Interview: Saigon Dark Author, Elka Ray

 

saigon_darkAfter reading SAIGON DARK last month, I reached out to Elka Ray’s publishers at Crime Wave Press with some interview questions, and was amazed at some of the replies I received. As readers, we get used to authors reaching deep to bring our innermost fears to the pages of their books, but we don’t often expect them to come from real life experiences. However, Elka Ray’s Saigon Dark is anything from the usual…

LISSA: In Saigon Dark, a really unusual drama creates a platform for exploring, among other things, issues of trust. Did you decide on the plot first or draw the plot around the themes?

ELKA RAY: Ten years ago, my first daughter died as a baby. It was a total shock. I’d believed my child would outlive me. Instead, I was cremating her. How could this have happened? Why her? Why me? Was this a punishment for my failings and mistakes? I had all sorts of crazy thoughts. The trauma of her death shook my trust in the world. I felt unsafe – like a door I didn’t even know was there had opened and couldn’t be shut. If this unthinkable thing had occurred, more bad luck could follow.elka_ray

Without trust, we can’t function normally. We trust other drivers to stop at red lights. We trust the food we buy is not poisonous. We trust our friends have our best interests at heart. Most importantly, we trust ourselves to make reasonable choices.

When you doubt yourself, you’re lost. You can’t trust anyone or anything else. This was the starting point for Lily Vo, the main character in Saigon Dark. I wanted the novel to explore grief, trust and paranoia.

The plot centres around passing one child off as another. This idea came to be shortly after the birth of my son, whose first passport photo was taken when he was three days old. He was squinty and bald – indistinguishable from most newborns. That passport was valid for five years, which gave me the idea: it could be used for almost any kid.

LISSA: You chose to make the main character a Vietnamese woman who was born and raised in the US. Did this allow her to behave differently or be more identifiable to non-Vietnamese readers than a native, or is her background incidental to the story?

ELKA RAY: To make Saigon Dark work, I needed the main character, Lily, to be as isolated and stressed as possible. Her marriage to a local man has just broken down. She’s a single mom in a foreign country. Her youngest child is unwell. She has no real friends nearby. She’s leery of the police and feels judged by the locals.IMG_4873.JPG

This story wouldn’t work if Lily trusted the authorities. It wouldn’t work if she had family nearby. Someone with a strong support network would get help. They’d make less desperate choices.

When I first heard Lily in my head she was American Vietnamese – and that worked perfectly for the story.

My husband is Australian Vietnamese. Some of my closest friends are American Vietnamese. In Vietnam, Viet Kieu (Overseas Vietnamese) face special stresses compared to other foreigners. They often come here expecting to feel “at home” only to experience profound culture shock. Many local Vietnamese don’t understand that culture is learned – not passed down in your blood – and judge Viet Kieus for not speaking fluent Vietnamese and behaving like natives.

With suspense, your goal as an author is to keep adding pressure and building tension throughout the book. You’re stacking the deck against your poor protagonist to test how strong they can be.

LISSA: Your previous work include kids and more mainstream fiction. What tempted you over to the dark side? And most importantly, are you staying?

ELKA RAY: My first novel, Hanoi Jane, is a romantic mystery. It’s light and funny – a book about a young woman rebuilding her life after a bad break up – but there’s still a crime at its core. And my short story collection, What You Don’t Know: Tales of Obsession, Mystery & Murder in Southeast Asia is packed with crimes and ill will. I’ve always been fascinated by why people behave like they do, especially when their actions seem unreasonable. Crime fiction is about motivation – and that’s crack for me.

Many thanks to Elka and Henry Roi at Crime Wave Press for the interview! 

Patrick Hamilton: Why Book Titles Matter

Yes, Patrick Hamilton, that guy you’ve never heard of, him again, the play-write and novelist. Not to be confused with Hamilton the play… Anyway…

He achieved success at a very young age and was only 25 when his hit play, Rope made him famous and rich (as plays did back then). The Midnight Bell (novel) followed and then Gaslight (from where the term gaslighting originates) and by then he was much better known than any of his still famous contemporaries… such as Graham Greene.

