book review: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

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My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

published in 2016

★★☆☆☆

The fact that it took me over a week to read a 191 page book should tell you everything you need to know about My Name Is Lucy Barton. I mean… it was fine? There was nothing terrible about it? But there was nothing really great about it, either?

Lucy Barton is in the hospital recovering from a difficult appendectomy, and she’s visited by her mother who she hasn’t seen in years. If it sounds like a rather uneventful premise, it’s because it’s a rather uneventful book. But that isn’t my problem with it; I enjoy character studies when well done.

But there just… wasn’t much here. This felt like the rough outline of what could have been a fully formed novel, but instead it’s just fragmentary and baseless. This needed to be longer, but at the same time, I was glad that it wasn’t, because I wasn’t particularly interested in spending more time with these characters. I just wasn’t interested, period. It aims to be a subtle commentary on life and loss, but it’s marred by overly sentimental prose and characters who felt either distant or one-dimensional.

But I guess I’m in the minority, here. One of those cases where I’m scrolling through reviews and thinking, ‘why didn’t I get to read the book that you guys read?’

Anyway, as much as I loathe winter, I have to admit that these snow days are great for reading & reviewing.  Two reviews in as many days plus a top five post – I’m never this productive!

+ link to review on goodreads

top 5 wednesday: Books You Felt Betrayed By

Top Five Wednesday was created by Lainey from gingerreadslainey and is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Check out the goodreads group to learn more.

This week’s prompt: “Books You Felt Betrayed By.  Beware the Ides of March! What books (or characters) did you feel betrayed by, for whatever reason…big or small.”

It was hard to narrow this down!  I find myself often going into hyped up books with high expectations, but the ones I’ve ended up choosing really stand out to me, not only because I wasn’t crazy about them, but because they had so much potential to be better.

51nag-fefpl-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón: In a way this acclaimed novel is in itself a love letter to books, and for that reason alone I wanted to love it.  Throw in a mystery that goes back generations, and the premise has me hooked.  I also have plenty of friends who loved this book… but I just wasn’t able to.  First there’s the predictability: this is a book full of twists and turns and ‘shocking’ reveals, every single one of which I was able to see coming.  Here’s a handy guide to guessing the plot twists in The Shadow of the Wind: what seems like the most obvious thing that’s going to happen?  Yeah, that’s it.  And then there’s the misogyny: the treatment of female characters is downright deplorable, from the fact that all women are defined as their role of mother or love interest, to a particular instance of one woman ending up alone and miserable as some sort of narrative comeuppance for (perfectly reasonably) rejecting the advances of a male character earlier on.  I found this book deeply personally insulting on more than one occasion.  And it’s not a bad story at all, the writing and translation in particular are absolutely gorgeous and the atmosphere of Barcelona is captured beautifully, but I found it impossible to look past the sexism in my overall assessment of this novel.

51c0y8b0dtl-_sy344_bo1204203200_An Untamed State by Roxane Gay: I was excited to have the excuse to read this recently for a book club.  I’d never read anything by Roxane Gay, fiction or nonfiction, but have admired her for a while as a contemporary feminist icon.  But this book… was a mess.  From the awkward staccato prose to the melodramatic dialogue that seemed to spring right out of a Lifetime movie to the overly graphic, almost voyeuristic depiction of sexual assault…  This was an ambitious book: Gay tried to tackle issues of racism, sexism, and classism, but the result came across as an incredibly amateur, muddled mess.  There were certain things I liked – the depiction of PTSD in particular was excellent – but I mostly felt let down by the lack of nuance for a subject that deserved so much more.  I wonder if Roxane Gay is one of those writers who’s better suited to nonfiction.

28016509The Girl Before by JP Delaney: There’s nothing worse than starting a book and being sure that you’ll love it, only to realize that what you were sure was going to be a 5-star rating is gradually dropping with every page you turn.  The Girl Before started out as one of the creepiest thrillers I’ve read in a while with its unique premise: two women at two separate times agree to move into an experimental house designed by a famous minimalist architect, and in exchange for paying low rent, the house comes with a set of rules – no pets, no clothes left strewed on the floor, no clutter of any kind.  The chapters alternate between Then: Emma and Now: Jane, and as you see the two women fall into the same patterns of behavior, the parallels between their narratives make for a tense and terrifying read.  But then it all went downhill.  All of my complaints come down to the plot twists, so to avoid spoilers, I won’t get specific.  I’ll just say that I thought this was building up to be something really unique and spectacular, but a ridiculous and outlandish twist killed it.  (see my full, spoiler-filled review HERE)

