A sparse, supple collection of poems that each capture something singular and striking about human connections. The standouts to me were Human Chain,A sparse, supple collection of poems that each capture something singular and striking about human connections. The standouts to me were Human Chain, Route 110, "Had I not been awake," and "The door was open and the house was dark," the latter of which I'll copy here because I think it captures what's so elegant and perceptive about Heaney's style:
The door was open and the house was dark in memory of David Hammond
The door was open and the house was dark Wherefore I called his name, although I knew The answer this time would be silence
That kept me standing listening while it grew Backwards and down and out into the street Where as I’d entered (I remember now)
The streetlamps too were out I felt, for the first time there and then, a stranger, Intruder almost, wanting to take flight
Yet well aware that here there was no danger, Only withdrawal, a not unwelcoming Emptiness, as in a midnight hangar
Rough Magic is a coming of age story, an interrogation of naked ambition, and a self-conscious meditation on English colonialism, all wrapped up in aRough Magic is a coming of age story, an interrogation of naked ambition, and a self-conscious meditation on English colonialism, all wrapped up in a thrilling tale of a 19-year-old girl entering and winning the most difficult horse race in the world. Lara Prior-Palmer’s underdog story couldn’t have been any more pitch-perfect if it were scripted: she entered the Mongol Derby on a complete whim, underestimated its difficulty, was dismissed by the other competitors early on, but still rallied to become the first woman to win the race and the youngest person ever to finish. But it’s far from the conventional sports memoir, as winning is never really the point, or even the goal, for Lara, whose motivation for entering the race is hazy even to herself.
This book’s greatest strength is something that often irritates me in memoirs: that Lara doesn’t have much distance from the experience she’s writing about (she won the race in 2013, her memoir was published in 2019). Had she waited 15 or 20 years to tell this story, it could have been more polished, more articulate, but that sophistication would have come at the detriment of its charm, its passion, its frenetic energy. Perhaps the most successful thing about this book is that due to her lack of emotional distance from it, Lara doesn’t place her own character development front and center; instead she takes us through the race step by agonizing step, showing us rather than telling us about the physical and psychological toll it was taking. This entire memoir cleverly circles the question ‘is naked ambition in and of itself a virtue or a vice?’ (a character trait she sees reflected in her main competitor, Devan) – and the few moments where Lara zeroes in on it have the emotional punch they’ve earned.
“Our pace slowed. I began imagining Clare and Kirsten catching us. Nothing is swift as thought—I felt it jumping through me. But riding in a big group just wasn’t efficient. It was a simple thought, and when it came, I knew the race had me.”
And then, shortly after:
“What if I wanted to win for myself, without wanting to beat Devan or please Charles or any other audience? It’s a lonely thought; I wish I were strong enough for it.”
All that said, this book isn’t the easiest to settle into; Lara Prior-Palmer’s prose is almost a perfect reflection of her flighty, restless nature – she jumps from one thought to another with no preamble, she constructs an elaborate metaphor unnecessarily and follows it a bit too long. But there were also lines that I adored, that I found especially resonant (more than enough to compensate for the more awkward passages), like:
“I’m just so used to swallowing myself as I speak that I can’t help seeing self-assuredness as indulgent.”
So while I don’t think this was a perfect book (not that anything is a perfect book), I do think it was a really special one that I enjoyed reading immensely, that filled me with anxiety and excitement in equal measure. Lara Prior-Palmer is a fascinating, sympathetic, strong and vulnerable person who doesn’t spare herself for a second on the page, making this story as personal as it is informative about the Mongol Derby. I’d highly recommend Rough Magic if you like horses, coming of age stories, underdogs, memoirs about young women, or any combination of the above....more
In this book's introduction the authors state that although they did an extensive amount of research, they made a decision at times to spin fact intoIn this book's introduction the authors state that although they did an extensive amount of research, they made a decision at times to spin fact into imagined dialogue. That should set your expectations for this biography: wildly entertaining, often sensationalized, but decently informative nonetheless....more
This is a competent biography of a really remarkable woman. I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about Noor Khan, an SOE agent and the first woman to beThis is a competent biography of a really remarkable woman. I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about Noor Khan, an SOE agent and the first woman to be sent into occupied France, who was executed at Dachau after being imprisoned for a year and not revealing anything under extensive interrogation. But while Spy Princess certainly has value in filling in the gaps left by other biographers, it does occasionally beatify Noor at the expense of other women (what does Shrabani Basu have against Mata Hari, my god) and fall victim to making very generic statements about Noor's life when there isn't documented information (i.e., a page-long description of the global advancement of WWII followed by a lazy statement like 'Noor was worried about this'). Still, Basu does an impressive job at chronicling Noor's life and contextualizing her legacy. ...more
Stubborn Archivist is the sort of book that manages to feel both brilliant and incomplete - that's the impression that I'm left with upon finishing itStubborn Archivist is the sort of book that manages to feel both brilliant and incomplete - that's the impression that I'm left with upon finishing it. Debut novelist Yara Rodrigues Fowler comes out of the gate strong with this book, which is an offbeat piece of auto-fiction that blends poetry and prose (think Eimear McBride, but more accessible) to tell the story of a young British-Brazilian woman growing up in South London.
This is one of the more 'fresh' and stylistically interesting things I've read in while; its challenge of structure feels authentic rather than arbitrary and the overall effect serves to put you in the head of the nameless protagonist. The one theme that is executed to perfection in this book is the exploration of what it's like to grow up between two cultures, which Rodrigues Fowler portrays with heart-rending authenticity on both micro- and macro-cosmic levels.