That’s right, at 27 he was more famous that Graham Greene – Our Man in Havana, The Quiet American etc –And yet, you’ve still never heard of him… so why on Earth is that? Some people like to think it’s because of his weird lifestyle and existence. (He came from wealth, fell in love with prostitutes, regularly and got hit by a car that took his nose with it). Even after that he carried on writing hits, war-time dramas, comparable to For Whom The Bells Toll (1940) but with more tension, more drama, more guts.
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Perhaps the reason we don’t treasure Hamilton in the present day is because he didn’t treasure himself. Take for example, Gaslight. He actually “borrowed” the idea of a flickering gaslight from a failed book of his brother Bruce’s, To Be Hanged (1938),

It was a massive success as we’ve already said. In New York, it had the longest run of a foreign play in Broadway history and by 1944 it had already been adapted for film, not just once but twice. However, Hamilton wrote it as a pastiche, and didn’t love it. gaslightAnd the name, Gaslight kind of suggests that.

“What should I call it? Blah! Gaslight. Done!”

It reminds me of a friend asking me (a longtime ago) What’s gaslighting? She knew the term but couldn’t guess the meaning. That’s lot like how you have no idea what his books are about from the titles.

Martin Amis wrote once that book titles shouldn’t be too clever. That a title such as Hangover Square (referring the famous Hanover Square in west London, which was (is) a drinking haunt) and excessive drinking, was a guaranteed way to make people put your book down before they had read it. And he may have a point, Rope? What happens, no idea? There’s a dead body in a box…okay? The Slaves of Solitude, well that sounds both impersonal and depressing, nothing like the funny, weird, knowing book of the same name.

With that in mind, I have some suggestions for the next time Penguin re-releases some Hamilton stuff… Maybe they should rename the books and Photoshop a smile on that face too.

I for one can’t wait to re-read:

“Maniac with a nine- iron” (Hangover Square), “The Talented Mr Gorsly” (Gorse) or “There’s a f**king body in the box, can’t you smell it?” (Rope).

So when we’re naming you books, looking for clever titles that will make the reader go ‘ahhhh’, maybe we should just not. Spell it out. People are busy.

 

This is what real crime tastes like

Book Review: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

In this ambitious imagining of the Lizzie Borden case of 1892, Sarah Schmidt fleshes out the conclusion, which was always assumed, but never proven. The case was a national obsession, when a 30 year old live-at-home daughter from a nice town in Massachusetts axed down her father and step-mother, because famously, the jury decided, a woman was not capable of such a crime.

UnknownLooking back at the story from a true crime angle, there was very little for Schmidt to build on. Facts like Lizzie owning pigeons, burning her dress, her considering purchasing Prussic Acid the day before etc. are oft repeated in the Lizzie Borden files but there’s only so much you can do with these bones without creating melodrama. So it was a pleasure to read Schmidt’s take on the emotional and mental state of the presumed killer.

In a Venn diagram of the Lizzie Borden of this book and the real Borden, the circles are probably a good mile apart. The Lizzie we find here is a bouncy woman-child, manipulative and psychopathic and doesn’t ‘look’ much like the black and white photos of the frizzy haired Borden. I always imagined Borden as a cold and calculating killer, someone at the end of her tether, who had just enough distance from herself to hope she wouldn’t be suspected. This is Borden re-loaded, licking droplets of blood off her hand like a cat, laughing hysterically within sight of her murdered step-mother and without much mention of the trial, getting away with it.

As a psychological thriller, it certainly delivers. Schmidt makes Lizzie easy to hate and despise while we root for her sister and the maid throughout. The story is really well built up to include possible motivations for murder from both the maid and a hit-man, but of course, the reader never entertains these as prospects unless we consider that Schmidt intends to derail the story. Of course, Schmidt doesn’t need to tell us, Lizzie did it, but she did need to land the story and she does this well and as stylishly as would be possible. However, because a few ‘red herring’ threads were started to build the story, it would have been nice to have seen these land satisfactorily too. I was a wee-bit miffed that Bridget didn’t get her tin back or than the story ended before the hit man gets into Lizzie’s new house.

One word of advice, don’t let the awkward first few pages distract you. I didn’t know if the maid was meant to be Italian, Caribbean or what when I first started reading and I assumed she was around 60 and that Lizzie was meant to be 14 (for some reason). I did nearly close the book but I’m so glad I didn’t. The maid is 26 and Irish. Lizzie is her real age of 30. JSYK.

