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Tag: novellas

You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann

With a life that has been rather chaotic of late, I often enjoy grabbing short books or novellas on the spur of the moment. They are easy to pick up before bed without the weight of a hefty tome or the seeming psychic weight of starting a 400 page novel.

You Should Have Left was just such a book that caught my eye at the local library:

It is fitting that I’m beginning a new notebook up here. New surroundings and new ideas, a new beginning. Fresh air.” This passage is from the first entry of a journal kept by the narrator of Daniel Kehlmann’s spellbinding new novel. It is the record of the seven days that he, his wife, and his four-year-old daughter spend in a house they have rented in the mountains of Germany—a house that thwarts the expectations of the narrator’s recollection and seems to defy the very laws of physics. He is eager to finish a screenplay for a sequel to the movie that launched his career, but something he cannot explain is undermining his convictions and confidence, a process he is recording in this account of the uncanny events that unfold as he tries to understand what, exactly, is happening around him—and within him.

So I grabbed it and read it over a couple of nights of bedtime reading. It turned out to be a creepy, mysterious atmospheric novella. It builds the tension quite well and hooks the reader’s interest with a burst of intensity and then has a sort of melancholy tragic ending.

I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. Suspense, horror, magical realism?

Kirkus offers some thoughts:

This novel is, in many ways, a classic haunted-house tale. There are warnings about the house from the people in the village below. There’s a creeping sense of horror. There are frightening phenomena that the narrator cannot explain. And there are specters. Kehlmann (F, 2014, etc.) uses all these familiar tropes beautifully. But he also creates a sense of existential dread that transcends the typical ghost story. The relationship between the narrator and his daughter adds a level of anxiety; he has to protect her not just from the house, but also from knowledge of what’s happening. And Kehlmann deserves special notice for recognizing just how uncanny a baby monitor can be. A book to keep you up at night.

The New York Times makes the case for a mix:

“You Should Have Left” lands in a place that is part horror, part science fiction. Time travel, which may or may not be involved, is presented as its own kind of blurred nightmare. If you’re unfamiliar with Kehlmann’s writing, don’t start with this slim, occasionally potent exercise. But if you’re a fan waiting for his next full workout, you’ll find this a pleasantly unsettling way to pass the time.

No matter where you might settle in terms of genre, if you are looking for a creepy, unsettling read with a literary touch, this would be a good choice.

The God Engines by John Scalzi

The God Engines by John Scalzi is not my normal read, or listen, as I rarely tackle science fiction or fantasy of this sort. But the audio was for sale at Half Price Books for a couple of bucks so I grabbed it for the commute. Plus, I am always interested in fiction that explores faith.

Captain Ean Tephe is a man of faith, whose allegiance to his lord and to his ship is uncontested. The Bishopry Militant knows this—and so, when it needs a ship and crew to undertake a secret, sacred mission to a hidden land, Tephe is the captain to whom the task is given.

Tephe knows from the start that his mission will be a test of his skill as a leader of men and as a devout follower of his god. It’s what he doesn’t know that matters: to what ends his faith and his ship will ultimately be put—and that the tests he will face will come not only from his god and the Bishopry Militant, but from another, more malevolent source entirely…

Recently, it took its turn as my entertainment for the drive to and from work. It turned out to be interesting and enjoyable but, as so many reviewers have noted, felt a little too short and underdeveloped.

I started out wondering what I had purchased because it was so different than anything I had read recently. And the voices and personalities as they come through on audio heightened that strangeness. But the story picked up and I started getting into it.

Just trying to conceptualizer and envision such a strange and different world was challenging and interesting. Trying to figure out what the different “angles” being played (the bishops, the gods, the captain, etc.) and to what ends keeps you intrigued. And of course, you can’t help but think what philosophical point Scalzi might be making in telling such a story about gods and faith and choice.

But then just as the tension builds and the complexity begins to intrigue the story ends. You are left thinking: “Huh, that was interesting but is that it?”

Still, it is creative and thought provoking and has some well done characters. Have to wonder what it could have been at standard novel length though … Or perhaps I am just not a connoisseur of fantasy novellas.

The Tale of the Unknown Island by Jose Saramago

After reading the New York Times review of Cain, and a blogger review of Death Without Interruptions, by Jose Saramago I figured it was time I read some of his work.  Facing the reality of budget constraint, I headed to the library.  Being a fan of short and interesting fairy/folk tale type stories, I picked up The Tale of the Unknown Island while I was there.

