wrap up: February 2019

  • The Friend by Sigrid Nunez ★★★★★ | review
  • The Cassandra by Sharma Shields ★☆☆☆☆ | review
  • The Power by Naomi Alderman ★★☆☆☆ | review
  • The Heavens by Sandra Newman ★★★☆☆ | review
  • Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb ★★★★☆ | review
  • Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde ★★★★☆ | mini review
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker ★★★★☆ | review
  • The Parting Glass by Gina Marie Guadagnino ★★★★☆ | review
  • Bad Blood by John Carreyrou ★★★★☆ | mini review
  • Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe ★★★★★ | review

Favorite: Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe
Honorable mention: The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
Least favorite: The Cassandra by Sharma Shields

FEBRUARY TOTAL: 10
YEARLY TOTAL: 25

Some of my other posts from the month: Women’s Prize 2019 Longlist PredictionsReading Ireland 2019 TBR and RecommendationsSome of my recent favorite book quotes.

A bit of a mixed reading month, but it did give me a new book for my ‘favorites’ shelf in Say Nothing, so I can hardly complain.  Anyway, a quick housekeeping note: you may have noticed that I’ve started using Book Depository affiliate links in my posts.  I did have a bit of a moral quandary about this as I try my best not to support Amazon (which does own BD, unfortunately), but without going into too much detail, things in my personal and professional life have not been going too well recently, so I figured what the hell.  Please do support your local indies whenever possible, but if that isn’t an option for you for whatever reason, clicking these links will give me a few cents here and there, which is so appreciated!

Currently reading: Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff (ahh this one keeps getting pushed to the side for more urgent reads, but I am enjoying it), The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See, Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid.

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

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

book review: Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe

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SAY NOTHING: A TRUE STORY OF MURDER AND MEMORY IN NORTHERN IRELAND by Patrick Radden Keefe
★★★★★
Doubleday, February 26, 2019

 

I wish it weren’t only February because the statement ‘this is the best book I’ve read all year’ does not carry very much weight when we still have 10 months to go. But, nonetheless, this is my reigning book of 2019. And it ended up being one of those rare cases when the book turned out so differently from what I expected, but I ended up liking it all the more for that. From the blurb I got the impression that this was going to focus on the disappearance of a woman called Jean McConville, with details about the Troubles setting the background context, but instead it’s primarily a narrative account of the Troubles which occasionally, haltingly zeroes in on McConville’s story. So it’s less true crime than it is historical nonfiction, but the final product is focused and compelling.

Say Nothing, whose title comes from a line from a Seamus Heaney poem which examines the treacherous precedent of speaking plainly about the Troubles, paints a comprehensive picture of twentieth century Belfast and introduces us to a few of the main players responsible for much of the devastation caused by the IRA – Brendan Hughes, Gerry Adams, Dolours and Marian Price, et al. Radden Keefe explores the lives and family histories and philosophies and interpersonal dynamics of these individuals and I found it refreshing that he didn’t have an interest in moralizing in his approach to this story; while I think true objectivity is probably impossible, this is about as multifaceted as it gets. Driven primarily by an interest in the human cost of the conflict, Radden Keefe turns four years of research into a richly detailed account of Northern Ireland’s fraught history, particularly examining how difficult it is to cultivate a historical record when different accounts contain conflicting information, and when everyone is afraid to speak openly about a conflict that’s officially been resolved, but is a strong force in cumulative living memory. (If you loved Milkman, or if you didn’t understand Milkman, this is such a valuable nonfiction supplement.)

Certain anecdotes and images in this book were just arresting, and I think it’s telling that the two stories that affected me the most had victims on opposite sides of the conflict. The first was about an IRA man who ordered a hit on another IRA man, whose wife he was having an affair with; the first man was sentenced to death, and Dolours Price, driving him to his execution, was struck with the thought that she could let him go, or that he could attack her and escape, but neither of those possibilities was going to happen because they both wholly accepted their devotion to the cause. The chapter ends with the flat and haunting lines “‘I’ll be seeing you Joe,’ Price said. But she knew that she wouldn’t be, and she cried the whole way home.” The second story that got under my skin was about two young British soldiers who had accidentally found themselves in the middle of an IRA funeral; because of a recent attack by loyalists, their presence was met with suspicion and they were dragged from their car and beaten, and eventually taken across the road and shot. A Catholic priest ran over and when he noticed that one of the men was still breathing, asked if anyone knew CPR, but he was met with silence from the crowd, and a photograph was captured of him kneeling over this soldier’s body and staring into the camera, his lips bloody from trying to resuscitate him.

