NOTES TO SELF by Emilie Pine
Dial Press, 2019
This is a competent essay collection and it’s not difficult to see why it’s gotten so much critical acclaim; it’s topical, to the point, and easily digested. Some of these essays really worked for me; the standouts being the opening essay, Notes on Intemperance where Pine discusses her father’s alcoholism and illness, and Something About Me – more on this one in a second – but ultimately this essay collection just fell a bit flat for me.
My problem with Notes to Self was that I never felt like Emilie Pine was bringing anything new to the table. The common theme among these essays seems to be ‘let’s talk about it’: let’s talk about period blood, let’s talk about infertility, let’s talk about the effect of divorce on young children, let’s talk about alcoholic parents – but the problem is, it’s a lot of talking without really saying anything. I’m not suggesting that personal essays need a moral, necessarily, or that they need to draw a conclusion, but I do think that for them to be effective, they need to bring in a unique perspective, and that’s what I felt like this essay collection lacked. Emilie Pine is clearly an intelligent woman and a capable writer, but something kept getting lost in these essays for me. I wanted them to hook me, speak to me, challenge me, but they never did.
It’s probably not incidental therefore that my favorite essay, Something About Me, was technically one of the messier ones in this collection. It’s about Pine’s rebellious teenage years, and structurally it’s a bit all over the place, and it undergoes a radical tonal shift in its final pages. But I felt like it was one of the only essays where Pine was really showing herself; not just talking abstractly about topics that have affected her, but showing the reader a glimpse of herself that I felt otherwise remained hidden.
It’s also quite possible that part of the problem was that this was so similar in tone and structure to Sinead Gleeson’s Constellations, which is one of the best things I’ve read all year. I wouldn’t dissuade others from picking up Notes to Self, but Constellations is the one I’d really point you toward if ‘Irish memoirist essay collection about feminism, illness, and womanhood’ is a premise that appeals to you.
This is one of my favorite posts to write, and I loved periodically checking back in on my 2019 list throughout the year. I ended up reading 9/16 of those books (so far) which is actually a higher ratio than I was expecting, but also goes to show that this isn’t a strict TBR, just a list of upcoming releases that excite me at this very moment. I also have a lot more this year than I did last year, and I’m sure I’m still missing plenty.
Summaries (italicized) are from Goodreads; publication dates are for the U.S. unless otherwise indicated.
Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey
January 7, 2020
“Miranda Popkey’s first novel is about desire, disgust, motherhood, loneliness, art, pain, feminism, anger, envy, guilt–written in language that sizzles with intelligence and eroticism. The novel is composed almost exclusively of conversations between women–the stories they tell each other, and the stories they tell themselves, about shame and love, infidelity and self-sabotage–and careens through twenty years in the life of an unnamed narrator hungry for experience and bent on upending her life. Edgy, wry, shot through with rage and despair, Topics of Conversation introduces an audacious and immensely gifted new novelist.”
I added this to my TBR the minute I saw it compared to Sally Rooney – which, to be fair, I know those comparisons are a dime a dozen, but it seems like there could actually be something to this one. Stay tuned.
Long Bright River by Liz Moore
January 7, 2020
“In a Philadelphia neighborhood rocked by the opioid crisis, two once-inseparable sisters find themselves at odds. One, Kacey, lives on the streets in the vise of addiction. The other, Mickey, walks those same blocks on her police beat. They don’t speak anymore, but Mickey never stops worrying about her sibling.
Then Kacey disappears, suddenly, at the same time that a mysterious string of murders begins in Mickey’s district, and Mickey becomes dangerously obsessed with finding the culprit–and her sister–before it’s too late.”
I’ve never read Liz Moore but a lot of my friends speak highly of her writing, and setting a thriller against the backdrop of the opioid crisis is a premise that really intrigues me.
The Teacher by Michael Ben-Naftali
translated by Daniella Zamir
January 21, 2020
Open Letter Books
“No one knew the story of Elsa Weiss. She was a respected English teacher at a Tel Aviv high school, but she remained aloof and never tried to befriend her students. No one ever encountered her outside of school hours. She was a riddle, and yet the students sensed that they were all she had. When Elsa killed herself by jumping off the roof of her apartment building, she remained as unknown as she had been during her life. Thirty years later, the narrator of the novel, one of her students, decides to solve the riddle of Elsa Weiss. Expertly dovetailing explosive historical material with flights of imagination, the novel explores the impact of survivor’s guilt and traces the footprints of a Holocaust survivor who did her utmost to leave no trace.”