But I do wonder if Rodrigues Fowler was maybe a bit too ambitious; there were a number of other themes that were introduced without ample exploration (and it's to her credit that I do have to wonder if this was the point - after all, what woman in her early 20s has sex and sexuality completely figured out; but there were still a few scenes whose inclusion I do have to wonder at). I also was less enamored with the passages that left our protagonist and focused on her parents and her aunt; I think the idea was to give a more complete picture of this family's history, but again, I don't think these scenes were developed as well as they could have been in order to justify their inclusion.
Ultimately though I did think this was an incredibly striking debut. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys 'millennial fiction' and contemporary literary fiction that features young women trying to find their place in the world.
Thank you to Mariner Books for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review....more
Devotion is this summer's Social Creature, a propulsive 'poor girl meets rich girl' story set in Manhattan, chronicling the mutually destructive relatDevotion is this summer's Social Creature, a propulsive 'poor girl meets rich girl' story set in Manhattan, chronicling the mutually destructive relationship between two young women, Elle and Lonnie. Elle is hired as a nanny for Lonnie's infant son, and soon her resentment toward her employer turns into an unhealthy obsession.
Despite the inevitable Social Creature comparison, Devotion isn't quite as suspenseful or climactic, and its protagonists left less of an impression on me. Even so, I had a hard time putting this down; for a slow-moving story it never really loses momentum, and it has that 'need to know what happens next' quality that mercifully doesn't feel like a cop-out when nothing ever really happens.
Madeline Stevens achieves this with pitch-perfect characterization of the novel's narrator, Elle, whose 'do I want to be her or do I want to sleep with her' dynamic with Lonnie is the morbidly compelling thread that holds this plotness novel together and keeps you turning pages. Ultimately: a quick, addictive read that doesn't offer much in the way of thrills or chills, but still has an eerie and unsettling quality that makes it impossible to look away, and which offers a deceptively nuanced commentary on living on the periphery of extreme wealth.
Thank you to Netgalley and HarperCollins for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review....more
Much like Swan Song's subject, Truman Capote, Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott's novel is at times charming, at times vicious, and at times insufferable. DMuch like Swan Song's subject, Truman Capote, Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott's novel is at times charming, at times vicious, and at times insufferable. Despite the fact that it took me over a month to get through this and I was complaining about it for a lot of that time, Swan Song actually does have a lot to recommend it. Its first person plural narration is particularly well done as Greenberg-Jephcott attempts to reclaim the voices of the women whose social lives Truman Capote effectively destroyed with the publication of his salacious story La Cote Basque 1965 (the first chapter of Answered Prayers, which was eventually published unfinished, posthumously). In stealing the real life stories of his close circle of friends for his planned novel, Capote faced extensive backlash and was unable to repair his lost friendships, which ultimately haunted him until he died. It could have been a gripping tale of betrayal and a searing commentary on the kind of symbiotic relationship with high society that both made and destroyed Capote's career, but while it had its moments, it sadly falls short.
My first issue with Swan Song is how ungodly long it is, which naturally leads to all of my other criticisms, being that this book overstays its welcome in every conceivable way. All of Greenberg-Jephcott's party tricks wear thin after not very long, the worst offense probably being Capote's characterization - he's constantly infantilized and reduced to a caricature in a way that starts to feel more spiteful than constructive after not very long. He's referred to as 'the boy' even as a grown man, his height and voice are incessantly referenced, he's described as 'elfin' or even more derogatory synonyms on just about every page, and after a while it's like... what's the point of any of this? The bottom line is established early: Truman Capote was capable of extreme kindness and extreme cruelty. This book just revels in the latter in a way that never convincingly dovetails with the voices that are purportedly being reclaimed with this retelling.
Because that's the other issue at the heart of this: I love the concept of reframing a traditionally male-dominated narrative by using women's voices - it's a concept that's carried through many of my favorite Greek mythology retellings quite soundly - but here it falls flat, because Greenberg-Jephcott never makes a convincing case for why this is a story that need reclaiming. A bunch of high society women have affairs and sail around on yachts and they're betrayed by their close friend but... so what? This books feels like an elaborate revenge fantasy that's so mired in gossip and cattiness that it loses its thematic heft.
But, like I said, it's not all bad: Greenberg-Jephcott's writing is lively and charming, the style is inventive (elements of poetry and screenwriting are incorporated), the research is admirable, and maybe it'll appeal more to a different kind of reader, but I'm afraid I just struggled to care....more
Everything about Number One Chinese Restaurant is just aggressively mediocre. I say 'aggressively' because you're confronted with this mediocrity on pEverything about Number One Chinese Restaurant is just aggressively mediocre. I say 'aggressively' because you're confronted with this mediocrity on practically every page; the prose is simultaneously lifeless and overwritten, the characters are poorly drawn caricatures, the plot meanders, and this book just never manages to hit any of the emotional beats that it strives for. It's basically an emotionally hollow melodrama.
Not to fully absolve Lillian Li of all of these issues, but I do believe that a lot of this could have been solved with tighter editing. Because what works about this book are its bare bones: a dysfunctional Chinese-American family struggles to run a Chinese restaurant, with inter-generational tension providing the main conflict: how does one balance a family legacy with their own plans for the future? It's a great concept, and I wanted to root for this book; I wanted to root for the Han family, but it all just fails in execution.
