Book Review | Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin

Genre : Fiction
Date Published : January 18th, 2019
Publisher : Riverhead Books

In what is clearly becoming a pattern, I once again heard about this book in one of my classes. My professor described it as a collection of very unsettling, but beautiful short stories, and one of my classmates turned around to look at me and said, “Sara, that book is perfect for you!” And reader, she was 100% correct.

Samanta Schweblin’s Mouthful of Birds, translated by Megan McDowell, is just as beautiful as it is unsettling, with each and every of the 20 stories in the collection coming to a sudden end that made me exclaim, “Wait, what? But what happened?” And it’s not that I didn’t understand the stories (although a lot of them are definitely mind-bending), but it’s more that Schweblin leaves you wondering the fates of the characters in almost every story. Beyond that, she surrounds you in a reality that feels like the world we live in, but then drops you into something you never would have expected, and you come out on the other side with a lot to think about.

The stories in the collection have a common thread of showing the disturbance of a natural reality. Schweblin takes seemingly normal topics – parent-child relationships, traveling, pregnancy, dreams – and doesn’t so much as twist them into surprising narratives, but instead turns them completely inside out. Nothing is what it seems in this collection, and the reader, as well as the characters, are left to struggle with that and figure out a world that isn’t just confusing and baffling, but that can also be cruel.

It’s always hard for me to choose a favorite story out of a whole collection, but the ones that stood out in Mouthful of Birds were The Merman – the merman that is featured has a pompadour, some killer abs, loves eating mints, and says ridiculous things like “Stop suffering, bay, no one’s going to hurt you anymore”; Headlights – the first story of the collection that follows a jilted bride left by the roadside where she meets other women who have also been left behind, along with some other very eery, very disconcerting beings that never get faces to match their voices; and the titular story Mouthful of Birds, which, well… is exactly what it sounds like. But even with that information beforehand, you still won’t be prepared to read about a girl who eats birds.

“When she reaches the road, Felicity understands her fate. He has not waited for her, and, if the past were a tangible thing, she thinks she can still see the weak reddish glow of the car’s taillights fading on the horizon.”

Headlights, page 1

What I loved most about the stories was how Schweblin didn’t waste any time trying to explain anything to the reader. You get dropped into each story immediately, with no time to catch up to what is already happening in the first sentence. Sometimes even the setting is unclear, as well as the relationships of the characters to each other. It’s like you are dropped into a story that has been in motion years before you flipped to the page. Again, everything feels unsettling, like when you wake up from a nap and need to take a few seconds to reorient yourself to where you are, and sometimes even who you are.

There are a few misses in the collection, but that’s to be expected when there are 20 stories in total. Overall, Schweblin creates a universe out of her stories, one that is connected by characters who seem to talk themselves out of reality and into a new – and pretty disturbing – reality. Some of the stories are a little too violent and dark for my taste (and be warned, some of them are pretty violent), but the majority of them are still lodged in my mind days after reading them for the first time, and that is what was so impressive about the collection – Schweblin doesn’t spoon feed you solutions or explanations to her stories, you have to navigate them on your own, even if they kind of creep you out along the way. The only thing I can think to compare the feeling of reading Schweblin’s stories to is when you’re having a nightmare. But I mean that in a good way, if that can even make sense.

My rating:

7.5 Birds out of 10.

-Sara

Book Review | Wicked Fox by Kat Cho

Genre : YA Fantasy
Date Published : June 15, 2019
Publisher : Putnam Books

In her debut novel, Wicked Fox, Kat Cho centers her story around a classic Korean Folktale, but places it in the contemporary setting of modern-day Seoul. Gu Miyoung is a seemingly normal eighteen year old girl, except for, you know, the fact that she’s really a gumiho – a nine-tailed fox demon that needs feed on the gi – life force – of men in order to survive. If that’s not enough to immediately hook you in, Cho complicates Miyoung’s life even more when she stumbles across a human boy – Ahn Jihoon – during a routine hunting night. In a surprising twist, Miyoung saves the Jihoon from a goblin, but loses her yeowu guseul (her fox bead, aka her soul) in the process, and ends up linking herself to Jihoon when he picks it up and discovers what Miyoung is. And that’s just in the first 30 pages of the novel! Throughout the rest, Cho weaves together an intense and emotional story that follows these two characters as they learn to navigate the new challenges that face them after this fateful meeting. And I had such a great time following them on that journey!

