Book Review: Black Glass by Karen Joy Fowler

I’ve noticed a trend this year where I seem to be reading a lot of really amazing women writers. Karen Joy Fowler is certainly no exception, as I’ve been a longtime fan of her work. As a love letter to Janeites everywhere, I immediately became enamored with The Jane Austen Book Club. My next experience was the exquisite short story collection, What I Didn’t See and Other Stories. What really impressed me about Fowler’s writing was how she was able to borrow from so many different genres in order to create such a brilliant and near perfect mix of thought-provoking tales. But years before these works, Fowler crafted another wonderful collection, showcasing her gifts of engaging voices and provocative storylines. Black Glass: Short Fictions, first released in 1998, contains fifteen devilishly inventive tales featuring some of the best female protagonists of contemporary literature.

Black Glass (1998) by Karen Joy Fowler (and Zephyr), Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

My copy of Black Glass is the 2015 updated edition containing a preface from the author. While sometimes I gain nothing from these expanded works, I really enjoyed Fowler’s thoughts on this collection. This is a writer who gravitates towards the fraught relationships between children and their fathers, but who also has a fondness for “The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Syndrome” – a concern for those peripheral, and often, misplaced characters. These are the forgotten, whether from fiction, history, or even within families. Within the pages of Black Glass, you’ll find women on the margins of society, emotionally-absent fathers and women frustrated by their relationships with men.

The opening and longest story of this collection, appropriately titled “Black Glass,” demonstrates that someone on society’s periphery doesn’t mean she’s of no consequence. I keep a writing journal for notes about each of the books I read, and for this one, I wrote in big bold letters, I NEED TO RESEARCH CARRY NATION! It’s true, as I didn’t remember anything about this historical figure. Carry Nation was an American temperance advocate, known for using a hatchet to demolish barrooms. I highly encourage you to read about this woman, as she is quite fascinating! In Fowler’s title story, Nation has been resurrected as a zombie who continues her crusade for modern times, destroying a Florida pub to shouts of, “You are Satan’s bedfellow. You maker of drunkards and widows.” DEA agent Patrick Harris, who takes being browbeaten to a totally new level, is assigned the mission of stopping zombie Nation. It’s worth mentioning that when his wife asks him to name a historical heroine other than Carry Nation, Harris clearly struggles. All I’m saying is this story needs to be made into a movie, preferably with Nicolas Cage in the role of the inept Harris. If this happened, I would be the happiest boy in the world!

This isn’t the only story to have real-life historical figures as protagonists. “Shimbara” is based on a 1637 rebellion in Japan, with a fifteen-year-old boy who can walk on water leading the rebels against Bakufu forces. “Lieserl” was one of my favorites in this collection, focusing on Einstein’s daughter who was believed to have died within her first year of life. What truly made this tragic tale such a work of genius was how Fowler played with the concept of time, while also capturing the life of a man who loved his daughter but loved science more.

Fowler’s ability to distort time went completely over my head with “The Elizabeth Complex,” a tale that merges famous Elizabeths throughout history and their convoluted relationships with their fathers. This one may have been too clever, as I got lost rather quickly. In “Go Back,” Fowler examines a series of disasters that befall a small town in Indiana overlapping a young child’s discovery that her father may be having an affair. Fowler is saying that whether a disaster is natural or of one’s own making, the effects can often be irreversible.

For those of you that enjoy stories about frustrated women navigating the pitfalls of romance, well this collection contains some must-read gems. “Letters from Home” is written as a series of letter from a 1960’s campus radical to an ex-boyfriend about her activities during the Vietnam War. “The View from Venus: A Case Study,” focuses on a group of students from the future studying present-day courting as though they were reading a Jane Austen novel. “Lily Red” was another favorite, which takes the idea of the sacrificial maiden and flips it on its head.

