Book reviews

Archive for the ‘Oates, Joyce Carol’ Category

Cardiff, by the Sea by Joyce Carol Oates

I’ve read several novels by Joyce Carol Oates previously but didn’t particularly connect with the stories, so started Cardiff, by the Sea with the intention of reading a few pages then discarding the book if I didn’t like it. Happily I loved each of the four short stories that make up this collection.

The collection began with the title story Cardiff, by the Sea, which was a story of suspense.

The main character, Clare, unexpectedly inherited a property from a grandmother she didn’t know existed. She had been adopted as a toddler and knew nothing about her life prior to being adopted so when she received a phone call from a Maine lawyer telling her she had two great aunts and an uncle living in Maine, she was keen to meet her family.

On arrival, Clare met a pair of squabbling, fusspot old maids who were reluctant to tell her anything about her parents but on searching newspaper archives, she learned that her mother, older sister and brother had been killed by her father, who had then killed himself. A small child at the time, Clare had been hiding inside a kitchen cupboard when the murder-suicide took place in the family home.

As Clare learned more about her past and visited her former home, long-forgotten memories returned raising doubts about what had actually happened.

Cardiff, by the Sea had an ambiguous ending which suited the uneasy tone of the story. I would have preferred a definite ending but think the author made the right choice of ending since I have continued to wonder about the events, whereas if the story’s ending had been clear cut I would probably have forgotten it by now.

Miao Dao was the story of a girl on the verge of puberty who was being tormented by boys from her class at school. Her parents had recently separated and her mother was seeing a man who Mia sensed was also a predator.

Mia’s story was entwined with that of the feral cats living near her home. When their habitat was destroyed Mia adopted a tiny white kitten, whom she named Miao Dao. The kitten became Mia’s fiercest protector as she entered her teenage years.

Miao Dao brought back unpleasant memories of being Mia’s age and trying to avoid similar attention from boys. I imagine most women have had similar experiences but I still felt a surge of anger when I remembered a particular event that I hadn’t known how to deal with at the time.

Phantomwise: 1972 also left me feeling angry. Alyce was a brilliant young poet who fell pregnant after having a secret affair with one of her instructors. At around the same time, she became friends with a much-older and very successful professor, Roland B, a successful poet. Alyce became indispensable to Roland B, who employed her to archive his works. Later, when Roland B realised Alyce was pregnant he offered to marry her, making her former instructor jealous.

I was angry with Roland B for leaning so heavily on Alyce, was angry with her former instructor and Roland B for their selfishness in using her talent for their own gain, but most of all I was angry with Alyce for giving up so easily on herself and her own work in order to serve these two unworthy men.

The last story in the collection, The Surviving Child was also the shortest. This was the story of Elisabeth, who had married an older, rich, controlling man whose first wife, a renowned poet, had killed herself and their daughter while sparing their son. As the story continued Elisabeth became more and more intrigued by her predecessor’s life and death.

The four stories in this collection were well suited to each other. Each had a female heroine and a suspenseful, uneasy atmosphere. Men in plain sight were the enemy, the predators, the bullies and the oppressors of women. The female victims were more different to each other in that some had no way to escape their situations, while others found ways to fight back against their tormentors and win.

I’m already looking forward to reading something else by Joyce Carol Oates.

Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates


I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Someone whose opinion about books I respect enormously says she loves Joyce Carol Oates’ work. Everyone else seems to love her books too, except me. I read We Were the Mulvaneys years ago and it left me lukewarm. I’ve just finished reading Jack of Spades and this story left me stone cold.

I couldn’t find an emotional connection with the narrator, a middle-aged man who is an enormously successful writer of thrillers, although not on the same scale of success as Stephen King. Andy is known in the business as ‘the gentleman’s Stephen King’ and in private, Andy is enormously jealous of Stephen King’s success.

Andy is an odd fellow, whose character didn’t ring true for me. For example, every time Andy mentions his wife, he calls her ‘his dear Irina’ or something similar. That’s just creepy. They’ve been married for a long time. Nobody could keep up all that ‘dear Irina’ stuff unless they were doing it in a sinister manner. (Which he probably was).

Andy, who writes as Andrew J Rush, also has a secret persona. He also writes violent, masochistic fiction under the pseudonym Jack of Spades. These books are so secret that not even Andy’s wife or children know about his alter-ego. When his daughter accidently comes across one of the Jack of Spades books, she reads it and recognises in it an event which happened to her. In the Jack of Spades book, this event is twisted to provide the worst possible ending. Andy’s daughter thinks that Jack of Spades is someone known to the family who is using the family’s stories for their plots.

The story get weirder when Andy is sued by an elderly local woman, who insists that Andy has broken into her house to steal her diaries or stories, then used them as the basis of his own fiction as Andrew J Rush. After the case was thrown out of court Andy learned that the woman had previously sued Stephen King and other well known and successful writers in a similar manner. The court case causes Andy’s thoughts to become darker and darker, as if Jack of Spades is taking over his personality. Instead of seeking professional help, Andy broke into the woman’s house and finds that her written works are similar to his own. And to Stephen Kings’. And that she might have written her stories before they had written theirs… Hmmm.

Most of the time I couldn’t figure out what was going on in Jack of Spades. Questions were raised, but nothing was resolved. I think the story is a homage (of sorts) to Stephen King’s The Dark Half, where a writer’s personality is taken over in a similar way. However, I don’t think Joyce Carol Oates is writing for me. I’m more of a Stephen King sort of reader. A Constant Reader, as Stephen King would say…

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