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Book Review: Bits of Bliss – Volume 1 by Andrea Trask (Series, #1)

Book Review: Bits of Bliss - Volume 1 by Andrea Trask (Series, #1)Summary:
A collection of nine erotica short stories, mostly featuring elements of fantasy.  Covering everything from fairy tale retellings to vampires to a bit of scifi.

Review:
This erotica short story collection was quite hit or miss for me.  The stories that excelled were creative and unique, but the stories that did not featured some problematic elements that prevented me from enjoying the erotica.

When I read a short story collection, I always individually rate the stories.  My rating of the collection as a whole is just the average of those ratings.  The highest rating any story in this collection received from me was four stars.  There were three stories I gave four stars, and two of them were the first two stories in the collection, so it definitely started out strong for me.  One is a F/F story featuring a woman who is also a flower (or a flower who is also a woman).  It is poetic and heart-quickening.  The second story features a sentient house that has missed its owner and demands attention.  This made me laugh, and I enjoyed the oddity.  It read like a lighter-hearted, erotica version of dark fantasies where there is an evil house–this one is just horny.  The third four star read was enjoyable for a different reason.  It’s a scifi erotica where two lovers are in a spaceship that is running out of air.  They decide to make love, even though they will die quicker.  It was so heart-breaking and beautiful that I wished it was a whole book.

Four of the stories received three stars.  In each case I felt the story either didn’t take an idea far enough or the story wasn’t long enough to tell the story.  Take it farther, and these all could be just as good as the first three I discussed.

Unfortunately, there were two stories that were big clunkers for me, with each receiving only one star, and they both had almost the same problem.  “Hunting Hound” has a woman mating with a werewolf.  She meets him when she is out riding, and they start making out against a tree, with her a willing participant.  Then this happens.

“Stop” she said, and his face darted in toward her own with a low growl. “Too late to stop.” (loc 1650)

He proceeds to penetrate her.  There is nothing sexy about a woman asking a man to stop and him claiming it’s too late and proceeding to rape her.  It is never too late to stop, and it’s never too late for a partner to change their mind.  It really bothers me that this type of scene is still being presented as sexy.  I know everyone gets off to their own thing, but this is such a clear scene of consent being removed and then ignored that I just cannot say to each their own in this case.  I also want to mention that the book blurb claims that this story features “consensual sexual violence” but it definitely did not read that way to me.

“Summer Nights,” which also received one star, has a similar problem.  This story features a woman who keeps seeing the same mysterious man at parties.  She goes out to the woods behind the house at one of these parties, and he follows her.  She finds out he’s a vampire.  She stands in the woods talking to him, holding a wineglass, when this happens:

“he struck like a train, his swinging backhand sending the wineglass flying toward the treeline, and I faintly registered the tinkling shatter of it, perhaps hitting a rock, or a fallen log.” (loc 5654)

She finds the fact that he just hit a glass out of her hand to be massively sexy and proceeds to bang him.  This is, again, something I feel like I shouldn’t need to say, but there is nothing sexy about a partner violently hitting something out of your hand.  Nothing. Sexy. This is not a sign that oh man she should totally bang this vampire. It is a sign she should run because she is alone in the woods with a violent motherfucker.  This could have so easily been foreplay if, instead of hitting a glass out of her hand, he said something like, “I want you now,” and he gently took the glass from her hand and tossed it away.  Or if she said, “I want you so much,” and tossed the glass over her shoulder.  It would be so easy to have the same erotica about a powerful vampire alone in the woods with a woman without it turning into problematic territory.

I truly wish these last two stories were not in the collection.  The rest of the collection is creative, features some fun queer content (the F/F story and a gender-swapping story), and in the case of the best three stories, has some unique ideas.  Where the collection flounders is, interestingly enough, with the two most mainstream stories that take the agency out of the hands of the women in them and instead retreats to the tired idea of violent men being sexy.

