book review: The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager

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THE LAST TIME I LIED by Riley Sager
★★★☆☆
Dutton, July 10, 2018

 

The Last Time I Lied is a perfectly worthy successor to Sager’s Final Girls, which was one of my favorite thrillers of 2017. His follow up novel is every bit as fun and twisty as his first, and I read the bulk of it in one sitting. Sager returns to his tried and true cabin in the woods setting, this time following Emma, a painter who spent two weeks at a summer camp fifteen years ago which ended with the disappearance of three of her friends; now Emma is returning to Camp Nightingale as an art teacher, hoping to get to the bottom of the events of that first summer.

But as gripping and addicting as it was, the criticisms kept piling up as I read. Emma was a notably bland narrator, who had no personality beyond her survivor’s guilt about the girls’ disappearances. And Sager’s depiction of female friendships was frankly bizarre to me: Emma was unnaturally interested in describing and thinking about other girls’ appearances, and Sager seemed obsessed with the idea of every single friend group having an ‘alpha,’ whatever that means (I mean, I know what it means, but how many friend groups have you been in that have an established alpha??? is that a thing that happens in real life???) And look, I’m not claiming that you can’t write a sufficiently gripping drama set at an all-girls camp – of course teenage girls can be catty and mean to one another – but some of the social dynamics that Sager relied on to tell this story didn’t quite ring true for me, and felt more like stereotypes than actual human behavior.

But my biggest issue (which I won’t get into very much to avoid spoilers) was that there were just so many coincidences and contrived plot points. Throughout the book clues essentially fell into Emma’s lap, to an extent where it struck me as laughable that the police could have overlooked some of these things for fifteen years.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, though. I had a lot of fun with this. But when I take a step back from the readability factor, I think the overall construction of The Last Time I Lied could have been stronger. But I still devoured it. And I think some people will take issue with the (outlandish?) final reveal, but personally I loved it – that was exactly the jaw-on-the-floor kind of shocking twist that I loved about Final Girls so much. Sager knows how to keep you hooked until the last page, that’s for sure. If you’re looking for a good and gripping beach read this summer, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this.

Thank you to Netgalley, Dutton, and Riley Sager for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

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book review: From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan

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FROM A LOW AND QUIET SEA by Donal Ryan
★★★★☆
Penguin Books, July 17, 2018

From a Low and Quiet Sea is my second Donal Ryan novel after All We Shall Know, and so far he’s two for two if we’re grading for emotional devastation and positively stunning prose. Ryan’s style is everything I love about contemporary Irish literature incarnate – the lyrical, almost breathless writing which deftly balances black humor with an aching sadness, the quiet introspection of his characters, the skillful exploration of pain and loss and grief and religion and loneliness.

From a Low and Quiet Sea is essentially a series of three short stories – the first follows Farouk, a Syrian refugee who pays a man to help him escape his country with his wife and daughter; the second is about Lampy, an Irish teenager who lives with his mom and grandfather and who’s still desperately in love with his ex-girlfriend; and the third follows John, an old man who grew up under the shadow of his brother’s death. Their stories converge at the end rather unexpectedly, but in a way that I thought was rather brilliantly conceived.

As with any novel that changes perspectives, it’s inevitable that some will be stronger than others. The opening chapter – Farouk’s – is far and away the most accomplished of the three. Ryan doesn’t rest on the already tragic premise; he crafts a positively harrowing journey for this character, and as we wrap up his story and proceed into the second section, it’s almost painful leaving him behind. John’s chapter is stunning as well – it’s the only one told in first-person, as his story takes the form of a confession – and of the three it’s the most episodic, lending it a very readable quality while still getting to the heart of this troubled and compelling character. For me, Lampy’s chapter was notably the weakest. Though there was some poignant commentary here about growing up fatherless, I felt that there wasn’t enough of a story or a character arc to justify this section’s length.

This is one of those books was stressing me out as I headed toward the conclusion, because I couldn’t even begin to imagine what was going to connect these three disparate stories, and I was almost afraid that whatever Ryan had come up with wasn’t going to be satisfying enough. I needn’t have worried – the resolution is surprising but gratifying. There’s also an undeniable thematic interconnectedness that I thought was handled wonderfully throughout the book. I thought Ryan’s examination of the role of storytelling in the lives of these three men was a beautiful element, as well as the similar yet distinct meditations on loneliness and grief as each of these characters search for some kind of peace.