Certain plot threads are examined and re-examined through different perspectives ad nauseum; others are abandoned after a brief mention. This book is over-saturated with details, but it doesn't pause to imbue key moments with any kind of emotional weight. When Jimmy Han's family's restaurant is set on fire, we learn the particulars of the fire-setting from about four different perspectives, but what about the aftermath? Jimmy, relying on insurance money to come through, quickly starts a new restaurant and hires staff and creates a new menu and this all happens off the page, we get from point A to point B so easily that it's a wonder we should care at all, with characters overcoming obstacles this easily.
This could have been good but it just wasn't. I'd gladly read more from Lillian Li in the future, as this was a debut and it wasn't so abysmal that I'll completely write off her potential, but as a Women's Prize read it sadly felt like a waste of time....more
I think the books that fall into the 'admired it, didn't like it' camp are some of the hardest to review, and that's exactly how I felt about Lost ChiI think the books that fall into the 'admired it, didn't like it' camp are some of the hardest to review, and that's exactly how I felt about Lost Children Archive. I think this is objectively a very good book. Valeria Luiselli sets out to do something incredibly ambitious, mixing media forms and offering a wealth of commentary on migration and displacement. But all that said, it left me feeling rather uninspired.
This book and its main narrator are unapologetically aloof, and I think that was the main problem for me. Luiselli leans heavily on intertextuality to spin this story, and I was reminded of two other books I've read recently: The Friend by Sigrid Nunez and Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li. Incidentally, the female narrators in all three of these novels are nameless, and all three of their narratives are mired in literary references. But I felt like Nunez's and Li's narrators were using these references to cultivate a sense of self - I felt like I was gaining an understanding of who they were through this technique. In contrast, I never got a sense of who the narrator of Lost Children Archive was supposed to be - the intertextuality here read as generic and often soulless intellectualism. And it's frustrating because at one point the narrator says "reading others' words, inhabiting their minds for a while, has always been an entry point to my own thoughts," which really resonated with me as a reader, but I ultimately found her own thoughts to pale next to those of the authors she quoted.
But none of this is to say that Luiselli isn't a good writer. Her prose is incredibly well-crafted, and it's hard not to admire her technical skill. And thematically, this book is quite the feat: Luiselli examines the U.S.'s current border crisis through the eyes of a family taking a cross-country road trip, whose marriage is disintegrating due to the husband and wife engaging in two passion projects whose ideologies and practicalities conflict.
About three-quarters of the way through the novel, the perspective shifts to the narrator's son, and while I preferred this section (as this is where the plot actually started advancing), I wasn't convinced by his mature narrative voice, and at this point the weird mythologizing of the 'lost children' started grating. This is largely a narrative about voicelessness, which doesn't attempt to give voice to the migrant children as much as highlight their absence in the narrative, and while I respected what Luiselli was trying to do, it fell a bit flat for me.
So ultimately, a mixed bag. I'm glad I read this, I think it deserves to be longlisted for the Women's Prize and I won't be upset when it probably makes the shortlist, but while I admired it and found it punctuated by moments of utter brilliance, on the whole it was a bit of a chore to get through....more
Well that was… underwhelming. I had been saving this book for last in my Women’s Prize longlist read through, hoping to end the list on a high, but thWell that was… underwhelming. I had been saving this book for last in my Women’s Prize longlist read through, hoping to end the list on a high, but that sure didn’t go as planned. To be honest I don’t even have a great reason for disliking Remembered as much as I did, because objectively, I think this book is perfectly fine, it’s just… not much more than that.
I have to first express my annoyance at this book’s marketing, which I’m certainly not holding against Yvonne Battle-Felton, but it was frustrating nonetheless to be expecting a book about 1910 Philadelphia and ending up with a book about US Civil War era slavery, which isn’t even mentioned in any professional summaries that I’ve read of this book. What begins as a story about an African American man driving a streetcar into a shop window quickly devolves into an extended flashback of the family’s history, and though we return briefly to 1910 a few times, that narrative thread is only really picked back up in the last 5 pages. So, just know what exactly you’re signing up for.
But the fact that this book ended up being about slavery isn’t the problem, at all, it’s just that the execution comes up short of what it’s trying to achieve. At a slim 288 pages, this book is lacking the heft needed to successfully pull off the multi-generational family saga formula. The flashbacks just zip along without landing on any kind of emotional resonance, and the newer generation’s narrative doesn’t really thematically dovetail into the backstory beyond a very bare-bones parallel. Everything about this was disjointed and poorly paced, and I didn’t find myself emotionally affected by any of it in the way I arguably should have. So while this wasn’t a great note to end on, Women’s Prize-wise, it did end up being emblematic of a large part of this list for me: a brilliant set-up whose execution felt more like a first draft than a finished novel....more
The ending rarely makes or breaks a book for me. Obviously I'd prefer my endings on the satisfying and hard-hitting side, but if a book is strong enouThe ending rarely makes or breaks a book for me. Obviously I'd prefer my endings on the satisfying and hard-hitting side, but if a book is strong enough, I'm not usually going to fault it for a slightly lackluster conclusion. This is why I rarely write reviews with spoiler tags - I don't have any problem talking about a book in general terms of what worked for me and what didn't.
Praise Song for the Butterflies is the exception. Because for the most part, I really, really enjoyed this book. The characters were on the thin side and their motivations were at times difficult to discern, but that was my only note in what was otherwise proving to be a captivating story... maybe a bit simply told, but if anything, I thought McFadden's pared down prose style suited this story which could have easily veered into melodrama with overly flowery writing. And it certainly was every bit as horrifying as it's meant to be, but I couldn't bring myself to look away - granted, it's short, but I still read the whole thing in two sittings. So all things considered, it was going well.