I just adore this premise – ever since I read that summary I could not wait to get my hands on this book.
Abigail by Magda Szabó
translated by Len Rix
January 21, 2020
“Abigail, the story of a headstrong teenager growing up during World War II, is the most beloved of Magda Szabó’s books in her native Hungary. Gina is the only child of a general, a widower who has long been happy to spoil his bright and willful daughter. Gina is devastated when the general tells her that he must go away on a mission and that he will be sending her to boarding school in the country. She is even more aghast at the grim religious institution to which she soon finds herself consigned. She fights with her fellow students, she rebels against her teachers, finds herself completely ostracized, and runs away. Caught and brought back, there is nothing for Gina to do except entrust her fate to the legendary Abigail, as the classical statue of a woman with an urn that stands on the school’s grounds has come to be called. If you’re in trouble, it’s said, leave a message with Abigail and help will be on the way. And for Gina, who is in much deeper trouble than she could possibly suspect, a life-changing adventure is only beginning.”
I first encountered Magda Szabó when I finally read The Door earlier this year, which I thought was brilliant, so I’m eager to read more of her work. This seems like a good place to start.
Pine by Francine Toon
January 23, 2020
“They are driving home from the search party when they see her. The trees are coarse and tall in the winter light, standing like men. Lauren and her father Niall live alone in the Highlands, in a small village surrounded by pine forest. When a woman stumbles out onto the road one Halloween night, Niall drives her back to their house in his pickup. In the morning, she’s gone. In a community where daughters rebel, men quietly rage, and drinking is a means of forgetting, mysteries like these are not out of the ordinary. The trapper found hanging with the dead animals for two weeks. Locked doors and stone circles. The disappearance of Lauren’s mother a decade ago. Lauren looks for answers in her tarot cards, hoping she might one day be able to read her father’s turbulent mind. Neighbours know more than they let on, but when local teenager Ann-Marie goes missing it’s no longer clear who she can trust. In spare, haunting prose, Francine Toon creates an unshakeable atmosphere of desolation and dread. In a place that feels like the end of the world, she unites the gloom of the modern gothic with the pulse of a thriller. It is the perfect novel for our haunted times.”
Atmospheric horror is one of my favorite things to read, so this sounds like it could be a perfect fit for my tastes.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
January 28, 2020
“2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.
2017. Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?
Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of Room, My Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.”
This sounds like it’s going to be all kinds of twisted and uncomfortable, and I cannot wait.
The Truants by Kate Weinberg
January 28, 2020
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
“Jess Walker has come to a concrete campus under the flat grey skies of East Anglia for one reason: To be taught by the mesmerizing and rebellious Dr Lorna Clay, whose seminars soon transform Jess’s thinking on life, love, and Agatha Christie. Swept up in Lorna’s thrall, Jess falls in with a tightly-knit group of rule-breakers–Alec, a courageous South African journalist with a nihilistic streak; Georgie, a seductive, pill-popping aristocrat; and Nick, a handsome geologist with layers of his own.
But when tragedy strikes the group, Jess turns to Lorna. Together, the two seek refuge on a remote Italian island, where Jess tastes the life she’s long dreamed of–and uncovers a shocking secret that will challenge everything she’s learned.”
The Goodreads blurb begins with ‘perfect for lovers of Agatha Christie and The Secret History‘ – sold.
The Island Child by Molly Aitken
January 30, 2020
“Twenty years ago, Oona left the island of Inis for the very first time. A wind-blasted rock of fishing boats and sheep’s wool, where the only book was the Bible and girls stayed in their homes until mothers themselves, the island was a gift for some, a prison for others. Oona was barely more than a girl, but promised herself she would leave the tall tales behind and never return.
The Island Child tells two stories: of the child who grew up watching births and betrayals, storms and secrets, and of the adult Oona, desperate to find a second chance, only to discover she can never completely escape. As the strands of Oona’s life come together, in blood and marriage and motherhood, she must accept the price we pay when we love what is never truly ours . . .”
The only time I get excited at the prospect of reading magical realism is when Irish folklore is involved. I think this could be a gorgeous book. Plus, that cover!
The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams
February 6, 2020
“A mysterious flock of red birds has descended over Birch Hill. Recently reinvented, it is now home to an elite and progressive school designed to shape the minds of young women. But Eliza Bell – the most inscrutable and defiant of the students – has been overwhelmed by an inexplicable illness.
