book review: Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev

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MOTHER WINTER by Sophia Shalmiyev
★★★★☆
Simon & Schuster, February 12, 2019

 

Of the three memoirs I read this month, Mother Winter was far and away the one that hit me the hardest, which may surprise you as I’ve talked before about my disinterest in ‘motherhood books’ (only as a matter of personal taste). But I suppose Mother Winter is less of a mother book than it is a daughter book, centered on the irreconcilable grief that Sophia Shalmiyev incurred by growing up motherless. This is a sharp, focused, achingly tender and highly literary memoir that reads like a constant gut-punch.

Growing up in Leningrad in the 1980s, Shalmiyev had very little contact with her alcoholic mother, who she was forced to leave behind altogether when her father decided to emigrate in 1989. Shalmiyev spends the rest of her childhood and then adolescence and then adulthood unable to contact her mother, without any means of finding out if she’s even alive or dead. Her experimental memoir (which will undoubtedly appeal to fans of Maggie Nelson) fuses her unique experience of loss with themes of exile, grief, sexuality, displacement, and feminism; she often looks to iconic feminist women as stand-in maternal figures, as she relentlessly interrogates the lacuna that comes to define her.

Shalmiyev’s prose is vivid and searing. In this passage she’s talking about a dream she has where her mother is a statue at the bottom of the sea, and the imagery and emotional honesty on display here is rather emblematic of the rest of the book:

“When you’re fished out, you will go to your proper place in a museum to be admired by me only. I will polish your bronze name plaque, and I will be writing the small paragraph, printed on heavy card stock in a tastefully solemn font, about you as a priceless relic, a found shard, degraded, a puzzling piece of history. A head lost, bust found somewhere, a battered woman with blank eyes, erected by those who had infinite worship in their hearts.”

My one criticism is the overly abrupt ending, which leaves the reader with question after unanswered question. I obviously have to ask myself if that was indeed the point, which is certainly a possibility, but this is one of those books that seems so mired in the past that there isn’t much consideration for the future, and I’m left wondering what Shalmiyev intends to do after the final pages of this book. But, perhaps she does not owe us that explanation, or perhaps we will have to wait until she writes another book. Which I certainly hope she will.

Thank you to Netgalley and Simon & Schuster for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review. I will check the quote against a finished copy upon publication.

wrap up: January 2019

 

 

 

  • The Quiet American by Graham Greene ★★★★☆ | review
  • Cherry by Nico Walker ★★★★☆ | review
  • Heavy by Kiese Laymon ★★★★☆ | review
  • The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells ★★★★☆ | review
  • The Stranger Inside by Laura Benedict ★★☆☆☆ | review
  • My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite ★★★★☆ | mini review
  • Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh ★★☆☆☆ | review
  • The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway ★★★★☆ | review
  • Paradise by Edna O’Brien ★★★★☆ | review
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas ★★★☆☆ | review
  • This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps ★★★☆☆ | review
  • Daughters of Passion by Julia O’Faolain ★★★☆☆ | review
  • The Hiding Place by CJ Tudor ★★☆☆☆ | review
  • Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev ★★★★☆ | review
  • Census by Jesse Ball ★★☆☆☆ | mini review

Favorite: The End of Loneliness by Benedict Wells
Honorable Mentions: Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev, Paradise by Edna O’Brien
Least favorite: The Stranger Inside by Laura Benedict

JANUARY TOTAL: 15
YEARLY TOTAL: 15

I’m pretty sure 15 is a personal record for most books read in a single month (and, technically I read 16 since I also read a friend’s MS).  I mean, obviously there were a couple of short stories thrown in there, and also January is like eighteen billion years long, so it’s probably not as impressive of a number as it seems, but still.  Also, I do still have to finish Census but I’m pretty sure I’ll manage that by the end of the day, so it’s going on the list.

Currently reading: The Power by Naomi Alderman, Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff (which I started yesterday at Hannah’s encouragement after making this post).

 

Also, I never do monthly TBRs but I’m going to make an exception right now because there is a lot going on this month and I need to keep track of it all somewhere.

