Seven short stories focus on the lives, loves, and losses of contemporary British women, often with intense psychological studies of the characters. In one, a shy young woman meets and befriends the toughest girl in town, along with her horse-rearing family. When the narrator witnesses the cruel treatment of a horse by a neighboring farmer, the family takes the girl under their collective wing as they set things right without help from the law. In another, a couple travels on holiday to Africa, and the man breaks up with the woman, leaving her to wander the beaches while trying to figure out how to proceed with the rest of the vacation and the rest of her life. After she befriends a mangy dog with blood on its snout, she learns her ex has been viciously attacked. In the title story, a successful author meets her lover for a weekend that culminates in a decision that shatters the calm of the earlier story. Another story shows the friendship between two girls, one with a fatal wasting illness, and one with the determination to hunt as many minks as she can in order to make a cloak for her dying friend.
Why I picked it up: This author has been nominated for a number of literary prizes, so I had to see why people are so excited about her writing.
Why I finished it: I enjoyed each story in this eclectic collection. While the women were not always sympathetic, they were always worth reading about. I was intrigued by what was told as much as what was untold. This was especially true of the story in which a woman befriended by an older woman is given a business card that leads her to an agency where her deepest desires are met. The narrator cannot figure out how her friend knew to give her the card, or if her friend runs the clandestine operation.
It’s perfect for: Fans of Joyce Carol Oates’s short stories, especially those in Black Dahlia & White Rose. Both authors create brief, intense fictions with crisp details that still leave a lot to the imagination.
Mahmood and Fereiba have an idyllic life in Kabul. He’s a civil engineer and she’s a school teacher, and their three children seem to be doing well. Then the Taliban come to power. Fereiba loses her job and is forced to comply with new laws restricting what she can wear and requiring her to be accompanied by a male relative when in public. When Mahmood is arrested and doesn’t return, Fereiba decides that she must try to go to join family in London. She sets out on a dangerous (and illegal) trek with her children.
Why I picked it up: Fiction is a great way to learn about other cultures. I’m especially interested in women’s issues in Muslim countries.
Why I finished it: Fereiba is a fascinating character, a strong woman facing incredible odds, willing to do anything to bring her children out of an oppressive society. The story alternates between her story and that of her son, Saleem, who gets separated from his family and has to survive on his own. The stories of what they go through to reach freedom are heartbreaking.
Readalikes: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, another novel set in Kabul. It’s an emotional story of love and survival that focuses on women’s and family issues over the course of thirty years in modern Afghanistan.
Peter and Pax have been best friends since Peter found the small fox years ago -- it was the only kit alive in an abandoned den. But now Peter must go live with his grandfather and can't bring the fox with him. His father says it is time to release Pax into the wild. It breaks Peter's heart, but he doesn't want to risk his father's temper, so he does as he is told. But once Peter is at his grandfather's house, he knows that what he did was wrong. Pax never learned how to survive on his own in the wild, and Peter is worried sick. He decides to set off on a 300 mile journey to find Pax again.
Why I picked it up: Foxes are super cute, and I loved the illustration on the cover. Plus my boyfriend is always saying if he ever comes into a large sum of money, he will adopt one of those Russian domesticated red foxes.
Why I finished it: I loved how this book went back and forth between Peter's and Pax's points of view. Peter's perspective is colored by his fragile relationship with his father and the loss of his mother. Author Sara Pennypacker did a wonderful job showing how Pax's acute sense of smell and hearing dominate its worldview. Curran-Dorsano was great, too, and I especially liked how he voiced the cranky recluse who saves Peter when he hurts his ankle and then helps him finish his journey.
Readalikes: Pennypacker does a marvelous job of showing how war not only impacts humans, but the wildlife around them, too. It reminded me of one of my favorite picture books, Faithful Elephants: A True Story of Animals, People, and War, a heartbreaking book about Japanese zoo animals that were killed to supposedly keep people safer during WWII.
Etta feels like she is not enough. She's not gay enough for the dykes, who ditched her for dating a boy. She's not skinny enough or white enough to be a ballerina. And now she has an eating disorder, though she’s not anorexic or bulimic enough to actually get a specific diagnosis. After she makes her first real friend in group therapy, they both try out for Brentwood, a prestigious theater school in New York, in an effort to escape Nebraska.
Why I picked it up: The cover copy sounded good, but no one was checking it out. I thought I could hand sell it better if I’d read it.
Why I finished it: Etta is amazing. Despite all of her confusion about where she fits in, she remains unwilling to give up. She tries out for Brentwood year after year, and even tries to patch things up with her former best friend who is ignoring her.
It’s perfect for: Ari, who is figuring out who her real friends are, like Etta, while she searches for a way to stay above the noise and drama of small town life. Etta's willingness to embrace new people who support her, instead of familiar faces who criticize her, are choices I see Ari making as she improves her life.
Top comics creators from Japan, the U.S. and Europe write and draw short stories of transition to celebrate Humanoids’ 40th anniversary.
Contributors include Boulet, Eddie Campbell, John Cassaday, Bob Fingerman, Atsushi Kaneko, Keiichi Koike, Emmanuel Lepage, Taiyô Matsumoto, Frederik Peeters, Paul Pope, Katsuya Terada, Naoki Urasawa, and Bastien Vivès.
Why I finished it: Matsumoto’s “Hanako’s Fart” was a light start to what’s otherwise a fairly heavy volume, with a young girl embarrassed on her school playground. The story then shifts locations and perspectives to show other simultaneous moments around the world, creating a mini version of Fawkes’ One Soul. The next story, Lapage’s “The Awakening,” is done in mostly black-and-white ink washes, though color appears to sharpen the beauty of flowers and a young photographer’s awakening to who he is. The variety of art never stopped, from the hyper-realistic (Cassaday) to the highly stylized (Pope, Boulet, and, heck, all the others). The book offers quite a sampler of art from top comics creators.
Readalikes: The best stylistic mashup of manga and French comics is The Last Man, while French sensibilities and American pulp heroes combine in Pope’s Battling Boy. It’s harder to think of a meeting of American and Japanese sensibilities (does The Empire Strikes Back manga count?), though it’s fun to see Japanese creators parody American superhero comics in One-Punch Man.