cover-mischlingMischling by Affinity Konar: When I first learned about Josef Mengele in a high school World History class, I was both horrified and morbidly interested.  Mengele was a Nazi researcher who performed cruel and inhumane experiments on victims in Auschwitz, focusing on those with unique genetic makeups, such as identical twins.  Mischling is the fictional account of two of these twins, Pearl and Stasha, alternating between their perspectives, both during their time at Auschwitz and in the chaotic aftermath of its liberation.  While I was fascinated by the premise of this book, I could barely get through it.  It’s told in awkward, flowery prose, which rather than adding to the drama and emotion of the story, left me rather cold.  Rather than an authentic exploration of a horrific period of history, this felt like an excuse to showcase the author’s writing talent, and given the subject matter, I was just uncomfortable with the whole thing.  While I’m sure Konar’s writing will appeal to some, personally I didn’t think the Holocaust was a particularly appropriate subject for what was essentially an elaborate literary exercise.

17645The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood: Atwood and I have a complicated relationship.  I’m probably the only feminist in the world who can’t stand The Handmaid’s Tale (for reasons that have nothing to do with feminism – I just found it an unnecessarily frustrating read), though I did really enjoy The Blind Assassin.  But anyway, as a lover of Greek mythology I couldn’t wait to read The Penelopiad, a retelling of the Odyssey from Penelope’s perspective – from a renowned feminist writer, no less.  Unfortunately, feminist is the one thing this book was not.  You know those purportedly feminist narratives that are like, ‘Our special narrator isn’t like other girls… she reads BOOKS and is sexy because of her BRAIN!  Not like those awful girls who have a different boyfriend every week!’ – well, throw in some mythology and you’ve pretty much got The Penelopiad.  While Penelope’s character is well developed, it’s at the expense of pretty much every other female character in the story: Clytemnestra, Anticlea, Eurycleia, all treated with downright contempt by the narrative… and that’s not even to mention Helen: Helen who, in the original story, is taken against her will, who unfairly laments her role in the bloodshed in a war that really doesn’t have much to do with her, but here we can’t go five pages without some snide comment about Helen, the narcissistic whore.  It’s unnecessary, it’s distasteful.  The only other character who’s really afforded any depth here is Odysseus.  In drawing from a world already so thoroughly doused in misogyny, rather than being the feminist subversion I thought it was going to be, The Penelopiad is a continuation of demonizing fictional women – or exonerating one at the expense of all others.

What do you guys think?  What are some books that you felt betrayed by?

book review: I See You by Clare Mackintosh

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I See You by Clare Mackintosh

US pub date: February 21, 2017

★★★★☆

What I keep hearing about this book is that it doesn’t live up to Clare Mackintosh’s debut that was published last year, I Let You Go. Fortunately for me, I See You was my first Mackintosh novel, so I’m happy to say that I was able to mostly really enjoy it. Enough that I’ll probably read I Let You Go at some point, with high expectations.

I See You is a topical and creepy thriller about a one-sided ‘dating’ website that targets London-based women. Their pictures will appear in a newspaper advertisement for the website, and soon after they’ll become victims of some crime, ranging from theft to murder. When Zoe Walker sees her photo in the paper and discovers a link between the crimes, she’s sure that someone’s marked her as the next target.

Tense and addicting, this had me on the edge of my seat. While the plot itself is at times slow moving, there’s a certain fear and paranoia that permeates the narrative; it leaves you guessing about these characters and their motives, but it also makes you think about your own life, about the privacy settings on your Facebook account, about the dangers of living in this technological fishbowl of a society, where your movements are constantly tracked.

Alternating chapters with Zoe, we get the point of view of Kelly, working with the Murder Investigation Team to track who’s behind the series of attacks. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Clare Mackintosh had worked in the police force before becoming a writer, given the meticulous level of detail to this side of the story. All in all, it’s very well done.

Sure, I See You requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but I think the mark of a good author is the ability to make you believe something that you might not, ordinarily. It’s an outlandish premise, but Mackintosh had me thoroughly convinced. It wasn’t until after I finished this book that I started ruminating on flaws in its design – and there certainly are flaws, certain things you need to accept without question (I won’t go into detail in order to keep this spoiler-free). But ultimately, I don’t care so much about that. This was a good story, and a downright terrifying psychological thriller that leaves you guessing – literally! – until the last page. A really enjoyable reading experience and a great way to spend this snow day.