Understandably, being a nine-tailed fox demon brings a lot of angst to Miyoung as a character, but what I really love about her is the compassion and silliness that breaks through her seemingly rough exterior from time to time. We learn that she binge watches Korean dramas, and knows the tropes of them so well that she can predict what will happen in almost every episode of one. She likes the reprieve they bring from her day-to-day life, because, let’s be honest, her life is pretty stressful. She’s had to move from place to place to keep her true identity a secret, and the fact that she has to kill in order to survive keeps her from wanting to form attachments to people. Even her relationship with her own mother is cold and distant for most of the novel. Cho does an amazing job of showing how detached Miyoung needs to be, while also showing how much she craves companionship and connection – all of which she finds in Jihoon.

Cho gives Jihoon his own chapters, alternating them with Miyoung’s, which is a choice that I loved! Getting into Jihoon’s mind was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the novel! Jihoon has a tight-nit friend group made up of Somin and Changwan (two amazing side characters!!!), contrasting Miyoung’s solitary life, and his relationship with his halmeoni (grandmother) was the relationship that got me the most teary-eyed. But even with this seemingly charmed life, Jihoon is not without his own demons (metaphorically speaking). Jihoon is kind and funny and so naturally open and caring with those he values, but he’s also such a typical teenage boy who makes stupid mistakes and holds grudges. I am so so impressed by how well-crafted he and Miyoung are, and their relationship throughout the story was definitely a strongpoint.

“Miyoung didn’t like how Ahn Jihoon talked to her. Like he was her friend. He’d fallen into the casual speech of banmal without her permission. She wondered if he even realized it. But more important, she wasn’t sure why she hadn’t put an end to it.”

Chapter 12, page 113

What I loved most about Miyoung and Jihoon was how Cho flipped the typical trope of “angsty boy and the girl who changed him”. In Wicked Fox, it is Miyoung who is mysterious and detached and complicated, whereas Jihoon is goofy and kind and often takes on the caretaker role. What’s even more impressive is that Cho also managed to steer clear of the manic pixie dream girl trope by making Miyoung a main character and giving her a voice, and making sure readers know that, despite being a gumiho, she is still a person. While Miyoung and Jinhoo’s stories certainly center around each other and their growing relationship, Cho also creates space for each of them to tackle their own problems. We get to see them both struggle with wanting to chase after their own desires, while at the same time wanting to stay respectful towards their families and honor the bonds they already have formed.

The plot of Wicked Fox overall is fantastic! There are unexpected alliances and betrayals, and the perfect amount of plot twists that keep the story exciting without it ever feeling Cho is tricking the reader by hiding facts from them. Cho also does an amazing job of slowly piecing together the pasts of the characters so that, when the time is right, everything clicks into place in a satisfying conclusion. My only complaint is, at times, it felt like issues/conflicts got resolved a little too quickly. Without spoiling anything, Miyoung and Jinhoo experience events and losses that would definitely leave lasting effects, but not enough time is given to working through them. While I really did love the book (so so much!), I think the pacing towards the end was a little rough, and I found myself wishing that Cho had split this book into two so that more time could be spent on some revelations that occur towards the end.

The good news is, there will be a sequel! The second book in this series is slated for summer 2020, and I already can’t wait! Cho sets up a nice cliffhanger at the end, and I know that I will definitely be in line to grab the sequel as soon as it comes out. I recommend this book to anyone who loves fantasy, but who wants something new and exciting from the genre.

