book review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong | BookBrowse

39866294

 

ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS by Ocean Vuong
★★★★★
Penguin Press, June 4, 2019

 

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the bold and bracing debut novel by acclaimed poet Ocean Vuong, centers on Little Dog, the son of a Vietnamese immigrant mother and an absent father. Raised in present-day Hartford in a predominantly white community, Little Dog struggles from an early age to both assimilate with his peers and to honor his Vietnamese heritage, but here Vuong deviates from the standard immigration story blueprint in favor of something more darkly sensual and internal. As the story unfolds, the reader comes to understand that the novel is an elaborate letter written from Little Dog to his mother, though she will never read it, as she is illiterate: the story he tells her is consequently private and unsparing. “The impossibility of you reading this makes my telling it possible,” Little Dog confesses.

Read the rest of my review HERE on BookBrowse, and if you’d like a little more context on this book, you can read my piece on Vietnamese Amerasians HERE.


You can pick up a copy of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous here on Book Depository.

Advertisements

some of my favorite book blogs | part 2

Nearly a year ago I made a post where I listed 10 of my favorite book bloggers – I figured it was time for an update!  All of my recommendations in my last post still stand – all of those blogs are still active and I’d highly recommend checking them out.  But now for some new blood!

Requisite disclaimer about how I follow 500+ blogs on here and this is by no means a comprehensive list – if I follow your blog and regularly interact with you I promise I adore your blog as well and you will probably show up in part 3.  But lists that go much higher than 10 start to get boring so I’m keeping it concise.

Now, the list, alphabetically:

Ally @ Ally Writes Things: I love everything about Ally’s blog: concise reviews, interesting discussion posts (this one about cancel culture is a standout), and an abundance of tags and memes.  I think Ally and I mostly have a pretty similar taste, but even where we don’t overlap I always love reading her thoughts.  She’s also the sweetest person with the cutest horse.

Aurora Librialis: It’s probably no secret that my favorite posts, both to read and write, are book reviews, and most of my favorite blogs are review-heavy.  But I’ve loved Aurora’s blog for ages, and a few months back she mentioned that she doesn’t write book reviews, and I remember thinking ‘wait, you don’t?!  Oh, right, I guess you don’t.’  That’s how thorough her lists and wrap ups are: I never feel like her posts are wanting for anything, either information or analysis.  And her taste is refreshingly diverse: her lists will include everything from the latest YA release to rather dense literary fiction, all in the same post.  I love the range!

Books and Bao: Because there are only so many hours in the day to devote to blogging, as a rule I don’t subscribe to any blogs that aren’t hosted on WordPress since I rely pretty heavily on the WordPress Reader to stay updated.  But I have to make an exception for Will and Jess, the annoyingly cute couple behind Books and Bao: their blog is a hybrid of books and travel and culture – all great things! – and the books they review are refreshingly international.  Their blog has a wealth of info on translated lit, and I would highly recommend checking them out.

Cathy @ 746 Books: If I ever go bankrupt from all the books I buy, I swear Cathy’s blog will singlehandedly be responsible.  As the queen of (Northern) Irish lit around here, Cathy’s reading taste overlaps considerably with my own, but even though I own a truly ridiculous amount of yet unread Irish lit, I’m still learning about new and fascinating titles every time Cathy posts.  But if Irish lit doesn’t interest you, never fear, there’s plenty of other content on Cathy’s blog, the concept of which (realizing she owned 746 unread books and deciding to read them all before expanding her collection) she’s stuck to admirably.  Realizing I hadn’t included in Cathy in my first post (I don’t think I’d followed her at that point, but I think I’ve since made up for lost time!) actually prompted me to write this one.  Follow her!

Laura Frey @ Reading in Bed: Laura’s arguably a bit more active on booktube (which I also love!), but I think she does a really excellent job splitting her content between there and her blog, which is always a joy to read.  Laura mostly reads literary fiction and classics, and in particular has a passion for Canadian lit, which I’m sorry to say I haven’t actually read very much of, so I do love that I can count on Laura to keep me up to date with what’s going on in the world of Canadian publishing.  Plus, you can always count on her to be brutally honest in her assessments, and I mean that as the highest compliment.

Laura Tisdall: I feel like I’ve been following Laura for quite some time but we didn’t really start interacting until recently – and I am so glad for it!  When I started reading Laura’s blog more closely I realized how similar our taste was (both inside and outside of the wonderful world of literary prizes), and as fun as disagreement can be, it’s always nice to talk books with someone who often comes to very similar conclusions about the books you both read.  And aside from all that, she writes some of the most intelligent reviews on this website.