Also, I pride myself on my ability to figure out whodunnits pretty early on in the story, nine times out of ten. But I have to shamefully admit that I fell for the red herring here. 😦

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Netgalley, Berkley, and Clare Mackintosh.

+ link to review on goodreads

book review: Marlena by Julie Buntin

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Marlena by Julie Buntin

US pub date: April 4, 2017

★★★☆☆

Hmm. I really wanted to love this, but there was something about it that made it difficult for me to really sink my teeth in. I think part of it was just that this story is so familiar. Plain Jane narrator becomes enamored with a mysterious, glamorous, troubled girl. The Girls (Emma Cline). The Strays (Emily Bitto). Even stuff like The Girl on the Train (Paula Hawkins), to an extent. I wanted so much for Marlena to be different, or if not different, at least special, because in theory I have no problem with the bare bones of this story: I like the exploration of female friendships, and I like female coming of age stories. I just didn’t get anything out of this one. I wanted to, but I didn’t.

This is the story of two girls, Cat and the titular Marlena, who are friends for less than a year in high school, after Cat’s family relocates to Marlena’s town. By the end of that year, Marlena is dead, and she’s made an indelible mark on Cat which continues to define her throughout adulthood, as she struggles with an alcoholism that she picked up in her adolescence. This book promises heartbreak and emotional devastation, but doesn’t deliver. I’m left feeling rather apathetic about these characters, and for such a character-driven novel, that’s probably not the best impression to be left with.

For such a short book, there are too many pages of nothing happening. Cat skips school, Cat smokes a cigarette. Marlena pops a pill. Cat’s mom drinks wine before bed. Intriguing characters lurk in the background: Marlena’s father, Marlena’s drug dealer. But every time they appear to get close enough to touch, the narrative is derailed, usually by Cat smoking another cigarette or Marlena popping another pill. This story really goes nowhere; which, again, fine, I do enjoy character studies – but these characters’ entire personalities are captured almost too sufficiently in the first five pages. Cat the reserved, thoughtful one who’s so desperate to fit in she’s willing to compromise parts of herself to do so, and Marlena the wild and reckless one that everyone’s drawn to, even when she treats others terribly. Julie Buntin lays all her cards on the table too early. There’s nothing I got from this book that I wouldn’t have got if I’d stopped reading after the first chapter.

There are two timelines in Marlena, the present, and twenty years ago. Simple, right? Except. Twenty years ago, according to this story, characters all had their own cell phones, YouTube and Facebook were just becoming popular. … in 1997?!? Either this is a glaring error, or the ‘present’ chapters are really taking place in 2027, not 2017 – which would be fine! But there’s never any explicit information given about the date, and given the frequency with which this (anachronistic?!) technology is mentioned, this ambiguity becomes very distracting very fast.

What I did like about this book were the questions it raised about moral responsibility, about survivor’s guilt, about how we either put our teenage years behind us or let them define us. There was a lot of talk about ‘truth,’ as well, and how subjective of a concept that is. If at times a bit heavy-handed, this book was at least thought-provoking in that regard. Julie Buntin is a good writer. This just wasn’t a unique enough story for it to make much of an impression on me.

+ link to review on goodreads

book review: Bright Air Black by David Vann

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Bright Air Black by David Vann

US pub date: March 7, 2017

★★★★★

Bright Air Black is lyrical retelling of the story of Jason and Medea, drawing on elements from the Argonautica and Euripides’ Medea to craft a tale that’s at once unique and familiar. Book I of David Vann’s novel begins in medias res: Medea has just killed her brother, and is helping the Argonauts flee from her father Aeetes, which she reflects on as they sail from her home in Colchis to Jason’s home in Iolcus, having obtained the Golden Fleece. Book II follows Medea as she assists in Jason’s ascent to power, before the novel finally culminates in the story’s famously tragic and violent conclusion.

Vann’s Medea is instantly recognizable as the notorious, vengeful priestess that we know from the classics, rage personified. But rather than resting on this archetype, Vann goes further. Here Medea’s rage isn’t only portrayed, but thoroughly examined. Bright Air Black is more analysis than portrait as Vann deconstructs Medea, rationalizing her, humanizing her.

Being a feminist and being a fan of classical literature are two facets of my life which are at odds more often than not. So when I read modern retellings, I’m really looking for female characters to be afforded the same depth and quality of narrative voice as their male counterparts have been through the ages. In this regard, Bright Air Black is a resounding success. Violent, vindictive, impenitent, Medea seems more villain than hero. And yet. Driven by a singular desire for agency, Medea is rendered sympathetic by Vann, almost hauntingly so.