Karen Joy Fowler, Photo Credit: Brett Hall Jones

I would be amiss if I did not mention “The Faithful Companion at Forty.” Told from the point-of-view of The Lone Ranger’s trusty (and often overlooked) sidekick, this story is Fowler at her most humorous but also one of the saddest. The same can also be said of “The Travails,” a story told from the point-of-view of Mrs. Gulliver, who is strapped with the duties of home and children while her husband goes off on another adventure. Many writers are great at wit, but without wisdom, the message can often be lost. Fortunately, Black Glass explodes with insight. I’ll be returning to Fowler again, I promise, as her stories are beautiful miniatures that speak of larger worlds that while frightening, are full of wonders.

“Sometimes we can find a smaller world where we can live, inside the bigger world where we cannot.”-“The Brew”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

Book Review: The Thousandth Floor by Katharine McGee

Well, for the first time this year, I read a book that fell below my expectations. However, it wasn’t a total waste of time, as there were several aspects of the story that I did truly enjoy. I originally picked up The Thousandth Floor because I was intrigued with the concept of this giant Tower, where placement was determined by class. As a dedicated science fiction nerd, I loved so many of the fun concepts, such as contact lenses that have replaced cell phones and drugs that allowed for access to someone else’s memories. But pretty packaging doesn’t make a work of fiction great. Promoted as a “science fiction mystery,” I felt this was a novel with some fascinating ideas that unfortunately get lost beneath underdeveloped characters whose voices sound too similar to one another. Much like its dazzling cover, The Thousandth Floor is a beautiful idea, just sadly lacking any real depth.

The Thousandth Floor (2016) by Katharine McGee, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

The setting is nearly a century in the future, and New York has been reimagined as a thousand-story structure reaching far into the sky. It is a shining beacon of innovation and a veritable utopia, but only if you are a member of the wealthy elite. The floor that someone lives on is determined by wealth and power, so the higher floors are reserved for the upper class (known as “highliers”), while the working class folks have to live on the lower floors, where amenities are few and far between. The novel begins with a death, the only information provided was that she was a young and beautiful female:

“He didn’t know whether she’d fallen, or been pushed, or whether-crushed by the weight of unspoken secrets-she decided to jump.”

We then jump back several days to the events leading up the fall to try to figure out which character will meet her demise. Through alternating chapters, we meet several residents of the Tower, most of who are extremely unlikeable , and all with devastating secrets. Leda Cole has just returned from rehab due to her drug addiction, harboring a crush on her best friend’s brother. Eris Dodd-Radson has everything money can buy; that is, until her mother’s shocking secret tears her family apart and forces her to live on a lower floor of the Tower without money. Rylin Myers, a lower class girl who becomes swept into a romance with someone way above her station. At the very top of the Tower living above everyone else, is Avery Fuller, a girl genetically designed to be perfect in every way. She’s the girl who seems to have it all-yet is tormented by her own secret-that she is in love with her adopted brother Atlas.

So, my hope was for an interesting sci-fi novel with some thought-provoking ideas on the class system. Instead, it was more like this…..

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Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy a little teen melodrama now and again. I could school all of you with my knowledge of Degrassi, but I struggled quite often to get through this one. While I love that the plot is conveyed through multiple points-of-view, the problem is that the voices are too similar and that the characters themselves are so unlikeable. This is a novel that is way more Gossip Girl than Philip K. Dick.

The book does suffer from what I like to call “The Twilight Effect” as so much time is spent on the love triangle between Avery/Atlas/Leda with lots of uncomfortable stares, as well as lengthy descriptions dedicated to physical features, such as the following:

“‘You’re back,’ she said stupidly, her eyes drinking in every inch of him. He was wearing rumpled khakis and a navy sweater. He looked stronger than she remembered, and his light brown hair was longer, curling around his ears like it used to when he was little. But everything else was the same: his chocolate eyes framed by thick lashes, almost too thick to be masculine; the sprinkling of freckles across his nose; the way one of his bottom teeth was slightly turned, a reminder that he wasn’t perfect.”

