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You know you’re in for a wild ride with the shockingly inventive collection Shit Cassandra Saw when one of the first stories is a piercing tale of women in New York acquiring supernatural powers that allow them to move through the city without fear of sexual assault. This is followed by a story that’s a one-star Yelp review written by Gary F., ostensibly about a Maryland restaurant called Jerry’s Crab Shack, but really about the man’s deeply dysfunctional relationship with his wife.

Other standout entries include a poignant look at a high school softball team that is reeling from a recent school shooting, and the tale of a woman who is having an affair and being judged by the priggish Colonial ghost who lives in her neighborhood.

So it goes, in dazzling story after story in this debut book from Gwen E. Kirby, a creative writing instructor and associate director at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference at the University of the South. Through humor, ferocity and sometimes a healthy dash of surrealism, Kirby meditates on the fears, joys and pains of being a woman throughout the centuries. Every story feels unique, yet they’re tied together by Kirby’s mind-bendingly confident writing and her clear fascination with strong yet vulnerable women.

And boy, does she know how to create a sense of place so strong you can feel and smell it. In “We Handle It,” for example, we meet teenage girls who are “at a summer music camp, our fingertips sore from strings, our backs sticky with sweat, and when we reach the lake we shed our summer dresses and leap from a boulder into the water, which is deep and clean. Around the lake are tall pines and the heavy hum of Southern bug life.”

Shit Cassandra Saw is pure pleasure with something for everyone, especially readers interested in thinking deeply about womanhood from every possible angle. Kirby’s characters are sometimes sinners and never saints, as complex as the real-life women we know and love.

The female characters in Gwen E. Kirby’s collection are sometimes sinners and never saints, as complex as the real-life women we know and love.

Spanning the globe from a night market in Taiwan to New York City, Los Angeles and many places in between, Jean Chen Ho’s novel-in-stories weaves together the experiences of two young women, Fiona and Jane. We see their lives unfold together and apart, amid challenges with their parents, flirtations, relationships and financial concerns. Through it all, Fiona and Jane navigate the complexities of their friendship, allowing it to grow, change and reemerge with time.

Fiona and Jane is comprised of chapters that alternate between Jane’s first-person narration and Fiona’s third person. Jane describes growing up and navigating her sense of self, and she ruminates on the ways that her friendship with Fiona grounds and challenges her. Meanwhile, Fiona’s chapters feel more distant for their external narration. The decision to differentiate the two Taiwanese American women’s sections in this way becomes increasingly interesting and important as the story progresses. In fact, it becomes evident that this structure is essential to how the story must be told.

Time is a fascinating factor in the novel as well. The narrative unfurls in the present while moving the reader into snippets of backstory, filling in gaps at just the right moments. Ho also moves us through and across physical and cultural landscapes, revealing how a person can feel both resonance with and distance from one’s community and self.

Ultimately, though, Ho’s characters do the most compelling work. Fiona and Jane—both earnest, curious and heart-full—epitomize the realities of growing up in America as young women, as immigrants, as Asian Americans. Their arcs show how families complicate one’s life while also enriching it, how friends can become a found family, and how each choice can echo in and reflect a person’s whole life.

By the book’s end, readers will feel as though they carry some part of these women with them, as if Fiona and Jane are our friends, as if their stories might yet overlap with our own.

After reading Jean Chen Ho’s novel-in-stories, readers will feel as though they carry some part of Fiona and Jane with them.

Spanish novelist Carlos Ruiz Zafón, whose bestselling works were beloved by readers around the globe, died too young, at 55, in June 2020. Before his death, he collected a slim volume of stories as a parting gift for his fans. Varying from two to 40 pages in length, the tales in The City of Mist are filled with classic Ruiz Zafón elements: absorbing, old-fashioned storytelling, atmospheric settings and characters who exist in the margins between reality and imagination.

Ruiz Zafón’s fiction, exemplified by the Cemetery of Forgotten Books quartet that began with The Shadow of the Wind, draws freely on the conventions of many genres—gothic, fantasy, historical romance, noir. The 11 pieces in The City of Mist follow this pattern, tapping into a sense of ethereal mystery and otherworldliness. Some characters will be familiar to avid readers of Ruiz Zafón’s oeuvre, and most of the stories are set in the fictional version of Barcelona that has long been his literary terrain.

The final, posthumous work of Carlos Ruiz Zafón dwells in the familiar, fantastical literary terrain that he claimed as his own.

