Book Review

Flying on the Ground by Richie Billing

Publisher: Self Published 
Genre: Short Fiction Collection Ranging in Genre
Pages: 374
Format: E-book
My Rating: 4/5 Stars

Summary

Flying on the Ground, is a collection of the previously published short fiction of Richie Billing. The stories that make up the collection range in genre from fantasy, historical fiction, general fiction, horror, and crime. Thematically they explore notions of poverty, gentrification, addiction, hunger, survival, and much more. In all, it is an impressive collection that shows the author’s range, ability to build a compelling world, and his skill at placing characters who are just as compelling into that world.

Thoughts

As I was reading Flying on the Ground, schools were closing statewide as my community braced for whatever the coronavirus was going to bring our way. The circumstances were changing hour by hour, and while I did not witness any panicking, the tension and stress of uncertainty was palpable. This collection was the perfect distraction from all of that. Full of useful tropes and colorful characters, these stories don’t reinvent the wheel, but that is because they do not need to—this collection is entertaining, fun and well worth the read! 

I most enjoyed the fantasy section of the collection and was drawn in by the way Billing seamlessly builds the world around his characters. Some of these stories take place in a shared world, and the overflow of the stories into one another was delightfully done and contributed to a larger arch. I thought that it was interesting how each story can stand on its own as an enjoyable tale, but was also a piece of a larger picture. 

If you are looking for a quick read that will distract you from all of the things unfolding that we currently need distraction from, this collection is for you!  


I would like to thank the author for this ARC in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

Author Interview

Interview with Writer Jenny Irish

Meet Jenny Irish, an Assistant Professor of English at Arizona State University and the author of the new short story collection, I Am Faithful, published by Black Lawrence Press. Staff writer Edward Dolehanty had a chance to talk to her about her new book, names characters, dogs, and more!

1. How would you describe I Am Faithful to a potential reader?

First, thank you so much for these wicked smart questions.
I love what you all are doing with The Spellbinding Shelf!

Second, that’s a big first question! Okay! Buckle up!

I Am Faithful is a collection of stories about the experiences of the working, lower class. As a writer, I want to challenge stereotypical representations of Americans living at the edge of poverty and engage the complexities of human experience and the effects of multigenerational poverty. These are stories posing questions about privilege, power dynamics, and the consequences of the choices and compromises people make when attempting to improve their conditions. And I also try to ensure that every story avoids simplifying things that are knotty and entangled.

Across the stories in I Am Faithful, there’s also a focus on the experiences of girls and women.
It’s common for girls and women find themselves preyed upon because they’re physically desired, because of the body they inhabit—but that same physical desirability, in a certain context, also gives them a degree of power. What happens, then, when a woman who is dependent on being desired—who commodifies her sexuality out of necessity or choice—becomes a mother, her body altered and her freedom encroached? What happens to the children of these women, especially their daughters, who may become viewed as competition?

2. One of the things that I most enjoyed while reading I Am Faithful is the way that a lot of character’s emotional ranges are shown through their relationship to dogs. How did you come up with the idea to so creatively incorporate dogs into your work?

*whispers* I wanted to be a Rottweiler when I was little.

I think for many writers there are things that appear in their work consistently. Whether these elements make it into the “final” version of a piece or not, the majority of my writing will have dogs, snow, and PBS in it. Some of it is because of familiarity, some of it is because of curiosity, and some of it is because it’s what feels right in the particular piece.

I love dogs. With the exception of a sad, short stretch in graduate school, when it wasn’t financially possible, I’ve always had dogs. My first favorite book was the AKC Complete Dog Book, with all the pictures of breeds, and diagrams, and descriptions of temperaments. And dogs are amazing because they direct back the energy that they feel from a person. In that they’re a kind of magic mirror that can show what’s inside someone.

I also think it’s incredibly telling how people treat things that are dependent on them: children, seniors, strangers they could help, animals in their care. So, I try to address this in my work. I also think that it’s important to recognize that there are different motivations for similar actions. The story “I Am Faithful” is very much about this.

3. So many of the stories in I Am Faithful feel delightfully uprooted from time through the use of flashbacks to inform the present moment. Does this relationship to time come naturally to you in your writing or is it something that you think about a lot in the drafting process?