Michael @ Inexhaustible Invitations: Speaking of intelligent reviews, Michael’s tend to be rather brilliant.  He’s another one where we see eye to eye more often than not, but even when we don’t I find his analyses fascinating and astute.  (Plus, I love the sleek black and white aesthetic of his blog – busy headers/backgrounds are a big pet peeve of mine because I am apparently 80 years old.)

Naty @ Naty’s Bookshelf: Naty is one of the sweetest people I have had the pleasure of getting to know through book blogging, and I can’t recommend her blog highly enough.  She reads a pretty big range, everything from literary fiction to YA to SFF, and recently I had the pleasure of chatting with her while we both read through the Women’s Prize longlist.  Even though our assessments didn’t always align (she’s #teamCirce, I’m #teamSilence, somehow our friendship has survived), she always presents her opinions so thoughtfully that it’s a joy to read them.

Rebecca Foster @ Bookish Beck: As an active freelance reviewer, Rebecca writes at the quality you’d expect, covering a refreshingly massive range of literature on her blog.  I’m constantly reading about new releases I haven’t even heard of on Rebecca’s blog, which isn’t always great for my TBR, but I could read her thoughts on books for days, she’s always so smart and perceptive.

Ren @ What’s Nonfiction?: In theory I shouldn’t have a whole lot of bookish common ground with Ren, as she exclusively reads nonfiction and I read about 85% fiction, but some of the most stimulating conversations I’ve had on here have been with her.  The interesting thing about both of our blogs is that I think we value very similar elements in the books we read, even if the books themselves rarely overlap, so if you like my blog but wish I read more nonfiction, or if you’re interested in nonfiction at all, I can’t recommend What’s Nonfiction? highly enough for intelligent, thorough, well-argued reviews.  And that’s not to mention that Ren is a ridiculously kind person who is always up for some thorough discussions in the comments section (my favorite!).

So that’s that – go follow them all, and then let me know who some of your favorite book bloggers are!  Bonus points if anyone can name a brilliant adult/literary fiction blogger I don’t already follow.

book review: Human Chain by Seamus Heaney

8099283

 

HUMAN CHAIN by Seamus Heaney
★★★★★
FSG, 2010

 

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

Or an overgrown airfield in high summer.


You can pick up a copy of Human Chain here on Book Depository.

book review: We Went to the Woods by Caite Dolan-Leach

42179785

 

WE WENT TO THE WOODS by Caite Dolan-Leach
★★★★☆
Random House, July 2, 2019

 

Like most books compared to The Secret HistoryWe 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.

You can pre-order a copy of We Went to the Woods here on Book Depository.

mini reviews #6: nonfiction and theatre of the absurd

You can see all my previous mini reviews here, and feel free to add me on Goodreads to see all of my reviews as soon as I post them.

38799469

BAD BLOOD by John Carreyrou
★★★★☆
date read: February 26, 2019
Knopf, 2018

Wow. This was every bit as wild as everyone has been saying. Bad Blood is probably the best embodiment of ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ that I have ever read. Trust me, you do not need to be interested in Silicon Valley or business or medicine in the slightest to be riveted by this incredible piece of investigative journalism.  You can pick up a copy of Bad Blood here on Book Depository.

592951

WAITING FOR GODOT by Samuel Beckett
★★★★☆
date read: April 7, 2019
Faber & Faber, 2006
originally published 1952

This is famously ‘the play where nothing happens,’ so I certainly didn’t expect this to be the surreal, madcap romp that it is. I’m going to have to think about this one for a while.  You can pick up a copy of Waiting for Godot here on Book Depository.

 

1035312SPY PRINCESS by Shrabani Basu
★★★☆☆
date read: May 22, 2019
Sutton, 2006

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 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.  You can pick up a copy of Spy Princess here on Book Depository.

13944THE SECRET LIFE OF HOUDINI by William Kalush and Larry Sloman
★★★☆☆
date read: May 28, 2019
Atria Books, 2006

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 into imagined dialogue. That should set your expectations for this biography: wildly entertaining, often sensationalized, but decently informative nonetheless.  You can pick up a copy of The Secret Life of Houdini here on Book Depository.


Have you guys read any of these, and what did you think? Feel free to comment if you’d like to discuss anything in more detail.

book review: Devotion by Madeline Stevens

42388020

 

DEVOTION by Madeline Stevens
★★★★☆
Ecco, August 13, 2019

 

Devotion 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.

You can pre-order a copy of Devotion here on Book Depository.

ARCs I need to read #4

You can see my first installments of this series here, but this is pretty self-explanatory: I talk about the ARCs I need to read!  As always I’m very behind, so I’m only including the ARCs whose publication dates haven’t come and gone.