My rating:

8 Fox Beads out of 10.

-Sara

Book Review | Here and Now and Then by Mike Chen

Genre : Science Fiction
Date Published : January 29, 2019
Publisher : MIRA Books

I first heard about this book in one of my grad school classes, my professor pulling up the Amazon page for it to show us the “front matter” – the copyright info, the publisher, the ISBN, date of publication, etc. We didn’t even talk about the plot of the book – but the cover caught my eye and I immediately googled the book for more information. When I found out it was a book about time travel and secret agents, I knew that it wouldn’t be long until I went out to buy it. And while Mike Chen’s debut novel is indeed about time travel and secret agents, it also deals heavily with themes of family and sacrifice – and all of these elements come together in an exciting and emotional story.

The book kicks off with a prologue, quickly catching you up to how the protagonist, Kin Stewart, a secret agent for the Temporal Corruption Bureau (TCB) from the year 2142 ended up in San Francisco in 1996. He got injured on the mission, but that’s not the bad part – the really bad part is that his retrieval beacon was broken, meaning his ticket back home has been destroyed. What I really appreciated about this section was how smoothly Chen teaches the reader the rules about this universe. There’s explanation about the time travel and who Kin really is, but it isn’t overdone or overly wordy – he gives you enough information to situate yourself in the story, and then pushes the plot forward.

Chapter One begins eighteen years later, and while I don’t usually like big time jumps, for this story it makes sense. Kin, with no way back home to his own time, has made a life for himself. He’s married to a woman named Heather, and they have a fourteen-year-old daughter together – Miranda, whose relationship with Kin is at the crux of the whole story. Chen does a great job of sprinkling in details about this new life, telling readers that Kin dreams of being on the TV show Home Chef Challenge, and that his family has a tradition of first-Monday-of-the-month TV nights where they all gather together to watch various sci-fi movies or shows. It’s details like this that I loved – and I wished we’d gotten more of these lived-in moments before the next act of the story began. On the same day that the first chapter starts out on, another time traveling agent finally shows up to rescue Kin and take him back to the year 2142, where a whole other life that he can no longer remember is waiting for him.

“Pressure returned to Kin’s temples, a grip that took hold across space and time. This one was different; he knew it from the very feel. It had nothing to do with time-jump damage to the frontal cortex or memory triggers that pushed his brain too hard. No, this was the silent grind of his jaw, the increase in blood pressure, the panic-turned-anger in his heart. ‘What have you done to Miranda?’”

Chapter 30, page 179

While I wanted more time to be spent building up Kin and Miranda’s relationship, the brief glimpse we get of them at the beginning of the book is enough to cement the idea that Kin loves his daughter, and would do anything to protect her. This makes his being forced back to his own timeline all the more heartbreaking, especially since he doesn’t even get a chance to say goodbye. And when he learns that Miranda’s very existence is a timeline corruption, and that her life is in danger because of that, it comes as no surprise that Kin decides to break even more time travel rules in order to save her.

Here and Now and Then is heartfelt, fun, and suspenseful, and Chen does a masterful job at playing out the reality of the situations each character is in, making the reader feel sympathetic towards just about everyone in the story. And while the pacing did feel a little off, with some things happening too quickly, this could be connected to the main obstacle that Kin faces throughout the book whenever he attempts fix everything before anyone gets hurt – the fact that he needs more time.

I think that Mike Chen is an author we can definitely be excited about! He describes his books as “tales of family and friendship and humor that just happen to have some time travel or an apocalypse.” His next book, A Beginning At The End, is set to come out in January 2020 and tells the story of a group of four people who come together six years after a global pandemic hits the world. I can’t wait to get my hands on it, and I’m so happy to have a new author to keep up with!

My rating:

7.5 Broken Retrieval Beacons out of 10.

-Sara

Review | Jumping Monkey Hill by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Genre : Short Story
Published : October 2, 2006 / June 1, 2010
Publisher : Granta / Anchor

When Emory and I came up with the idea to recommend a short story to each other for this week’s post, I was at a loss for a while. It was like every short story I had ever read and loved flew out of my mind. Then I started thinking back to the Advanced Fiction class I took during my final year of undergrad, and Jumping Monkey Hill stuck out in my memory. There’s so much to dissect in the story – colonialism, racism, sexism, family dynamics, and lastly, it’s a short story about writing short stories, and about how some people will try to dictate what a good, believable story is while diminishing other kinds of stories and experiences and deeming them unrealistic.