This is just the way that I tend to write, without thinking about the work or having a plan. Most of the stories don’t follow a straight path, chronologically. Instead, they’re moving associatively. I think there’s a relationship between how elliptical stories can be “uprooted” from chronological time and the operation of memory. Associations carry us from one place another, and that movement isn’t necessarily be linear.

4. Something that stuck out to me about I Am Faithful is how most of the narrative characters go without a name. For me, as a reader, this allowed who the characters are to shine as opposed to highlighting what they are called. Could you discuss your relationship with naming characters in your writing?

There is something entirely mortifying to me about naming characters. In I Am Faithful, I think there’s only two characters with names, girls who have the same name, and much of the story is dependent on their shared name because of the comparison it invites between the two.

For me, characters are representative of real people, experiencing things that happen in the world, but they could be anyone. These things, or things like this, they happen to a lot of people.

5. One of the themes that resonated most with me in your collection is the sacrifices so many of the characters make in the name of independence. How they are willing to put themselves into compromising situations physically, socially, and morally, for the satisfaction of having something to call their own—no matter how small. In the story, “Worry,” the opposite is true of the narrative character, who is willing to make these sacrifices in the name of dependence. Did you find that the process of writing this story differed greatly from the others in I Am Faithful?

Thank you for telling me you appreciated this story. I’m proud it, but it hasn’t been particularly well received.

In “Worry,” a young girl disappears, and her mother is largely unconcerned. The mother’s smitten boyfriend—who is the narrative lens—was witness to the hostile relationship between his girlfriend and her daughter. He desperately wants to believe the woman he worships wouldn’t have harmed her child, but struggles with what he’s seen. This is a story, for me, about how complicated sexual commodification is and how powerful a motivator loneliness is. It’s also one of the longest stories, because it needed to be.

Love is complex and love isn’t always healthy. I think, when we talk about sacrifice, we often link it to punishment, but sacrifice can be a true act of love. In the collection, there are mothers who experience the sacrifices that parenthood demands—whether they choose to make those sacrifices or not—as a punishment and their relationships with their children reflect that feeling. I hope that there are other examples who see love in the sacrifices they make, and in that have the potential to be affirmed by their choices, even as they’re struggling.

I’ve already said a version of this, but I think it’s worth repeating: I hope to always avoid good/evil binaries, which I think are dangerously simplistic and generally false. Though there is one unquestionably “bad mother” in the collection—the mother in “Worry”—I think there are more people who are trying to be better than their circumstances, but making uncomfortable compromises along the way.

6. Each one of these stories strikes me as authentic and true even though they are fiction. I think that this in large part to the way in which the characters are presented as they are and, unless intentional, without the prejudice for impoverished people that is quite prevalent in society. Is this something that you were conscious of while writing this collection?

The very first rule of fiction, or, the very first rule of fiction workshop, is that we never ever conflate author and story. That said, like many writers of fiction, I do draw on my own experiences in writing.

When I was child, I always had an awareness of my class positioning. The reminders of it were constant. I always had an awareness that my mother was struggling to make ends meet. There was a perpetual anxiety about how to scrape things together in a way that would allow a precarious situation to keep going. I watched the people around me beg, borrow, and steal, and I understood that it was my job to conceal that. Hiding how bad things were was huge part of my childhood.

So yes, a goal of I Am Faithful is to be authentic and in that, capture the anxiety and varied forms of violence, desperation, and hope that come with living a life scraped together from scraps. Too often, I feel like these experiences are grossly simplified and fetishized. I’d rather they be honest and as ugly as they need to be.

7. A question we love to ask of our guests here at The Spellbinding Shelf is, what are you currently reading?

Ahhhh! I love books! I just finished We Will Tell You Otherwise by Beth Mayer, and re-read The White Book by Han Kang, and right now I’m reading By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart and Blood Box by Zefyr Lisowski.

Thank you so much for reading I Am Faithful and this conversation!


For more information about Jenny Irish, click here. Buy I Am Faithful locally here.


Thank you to Black Lawrence Press for providing an ARC and making this interview possible.

