The OF Blog: Five October and December releases by women reviewed

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Five October and December releases by women reviewed

2014 has seen the release of some outstanding works by women writers.  Over 40% (granted, this is lower than the percentage published this year) of the 2014 releases I've read this year have been by women and by far, the majority of those releases have been at least well-written and entertaining.  If it weren't due for a time/energy crunch these past couple of months, I would have devoted much more space to extolling the virtues of the five works I am about to cover.  Two were considered for the National Book Award for Fiction; two are debuts; and two are short story collections (one a debut).  Each is deserving of a greater readership.  Now onto brief discussions of why I enjoyed these works:

Julia Elliott, The Wilds

Elliott's debut is one of the strongest, most thematically connected collections that I have read in quite some time.  Over the course of eleven stories, each of which contains an excellent mixture of humor, bizarreness, and in-depth exploration of facets of human character and motivation, Elliott confronts readers with topics (such as how we treat the outcasts and less fortunates) that we perhaps might not rather want to consider.  Her use of surreal settings to make the "invisible" more visible is realized almost perfectly in these stories.  Her writing is impeccable, as there is a deceiving sense of effortlessness to her storytelling.  Every element, from the prose to characterization to narrative/plot flow, fits together like a jigsaw puzzle.  The Wilds is one of, if not the absolute best, the strongest collections released this year in a 2014 full of excellent short story collections.  It is one of those books that lovers of both speculative and realist fiction could gift to fans of the other and claim it is one of the best examples of that literary genre released in recent years.

 Jac Jemc, A Different Bed Every Time

"Every night I stunned myself with gin.  On one date, a man and I ended up at the airport and ate rhinestones.  We moved fast and real."  This opening to the first story, "A Violence," sets the tone for the remainder of Jemc's latest collection.  She takes no prisoners.  The stories are sharp, embedded with unusual imagery and with prose that can be unfamiliar to readers more accustomed to more straightforward narratives.  But once the reader gets acclimated to how Jemc narrates her stories, the vistas open up and several remarkable moments occur over the course of these 42 short stories, the majority of which are flash fictions under 5 pages long.  The cumulative effect is greater than the sum of each of these short fictions, making A Different Bed Every Time a strong, wonderful collection to read for those who enjoy startling, impression-filled stories.

Jane Smiley, Some Luck (longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award)

Some Luck is the beginning to a trilogy that plans to cover 100 years of an Iowa family over the course of 100 chapters.  It certainly is a promising beginning, as Smiley fills these early decades of the 20th century with characters that reflect the reality of those times:  recent immigrants, suffering from xenophobia due to World War I; the radicalization of some rural families due to the then-popular socialism of first Eugene V. Debs and later Lenin and Trotsky; uncertain economic times due to collapsing food prices during the 1920s; and questions of whether or not "progress" is a noble ideal or a masque for something more nefarious.  Her characters do not parrot these historical realities as much as they live them; each feels like a dynamic, well-realized individual.  By novel's end, I was left wanting to read more, curious to see how the middle decades of the 20th century will treat the Langdon family.

Marilynne Robinson, Lila (finalist for the 2014 National Book Award)

There must be something powerful about having Iowa as a setting, as along with Smiley's book, Robinson's narrative set in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa was also nominated for a 2014 National Book Award.  The third in a trilogy of books set there, Lila was more of a struggle for me to read.  Not because the narrative is dull (it is not) nor because of bad prose or poor characterizations (the opposite, in fact), but mostly due to me reading this without reading the first two novels.  Yet even after realizing that there were a number of references to other characters whose import I would not understand due to not having read those books, Lila was still a very engaging work, as this hither-to young wife to the other two books' main protagonist proves to be an intriguing, challenging character to consider.  Sometime in the near future, I plan on seeking out the first two books and then re-reading Lila, as I think when placed within a larger context, it might be one of the better historical/family series to be released in recent years.

Jennifer Marie Brissett, Elysium

When I finished reading Elysium a couple of weeks ago, my first thought was, "This was a debut?"  It certainly is a daring first effort, as Brissett tackles issues of gender/sex identities and love through the interactions of two souls, Adrianne/Adrian and Antoine/Antoinette, over the course of several "lives," each of which are seen only as vignettes interrupted by seeming computer code/rebooting.  In each of these iterations, these characters struggle to forge identities and bonds even as their bodies shift and they find themselves in new situations.  In some ways, it is a struggle toward nirvana, although it is never couched in those terms during the narrative.  By the novel's end, the cumulative lessons that these two souls (or perhaps computer simulacra?) have learned makes Elysium one of the best debut novels that I've read in a year full of strong first novels and collections.

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