Frankissstein is a bold, bawdy, and tremendously clever creation; the first of its two storylines follows Mary Shelley as she writes Frankenstein, andFrankissstein is a bold, bawdy, and tremendously clever creation; the first of its two storylines follows Mary Shelley as she writes Frankenstein, and the second follows a host of characters in the present-day, chronicling the love story between Ry, a transgender doctor, and Victor Stein, a scientist with a passion for artificial intelligence. The thematic interplay between these two narratives is genius, and Winterson brilliantly highlights the timelessness of the classic she's riffing off, as themes of death, gender, and bodily limitations underscore both narratives.
But for me, the storyline in the past was the much more unique and engaging one. These chapters were just begging to be developed into a full-blown novel fictionalizing Mary Shelley, and frankly, if that's all Frankissstein was, I'm sure I'd give it 5 stars with no reservations. Though these chapters were largely figments of Winterson's imagination, the parallels she draws between Mary Shelley's personal life (what we know of it, anyway) and the content of Frankenstein were incredibly stimulating.
"I have love, but I cannot find love's meaning in this world of death. Would there were no babies, no bodies; only minds to contemplate beauty and truth. If we were not bound to our bodies we should not suffer so. Shelley says that he wishes he could imprint his soul on a rock, or a cloud, or some non-human form, and when we were young I felt despair that his body would disappear, even though he remained. But now all I see is the fragility of bodies; these caravans of tissue and bone.
At Peterloo, if every man could have sent his mind and left his body at home, there could have been no massacre. We cannot hurt what is not there."
The issues I had with the present-day chapters were twofold: first, I found some of the philosophizing on artificial intelligence to be overwrought, and second, the humor was a series of constant misses for me. Winterson often employs humor in this novel to drive home the absurdity behind certain characters' misogyny, but she would make her point and then continue to bash you over the head with jokes about sex-bots; it got very old for me.
In spite of this, the parallels between the two storylines were brilliantly rendered, and the overall impression I'm left with of this book is that I am very impressed, and I think this would have made a truly interesting addition to the Booker shortlist.
Thank you to Netgalley and Grove Press for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review....more
Isolde was my introduction to Irina Odoevtseva - a fascinating woman whose life and work is contextualized brilliantly in the introduction to this PusIsolde was my introduction to Irina Odoevtseva - a fascinating woman whose life and work is contextualized brilliantly in the introduction to this Pushkin Press edition, the first ever translation of Isolde into English, almost a century after its 1929 publication. Isolde is a delightful, sparse, and sad book set in early twentieth century France, where fourteen-year-old Liza and her brother Nikolai are essentially left to their own devices by an extremely neglectful mother who insists on pretending in public (and often even in private) that she is their older cousin. On holiday in Biarritz, Liza meets a slightly older boy, Cromwell, who becomes enchanted by her and declares that her new name will be Isolde. The story then follows this trio - Liza, Cromwell, and Nikolai - back to Paris, where they're abandoned altogether by their mother, with disastrous results.
As explained in the introduction, Odoevtseva herself was Russian and living in exile at the time of writing Isolde, and these circumstances are reflected in her narrative. The absence of Liza and Nikolai's home country plays heavily on their imaginations - a naive, idealistic image of Russia only grows when abandoned by their mother in Paris. After some head hopping, the focus of the novel ultimately zeroes in on Liza, whose burgeoning sexuality, parental neglect, and nebulous national identity all shape the story which is driven less by a coherent plot and more by snapshots of Liza's adolescence.
I found this thoroughly enjoyable, at times quite dark, and altogether unexpectedly modern. Not overly modern in language - the translation by Brian Karetnyk and Irina Steinberg was excellent - but in terms of content; there's a focus on Liza's autonomy over her sexuality, and it rather subverts expectations in more ways than one. (There's also a rather inconsequential scene where a character is talking about how she's kissed other girls but she can't imagine kissing a man.) It's a really solid gem of a book and I'm looking forward to checking out more by Irina Odoevtseva, as well as more from Pushkin's modern classics series.