ARCs:

1. The Cassandra by Sharma Shields (2/12)
2. The Heavens by Sandra Newman (2/22)
3. The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See (3/5)
4. When All Is Said by Anne Griffith (3/5)
5. Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (3/5)

Buddy reads:

6. Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb (with Chelsea)

2019 reading goals:

7. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (from my backlist TBR)
8. Glass, Irony, and God by Anne Carson (from my goal to read 2 books of poetry/short stories/plays/nonfiction each month)

Library holds:

9. The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
10. Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
11. Becoming by Michelle Obama, audiobook: I actually don’t think I’m going to listen to this after all.  I just can’t do a 19 hour audiobook.  My usual limit is around 8 hours and I thought I could make an exception for Michelle Obama, but now that the audiobook is in my possession it is stressing me out too much, so I think I shall just have to read the physical copy, which luckily I have access to.  I may try to read this in February but I guess it isn’t a necessity.

I may not get to all of these – namely, I could save 2 of those ARCs for the first week of March – and I may add a couple of others, but you get the general idea.  Wish me luck.

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

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

top 10 tuesday: The Last Books I Added to my TBR

It’s Wednesday.  Whatever.

Top 10 Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and The Bookish which is now hosted by Jana @ That Artsy Reader Girl.  This week’s topic:

January 29: The Last 10 Books I Added to my TBR

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1. Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

I feel like I frequently mention how much I love Jennifer @ Insert Literary Pun Here’s booktube channel, but for those of you who missed it the first thirty times, I absolutely love Jennifer’s channel.  (Should I make a post about my favorite booktubers?)  Anyway, in the video I just linked to she talked about Cleopatra: A Life and it sounded absolutely delightful.  I need to read more biographies and I’ve always been decently interested in Ancient Egypt (though it wasn’t quite as developed of an obsession as my Ancient Greece thing), so this definitely interests me.

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2. The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
pub. date: February 26, 2019

I was on the fence about this one for a good while, because 900 page fantasy is… obviously not my favorite thing in the world, but then Elle’s review convinced me.  And the other thing that excites me about this is that it’s a standalone!  I am not a big series fan and would read so much more fantasy if standalones were more common for the genre.  I didn’t read Shannon’s first series… Bone something?  I have a couple of friends who hate those books so that makes me a little nervous, but it’s been a while since they were published so here’s hoping this book is more polished than those seemed to have been.

3. Faber short stories

Specifically: Dante and the Lobster by Samuel Beckett, Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom by Sylvia Plath, Terrific Mother by Lorrie Moore, The Country Funeral by John McGahern, The Shielding of Mrs Forbes by Alan Bennett, The Victim by PD James, The Forester’s Daughter by Claire Keegan.

I think this is self-explanatory.  I ordered 4 of these, read and reviewed 2, and the other day I went through the list and added most of the ones that piqued my interest.

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4. Amongst Women by John McGahern

Again, probably self-explanatory: while I was looking up those short stories I was looking up the authors as well, and though I hadn’t heard of John McGahern before this one jumped out at me.  Apparently this was nominated for the Booker in 1990.  The summary, according to Goodreads: Moran is an old Republican whose life was forever transformed by his days of glory as a guerilla leader in the War of Independence. Now, in old age, living out in the country, Moran is still fighting – with his family, his friends, even himself – in a poignant struggle to come to terms with the past.

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5. No Country for Young Men by Julia O’Faolain

I cannot find a good quality image of this cover, so hopefully that doesn’t speak to how difficult it will be to find this book, but anyway, I just read a short story by Julia O’Faolain that I liked but didn’t love, and it made me want to read more from her.  This sounds very Irish which obviously works for me.  Sister Judith Clancy is told that she must leave the protection of her convent and return to her family. So begins the unravelling of community ties which form this brilliant and devastating story of human and political relations in twentieth-century Ireland.

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6. Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir
pub. date: September 10, 2019

I know, I know, this does not seem like my kind of book in the slightest.  But, I was talking to a friend/former roommate recently who reads almost exclusively SFF and has an idea of the kind of SFF I like, and she thinks I would like this book.  So I’m going to just put my reservations aside and trust her judgement on this one.