As for the significance of Jean McConville, the mother of ten who went missing in 1972, and whose body wasn’t recovered until her bones were found on a beach in 2003: at first I did worry that this element was being shoehorned as a bizarre piece of human interest (I say ‘bizarre’ due to the little attention that’s paid to McConville and her children throughout). However, I needn’t have worried, as everything does eventually dovetail in a way that fully justifies this book’s premise. Running alongside the historical account of the Troubles, Radden Keefe introduces the reader to something called the Boston College Tapes, an aborted project in which heads of the college’s Irish History department endeavored to curate an oral history of the Troubles, to be accessed by the college’s students in future generations. Due to the fact that discussing past paramilitary activity is an incriminating act, participants in the project were granted a sort of amnesty and promised that the tapes would not be released until after the participant’s death. This promise was violated in the form of a lengthy legal battle between BC and the UK government, and ended up playing a key role in getting to the bottom of McConville’s disappearance.

While I’d first and foremost recommend Say Nothing to those with an interest in Irish history and wouldn’t dream of selling this as a true crime book, I don’t want to downplay how enthralling this was. Granted, its focus is something I already had an interest in, but what Radden Keefe brought to this narrative was a fiercely human angle, and I found this as deeply moving as it was informative.

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

You can pick up a copy of Say Nothing here on Book Depository.

book review: The Parting Glass by Gina Marie Guadagnino

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THE PARTING GLASS by Gina Marie Guadagnino
★★★★☆
Atria, March 5, 2019

 

What a lush and lovely book. I picked up The Parting Glass partially on a whim, but it captivated me practically from the first page. It tells the story of lady’s maid Maire O’Farren, alias Mary Ballard, an Irish immigrant employed by the beautiful young mistress Charlotte Walden in 19th century New York. Maire is captivated by Charlotte to the point of obsession, but Charlotte is having an affair with the stable groom, who happens to be Maire’s twin brother. Through this awkward love triangle of sorts, The Parting Glass explores passion and obsession and sexuality and corruption and social unrest in a turbulent period of American and Irish history, and it does so with a gripping, pacy story that I could not put down.

One thing I loved about this book was its rich historical detail. In the afterward you can get a sense of the amount of research that Gina Marie Guadagnino put into this novel, and it really does show the whole way through. Though she never pulls the historical context to the forefront in a distracting way, she still firmly establishes the setting, which she could have easily downplayed in favor of the various romantic subplots. Instead, this is actually an impressive piece of historical fiction that focuses on the reception of Irish immigrants to America in the 19th century – not exactly untread territory, but it’s handled in a way that feels relevant and immediate.

The other huge strength of this book for me was Maire’s relationship with her brother Seanin. With a mother who died in childbirth and a father who died when they were young, growing up in Ireland Maire and Seanin were inseparable, and it’s not until they move to the US that cracks in their relationship begin to form, Charlotte only acting as a catalyst for a rift that runs much deeper. I thought it was a fantastic depiction of a close, intense relationship that can easily flip the switch from love to hate. While Maire and Seanin’s characterization was brilliant, I would have liked to have seen a bit more of Charlotte, though I’m wondering if her character was kept deliberately hazy as a reflection of Maire’s idolization.

I will say, to anyone picking this up because of its Fingersmith comparison, don’t expect Sarah Waters’ quality of prose (I haven’t read Fingersmith, but I have read Waters before). Though I do think Guadagnino has a fantastic command of language, this isn’t quite on that same literary level, which I point out only because I imagine that’s going to be the main criticism held against this novel. It almost feels overly dismissive to call this a beach read for Waters fans, but there may be some truth to that; it’s certainly a clever book, but not half as dense as Waters. But I’d recommend you just ignore that comparison and enjoy it for what it is – a gem of lesbian historical fiction with compelling characters and a well-developed political backdrop.

Thank you to Edelweiss and Atria for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

You can pick up a copy of The Parting Glass here on Book Depository.

Women’s Prize 2019 Longlist Predictions

It’s the most wonderful time of the year: Women’s Prize longlist time!  Well, almost.  Since we’re a week away, I wanted to share some of my predictions for what we might see on the longlist this year.  I had a hard time narrowing this list down, before ultimately deciding that I shouldn’t have to; I’m including somewhere around 30 books in here, and while they obviously can’t all be longlisted, and while I’m sure I’m missing a ton of other great possibilities that will inevitably end up on the list, I wouldn’t be surprised to see any of the following books there.  So, let’s get into it.  All summaries are from Goodreads.  And a list of my ”official” predictions can be found at the bottom of this post, if you just want the short version.

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Transcription by Kate Atkinson

Summary: “In 1940, eighteen-year old Juliet Armstrong is reluctantly recruited into the world of espionage. Sent to an obscure department of MI5 tasked with monitoring the comings and goings of British Fascist sympathizers, she discovers the work to be by turns both tedious and terrifying. But after the war has ended, she presumes the events of those years have been relegated to the past forever.  Ten years later, now a radio producer at the BBC, Juliet is unexpectedly confronted by figures from her past. A different war is being fought now, on a different battleground, but Juliet finds herself once more under threat. A bill of reckoning is due, and she finally begins to realize that there is no action without consequence.”

