wrap up: June 2018

Best book of the month: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
Other favorites: From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan, The Blood Miracles by Lisa McInerney, The Trojan Women by Euripides, The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

JUNE TOTAL: 15
YEARLY TOTAL: 66

It was a pretty decent reading month!  There were a handful of duds but also a lot that I ended up really loving.

Currently reading: Suicide Club by Rachel Heng, How to Be Both by Ali Smith

I think July is going to be an interesting reading month – I’m determined to read more classics than I have been recently, plus I have a planned buddy read of a Robin Hobb novel and also have a library hold for The Poppy War coming in soon, so it’s going to be a lot of classics and fantasy, apparently.  And I’m not totally caught up with ARCs yet but I’m getting there, so I’m hoping to do quite a bit more mood reading than I have been recently, which is exciting!

What’s the best book you read in June?  Comment and let me know!

book review: Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey

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WHISTLE IN THE DARK by Emma Healey
★★☆☆☆
Harper, July 24, 2018

 

Whistle in the Dark begins with one of the most enticing premises of anything I’ve read all year: when Jen Maddox and her fifteen-year-old daughter Lana are away on holiday in the English countryside, Lana goes missing for exactly four days, and after she’s found, she claims to have no memory of what happened to her. This book had all the potential in the world to be eerie and gripping and moving, but it sadly dropped the ball.

This is not a mystery about a girl’s disappearance; at the heart of Whistle in the Dark is Jen and Lana’s fraught relationship, which feels almost claustrophobic. You want to take both characters by the shoulders and scream at them for their inability to communicate with one another. Which isn’t a criticism – I thought the tension in this relationship was Whistle in the Dark‘s biggest strength, even if it wasn’t the most pleasant reading experience.

I just felt like this book didn’t quite know what it wanted to be. It was part crime thriller, part literary character study, and all the while just spinning its wheels, never really going anywhere. The same ideas are recycled ad nauseum in a sort of cyclical format that doesn’t suit the kind of depth that Healey is trying to achieve here. I feel like there’s a lot that could have been said about mental health, religious fanaticism, and motherhood, but none of this is fully realized. Instead we chronicle Jen’s almost comical levels of paranoia as she over-analyzes every breath that Lana takes, which gets old after several hundred pages.

This also has some of the most trite dialogue I’ve ever read – this is one of those books where no one talks like an actual human being, but instead pontificates with the articulation of a philosophy scholar, speaking in bizarre abstractions and it ultimately detracts from the realism of their characters.

I think most readers are going to be very unhappy and underwhelmed by the ending, but I actually didn’t mind it. I think it’s important not to think of it as a twist or a reveal, necessarily, just kind of… a logical conclusion? I don’t know. But I liked the way it was done and I liked the closure Jen was able to glean from that. I just wish it hadn’t been such a drag to get to that point. I couldn’t wait for this book to end.

Thank you to Harper and Emma Healey for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: A Double Life by Flynn Berry

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A DOUBLE LIFE by Flynn Berry
★★★★☆
Viking, July 31, 2018

Flynn Berry’s debut novel Under the Harrow was one of the more pleasant reading surprises I’ve had this year; I felt like I’d found a hidden gem that ticked all of my thriller boxes (atmospheric, dark, is more of a character study than a fast-paced page-turner). A Double Life just reinforced my appreciation of Berry’s style. I can see where her books won’t work for all thriller lovers, but they really work for me.

Loosely based on the Lord Lucan case, A Double Life follows Claire, whose father murdered her nanny, beat her mother, and vanished without a trace when she was a child. Now Claire is a successful doctor in London, but each possible sighting of her father sends her into such a state of anxiety she finally decides to seek answers for herself.

A Double Life is first and foremost a psychologically driven character study, which examines class and privilege and the role that plays in the crime that was committed. This kind of reminded me of something like The Secret History or Social Creature or The Riot Club, but instead of telling the story from an insular perspective that indulges in the fantasy of living that kind of possibly elite life, it’s like if The Secret History had been narrated by Richard’s mother, or someone else who was close enough to touch that lifestyle without actually living it. Consequently it’s not quite as glitzy and glamorous as any of those other stories mentioned, but it gives us a protagonist who’s easy to relate to and root for. The plot is gripping as well, though it’s not particularly twisty – but that’s fine as Berry’s writing keeps you engaged throughout.

Overall I have to say that I did prefer Under the Harrow to A Double Life since the former had more to offer in the way of atmosphere with its setting in the English countryside, but I did really enjoy this as well. If you prefer your thrillers to be character-driven and lean a bit more toward the literary side of things, I’d highly recommend giving Flynn Berry a try.