Reading Vann’s prose is a bit like being suffocated, or being submerged under water. Meditative and contemplative but also characterized by a pervasive darkness, this is a story that’s both grotesque and spellbinding. The fragmented sentences take some getting used to, and this style undoubtedly won’t appeal to everyone. Admittedly I tend to be wary of novels which deal in experimental prose, because more often than not, there’s just no reason aside from showcasing the author’s skill. I didn’t find that was the case here. I was quickly entranced by the rhythmic cadence of Medea’s thoughts, which break like waves crashing relentlessly through this narrative. This is a rare example of poetic prose where form and content complement one another masterfully; Medea’s character is inextricably tied to this terse and fragmentary style of writing. Very few authors could pull this off, but Vann does so with aplomb.

Usually a 5 star rating from me means ‘everyone read this book immediately.’ However, I do get the feeling that this may be a little too niche to recommend to the world at large. I’d highly recommend reading Euripides’ Medea or at least reading up on the myth before starting this. It’s not that the story isn’t sufficiently self-contained in these pages, but as an interpretation which is more character driven than plot driven, it’s probably not an ideal starting point.

I do want to stress that Bright Air Black is far from perfect. The pacing is uneven, far too much time is spent on the voyage from Colchis, the ending is abrupt. But these imperfections seem almost appropriate, in a way, because this is a tour de force, electrically charged work whose strength lies in its unapologetically tense and frantic approach. This is ultimately a bold and fearless examination of agency, power, and one woman’s rage. Medea, destroyer of kings.

I received a copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you Netgalley, Grove Atlantic, and David Vann.
If you’re interested in brushing up on your classics before diving into this, here are some works on Medea and Jason to help you get started:

+ link to review on goodreads

top 5 female characters from literature

Happy International Women’s Day!  In honor of all the badass ladies out there (and because I apparently don’t read enough fantasy or sci-fi to participate in this week’s Top 5 Wednesday), I decided to make a list of my top 5 favorite female characters from literature.  (Note: this was very difficult and I will probably change my mind in ten minutes, but here we go.)


409207Sansa Stark
(A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin): Sansa is a character who’s incredibly close to my heart (and not only because I once commented on a buzzfeed article defending her and received an absolutely shocking amount of vitriol from the male nerd community who felt I was infringing upon their right to attack a fictional traumatized teenage girl).  I see a lot of myself in Sansa, the good and the bad, the quiet strength and also the overly idealistic tendencies.  What makes Sansa such an important character, I think, is that she’s able to navigate this violent and patriarchal society while also retaining her sense of self: she matures, but she never becomes hardened or loses her kindness, which is all too often represented as a naive quality which needs to be outgrown in order to survive.
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harper-perennial-editionEsther Greenwood (The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath): I only read The Bell Jar a year ago, and was overwhelmed by the extent to which I related to Esther.  I think there’s a lot that every 20-something can relate to, that crushing anxiety that comes with a lack of life direction.  But what’s so important about Esther is that while the bildungsroman genre has traditionally been dominated by the male narrative (The Catcher in the Rye, Of Human Bondage, Huck Finn, etc – all great books, but still), The Bell Jar manages to provide a candid exploration of the female experience of mental illness, sex and sexuality, and navigating new adulthood.  Somewhat a stand-in for Plath herself, and somewhat a stand-in for all young women, Esther remains a seminal character for the influence she’s had on the coming of age narrative.
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imgCathy Ames (East of Eden by John Steinbeck): In contrast with characters like Sansa who I admire for their goodness, Cathy is terrible.  But as a character, that’s what makes her so great.  There’s something undeniably compelling about this character who’s described to have been born without a conscience, who murders her parents and shoots her husband without a second thought.  And I don’t even consider either of those spoilers, as they happen so early in the book – there’s still so much more to come.  I can’t think of a character, male or female, who can match Cathy for ruthlessness, and yet, by the end of the novel, I found myself strangely moved and affected by her.  Love her or hate her or love to hate her, she’s utterly unforgettable.
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51-fmbtiw9l-_sx327_bo1204203200_Clytemnestra (classics): Narrowing down my classics lady between Clytemnestra, Helen, and Medea was easily the most time-consuming part of compiling this list. (Honestly, if this list were a bit more truthful, I’d probably have included all three of them, but that would get boring to read.)  I decided to go with Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon and mother of Orestes, famous for murdering her husband after his homecoming from the Trojan War, in order to avenge her daughter who Agamemnon had sacrificed before sailing to Troy.  The exciting thing about Clytemnestra is that in a very patriarchal society, she exists outside traditional gender roles: she rules over Mycenae in Agamemnon’s absence, she speaks in public (a very male-dominated sphere), and she not only orchestrates the plot of her husband’s murder, but she enacts it herself, according to Aeschylus and Euripides.
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Rebecca de Winter (Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier): She’s not really even in the book, and yet she’s one of the most famous characters from 20th century literature.  Honestly, what an icon.  Everything we know about Rebecca, the dead wife of Maxim de Winter, is hearsay, as we follow the second Mrs. de Winter trying to navigate her new life at the luxurious but lonely Manderly estate.  Everything our narrator does is compared by the other characters to Rebecca, who begins to take on a mythologized form – but it turns out the real Rebecca was even more fascinating.
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It was hard narrowing down this list!  Who are some of your favorite fictional ladies from literature?