Why I think it has a chance: Atkinson was shortlisted before for Life After Life, plus there seems to be an unofficial ‘one WWII book per literary prize longlist’ quota that needs to be filled.
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The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Summary: “The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman—Briseis—watches and waits for the war’s outcome. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.”

Why I think it has a chance: This newest offering from Booker-winning author Pat Barker is suffused with incisive commentary on a woman’s place in war throughout history, with echoes of the #MeToo movement thrown in.

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My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Summary: “When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in “self-defence” and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating a doctor at the hospital where Korede works as a nurse. Korede’s long been in love with him, and isn’t prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other…”

Why I think it has a chance: It’s an impressive debut from a promising new voice in Nigerian lit, and it’s an interesting subversion of traditional gendered power dynamics.

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The Pisces by Melissa Broder

Summary: “Lucy has been writing her dissertation about Sappho for thirteen years when she and Jamie break up. After she hits rock bottom in Phoenix, her Los Angeles-based sister insists Lucy housesit for the summer—her only tasks caring for a beloved diabetic dog and trying to learn to care for herself. Annika’s home is a gorgeous glass cube atop Venice Beach, but Lucy can find no peace from her misery and anxiety—not in her love addiction group therapy meetings, not in frequent Tinder meetups, not in Dominic the foxhound’s easy affection, not in ruminating on the ancient Greeks. Yet everything changes when Lucy becomes entranced by an eerily attractive swimmer one night while sitting alone on the beach rocks.”

Why I think it has a chance: Because no other book in recent memory has allowed a female character to be as flawed as Melissa Broder’s ingeniously crafted protagonist.

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Milkman by Anna Burns

Summary: “In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous. Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous.”

Why I think it has a chance: This experimental, lyrical look at the Troubles through the eyes of a young woman is crackling with a feminist undercurrent that can’t be denied.  Burns also, obviously, won the Man Booker for Milkman, and was previously shortlisted for the Women’s Prize with her novel No Bones.

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XX by Angela Chadwick

Summary: “Ovum-to-Ovum technology offers a breakthrough for reproductive rights but also has fierce opposition. When it is leaked that Rosie is one of only two women to become pregnant from the treatment, her relationship with Jules is put under a microscope. Who close to them leaked the news?”

Why I think it has a chance: That summary speaks for itself.  I think any book about reproductive rights can easily earn itself a ticket to the Women’s Prize longlist.

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Kudos by Rachel Cusk

Summary: “A woman writer visits a Europe in flux, where questions of personal and political identity are rising to the surface and the trauma of change is opening up new possibilities of loss and renewal. Within the rituals of literary culture, Faye finds the human story in disarray amid differing attitudes toward the public performance of the creative persona. She begins to identify among the people she meets a tension between truth and representation, a fissure that accrues great dramatic force as Kudos reaches a profound and beautiful climax.”

Why I think it has a chance: Cusk was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize twice, and the second time it was for the first book in the trilogy that Kudos concludes.  She also received a spot on the 2018 Goldsmiths shortlist for Kudos.  Personally, for VERY selfish reasons I hope that we don’t see Kudos on the longlist – reading up to 16 books for a literary prize is bad enough, but I haven’t even read the first two books in this trilogy.

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Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Summary: “Washington Black is an eleven-year-old field slave who knows no other life than the Barbados sugar plantation where he was born.  When his master’s eccentric brother chooses him to be his manservant, Wash is terrified of the cruelties he is certain await him. But Christopher Wilde, or “Titch,” is a naturalist, explorer, scientist, inventor, and abolitionist.  He initiates Wash into a world where a flying machine can carry a man across the sky; where two people, separated by an impossible divide, might begin to see each other as human; and where a boy born in chains can embrace a life of dignity and meaning. But when a man is killed and a bounty is placed on Wash’s head, Titch abandons everything to save him.”

Why I think it has a chance: It was shortlisted for the Booker and it won the Giller, and Edugyan was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize in 2012 for Half-Blood Blues.  And I believe this is the only Canadian offering I’m including in this predictions post.  EDIT: no it’s not!  My bad!  Thanks Laura!

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When All Is Said by Anne Griffin

Summary: “If you had to pick five people to sum up your life, who would they be? If you were to raise a glass to each of them, what would you say? And what would you learn about yourself, when all is said and done?  This is the story of Maurice Hannigan, who, over the course of a Saturday night in June, orders five different drinks at the Rainford House Hotel. With each he toasts a person vital to him: his doomed older brother, his troubled sister-in-law, his daughter of fifteen minutes, his son far off in America, and his late, lamented wife. And through these people, the ones who left him behind, he tells the story of his own life, with all its regrets and feuds, loves and triumphs.”

Why I think it has a chance: This is being hailed as the next great Irish novel, and the Women’s Prize has traditionally been kind to Irish lit.

