book review: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

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GHOST WALL by Sarah Moss
★★★★★
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, January 8, 2019

 

I’ve read so many fantastic short novels and novellas this year (On Chesil BeachConvenience Store WomanTin Man) that I’m not sure why I insist on underestimating what can be accomplished in such a short page count. But the fact of the matter is, I picked up Ghost Wall without terribly high expectations, despite the fact that I’d been eager to read Sarah Moss for a while now. More fool me – this book blew me away.

It follows Silvie, a teenager from northern England whose family joins an anthropology course on an excursion to Northumberland, living for a few weeks as Iron Age Britons once did. From the very start, tensions arise between Silvie’s survivalist father who idealizes ancient Britain, driven by nationalism and a yearning to belong to a society where he would be accepted, and the less stringent students who are only participating in the course for college credit. And as the line between reality and play-acting begins to blur, the constant threat of her father’s violence draws ever nearer to Silvie, leading to a harrowing climax.

Not a word is out of place in this novel; Sarah Moss knows how to command language to navigate the themes of imperialism, violence, class, and gender roles that are all central to this narrative. Tension builds with unerring precision in just about every facet of this story; between the individual and their environment, between modern and primitive life, between Silvie’s father and the rest of the group, and between Silvie and Molly, an older girl raised with feminist values who Silvie is drawn to, despite feeling that Molly is overly dismissive of Silvie’s own rural upbringing.

I’m not sure what else to say, other than: read this book. Ghost Wall is subtle and shocking and absolutely masterful.

Thank you to Netgalley, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and Sarah Moss for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

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wrap up: November 2018

  • The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson ★★★★☆ | mini review
  • The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon ★★★★☆ | review
  • The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker ★★★★☆ | review
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley ★ (reread) | mini review
  • The Lies We Told by Camilla Way ★★★★☆ | review
  • Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney ★★★★★ | review
  • The Dry by Jane Harper ★★★☆☆ | review
  • How To Be Safe by Tom McAllister ★☆☆☆☆ | review
  • Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz ★★★★☆ | mini review
  • Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss ★★★★★ | review

Favorite: Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney
Honorable Mentions: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss.
Least favorite: How To Be Safe by Tom McAllister

NOVEMBER TOTAL: 10
YEARLY TOTAL: 120

November was a good reading month, but it was also a good month in general because I got to spend a week in the Bahamas, which was gorgeous!

Currently reading: The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories, Vita Nostra by Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg.

What was the best book you read in November?  Comment and let me know!

P.S. Follow me!  @ Twitter | Goodreads | Instagram | Letterboxd

book review: How To Be Safe by Tom McAllister

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HOW TO BE SAFE by Tom McAllister
★☆☆☆☆
Liveright, 2018

 

I think this was supposed to be droll and ironic but I honestly just found it obnoxious. From the fact that every paragraph ends in some kind of pithy aphorism of the author’s making, Tom McAllister clearly thinks he has something to say in this novel. Unfortunately that ‘something’ rarely amounted to anything more than “The idea of hiding underground for a few years until everything got better was appealing. That’s why groundhogs looked so happy.”

The central concept is a salient one and one that hits close to home – that you’re never truly safe in a society with lax gun restrictions, and suffice to say that as an American living in 2018, gun control is something I feel extremely strongly about. But there is nothing worthwhile in this book that actively contributes to that conversation, this has nothing to offer aside from being topical. This reads as a 200-something page indictment of modern gun laws; no plot, no character development, no commentary that actually forces the reader to consider anything in a new light. No comedy that actually hits its mark, no hard-hitting moments to punctuate the tedium. I’m sure you all know by now that unlikable characters (unlikable female characters in particular) make for some of my all-time favorite protagonists, but it’s like the character of Anna was constructed just to be as abhorrent as possible with no other goal in mind. I also found the constant commentary on womanhood to be incredibly disingenuous coming from a male author, when half of the statements rang false anyway. I’m just not sure why McAllister purports to have the authority to let us know that “Women can wound each other in ways men can never imagine.”

Also, full disclosure here – I listened to the audiobook which is never my favorite format, and the narrator sounding like a telephone operator didn’t help matters. But whatever the driving force behind my dislike was, I just found this to be a waste of time.

book review: The Dry by Jane Harper

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THE DRY by Jane Harper
★★★☆☆
Flatiron Books, 2017

 

This was a perfectly competent thriller and I’m not sure I have much else to say about it. I will admit I had been expecting something a bit more… unique? shocking? twisted? original? – because it seems to be so universally adored. But it’s clearly so adored because it’s a perfectly solid book that’s pretty hard to find fault with.

The setting is just perfect, the arid Australian farmland brought to life vividly. It’s funny how the setting of a thriller never seems to be the most important element, but it’s always a bit striking when you find one set somewhere other than small town England or wintry Scandinavia or New York City. Characters and environment play off each other well, and Harper captures that small-town claustrophobia perfectly.