Book Review

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

Publisher: Vintage
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 206
Format: Paperback
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

In her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison explores the undoing of a young black girl, Pecola, who cannot imagine herself as anything but ugly. The story is told by giving voice to members of the community as they experience Pecola’s story and by slowly unfolding the generational trauma done unto her family. Employing brilliant and beautiful language, Morrison explores the depths of poverty, sexual violence, cultural perception, and the vicious cycle of harm perpetuated by those who themselves are wounded.

Thoughts

From the first page, it is clear that Morrison has a power with her words that is unrivaled by most other writers. Equal parts poetic and challenging, this book has a way of slowly climbing back toward its central figure in the most gratifying ways possible. Even when exploring events that happened many years before Pecola’s birth, the book is always working to highlight another aspect of the harm that has been done unto her by her father and mother, her community, and herself.

While the subject matter is devastating, there is something that can be described as nothing less than joyful when reading Morrison’s work. Her deep vocabulary and creative license takes the reader far, and there is a sense that she is always in control. This, combined with the great empathy that pours out of this book for its characters, makes something that is spectacular to read and hard to put down.

If I had to say what my favorite part of reading this book was, I would say that it is the cast of characters that Morrison assembled to tell Pecola’s story. While what has happened to Pecola is enough to drive the novel all on its own, Morrison uses this instance to bring an entire community to life. In doing so, she paints a fuller picture of exactly what led Pecola to wander the streets muttering to herself.

While reading The Bluest Eye, it quickly became apparent why Morrison is so beloved. If you have not had the opportunity to read her work yet, there is no better time!    

Book Review

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Publisher: Doubleday
Genre: Literary Fiction/ Historical Fiction
Pages: 224
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary

In this novel, Whitehead examines the potential of youth and shows how corruption and injustice can so easily crush that potential. By all accounts, Elwood Curtis is a formidable young man—smart, curious, hardworking, and determined—he is even enrolled in college courses while he is still in high school. When Elwood is sent to the Nickel Academy for stealing a car to get to those classes, he finds that he will have to adapt to a harsh new reality if he wants to survive. Elwood discovers the strength to do so through his dedication to the works of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which has engrained a deep sense of moral justice within him. At Nickel, however, injustice is bred into the very fabric of the institution.

Thoughts

What most entranced me with this book is the way in which Whitehead masterfully intertwines personal history with the history of an institution. Many chapters of this novel start like the slow panning of a camera until it zooms in on the narrative focal point. No words are wasted, though at times it can feel to the reader as if they are far from the places that the book has previously taken them. Many times I did not think that what I was reading could have anything to do with the Nickel Academy, and then the book would whisper in my ear “trust me.”

I did not feel the full weight of this book’s emotional impact until the epilogue. When I closed the book’s final chapter I was ready to give it a four star rating because I felt somewhat confused and dissatisfied. I could not have felt more different when I turned the final page of the novel. Hold on, this is an emotional and tumultuous ride worth seeing through to the very end.

Literary Event: The Sun Devil’s Writing Network

Are you a student writer at Arizona State University who is seeking out a small, but growing, community of writers who are as passionate about writing as you are? A place devoted to helping you further your craft and generate ideas? Then look no further than The Sun Devil’s Writing Network, an online creative writing workshop that meets online using Zoom on the second and fourth Monday of every month. The Sun Devil’s Writing Network seeks to develop member’s craft through peer review, honing their eye as critical readers, and fostering a sense of community.


Date: The 2nd and 4th Monday of every month, starting January 27th
Time: 3:00-4:30 p.m.
Location: Online using Zoom meeting code 802-685-7310 or by clicking this link.
Cost: Free

For more information about the Sun Devil’s Writing Network, click here.

Edward’s Favorite TV Shows Based off of Books

For as long as stories have been being told on our screens, novels have been mined as source material. While often the product is far from the original text, adaptations can breathe new life into a story and illuminate a new aspects of some of our favorite fictional worlds. With the advent of popular streaming services and ever increasing production budgets, now more than ever books are being turned into films. Here are some of my favorite television shows based on books.


Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke. This book has it all—intricate history told against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, political intrigue, battle scenes, magicians, fairies, and books—so it is no surprise that it would be adapted into a stellar TV show. This seven episode mini-series produced by BBC One boasts an impressive cast with actors Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan in the titular roles. Of all of the adaptations on this list, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell stays as close to the story portrayed by the book as it can.   


Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin. It seems like a given that Game of Thrones would be on this list. HBO’s mega-hit series has changed everything I thought possible when it comes to creating a TV show—especially a fantasy TV show. While the response to the last few seasons of this show was not as enthusiastic as when it was originally released, there is no denying the cultural impact it has had. This show is full of slow burning plot lines, unexpected twists, and makes for an experience that cannot be described as anything less than entertaining.   


Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin. In 2019 Netflix released a star studded revival of Armistead Maupin’s popular series Tales from the City. This miniseries is a continuation of three previous miniseries based on Maupin’s work and features some of the same characters. This incarnation of the show goes even further by way of diversity and inclusion and gives a voice to many characters who are extremely underrepresented by the media. All the while, a riveting and emotional mystery unfolds that will have viewers hooked until the end.  


The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood. In 1985 when Margaret Atwood published The Handmaid’s Tale, there was no way of knowing that the story would draw so many parallels to the coming world. In 2017 when season one premiered, it seemed as if there was no show that the world needed more. The Handmaid’s Tale shows just how fine the line is between freedom and a strict totalitarian regime. It emphasizes the danger of discrimination and valuing one type of human life over another. Most importantly, in my opinion, this show highlights the danger that some women face every day simply for existing.


The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson. I started this list with an adaption that stayed fairly true to its source material, and so it feels only natural that I end it with something that deviates from the original in a big way. Like so many adaptions of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, the 2018 Netflix show is a far cry from the novel. This fresh take on the Hill House, however, is one of those cases where the story is given new life. As terrifying as it is compelling, this show will suck you in until its final episode. I only have two pieces of advice about how best to watch it: with the lights on and not alone!    

Book Review

Ghosts of You by Cathy Ulrich

Publisher: Okay Donkey Press  
Genre: Flash Fiction  
Pages: 176 pages   
Format: Paperback 
My Rating: 3/5  
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Summary

In this flash fiction collection a myriad of victims come alive and show themselves beyond the circumstances they find themselves in. Each piece is set in motion by another murdered woman—including a girl, teacher, mermaid, and others—but there is more to each story than just the inciting tragedy. These stories are laden with grief, intrigue, occasional mystery, and ruminations of what might have been. These are stories of murdered women, but there is more here than meets the eye.   

Thoughts

This collection was thought provoking through and through. It is not often that we see something that seems so familiar, in this case the victim, given new life and dimension. Yet that is exactly what Ulrich has done, she has given a compelling voice to characters who in the past would have been hard to cast as anything but flat. Each story, no matter its length, feels both diverse and dynamic and these pieces are in heavy conversation with one another.

While this collection was overall both interesting and innovate, there were times when it felt too repetitive. When reading one story after the next they start to bleed together and the murdered mermaid becomes hard to tell apart from the murdered babysitter and the murdered girlfriend. That is not to say that there is no joy to be had from reading this collection, but it is perhaps a read best done over an extended period of time.


I would like to thank TNBBC Publicity for providing this ARC
in exchange for an honest and unbiased review.

5 Short Story Collections to Make you Fall in Love with Short Stories

Even amongst bookish people, the topic of short stories can be a divisive one. Some readers see short stories as too tedious or time-consuming, while others readers might complain that they feel short stories lack the depth of a novel. Adding to this conundrum, some readers were never properly introduced to short stories and now feel too overwhelmed by the genre and don’t even know where to start. Whatever the case may be, we here at The Spellbinding Shelf celebrate short stories, inviting you to abandon all prior convictions with our comprehensive list of five collections that are bound to make you fall in love with short stories.


Her Body and Other PartiesCarmen Maria Machado.
Machado is known for the macabre undertones in her writing and for creating female characters who are not always wholesomely motivated. The ease of her prose makes this collection incredibly alluring, but there is more to it than that—these stories are dark, empowering, nuanced, sinister, and above all else, great fun to read.