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All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison

Summary: “Fourteen-year-old Edie Mather lives with her family at Wych Farm, where the shadow of the Great War still hangs over a community impoverished by the Great Depression. Glamorous outsider Constance FitzAllen arrives from London, determined to make a record of fading rural traditions and beliefs, and to persuade Edie’s family to return to the old ways rather than embrace modernity. She brings with her new political and social ideas – some far more dangerous than others.  For Edie, who has just finished school and must soon decide what to do with her life, Connie appears to be a godsend. But there is more to the older woman than meets the eye. As harvest time approaches and the pressures mount on the entire Mather family, Edie must decide whose version of reality to trust, and how best to save herself from disaster.”

Why I think it has a chance: I believe Harrison has been longlisted in the past for this award, but I don’t know, this one is just a gut feeling.

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The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey

Summary: “15th century Oakham, in Somerset; a tiny village cut off by a big river with no bridge. When a man is swept away by the river in the early hours of Shrove Saturday, an explanation has to be found: accident, suicide or murder? The village priest, John Reve, is privy to many secrets in his role as confessor. But will he be able to unravel what happened to the victim, Thomas Newman, the wealthiest, most capable and industrious man in the village? And what will happen if he can’t?”

Why I think it has a chance: You know, I’m not positive that it does, I feel like the hype around this one has fizzled out.  But still, for some reason I think it’s a decent contender.

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Motherhood by Sheila Heti

Summary: “In her late thirties, when her friends are asking when they will become mothers, the narrator of Heti’s intimate and urgent novel considers whether she will do so at all. In a narrative spanning several years, casting among the influence of her peers, partner, and her duties to her forbearers, she struggles to make a wise and moral choice. After seeking guidance from philosophy, her body, mysticism, and chance, she discovers her answer much closer to home.”

Why I think it has a chance: I think any book called ‘Motherhood’ automatically has to be considered.

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Memories of the Future by Siri Hustvedt

Summary: “A provocative, exuberant novel about time, memory, desire, and the imagination from the internationally bestselling and prizewinning author of The Blazing WorldMemories of the Futuretells the story of a young Midwestern woman’s first year in New York City in the late 1970s and her obsession with her mysterious neighbor, Lucy Brite.”

Why I think it has a chance: Hustvedt is too prolific and accomplished an author not to have her work considered here.

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Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

Summary: “Words are important to Gretel, always have been. As a child, she lived on a canal boat with her mother, and together they invented a language that was just their own. She hasn’t seen her mother since the age of sixteen, though – almost a lifetime ago – and those memories have faded. Now Gretel works as a lexicographer, updating dictionary entries, which suits her solitary nature.  A phone call from the hospital interrupts Gretel’s isolation and throws up questions from long ago. She begins to remember the private vocabulary of her childhood. She remembers other things, too: the wild years spent on the river; the strange, lonely boy who came to stay on the boat one winter; and the creature in the water – a canal thief? – swimming upstream, getting ever closer. In the end there will be nothing for Gretel to do but go back.”

Why I think it has a chance: This is a gorgeous literary debut that takes a Greek myth and flips it on its head – totally inventive and immersive and lyrical.  Plus, Booker shortlisted.

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Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver

Summary: “Willa Knox has always prided herself on being the embodiment of responsibility for her family. Which is why it’s so unnerving that she’s arrived at middle age with nothing to show for her hard work and dedication but a stack of unpaid bills and an inherited brick home in Vineland, New Jersey, that is literally falling apart. The magazine where she worked has folded, and the college where her husband had tenure has closed. The dilapidated house is also home to her ailing and cantankerous Greek father-in-law and her two grown children: her stubborn, free-spirited daughter, Tig, and her dutiful debt-ridden, ivy educated son, Zeke, who has arrived with his unplanned baby in the wake of a life-shattering development.”

Why I think it has a chance: Another author so accomplished we can hardly do to overlook her 2018 effort – I’ve heard mixed things about this book but the critics who love it love it passionately enough that I think it stands a chance.

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The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Summary: “It’s 2003 and Romy Hall is at the start of two consecutive life sentences at Stanville Women’s Correctional Facility, deep in California’s Central Valley. Outside is the world from which she has been severed: the San Francisco of her youth and her young son, Jackson. Inside is a new reality: thousands of women hustling for the bare essentials needed to survive; the bluffing and pageantry and casual acts of violence by guards and prisoners alike; and the deadpan absurdities of institutional living, which Kushner evokes with great humor and precision.”

Why I think it has a chance: This book is filled to the brim with commentary on social issues that effect women of different walks of life, but ultimately in the way women are let down by the American justice system.  Another one that was shortlisted for the Booker.

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Crudo by Olivia Laing

Summary: “Kathy is a writer. Kathy is getting married. It’s the summer of 2017 and the whole world is falling apart. Fast-paced and frantic, Crudo unfolds in real time from the full-throttle perspective of a commitment-phobic artist who may or may not be Kathy Acker.”