4.5, which I’m rounding down now for the weak middle section, but which I may round up later depending on how this book stays with me over time. I really loved this.

Thank you to Penguin Books and Donal Ryan for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

The Mid Year Freak Out Book Tag 2018

I did this tag last summer but I guess it’s that time of year again!  I thought this would be a good way to just check in with you guys about my year of reading so far.

Question 1 – The best book you’ve read so far in 2018

I think it’s a toss up between Asking For It by Louise O’Neill, Tin Man by Sarah Winman, and Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon.  Asking For It is a powerful and hard-hitting look at rape culture in contemporary Ireland; Tin Man is a simple but elegantly written love story between two men in England; and Self-Portrait with Boy is a stunning literary novel about a woman’s ethical dilemma when she accidentally photographs a young boy falling to his death.

I actually haven’t been having the best reading year, quality-wise – I’ve read other books I’ve really enjoyed, but these are the only three that are really guaranteed to make my top 10 list at the end of the year.  Securing only 3 of the 10 spots isn’t that great.  I’d like to have read 10 books by now that I loved so much that narrowing it down to 10 at the end of the year will be torture.

It occurred to me after I wrote all that that I should have also included When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy, but I’m not going to add it because those 3 covers look great together and I’m shallow.

Question 2 – Your favorite sequel of the year

I haven’t read any.

Question 3 – A new release that you haven’t read but really want to

The World Spins Only Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois, An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, and Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot, among many others.

Question 4 – Most anticipated release for the second half of the year

A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne, The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, and Melmoth by Sarah Perry.

Question 5 – Your biggest disappointment

My enjoyment level varied with each of these, but Circe by Madeline Miller, Days Without End by Sebastian Barry, and A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza all disappointed me in different ways.  Circe I was just expecting to adore because of how much I’d loved The Song of Achilles, but instead I found it rather dull; Days Without End more like Pages Without End; and A Place For Us promised emotion and heartbreak and didn’t deliver on either for me.  I felt like a robot while reading that book.

Question 6 – Biggest surprise of the year

Under the Harrow by Flynn Berry (why do people hate this book?! it’s such a good thriller!), The Pisces by Melissa Broder (so so so weird and uncomfortable but in a way that really clicked with me), Bury What We Cannot Take by Kirstin Chen (an author I’d never heard of, but this book was a haunting emotional roller coaster and a reminder of how much I adore Chinese-set historical fiction).

Question 7 – Favourite new to you or debut author

Louise O’Neill, Marina Carr, Meena Kandasamy.

Question 8 – Your new fictional crush

Pass.

Question 9 – New favourite character

30962053It has to be Selin from The Idiot by Elif Batuman.  I think her voice comes closer to my own than any other character I’ve ever read.  So I realize that makes this a bit of a narcissistic answer.  But I just really connected with this character.

Question 10 – A book that made you cry

32620332The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid.  I read this in two sittings and admittedly was in a much more emotional state than I usually am so I don’t think I normally would have cried while reading this, but I really needed some escapism and this book and its characters completely absorbed me and as soon as I closed the book I started crying because I was so overwhelmed by this wonderful story.

Question 11 – A comic book that made you happy

N/A

Question 12 – Your favourite book to movie adaptation that you’ve seen this year

I haven’t read this book yet and I know it’s ridiculous that I’ve only just watched the film, but I saw The Green Mile I think back in March and I fell in love with it.  I can’t say I’m terribly interested in reading the book, though…

Question 13 – Favourite book post you’ve done this year

Ah, I don’t know!  Maybe my Women’s Prize Shortlist Review post solely because I pushed myself to finish The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock so I could write that post before the winner was announced, and I’m still proud of having read 10/16 of the longlisted titles this year.  Or my review of The Odyssey because Emily Wilson retweeted it and that made me happy.

Question 14 – The most beautiful book you have bought/received this year

I just ordered The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan and The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin from Book Depository entirely because of their gorgeous covers, so even though they haven’t made their way to me yet it seemed like an appropriate answer.

Question 15 – What are some books you need to read by the end of the year

Everything I’ve mentioned in this post that I haven’t read yet!

Tagging anyone who’d like to do this.