42179785We Went to the Woods by Caite Dolan-Leach
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: July 2, 2019
Received from: Netgalley
Why I requested it: I absolutely adored Dolan-Leach’s debut Dead Letters which I think suffered from ‘marketed as a thriller when it’s a literary character study’ syndrome, hence the uniform low ratings.  So the similarly low (3.23, yikes) Goodreads rating for her sophomore novel doesn’t really turn me off – I thought Dead Letters had some of the smartest writing I’ve ever read, and I’m eager to read more of her prose.
Goodreads summary: “Certain that society is on the verge of economic and environmental collapse, five disillusioned twenty-somethings make a bold decision: They gather in upstate New York to transform an abandoned farm, once the site of a turn-of-the-century socialist commune, into an idyllic self-sustaining compound called the Homestead.

Louisa spearheads the project, as her wealthy family owns the plot of land. Beau is the second to commit; as mysterious and sexy as he is charismatic, he torments Louisa with his nightly disappearances and his other relationships. Chloe, a dreamy musician, is naturally able to attract anyone to her–which inevitably results in conflict. Jack, the most sensible and cerebral of the group, is the only one with any practical farm experience. Mack, the last to join, believes it’s her calling to write their story–but she is not the most objective narrator, and inevitably complicates their increasingly tangled narrative. Initially exhilarated by restoring the rustic dwellings, planting a garden, and learning the secrets of fermentation, the group is soon divided by slights, intense romantic and sexual relationships, jealousies, and suspicions. And as winter settles in, their experiment begins to feel not only misguided, but deeply isolating and dangerous.”

You can pre-order a copy of We Went to the Woods here on Book Depository.

EDIT: ★★★★☆ | review

40796015Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues-Fowler
Publisher: Mariner Books
Publication date: July 16, 2019
Received from: Physical ARC from publisher
Why I requested it: ‘Young woman finding her way in the world’ is a formula that pretty much always works for me – and I believe Rebecca recommended this one!
Goodreads summary: “In Stubborn Archivist, a young British Brazilian woman from South London navigates growing up between two cultures and into a fuller understanding of her body, relying on signposts such as history, family conversation, and the eyes of the women who have shaped her—her mother, grandmother, and aunt. Our stubborn archivist takes us through first love and loss, losing and finding home, trauma and healing, and various awakenings of sexuality and identity. Shot through the novel are the narrator’s trips to Brazil, sometimes alone, often with family, where she accesses a different side of herself—one, she begins to realize, that is as much of who she is as anything else.”

You can pre-order a copy of Stubborn Archivist here on Book Depository.

42850426Valerie (The Faculty of Dreams) by Sara Stridsberg
Publisher: FSG
Publication date: August 6, 2019
Received from: Netgalley
Why I requested it: This was longlisted for the Man Booker International, and the impression I’ve gotten from a lot of people is that its exclusion from the shortlist was a snub.  It sounds amazing, plus, that cover!
Goodreads summary: “In April 1988, Valerie Solanas—the writer, radical feminist, and would-be assassin of Andy Warhol—was discovered dead at fifty-two in her hotel room, in a grimy corner of San Francisco, alone, penniless, and surrounded by the typed pages of her last writings.

In Valerie, Sara Stridsberg revisits the hotel room where Solanas died; the courtroom where she was tried and convicted of attempting to murder Andy Warhol; the Georgia wastelands where she spent her childhood, where she was repeatedly raped by her father and beaten by her alcoholic grandfather; and the mental hospitals where she was shut away. Through imagined conversations and monologues, reminiscences and rantings, Stridsberg reconstructs this most intriguing and enigmatic of women, articulating the thoughts and fears that she struggled to express in life and giving a powerful, heartbreaking voice to the writer of the infamous SCUM Manifesto.”

You can pick up a copy of The Faculty of Dreams (UK edition) here on Book Depository.

42201663A Keeper by Graham Norton
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: August 16, 2019
Received from: Netgalley
Why I requested it: I don’t even know.  I really didn’t like Norton’s debut Holding.  But you know me, I can’t resist anything Irish, even if it’s a crime novel written by a talk-show host.
Goodreads summary: “When Elizabeth Keane returns to Ireland after her mother’s death, she’s focused only on saying goodbye to that dark and dismal part of her life. Her childhood home is packed solid with useless junk, her mother’s presence already fading. But within this mess, she discovers a small stash of letters—and ultimately, the truth.

Forty years earlier, a young woman stumbles from a remote stone house, the night quiet except for the constant wind that encircles her as she hurries deeper into the darkness away from the cliffs and the sea. She has no sense of where she is going, only that she must keep on. ”

You can pick up a copy of A Keeper (UK edition) here on Book Depository.