Why I think it has a chance: (I’ve had to check about 100 different times that this is eligible – I feel like this book came out a hundred years ago.  2018 was a very long year indeed.)  Anyway, this is one of those ‘books of the moment’ that has received rave reviews – I think it stands a very good chance.

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Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li

Summary: “Written in the months after the author lost a child to suicide and composed as a story cycle, this conversation between mother and child unfolds in a timeless world. Deeply intimate, poignant, and moving, these conversations portray the love and complexity in a relationship across generations, even as they capture the pain of sadness, longing, and loss.”

Why I think it has a chance: I’ve been seeing this one everywhere and it seems like it’s going to be brilliant.

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Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

Summary: “A mother and father set out with their kids from New York to Arizona. In their used Volvo–and with their ten-year-old son trying out his new Polaroid camera–the family is heading for the Apacheria: the region the Apaches once called home, and where the ghosts of Geronimo and Cochise might still linger. The father, a sound documentarist, hopes to gather an “inventory of echoes” from this historic, mythic place. The mother, a radio journalist, becomes consumed by the news she hears on the car radio, about the thousands of children trying to reach America but getting stranded at the southern border, held in detention centers, or being sent back to their homelands, to an unknown fate.  But as the family drives farther west–through Virginia to Tennessee, across Oklahoma and Texas–we sense they are on the brink of a crisis of their own. A fissure is growing between the parents, one the children can feel beneath their feet. They are led, inexorably, to a grand, unforgettable adventure–both in the harsh desert landscape and within the chambers of their own imaginations.”

Why I think it has a chance: Luiselli has been a formidable name in international and Mexican lit, so I’m sure this novel written in English will be a strong contender.

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Severance by Ling Ma

Summary: “Candace Chen, a millennial drone self-sequestered in a Manhattan office tower, is devoted to routine. With the recent passing of her Chinese immigrant parents, she’s had her fill of uncertainty. She’s content just to carry on: She goes to work, troubleshoots the teen-targeted Gemstone Bible, watches movies in a Greenpoint basement with her boyfriend.  So Candace barely notices when a plague of biblical proportions sweeps New York. Then Shen Fever spreads. Families flee. Companies halt operations. The subways squeak to a halt. Her bosses enlist her as part of a dwindling skeleton crew with a big end-date payoff. Soon entirely alone, still unfevered, she photographs the eerie, abandoned city as the anonymous blogger NY Ghost.  Candace won’t be able to make it on her own forever, though. Enter a group of survivors, led by the power-hungry IT tech Bob. They’re traveling to a place called the Facility, where, Bob promises, they will have everything they need to start society anew. But Candace is carrying a secret she knows Bob will exploit. Should she escape from her rescuers?”

Why I think it has a chance: I’ve never read a more incisive take-down of capitalism in a novel than in Ling Ma’s offbeat zombie satire, which bends genres and offers something wholly unique and captivating.

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The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh

Summary: “King has tenderly staked out a territory for his wife and three daughters, Grace, Lia, and Sky. He has lain the barbed wire; he has anchored the buoys in the water; he has marked out a clear message: Do not enter. Or viewed from another angle: Not safe to leave. Here women are protected from the chaos and violence of men on the mainland. The cult-like rituals and therapies they endure fortify them from the spreading toxicity of a degrading world.  But when their father, the only man they’ve ever seen, disappears, they retreat further inward until the day three strange men wash ashore. Over the span of one blistering hot week, a psychological cat-and-mouse game plays out. Sexual tensions and sibling rivalries flare as the sisters confront the amorphous threat the strangers represent. Can they survive the men?”

Why I think it has a chance: Feminist dystopias are in vogue at the moment, and though that isn’t how I would personally categorize The Water Cure, that is how it’s being marketed.  Another Booker longlister.

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The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

Summary: “In 1985, Yale Tishman, the development director for an art gallery in Chicago, is about to pull off an amazing coup, bringing in an extraordinary collection of 1920s paintings as a gift to the gallery. Yet as his career begins to flourish, the carnage of the AIDS epidemic grows around him. One by one, his friends are dying and after his friend Nico’s funeral, the virus circles closer and closer to Yale himself. Soon the only person he has left is Fiona, Nico’s little sister.”

Why I think it has a chance: I think this is one of the most likely contenders from American lit this year – this book has been everywhere.

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Circe by Madeline Miller

Summary: “In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.  Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.”

Why I think it has a chance: This was one of the most talked about books of 2018, and Miller previously won the Women’s Prize for her debut The Song of Achilles.

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My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

Summary: “A shocking, hilarious and strangely tender novel about a young woman’s experiment in narcotic hibernation, aided and abetted by one of the worst psychiatrists in the annals of literature. Our narrator has many of the advantages of life, on the surface. Young, thin, pretty, a recent Columbia graduate, she lives in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan paid for, like everything else, by her inheritance. But there is a vacuum at the heart of things, and it isn’t just the loss of her parents in college, or the way her Wall Street boyfriend treats her, or her sadomasochistic relationship with her alleged best friend. It’s the year 2000 in a city aglitter with wealth and possibility; what could be so terribly wrong?”