Thank you to Netgalley and Pushkin for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review....more
Right book, wrong reader. I don't have much else to say. I think The Need is a smart, unexpected book that blends genres and arrives at something uniqRight book, wrong reader. I don't have much else to say. I think The Need is a smart, unexpected book that blends genres and arrives at something unique that I can see working for plenty of readers who are willing to embrace a bit of weirdness. I just don't like books about motherhood, and at the end of the day, that's what this book is. The science fiction/speculative element is only there to enhance the main character's anxieties about juggling motherhood with her career, and if that's a theme that usually makes you reach for a book, by all means, give this one a try; I unfortunately was just bored senseless.
Thank you to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review....more
Comparisons between Permission and The Pisces are both understandable and reductive; understandable because sex-centric literary fiction set in Los AnComparisons between Permission and The Pisces are both understandable and reductive; understandable because sex-centric literary fiction set in Los Angeles is a pretty obvious comp, and reductive because sex and LA are pretty much where the similarities end. Where The Pisces excels, in my opinion, is in its refusal to sensationalize its explicit subject matter; Permission, on the other hand, never successfully avoids that trap.
Permission focuses on a young woman, Echo, who finds solace in the BDSM community after the sudden death of her father, when she befriends her neighbor Orly who happens to be a dominatrix. But what begins as a promising examination of sex as escapism from grief never really manages to take off. Echo, like her mythological namesake, is pretty much voiceless in this narrative, but in this case I don't think it was deliberate: this book is just one of those character studies that centers on a character who's drawn so anemically she may as well not exist at all. This goes for the other characters as well: there's an interesting passage where Echo reflects on the fact that she's been projecting onto Orly without fully realizing that she's a human being in her own right, but then nothing is really done with this revelation, and Orly too remains unknowable.
Rather than using sex and BDSM as a vehicle to explore Echo's loneliness (I think that was supposed to be the point), sex remains the focus in the shallow kind of way that I think could have been avoided if this story had a bit more depth and detail. I did enjoy Saskia Vogel's prose and there were undoubtedly moments of poignancy here, but on the whole I was underwhelmed.
Thank you to Netgalley and Coach House 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
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
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
Of the three memoirs I read this month, Mother Winter was far and away the one that hit me the hardest, which may surprise you as I've talked before aOf the three memoirs I read this month, Mother Winter was far and away the one that hit me the hardest, which may surprise you as I've talked before about my disinterest in 'motherhood books' (only as a matter of personal taste). But I suppose Mother Winter is less of a mother book than it is a daughter book, centered on the irreconcilable grief that Sophia Shalmiyev incurred by growing up motherless. This is a sharp, focused, achingly tender and highly literary memoir that reads like a constant gut-punch.
Growing up in Leningrad in the 1980s, Shalmiyev had very little contact with her alcoholic mother, who she was forced to leave behind altogether when her father decided to emigrate in 1989. Shalmiyev spends the rest of her childhood and then adolescence and then adulthood unable to contact her mother, without any means of finding out if she's even alive or dead. Her experimental memoir (which will undoubtedly appeal to fans of Maggie Nelson) fuses her unique experience of loss with themes of exile, grief, sexuality, displacement, and feminism; she often looks to iconic feminist women as stand-in maternal figures, as she relentlessly interrogates the lacuna that comes to define her.
Shalmiyev's prose is vivid and searing. In this passage she's talking about a dream she has where her mother is a statue at the bottom of the sea, and the imagery and emotional honesty on display here is rather emblematic of the rest of the book:
When you're fished out, you will go to your proper place in a museum to be admired by me only. I will polish your bronze name plaque, and I will be writing the small paragraph, printed on heavy card stock in a tastefully solemn font, about you as a priceless relic, a found shard, degraded, a puzzling piece of history. A head lost, bust found somewhere, a battered woman with blank eyes, erected by those who had infinite worship in their hearts.
My one criticism is the overly abrupt ending, which leaves the reader with question after unanswered question. I obviously have to ask myself if that was indeed the point, which is certainly a possibility, but this is one of those books that seems so mired in the past that there isn't much consideration for the future, and I'm left wondering what Shalmiyev intends to do after the final pages of this book. But, perhaps she does not owe us that explanation, or perhaps we will have to wait until she writes another book. Which I certainly hope she will.
Thank you to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review. I will check the quote against a finished copy upon publication....more
Well, this utterly wrecked me. What a beautiful book.