And then it ended. (view spoiler)[The problem isn't just the abysmal final scene, but we'll get to that in a minute. The bigger problem is that what was shaping up to be a moving story of resilience very, very quickly devolved into a narrative about how a traumatized woman finds healing in a man; how having a pleasurable romantic and sexual relationship is the pinnacle of what humankind can achieve. And I get it, I understand that love is validating and even curative at times, I understand that it can be cathartic to read about characters who have suffered finding happiness, but what I don't understand is the drastic shift from harrowing survival story to soppy, sensationalist drivel. And what I also don't understand is how anyone could read this utterly vile ''romantic'' declaration and find it moving or poignant or comforting or any of the things it's supposed to be:
"But if that is the road God had you travel in order for our paths to cross, then we have no choice but to accept the purpose it has served and be grateful for it."
So let me get this straight: Abeo is raped from ages 11 to 21, she gives birth to a child, she watches the child drown, and is so traumatized that she becomes catatonic for months even after she's rescued... but wait, she finds a guy who doesn't see her as damaged goods and suddenly she's supposed to be grateful?! Again, I understand the intent here. But my god did this ever fail in execution.
And then we get to the final scene, the one that completely undoes the entire premise that ensnared the reader to begin with. Because in the prologue, Abeo kills the man who raped and tormented her; it's a bold, shocking scene, and even knowing that event was coming added a layer of suspense and intrigue to the entire reading experience. But then it turns out to be -- wait for it -- a dream. And -- wait for it -- because she was able to kill this man in her dream, she can finally be at peace. Fin. What an utter cop-out. This book could have been an exploration of the lasting impact of trauma, it could have given its heroine a compassionate ending without compromising its exposition, but because of the last few chapters, a solidly captivating and eye-opening novel became a trite and forgettable one. Failing to live up to potential lends itself to a particularly potent kind of disappointment. (hide spoiler)]...more
Ordinary People is an unassuming book in many ways, right down to a title that arguably puts a wall up and makes the reader ask right off the bat 'whyOrdinary People is an unassuming book in many ways, right down to a title that arguably puts a wall up and makes the reader ask right off the bat 'why should I care?' Diana Evans answers that question over the course of this slow paced yet incisive story that chronicles two disintegrating relationships in 2008 London. We follow two couples: Melissa and Michael, and Damian and Stephanie; one couple is married and one is not, though both have children and are each struggling in their own way with their domestic lives which have become increasingly loveless over the years.
At its core, Ordinary People is concerned with the question of how children fundamentally alter a relationship. "How much of yourself do you get to keep?" Melissa asks Stephanie in an exchange where the self-proclaimed feminist and the content housewife confront one another about their conflicting ideologies. Melissa, stifled by the mere thought of marriage, equates domesticity with failure, and she struggles more and more as she ages to submit to her role as a sort-of-wife and mother. Through some especially well-executed third person omniscient narration we do hear the thoughts and concerns of each of these four characters, but Melissa's voice remains the most central; her burdens feel the most salient. The tension between Melissa and Michael is rendered brilliantly; Michael's anxieties as a black man assimilating to the corporate world are significant, but Melissa's perception of Michael as a representation of the patriarchy looms even larger. "... women and men, we've all been given this old script and don't know how to let go of it. It seems indestructible, almost. We're stuck. We're all stuck. We haven't moved forwards at all in some ways. Society makes patriarchs of decent men."
There's an ambiguously supernatural thread that runs through the novel as well, as Melissa believes that her and Michael's house is haunted, and that the presence is destroying their daughter (it's not insignificant that their son remains unaffected). Whether this element is metaphorical or literal is a balancing act that Evans plays with throughout the novel, and I ultimately found its thematic resonance satisfying. This is a quiet, internal book, and the supernatural element is no different - this isn't the sort of book you should pick up if you're expecting fireworks; it just kind of simmers and cools toward the end, but not in an anticlimactic way.
I only picked this up as it was longlisted for the Women's Prize, and it naturally compares itself to two other books on the list: An American Marriage and Normal People. All three novels focus on modern-day relationships, and each of them has a political backdrop that mainly serves to contextualize the characters' struggles. I found Evans' prose style more comparable to Rooney's than Jones' - both Evans and Rooney have a style that feels smooth and simple on the surface while also providing an impressive amount of insight into the characters' interior lives. Though Ordinary People and An American Marriage are obviously united in focusing on black protagonists and black relationships, giving each novel a sort of heft that Normal People arguably lacks (though it is my favorite of the three). But I wouldn't say any of these novels stands head and shoulders above the others; indeed, it's rather interesting to read them all in conversation with one another, for their similar and disparate commentaries on the way love can change over time....more
I think Bottled Goods is an interesting, impressive book in a number of ways, but I can’t help but to feel a bit underwhelmed by it. It tells the storI think Bottled Goods is an interesting, impressive book in a number of ways, but I can’t help but to feel a bit underwhelmed by it. It tells the story of Alina, a young woman living in 1970s communist Romania, whose family comes under surveillance when her brother-in-law defects to the west. Blending a quotidian story with elements of Romanian folklore, this book is a unique, magical creation that I think will satisfy a lot of readers despite its brevity.