Civilwarland in Bad DeclineGeorge Saunders.
This is a powerfully imaginative collection that tests the elasticity of language. It doesn’t matter if Saunders is writing about subversive capitalistic greed or an amusement park that is reminiscent of West World, these tales are impeccably crafted. Each story presents a strange new world that will leave the reader intrigued and wanting more.


Stories of Your Life and OthersTed Chiang.
In this collection, Chiang challenges the notion of what short stories are capable of. He builds dense worlds rich with unique language and dynamic characters. He experiments with time to decrease the flow of information to a drip, and yet every page will leave you yearning to know the tales extraordinary conclusion. Ted Chiang is an author worth reading again and again. 


Magic for BeginnersKelly Link.
While all of the authors on this list so far experiment with blending the lines between genre and literary fiction, none are so adept at it as Kelly Link. That is not to say that her stories are gimmicky or weighed down by superfluous magic systems and supernatural characters. On the contrary, Link’s stories are full of emotional truth and excavate the far reaches of the imagination. Simply put, these stories are magical, but their power does not come from casting spells, but rather, in their ability to entrance their reader.


The Best American Short Stories Series—series edited by Heidi Piltor.

Since 1978, the Best American Short Stories series has been a literary staple with anthologies cultivated by great writers such as Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Tobias Wolff, Annie Proulx, Lorrie Moore, Roxane Gay, and most recently Anthony Doerr. Each year, this anthology puts forward twenty short stories that represent the best published short fiction. Each collection offers new worlds of enchantment, heartbreak, and excitement. There is no better place to find scores of talented writers, and also a plethora of publications, to further explore short stories—which by now you’re bound to love. 

Book Review

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

Publisher: Graywolf Press
Genre: Memoir
Pages: 264
Format: Hardcover
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My Rating: 5/5 stars

Summary:

What does domestic abuse look like? In what ways can domestic abuse be more than physical harm? What does domestic abuse look like between two women? What does domestic abuse look like when the perpetrator is smaller than the victim? These are some of the questions Carmen Maria Machado sets out to answer in her inventive new memoir In the Dream House.

In doing the research for this book, Machado sought out experiences that mirrored her own, but found the archive of literature and history to be lacking. This is her attempt at taking the first step in adding to that archive. She constructs her story through more than a hundred narrative tropes (i.e. stoner comedy, Chekov’s gun, man vs. self), resulting in an elaborately weaved and imaginatively told story that explores themes of abuse, queer relationship dynamics, queer world building, assessment of self-worth, and ultimately the emotional endurance that humans are capable of. 

Thoughts:

What I love most about this book, and there is a lot to love about it, is the way in which it pushes the boundary between nonfiction and fiction through the exploration of narrative tropes. While this memoir explores themes that are heavy and at times difficult to emotionally process, the reader is guided along by Machado’s incessant wit and playful prose; making this book fun to read despite the nature of its subject matter. Additionally, Machado annotates her experience with motifs from folk literature (i.e. taboos, ghost cries, girl mistakenly elopes with wrong lover) creating a dream within the tightly constructed world. 

Subsequently, this is a book that can easily be read over and over again and even seems to invite just that. There are whole worlds in this work that is part memoir, part literary criticism, part musing on pop-culture, and even part dissection of the music of Aimee Mann. I suspect that each time I reread this book, I will find something new to admire and obsess over. 

In the Dream House became instantly important to me not just because of the innovative way in which it is written, but because it seeks to put in place a framework for a more complete history that previously did not exist. As with her critically acclaimed short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, Machado has again brought attention to an aspect of modern queer life that was once invisible.  For this reason and many more, this book will enthrall its readers throughout its course until the wind carries the story away. 

Author Interview

Interview with Novelist Melissa Duclos

Meet author Melissa Duclos, whose new novel, Besotted, is out now from 713 Books. Listen as staff writer Edward Dolehanty has a conversation with the author about her debut novel, the drafting process, and the work she is doing to shed light on small literary presses!

Melissa Duclos interview

For more information about Melissa Duclose, click here.


Thanks to the publicist at TNBBC Publicity for
providing an ARC and making this interview possible.