Overall, if a reader is looking for some quick fantasy erotica, most of the stories in this book will satisfy this need, although I would recommend skipping over “Hunting Hound” and “Summer Nights.”  The reader who enjoys the other stories for their uniqueness will most likely be disappointed by the “sexy violence” in these two.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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2014’s 5 Star Reads!

January 8, 2015 1 comment

Since 2011, I’ve been dedicating a separate post from my annual reading stats post to the 5 star reads of the year.  I not only thoroughly enjoy assembling the 5 star reads posts, but I also go back to them for reference periodically.  It’s just useful and fun simultaneously!  Plus it has the added bonus of giving an extra signal boost to the five star reads of the year.  You may view the 5 star reads for 2011, 2012, and 2013 by clicking on the years.

With no further ado, presenting Opinions of a Wolf’s 5 Star Reads for 2014!

A bone hand holds chopsticks.
A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts

By: Ying Chang Compestine
Publication Date: 2009
Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.
Genre: Horror, Short Story Collection
Themes: Chinese history, food
Summary:
According to Chinese tradition, those who die hungry or wrongfully come back to haunt the living.  Compestine presents here eight different ghost stories, each correlated along with a course in a banquet and richly steeped in Chinese culture and history.
Current Thoughts:
A cute book that I think of fondly.  I really need to make at least one of the recipes in this book!  This short story collection is presented in just the way that I most enjoy.  Different stories surrounding one unifying theme.  Plus, I learned something.
Full Review

A Japanese warrior woman's face has the shadow of cat ears behind her. The book's title and author name are over this picture.
Fudoki

By: Kij Johnson
Publication Date: 2003
Publisher: Tor
Genre: Fantasy
Themes: the meaning of family, identity, duty
Summary:
An aging empress decides to fill her empty notebooks before she must get rid of them along with all of her belongings to retire to the convent, as is expected of her.  She ends up telling the story of Kagaya-hime, a tortoiseshell cat who loses her cat family in a fire and is turned into a woman by the kami, the god of the road.
Current Thoughts:
Warrior woman who was once a cat. Set in ancient Japan. What is not to love about that? My only regret is I waited so long to read this book.  It languished on my TBR pile for far too long.
Full Review

A woman's hair is barely visible on the left-hand side of a book cover. The book's title and author are in red against a black background.
Gone Girl

By: Gillian Flynn
Publication Date: 2012
Publisher: Broadway Books
Genre: Thriller, Contemporary
Themes: be careful who you marry, not everything is as it first appears
Summary:
On Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary, Nick comes home from working at the bar he co-owns with his sister to find his wife gone. The door is wide open, furniture is overturned, and the police say there is evidence that blood was cleaned up from the floor of the kitchen.  Eyes slowly start to turn toward Nick as the cause of her disappearance, while Nick slowly starts to wonder just how well he really knows his wife.
Current Thoughts:
It’s hard to give thoughts without revealing spoilers so let me just say that I still love the twist in this book, and I found the writing style to be perfect for a thriller.  It’s a book that really curled my toes, and I’m glad it exists and has become so popular, and I’m looking forward to reading more Gillian Flynn this year.
Full Review

Woman in short wedding dress and black boots holds a sword. A dog in a bow tie is nearby.
My Big Fat Demon Slayer Wedding

By: Angie Fox
Publication Date: 2013
Publisher: Indie, Self-Published
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Themes: weddings are hell but lifetime partnership is amazing
Summary:
Lizzie Brown, once preschool teacher turned demon slayer, is extremely excited to be marrying her true love, Dimitri Kallinikos, who just so happens to also be a magical shape-changing griffin.  And she’s also fine with letting her adoptive mother run the whole show, even though her mother wants to make the wedding into a week-long event.  She’s not so ok with having to tell her mother about being a demon slayer, though. Or about integrating her mother’s posh southern lady lifestyle with her recently discovered blood-related grandmother’s biker witch gang.  She’s pleasantly surprised that her mother found a goth-style mansion to rent for the wedding.  Maybe the magical and the non-magical can integrate fairly well, after all.  But then it becomes evident that someone in the wedding is trying to kill her.  Plus, they find demonic images around the property….
Current Thoughts:
I read this right after I got engaged, so I was in just the right frame of mind for an urban fantasy featuring a wedding.  But even if I hadn’t just gotten engaged before reading it, I still would have loved it.  This book knocks it out of the park with everything that makes urban fantasy delightful.  A normal event kicked up a notch by fantastical characters and happenings.  It also communicates the odd combination of the horror that is wedding planning and the pure joy that is finding your lifelong partner.  Plus it’s hilarious and romantic.
Full Review