But while I was particularly intrigued by its ‘novella-in-flash’ premise, it turned out that the whole flash thing kind of ruined it for me. Each of these chapters is brief – some are a few sentences, some are two or three pages – and each jumps the narrative ahead several weeks or months with no preamble. I hadn’t realized just how much I appreciate a consistent pace and flow in storytelling, but I guess it makes sense, because I’ve noticed over the years that my reading speed gradually increases the further into a book I get; at the very beginning, before I’ve been pulled into the narrative, my mind wanders easily and I find myself rereading the same passages over and over. That’s what kept happening to me with this book – it’s only 190 pages, and rather tiny pages at that, but it took me probably six or seven sittings to get through it, because the jolting pace made it particularly difficult for me to care about any of it.
But anyway, all of that has more to do with me as a reader than what this book does or does not offer. I think it offers a lot: it’s a perceptive commentary about a young woman living under an oppressive governmental regime, an interesting counterpart to Milkman on the Women’s Prize longlist (though I think Milkman is the stronger novel in just about every conceivable way). And I did find its unique style both paradoxically stimulating and distracting; hopefully it will fall more toward the stimulating end of the spectrum for a lot of readers. Finally, I know that everyone who knows me was worried about my reception to this book as soon as the words ‘magical realism’ entered the summary, but I actually didn’t mind that element – I’m not sure it added anything that couldn’t have been achieved with more literal storytelling, but it was an interesting way to comment on the lengths one goes to in order to escape an oppressive government. So on the whole, not really the book for me, but a solid book nonetheless....more
Like most books compared to The Secret History, We Went to the Woods isn't as good, so let's just get that out of the way. Which I'm not saying to beLike most books compared to The Secret History, We Went to the Woods isn't as good, so let's just get that out of the way. Which I'm not saying to be spiteful, I just genuinely don't want to see this book flop because of unrealistically high expectations. Yes, it follows a group of friends who isolate themselves and end up propelled inevitably into tragedy, and yes, it reads like a train wreck in the best kind of way, so it's an understandable comparison. But it's also a deeply aggravating book, and I say that as someone who thoroughly enjoyed it.
We Went to the Woods focuses on Mack, a grad school dropout who, fleeing some kind of messy event in her past (more on that in a second), joins a group of idealistic young people who essentially endeavor to live in a modern-day socialist commune. That's basically the plot: many pages of gardening and rivalries and sexual tension and social activism ensue.
My biggest issue with this book was the way Mack's backstory was handled: what should have been presented to the reader on page one was nonsensically withheld for a lame kind of 'gotcha!' moment halfway through the book that added nothing to the narrative or the suspense. When Mack finally tells her story, it feels like a stranger reciting it rather than the narrator whose head we'd been inhabiting for several hundred pages - so little does the event actually impact her thoughts or actions (other than providing the incentive she needed to abandon her life and join this project).
My other main issue is pace: though I found this compelling, mostly due to Caite Dolan-Leach's elegant and clever writing, I imagine that for a lot of readers, it's probably going to drag. With a cover and title like this it's easy to imagine that you're in for some kind of thriller, but like We Went to the Woods' predecessor, Dead Letters, I fear that this book is going to suffer from 'marketed as a thriller, gets bad reviews because it's actually literary fiction' syndrome. However, where Dead Letters (an underrated gem, in my opinion) is the kind of book where a single word isn't out of place, We Went to the Woods languishes, unnecessarily so. I can only hope a few hundred more redundant words are chopped before its publication date.
But to be honest, the only reason I'm dwelling so much on the negatives is because I did enjoy it so much - it's the kind of book that fully earned my investment and therefore frustrated me all the more in the areas where it fell short. That said, there's so much to recommend it. This book is a contemporary zeitgeist, taking a premise that seems to belong in the 60s and modernizing it with urgency. In a scene where the characters learn the results of the 2016 election, their reactions are almost painfully recognizable, and the book's main themes and social commentary dovetail again and again, always asking the same question: how important is activism in late-stage capitalism; is it better to try something that turns out to be futile or not try anything at all? Though the characters do quite a bit of moralizing, Dolan-Leach doesn't, as she recognizes the complexity of the book's central conceit.
And on top of all that, I found it incredibly entertaining. Slow pace aside, I was so drawn into this story and couldn't wait to find out what happened next. I wouldn't recommend this to anyone who needs their protagonists to be likable, but if you enjoy character studies about twisted, flawed individuals, this is a pretty good one.
Thank you to Netgalley and Random House for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review....more
If, Then is a quiet, speculative novel about four neighbors living in suburban Oregon. Ginny and Mark are an unhappily married couple, Samara is a youIf, Then is a quiet, speculative novel about four neighbors living in suburban Oregon. Ginny and Mark are an unhappily married couple, Samara is a young woman coping with the recent death of her mother, and Cass is a young mom who's had to sacrifice her academic ambitions for motherhood. Gradually the novel introduces the possibility of parallel realities which have begun to overlap, as each character starts to see visions of an alternate version of themselves. Throughout the course of the short novel we study each of these characters and unearth the decisions each of them made which prevented their other self's reality from coming to fruition.
While I enjoyed this from start to finish and found the ending in particular to be utterly brilliant, I ultimately think I was hoping for more from this novel's speculative angle. Suburban life is chronicled convincingly, and each character is constructed carefully, but I don't think this digs deep enough to be the kind of character-driven novel it's trying to be. This could have been offset by the concept of parallel realities playing a larger role, but instead, that element is more of a vehicle used by the author to explore the novel's central concept: if I had done this instead of that, then what would have happened as a result? Still, it's a quick and thought-provoking read, and though it's underdeveloped in places I think some of the ideas it raises are interesting enough to make up for that. 3.5 stars.