One by one, the other girls begin to experience the same peculiar symptoms: rashes, fits, headaches, verbal tics, night wanderings. Soon Caroline – the only woman teaching – begins to suffer too. She tries desperately to hide her symptoms but, with the birds behaving strangely and the girls’ condition worsening, the powers-that-be turn to a sinister physician with grave and dubious methods.
Caroline alone can speak on behalf of the students, but only if she summons the confidence to question everything she’s ever learnt. Does she have the strength to confront the all-male, all-knowing authorities of her world and protect the young women in her care?”
It’s hard to say what exactly appeals to me about this blurb when, generally speaking, I have major ‘feminist dystopia’ burnout; but I think this sounds unique enough that it could be very striking.
Daughter from the Dark by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko
translated by Julia Meitov Hersey
February 11, 2020
“Late one night, fate brings together DJ Aspirin and ten-year-old Alyona. After he tries to save her from imminent danger, she ends up at his apartment. But in the morning sinister doubts set in. Who is Alyona? A young con artist? A plant for a nefarious blackmailer? Or perhaps a long-lost daughter Aspirin never knew existed? Whoever this mysterious girl is, she now refuses to leave.
A game of cat-and-mouse has begun.
Claiming that she is a musical prodigy, Alyona insists she must play a complicated violin piece to find her brother. Confused and wary, Aspirin knows one thing: he wants her out of his apartment and his life. Yet every attempt to get rid of her is thwarted by an unusual protector: her plush teddy bear that may just transform into a fearsome monster.
Alyona tells Aspirin that if he would just allow her do her work, she’ll leave him—and this world. He can then return to the shallow life he led before her. But as outside forces begin to coalesce, threatening to finally separate them, Aspirin makes a startling discovery about himself and this ethereal, eerie child.”
Vita Nostra was one of my most pleasant reading surprises of 2018, so at this point I will read anything that the Dyachenkos and Julia Hersey publish.
Weather by Jenny Offill
February 11, 2020
“Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: she is a fake shrink. For years she has tended to her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but Lizzie has little chance to spend her new free time with husband and son before her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. She’s become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of western civilization. As Lizzie dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you’ve seen the flames beyond its walls. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to address the limits of her own experience–but still she tries to save everyone, using everything she’s learned about empathy and despair, conscience and collusion, from her years of wandering the library stacks . . . And all the while the voices of the city keep floating in–funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.”
I actually wasn’t interested in this book at all based on the summary, but then I read this tweet and I was instantly sold. This sounds like it could be exactly my type of humor.
The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall
February 12, 2020
“Haunted by the loss of her parents and twin sister at sea, Henna cloisters herself in a Northeastern village where the snow never stops. When she discovers the body of a young woman at the edge of the forest, she’s plunged into the mystery of a centuries-old letter regarding one of the most famous stories of Arctic exploration—the Franklin expedition, which disappeared into the ice in 1845.
At the center of the mystery is Franklin’s wife, the indomitable Lady Jane. Henna’s investigation draws her into a gothic landscape of locked towers, dream-like nights of snow and ice, and a crumbling mansion rife with hidden passageways and carrion birds. But it soon becomes clear that someone is watching her—someone who is determined to prevent the truth from coming out.”
The publisher reached out to me about reviewing this book, and I accepted partially because I can’t resist a neo-gothic murder mystery, and partially because I have a friend who is obsessed with the Franklin Expedition so I figured I’d start here and see what all the fuss is about.
The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld
February 13, 2020
Jonathan Cape (UK)
“In 1720s Scotland, a priest and his son get lost in the forest, transporting a witch to the coast to stop her from being killed by the village.
In the sad, slow years after the Second World War, Ruth finds herself the replacement wife to a recent widower and stepmother to his two young boys, installed in a huge house by the sea and haunted by those who have come before.
Fifty years later, Viv is cataloguing the valuables left in her dead grandmother’s seaside home, when she uncovers long-held secrets of the great house.
Three women, hundreds of years apart, slip into each other’s lives in a novel of darkness, violence and madness.”
I’ve only read one Evie Wyld – All the Birds, Singing – and had something of a mixed experience with it, but I loved Wyld’s prose and I love the sound of this book.