Why I think it has a chance: Through its offbeat subject matter and narrative innovation, My Year of Rest and Relaxation gets to the heart of so many issues that characterize young female life.

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Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Summary: “For two weeks, the length of her father’s vacation, they join an anthropology course set to reenact life in simpler times. They are surrounded by forests of birch and rowan; they make stew from foraged roots and hunted rabbit. The students are fulfilling their coursework; Silvie’s father is fulfilling his lifelong obsession. He has raised her on stories of early man, taken her to witness rare artifacts, recounted time and again their rituals and beliefs—particularly their sacrifices to the bog. Mixing with the students, Silvie begins to see, hear, and imagine another kind of life, one that might include going to university, traveling beyond England, choosing her own clothes and food, speaking her mind.”

Why I think it has a chance: Sarah Moss has been a prolific author for years, though an oft-overlooked one, especially here in America.  With her incredibly accomplished and incisive Ghost Wall, everyone seems to finally be taking notice.

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The Friend by Sigrid Nunez

Summary: “When a woman unexpectedly loses her lifelong best friend and mentor, she finds herself burdened with the unwanted dog he has left behind. Her own battle against grief is intensified by the mute suffering of the dog, a huge Great Dane traumatized by the inexplicable disappearance of its master, and by the threat of eviction: dogs are prohibited in her apartment building.”

Why I think it has a chance: A premise that could have been sappy and saccharine was spun on its head by Sigrid Nunez’s accomplished writing – plus, it earned itself the National Book Award win for fiction.

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Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

Summary: “Perdita Lee may appear to be your average British schoolgirl; Harriet Lee may seem just a working mother trying to penetrate the school social hierarchy; but there are signs that they might not be as normal as they think they are. For one thing, they share a gold-painted, seventh-floor walk-up apartment with some surprisingly verbal vegetation. And then there’s the gingerbread they make. Londoners may find themselves able to take or leave it, but it’s very popular in Druhástrana, the far-away (and, according to Wikipedia, non-existent) land of Harriet Lee’s early youth. In fact, the world’s truest lover of the Lee family gingerbread is Harriet’s charismatic childhood friend, Gretel Kercheval–a figure who seems to have had a hand in everything (good or bad) that has happened to Harriet since they met.”

Why I think it has a chance: Another prolific author whose newest novel has been getting plenty of buzz in anticipation of its March release.

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Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras

Summary: “The Santiago family lives in a gated community in Bogotá, safe from the political upheaval terrorizing the country. Seven-year-old Chula and her older sister Cassandra enjoy carefree lives thanks to this protective bubble, but the threat of kidnappings, car bombs, and assassinations hover just outside the neighborhood walls, where the godlike drug lord Pablo Escobar continues to elude authorities and capture the attention of the nation.”

Why I think it has a chance: As far as historical fiction goes, I think this is one of the more likely contenders – it seems to blend historical and literary fiction, and has gotten plenty of favorable reviews.

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Normal People by Sally Rooney

Summary: “Connell and Marianne both grow up in the same town in rural Ireland. The similarities end there; they are from very different worlds. But they both get places to study at university in Dublin, and a connection that has grown between them despite the social tangle of school lasts long into the following years.”

Why I think it has a chance: Rooney’s sophomore novel is the literary sensation of the moment.  I would be very, very surprised not to see this longlisted.

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All the Lives We Never Lived by Anurandha Roy

Summary: “Freedom of a different kind is in the air across India. The fight against British rule is reaching a critical turn. The Nazis have come to power in Germany. At this point of crisis, two strangers arrive in Gayatri’s town, opening up to her the vision of other possible lives.  What took Myshkin’s mother from India to Dutch-held Bali in the 1930s, ripping a knife through his comfortingly familiar universe? Excavating the roots of the world in which he was abandoned, Myshkin comes to understand the connections between the anguish at home and a war-torn universe overtaken by patriotism.”

Why I think it has a chance: I keep forgetting about this novel, but then I keep seeing it crop up again.  I just have a feeling it might make it.

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The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

Summary: “In an isolated college town in the hills of Southern California, a freshman girl stumbles into her dorm room, falls asleep—and doesn’t wake up. She sleeps through the morning, into the evening. Her roommate, Mei, cannot rouse her. Neither can the paramedics who carry her away, nor the perplexed doctors at the hospital. Then a second girl falls asleep, and then another, and panic takes hold of the college and spreads to the town. As the number of cases multiplies, classes are canceled, and stores begin to run out of supplies. A quarantine is established. The National Guard is summoned. ”

Why I think it has a chance: Lyrical and, you guessed it, dreamy, this novel and its many comparisons to Station Eleven have rightfully earned it a fair amount of attention.

