Astray, by Emma Donoghue

AstrayAfter reading Room for my in-person book club a while back and really enjoying it, I was pretty excited to have another Donoghue book to read for my online book club. And it was a book of short stories, which are things I am trying to read more of! How perfect!

Well, kind of perfect. I read the first story and I was like, ooooo-kay, what is this that’s going on here? And then I read the afterward to the first story and I was like, oh, I see, this story was based on a real thing that happened, I guess that’s cool. I read the second story and I was like, uh, weird, this is also a confusing little story. And then I read the afterward and I was like, oh, I see, this whole book is full of stories based on things that really happened. Hmm.

Then I read the third story and I was like, hey, this is an awesome little story that reminds me of James M. Cain! And it’s based on a true story! How cool!

Probably about half of the stories in this collection are like that one, and they are pretty fantastic — the aforementioned “The Widow’s Cruse”, “Snowblind”, and “The Body Swap” in particular are quite good stories on their own merit, made more intriguing by their historical backgrounds. I mean, ladies up to no good! Yukon gold-panning! Grave robbing! Sold!

The other half, though, are like the first couple of stories in that they are midly to completely baffling as written, and then make a little more sense when you take into account the true story behind them. These were not my favorites, though others in my book club liked them just fine.

On the plus side, the stories are all quite short (less than 20 pages each, on average) so you don’t have to spend too much time with the ones you don’t get along with. And the history parts are intriguing enough, if you have a little extra time to research them. I used to listen to a couple of history podcasts, and any one of these stories would make for an excellent half-hour knowledge dump. In fact, as I said during the book club meeting, I would read this book all over again, and possibly even like it better, if it were redone as a non-fiction essay collection on the actual things that happened to these people. Donoghue should get on that, or get someone else to do it for her, or I guess I could go do all that research myself… someday…

Recommendation: For fans of very short historical fiction and very strange truths.

Rating: 7/10

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Room, by Emma Donoghue

RoomHey, remember that time I read a book for book club and had nothing to say about it later? Fact: I got to this month’s meeting and someone asked if I liked Room better than the last book we read, and I was like… what book? We read a book last month?

Guys, Room is soooo much more interesting and discussable than whatever that other book was. Perfect book club choice. Highly recommend.

And I would even recommend the book! Several of my club-mates were not thrilled with it, largely because Donoghue chose to make the narrator a five-year-old who knows lots of big words but little proper grammar. I can’t fault them, either; I read through the first fifty pages or so and was like, this is going to get old fast. Five-year-olds definitely do not talk like this. But then — and here, I think, is the secret — I listened to the next hundred pages or so. The woman who voiced Jack, our child protagonist, was amazing, and I found myself recalling that five-year-olds in fact love big words and don’t care about grammar.

I also found myself completely drawn in to the story of Jack and Ma, who share a room called Room that you soon find out is some horrible soundproof shed that Ma was kidnapped to several years ago by some awful guy known to Jack and the reader only as Old Nick. Creepy and gross. Jack has only ever known Room, so he and Ma live in their own little world with their own customs. But there’s an obvious tension between him and Ma when they talk about Room and Outside, and even more so when Ma starts to tell Jack what’s really going on.

I’m not sure if this is a book that can be spoiled, really, but I did find myself constantly wondering what was going to happen next so I’ll let you have that experience if you haven’t already. 🙂 I think it’s safe to say that that tension absolutely does not go away, and that Donoghue’s examination of life and the world from an alien point of view is what made the book so interesting to me. Even if you’ve never been in quite the same situation as Jack, I think anyone can relate to the idea of learning something you can’t unlearn (Santa Claus oh no!) and how dramatically it can change your life.

Recommendation: For those who’d like to know what happens to the victims on all those crime procedurals when they’re not getting rescued.

Rating: 9/10