Real Life by Brandon Taylor
February 18, 2020
“A novel of rare emotional power that excavates the social intricacies of a late-summer weekend–and a lifetime of buried pain. Almost everything about Wallace, an introverted African-American transplant from Alabama, is at odds with the lakeside Midwestern university town where he is working toward a biochem degree. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends–some dating each other, some dating women, some feigning straightness. But a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with a young straight man, conspire to fracture his defenses, while revealing hidden currents of resentment and desire that threaten the equilibrium of their community.”
Brandon Taylor is great on Twitter, and I loved his short story Anne of Cleves, so I’m really looking forward to his debut novel.
The Exhibition of Persephone Q by Jessi Jezewska Stevens
March 3, 2020
“Percy is pregnant. She hasn’t told a soul. Probably she should tell her husband–certainly she means to–but one night she wakes up to find she no longer recognizes him. Now, instead of sleeping, Percy is spending her nights taking walks through her neighborhood, all the while fretting over her marriage, her impending motherhood, and the sinister ways the city is changing.
Amid this alienation–from her husband, home, and rapidly changing body–a package arrives. In it: an exhibition catalog for a photography show. The photographs consist of a series of digitally manipulated images of a woman lying on a bed in a red room. It takes a moment for even Percy to notice that the woman is herself . . . but no one else sees the resemblance.”
I think I am either going to love this book or loathe it, and I don’t see myself falling anywhere in between those two extremes. It appears to have so much that I love – feminism, art, commentary on the female body – but it’s also about pregnancy, which we all know is not exactly my favorite thing to read about. So, I don’t know, but I’m going to be optimistic and say that I am really looking forward to this.
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
March 24, 2020
“Vincent is a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star glass-and-cedar palace on an island in British Columbia. Jonathan Alkaitis works in finance and owns the hotel. When he passes Vincent his card with a tip, it’s the beginning of their life together. That same day, Vincent’s half brother, Paul, scrawls a note on a windowed wall of the hotel: “Why don’t you swallow broken glass.” Leon Prevant, a shipping executive for a company named Neptune-Avramidis, sees the note from the hotel bar and is shaken to his core. Thirteen years later Vincent mysteriously disappears from the deck of a Neptune-Avramidis ship. Weaving together the lives of these characters, The Glass Hotel moves between the ship, the skyscrapers of Manhattan, and the wilderness of northern Vancouver Island, painting a breathtaking picture of greed and guilt, fantasy and delusion, art and the ghosts of our pasts.”
Station Eleven is one of my very favorite books, and I am up for reading anything by Emily St. John Mandel. I have a couple of her backlist titles on my shelf that I should get to, but I know I won’t be able to resist picking this one up when it comes out.
The Everlasting by Katy Simpson Smith
March 24, 2020
“Spanning two thousand years, The Everlasting follows four characters whose struggles resonate across the centuries: an early Christian child martyr; a medieval monk on crypt duty in a church; a Medici princess of Moorish descent; and a contemporary field biologist conducting an illicit affair.
Outsiders to a city layered and dense with history, this quartet separated by time grapple with the physicality of bodies, the necessity for sacrifice, and the power of love to sustain and challenge faith. Their small rebellions are witnessed and provoked by an omniscient, time-traveling Satan who, though incorporeal, nonetheless suffers from a heart in search of repair.
As their dramas unfold amid the brick, marble, and ghosts of Rome, they each must decide what it means to be good. Twelve-year old Prisca defiles the scrolls of her father’s library. Felix, a holy man, watches his friend’s body decay and is reminded of the first boy he loved passionately. Giulia de’ Medici, a beauty with dark skin and limitless wealth, wants to deliver herself from her unborn child. Tom, an American biologist studying the lives of the smallest creatures, cannot pinpoint when his own marriage began to die. As each of these conflicted people struggles with forces they cannot control, their circumstances raise a profound and timeless question at the heart of faith: What is our duty to each other, and what will God forgive?”
This summary sounds absolutely bonkers and I could not be more excited for this book. This sounds like exactly the style of weird that works for me. Plus, anything set in Italy is an automatic win.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
March 31, 2020
“Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.
Award-winning author Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes, and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.”
(This is not the final cover, as evidenced by the extra ‘R’ in her last name.) I’ve never read any of Maggie O’Farrell’s fiction, but I loved I Am, I Am, I Am and have been meaning to dive into her backlist. But before I do that, I think I’m going to be distracted by her newest release, which sounds amazing. (Plus it’s published on my birthday, so clearly it’s meant to be.)
Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon
March 31, 2020
“Told in interweaving timelines organized around the four code names Nancy used during the war, Code Name Hélène is a spellbinding and moving story of enduring love, remarkable sacrifice and unfaltering resolve that chronicles the true exploits of a woman who deserves to be a household name.
