This moving relationship story makes the reader the beloved, and is the only story with a male narrator. By the end of “The Photo,” I had tears in my eyes. It managed to be touching without being cloying, and to be sweet while still remaining honest.

The final story, “The Blue Bullet,” about an extra marital, interracial relationship in the late 1930s and early 1940s, was the longest and most fully realized. I dare you to read it without having your heartbroken at least a little. Though many of the characters in this collection are searching for acceptance of their whole selves, the protagonist in this tale stands firm in her own identity, refusing to be defined by anyone else. The story was complete, but I found myself wishing it were a novel so I could dive deeper in the story.

I highly recommend this short story collection. It’s beautifully written, emotionally engaging, and puts bisexual women center stage. I’m also going to be on the look out for more from Jennifer Cie. She’s a writer worth reading.

Sponsored Review: Danika reviews the Courage of Outliers by Elizabeth Samit

courage of outliers

The Courage of Outliers by Elizabeth Samit is a collection of ten mystery short stories, all with some gay or lesbian content, usually with a lesbian protagonist. I don’t read a lot of mysteries: I tend to be terrible at spotting clues, and usually I end up not only surprised but confused by the big reveal. This is the first collection of mystery short stories that I read, so I can’t claim to be familiar with the genre. I found it to be a very different experience that a full-length mystery, because there isn’t really any space to subtly drop clues and misleads. I felt like it was impossible to figure out the culprit more than a paragraph or two before the protagonist because of this. As a result, it didn’t have that mystery feel to me, because it was less a puzzle to solve, and more of a traditional narrative, but one that features a crime. I also felt like so much information and so many characters had to be packed into a story to fulfill the mystery element that I began to find it difficult to keep track of names, though that could just be my own bad memory.

I definitely think that the biggest strength of this collection is the characters. Samit is great at quickly establishing a character’s personality in each short story, and they feel very believable and interesting. There is also a big variety of protagonists between the stories, of different ages, sexualities, races, and backgrounds. Most of the protagonists were people I wish I could spend more time with, and even though they only lasted a dozen pages or so, their lives seemed to be fully imagined.

Unfortunately, I did also have some issues with the collection. Although the characterization was strong, personally I found most of the plots not very compelling. This could be because I’m not a big mystery reader, but again, I felt like it was missing that slow reveal of clues that I relate to mysteries. Most of the time, I just wasn’t very invested in the solution to the murder, because the victims weren’t characters that I knew or cared about, and the circumstances weren’t puzzling enough to make me compelled to find out how it was done. I also did find the writing a little clunky at times, including the odd use of quotations around words that I would consider pretty well established, like ‘ex-girlfriend’ or a police ‘statement’. Although the main characters were believable, sometimes the characterization of minor characters seemed rushed, such as with this description: “Raised in a tough South Boston neighborhood, Officer Valerie Hawkins–whose daughter had committed suicide–had been briefly assigned to assist another officer in the new cyber-crimes section.” That’s a pretty big aside. Another sentence that made me do a double take: “That night, it was on the eleven o’clock News that Mercedes Vega, the ex-wife of Paul Farnsworth and former piano teacher, had been discovered robbed and fatally attacked by her daughter.” To clarify, she was discovered by her daughter, not attacked by her daughter.

There were also some questionable moments in the stories, such as the word “transvestite” being used without context, and a (non-Romani) main character describing herself as a “gypsy” because she travels a lot. One story mentions, again without any more context, that a woman has an affair with a “married man whose wife was disabled.” Also, one story involves the murder of babies born with disabilities, and another has a child with disabilities who is (or was) very violent. Combined, those don’t make for the best representation of people with disabilities. Though, there is also one protagonist who was in a psychiatric ward. Those were moments that made me uncomfortable, especially since this collection does seem to be actively trying to be diverse.

As you can tell, I was a little conflicted on this one. I would still recommend it if you are a fan of mystery/crime short stories, especially with queer characters, but there are definitely some flaws as well.

This has been a sponsored review. For more information, check out the Lesbrary’s review policy.

Danika reviews Survival Skills by Jean Ryan

1 I have found an odd thing about writing reviews: I tend to find it a lot easier to describe what I don’t like about a book than what I do. If I put down a book that I hated, I can very easily write a review detailing every flaw. But it’s a lot harder to explain why a book appeals to me. So although I really liked Survival Skills, I’m not sure I can properly convey it!