A woman's jawline and neck are viewed through a shattered glass.
Still Missing

By: Chevy Stevens
Publication Date: 2010
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Genre: Thriller, Contemporary
Themes:  be careful who you trust, hope and healing
Summary:
Annie O’Sullivan extremely forcefully declares in her first therapy session that she doesn’t want her therapist to talk back to her; she just wants her to listen.  And so, through multiple sessions, she slowly finds a safe space to recount her horrible abduction from an open house she was running as an up-and-rising realtor, her year spent as the prisoner of her abductor, and of her struggles both to deal with her PTSD now that she’s free again and to deal with the investigation into her abduction.
Current Thoughts:
This book features a realistic depiction of PTSD plus it scared the pants off of me.  Still does if I think about it too much.
Full Review

A sunset near tropical trees and a mountain range
A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown

By: Julia Scheeres
Publication Date: 2011
Publisher: Free Press
Genre: Nonfiction – History
Themes: understanding a tragedy, when spirituality goes awry
Summary:
On November 18, 1978, 918 people, mostly Americans, died on a commune named Jonestown and on a nearby airstrip in Guyana.  The world came to know this event as that time that crazy cult committed mass suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid.  However, that belief is full of inaccuracies.  Scheeres traces the origins of Jonestown, starting with its leader, Jim Jones, and his Christian church in Indiana, tracing its development into the People’s Temple in California, and then into Jonestown in Guyana.  Multiple members’ life stories are traced as well, including information from their family members who, perplexed, watched their families give everything over to Jones.
Current Thoughts:
I am so glad I read this.  I feel so much more informed and knowledgeable about Jonestown.  It’s sad to me that the cultural myth of Jonestown is so different from what actually happened, particularly with regards to the mass suicide, when in many cases it was murder not suicide. This book presents an event that would be easy to brush off as “those people were just crazy” in a way that humanizes it and makes it more real.
Full Review

Book Review: A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts by Ying Chang Compestine (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

September 16, 2014 11 comments

A bone hand holds chopsticks.Summary:
According to Chinese tradition, those who die hungry or wrongfully come back to haunt the living.  Compestine presents here eight different ghost stories, each correlated along with a course in a banquet and richly steeped in Chinese culture and history.

Review:
I picked this up because I had previously read Compestine’s book Revolution Is Not a Dinner Party (review) and when I looked up what else she had written, I was deeply intrigued by the premise.  This is a strong short story collection, featuring diverse yet related short stories, each beautifully written.

The eight short stories are organized into appetizers, main courses, and desserts.  The titles are for the food being served that course, such as “Tea Eggs” or “Long-life Noodles.”  The food mentioned in the title also appears somewhere in the story as a key part of the plot.  It’s a gorgeous way to organize the short stories and makes them also feel like diverse parts of a whole.

The short stories are mostly set in 20th century China, but a couple feature 20th century characters investigating something from the more distant past or being haunted by more ancient ghosts.  One story is set in New York City and features a Chinese-American family.

The stories, universally, quickly establish the setting and characters.  They all subtly teach some aspect of Chinese culture or history.  For instance, one story looks at medicine under Communism in China, while another features preying mantis fights.  At the end of each story, a brief blurb gives further details about two to three aspects of Chinese culture or history featured in the story.  Most surprising, and incredibly welcome, at the end of each short story, Compestine gives a recipe for the featured food!  It reminded me of how cozy mysteries often feature patterns or recipes at the end of the book, only this time the recipes are found in a shorty story horror collection.  Brilliant!