It is 1936 and Nancy Wake is an intrepid Australian expat living in Paris who has bluffed her way into a reporting job for Hearst newspaper. She is fighting to cover the disturbing reports of violence coming out of Vienna and Berlin when she meets the wealthy French industrialist Henri Fiocca. No sooner does Henri sweep Nancy off her feet and convince her to become Mrs. Fiocca than the Germans invade France and she takes yet another name: a code name.”
So, I am typically not into this style of WWII historical fiction. However, I had to do a lot of research on Noor Inayat Khan this year for my job, which naturally led me to quite a lot of research about Nancy Wake. So when I saw this summary, I couldn’t resist. Nancy Wake is incredible and I cannot wait to see what Ariel Lawhon makes of her story.
Lost, Found, Remembered by Lyra McKee
April 2, 2020
Faber & Faber (UK) – cover TK
“When the Northern Irish journalist Lyra McKee was murdered in Derry in April 2019 aged just 29, she was survived by her articles that had been read and loved by thousands worldwide.
This memorial anthology will weave together the pieces that defined her reputation as one of the most important and formidable investigative journalists of her generation. It showcases the expansive breadth of McKee’s voice by bringing together unpublished material alongside both her celebrated and lesser-known articles.
Released in time for the anniversary of her death, it reveals the sheer scope of McKee’s intellectual, political, and radically humane engagement with the world – and lets her spirit live on in her own words.”
The murder of Lyra McKee earlier this year was more devastating than I have words for, and I am so appreciative that Faber is putting together this anthology of her work. I imagine that in addition to an incisive commentary on the current sociopolitical state of Northern Ireland, it will touch on what it was like for McKee growing up gay in Belfast, the subject of her letter to her 14 year old self that went viral.
Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo
translated by Jamie Chang
April 14, 2020
“In a small, tidy apartment on the outskirts of the frenzied metropolis of Seoul, Kim Jiyoung—a millennial “everywoman”—spends her days caring for her infant daughter. Her husband, however, worries over a strange symptom that has recently appeared: Jiyoung has begun to impersonate the voices of other women—dead and alive, both known and unknown to her. Truly, flawlessly, completely, she became that very person. As she plunges deeper into this psychosis, Jiyoung’s concerned husband sends her to a psychiatrist, who listens to her narrate her own life story—from her birth to a family who expected a son, to elementary school teachers who policed girls’ outfits, to male coworkers who installed hidden cameras in women’s restrooms and posted the photos online. But can her doctor cure her, or even discover what truly ails her? Rendered in eerie prose, Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 announces the arrival of a major international writer.”
Another one that I think will be hit or miss for me, depending on how big of a thematic focus motherhood receives. But the subgenre of ‘millennial women having mental breakdowns’ almost always works for me, so I think there’s a good chance I’ll like it.
Lake Like a Mirror by Ho Sok Fong
translated by Natascha Bruce
March 10, 2020
Two Lines Press
“By an author described by critics as “the most accomplished Malaysian writer, full stop,” Lake Like a Mirror is a scintillating exploration of the lives of women buffeted by powers beyond their control. Squeezing themselves between the gaps of rabid urbanization, patriarchal structures and a theocratic government, these women find their lives twisted in disturbing ways. By an author described by critics as “the most accomplished Malaysian writer, full stop,” Lake Like a Mirror is a scintillating exploration of the lives of women buffeted by powers beyond their control. Squeezing themselves between the gaps of rabid urbanization, patriarchal structures and a theocratic government, these women find their lives twisted in disturbing ways.“
This was first put on my radar by the publisher after I asked on Twitter for Malaysian lit recommendations, and it sounds like it could be incredible.
Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh
April 21, 2020
“While on her normal daily walk with her dog in the nearby forest woods, our protagonist comes across a note, handwritten and carefully pinned to the ground with a frame of stones. Her name was Magda. Nobody will ever know who killed her. It wasn’t me. Here is her dead body. Our narrator is deeply shaken; she has no idea what to make of this. She is new to this area, having moved here from her longtime home after the death of her husband, and she knows very few people. And she’s a little shaky even on her best days. Her brooding about this note quickly grows into a full-blown obsession, and she begins to devote herself to exploring the possibilities of her conjectures about who this woman was and how she met her fate. Her suppositions begin to find echoes in the real world, and with mounting excitement and dread, the fog of mystery starts to form into a concrete and menacing shape. But as we follow her in her investigation, strange dissonances start to accrue, and our faith in her grip on reality weakens, until finally, just as she seems to be facing some of the darkness in her own past with her late husband, we are forced to face the prospect that there is either a more innocent explanation for all this or a much more sinister one—one that strikes closer to home.”
