As mentioned in this post’s title, I saw these covers and immediately went OOOOH. Click click click. Free? Okay! Also, the idea of various genres of story that deal with nature and wildlife clashing with humans appeals to me. I did four of them by audio, and all four narrators were excellent (even for the one I two-starred), and two by Kindle. If you have Prime, they are free for you. Some of them really surprised me!
“Wildlife,” by Jeff VanderMeer — 2 STARS
This was a great read until the ending, which pissed me off. If this is indicative of how his other works are, I probably won’t be reading anything more from him. Basically, if you decide to read this, just know going in that you’re going to have make up your own ending.
Sam has retreated to an old rental house of her father’s that she inherited after a divorce and violence and trauma in her recent past. She is living on a ravine, and what she’s been through has made her even more interested in the natural world, ecology, all kinds of life that lives outside her door. She has two neighbors, one she likes, and one she doesn’t. The one she doesn’t is interfering, mansplaining, and is more interested in eradicating nature than preserving it. He also appears to be trespassing, and the trail cams that Sam puts up start disappearing or malfunctioning. What is this asshole doing in the ravine?
Just know, you’re not going to get an answer. What this ending reads like to me is that the author couldn’t come up with a satisfying answer to his own problem, and decided that he could pass it off as “art” or whatever if he left it all open-ended. I call bullshit. This is one of the most unsatisfying things I’ve ever read, particularly because the first part was so good, and the ending so terrible. Two stars.
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“The Tiger Came to the Mountains,” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia — 4 STARS
I’m fifty-fifty on this collection so far. One author who may have (temporarily) crossed himself off my TBR (Jeff VanderMeer) and one who has redeemed herself after I didn’t like the only other book I’ve read by her (Silvia Moreno-Garcia). This short story was great, and the audio made it better. I listened to it while I did the Magic Puzzle I got for my birthday (still not done with the puzzle, those fuckers made it hard).
This is historical fiction, set in 1917 during the Mexican Revolution, and apparently it is based on the life of the author’s grandmother. She and her twin brother are sent away to a cave in the mountains every time soldiers from either side of the conflict are rumored to be on their way to her small village. She is telling us the story as an old woman, and knows we are here to hear about the time with the tiger.
Because you know right away a tiger is involved, the story runs the risk of not having any tension, but the the opposite occurs. The storytelling voice is also really strong and carries the story really well. There’s nothing tricksy or spooky about this story. It’s just really well-told.
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“The Backbone of the World,” Stephen Graham Jones — 5 STARS
Oh, boy, this will not be my last Stephen Graham Jones. I mean, I was already planning to read My Heart is a Chainsaw pretty soon, but this weird as hell short story has cemented my need to do that.
Let the first sentence set the tone for you:
“Eleven months after her husband Arthur swerved around a stopped school bus and mowed down two first graders and got sentenced to twenty years, Millie Two Bears went to war against the prairie dogs.”
Millie Two Bears, prison widow, was such a good main character, and I loved the way that audio narrator Charlotte Flyte brought her to life. Alone on her husband’s allotment, determined that she not let his family kick her out of her home, Millie is also determined to get rid of the prairie dogs ruining the land around her house. Then it gets weird. And then weirder. And SGJ just leads you there bit by bit, until at the end you’re like, yeah, this couldn’t have ended any other way. This is horror, but it’s also a character piece, and the story absolutely jumped into life in my mind.
So far, this is the best story in this collection by quite a large margin. Can Karen Russell, Tochi Onyebuchi or Carmen Maria Machado top it?
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“A Righteous Man,” Tochi Onyebuchi — 3.5 STARS
Initially I rated this four stars, but honestly I’m not sure what even happened at the end there, although I could make some guesses, but the fact that I’m not sure is taking away from the sense of resolution I should have at this.
Nothing super revolutionary or interesting about this one. A white, British missionary visits West Africa in the nineteenth century and instead ends up changing himself more than he changes the village he is living in. His encounters with the villagers, and the friendship he builds with the young boy Solomon, along with atrocities committed by slavers, and the emptier and emptier seeming promises of his scripture all work to transform him. Unlike a certain infamous book set on the continent of Africa and concerning similar themes, it is not the jungle or the villagers that cause the white men madness, but the white man bringing it with him instead.
A pretty good read, glad it was short, but it didn’t really get me going.
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“Bloody Summer,” Carmen Maria Machado — 4.5 STARS
This one was creepy and good. I’m holding back from giving it a full five stars because, like many in this collection, I’m not exactly sure what just happened here. But Machado, unlike VanderMeer, clearly knows the answer, and provided enough pieces so that you can be sure you’re making an educated guess. And the rest of the story was strong enough that any confusion didn’t end up mattering very much.
This one is actually written in the form of an ethnography by a researcher who is never named, who is interested in the prevalence of childhood hand games/playground games specific to the region of Never-Again, PA, and the historical predominance of tigers in that area, all leading up to the Bloody Summer (which I won’t explain here bc spoilers).
I really liked the angle that Machado approached this story from. The scholarly framework she gave it lends the frankly very strange story she created credence, and makes it seem all the more bizarre at the same time. I would honestly have liked this to be much longer.
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“Stag,” Karen Russell — 4 STARS
Lit-fic isn’t often a genre that works very well for me, but when it does work, I usually get kind of unreasonable about it. Here, this story works for me. For whatever reason, all the various pieces here coalesce for me into a whole that I can’t, and don’t want to try to, articulate here. I do know that one of the reasons this story works so well for me is that the writing doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s a comedic tone here that works really well with the sadder, more melancholy aspects of the story.
It also doesn’t hurt that a desert tortoise named Greeley is a large part of this book, and that the main character spends about a third of it high whilst crashing a divorce party. It’s kind of a masterful study in control of authorial tone, balancing the absurd with the meaningful.
I’m genuinely surprised how much I liked this one. The audio version was great as well.