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Women Talking by Miriam Toews

Summary: “One evening, eight Mennonite women climb into a hay loft to conduct a secret meeting. For the past two years, each of these women, and more than a hundred other girls in their colony, has been repeatedly violated in the night by demons coming to punish them for their sins. Now that the women have learned they were in fact drugged and attacked by a group of men from their own community, they are determined to protect themselves and their daughters from future harm.”

Why I think it has a chance: I think the Women’s Prize likes novels that offer different cultural perspectives, and this literary look at a Mennonite community seems like a no-brainer for the longlist.

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Putney by Sofka Zinovieff

Summary: “A rising star in the London arts scene of the early 1970s, gifted composer Ralph Boyd is approached by renowned novelist Edmund Greenslay to score a stage adaptation of his most famous work. Welcomed into Greenslay’s sprawling bohemian house in Putney, an artistic and prosperous district in southwest London, the musical wunderkind is introduced to Edmund’s beautiful activist wife Ellie, his aloof son Theo, and his nine-year old daughter Daphne, who quickly becomes Ralph’s muse.”

Why I think it has a chance: This book and its uncomfortable subject matter earned itself a bit of attention, and literary prizes tend to love divisive books like this.


Because I have listed way too many books here, and am therefore cheating compared to Hannah who I believe is narrowing her list down to 16 (EDIT: read Hannah’s predictions here!), the following are my official predictions:

  1. Transcription by Kate Atkinson
  2. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
  3. XX by Angela Chadwick
  4. Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
  5. When All Is Said by Anne Griffin
  6. Motherhood by Sheila Heti
  7. Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
  8. Crudo by Olivia Laing
  9. Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli
  10. Severance by Ling Ma
  11. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai
  12. My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
  13. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
  14. Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
  15. Normal People by Sally Rooney
  16. Women Talking by Miriam Toews

So, those are my predictions, but as for what I’m hoping for: I think Milkman fully deserves a spot, obviously, I would be THRILLED to see some love for The Pisces, and I’d similarly be excited for The Silence of the Girls, My Sister the Serial Killer, Severance, My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ghost Wall, and The Friend.

As for my fears: I’d love to read the longlist, but I’m also expecting to have already read a handful of the books at the time it’s announced.  While I’m certainly hoping for a few I haven’t heard of, the prospect of having to read 16 books for this prize (18 for me if the Rachel Cusk is longlisted) is a little horrifying.  So, that’s my big fear: that I haven’t read any of them.  My other fears don’t revolve around specific books necessarily, though The Parentations by Kate Mayfield does scare me – please Women’s Prize gods spare me from 500 pages of magical realism.  And along the same lines as the Cusk, another fear is Ali Smith’s Winter – I love Ali Smith and I fully intend to read her seasonal quartet at some point, but I don’t want to have to cram in Autumn before Winter just to read it in time for this prize.  (I know you don’t technically have to read Autumn first but I am someone who needs to read books in order even if they’re only tangentially related.)

So, I think that’s everything.  What are your Women’s Prize longlist predictions, hopes, and fears?  Let’s chat!

book review: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker
★★★★☆
Mariner Books, 2015
originally published in 1982

 

Any of the adjectives you could use to describe The Color Purple – gorgeous, moving, heart-wrenching, etc – unfortunately sound rather trite, but this book is the real deal. The Color Purple is an epistolary novel that follows the relationship between two sisters who are torn apart early in life, but who nevertheless spend a lifetime trying to communicate with one another. The protagonist Celie is married off to an abusive husband, while her sister Nettie becomes a missionary in Africa. Celie’s husband, known only as Mr. ____, hides the letters that Nettie writes to Celie, who believes for years that her sister is dead. Robbed of contact with the only person who ever loved her, Celie contents herself by writing a series of letters that she addresses ‘Dear God’.

Celie’s voice is arguably the strongest element of this novel; Walker captures the voice of a poor, uneducated woman living in the American south in the 1900s with a vibrant authenticity. Nettie’s voice is similarly convincing, though distinct; it’s filled with a similar dialect but more polished and educated – this book is a case study in how to strengthen characterization through voice. The relationship between these two sisters is the heart and soul of The Color Purple, though Celie’s relationship with God and its different manifestations over time provides the novel with one of its most salient themes that develops beautifully over time. The novel’s title comes from an exchange where Celie’s lover challenges Celie’s conception of God as a larger-than-life white man; she tells Celie that she doesn’t think of God as a person, but as an invisible force that’s inside all of us, and then remarks “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”

So while this book is relentlessly brutal, documenting rape and abuse and pervasive racism, there’s also a thread of hope that runs through it, and it’s ultimately an unexpectedly empowering tale. This book is every bit as beautiful as it is disturbing.

One last note: I don’t want to derail this review too drastically with a lengthy meditation on whether it’s possible to separate art from the artist, but suffice to say that being aware of Alice Walker’s well-documented antisemitism did impact my reading experience somewhat, and I don’t think I’ll be able to call this as all-time favorite. But still, it would be wrong to deny this book of its merits and cultural impact. I can’t judge anyone else for deciding not to pick this up out of a discomfort with Walker’s personal beliefs, but if you’re on the fence, I do think it’s well worth reading.