This is well-written, meaty, authentic feeling, page-turner of a book and I lost a few hours to it when I should have been sleeping. I imagine, if you knew nothing about Lizzie Borden, then this book would be an even better read. But either way it is a good one.

 

Yes, your di*k is a diamond encrusted vacuum cleaner and here’s what you do with it

I recently overheard a woman on a London bus compare a guy-who-hit-on-hers d*ck to a diamond encrusted vacuum cleaner. Yes, it made me lean in to hear more but it got me thinking too. Hey, that’s not a bad analogy… and here’s why.

See, I’d just seen a youtube video about a guy, very politely asking a girl out to dinner and her saying no. (He was verbally polite, however, the girl was in a bikini while he was fully dressed and they were obviously meant to be strangers). Next, he reveals that he owns a tank. “Wow. Is that your tank?” She asks (I won’t go into how women wearing bikinis aren’t usually into tanks, but never mind). He responds, “Yes it is. Is that your car?” When she confirms. He then blows it up.

The Psychology Definition of Misogyny
Psychologically, misogyny is defined in very different terms than it is when thrown about online. Misogyny is usually the result of a male receiving psychotic (or teasing) love from a woman at a young age, either his mother, sisters, aunts etc. or a girl in the school yard who screams when he brings her a flower. (Why did the little girl scream? Because patriarchy expects her too. If she encouraged his advances, she would be labeled).
Likewise, we (society) expect men to have a thick skin regarding rejection. It is a requirement of masculinity. Basically, guys are designed to hit on everything with a pulse even if there is very little chance of success. It’s a numbers game, like cold calling doorstep sales of vacuum cleaners. You hit on 10 women, one of them replicates and you’re in. If you only pick one and she’s not interested in you, you get nothing

suffering-young-manBut when a negative response elicits angry or hurt feelings at an early age, men tend to develop a little more like women. They remember the response and learn from it. This affects their later expectations of a woman’s interest. They are more likely to assume a) women are generally not interested in them and will reject them, b) that they do this because it makes them more powerful. They are damaged by the experience and become abusers themselves. Abuse victims becoming abusers is a pretty common theme in psychology JSYK.

But seriously, what has this go to do with diamond encrusted vacuum cleaners?
So think back to the story of the guy and his tank. What he’s trying to say and what his viewers pick up on is the sentiment that… “I’m a nice guy and if you only gave me a chance, instead of being so shallow, you’d see what a nice guy I am. But now it’s too late. You’ve already hurt my feelings and I need to punish you to make myself feel better.”
As a crime writer, I am totally A-OK with this idea, but as a woman who has studied psychology, I see the disconnect.

Because the guy did not show the girl he was ‘a nice guy’ i.e (in guy talk, that he had a tank). He expected her to detect it. As she is not a mindreader, this would be impossible.

Now let’s say that tank was a diamond encrusted vacuum cleaner (DEVC) and you are the lucky man tasked with selling it door to door at a very reasonable price (Because honestly, only a 12 year old thinks women are impressed by tanks. See also: spiders down the back of dresses). This DEVC is going to sell itself, as they say. e4a332f1b24a75ecc01aab328da9cb90
You knock and say, “Hey Ma’am, I’ve got a diamond encrusted vacuum cleaner for sale. Do you want to buy it for a very reasonable price?”
What do you think the woman at the door says? She says, “No.”
Is she crazy? Maybe. But also, she doesn’t believe you. Why would she? Has she already seen the flyer with the picture of the vacuum cleaner on? Has she witnessed a demonstration at a friend’s house? Has she seen you on TV with celebrities fawning over your vacuum cleaner? No. As far as she is concerned, you are just like the last guy who knocked on her door and all she got then was slicer dicer that never made Julian fries, broke down after the first 2 minutes and a $50 invoice.

As of yet, you have failed to create a BUZZ about or demand for your DEVC. You’re selling it cold and it’s a product too valuable to schlep around the streets door to door. You keep it at home, nice and safe. So it is an invisible product that she knows nothing about. Just like the girl in the bikini being asked to dinner. She knows nothing about your product. Her automatic reaction is to say “no”. But you do have a friggin’ DEVC! If she only knew it, she would want it. You are a genuinely nice guy who is just asking a girl out and she’s screaming, “I have a boyfriend!” So fuck her, right?