What about the horror aspect of the short stories?  I found them simultaneously plausible and sufficiently scary.  I was a bit on the edge of my seat without being scared out of my wits, which is exactly what I was looking for.

Overall, I immensely enjoyed each of these short stories, from the touch of horror to the settings to the amount I learned about Chinese culture and history to the wonderful recipes.  Highly recommended to anyone with even a moderate interest in China, Chinese culture, or Chinese food.  Even if horror isn’t usually your genre, give these ghosts a chance.  You’ll be glad you did.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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Banner for the RIP IX challenge.

Book Review: I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (Series, #0.1) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

September 21, 2013 Leave a comment

Image of a see-through robot with red eyes.  Blurred like it is in motion. It is on a black background, and the book's title and author are in white text at the top.Summary:
This collection of short stories tells the history of the invention and gradual improvement of robots.  The robots in this future must follow the 3 Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

But following these laws doesn’t always have quite the outcome the inventors and managers of robots intended.

Review:
I wasn’t aware I, Robot is actually a short story collection.  It’s precisely the type I enjoy though because they all work together to tell one overarching story in order.  Beginning with the earliest robots, they slowly move up through important points in the history of robotics to lead up to the world run by big brain machine robots that Asimov has imagined.  This collection is a prequel of sorts (and of many) to Asimov’s robot series that begins with The Caves of Steel (list of entire series).

One thing I like about the world Asimov sets up is that unlike many scifi books featuring AI, the people in Asimov’s world are highly, intensely cautious of robots.  They’re very concerned about robots taking jobs, killing humans, and even robbing humans of their autonomy.  It sets up a conflict from the beginning and frankly presents the humans as just a bit more intelligent than in some AI scifi universes.

I was under the impression from pop culture that in I, Robot they think they’re protected by the Laws of Robotics but something happens so that the robots aren’t programmed with them any longer.  That’s not what happens at all.  What happens is much more complex.  How the robots interpret the Laws and how the Laws work end up being much more complex and less straight-forward than the humans originally imagined, so much so that they have to have a robopsychologist to help them interpret what’s going on with the robots.  This is really quite brilliant and is one of my favorite aspects of the book.

Unfortunately, the book can read a bit sexist sometimes, in spite of having a female protagonist through quite a bit of the book.  (The robopsychologist is a woman).  The book was first published in 1950, though, so when you think about the time period, the sexism is pretty minor, especially compared to having a female worldwide expert on robopsychology.  The main time sexism comes up is when the leader of Europe is a woman and says some self-deprecating things about difficulty leading because she’s a woman.  Yes, there is older scifi that avoids sexism pretty much entirely, but I am able to give this instance a bit of a pass considering the other strong portrayal of a woman in a leadership role.  But be aware that at least one cringe-inducing sexist conversation does occur.

Overall, this piece of classic scifi stands the test of time extraordinarily well.  Its film adaptations do not do it proper service at all.  Come to this book expecting a collection of short stories exploring robopsychology, not an action flick about killer robots.  Recommended to scifi fans.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Harvard Books

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Book Review: Instruction Manual for Swallowing by Adam Marek

Red book cover witha  fly on it and the title "Instruction Manual for Swallowing" written in pink, and the author's name "Adam Marek" written in black.Summary:
A collection of fourteen short stories taking one ordinary experience and inserting an extraordinary fantastical, scifi, or bizarro instance into the situation, seeing how the main character reacts.

Review:
A mixed collection, containing both 2 star and 5 star stories, although most stick right around the 3 star mark.  The stories veer between scifi and fantasy, although both have some bizarro element in them.

