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Book Bag

WHAT I DIDN’T SEE

By Karen Joy Fowler

Small Beer Press

www.karenjoyfowler.com

Karen Joy Fowler may be best known for “The Jane Austen Book Club,” a best-selling and critically praised novel that was made into a 2007 film. The story follows a group of Californians who meet to discuss Austen’s novels and soon find their own lives playing out like those of the fictional characters.

But “What I Didn’t See,” a collection of short stories Fowler has published separately over the past decade, is a long way from the light, romantic comedy of “Book Club.” Elements of science fiction, fantasy and sinister forces lurk just below the surface of these dozen tales, published by Small Beer Press of Easthampton.

In “The Pelican Bar,” which won the 2009 Shirley Jackson Award for short fiction, an out-of-control teenage girl, Nora, is whisked away from her home to a mysterious rehabilitation clinic that turns out to be more of a concentration camp. Nora and other teens become physically and psychologically debilitated, forced to debase themselves under the merciless supervision of a character named Mama Strong, who recalls Nurse Ratched of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

But is any of it real? Nora’s drug-induced visions at the beginning of the story suggest something else may be afoot, as does her journey near the story’s end to a bar/restaurant set on a sandbar off the coast near where she’s been kept. There’s a question as to whether Mama Strong and her fellow “employees” are even human — leaving this disturbing story decidedly unsettled.

“Dark” is another spooky tale that touches on the history of bubonic plague and runs from California’s Yosemite Park to the Vietnam War, where a boy who vanished in the national park seems to reappear as a sort of half-human in a Viet Cong tunnel — or does he? “There is a darkness inside all of us that is animal,” the story’s narrator says. “Against some things ... the darkness is all we are.”

“The genre shifts might surprise fans of her mainstream hit,” Publisher’s Weekly says of Fowler’s collection, “but within these pages they’ll find familiar dramas and crises that entertain, illuminate, and question the reality that surrounds us.”

A STRANGER IN OLONDRIA

By Sofia Samatar

Small Beer Press

www.sofiasamatar.com

This debut book by Wisconsin writer Sofia Samatar is a fantasy novel set in the mythical land of Olondria, which invokes something of eastern Africa from centuries past. It is published by Small Beer Press of Easthampton.

The story’s narrator, Jevick, is the son of a wealthy pepper merchant on a semi-remote island who, once a year, takes his crop for sale to the exotic spice markets in Bain, Olondria’s seaside capital.

Jevick is entranced by the stories his father brings back from Olondria — and when his father dies and Jevick travels to the spice market in his place, he is equally transfixed by the books that are so commonplace in Olondria. Despite the loss of his father, Jevick finds his life has taken an exciting turn for the better.

But the boy also is haunted by the ghost of an illiterate young girl from his home country, and he discovers Olondria is a place of danger and intrigue. He becomes a pawn in the struggle between the country’s two most powerful political factions — and as civil war looms, Jevick must make critical decisions and determine how the ghost of the young girl will affect his life.

Samatar, who is of Somali and Swiss-German background, previously taught English in Sudan and has drawn on her time in Africa to fashion what one critic calls “sensual descriptions [that] create a rich, strange experience, allowing a lavish adventure to unfold that is haunting and unforgettable.” She’s now pursuing a doctorate in African languages and literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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