You can pick up a copy of The Color Purple here on Book Depository.

book review: Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

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ASSASSIN’S APPRENTICE by Robin Hobb
Farseer Trilogy #1
★★★★☆
Harper Voyager 2014
originally published in 1995

 

Something that I’ve often heard said about Robin Hobb is that her Farseer trilogy is one of her weaker series, but that it’s worth persevering in order to get to the good stuff. So with that in mind, Assassin’s Apprentice was pretty much what I thought it was going to be: at times maddeningly slow and expository, but a promising introduction to something that I believe has the potential to develop into a much stronger story.

Assassin’s Apprentice introduces us to a very generic medieval fantasy world, where we follow Fitz, the bastard son of a prince who retires in ignominy once it comes to light that he fathered Fitz out of wedlock. Though Fitz is raised at Buckkeep, the royal palace, he’s reviled by most of the nobility from an early age, and he takes solace with his connection to animals, until one day he’s approached by the King’s royal assassin, who tells Fitz that he’s to train him as an apprentice.

So let’s start with the one major downside: on a scale between fast paced and slow burn, this book scores off the charts on the slow side. Fitz is a relentlessly thorough narrator, who sees fit to inform us of every thought that enters his head between the ages of 6 and 14, and while I liked Fitz as a character and found him sympathetic, I wouldn’t have minded a highlight reel of the first half of this book. I’m a little concerned about the fact that this book is half the length of the next two in this trilogy, as the consensus seems to be that it’s only worth pushing through this series in order to get to the next one. I’m willing to persevere, but as it took me nearly three weeks to finish this book I’m a little apprehensive.

But let’s move onto the things I did like, the reasons why I am interested in continuing with these books: Robin Hobb’s writing is just lovely. Sometimes it’s detailed to a fault, but more often than not the detail does do wonders in bringing the setting to life. The world-building may not have been terribly thorough (which I actually don’t mind, as world-building is one of the elements of fantasy that I’m least interested in), but the atmosphere of this book is immersive from start to finish. But what I liked even more was the character work, which was remarkably solid all around. Fitz was a compelling protagonist, and the background characters were all intriguing and well-crafted. Enough of their motivations remained hidden from the reader that this aspect dovetailed fantastically with the book’s central theme of loyalty – Fitz’s loyalties are laid bare for the reader from the beginning, but the question of which characters are loyal to Fitz in return remains nebulous throughout. This culminated in an uncharacteristically pacey last couple of chapters, which gave us a simply brilliant conclusion to the groundwork that Hobb had spent a few hundred pages laying.

So overall, I’m pleased, I’m intrigued, I’m a little nervous about this book’s slow pace continuing on in a 800-page sequel, but check back with me in a year and I think I’ll have found a new favorite fantasy author in Robin Hobb.

You can pick up a copy of Assassin’s Apprentice here on Book Depository.

book review: The Heavens by Sandra Newman

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THE HEAVENS by Sandra Newman
★★★☆☆
Grove Atlantic, February 12, 2019

The Heavens is essentially Sandra Newman’s novelized meditation on the Great Man Theory – the idea that history has been shaped by a few influential individuals. Kate, a young woman living in New York City in the early 2000s, believes she’s one such person, as she has dreams which propel her into a past timeline where she lives as a mistress in Elizabethan England. When she wakes up, she begins to notice that details about her life have changed overnight, and as she becomes increasingly convinced that her dreams are affecting her reality, her boyfriend Ben becomes concerned about her mental health.

It’s particularly difficult to talk about the plot of this book when it’s ever-shifting. At the start of the novel Kate and Ben live in a New York that resembles our own, except that we aren’t at war and we’ve elected a green party president named Chen, until one day she wakes up and is informed by her concerned friends that Gore is president, and has been president all along, doesn’t she remember? Newman excels at playing with this inherently tenuous atmosphere; whether it’s Kate’s mental stability or the fabric of the universe that’s really on the verge of collapse, there’s a palpable fragility at play while you turn these pages, never sure which details are going to shift from one page to the next.

But despite its clever construction, this doesn’t completely work from start to finish. Kate’s dream narrative is noticeably weaker than that of the present, and the depiction of 1590s England feels almost caricaturish. It also plays with many different lofty ideas and doesn’t always follow through with seamless execution; certain plot threads feel abandoned and under-examined, and I thought the resolution undermined a lot of what came before it. But, I haven’t completely made up my mind about this book and I’m sure to be mulling it over for days to come, so I’m very curious to see how others will receive this wildly unconventional tale of love and fate and time travel.

Thank you to Netgalley and Grove Atlantic for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review. Follow my blog with Bloglovin.

You can pick up a copy of The Heavens here on Book Depository.