Thank you to Netgalley and Random House for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review....more
Like most short story collections, Friday Black has its highs and its lows, and on the whole I’d say it lands somewhere in the middle. But that’s notLike most short story collections, Friday Black has its highs and its lows, and on the whole I’d say it lands somewhere in the middle. But that’s not to dismiss Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s skill at dark, grotesque speculative fiction, which is on full display in a number of these stories, from the harrowing opener The Finkelstein 5 (a man brutally murders 5 black children with a chainsaw and claims self-defense) to the devastating Zimmer Land (a Westworld-style themepark where participants play out fantasies in which they defend their families by murdering intruders).
However, from an opening that promised thematic cohesion (at least where the first three stories were concerned – all playing with the tension between inward identity and outward emotion), it started to flounder a bit. The Hospital Where introduces huge ideas and never really follows through. Three stories make the exact same point about consumerism, begging the question of why they were all necessary to include. The final story, Through the Flash, drags on and on while getting less interesting the further it goes.
My average rating for these 12 stories is 3.25, so 3 stars it is, but I do want to stress that I did enjoy this collection. I think Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is one of the most exciting, daring new voices I’ve read in fiction all year. This is a searing, unapologetic collection about violence and black identity and capitalism, and how inextricable those themes are. I’d ultimately recommend giving this collection a shot if it interests you, but if you’re just interested in reading one story from it, make it The Finkelstein 5....more
Lie With Me felt to me like a cross between Call Me By Your Name and Tin Man, but stronger and less heady than the former, and more bitter and perhapsLie With Me felt to me like a cross between Call Me By Your Name and Tin Man, but stronger and less heady than the former, and more bitter and perhaps more ambitious than the latter. Translated beautifully from the French by Molly Ringwald (yes, that Molly Ringwald), Lie With Me tells the story of a love affair between two teenage boys in 1984 rural France, narrated years later by Philippe with the kind of mature perception that only time can bring.
Nothing about this story is new; homophobia, class disparity, and shame all chart the course for this short novel, whose inherent tragedy makes itself apparent to the reader in an exchange between Philippe and Thomas, the latter of whom lays their dynamic out plainly the very first time they speak (“you will leave and we will stay”) – but it felt immeasurably fresh nonetheless. Probably most interesting is the sharp contrast between Philippe, whose candid narration reads as more of a confession than a monologue, and Thomas, who remains largely unknown except for the parts of himself that he allows Philippe to see. The character work is deceptively impressive, and Besson’s unrelenting attention to these characters’ similar and disparate vulnerabilities effectively cultivates an atmosphere of longing and regret and anxiety.
There’s something I can’t quite put my finger on that’s holding me back from the full 5 stars (maybe I should have read this in one sitting, I think that might be it), but this is a very strong 4.5, and one of the more accomplished novels that I’ve read recently. Ultimately it’s an intimate, erotic, sparse yet hard-hitting read that ends with one of the saddest sentences that I think I’ve ever read, and if that doesn’t make you want to rush out and read this 160 page book immediately, I don’t know what will.
Thank you to Netgalley and Scribner for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review....more
I wish it weren't only February because the statement 'this is the best book I've read all year' does not carry very much weight when we still have 10I wish it weren't only February because the statement 'this is the best book I've read all year' does not carry very much weight when we still have 10 months to go. But, nonetheless, this is my reigning book of 2019. And it ended up being one of those rare cases when the book turned out so differently from what I expected, but I ended up liking it all the more for that. From the blurb I got the impression that this was going to focus on the disappearance of a woman called Jean McConville, with details about the Troubles setting the background context, but instead it's primarily a narrative account of the Troubles which occasionally, haltingly zeroes in on McConville's story. So it's less true crime than it is historical nonfiction, but the final product is focused and compelling.
Say Nothing, whose title comes from a line from a Seamus Heaney poem which examines the treacherous precedent of speaking plainly about the Troubles, paints a comprehensive picture of twentieth century Belfast and introduces us to a few of the main players responsible for much of the devastation caused by the IRA - Brendan Hughes, Gerry Adams, Dolours and Marian Price, et al. Radden Keefe explores the lives and family histories and philosophies and interpersonal dynamics of these individuals and I found it refreshing that he didn't have an interest in moralizing in his approach to this story; while I think true objectivity is probably impossible, this is about as multifaceted as it gets. Driven primarily by an interest in the human cost of the conflict, Radden Keefe turns four years of research into a richly detailed account of Northern Ireland's fraught history, particularly examining how difficult it is to cultivate a historical record when different accounts contain conflicting information, and when everyone is afraid to speak openly about a conflict that's officially been resolved, but is a strong force in cumulative living memory. (If you loved Milkman, or if you didn't understand Milkman, this is such a valuable nonfiction supplement.)
Certain anecdotes and images in this book were just arresting, and I think it's telling that the two stories that affected me the most had victims on opposite sides of the conflict. The first was about an IRA man who ordered a hit on another IRA man, whose wife he was having an affair with; the first man was sentenced to death, and Dolours Price, driving him to his execution, was struck with the thought that she could let him go, or that he could attack her and escape, but neither of those possibilities was going to happen because they both wholly accepted their devotion to the cause. The chapter ends with the flat and haunting lines "'I'll be seeing you Joe,' Price said. But she knew that she wouldn't be, and she cried the whole way home." The second story that got under my skin was about two young British soldiers who had accidentally found themselves in the middle of an IRA funeral; because of a recent attack by loyalists, their presence was met with suspicion and they were dragged from their car and beaten, and eventually taken across the road and shot. A Catholic priest ran over and when he noticed that one of the men was still breathing, asked if anyone knew CPR, but he was met with silence from the crowd, and a photograph was captured of him kneeling over this soldier's body and staring into the camera, his lips bloody from trying to resuscitate him.