Just like the DEVC salesman, you can walk away full of rejection and hate or you can plan your next sales call accordingly.

This time you need to market your product and create a buzz before you try to sell it. And just like him, you need to go to where your target market is and network. Ladies, like customers, and guys like to see that a product works and is desirable. None of us take the chance of buying something off the street from someone we don’t know.

First contact networking doesn’t happen in bars, shopping malls or at the beach. It happens at work, school, college, in community and church settings, at interest specific conferences and in sports clubs and this is where you need to begin marketing too. There are also plenty of marketing techniques you can use which are scientifically proven to make you and your DEVC more attractive to women.

Once you have an audience, you can introduce your product, your DEVC, aka your nice guy identity, or your dick. And once you have successfully marketed this product, if it truly is the dog’s bollocks, you will have buyers crawling over themselves to get to it.

Basically, if you market your product right, you will never need to cold call another customer ever again and never be rejected again. Your customers will come to you and you can laugh at other guys who still haven’t learnt how straight forward selling the DEVC really is.

Q: What’s white on top and black on the bottom?

A: Society.

Q: Why is it so hard to give bad news to the Japanese?

A: Because you have to drop the bomb twice.

Q: What did Kermit say at Jim Henderson’s Funeral?

A: Nothing

Did you find those jokes funny? Good Grief! What’s wrong with you?

Well, as it turns out, you’re not a horrible human being, you’re just intelligent, highly intelligent. Or at least that’s what a new study in Cognitive Processing has found. Intelligence plays a key role in humour and high intelligence is key in appreciating dark humour, black jokes, not suitable for people you don’t really know, kind of jokes.

So smart people are mean?

Not really. The funny thing about jokes (pun totally intended) is that the punch line creates a disconnect between what you thought was likely to be the outcome and the actual outcome. That’s why it’s so hard to guess the punch line – or should be. Jokes, that kind of make sense, or can be deduced are often considered corny. That is, the disconnect wasn’t so great. It’s not that funny.

A dark joke is not predictable, but more than that, it adds an element that should never be funny – death, abuse, doubts about our values etc. It takes a certain ability to organise, compartmentalize, and then to appreciate the disconnect in the jokes and to find it funny.

So smart people are grumpy and disillusioned? Maybe, but not necessarily.

The group with the highest ‘sick humour’ appreciation scored the highest in verbal and non-verbal IQ tests, they were also better educated, and scored lower for aggression and bad mood. The group with the lowest sick humour appreciation and comprehension scored the lowest in verbal and non-verbal IQ tests, were poorly educated, and scored higher for aggression and bad mood.

In short, if you’re easily offended by sick jokes, it’s probably because you’re aggressive by nature and not that smart.

I sincerely hope that didn’t offend you.

Are you being Gaslighted? Do you even know what it means?

If you read anything online these days, you’ll be familiar with the term ‘gaslighting’. It refers to the manipulation of one person by another, in a way that makes them doubt their sanity. It’s also been used to describe Trump’s campaign winning tactics, twisting and playing with our understanding of ‘facts’ until nothing seems quite concrete.

However, the term gaslighting comes from a play which you never read in school, and of which you probably never saw the movie either. It was the first play of a talented writer who failed to make it into our shared cultural history, and his name is Patrick Hamilton.

The play is set in 1880 in the upper middle class London home of Jack Manningham and his wife Bella. In the 1942 Broadway production Vincent Price played Manningham. You’ve heard of him, right? Manningham is a man who has purposely married Bella in order to be able to purchase a flat below the one where he murdered a rich heiress years before. He was searching for her rubies when the police arrived and fled and now, every evening he sneaks back in to resume his search. He refuses to tell Bella where he’s going (obvs) and promotes the notion that she’s mentally unstable so that, as she starts to get wind of the truth, she doubts herself. Bella begins to believe she is losing her grip on reality, because whenever he leaves, she thinks the gaslight is waning. The single truth is, the gaslight is waning, because Jack is upstairs with it on full blast as he searches for the jewels.

However, in this concept – the one single truth manages to support the untruth – that she is insane.

It takes Detective Rough’s intervention to work out the connection and uncover Jack’s actions.