What’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?

book review: A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza

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A PLACE FOR US by Fatima Farheen Mirza
★★★☆☆
SJP for Hogarth, June 12, 2018

This is the only time I can ever remember feeling like there’s something wrong with me for not loving a book. Though it’s only being published today, A Place for Us is already near-universally adored, and it sounded like a book that was right up my alley: a sprawling portrait of a dysfunctional family is the blueprint for so many of my favorite books and I didn’t see any reason for A Place for Us to be an exception.

And it’s undeniably a beautiful novel. It follows an Indian-American Muslim family living in California, who are gathered at the beginning of the novel for their eldest daughter Hadia’s wedding. We find out that the entire family is estranged from their only son, Amar, and the rest of the novel explores the factors that led to this fracturing. The prose style is simple and elegant, and the nonlinear chronology is handled deftly, constructing a portrait of this family that comes together seamlessly by the end.

Others have described this book as heart-wrenching and moving, and I see where it should have been both of those things. But the whole time I was reading I felt like there was a veil between me and these characters, who all felt to me more like constructs than real human beings. A Place for Us hits all the beats you’d expect it to from the very first page. This is a story that’s so simple, so unsurprising, that it entirely hinges on its readers’ emotional investment for there to be any payoff. And I hate to say it, but these characters just weren’t interesting to me. Each of their trajectories practically wrote itself, and I started to find it tedious that such straightforward ideas were being communicated in such a circuitous manner. We could have easily shaved off 100 pages and essentially been left with the exact same book.

But it’s worth reiterating that I’m in the minority, and it’s a sort of disorienting feeling to be left cold by a book which promises emotional resonance above all else. I’m glad that others have been able to connect with this book in a way that I did not. But if you’re looking for a heartbreaking family saga, I would personally recommend Pachinko or East of Eden or Everything I Never Told You over A Place for Us in a heartbeat.

Thank you to Netgalley, First to Read, SJP for Hogarth, and Fatima Farheen Mirza for an advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Disobedience by Naomi Alderman

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DISOBEDIENCE by Naomi Alderman
★★☆☆☆
Penguin, 2007

For the most part I enjoyed reading Disobedience, but it’s one of those books that’s somehow greater than the sum of its parts. I was having a hard time putting my finger on what exactly was working for me about this, because when I started to pick it apart, I realized there wasn’t a whole lot to praise. It wasn’t the writing, certainly, which I found rather sophomoric (more on that in a minute); it wasn’t the plot, which was quite paint-by-numbers; and it wasn’t the characters, who were pretty flat archetypes and essentially just mouthpieces for Alderman’s ideas, completely with stilted dialogue that doesn’t even begin to resemble how real human beings converse. But it was something, I guess, because it had a very readable quality to it and I certainly wouldn’t dissuade others from checking it out.

I think if I had to choose the one thing that really stood out to me about this novel, it was the setting. It takes place in an Orthodox Jewish community in London, and focuses on the romance between Ronit (the rebellious, wayward daughter of a renowned Rabbi who’s recently died) and Esti (the submissive, conservative housewife who’s miserable from deeply internalizing religious doctrine). While neither of these characters felt as fleshed out as they could be, what did feel very rich and textured for me was each of their relationships with Judaism; this community did feel very real to me and the sermons which began each chapter were an effective tool for immersing the reader in these characters’ ideologies.

I haven’t yet read Alderman’s Women’s Prize-winning novel The Power, which received a lot of critical praise but which is not particularly adored among my circle of reader friends. I still intend to read The Power, but if the writing style is anything like it was in Disobedience, I think I’m beginning to understand the criticism. There were some individual sentences in here which I highlighted because I thought they were striking, but there were even more which caused me to roll my eyes, if only because Alderman has a habit of repeating the same words and phrases and ideas ad nauseum. On a sentence-by-sentence example, let’s take this:

Far away, very very far away, I made a sleek black telephone on a pale wood desk ring.

I thought okay, that’s an interesting way to describe making a phone call. But then Alderman does the exact same thing again:

I dialed the number and, a quarter of the way across the world, I made a British number appear on a black telephone on a blond-wood desk.