Where Marek excels is when he takes a little talked-about male experience and utilizes the unique qualities of genre fiction to explore it.  The only 5 star story in the collection, “Boiling the Toad” explores a male victim of domestic violence.  It does this in a powerful way without demonizing all women.  The story starts as “my life is so bizarre” but eventually becomes all too real.  It’s interesting to note that this is also the opposite of many stories in the collection.  Many start ordinary and turn bizarre.  Starting bizarre and turning ordinary worked much better.  Similarly, “Testicular Cancer vs. The Behemoth” explores male feelings about a cancer that is only possible to get if you have testicles.  Marek fairly eloquently presents the main character as attempting to defend his perceived manhood by trying to protect his girlfriend from a Godzilla-like monster attacking the city.  These stories are interesting, and I enjoyed exploring them.

Where the collection fails and flounders, though, is when the main character is self-centered and perceives of women as objects or only existing for his pleasure.  It’s incredibly difficult to feel any empathy for a character who wants to cheat on his wife but ends up failing because of a mysterious puking illness he gets at the sushi restaurant (Sushi Plate Epiphany) or to care about a man who calls his pregnant wife a monster and tries to cheat on her while she’s still carrying his children (Belly Full of Rain).  A lot of these stories incited an eye-roll and “boohoo it’s so horrible to be a man” sarcastic response from me, which I seriously doubt was what the author was going for.

Then there are the stories that simple don’t seem to have any point or make any sense.  They seem to just be getting going when Marek stops them abruptly.  Or they do seem to be at their end but there is just no point.  Both “the Forty-Litre Monkey” and “Jumping Jennifer” have a great set-up of a mystery but that mystery is never addressed.  They stop too soon.  “Instruction Manual for Swallowing” and “The Thorn” are highly fantastical yet the conflict isn’t set up enough so as to be interesting.

Marek’s writing style varies widely between the perfect tone for bizarro genre fiction and being overly pretentious for his genre.  For instance he writes sentences like this:

Being in the room felt like being suffocated in an armpit. (location 55)

But also pretentiously calls a college quad a “quadrangle” (“Jumping Jennifer”).

Overall then this is a widely varied collection of bizarro short fiction.  Some of the stories offer wonderful insight into male issues while others wallow annoyingly in the minds of terrible men who only think they have a problem, while still others set up a fantastic world but are ultimately boring due to lack of conflict.  If you are intrigued by any of the stories mentioned, I would advise getting a copy from the library since they will be quickly read, and you can return it when done.  Definitely feel free to skip around in this collection.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Purple and white face with large eyes and open mouth that looks frightened. Book title and author's name are written over it.Summary:
A bunch of people sign up, individually, for a writer’s retreat. Telling no one where they’re going, they vow to write the next great American novel. They wind up locked away in the opposite of the lap of luxury, however. Trapped in a dusty old theater, they quickly become focused on an entirely different type of story.  What happens to these writers is interspersed with poetry about each person and short stories written by each of them while locked in the retreat.

Review:
I am a huge Palahniuk fan. Fight Club spoke to me when I was at my late teens most intense angst that is indescribable.  To this day, I view the book (and the movie) as exemplary artforms that demonstrate how genre literature can say something incredibly serious and deep.  I also point to Palahniuk as a way to say that vulgarity and horror do not equate to bad writing.  All of which is to say, I’m pretty biased toward being a fan of anything Palahniuk does.  Just so you’re aware.

I struggle with short story collections. I like them to be all connected somehow, even if it’s just by theme, so at first I really liked the idea of a collection of short stories written by people at a writer’s retreat.  It’s a good idea, but it’s not executed very well.  The short stories are awesome! The connecting bits of narrative aren’t so much.  Basically, the writers decide that they should spin what happens at the retreat to be as horrible as possible to help get a movie deal out of it after the fact. So they focus on twisting the facts and committing atrocities against themselves and each other to make for a better story.  I totally got what is being said about writers procrastinating by making drama in their own lives instead of actually writing.  I liked that part. But there also wasn’t enough realness in the connecting bits to keep me interested.  I found myself dreading them whereas I really enjoyed the short stories, which made for an uneven reading experience.