So there you have it. It’s much more complicated than just Trump waving his hands around and saying the same few words over and over again. Gaslighting as a concept explains how truth can support fiction when we allow ourselves to doubt our perceptions or ignore physical reason.

A Woman of Integrity by J. David Simons

British film star, Laura Scott’s is the other side of fifty and the last film role she had was for the voice of an animated fish. She’s become financially embarrassed and doesn’t want to reduce herself further and head into a sitcom position like her friend. So when an American producer says he wants her for a play about one of her favourite stars of the silent screen, things look like they are turning around. However, she soon realises, there’s more to integrity than simply drawing a line between your heart and your art.

I never like to give plot lines away and I won’t here. It’s enough to say, this story is about two actresses, one of which intends to play the other in a play and we get to read the manuscript of the latter’s autobiography interspersed throughout the tale. It’s the manuscript she’ll get hold of later on after dealing with a little dishonesty, treachery and soul searching along the way.

I don’t think it needs pointing out that it’s a book about two women written by a man, but I do point it out because I think he did a surprisingly good job. If I’d guessed the author’s gender I would have said female because it is insightful and often explicit in a way you’d expect an Alice Munro story to be.

Laura Scott has integrity, so did Georgie Hepburn and both of them have to wrestle with maintaining it. The story is fluid and enjoyable and kept me reading. My only qualm with the story would be that I was expecting a big reveal, but I don’t feel like this was delivered. The way the two stories run parallel together gives you the impression that at some point a fusion will occur, but it doesn’t. Of course, it doesn’t, it’s a sensible British story not some piece of Hollywood Tomfoolery!

Ultimately, this story already has that tingly, BBC one, lottery funded, BAFTA winning actresses kind of feel to it. It’s very British, set in North London and you can hear Emma Thompson’s voice coming off the pages. I closed the book with a pleasant sigh. Well, that was rather nice…

Expected publication: March 16th 2017

Freight Books

Book Review: Saigon Dark by Elka Ray

UPDATE: This book is on an Amazon 99c deal Sunday 19th March and Monday 20th March. 

The premise – that a single mother (Lily) living in Vietnam decides to ‘rescue’ an abused child who wanders out in the night on the same night as her child of the same age drowns, and then deals with the consequences – doesn’t do the story justice. It’s a tale of motherly love and how it effects the most sensible, well educated and grounded of us all as an obsession and compulsion. It’s also an account of the fragility of human relationships in matters of trust and romantic love and how ‘blood’ or in this case motherly love is thicker than water.

Saigon Dark Review

I don’t do stars, but this book is an easy 5. It’s the best new fiction I’ve read this year (okay, it’s February), but it is still an excellent novel. Saigon Dark is best enjoyed if you have no idea what’s coming. So I won’t get too much into the plot. The best I can do is to compare it to some other well-known books to give an idea of the style and quality.

One such would be Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, in which the story starts off as a romance then veers towards the supernatural before becoming a full-on psychological suspense novel. Likewise, Elka Ray’s Saigon Dark starts off as a story of a woman wishing back her ex-husband, then becomes a little spooky, turns into a tale of a woman living under the constant pressure of lies and then explodes into a classic noir romp full of secrets, blackmail, and murder. Elements of Ray’s story also had the feel of Patricia Highsmith’s, The Talented Mr. Ripley, in that occasionally, the pose becomes quick and economic, rushing through Lily’s intensely focused actions of dealing with dead bodies and the fear of being discovered. There’s also the tense but stylish management of lies and the evolution of Lily into a new person, completely at odds with her previous or professional self.

There are many themes here that will appeal to a wide range of readers. Throughout the book, a thread regarding trust is present. Lily can only trust herself, she has to compartmentalize everything she feels in order to protect herself and her children. There are also ideas of rebirth and renewal and the hope of making something better. Ultimately, there is sadness and tragedy to the story, but it is not of the soppy, anti-climatic variety, rather a more sensitive and empathic approach to noir. And all this wrapped up in a fascinating Vietnamese location and culture that reads as genuine and authentic.

There’s no way this book can be easily described – well written and fascinating subject matter is only the beginning. It could easily become a huge hit and also has all the hallmarks of a noir classic. It should be read, simple as that.