Because Ruiz Zafón was a writer known for burly, sprawling narratives in a style hearkening back a century or two, it is interesting to see him working in miniature. The shortest stories here are mere whimsical episodes, and one senses that The City of Mist, which has the feel of a writer’s sketchbook, comprises nuggets the author intended for future exploration in novels. This fragmentary quality, however, in no way diminishes Ruiz Zafón’s storytelling charms, which are on full display especially in a number of the longer pieces. “The Prince of Parnassus,” the longest story and the one placed dead center in the volume, is an apocryphal tale within a tale about Cervantes, a journey to Rome to save a young woman and a Faustian bargain with a shadowy, devilish figure. “Men in Grey” cleverly makes use of noir tropes while following the exploits of a political assassin during the Spanish Civil War. In another story, the eccentric Barcelona architect Antoni Gaudí takes a voyage to Manhattan to meet with an elusive millionaire in hopes of securing financing to complete his legendary cathedral. One can only imagine, and lament, where Ruiz Zafón might have taken these conceits had he lived longer.

Ruiz Zafón luxuriated in an old-school narrative style and was an indisputable master of the form. If he had one blind spot as a writer, it may have been in his portrayal of female characters. The women in these stories, young or old, are likely to be either virginal or fallen (sometimes, oddly, both), serving as mysterious objects of veneration or temptation but rarely as multifaceted human beings. This omission or oversight often leaves the reader yearning for a little more depth. Nonetheless, for the legion of fans of this mesmerizing storyteller, The City of Mistt will not disappoint.

The final, posthumous work of Carlos Ruiz Zafón dwells in the familiar, fantastical literary terrain that he claimed as his own.

Lily King has been publishing fiction for more than 20 years, but in the last decade, she has earned a new level of acclaim and success with the two ravishing, highly praised novels Euphoria and Writers & Lovers. The latter landed on shelves two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down bookstores (and just about everything else in the world), so she was unable to do much in the way of promotion. She has greater hopes—and a scheduled book tour—for her collection of 10 startling short stories, Five Tuesdays in Winter

King’s new book takes the long view. The stories span the entirety of the 58-year-old writer’s career, and about half of them are new material, not previously published in magazines. In a call to her home in Maine, she explains that she fell in love with short stories in high school. She’s been keeping journals since fifth grade (and still has them all, lined up on three shelves in her office), but she didn’t dream of becoming a published writer until her discovery of the short story form. 

“I hadn’t had a happy childhood, I hadn’t loved the cold. But here I am.” 

“Short stories are much harder [to write] than novels,” she says. “They can be more satisfying because you get to the end faster and don’t have to carry the despair for years and years. If you don’t like them, you can walk away from them. But you can’t make the mistakes that you can make in a novel. You can’t have those weird little spasms that a novel allows.”

The stories here are layered, incisive, sometimes dark and often funny. The opening tale, “Creature,” is about 14-year-old Carol, a nascent writer who is hired by a wealthy woman who lives in a mansion on a rocky New England coastal promontory. For two or three weeks in summer, Carol is to be the live-in babysitter for the woman’s very young grandchildren. Carol’s services are meant to free up the children’s mother, Kay, to spend more time with her own mother. Even before the arrival of Kay’s ne’er-do-well brother, Hugh, Carol observes the silences between mother and daughter. 

“Creature” exposes the divisions within families, the flinty coldness and deliberate, doting blindness of a certain kind of parent. In its surprising conclusion we understand the hard shift in awareness that will inform Carol’s future as a writer. But is it autobiographical? 

Not quite, explains King, though it is set in the town where she grew up: Manchester, Massachusetts, renamed Manchester-by-the-Sea in 1989. “I feel I was straddling a lot of different worlds,” she says of those days. “My parents got divorced. My mother and I were in an apartment downtown without a lot of money. My father was up in the house on the point. Then my father remarried and remarried again. My mother remarried and we moved to a different part of town in a big house. I was both a babysitter trying to make money and then a person who sometimes lived in a big house.”

Read our starred review of Five Tuesdays in Winter.

King’s experiences with this class dichotomy burn through this story collection, as do strong impulses instilled by years of babysitting, which she began at age 11 and continued until she was 32. “You step into somebody else’s family, and you have to intuit their whole ethos,” she says. “I’m interested in fitting in and not fitting in. How a situation in a house becomes very fraught. About the power, about everybody’s dysfunction.”

For the past few years, King and her family have lived in Portland, Maine, but the pandemic hit shortly after their move, so she still doesn’t feel completely settled. They previously lived in the smaller town of Yarmouth, but when her older daughter went off to college, her younger daughter lobbied for the family to move to Portland, “the big city.” 