Here is the publisher’s blurb:

A man went to knock at the king’s door and said to him, Give me a boat. The king’s house had many other doors, but this was the door for petitions. Since the king spent all his time sitting by the door for favors (favors being done to the king, you understand), whenever he heard someone knocking on the door for petitions, he would pretend not to hear . . .” Why the petitioner required a boat, where he was bound for, and who volunteered to crew for him the reader will discover as this short narrative unfolds. And at the end it will be clear that if we thought we were reading a children’s fable we were wrong-we have been reading a love story and a philosophical tale worthy of Voltaire or Swift.

It was an interesting and rather poignant story.  Not having read any Saramago before, I was not used to the style and structure of the writing: sort of stream of consciousness run on sentences.  It takes a while to get used to this; finding your rhythm and not being distracted by the unique style.

Once you get past that, however, there is an elegance to the simplicity of the story and the determination of the characters to go beyond the small world of their mundane existence; to seek uncharted waters and unknown islands despite everyone’s insistence that they do not exist.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Book cover of

Book cover via Amazon

On of the millions of rather famous writers who I had never quite got around to reading was Ian McEwan.  But when I saw his slim novel/novella On Chesil Beach for sale at a local library for a dollar I couldn’t resist.  And its very slimness enticed me to go ahead and read it this past week.  It turned out to be a little gem of a book; a skillful and multilayered work despite its brevity.

With a book this short there is not much point in long plot explanations.  The story centers on the 1962 honeymoon night of Edward and Florence.  Edward’s desire for the consummation of the marriage is at nearly unhealthy levels.  Florence occupies the opposite end of the spectrum: she views the impending act with horror and disgust and would give nearly anything to avoid it.  As the tension of this builds and the night unfolds, McEwan fills in the background of how the couple came to this point.

This much noted quote captures both McEwan’s skill and a critical element of the story:

And what stood in their way? Their personalities and pasts, their ignorance and fear, timidity, squeamishness, lack of entitlement or experience or easy manners, then the tail end of a religious prohibition, their Englishness and class, and history itself. Nothing much at all.

Although McEwan handles what might be called the psychology and sociology of sex very well, the book isn’t just about the hidden dangers of two virgins approaching sex for the first time on their wedding night in early 1960’s England.  It is about the unique period post-war where old mores and traditions were still in place even as the future holds radical changes.  It is about how one’s upbringing, personality, culture, and history impacts their perception, expectations, and relationships in a myriad of ways.  It is about how seemingly small decisions can reverberate through our lives in unexpected ways.  It is a novel of manners, a comedy of errors, and a horror story all at once.  It is about all of this and more.

McEwan offers pleasure for both those who like to explore psychological realism and for those who like to enjoy carefully crafted sentences.  And given its brevity its rewards easily outweigh the time required to read it.

Some interesting quotes from other reviews below:

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

Book cover of

Book cover via Amazon

On of the millions of rather famous writers who I had never quite got around to reading was Ian McEwan.  But when I saw his slim novel/novella On Chesil Beach for sale at a local library for a dollar I couldn’t resist.  And its very slimness enticed me to go ahead and read it this past week.  It turned out to be a little gem of a book; a skillful and multilayered work despite its brevity.

With a book this short there is not much point in long plot explanations.  The story centers on the 1962 honeymoon night of Edward and Florence.  Edward’s desire for the consummation of the marriage is at nearly unhealthy levels.  Florence occupies the opposite end of the spectrum: she views the impending act with horror and disgust and would give nearly anything to avoid it.  As the tension of this builds and the night unfolds, McEwan fills in the background of how the couple came to this point.

This much noted quote captures both McEwan’s skill and a critical element of the story:

And what stood in their way? Their personalities and pasts, their ignorance and fear, timidity, squeamishness, lack of entitlement or experience or easy manners, then the tail end of a religious prohibition, their Englishness and class, and history itself. Nothing much at all.

Although McEwan handles what might be called the psychology and sociology of sex very well, the book isn’t just about the hidden dangers of two virgins approaching sex for the first time on their wedding night in early 1960’s England.  It is about the unique period post-war where old mores and traditions were still in place even as the future holds radical changes.  It is about how one’s upbringing, personality, culture, and history impacts their perception, expectations, and relationships in a myriad of ways.  It is about how seemingly small decisions can reverberate through our lives in unexpected ways.  It is a novel of manners, a comedy of errors, and a horror story all at once.  It is about all of this and more.

McEwan offers pleasure for both those who like to explore psychological realism and for those who like to enjoy carefully crafted sentences.  And given its brevity its rewards easily outweigh the time required to read it.

Some interesting quotes from other reviews below:

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