I do have one huge criticism, and that’s the use of italicized flashbacks to show backstory. Frankly I found it lazy – can you really not work that information into the description and dialogue? – but it also pulled me out of the story constantly. You’d be in the middle of a meeting between a detective and a suspect, and all of a sudden you get two paragraphs in italics about the detective’s childhood, and it really did not work for me.

But, ultimately I was satisfied. I read it in two days, it was a compelling read, the big reveal was perfect, and there were enough subplots and character intrigue that it’s gripping from start to finish. I’m definitely interested in checking out the sequel, with hopes that the italicized flashbacks do not continue. 3.5, I am having the hardest time settling on a star rating and whichever one I end up clicking in two seconds is going to be a rather arbitrary choice.

book review: Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

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CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS by Sally Rooney
★★★★★
Hogarth, 2017

 

This was stupidly good. After recently loving Rooney’s sophomore novel Normal People my expectations for Conversations With Friends were high, though I was also a bit wary; in these situations I’m always afraid an author’s debut isn’t going to live up. I needn’t have worried. This was perfect from start to finish. You know that feeling when you miss a stair and your stomach lurches briefly before you land – this was that sensation in book form.

Once again I was impressed with Rooney’s writing; it’s simple and seemingly effortless, but the kind of natural and conversational cadence she achieves is no easy feat. The simultaneous intelligence and lack of life experience of the narrator, Frances, were captured so convincingly; from the start this was a person that I wanted to understand, whose head I wanted to inhabit briefly. Sally Rooney writes about interpersonal dynamics with such skill and ease and sharp observation, and that was the shining point of this novel, but whenever Frances looked inward, those moments were also captured with the same unnerving clarity. I related to Frances and I didn’t; I saw bits of myself in her and I found bits of her unreachable. But Rooney made me care, she earned my investment as I watched with sympathy and frustration and anxiety as Frances attempted to navigate an awkward, ill-thought-out affair with an older married man, a dynamic which only complicated her limited understanding of love, class, status, artistic freedom, and belonging.

If you can’t handle books about unlikable, selfish people, you aren’t going to enjoy this, and in that sense alone I don’t necessarily believe this book transcends its premise. It’s about unlikable, selfish people, many of whom are blind to their privilege. It’s not about the kind of people you want to be, or want to be friends with. But if you’re willing to sacrifice likability for realism, and an unpredictable plot for moments of startling self-reflection, this is the book for you. I actually ended up preferring this to Normal People, but both are a solid 5 stars and I am simply delighted that Sally Rooney’s books have entered my life.

Book Blogger Memory Challenge

I’ve seen this tag going around and it looked like fun, so here we go.

The Rules:

You must answer these questions without looking anything up on the internet and without looking at your bookshelves!!

The Questions:

367232461. Name a book written by an author called Michael.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje.  I’m sure there are other books by an author called Michael that I’ve enjoyed more than this one, but this is what came to mind.  (Ok, I just cheated and looked on my Goodreads shelves after I typed that answer.  This is literally the only book I’ve ever read by someone called Michael, apparently?!?!?)

2. Name a book with a dragon on the cover.

This one is killing me!!!  I hardly read fantasy, and when I do read fantasy I can’t say I’m drawn to dragon books.  I know one of the UK Harry Potter covers has a dragon on it and I suspect it’s Goblet of Fire but I honestly can’t even picture it in my head right now, so, pass.  I have been defeated by the dragon question.

134516723. Name a book about a character called George.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.  This isn’t my favorite Steinbeck – East of Eden gets that distinction, but I do think this is a fantastic book that I should probably revisit at some point.

 

250582124. Name a book written by an author with the surname Smith.

How to Be Both by Ali Smith.  My first Ali Smith that I read earlier this year.  I’ve read a short story collection since then, and I’m very keen to read more of her work.  How to Be Both is a stunning book.

 

181423245. Name a book set in Australia.

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld.  Set partially in Australia and partially in coastal England.  I didn’t completely love this book but it was definitely an interesting and innovative read that had some excellent commentary on gender roles.  And I just love that cover.

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6. Name a book with the name of a month in the title.

Middlemarch by George Eliot.  I haven’t read this but I couldn’t think of anything else!

 

7. Name a book with a knife on the cover.

Well, apparently I am not good at visualizing covers because I can’t think of anything for this one either.

136221678. Name a book with the word ‘one’ in the title.

Antigone by Sophocles.  Probably not exactly what this question was looking for but I say it counts.

110169. Name a book with a eponymous title.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.  Somehow I’ve only read two Bronte novels and I am well aware that I need to remedy that.  But I love Jane Eyre so much that I suspect it will remain my favorite.

 

2799380810. Name a book turned into a movie.

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin.  I’ve only read two Toibin novels – this one and House of Names – and I gave both 3 stars, but I get the impression that I just haven’t read the right Toibin novel yet.  I did like Brooklyn although I didn’t love it, but I thought the film was beautiful and so well-acted that it really added some much needed depth to the story.

Tagging whoever wants to do this!

The Coffee Book Tag

I was tagged by Hadeer to do the Coffee Book Tag, and these lovely graphics were made (I think) by Romie We Deserve Love.  So let’s jump right in shall we?