As for the significance of Jean McConville, the mother of ten who went missing in 1972, and whose body wasn't recovered until her bones were found on a beach in 2003: at first I did worry that this element was being shoehorned as a bizarre piece of human interest (I say 'bizarre' due to the little attention that's paid to McConville and her children throughout). However, I needn't have worried, as everything does eventually dovetail in a way that fully justifies this book's premise. Running alongside the historical account of the Troubles, Radden Keefe introduces the reader to something called the Boston College Tapes, an aborted project in which heads of the college's Irish History department endeavored to curate an oral history of the Troubles, to be accessed by the college's students in future generations. Due to the fact that discussing past paramilitary activity is an incriminating act, participants in the project were granted a sort of amnesty and promised that the tapes would not be released until after the participant's death. This promise was violated in the form of a lengthy legal battle between BC and the UK government, and ended up playing a key role in getting to the bottom of McConville's disappearance.
While I'd first and foremost recommend Say Nothing to those with an interest in Irish history and wouldn't dream of selling this as a true crime book, I don't want to downplay how enthralling this was. Granted, its focus is something I already had an interest in, but what Radden Keefe brought to this narrative was a fiercely human angle, and I found this as deeply moving as it was informative.
Thank you to Netgalley and Doubleday for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review....more
Where Reasons End is an imagined conversation between a mother and the son she lost to suicide. The unnamed narrator (modeled after Li herself whose 1Where Reasons End is an imagined conversation between a mother and the son she lost to suicide. The unnamed narrator (modeled after Li herself whose 16-year-old son died by suicide in 2017) is a writer, who deals with her loss by writing out a series of dialogues with her son Nikolai - not his real name, but as good as any.
This entire book is essentially an exercise in whether or not it's possible to take linguistic ownership over one's grief. The narrator and her son engage in a series of verbal sparring matches, challenging aphorisms and the kind of common language that surrounds mourning. But as well as bemoaning the limitations of language, the narrator also celebrates what words are capable of. "Words fall short, yes, but sometimes their shadows can reach the unspeakable." The narrator doesn't attempt to reckon with the question of why this tragedy occurred, and she isn't interested in eulogizing her son in these pages; instead it's a candid attempt to come to terms with her loss without losing her identity as a writer and a mother.
"I was a generic parent grieving a generic child lost to an inexplicable tragedy. Already there were three clichés. I could wage my personal war against each one of them. Grieve from Latin gravare, to burden, and gravis, grave, heavy. What kind of mother would consider it a burden to live in a vacancy left behind by a child? Explicate from Latin ex (out) + plicare (fold), to unfold. But calling Nikolai’s actions inexplicable was like calling a migrant bird on a new continent lost. Who can say that the vagrant doesn’t have a reason to change the course of its flight. Nothing inexplicable for me, only I didn’t want to explain: A mother’s job is to enfold not to unfold. Tragedy now that is an inexplicable word. What was a goat song, after all, which is what tragedy seemed to mean originally?"
Where Reasons End simply would not work if Yiyun Li didn't have the superb command of language that she does. For whatever reason, this is the passage that I kept coming back to: "How do you compare sadness that takes over like an erupted volcano to sadness that stays inside one, still as a stillborn baby? People talk about grief coming and going like waves, but I am not a breakwater, I am not a boat, I am not a statue left on a rocky shore, tested for its endurance." But this is the kind of book where you could highlight the entire thing if you're looking for sharp and incisive yet sparse prose.
I will say: this requires a certain amount of mental and emotional investment from the reader; you need to meet Li halfway and you need to want to engage with what you're reading. I don't think I was in the perfect headspace for this novel, hence the 4 stars rather than 5, but it's undeniably brilliant and it's a book that I can see myself revisiting some day....more
What a lush and lovely book. I picked up The Parting Glass partially on a whim, but it captivated me practically from the first page. It tells the stoWhat a lush and lovely book. I picked up The Parting Glass partially on a whim, but it captivated me practically from the first page. It tells the story of lady's maid Maire O'Farren, alias Mary Ballard, an Irish immigrant employed by the beautiful young mistress Charlotte Walden in 19th century New York. Maire is captivated by Charlotte to the point of obsession, but Charlotte is having an affair with the stable groom, who happens to be Maire's twin brother. Through this awkward love triangle of sorts, The Parting Glass explores passion and obsession and sexuality and corruption and social unrest in a turbulent period of American and Irish history, and it does so with a gripping, pacy story that I could not put down.
One thing I loved about this book was its rich historical detail. In the afterward you can get a sense of the amount of research that Gina Marie Guadagnino put into this novel, and it really does show the whole way through. Though she never pulls the historical context to the forefront in a distracting way, she still firmly establishes the setting, which she could have easily downplayed in favor of the various romantic subplots. Instead, this is actually an impressive piece of historical fiction that focuses on the reception of Irish immigrants to America in the 19th century - not exactly untread territory, but it's handled in a way that feels relevant and immediate.
The other huge strength of this book for me was Maire's relationship with her brother Seanin. With a mother who died in childbirth and a father who died when they were young, growing up in Ireland Maire and Seanin were inseparable, and it's not until they move to the US that cracks in their relationship begin to form, Charlotte only acting as a catalyst for a rift that runs much deeper. I thought it was a fantastic depiction of a close, intense relationship that can easily flip the switch from love to hate. While Maire and Seanin's characterization was brilliant, I would have liked to have seen a bit more of Charlotte, though I'm wondering if her character was kept deliberately hazy as a reflection of Maire's idolization.