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7. Cala by Laura Legge
pub. date: March 7, 2019

I saw this on Netgalley and the cover caught my eye for whatever reason (alas, it’s wish only in the U.S. right now), but I looked up the summary and it sounds like it could be incredible.

Cala, a stone farmhouse on the edge of Pullhair in the Outer Hebrides, is home to four women – witches the locals say – who scratch out a living on its land. But after ten years of relative harmony, fractures are beginning to appear among them.

Eighteen-year-old Euna is tired of Cala’s rigid hierarchy and arbitrary rules – the women may only speak in Gaelic, must wear plain dress, attend strict rituals and consume only what they grow or gather with their hands. Sick of scavenged seaweed and thin soup, Euna decides to go in search of a different way of living.

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8. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes
pub. date: May 2, 2019

I mean.  In A Thousand Ships, broadcaster and classicist Natalie Haynes retells the story of the Trojan War from an all-female perspective.  I MEAN…?!  This is kind of the book I secretly wanted to write but I suppose I’ll just content myself with reading it.  I haven’t read anything else by Haynes but this quickly became my most anticipated book of the year and if it is anything short of brilliant I will cry.

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9. Edinburgh by Alexander Chee

Someone I follow on bookstagram was talking about this book (I can’t remember who), and it sounds incredibly painful and hard-hitting and I am all about that.  I haven’t actually read anything else by Chee, though a couple of his other books are on my TBR already, but for whatever reason I hadn’t heard of this one until the other day.

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10. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe
pub. date: February 26, 2019

This is a true crime book about a mother murdered in Belfast by the IRA in the 70s, so that sounds very relevant to my interests.  I’ve been trying to read more Northern Irish fiction recently (largely thanks to Milkman – before that I hadn’t realized how much of the Irish lit I’ve read is from the ROI), so I figured I should also throw some nonfiction into the mix.

Have you guys read any of these books, or are you looking forward to any of them?  I thought it would be fun to post this list since it’s a rather eclectic mix, we’ve got everything from fantasy to biographies to short stories to literary fiction to true crime.  Please let me know which of these I should reach for first!

book review: The Hiding Place by C.J. Tudor

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THE HIDING PLACE by C.J. Tudor
(UK title: THE TAKING OF ANNIE THORNE)
★★☆☆☆
Crown, February 5, 2019

I was all over the place with this book. It was at times gripping, laughable, chilling, confusing, and dull, so I’m not having the easiest time gathering my thoughts and deciding on a rating.

To be honest I’m not exactly sure what the main mystery here was supposed to be so I’ll spare you from too many plot details, but basically, when Joe Thorne was a teenager his sister Annie died, following a period where she went missing for 48 hours before turning up again. Now Joe is a teacher at his old school and he has reason to believe that whatever happened to Annie is happening again. That doesn’t give you a good sense of just how convoluted this was, but I guess that’s the gist.

So that’s criticism number one: there are too many plot threads. Half of them are unnecessary and half of them are left unresolved. There’s also a supernatural element that is only halfheartedly integrated into the story, and the lack of answers we receive about this felt to me like Tudor didn’t have any of the answers herself and fell back on the lazy excuse of ‘well it’s supernatural, I don’t need to explain it.’ Since so much went unexplained, the ending was all kinds of anticlimactic, and the ‘final showdown,’ if we can call it that, was probably one of the worst thriller scenes I’ve ever read. But hey, at least Joe has no illusions to the contrary about what kind of book he’s in. “And then, feeling very much like a character in a bad thriller, I say: ‘I think we should talk.'”

And that’s another problem, the desperate attempts to overcompensate for dull moments with humor that doesn’t land. In the first half of this book in particular you could hardly go a page without cringing due to something like this:

“Never go back. That’s what people always tell you. Things will have changed. They won’t be the way you remembered. Leave the past in the past. Of course, the last one is easier said than done. The past has a habit of repeating on you. Like bad curry.”