Despite everything I didn’t like, the book was well written enough that I finished it rather quickly. Also, if I’m being totally honest, I did get wrapped up in all the teenage drama, which made for a nice break from all the heavier fiction I’ve been reading lately. I also was impressed with how the author brought all the separate storylines together for the major climatic moment that I had been waiting to discover since the first page. If you can get past the ridiculous amount of stereotyping, and the even more ridiculous amount of romanticized incest (they aren’t blood siblings, but still…), then you can find some moments in this book that will make you smile. For a book with a lot of cringe, it can serve well as a guilty pleasure. Also, a huge thanks to the author for leading me to reflect on my own high school embarrassments, realizing that I wouldn’t have been allowed to hang out with any of these people.

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I love the scope and structure of the Tower itself. However, I never thought the author did a good enough job of fleshing out how massive this skyscraper is supposed to be. I also enjoy a good dose of kitschy sci-fi, which the novel does in abundance, such as the character of Watt who has an illegal quantum computer stored inside his body. The majority of those futuristic marvels merely serve as a means to get secrets about all the other characters. I will say I like Watt the best, as he was the only character that had moments of likeability. I didn’t realize that this book was the first in a trilogy, and my copy contained the first chapter of the next installment. How does the next one begin you might ask? It begins with another young and beautiful character found dead, where I would probably need to read the entire book to learn the identity of the victim…again. I’m not liking this whole “let’s just use the same hook”. I doubt I’ll be reading the remainder of the trilogy, but then again, never say never. The Thousandth Floor is a fun teen soap opera with enough science fiction and drama to probably keep you entertained long enough to finish it.

“They seemed so beautiful now, but they were all doomed, she thought darkly, their tiny roots racing toward the inflexible confines of the pot.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

Classics Club Spin: June 2022 (Updated)

It’s time for another spin from The Classics Club!

On Sunday June 12th, a random number will be drawn. Match the number to the book on your list, then read and review said book before August 7. The previous spin resulted in the fabulous Love in the Time of Cholera, so I’m quite the eager reader for the next one.

Here is my list:

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  2. Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
  3. Something Wicked this Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
  4. The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino
  5. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
  6. Bleak House by Charles Dickens
  7. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  8. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  9. Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
  10. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
  11. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
  12. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo
  13. The Last Man by Mary Shelley
  14. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
  15. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
  16. Dracula by Bram Stoker
  17. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
  18. Around the World in 80 days by Jules Verne
  19. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
  20. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

For those that are curious, here is my complete Classics Club list. Good luck everyone and happy reading!

Update 6/12/2022: Number 5 was drawn, which means The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. I’m quite excited!!!

Book Review: Not the End of the World by Kate Atkinson

“All that we see or seem/Is but a dream within a dream.” These beautiful lines by Edgar Allan Poe, interspersed between two of the short stories in this extraordinary collection, truly capture my reading experience of this book. I nearly selected one of her novels for my first Kate Atkinson but decided to test the waters with some of her short stories instead. This proved to be a wise decision, as I completely fell in love with this book (seriously you hear the harps?). I typically avoid binge-reading a short story collection; instead, I dip in and out while reading a novel so I have some processing time between tales. That wasn’t the case this time, as I just couldn’t resist jumping immediately to the next story. Yes, they’re just that good! Atkinson’s short fiction reminds me of another favorite writer, Kelly Link, as she masterfully blends reality and fantasy with writing that is simultaneously whimsical and heartfelt.