I will say, to anyone picking this up because of its Fingersmith comparison, don't expect Sarah Waters' quality of prose (I haven't read Fingersmith, but I have read Waters before). Though I do think Guadagnino has a fantastic command of language, this isn't quite on that same literary level, which I point out only because I imagine that's going to be the main criticism held against this novel. It almost feels overly dismissive to call this a beach read for Waters fans, but there may be some truth to that; it's certainly a clever book, but not half as dense as Waters. But I'd recommend you just ignore that comparison and enjoy it for what it is - a gem of lesbian historical fiction with compelling characters and a well-developed political backdrop.
Thank you to Edelweiss and Atria for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review....more
Night Sky with Exit Wounds is an invigorating, razor-sharp poetry collection that meditates with both candor and artistry on themes of war, nationalitNight Sky with Exit Wounds is an invigorating, razor-sharp poetry collection that meditates with both candor and artistry on themes of war, nationality, sexuality, and violence. Vuong, born in Vietnam and raised in the US, threads details of his own family history into his broader narrative verse that centers on Vietnamese identity. It's a fierce, provocative, political, and sensual collection that I found both challenging and moving, and I'm looking forwarding to reading Vuong's debut novel On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous even more, now.
The type of review that just quotes a bunch of passages tends to be my least favorite to both read and write, but I'll break my own rule here because my own words feel rather inadequate next to these:
"How a horse will run until it breaks into weather -- into wind. How like the wind, they will see him. They will see him clearest when the city burns."
- from Trojan
"Snow scraping against the window. Snow shredded with gunfire. Red sky. Snow on the tanks rolling over the city walls. A helicopter lifting the living just out of reach.
The city so white it is ready for ink."
- from Aubade with Burning City
"He laughs despite knowing he has ruined every beautiful thing just to prove beauty cannot change him."
- from Immigrant Haibun
"To love another man -- is to leave no one behind to forgive me. I want to leave no one behind. To keep & be kept. The way a field turns its secrets into peonies. The way light keeps its shadow by swallowing it."
- from Into the Breach
"Don't laugh. Just tell me the story / again, / of the sparrows who flew from falling Rome, / their blazed wings. / How ruin nested inside each thimbled throat / & made it sing"
I really wanted to love this but I think I just ultimately wanted more from it. The premise is genius: an Irish woman in prison half-delusional from aI really wanted to love this but I think I just ultimately wanted more from it. The premise is genius: an Irish woman in prison half-delusional from a hunger strike looks back on a friendship that led to her involvement with the IRA. It's just very bare-bones and doesn't dig as deep as it needs to into the relationship between Maggy and Dizzy, the relationship that propels the main conflict in this story but which reads like a quick sketch that hasn't been colored in yet. That said, I did enjoy Julia O'Faolain's writing and would happily read more from her... but I'd be lying if I said I weren't a little disappointed, as this was the short story from Faber's 90th anniversary collection that was I was the most looking forward to....more
Originally published in 2013, Paradise is a short, feverish story about an unnamed woman on holiday with her rich partner, who hires an instructor toOriginally published in 2013, Paradise is a short, feverish story about an unnamed woman on holiday with her rich partner, who hires an instructor to teach her how to swim. What I took away from this story was an allegory about the self-congratulation of the rich when they take someone poor under their tutelage; performing in a proscribed manner is expected, developing your own ideas and aspirations is dangerous - and the metaphor is executed with searing prose and beautiful imagery. This was a great introduction to Edna O'Brien and I'm really looking forward to reading more of her work....more
I don't even have words for how much I adored this book. (My one-word Goodreads review before I finishing gathering my thoughts was just 'Perfection'.I don't even have words for how much I adored this book. (My one-word Goodreads review before I finishing gathering my thoughts was just 'Perfection'.) Let's get this out of the way: Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović is a controversial figure, and much as I'd love to shove her ghostwritten memoir into everyone's hands, I must admit that there are plenty of people who will remain thoroughly unmoved by it, and that's completely fine. But I also want to clarify that I don't think it's essential for a reader to love or understand or even be familiar with her art in order to appreciate this. The best thing to be while picking up this book is open-minded.
Personally I love contemporary art, I love performance art, and I love Marina Abramović, so this was always going to work for me. But it still managed to exceed my expectations; I think I was anticipating entertaining and instead I got revelatory. I did study Art History in college and am hardly a stranger to thinking critically about what art is, so I wasn't expecting my perception of that question to be so shaken by Abramović's perspective. Art and life are fundamentally inextricable concepts to her, which she explores throughout her career in a series of daring, unconventional performance pieces, which are chronicled in this book with vividly descriptive imagery. This book, as well as Marina's career, is a testament to her unbelievable ability to push her body to its limits, and using her own physicality to connect with her audience. The way her performances build upon and interact with one another is delineated here with clarity: I genuinely feel enriched from this new understanding I have of her work and what she has tried, and has succeeded, to achieve.
Even outside of her art (though she would probably frown upon making this distinction), Marina's life is a constant source of fascination. This reads more like autobiography than memoir, as it's heavy on fact and chronology and light on emotional analysis, but this isn't a criticism. Marina is presented in this book as an open, vulnerable figure, her methods and ideology made accessible through a thorough excavation of her life, from childhood to present day.