… which was frustrating when the strongest thing about this book is its atmosphere. When your book manages to be as creepy and downright terrifying as this one can be at times, you shouldn’t sacrifice the tone for these silly throwaway lines. And the thing is, this book was properly brilliant at times. Certain scenes, particularly the flashbacks, were tense and vivid and gripping, and I had plenty of moments of not being able to put this book down because I needed to know what happened next. So in that way, it was one of the more fun reading experiences I’ve had recently. Unfortunately I was rewarded for racing through it with an altogether terrible ending.

So on the whole, where this is good, I actually think it’s better than The Chalk Man. Where it’s bad, it’s worse by far. The Hiding Place is certainly more ambitious, but The Chalk Man is more consistent. (I’ve also seen many reviews comment on the transparent similarity to Stephen King’s Pet Sematary, but as I haven’t read any King myself I can’t personally comment on that – I just wanted to mention it for everyone else’s consideration.)

Thank you to Netgalley and Crown for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

short story reviews: Edna O’Brien and Julia O’Faolain

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PARADISE by Edna O’Brien
★★★★☆
Faber & Faber, 2019
originally published in 2013

 

Originally published in 2013, Paradise is a short, feverish story about an unnamed woman on holiday with her rich partner, who hires an instructor to teach her how to swim. What I took away from this story was an allegory about the self-congratulation of the rich when they take someone poor under their tutelage; performing in a proscribed manner is expected, developing your own ideas and aspirations is dangerous – and the metaphor is executed with searing prose and beautiful imagery. This was a great introduction to Edna O’Brien and I’m really looking forward to reading more of her work.


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DAUGHTERS OF PASSION by Julia O’Faolain
★★★☆☆
Faber & Faber, 2019
originally published in 1982

 

I really wanted to love this but I think I just ultimately wanted more from it. The premise is genius: an Irish woman in prison half-delusional from a hunger strike looks back on a friendship that led to her involvement with the IRA. It’s just very bare-bones and doesn’t dig as deep as it needs to into the relationship between Maggy and Dizzy, the relationship that propels the main conflict in this story but which reads like a quick sketch that hasn’t been colored in yet. That said, I did enjoy Julia O’Faolain’s writing and would happily read more from her… but I’d be lying if I said I weren’t a little disappointed, as this was the short story from Faber’s 90th anniversary collection that was I was the most looking forward to.

book review: This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps

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THIS WILL ONLY HURT A LITTLE by Busy Philipps
★★★☆☆
Touchstone, 2018

 

I was surprised by how much I ended up enjoying this book. I never reach for celebrity memoirs, less out of literary snobbery and more because the celebrities I’m invested in do not usually write memoirs. But I am a fan of Busy Philipps so I thought why not, let’s give it a try.

Busy states early on in her book that she’s a natural-born storyteller, that she knows when to embellish and when to omit details to keep her audience compelled, and I have to agree. What this book lacks (which I’ll get to in a moment), she makes up for with an immense skill at honing in on what exactly makes an anecdote worth sharing. Whether it was dislocating her knee after being trampled at a school concert by eighth grade boys moshing to Nirvana, or confronting the creator of Modern Family years after he made a rude comment about Busy winning a Critics Choice Award for Cougar Town, she knows how to keep her reader hooked. As I’ve talked about before, I’m not the best audiobook listener, but I don’t think my mind wandered once while listening to this, and I managed to finish it in a week (which is probably a record for me with audiobooks). Even the least exciting of anecdotes were far from boring, because Busy manages to convince you that the stakes are always much, much higher than they actually are (with an occasional tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement that maybe she was a bit melodramatic given the circumstances, but in the moment the minor calamity did feel like the end of the world).