Not the End of the World (2002) by Kate Atkinson, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

The opening story, “Charlene and Trudi Go Shopping,” captures this feeling of whimsy. Two friends spend the entire story shopping and talking about the most random topics, all while the world around them is collapsing due to some unnamed apocalyptic event. While initially this story will have you laughing, it takes on so much more meaning once you reach the end of the book. Also, I think this story makes an interesting commentary on how we often immerse ourselves in the mundane in order to take our minds off the tragedies that often unfold all around us. At one point, Charlene wishes out loud that she and Trudi could live on another world, calling it Pleasureland, where they could be free of all the horrors of their own world. Trudi then responds:

“Or perhaps there’s another world-except it’s just like this one-where we buy French wine and sourdough bread and Moroccan oranges and spools of thread and packets of Drum Mountain White Cloud tea and sleep in our beds at night to the peaceful sounds of traffic and barking dogs and midnight arguments between husbands and wives called Mark and Rachel. That would be a good world to live in.” 

All of these stories could be read as standalones, but often a character or event from one story will make a reappearance in another one, loosely tying everything together. When it comes to the use of magical realism, I’ve always loved when it is given subtle strokes within more realistic stories. The amount of fantasy Atkinson uses vary within each story, sometimes occurring slightly more than in others. She weaves elements of myth in every story to great effect and not taking away from the real-world situations that occur, such as “Sheer Big Waste of Love” about an absentee father. I thought the family dynamics of “Dissonance” was handled brilliantly. I particularly enjoyed how the mother’s dialogue was italicized rather than in traditional quotes like her two children, as it gave her a weaker voice. For an adult author, Kate Atkinson is great at capturing teen angst effectively.

Dysfunctional families are a common theme throughout this book. In “Unseen Translations,” a young boy named Arthur is left entirely in the care of his nanny, Missy, as his rock star father and his celebrity-obsessed mother, ignore him. The pair get closer and closer as they spend more time together until, well I’ll avoid major spoilers. In “Tunnel of Fish,” a young man has unique powers, but all he really wants is for his mother to be proud of him. While he can communicate well with creatures from the sea, the ability of he and his mother to communicate leaves a lot to be desired. How these characters affect others in different stories makes this book like a giant Chinese puzzle box that’s so much fun to figure out.

Kate Atkinson, Photo Credit: Helen Clyne

Another theme in this book is on mortality and the fragility of life. “Temporal Anomaly” is about a mother who dies tragically, only to continue to watch her family live on, as she becomes a ghost in her own home. “The Bodies Vest” features another tragic death, as Atkinson fleshes out something that was revealed in an earlier story. “Evil Doppelgängers” features a young man named Fielding who works in a newspaper office and starts missing whole days in his memory, as he suspects he has a double who is having much more fun than he is. Heidi takes in a stray tomcat in “The Cat Lover,” never suspecting what will happen in the weeks to follow or how her life will change. Clearly with so many fantastic stories, I am unable to pick just one favorite. Besides, the book works better as a collective whole than the sum of its parts.

The collection comes full circle with the final story called “Pleasureland.” Charlene and Trudi from the opening have returned, and we learn the tragic truth that the apocalypse has truly arrived. The two friends are dying of some unknown disease and have been telling these stories to each other as an entertaining distraction from their own impending deaths. They are the collective Scheherazade, but now their abilities to pass the time with tales is failing. While their time is about to come to an end, they take solace that the world will continue in some form. But stories are more than just distractions; often they provide us hope for the future. As the world falls down, stories help us to endure.

“There were always more summers, even when you were no longer there to see them. That was a thought you had to hold on to.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.

Book Review: Replay by Ken Grimwood

So there I was, minding my own business inside my favorite used bookstore, when I discovered this unknown title by an unfamiliar author. The tagline on the cover grabbed me immediately….WHAT IF YOU COULD LIVE YOUR LIFE OVER AGAIN? AND AGAIN? AND AGAIN? In fact, I was so intrigued by the premise, that I immediately paused the book I was reading to begin this one. Prior to this discovery, I had never heard of Ken Grimwood. After devouring Replay, I will definitely look for some of his other works. Published in 1986, this novel would prove to be his most famous creation and would win the World Fantasy Award in 1988. While the plot of living your life over has been done many times in the world of fiction, Grimwood should be commended for this exquisite writing and innovative ideas.

Yes, I enjoyed it that much.