Now their house is on a hill, and King’s top-floor office gives her an expansive view of city rooftops and the Atlantic Ocean. Her husband, a writer and fine arts painter, has a studio on the top floor as well. His mother, also an artist, painted the vivid work that constitutes the cover art of Five Tuesdays in Winter. The full painting graces King’s living room. 

Even after 20-plus years in Maine, King still expresses surprise to be living in New England. “When I left Massachusetts at the age of 18, I thought I would never, ever live in New England again,” she says. “And I didn’t for a long time. But I just kept kind of circling back and then leaving again and coming back.”

King’s life has taken her all over the U.S. and even to Valencia, Spain, but starting a family with her husband helped her make the decision to return. “It just seemed that I had to raise my kids with seasons,” she says. “With winter, with snow. I didn’t think it could happen because I hadn’t had a happy childhood, I hadn’t loved the cold. But here I am.” 

The author of Euphoria and Writers & Lovers takes us into the memories that inspired a story in her terrific first collection.

Lily King has been rightly praised for two terrific recent novels, Euphoria and Writers & Lovers. But who knew she was such an exceptional short story writer? Maybe a few readers of Ploughshares or O Magazine, where a couple of the stories gathered in Five Tuesdays in Winter first appeared. But about half of these stories are new. All of them flash with brilliance.

King’s stories are mostly situated in New England in the 1980s, and her characters are often in adolescence, revealed at their moments of emerging into adult life and consciousness. Three tales are about would-be writers whose experiences shape them: a teen girl just beginning to consider writing, a woman in her early 20s trying to figure out her life, and, in the collection’s exhilaratingly surreal final story, “The Man at the Door,” a married mother being confronted about her audacity in thinking she has the right to write.

Lily King shares the New England memories that inspired one of the stories in her first collection.

King places these lynchpin stories at the beginning, middle and end of the collection. But four other stories are from the perspectives of young men. This includes the astonishing “When in Dordogne,” in which a boy’s wealthy and neglectful parents leave their house in the care of two college students for the summer. “As I came with the house, these two college boys were obliged to take care of me, too,” the son observes sardonically. A disaster in the making, right? As it turns out, no. The college boys are funny, sensitive and caring. The story is a soulful exploration of male sensitivity and love.

The very satisfying title story is about the fairly rigid owner of a used bookstore, his teenage daughter and the bookstore’s sole employee, who agrees to teach Spanish to her boss’s daughter. Over five Tuesdays, a tentative and then quite wonderful relationship develops among the three of them.

King’s observations are both sharp and generous. Five Tuesdays in Winter is a collection worth dipping into again and again.

King's sharp and generous observations make for a story collection worth dipping into again and again.

Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s intricate story collection, My Monticello, explores how it feels to be Black or biracial in America. Johnson doesn’t shy away from any topic as she calmly delivers, with too-real certainty, a ruthless kind of truth. 

These six innovative, avant-garde stories showcase Johnson’s ingenuity. In “Control Negro,” a Black professor studies his son from a distance, scientifically examining the young man’s evolving life and comparing it to those of American Caucasian Males (ACMs). In “Virginia Is Not Your Home,” a young biracial woman yearns to break free of her roots by changing her name and leaving home. And in the eponymous novella, a group of neighbors from Charlottesville, Virginia, flee to Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello after their neighborhood is destroyed by white terrorists. 

Johnson plots each piece delicately, arranging them so that the subtleties shine through. The stories range in content and in tone—some ironic, some hopeful, some slightly sadistic—but each pulls its own weight, and each feels completely natural alongside the rest of the collection.  Some are written in first person, while others unfold solely through second-person imperatives. Some are in past tense, others in present; some are epistolary, some more traditional. Throughout, Johnson’s one-of-a-kind voice offers a gateway to new perspectives, and necessary ones at that.

Part of the enjoyment in reading My Monticello is gaping at Johnson’s seemingly endless skill in plotting and sentence structure. While the novella is a bit slow-paced at first, and a couple of the stories could have benefited from a more apparent focal point, the collection is full of depth, and there are too many takeaways to count. 

Fans of story collections like The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans will appreciate this fictionalized outlook on America’s present and future. My Monticello is both unprecedented and inimitable, a beautifully thought out collection of elegant craftsmanship.

In her debut collection, Jocelyn Nicole Johnson doesn’t shy away from any topic as she calmly delivers, with too-real certainty, a ruthless kind of truth.

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