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Crime Wave Press

Elka Ray

Manly Stories Mainly for Men: Rivers of Gold and The Graybar Hotel

Two interesting looking books popped up on my Kindle this week: Rivers of Gold by Adam Dunn and The Graybar Hotel by Curtis Dawkins. Both sounded gritty and noir-ish for different reasons, so I was pleased to give them a go. After finishing, I had a strange feeling, kind of like waking up after being hit by a plank of wood to find a credit card receipt for 20 shots of premium tequila in my pocket.

manliest-man-motorcycle

I guess you could say that’s my masculine side coming out. I felt like a man – a manly man. Because, these books are just that – totally – manly.

32620303The Graybar Hotel by Curtis Dawkins
First up, this is a collection of short stories written by a current inmate serving life without parole for a murder during a ‘botched’ house robbery. The first thing you notice in this collection is how well it’s written. This isn’t a teenager writing fan fiction, this is someone who knows their craft, and I suppose he should as he has an MFA from Western Michigan University. This book isn’t actually out yet and the publishers have asked that no quotes be shared, but I’ll just say this, the authority of the stories just melts off the pages.

The setting is mostly Kalamazoo Prison, Michigan and the narrator seems to be often the same person interspersed with an Arthur or a George as he tells us their stories too. He takes us through a wide range of experiences from Processing to spending time in Quarantine before being sent to a prison, to the prison itself. It feels dramatically realistic, but there’s also a smattering of the supernatural too.

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Where this book really shines is in the glimpses of insights into how an obviously intelligent and educated man mitigates the monotony of life in prison. Early on, ‘I’ tells us he isn’t normally a sociable person, talking for no reason, but in jail, you have to be, as there’s nothing else to do. And I think many of us could imagine this of ourselves (imagine it and shudder). So in order to reconnect with the outside world, he calls random numbers collect (he doesn’t have any personal contacts he can call) in the hope that someone on the other end will talk to him for 15 minutes, or at least let him listen to the traffic noise outside their house or the background TV and this as an idea is mesmerizing. In a nutshell, this book is mesmerizing, like been taken for an experience which I hope I’ll never encounter, but for which I’m grateful for the advice. It reads partly like a diary, partly like a philosophy.

However, a couple of factors got in the way of absolute pleasure. First off, there’s the issue of the author. If you want to learn more about him, check out Bullmenfiction.

The phrase, “I shot a man dead who had no business being shot” shows up here and this reeks of a lack of genuine remorse. If I went to someone’s house and shot them without any reason, I hope I could muster up a little more emotion than that, but hey. The other issue is the short story format. I wish to high heaven, this were a novel, but alas, I’m guessing Mr, Curtis doesn’t have his own personal MacBookPro in his cell with all his research and files neatly organized in coloured folders. And you know what they say, if you don’t want short stories, don’t read them. It’s a free world – for some of us.

Rivers of Gold by Adam Dunn

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Okay, hold on tight. NYC 2013. Man in a taxi thinking about money and sex. My first impression of Renny was that he was a fat, boring version of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho travelling through an NYC that seemed recognizable to me. But wait, it’s meant to be a dystopian future version of NYC after some huge financial crash and an over running of drugs… It’s always tough when fiction falls short of reality.

Now there is a storyline and once you get into it, it is good but it’s hard to get past the layers of (to a woman) boring man-stuff. There’s a fashion in women-centric novels at the moment for including the recipes of the foods the characters eat, and in Rivers of Gold, there is so much talk of cocktails that I felt it was just the same need being fulfilled but differently. The sex talk is grim and sounds like it’s coming out of a middle aged, over fed man who is partial to botox, as in ‘no thanks, I’m late for a spin class’. But I can imagine plenty of guys really love those scene. Plus Renny gives girls head, so that make him a modern-thinking man, right?

manliest-man-black_dynamite

But enough of the man bashing, because Rivers of Gold is a good book. Dunn has some great ideas and thoughts, which translate well on paper as the thoughts and ideas of his characters. He can also write well and in this age of self-publishing, that has to be recognized.

Naturally, this book, both these books, are populated with men and deal with how men think. The women are superficial, attractive or sexual characters or remarkable because they’re not attractive or sexual. I read and enjoyed both books on a surface level, but felt a little out of touch with the context and emotions.

Maybe this is just how guys feel if they read an Alice Walker/Munro collection. To each their own. Thank God we don’t all like the same stuff!