Fiction

  • The Book Thief

    Markus Zusak

    Set during WWII in Germany, The Book Thief starts by following Liesel Meminger traveling with her mother and brother traveling by train to Munich. Her mother is a communist and has found a foster home for them to protection as political tensions rise under the Nazis. Along the way her brother dies, and Liesel crosses paths for the first time with the novel’s narrator, Death. At her brother’s funeral, she also steals her first book: a manual on grave digging, which she is unable to read. The use of Death as a near-omniscient narrator has the potential to come off as contrived, but this empathetic version of Death sets a softened tone for the various horrors to come. And...more

  • Airless Spaces

    Shulamith Firestone

    Passable, Not Presentable
    She remembered the time before she had gotten sick. When it was a challenge to dress, how good it felt to look just right and be certain of one’s appearance. Then came losing her looks in the hospital, and the ghastly difference it made in the way she was received; the way people turned away from her after one glance in the street. And the slow climb back, trying to disguise the stiffness in her gait, and the drooling moronic look on her face that came from the medication. Perhaps this was why the mentally disabled always seemed so bland-looking as a group: they had to strive to look orginary, the “pass.” That little bit of

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  • The Guest Cat

    Takashi Hiraide

    For the past few years I’ve been doing the Goodreads Reading Challenge and this year I uncharacteristically got quite behind on my goal, so recently I’ve been reading a lot of short books to catch up. It’s actually been nice to get to books that have been on my list for a long time — like Annie John — and though it felt a bit like cheating at first, I’ve been enjoying my reading so much lately that I’m starting to think lengthiness in writing may be very overrated.

    The Guest Cat a quiet story about a couple who once lived in the guesthouse of a large manor located off an alleyway. They both worked from home writing/editing and though they were not...more

  • Safe as Houses

    Marie-Helene Bertino

    Quirky stories where houses rarely seem safe; the shorter ones tend to have better premises than delivery, but the longer ones benefit from the increased development. It felt to me that I enjoyed each story more than the last one, which left an overall positive feeling, though I started out feeling underwhelmed. The finale, “Carry Me Home, Sisters of Saint Joseph,” was my favorite: a woman struggling to adjust from a breakup becomes caretaker at a convent and uncovers secrets of the nuns she lives with. I got a little distracted by tomato growing details that didn’t seem accurate, unless this story takes place somewhere tropical. (Tomato plants are generally grown as annuals where winters are cold, and March would...more

  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

    Muriel Spark

    A strange little novel about a teacher at the Marcia Blaine School for Girls with a very unorthodox teaching style in which she focuses more on exposing her students to Art and Culture and stories of her love life rather than covering stuffy subjects like math and history. She collects a core group of girls around her, and they become the “Brodie set,” keeping themselves apart from the rest of the school even as they move on to the senior school. Through periodic flash forwards, we learn that one of Miss Brodie’s girls betrays her, prompting her early retirement while she is still “in her prime.”

    Spark’s writing is remarkably concise with a sarcastic humor that will likely either hit...more

  • Annie John

    Jamaica Kincaid

    A stunning and spare coming-of-age novel, Annie John was originally published in The New Yorker chapter by chapter as separate stories. Kincaid focuses primarily on the internal shifts Annie experiences as she matures, mostly in how she transitions from loving and wanting to emulate her mother to nearly despising her and feeling ambivalent about her life in Antigua. Though Annie is an excellent student, she has a mischievous side; she steals library books and stashes them with all the marbles she has won, hiding all from her mother’s disapproval. She strives to amuse her classmates by any means necessary and has a couple intense friendships which she keeps secret as well, even keeping the friendships distinctly separate from each other....more

  • Beautiful Mutants / Swallowing Geography

    Deborah Levy

    These two short novels are weird with incredibly loose narratives, or rather collections of characters and scenes in which things happen with a feeling of sequence. Within these loosely tied vignettes are some beautiful passages rooted in the anxieties of exile. Deborah Levy has published several more novels since these first two, and I gather her work has evolved into more conventional territory. Coming off the intensity of reading The Warmth of Other Suns, these were kind of perfect in their surreality but with enough evocative moments to keep me interested.

    Swallowing Geography, features a wanderer named J. K. (after Jack Kerouac) who travels with a typewriter in a pillowcase. At one point she sees a small garden with...more

  • In the Unlikely Event

    Judy Blume

    Pretty sure I haven’t read Judy Blume book since I was maybe at the oldest a preteen. This is not a YA novel: in “This American Life” parlance, it goes a little beyond acknowledging the existence of sex between adults. Based on the true events of three planes crashing in Elizabeth, New Jersey (her hometown), between December 1951 and February 1952, Blume constructs a narrative over a cast of characters affected by the disasters.

    It’s kind of too many characters, frankly. I feel like this book would make a better TV mini-series than a novel as some of the shorter sections within the chapters, where she jumps over to someone’s point of view for a few paragraphs...more

  • Lost Canyon

    Nina Revoyr

    Some suspension of disbelief is necessary to appreciate Lost Canyon, from the moment a park ranger tells the quartet of Los Angeles-based hikers their planned route is closed due to fire and he sets them up with a hand-drawn map for a trail elsewhere in the Sierra Nevada — one that supposedly hasn’t been accessed in years. The book is prefaced by a quote from James Dickey’s Deliverance and seems to be in part a retelling of that story with a more diverse cast of characters. The organizer Tracy, a fitness trainer, organized the backpacking trip with several of her clients; the area has personal significance for her from hearing her Japanese-American grandfather’s tales of slipping away from Manzanar’s internment camp. Her...more

  • Thunderstruck

    Elizabeth McCracken

    Is it really possible that I didn’t read any short story collections in 2015? This is a great one to rekindle an appreciation of short fiction, solid tales with a sense of humanity and a droll flavor. The nine stories in this collection are united in different senses of tragedy: there are both sudden and prolonged deaths, severe injuries, missing people, abandoned homes, and, on the lighter side, artistic betrayal. In the first story “Something Amazing,” two brothers move into a neighborhood haunted by a six-year-old girl who died of lymphoma. The story mostly follows the younger brother who knocks on the door of the ghost girl’s mother, hoping to have a wish granted, and they have a curious interaction...more

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