Thank you to Netgalley, Viking, and Flynn Berry for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Can You Hear Me? by Elena Varvello

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CAN YOU HEAR ME? by Elena Varvello
★★★☆☆
Quercus, June 2018

 

Can You Hear Me? by Elena Varvello was originally published in Italian in 2016 under the title La vita felice (The Happy Life), and was recently translated into English by Alex Valente. It’s part thriller, part coming of age novel set in Northern Italy in 1978 and follows a sixteen-year-old boy Elia Furenti, whose father is suffering a mental breakdown after being laid off his job.

I’m struggling to get my thoughts together on this book, and I think it’s because it felt more like a first draft than a finished novel to me, and it’s hard to critique something with such abundant potential. It’s gripping and eerie and the setting of this small Northern Italian town is brilliantly realized, and the examination of mental health at a time when the vocabulary and resources for Elia’s father’s breakdown weren’t readily available was handled very well.

Interestingly, most of this book’s tension came from a subplot whose climax is spelled out to us from the very beginning. Can You Hear Me? opens with Elia telling the reader that his father kidnaps a girl and drives her into the woods – and then in a series of chapters scattered through Elia’s own narrative, he speculates on what exactly happened in his father’s van, what the girl was thinking and feeling in those moments. There isn’t much of a mystery here, but these chapters are filled with such a sense of foreboding that I found this technique – stating the resolution and then backtracking to hypothesize on the details – quite effective.

Where this book fell short for me was the coming of age element, which was just so paint-by-numbers. Elia meets a boy his age, Stefano, and is drawn to Stefano’s young mother, Anna, who, according to this book’s summary, ‘propels Elia to the edge of adulthood’. I mean, we can probably all fill in the blanks from there.

There’s also an undeniable sense of detachment from all of these characters, who all speak in abstract, fragmented sentences (this is where I’m wondering if I should have opted for the Italian text instead of the translation) and walk around all in varying states of apathy. Elia’s teenage ennui just felt so generic to me – it was like Varvello took a handful of bildungsroman protagonists and put them in a blender to achieve peak indifference but then forgot to imbue her creation with any sort of personality of his own. And then multiply this vacuousness by ten and you get Anna.

Varvello says in an afterward that Elia’s father was loosely based on her own father, and this shows in how he is clearly the most intriguing figure in this novel. And while her decision to tell his story from the point of view of his teenage son clearly came from her own personal history, Elia’s own narrative just never came to life in a satisfying way. This novel just felt too short and fragmented to pack a real emotional punch, and I think it could have benefited from fleshing out the majority of these characters. But I did race through this and find it sufficiently tense and engrossing.

Thank you to Netgalley, Quercus, and Elena Varvello for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

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ON CHESIL BEACH by Ian McEwan
★★★★★
Jonathan Cape, 2007

What a quietly stunning little book. I didn’t know what to expect from On Chesil Beach, having only read and been somewhat underwhelmed by Atonement about a decade ago, but I have now officially been converted to the church of Ian McEwan. I could not believe the emotional torment he managed to put me through in the space of 200 bite-sized pages.

On Chesil Beach is an almost-love story about Florence and Edward, two young lovers on their honeymoon on the coast of England in 1962. What should be a romantic weekend quickly devolves into something much sadder as an ocean of miscommunications piles up between the two characters. Florence is asexual, though the term asexual is never used because of the time period, and the lack of access to this concept and vocabulary has led Florence to believe that she’s fundamentally broken. As she’s unable to communicate this feeling to Edward, he imbues her actions with false meanings, drawing from his understanding of social conventions to fill in the blanks – she’s shaking because she’s terrified and repulsed and ashamed, but Edward assumes she’s shaking because she’s nervous and excited, because don’t all young women act demure to mask a secret sensuality? There is no precedent for Florence falling outside this expected norm.

McEwan also ties in Florence and Edward’s story to the shifting social attitudes of the time – they’re living in a Britain which hasn’t quite normalized sexuality and celebrated youthful freedom. The two are inexperienced and unable to communicate their thoughts and feelings and desires and expectations to one another, because how do you even start a conversation about sex when it just feels like this abstract concept both to be revered and ashamed of?

I wasn’t prepared for how expansive this book was going to be – McEwan dexterously explores themes of class differences, propriety, love and sex and sexuality, all in economical prose that says so much in a book whose conflict ironically hinges on a lack of articulation on the part of both characters. And above all else this book is just bitterly sad. The final pages are like an emotional gut-punch. If McEwan managed all this in 200 pages, I can’t wait to see what he’s done in his other novels.

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.

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 that 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.