Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Separate Kingdoms by Valerie Laken

Title: Separate Kingdoms: Stories
Author: Valerie Laken

Genre: Fiction (Short Fiction / Contemporary)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Perennial (2/1/2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours

Rating: Liked but the mood was too raw and grim for me to fall in love.
Did I finish?: Yes - in two nights!
One-sentence summary: Beauty, pain, love, and loyalty are explored in eight deft short stories.

Do I like the cover?: Yes, although on my ARC it's a photo of the cover so I'm not sure how it looks in real life. Still, the colors are gorgeous.

I'm reminded of...: Aimee Bender, Jane Bowles, Siri Hustvedt, Sara Maitland, Lorrie Moore

First line: Instead of the gold-plated onion domes Josie had hoped for, the view from their room revealed only the grimy, cement backside of the Oktyabrskaya metro station, where a few merchants had set up tables selling flimsy newsprint magazines bearing pictures of naked women. - from 'Family Planning'

Why did I get this book?: The author lived and worked in Russia and, well, the title and cover were striking!

Review: These eight short stories pack a punch.  These are dark, moody pieces: not emo moody or overwrought angst, but a steady, grim reality without forced optimism or cheer.  But in a good way, a great way: the writing is exceptional, the storytelling vibrant, and the characters are maddeningly real.

Laken's gift as a storyteller is that you still want to read, despite the painful awkwardness or the grim uneasiness the characters face. 

In 'Family Planning' a lesbian couple is in Russia to adopt a baby when they learn they can chose between two children.  This story had me literally wiggling with discomfort: the characters made me uncomfortable because I know people like them and this very simple set up was just heavy with implication and inevitability and promises of painful disappointment.  It was discomforting because it felt so real.

The tone of the stories just isn't for me -- but it's absolutely my tastes and not any knock against Laken.  However, two absolutely grabbed me -- again, for the fantastic writing and great characterization: 'Map of the City', which has a very autobiographical feel, featuring a young American woman from the Midwest living in Russia in the early '90s; and the titular story, a side by side account of an evening from the viewpoints of an injured father and his teenaged son.

My wife, who loves Shirley Jackson, Aimee Bender, and Herman Melville, Danish films, and New England winters, adored this collection.  I had passed the book to her just to read a single story and didn't get it back until she had finished the entire thing.  

I think this would be a great selection for book groups -- these stories invite conversation about relationships and the choices one would make -- and anyone who enjoys fiction that is a little more raw but still well-written.

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Giveaway!  One copy to any US/CA reader!  Just leave a comment with your email address to be entered; ends April 21st. 

For more reviews, see the other blogs on the tour.  Learn more about the author, Valerie Laken, at her website.


  1. I would love to read this one, so could you please count me in on your giveaway? You had me sold when you mentioned the likeness to Lorrie Moore, who is my all time favorite author of short stories. Thanks for the giveaway, and for the wonderful review!

  2. Oops! I forgot to leave my email address!


  3. Wow, these stories DO seem really powerful! I can imagine that my book club would have some great discussions if we read this one.

    Thanks for being on the tour.

  4. This book sounds really fascinating! Please count me in. Thanks so much!

    nfmgirl AT gmail DOT com