One of the short stories contained in this collection is Palahniuk’s famous “Guts.” The one that makes people faint.  (Palahniuk has made it available online for free here).  This was definitely the best short story in the collection, and I can see why it became so famous.  It also sets the tone for a lot of the stories in the collection. There’s one with people randomly getting smashed in a city. There’s also one about the possible origins of the Sasquatch myth.  My second favorite after “Guts” was actually about an inn near a hot springs in the mountains.  That one grossed me out *almost* as much as “Guts,” and also had something deeper to say, I think.  All of this is to say that if you read and enjoyed “Guts,” you’ll like the short stories in this collection.  They’re gross, horrifying, and stick with you.

Overall, it’s an interesting idea for unifying a short story collection.  Ultimately, though, I would have liked it better as a straight-up short story collection, maybe even including the writer’s retreat as a short story by itself.  This fact might make me rate the book lower, but the inclusion of so many high quality short stories keeps the book itself rating highly.  Grab this if you’ve read and enjoyed “Guts.”

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Brookline Booksmith

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Book Review: Mulliner Nights by P.G. Wodehouse (Series, #3) (Bottom of the TBR Pile Challenge)

Cat with red cheeks and a spilled whiskey bottle in the foreground.  Man with folded arms in the back.Summary:
Mr. Mulliner has a wide variety of eclectic relatives, and he’s more than happy to tell snippets of their life stories over a pint at the local pub.  From a freewheeling artist brought into line by a judgmental cat to a timid fellow who accidentally subscribes to a correspondence course on how to get a backbone to a private detective with such a disturbing smile that criminals readily confess their hijinks keep the patrons of Angler’s Rest in stitches.

Review:
This made it onto my tbr pile thanks to a visit to Harvard Books’ used books and remainders cellar.  This was in the remainders pile, and three things drew me to it.  1) It was under $5, 2) The cover has a cat drunk on whiskey on it, 3) I had just read Love Among the Chickens (review) by Wodehouse, which was my first encounter with him, and found him hilarious.  Given this trifecta, I couldn’t resist.  I’m glad I didn’t, as this short story collection didn’t disappoint.

Don’t worry about this being the third in a series.  The only connection among the short stories is the main characters are all a Mulliner (or married to one).  It was completely unnecessary to have read the first two books in the series to get into this collection, although I intend now to read all of the Mulliner books.  I really appreciated how Wodehouse sets up a structure to hold his short story collection together in one unit.  Although they are all self-contained tales, their being together in one collection actually makes sense.  They have more in common than just the author.  They are literally a family of stories.  This helped it hold my interest in a way that many short story collections can’t.

This collection consists of 9 short stories, most of which have some sort of love element.  One person wants to be with (or marry) another and must overcome some sort of obstacle (usually caused by British upper-class culture) in order to be with them.  Hilarity ensues.  My favorite of these was “The Story of Webster,” the cover’s drunk cat.  In this a freewheeling artist has his religious uncle drop his cat off with him while he goes on assignment to Africa.  The judgmental, sullen cat soon starts to reign in the young artist, much to his and his girlfriend’s chagrin.  Everything about this, from the early 20th century fashion and dialogue to the witty commentary on cats and culture works perfectly, particularly for this cat-lover.  The story that I thought worked least-well, and unfortunately wraps up the book, is “Gala Night.”  A pastor Mulliner accidentally helps a young couple who enjoys dancing to acquire the young woman’s parents’ approval of their union.  I didn’t like the religious Mulliner.  He just wasn’t funny to me.  Similarly the catalyst of a mysterious mood enhancing drink just lacked the creativity found in the other stories.  Fortunately, most of the stories fell much closer to the hilarity of the whiskey drinking cat.  However, a couple did fall a bit flat for me, which is why while I greatly enjoyed the book, I wouldn’t say I was totally in love with it.

Overall, this is a wonderfully witty collection of short stories held together by an elderly Mulliner who enjoys telling (possibly tall) tales about his family over a pint in the local pub.  If you enjoy a dry wit and slapstick humor to top off a cute love story, this collection is for you.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Harvard Books

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Previous Books in Series:
Meet Mr. Mulliner
Mr. Mulliner Speaking