While I absolutely loved my fiction class and the writing workshops we had, this was a topic that always seemed to pop up, whether it was someone commenting on my story or someone else’s. “That just doesn’t seem believable” or “Oh no, that wouldn’t happen. This is what you should write instead”. And sure, the suggestions were part of the editing process, sometimes they were even good, but sometimes you were also left with the feeling of everyone just not understanding what your story was conveying, or feeling hurt that your peers deemed something that may have happened to you as “unrealistic.” Jumping Monkey Hill weaves this critique into the protagonist’s life, connecting it to themes of identity and creating a story that contains so much power. I can’t wait to read about what Emory thought of it!

-Sara

I’m so glad Sara recommended I check out Jumping Monkey Hill by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie! It’s been awhile since I’ve read a really impactful piece of realistic short fiction, and I’m so grateful I had the pleasure of reading this story for this week’s blog post.

Jumping Monkey Hill is about a young woman named Ujunwa who is invited to participate in the African Writers’ Workshop – a weeklong writing workshop founded and facilitated by Edward Campbell, an old white man from England. The workshop starts off harmless enough – though Ujunwa finds it odd that the workshop is taking place at a fancy, mostly white seaside resort in South Africa, she still begins to form small bonds with the other workshop members. But tensions soon rise as it becomes apparent that Edward does not have any of the workshop participants’ best interests at heart. Instead, he seeks to mold them into his colonialist vision of what an “African writer” is supposed to be.

The uneven power dynamic between Edward and the writers is established the moment Edward does the workshop introductions – he introduces each writer by the country they’re from, reducing them to mere representatives of “Africa.” We soon come to find, of course, that Edward’s understanding of “Africa” is racist, sexist, and homophobic, and that he expects the stories the participants submit to fit into his colonial view of Africa. While some workshop participants write off his behavior as “harmless” because he is an old man, it soon becomes evident that Edward’s behavior is an extension of a violent and insidious racist colonial history.

In addition to reducing workshop participants to their race, Edward also begins to hypersexualize the women of the group. This, unfortunately, is nothing new for Ujunwa. For her workshop story, she writes about her experiences with sexual harassment while searching for a job. These moments in Ujunwa’s short story mirror the sexual harassment she experiences at the hands of Edward throughout the workshop. For me, one of the most heartbreaking moments in this story is when Ujunwa realizes that all of the other participants had noticed the ways in which Edward sexualized her, but none of them had done anything to stop him.

She should not have laughed when Edward said, ‘I’d rather like you to lie down for me.’ It had not been funny. It had not been funny at all. She had hated it, hated the grin on his face and the glimpse of greenish teeth and the way he always looked at her chest rather than at her face and yet she had made herself laugh like a deranged hyena.

The workshop participants silently accept Edward’s increasingly vile microaggressions because they are afraid that speaking up will lose them money or future opportunities as writers. Ujunwa herself takes Edward’s words and actions with a silent resentment until the very end of the story, when Ujunwa finally refuses to take anymore of his bullshit. (This moment made me want to cheer and scream and lift Ujunwa up on my shoulders).

One of my major takeaways from Jumping Monkey Hill was the mental toll writing workshops take on marginalized voices when white, cis, heterosexual male experiences are centralized. When Edward doesn’t like a story (because it didn’t fit into the neat, colonial box of what he understood “Africa” to be) he says the dreaded workshop phrase: “The story itself begged the question ‘So what?'” Jumping Monkey Hill almost seems to be a direct response to this question. The answer? Because marginalized voices demand to be heard and listened to. Just because a white man or a white woman doesn’t understand a story doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold value – rather, it means white writers must work even harder to de-center whiteness as the “default” and continue to listen to and uplift marginalized voices without expecting a cookie in return.

I loved this story SO much and I can’t wait to buy Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story collection! Read Jumping Monkey Hill online here !