But the introspection didn’t go much further than that, which is my biggest issue with this book. The writing itself wasn’t great but I assume that’s par for the course with this kind of memoir, so I won’t dwell on that. What bothered me more was the constant self-absorption and how it was never met with adequate reflection. Though she certainly faced hardships and I don’t want to dismiss that, for the most part Busy Philipps has lived a rather privileged life, which she really only acknowledges once toward the end of the book, when she wonders why she’s dreading going on a paid Disney cruise that her mother arranged when so many people would kill for that opportunity. There’s a weird kind of dissonance between the persona that Busy has crafted on Instagram (being down to earth and relatable) and the extravagant life that she lives in Hollywood, and it’s never really addressed. I mean, of course celebrities aren’t our friends, of course the lives of the rich and famous are never going to be perfect reflections of our own; it’s just the lack of awareness of that fact throughout this memoir that grated. I don’t think for a second that Busy is ungrateful for the life she leads, but I do think her gratitude is something that never fully translated to this text.

Ultimately I’d really only recommend this one to fans of Busy, or to anyone who really enjoys celebrity memoirs in general. I don’t see this book winning Busy many fans who hadn’t already been familiar with her work and her persona, but for those of us who enjoy her, it certainly didn’t fail to entertain. It just… didn’t do much else. And though I consistently enjoyed it, I ended it feeling vaguely dissatisfied as its anecdotal nature left many questions unanswered (did Busy stay close to Michelle after Heath’s death, how is her relationship with Marc after counseling, did Busy look back on her teenage abortion when she was pregnant with her daughters, how did the people and the stories she talked about early on come to shape her later in life). But it was a fun, entertaining read, and sometimes that’s all you can ask of a book. 3.5 stars

book review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas
★★★☆☆
HarperCollins, 2017

 

It was fine.

I’ll start with what I liked: this book is as important as everyone says it is. It’s an unflinching look at police brutality, told through the eyes of a teenage girl who witnessed the senseless murder of her friend who was pulled over by a cop for a broken taillight. This happens in the second chapter and the majority of the book deals with the aftermath; the guilt Starr feels over surviving the incident and not being there for her friend in the months leading up to it, the tension that exists between her home life (where she lives in a very poor black neighborhood) and her school life (where she attends a private school on a scholarship, which is attended mostly by rich white students). Starr’s narrative voice was wonderfully authentic and this book just provides such a necessary perspective on the racism and violence that run rampant in this country. Having finally read this, I can say I’m genuinely thrilled that this book has become such a cultural phenomenon as well as a commercial success.

But in the interest of giving you the full picture, let’s move onto what I didn’t like. It was overly long and I found the dialogue and the ‘cute’ domestic moments particularly inane. Moments like this caused more than a few eye rolls: “He grins and he feeds her a grape, and I just can’t. The cuteness is too much. Yeah, they’re my parents, but they’re my OTP. Seriously.” I get that when you’re dealing with such a serious topic (especially in YA) you do need moments of levity if you don’t want your book to be a nearly-500-page misery fest, but all of the humor felt shoehorned in. There were so many discussions of Harry Potter and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and meanwhile nothing was actually happening and I didn’t feel bored, necessarily, because YA contemporary reads so quickly, but I did feel a bit cheated whenever the main narrative got derailed for these fan-service moments.

My other main issue was that I would have loved to have seen some more nuance. It’s hard to talk about this in detail without getting into spoilers, but as an example, one of the subplots shows how over the course of the novel Starr comes to realize that one of her best white friends is racist, and I thought this would be a good opportunity for the author to explore the subtle ways that racism can manifest in even well-meaning white allies, but instead the execution was a bit heavy-handed. The kind of racist remarks this girl made toward Starr were… not subtle in ANY way, which made me wonder why she was even friends with her in the first place. And the fact that Starr’s white boyfriend could basically do no wrong added to this kind of weird dichotomy that white people are all either Good or Evil? When in reality the grey area between those two extremes is so much more realistic and would have been a good focal point for this part of the narrative.

But anyway. This is a book for teenagers, first and foremost, and I’m happy that it has been received so well among teenagers, and among adults who read more YA than I do. I hope you don’t take this review and rating as me being dismissive of this book’s themes and its cultural impact; I’m just afraid that it didn’t totally work for me personally. Which is fine, not every book is going to work for every reader. I’m very glad The Hate U Give has found its readers.