book review: The House at Midnight by Lucie Whitehouse

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The House at Midnight by Lucie Whitehouse

published in 2008

★★☆☆☆

This was such a guilty pleasure book and I would have had no problem with giving it a higher rating along the lines of ‘this wasn’t a literary masterpiece but I thoroughly enjoyed it,’ but the problem is I didn’t. It started out at about a 4 star level (I really was in the mood for something light after reading mostly classics lately) and I was prepared to forgive its many flaws, but ultimately the list of complaints just piled up too high. Sorry Lucie Whitehouse, I tried.

The House at Midnight chronicles a year in the life of a group of friends, one of whom, Lucas, recently inherited a mansion in a small English town, following his uncle’s suicide. The story focuses on Joanna and her relationship with Lucas as it shifts from friendship to romance, and the tension and betrayal that follows.

An abridged list of grievances:

– The author’s attempts at rendering the house as a dark and sinister force are almost embarrassingly heavy-handed. We can’t go a full ten pages without Jo reflecting on how the house feels like a sentient being. Okay, Joanna, we get it.

– The mystery of Lucas’s family history took a backseat and instead we get 200 pages of relationship drama, before the author seems to remember the story’s core mystery, which is hastily wrapped up in the final pages.

– It’s almost like Lucie Whitehouse had a Point A and a Point B in mind for this story, but didn’t know how to get from one to the other. The narrative meanders in an awkward, directionless fashion, focusing on all sorts of weird, irrelevant details. There was something off about the pace, too; we’d spend four chapters on a single evening and then randomly skip ahead two months. It was hard to keep track of at times.

– The characters, though initially compelling, end up being rather underdeveloped. Jo doesn’t have much of a personality, Danny’s villainy is never fully examined, Michael is a complete nonentity, Rachel disappears altogether, and Lucas hovers in the grey area between victim and villain, but I was unable to care one way or the other. If you’re someone who needs your characters to be likable, you’re going to hate this book. I’m not that reader, so I was able to enjoy certain elements of the group dynamic presented here, but by the end I was underwhelmed, especially since these characters started out with a lot of potential.

– The lazy depiction of feminism as a hindrance to Jo experiencing the sort of romance and sex life she craves is just embarrassing. There are literally lines like ‘I thought the idea of being pregnant with his child was sexy, and the inner feminist in me shuddered’ (not a verbatim quote but pretty damn close).

– The book ends on a cliffhanger, which is totally fine! But here’s the thing: the narrative is told in the first person past tense, complete with lines like, ‘Years later, I wasn’t sure how I managed to drive the car home without getting in an accident’ and ‘Even now, I can’t remember what happened in the week that followed.’ This means Joanna is looking back on these events years after the fact, and if that’s the case, why would she stop her narrative right in the middle of an event? The cliffhanger is completely incongruous with the way the rest of the story is told. Writers, take note. Tense and number aren’t arbitrary, irrelevant factors; they have to suit the narrative. Present tense would have been a much more appropriate choice here.

All that said, parts of this book were certainly gripping and addicting. Reading through some reviews on goodreads, I do think this book suffered especially from its comparison to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. The similarities with those two books lie solely in the themes and setting, not the way they’re presented. That isn’t Lucie Whitehouse’s fault. Books are compared to other books in order to sell, and sometimes this backfires. I initially wanted to be able to give this a higher rating for that reason. But there was just too much potential here and not enough payoff.

+ link to review on goodreads