But first I feel like I should admit that I don’t actually drink coffee.  I’m all about the tea!

c1

a series that’s tough to get into but has hardcore fans

6307964A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin.  Admittedly I never would have read these books if it hadn’t been for falling in love with the tv series back when it was good (everything after season 3 is dead to me), but I ended up loving the books despite some major issues I have with Martin’s overly detailed storytelling.  Because of the sheer amount of characters you need to keep track of, this is an extremely difficult series to enjoy as a casual fan – you really do have to be obsessed in order to keep everything straight.  I have an exceptionally good memory but even I struggled with these at times.

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a book that gets more popular during the winter or a festive time of year

15994537I feel like Wuthering Heights is a popular one to visit and revisit in the colder months.  This book is bleaker than bleak and definitely suited to more dismal weather.  Side note: I’m actually considering giving this book another try in a couple of years?  I read it last winter and really did not enjoy it, but the more I think about it the more I’m wondering if that was just a knee-jerk reaction based mostly on how much I disliked Emily’s prose.  But I think there’s probably more merit to it than I initially thought there was… Anyway, we shall see.  Definitely not revisiting it this year.  I’ll give it some more time.

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a favorite children’s book

I really don’t like reading children’s books as an adult and Harry Potter is a boring answer and honestly nothing else jumps out at me as my favorite book from my childhood… pass!

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a book that kept you on the edge of your seat from start to finish

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You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann.  I read this recently on a whim and was very pleasantly surprised by it.  I don’t think the conclusion was anything special, unfortunately, but the lead-up was so tense and chilling.

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a book you see everywhere

35959740Circe by Madeline Miller.  Ok guys, I have to admit.  I just don’t get the hype.  I love Greek mythology, I loved The Song of Achilles, I love feminist retellings, but Circe was just… fine?  I thought that Circe’s character arc was really spectacular and the way that Miller altered the conclusion of the original story I thought was fantastic, so it’s not like I disliked the book at all.  But I did think the pacing was all over the place (hundreds of pages of tedium punctuated by a lot of action over the span of a few pages), and while I understand that that was intentional (to a point) in order to mirror the tedium of Circe’s immortality, I just felt like that element was handled so much better thematically than it was narratively; I just can’t forgive the fact that I was bored for huge stretches of this book.  Anyway, I liked it, I didn’t love it, and it is everywhere.

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a book by an indie author (a shoutout)

I have two indie author friends that I know of, and both are deserving of a shout-out:

I.M. Flippy (obviously a pseudonym) is an author of self-published romance novels; I genuinely thought I hated all things romance until I read her delightful book A Fugitive In Grass Valley.  I’m not just saying this because she’s a friend (she will never see this post).  I just think she’s a fantastic writer.

Callum is also an indie author and while I have not (yet) read any of his books, I’ve read a couple of short stories and think he is an incredibly talented writer.  Which is also evident in his blog posts, tbh.

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a book you were expecting more from

36679056The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon.  I did end up giving this 4 stars, but for being one of my most anticipated books of the whole year, I have to admit it fell short.  I did think there was a surprising amount of thematic depth for the short page count, and Kwon’s writing was superb, but the characters were all incredibly thin which made it difficult to get invested.  I definitely think this would have benefited from 50+ more pages where the characters could have been fleshed out into more than just archetypes.

 

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a book or series that was both bitter and sweet, but ultimately satisfying

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Everything Here Is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee.  This book about mental illness and the toll it takes on two Chinese-American sisters is absolutely soul-crushing.  But it has a lot of moments of tenderness as well.  I read this about a year ago, and what resonates when I think about it is the relationship between the sisters, and also the vividly beautiful setting of Ecuador.  I’d highly recommend this one.

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a book or series that is quietly beautiful

6334Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.  I’ve talked about this book before, a lot, but my love for it was sort of reawakened recently when Steph read it and fell in love with it.  We had about an hour and a half long conversation about this book on Halloween night which imo is the best way to celebrate Halloween.  Anyway, this book.  Quietly beautiful is really the only way to describe it.  It’s breathtaking but in such a subtle way; it really creeps up on you and gets under your skin.  I’ve read this book a couple of times now (I can never remember if I’ve read it two or three times) but now I’m dying to read it again.  It’s hands down my favorite contemporary novel.

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a book or series that makes you dream of far off places

36336078Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman.  I have… a lot of thoughts about this book and they aren’t all positive, but it ultimately won me over, and Aciman’s descriptions of Italy were some of the most evocative I have ever read.  Most of my favorite memories from living in Italy somehow involve being out at night in the summertime, and there’s this one sequence in Call Me By Your Name when the characters are in Rome and they’re at a party that lasts all night and takes them to all these different restaurants and bars and then they eventually end up wandering around by some fountain and anyway, I don’t know how else to explain this but I felt that scene in my bones.  Aciman knows how to bring a setting to life.
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favorite classic

SO MANY!  But this is my holy trinity: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, The Iliad by Homer, East of Eden by John Steinbeck.

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Marija / Emily / Alex / Kristin / Sarah / Ally