The End of Loneliness, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins, follows three siblings grWell, this utterly wrecked me. What a beautiful book.
The End of Loneliness, translated from the German by Charlotte Collins, follows three siblings growing up in Munich, whose parents die in a car accident, leaving them orphaned and forced to attend boarding school. The focus is on Jules, the youngest sibling, who's more of an observer than a participant in his own life; after his parents' death he turns inward and fixates on a parallel narrative that he's crafted of what his life would have been like had they survived. At boarding school he meets Alva, another loner who he's able to connect with as he and his siblings grow apart, but after school they lose touch and Jules is once more on his own.
With a focus on the complex dynamics between the three siblings, Benedict Wells deftly explores the ripple effect of loss and grief. He also plays with the fallibility of memory in a way that recalls Kazuo Ishiguro, as Jules is recounting events from his childhood years later, and eventually certain cracks begin to form in his carefully curated narrative that suggest he may have chosen to remember certain events in a way that was convenient to him. This is a deeply melancholy book that gives little respite in its misery, but I found its emotional honesty refreshing. And with Jules' retrospective narration, the grief discussed feels more like a bruise than an open wound (it's a painful book to read, but not as visceral as something like A Little Life). It did bring me to tears at one point, but it wasn't the kind of painful that I lost sleep over; it's more of a quiet kind of haunting that slowly seeps under your skin.
My one criticism is that the end gets a bit twee and Wells insists on wrapping everything up a bit too neatly; maybe he's playing with the idea that one of the characters floats around, that life is a zero-sum game; maybe he thinks his characters have all suffered enough to have earned a neat ending. But as a reader I ironically feel less fulfilled with the more closure I get, so I would have preferred things to end on a slightly more somber note. 4.5 stars - rounded down for now but maybe I'll change it depending on how this stays with me.
Also - my advice going into this book is to avoid reading the Goodreads summary if possible (or maybe just read the first paragraph), as it essentially gives a paint by numbers account of the entire plot. It's not that I felt spoiled while reading - it's more driven by character than plot anyway - but it's just unnecessary to give that much away when the book is less than 300 pages to begin with.
Thank you to Netgalley and Penguin Books for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review....more
The Dreamers is a wonderfully eerie and speculative novel about an epidemic that takes hold of a college town, in the form of a gentle disease which cThe Dreamers is a wonderfully eerie and speculative novel about an epidemic that takes hold of a college town, in the form of a gentle disease which causes people to fall into a deep sleep that they cannot be woken from. As long as these individuals can receive medical care and be fed intravenously they are in no immediate danger, but the more people who fall prey to the highly contagious sickness, the more difficult it becomes to look after the sick.
This is a mesmerizing character-driven novel. Station Eleven is going to be brought up frequently in conversation with The Dreamers, and I know that comparing books to other books can get tedious but in this case it's with good reason. Emily St. John Mandel's influence can clearly be seen on the construction of The Dreamers, with its omniscient narration flitting between a panoply of characters who are all affected by the sickness all in different ways, their narratives occasionally intersecting but each with its own distinct arc. But Karen Thompson Walker's novel is not without its own unique spin - the disease is much more contained than the one that devastates civilization in Station Eleven, and consequently this isn't so much a survival novel as it is a novel interested in examining its central concept - sleeping, dreaming - through lenses of disparate psychologies and philosophies and sciences, which all come together to tell a story that's as thought-provoking as it is readable.
The only reason I'm dropping this to 4 stars is that there was a bit too much 'isn't childbirth miraculous aren't babies astonishing' in a few of the characters' narratives and it got to be a bit much for me, but that's strictly a personal preference. Everything else I adored. Karen Thompson Walker's writing is both assured and understated in the best possible way, and the way she builds tension is just spectacular. I could not put this book down.
Thank you to Netgalley, Random House, and Karen Thompson Walker for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review....more
It took me over three months to finish this book, and it wasn’t for a lack of interest in the author; this was my seventh Lisa See novel and interestiIt took me over three months to finish this book, and it wasn’t for a lack of interest in the author; this was my seventh Lisa See novel and interestingly, not even my least favorite. I wouldn’t say there’s anything ostensibly wrong with this book, and it’s not exactly a radical departure from the rest of See’s historical fiction: it follows a friendship between two women against the backdrop of a turbulent period in East Asian history (though here the setting is the Korean Jeju Island instead of See’s usual China).