42388020Devotion by Madeline Stevens
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: August 13, 2019
Received from: Netgalley
Why I requested it: The cover caught my eye and then I liked the sound of the summary.  I actually started reading this one but I’m hesitant to add it to my currently reading shelf because I can’t decide if I want to commit or not right this moment… I think it has potential, though.
Goodreads summary: “Ella is flat broke: wasting away on bodega coffee, barely making rent, seducing the occasional strange man who might buy her dinner. Unexpectedly, an Upper East Side couple named Lonnie and James rescue her from her empty bank account, offering her a job as a nanny and ushering her into their moneyed world. Ella’s days are now spent tending to the baby in their elegant brownstone or on extravagant excursions with the family. Both women are just twenty-six—but unlike Ella, Lonnie has a doting husband and son, unmistakable artistic talent, and old family money.

Ella is mesmerized by Lonnie’s girlish affection and disregard for the normal boundaries of friendship and marriage. Convinced there must be a secret behind Lonnie’s seemingly effortless life, Ella begins sifting through her belongings, meticulously cataloguing lipstick tubes and baby teeth and scraps of writing. All the while, Ella’s resentment grows, but so does an inexplicable and dizzying attraction. Soon she will be immersed so deeply in her cravings—for Lonnie’s lifestyle, her attention, her lovers—that she may never come up for air.”

You can pre-order a copy of Devotion here on Book Depository.

EDIT: ★★★★☆ | review

43208989The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea
Publisher: Harper
Publication date: September 3, 2019
Received from: Netgalley
Why I requested it: My ‘similar to Burial Rites‘ alarm started blaring when I read this summary and I can’t resist anything that may be even the slightest bit similar to that book.  I love Iceland as a setting and I love literary mysteries, so I have really high hopes for this.
Goodreads summary: “Rósa has always dreamed of living a simple life alongside her Mamma in their remote village in Iceland, where she prays to the Christian God aloud during the day, whispering enchantments to the old gods alone at night. But after her father dies abruptly and her Mamma becomes ill, Rósa marries herself off to a visiting trader in exchange for a dowry, despite rumors of mysterious circumstances surrounding his first wife’s death.

Rósa follows her new husband, Jón, across the treacherous countryside to his remote home near the sea. There Jón works the field during the day, expecting Rósa to maintain their house in his absence with the deference of a good Christian wife. What Rósa did not anticipate was the fierce loneliness she would feel in her new home, where Jón forbids her from interacting with the locals in the nearby settlement and barely speaks to her himself.

Seclusion from the outside world isn’t the only troubling aspect of her new life—Rósa is also forbidden from going into Jón’s. When Rósa begins to hear strange noises from upstairs, she turns to the local woman in an attempt to find solace. But the villager’s words are even more troubling—confirming many of the rumors about Jón’s first wife, Anna, including that he buried her body alone in the middle of the night.”

You can pick up a copy of The Glass Woman (UK edition) here on Book Depository.

42036538Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: September 10, 2019
Received from: A friend.
Why I requested it: ………… I don’t know guys, I’m nervous about this one, but my friend told me to read it and I am obedient.
Goodreads summary: “Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth unveils a solar system of swordplay, cut-throat politics, and lesbian necromancers. Her characters leap off the page, as skillfully animated as necromantic skeletons. The result is a heart-pounding epic science fantasy.

Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won’t set her free without a service.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will be become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon’s sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die.”

You can pre-order a copy of Gideon the Ninth here on Book Depository.

42980951The Sacrament by Olaf Olafsson
Publisher: HarperCollins
Publication date: December 3, 2019
Received from: Netgalley
Why I requested it: Iceland!  Mysterious death!  I have predictable tastes!  I hadn’t known when I requested this that Olafsson is a businessman responsible for creating PlayStation – I tend to be wary when celebrities try their hand at novel writing (even though there are two examples of that in this list, shh), but I don’t know, I still hope it’ll be an entertaining read.
Goodreads summary: “Author of RESTORATION and ONE STATION AWAY Olaf Olafsson’s THE SACRAMENT, the story of a nun sent to investigate explosive allegations of misconduct at a Catholic school in Iceland, the mysterious death of the headmaster that takes place during her time there, and her return to the scene of the crime two decades later, a trip that brings the past back in surprising ways, revealing the faulty nature of memory and threatening to expose long-buried secrets.”

You can pre-order a copy of The Sacrament here on Book Depository.

So, that’s that!  Have you guys read any of these?  And which ARCs do you have that you’re most looking forward to?  Comment and let me know!