I got a little turned off to literary short fiction when I read Cathedral by Raymond Carver. That book is highly rated, but the stories just didn’t click with me. Somewhere along the way I was referred to Foster by Claire Keegan. I felt like it might be time to give that a go, but I was hesitant due to my experience with Carver. I need not have been concerned.
Foster pulled me in from the beginning and would not let me or my heart go. It tells the story of a young girl in rural Ireland whose mother is expecting yet another baby. As she approaches delivering that baby, her father takes her to neighbors to watch over her to give her mother a break. At first, the girl is nervous and scared, not knowing what to expect. Over their short time together, both the her foster parents and she grow close until, after the new sibling is born, she has to return home.
The atmosphere is overpowering in this story. I really felt as if I was there. I was drawn into the rural Irish community as well as the smaller world of the little girl who is telling the story. There is quite a contrast between the life she lives in her parents’ home and her short time with her foster parents. But there is no outward judgment one way or the other. Instead the author allows the characters and their feelings and emotions to communicate the complicated world of adults as experienced by a young girl.
My rating: 5/5
Here is another winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella. It is a portal fantasy where children return from their world to parents frantic about their missing children. When the kids tell mom and dad about where they have been, the parents naturally think them traumatized by whatever experience they actually had. In their pursuit of help, they come across a woman running a school for just such children. What they don’t know is that the headmistress was herself a child who traveled to another world and understands that the children are telling the truth.
The story follows one girl as she arrives at the school desperate to get back to her other world. As she starts to settle in, terrible things begin to happen. The children help the headmistress to figure out what is going on. We learn what is going on as the children do.
This book is both dark and funny. It deals with issues of adolescence and sex and gender in sympathetic ways while still feeling true to how children treat and relate to each other. I found the ending rather abrupt but otherwise thoroughly enjoyed the book.
My rating: 4.5/5
A Psalm for the Wild-Built is exactly my kind of science fiction–the kind that explores ideas. Like her longer novels, in this novella Becky Chambers shares a vision of a future that is both positive and optimistic. The story takes place on a verdant moon where humans have confronted what they were doing to the environment and corrected their activities. One of the catalysts for this was the rise to sentience of their robots. The story takes place many years after that.
The novella tells of a young monk who has a crisis of purpose and decides to change their vocation. At first they find their new work quite a challenge. Eventually they become very good at it and find that the hole they felt inside is not filled after all. At this point they take drastic measures to address this personal crisis. And throughout the descriptions of the countryside and outdoors in general nearly give the same feeling one gets from walking in the woods oneself.
I love it when science fiction addresses both the outward and inward challenges that humans face. This book does a masterful job of addressing both. It shows a positive future (though not a utopia) where humans have successfully and collectively navigated past a challenge that faced them all. But the core of the story is about one person trying to figure what their purpose in life is.