But despite the tried and true blueprint whose familiarity should have been comforting, I really struggled to get invested in The Island of Sea Women. I think my main issue was with the protagonist, Young-sook (whose name I just had to look up even though I finished this book only two days ago, so that’s never a good sign). Young-sook and her best friend Mi-ja are haenyeo – female divers – and See’s exploration of this culture is as thorough as ever. However, Young-sook herself makes no particular impression, and I think it’s mostly down to how anemically drawn her character is: she’s a model haenyeo, so she loves being a haenyeo; she’s meant to desire marriage and children, so she desires marriage and children; she’s meant to honor her family, so she honors her family. She’s a collection of cultural values rather than a distinct person – a pitfall that I think See gracefully avoids with the protagonists of each of her other novels that I’ve read. I don’t ordinarily feel that she needs to sacrifice character development to establish historical context, but sadly I did here.
About 60% through the book, during a scene of a horrifying and brutal massacre, See’s decision to tell this story through Young-sook’s eyes finally, finally made narrative sense to me, but up until that point, I had been wondering why the focus hadn’t been on Mi-ja – an infinitely more interesting character for the ways in which she didn’t fit as neatly into the society in which she was raised. Their friendship is competently portrayed, but it’s missing a spark for me that I felt in so many of her other books, notably Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls.
And I think that’s the word I keep coming back to when I think about this book: it’s competent. It’s a great crash course in Jeju history for those of us who weren’t already familiar with the island. It’s an occasionally heart-wrenching story about loss and the inability to forgive. It’s just not spectacular, and it never quite gains the momentum needed for the most brutal scene to make as much of an impact as it should have.
All said, I liked this book but I didn’t love it, but I undoubtedly should have pushed myself through the rocky beginning rather than dragging this reading experience out for three months; and everyone else seems to adore it, so I’d encourage you to give it a shot if it interests you. But if you’re looking for somewhere to start with Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls remain my go-to recommendations.
Thank you to Netgalley and Scribner for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review....more
I was never going to love The Dragon Republic as much as The Poppy War, so let's get that out of the way; The Poppy War is a book of two halves, and II was never going to love The Dragon Republic as much as The Poppy War, so let's get that out of the way; The Poppy War is a book of two halves, and I preferred the first. However, it was still a 5 star read for me (review here), and with Kuang's assertions on Twitter that The Dragon Republic was an objectively superior book, I was still cautiously optimistic about the sequel. And I didn't hate it, but I'm disappointed.
Pacing is an issue in both of these books; in The Poppy War, things happen too fast; it feels like two books crammed into one. But I really didn't mind that - I read a lot of literary fiction, so when I venture into genre fiction it's with entirely different expectations and needs to be met - I like a bit of nonstop action in my fantasy as long as it doesn't get too overwhelming, which I don't think it did. But with The Dragon Republic the issue is the exact opposite. Nothing - and I cannot stress this enough - happens for the first three quarters of this book. Where The Poppy War feels like two books for the price of one, The Dragon Republic feels like a novella stretched out thin across 500 pages. Things of course do happen, technically, but there is so much filler. Stakes feel low (a problem that The Poppy War certainly did not have), because for the major part of this book, it feels like you're spinning your wheels and still waiting for the main players to enter the ring.
But let's talk about what I did like: the characters and the setting are some of my favorites from any fantasy series that I have ever read. The returning characters are as complex, endearing, and frustrating as ever, and the new characters shine as well - Vaisra in particular is a brilliant creation. And if The Dragon Republic has one thing that's superior to The Poppy War, it's the world building and the magic system, which is infinitely more fleshed out here with some truly fascinating developments.
It took me three months to read this, but I want to stress that every time I did pick it up, I enjoyed it. The issue is that I just seldom reached for it. I really hope this is just second book syndrome, and I do think one thing that Kuang was able to achieve with this book was laying a really solid foundation for whatever is to come next (and with that ending, I can promise you that the third book is going to destroy me). But even though I would still recommend this series wholeheartedly, this just wasn't as good as The Poppy War, much as it pains me to say it.
Thank you to Netgalley and Harper Voyager for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review....more