Replay (1986) by Ken Grimwood, Photo Credit: Natalie Getter

Jeff Winston suddenly passes away after experiencing a fatal heart attack. At only 43 years old, Jeff has difficulty finding meaning to his life, only to have it come to a tragic end. But this is only the beginning of the story. Jeff wakes up and he’s 18 again, living in his college dormitory with all his lifetime memories intact. Naturally, he’s confused and scared, fearing some type of extreme hallucination, perhaps his life is flashing before his yes. When he realizes that he truly has gone back in time, Jeff plans to life his life over, making different and better choices. This time, he will get it right. Using his future knowledge of sporting events and the stock market to his advantage, Jeff builds a life of financial success. While he’s not happy in his marriage, he does find solace in the relationship with his daughter, a musical prodigy. Jeff has also worked on his physical health, and his doctor reports that his heart is stronger than ever….except he dies once again at the exact same moment as his first life.

Jeff once again wakes up as a teenager, and this time he takes a very different path in life. Rather than becoming a multi-billionaire, he makes enough money to be financially stable and focuses on having a meaningful romantic relationship. Despite all his efforts to prevent it, he still passes away from the same heart attack at the age of 43.

Caught in an endless loop of repeating his life, Jeff takes several paths and explores options he never had the first time around. It’s a long, lonely existence, always questioning why and never receiving any answers. Jeff tests the limits of what he can change by attempting to stop the assassination of John F. Kennedy (perhaps Stephen King read this book when he was younger.) No matter the path, the outcome remains the same, as he tragically dies of a heart attack over and over. During one of his lives, he discovers another replayer, someone who believes she and Jeff are on a mission to make the world a better place. However, the answers still don’t come easily. Maybe it’s not about finding answers…maybe it’s about what you learn from living through it.

“Someone—Plato, I think—once said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ “
“True. But a life too closely scrutinized will lead to madness, if not suicide.”

To refer to Replay as just a work of science fiction is an injustice. It’s so much more. Ken Grimwood’s writing flows like a river. The closest comparison I can think of is Stephen King. He’s never overly descriptive, spending the perfect amount of words on each scene in order to place the reader right there alongside Jeff Winston. While it makes for a fast page-turner, the author captures all of Jeff’s emotions beautifully…from joy to despair to complete hopelessness. In the end, this is a morality play disguised as a work of sci-fi.

Since starting this blog, I’ve come to notice the pacing in books. For this aspect, I think Replay deserves top marks. As Jeff experiences many lives between the ages of 18 and 43, the author manages to keep the story moving while spending time on the important events that occur. When the novel needs to be thought-provoking it succeeds, and when it needs to be emotional, it succeeds even more. However, don’t expect to get all the answers; in fact, you will be left with more questions.

Some readers will probably be disappointed as the novel introduces several plot threads that don’t necessarily get resolved, such as meeting someone whose replayed lives turns him into a dangerous serial killer. Changing historical events is also touched upon briefly, but this is another plot point that doesn’t factor heavily. There are a lot of deeper themes here: loneliness, isolation, self-examination, grieving loss, essentially what we all learn to endure. In the end, this is the story about one man trying to make sense out of this adventure called life.

Ken Grimwood, Photo taken from Goodreads.

I’m curious if some of Grimwood’s other novels are as poignant as Replay. During my research after finishing the novel, I discovered that he was in the process of writing a sequel when he tragically died of heart attack. Discovering this made me quite sad. The world right now is so chaotic, sometimes it can feel like a very bad dream. For some reason, I turn to a quote from one of my favorite shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “The hardest thing in this world is to live in it. Be brave. Live.”

“All life includes loss. It’s taken me many, many years to learn to deal with that, and I don’t expect I’ll ever be fully resigned to it. But that doesn’t mean we have to turn away from the world, or stop striving for the best that we can do and be. We owe that much to ourselves, at least, and we deserve whatever measure of good may come of it.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts! Let me know with a comment below.