This whole book had a circuitous nature to it, where it felt like Alderman was taking the longest possible way to make a simple point. On the more thematic level, we’re frankly bashed over the head with Alderman’s pontifications on man’s capacity for disobedience, and the societal expectation of silencing women. It’s not that I disagree with anything that she’s saying – in fact, several of these points I did find rather stimulating to mull over – but when you use the word ‘silence’ a grand total of sixty-six times in your novel, maybe you should consider that you’re laying it on a bit heavy.

And then there’s the ending – admittedly this critique is tied up inextricably in my personal preferences, but if there’s one kind of ending I cannot stand, especially in literary fiction, it’s when everything is wrapped up neatly in a nice bow; all conflicts resolved and all character arcs completed. I think there’s something so dissatisfying about following characters on a journey through a novel and essentially being told ‘their story ends here, no need to think about this any further, everything’s fine’ at the end. I can’t tell you how much I hate that. Coupled with the downright corny resolution, I did not finish Disobedience on a high.

So, I don’t know. It started around 4 stars for me, dropped to 3 stars somewhere in the middle when the repetition got to be a bit much, and ended up around 2 because of how much I hated the ending. But I didn’t hate this book, I just didn’t think it lived up to its potential. Solidly 2.5 for me – I may reevaluate and change to 3 later.

book review: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

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THE ARGONAUTS by Maggie Nelson
★★★★☆
Graywolf Press, 2015

I don’t know why it’s taken me this long to read Maggie Nelson, but I was starting to worry that The Argonauts couldn’t possibly live up to its extensive hype. I was also skeptical when this memoir quite literally opened with a paragraph about anal sex – I think I sighed and thought ‘oh, this is going to be one of those books.’ I feel like this is a category of book that both novels and memoirs can fall into: the ones that think sex is this shocking, scandalous thing, that want to prove to their reader how daring they are for graphically depicting such a ‘taboo’ subject, that mistake vulgarity for profundity and bravery, but which are written so awkwardly you just end up cringing.

And I can see where for some readers, The Argonauts might end up being that kind of book. But Nelson won me over. There is a searing honesty to her prose that’s an undeniable force in this memoir, and it’s hard to put it down once it sucks you in. Nelson’s sentence construction is striking, and her observations on love and sexuality are all poignant. While Nelson’s perspectives are often heavily rooted in academia, the personal, emotional slant never fades. This is also one of the most candid, unapologetic memoirs I think I’ve ever read – though it isn’t self-deprecating in tone, Nelson never spares herself from her own commentary and conclusions. It’s just refreshingly human.

I wouldn’t dream of attempting to level this against The Argonauts as any kind of objective criticism, but I still have to mention it to explain why I dropped the 5th star from my rating: I’m tired of motherhood books. It’s a subject that doesn’t particularly intrigue me to begin with, and I feel like I’ve been reading quite a few novels and memoirs lately that reflect on motherhood. I’m just tired of it. The parts of The Argonauts that focused on Nelson’s pregnancy were the least interesting to me, and I kept wishing that the focus would stay on her relationship with Harry. But that’s entirely a personal preference, and I fully intend to check out Nelson’s other works in the near future.

Women’s Prize 2018 Winner – Home Fire

Congratulations to Kamila Shamsie on winning for her beautiful, elegant novel about Islamophobia in the UK, inspired by Sophocles’ Greek tragedy Antigone.

The 2018 Chair of Judges Sarah Sands said: “This was a dazzling shortlist, it had depth and richness and variety. We were forcibly struck by the quality of the prose. Each book had its champions. We loved the originality of mermaids and courtesans, we were awed by the lyrical truth of an American road trip which serves as a commentary of the history of race in America, we discussed into the night the fine and dignified treatment of a woman’s domestic abuse, we laughed over a student’s rite of passage and we experienced the truth of losing a parent and loving a child. In the end we chose the book which we felt spoke for our times. Home Fire is about identity, conflicting loyalties, love and politics. And it sustains mastery of its themes and its form. It is a remarkable book which we passionately recommend.

I don’t think I realized until I heard the announcement just how much I was expecting When I Hit You to win, but Home Fire would have been my second choice and my second guess, so I am quite happy with it!

Have you guys read Home Fire and if so, did you like it?  Which book did you want to win?  And do you follow the Women’s Prize or are you planning on following it next year?  Provided the list is interesting enoug hI think I’m going to plan on reading the longlist next year (this year I read 10/16) so let me know if you’d like to join me!