Survival Skills is a collection of short stories, and it is one of those quietly beautiful books. The stories flow naturally, and although they do not end tied in a neat bow, they don’t feel abrupt, which I have found often happens in short story collections. There is a mix of lesbian and straight protagonists in this collection, but I definitely recommend reading them all.

I understood this collection even better when I looked at the publisher: Ashland Creek Press describes itself as a publisher with a “mission to publish a range of books that foster an appreciation for worlds outside our own, for nature and the animal kingdom, and the ways in which we all connect.” I hadn’t considered it until after reading the publisher’s blurb, but Survival Skills does include a theme of nature. Throughout the stories, pets feature prominently, or a character chases hurricanes, or a woman finds herself competing with an octopus (or a parrot) for her girlfriend’s affections. This isn’t completely overbearing, but it does offer a thread throughout the collection. It also seemed to ground the stories; it made the problems seem less overwhelming when the stories kept coming back to other living things, fitting these stories into a larger network. But it is the human struggles that are focused on, with nature as a backdrop.

Mostly, I liked Survival Skills so much because the writing style really appealed to me. Usually I can tell within the first page or two whether I will enjoy an author’s style or have to slog through it. With this one, I immediately wanted to settle in and read more, and I put Jean Ryan’s novel, Lost Sister, on my to read list as soon as I finished Survival Skills. Needless to say, I highly recommend this one.

Laura Mandanas reviewed “Blazing Star” by Marie Carlson

Title: “Blazing Star”
Author: Marie Carlson
Genre: Urban Fantasy Erotic Romance
Length: 9,800 words / 20 pages
Initial Release: Cast the Cards anthologyPublisher’s Blurb: Bea is a mind reader, weary of battle, but still with the Star in her eyes. Her lover, Hope, returns to Bea’s sanctuary in need of comfort and guidance, which Bea is only too happy to give. But the respite is short-lived when other Hunters show up at the sanctuary with news of an impending battle. Bea knows she must let Hope go, even though it may be for the last time.Some thoughts about “Blazing Star”:

  1. The world-building was interesting, but blunt. When Bea starts cooking dinner, I don’t need to hear about the “homegrown chickens raised by a guy down the street, payment for carding protection magic into wool that he wove into blankets for his family.” Just tell me that she’s making chicken, and leave the explanation about the bartering system for another time. Or not at all.
  2. The characters were reasonably strong, especially given the story’s short length. I believed them, and they weren’t unbearably stereotypical.
  3. I really wasn’t into the sex scenes. They were long and interrupted the flow of the story. The writing was fine, but I found myself wishing they’d just get it over with. Unfortunately, that’s not really how erotic romance stories work.
  4. Weak editing. There was a weird continuity error involving the death of someone’s mother.
  5. Despite its flaws, at the end of the story, I wanted to know what happened next. I think it’s just the soft spot I have for lesbian literature. This was not a good short story.

“Blazing Star” is available from Storm Moon Press in eBook form for $1.99.

Allysse reviewed “Song of Bullfrogs, Cry of Geese” by Nicola Griffith

Song of bullfrogs, cry of geese

By Nicola Griffith

Song of bullfrogs, cry of geese is a science-fiction short story set in a world in which a disease – or symptoms as it is named – is weakening the human race, slowly making it die. The story particularly focus on one immunologist, Molly. She lives on her own, recluse, near Atlanta. She is given food and supplies regularly by the city in hope that she would change her mind and come live with them and not outside. They want her because they believe she can find a cure, or at least try to. But she doesn’t want to.

The reason for it is simple: Helen died in the place Molly lives in and it is the last link to her she has. The story might be set in a science-fiction setting but it is very much a story about loss and grief. Molly is staying because of all the memories of Helen, because of all that the place reminds her of.

In spite of being alone, the place Molly lives in is full of life and buzzing with animal activity. It feels a little like she is not that alone until she realizes that the animals don’t care about her. SPOILERS She is just another animal for them and she doesn’t belong in this place in which she can’t survive on her own, in which Helen is no more. It is not until she comes to realize that she has been living a lie, staying here because of her grief that she is able to heal and understand that no matter what her love one will not come back and that she can do better with her life than wait and watch. END OF SPOILERS

Like I mentioned earlier this short story is very much about grief and loss and the slow process of healing from it. It might be science-fiction but the genre is barely visible, simply being in the background. The story is well written and it all flows easily under the reader’s eyes. I won’t remember it as exceptional and will probably never reread it, but I enjoyed it while reading and loved the images Nicola Griffith used in it, it made me curious about her other works.

If you want to read the story, you can find it here @nicolagriffith.com.