My Rating:

10 Excruciating Writing Workshops out of 10

-Emory

Review | The Truth About Owls by Amal El-Mohtar

Genre : Young Adult Fiction, Fantasy Fiction
Initially Published : August 2014, Reprint: January 2015
Publisher : Twelfth Planet Press/Strange Horizons

With a busy next few weeks ahead of us, Sara and I decided to switch things up a bit for our next two blog posts! This Sunday and next Sunday, we’ll each be reviewing a short story recommended by the other. This week, I recommended that Sara read The Truth About Owls by Amal El-Mohtar, a beautiful and heartbreaking coming of age story that deals with identity, loss, magic, and, of course, owls.

I stumbled upon this story a year ago while listening to the Levar Burton Reads podcast at the gym – I immediately fell in love with the voice of this piece. In this story, El-Mohtar effortlessly weaves the magical into the mundane. I love how she makes the smallest things in life (like a little girl and an owl!) seem so very big and meaningful. I hope you enjoy, Sara!

-Emory


The first thing I want to talk about for this story is its structure, which I found so cool and so fun to read. Each small section of the story is preceded by a fact about owls – their eye color, their personalities, how they look when they fly, etc. These are then followed by plot (obviously) and bits of information about the protagonist of the story – Anisa, effectively connecting her appearance, her personality, and her identity to various species of owls. I love how the random facts about owls give you clues to what you’re going to learn about Anisa, and how going back and re-reading the story makes you tie even more similarities between them!

We meet Anisa at the Scottish Owl Centre, where she is on a school field trip and finds herself having to correct her teacher’s pronunciation of her name while also noting how the teachers don’t try to herd her together with the other children. The owl fact preceding this section is about the coloring of owl’s eyes, and how this corresponds to what time of day they hunt (black-eyed owls hunt at night). Anisa reflects on how she no longer hates that her eyes are black, even though she used to wish that her eyes were a lighter color like her father’s, which “people were always startled to see in a brown face.”

“But she can’t remember—though she often tries—whether she felt, for the first time, the awful electric prickle of the power in her chest, flooding out to her palms.”

The story continues to weave facts and plot together, revealing that Anisa grew up in Lebanon and lived there when Israel bombed the country. Her re-location to the UK resulted in a lot of othering by her new classmates, and in an anger and a sense of loss building inside of Anisa that she believes is a dangerous power that makes bad things happen when she thinks of them. This is another part of the story that I absolutely loved – seeing how this “power” manifested itself in Anisa, how it reached a breaking point, and how it slowly transformed into something else entirely by the end of the story.

Anisa’s anger and her guilt at that anger ebbs away the more time she spends at the owl centre. She meets a woman named Izzy who works there and handles one of the owls, Blodeuwedd. Izzy tells Anisa the Welsh story of Blodeuwedd, a woman made of flowers who turned into an owl, and this story is what pushes Anisa into learning more about Welsh mythology and magic – and as a result, more about herself. This combined with the friendship that starts to build with Izzy helps Anisa begin to blossom into something new.

There is so much I want to talk about with this story, so much I want to dissect, but I feel like talking about it more than I have will spoil the magic that it contains (and there is so much that is magical about this story!). El-Mohtar uses language in The Truth About Owls to create this magic, defining what words mean and what certain feelings are called and then tying them into the story and the characters in a way that is seemingly simple, but also extremely beautiful. For example, Anisa sometimes feels like a collection of random bits and things thrown together, and Izzy tells her that feeling can be described as a florilegium – a gathering of flowers. I can’t even begin to say how much I love how El-Mohtar takes Anisa’s doubts and fears and gives them a name, like a gathering of flowers, showing that having doubts and fears doesn’t have to be an ugly thing that you should hide.

The Truth About Owls is beautifully written, and I feel like I catch new details each time I go through it. The descriptions and the way Anisa’s changes and grows makes me want to re-read this story over and over (I’m already on my fourth reading of it!!!). So, thanks for recommending it, Emory! It has definitely taken its place on my list of favorite short stories! If you all are interested in reading it after hearing my review, it is available to read for free on Strange Horizons: http://strangehorizons.com/fiction/the-truth-about-owls/

My rating:

9 Random Owl Facts out of 10

-Sara