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Separate Kingdoms [Kindle Edition]

Valerie Laken
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

Print List Price: $14.99
Kindle Price: $8.00
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Sold by: HarperCollins Publishers

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Book Description

“A work of daunting versatility and technical skill, the product of a writer absolutely at home in the language and working vigorously within both new and old forms.” —Michael Byers, author of Long for this World and The Coast of Good Intentions 

From Pushcart Prize-winner Valerie Laken, author of Dream House, comes a riveting short story collection charting the divisions and collisions between cultures and nations, families and lovers, selves and others in the United States and Russia. In the tradition of Lydia Peelle, Barbara Johnson, and David Mitchell, Laken creates incisive and illuminating portraits of characters coping with loss, estrangement, and disability, confined by their circumstances to separate kingdoms of the heart.



Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The stories in Laken's capable follow-up to Dream House are divided among the experimental and the straightforward, the hopeful and the wistful. Laken visually splits the title story on the page: one side sees a removed narrator recount a man's coming-to-terms with the loss of his thumbs, the result of "a coffee-and-ephedrine buzz" and the bypassing of safety regulations at his manufacturing job; the other side tells the story from the perspective of the man's 12-year-old son. Other stories, too, focus on divided perceptions, though with less visual flair. In "Before Long," set in the Russian countryside in 1993, Anton, "twelve and blind," longs to feel useful to his older friend, Oleg, and tries to buy a pornographic magazine for Oleg's collection while on an outing with his overbearing mother. In "Family Planning," Josie and her girlfriend, Meg, travel to Moscow to adopt a child, but when they are given a choice of orphans, the women unexpectedly confront their divergent hopes and expectations. If all this sounds bleak, Laken keeps the misery in check, even as she excavates the split between people, cultures, and generations. (Feb.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

In eight short stories, Laken (Dream House, 2009) examines what divides us, from solitude to anger, fear, and silence. All her characters are misfits or damaged, cut off in one way or another from their fellow humans. There�s a blind Russian boy, unable to communicate his desire for independence; a recent amputee, who�s taken to �experimenting with reticence� as she withdraws from her devoted husband; a gay couple adopting a Russian baby, who can�t agree on a particular child; a man who�s lost his thumbs, the very thing that identifies him as a man, not an animal. �We are not fine,� his son says, which serves as the theme of these finely crafted, fully realized tales. Laken demonstrates that all of us are in some way isolated from others, trapped in our own thoughts, our own hurts, our own bodies. In setting her stories alternately in Russia and the U.S., Laken shows that borders and oceans create less of a gulf than does the tiny space between two people. Bridging that chasm is our greatest challenge. --Patty Wetli

Product Details

  • File Size: 2835 KB
  • Print Length: 224 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins e-books (March 29, 2011)
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0042FZVPS
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #999,646 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback
Short story collections are the poorer cousins of novels in the fiction world. Publishers are very leery of them unless the author has already somehow proven himself as a saleable commodity, preferrably with a successful novel. And I must admit that I don't read many short stories myself. I heard of SEPARATE KINGDOMS from a writer friend, Don Lystra, who authored a much acclaimed first novel, SEASON OF WATER AND ICE. Now Don is looking for a publisher for (you guessed it) a group of short stories. I hope he finds one, because I'm eagerly looking forward to reading more of his fiction in whatever form.

I am extremely impressed with Laken's collection. Because she is obviously a writer who knows what she's about, and writes about what she knows. The thing that sets this book apart from other story collections is its use of alternate settings. Three of the eight stories here are set in the former USSR, in Moscow and its outlying suburbs and villages. Laken lived in the area back in the early 90s and has apparently made subsequent visits since then. Hence the title of the collection perhaps - the US and the USSR as 'separate kingdoms.'

But there are other possibilities too, and they are easy to find in each of the stories. The first one, for example, "Before Long," contrasts the world of the sighted with the blind, represented by Anton, a Russian boy who is nearing puberty, with all its normal awkwardness emphasized even more by his handicap. Childhood, adolescence and the adult world are all separate kingdoms too, of course - layers of interpretations here, I suppose, if you wanna do that kinda thing. Me, I was mostly caught up in the stories and their characters.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Gaping Divide March 29, 2011
Format:Paperback
"Just living" isn't the easiest thing in the kingdoms of Valerie Laken. In her psychologically engrossing short story collection, there is always that gaping divide: between countries, cultures, or lovers, or even that schism within ourselves.

In one of the most engrossing of the stories, Family Planning, a gay couple - Meg and Josie - travel to Russia to adopt a baby, and are suddenly faced with a choice: the little boy they had expected to bring home or an unknown baby girl. And Josie realizes in a flash, "Someone had to give sooner or later. That was how families and lovers everywhere functioned. It was not just a business thing, it was a kindness people gave to those they loved."

In another story, Remedies, Nick gets into a car accident as a result of losing small spells of time. "I'll be going along like a regular person and then poof. It's like the world has jumped ahead of me by a couple of minutes." The future, the past, a vision of the flattest, basest reality all merge for him.

And then there's Before Long, another story in which a twelve year old blind boy named Anton briefly leaves his orderly and idyllic village life to visit a new American dentist and discovers, "There was no one anywhere, not even the foreigners, who could fix this."

Perhaps, though, the most inventive of the stories is the titled story, where a family strives to communicate after Colt - the father - loses his thumbs and his livelihood after he sabotages a machine at work. Ms. Lakin relies on a gimmick: a two-column, split-screen format to show the father's viewpoint...and his young son Jack's thoughts.
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