New Ottessa Moshfegh, need I say more?! My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Eileen are two of my favorite books from recent years, and this one sounds even more up my alley than both of those did.
If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha
April 21, 2020
“Kyuri is a heartbreakingly beautiful woman with a hard-won job at a “room salon,” an exclusive bar where she entertains businessmen while they drink. Though she prides herself on her cold, clear-eyed approach to life, an impulsive mistake with a client may come to threaten her livelihood.
Her roomate, Miho, is a talented artist who grew up in an orphanage but won a scholarship to study art in New York. Returning to Korea after college, she finds herself in a precarious relationship with the super-wealthy heir to one of Korea’s biggest companies.
Down the hall in their apartment building lives Ara, a hair stylist for whom two preoccupations sustain her: obsession with a boy-band pop star, and a best friend who is saving up for the extreme plastic surgery that is commonplace.
And Wonna, one floor below, is a newlywed trying to get pregnant with a child that she and her husband have no idea how they can afford to raise and educate in the cutthroat economy.
Together, their stories tell a gripping tale that’s seemingly unfamiliar, yet unmistakably universal in the way that their tentative friendships may have to be their saving grace.”
It sounds like there’s a lot going on here, and almost all of it appeals to me.
What’s Left of Me is Yours by Stephanie Scott
April 21, 2020
“In Japan, a covert industry has grown up around the “wakaresaseya” (literally “breaker-upper”), a person hired by one spouse to seduce the other in order to gain the advantage in divorce proceedings. When Satō hires Kaitarō, a wakaresaseya agent, to have an affair with his wife, Rina, he assumes it will be an easy case. But Satō has never truly understood Rina or her desires and Kaitarō’s job is to do exactly that–until he does it too well. While Rina remains ignorant of the circumstances that brought them together, she and Kaitarō fall in a desperate, singular love, setting in motion a series of violent acts that will forever haunt her daughter’s life.”
I think this was pitched as a ‘for fans of Everything I Never Told You‘ situation, and that’s a comp that always gets me; but at the same time, this sounds unlike anything I’ve read before.
Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski
April 28, 2020
“When university student Ludwik meets Janusz at a summer agricultural camp, he is fascinated yet wary of this handsome, carefree stranger. But a chance meeting by the river soon becomes an intense, exhilarating, and all-consuming affair. After their camp duties are fulfilled, the pair spend a dreamlike few weeks camping in the countryside, bonding over an illicit copy of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. Inhabiting a beautiful natural world removed from society and its constraints, Ludwik and Janusz fall deeply in love. But in their repressive communist and Catholic society, the passion they share is utterly unthinkable.
Once they return to Warsaw, the charismatic Janusz quickly rises in the political ranks of the party and is rewarded with a highly-coveted position in the ministry. Ludwik is drawn toward impulsive acts of protest, unable to ignore rising food prices and the stark economic disparity around them. Their secret love and personal and political differences slowly begin to tear them apart as both men struggle to survive in a regime on the brink of collapse.”
Everything about this sounds heart-rending. Sign me up.
Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride
May 5, 2020
FSG (no cover announced yet – using UK cover)
“At the mid-point of her life a woman enters an Avignon hotel room. She’s been here once before – but while the room hasn’t changed, she is a different person now.
Forever caught between check-in and check-out, she will go on to occupy other hotel rooms, from Prague to Oslo, Auckland to Austin, each as anonymous as the last, but bound by rules of her choosing. There, amid the detritus of her travels, the matchbooks, cigarettes, keys and room-service wine, she will negotiate with memory, with the men she sometimes meets, and with what it might mean to return home.”
Eimear McBride is one of my favorite writers, but apparently she eschews her signature fragmentary style in her newest book in favor of actually writing in normal sentences, which is something that greatly intrigues me.
Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah
translated by Deborah Smith
May 5, 2020
The Overlook Press
“A startling and boundary-pushing novel, Untold Night and Day tells the story of a young woman’s journey through Seoul over the course of a night and a day. It’s 28-year-old Ayami’s final day at her box-office job in Seoul’s audio theater. Her night is spent walking the sweltering streets of the city with her former boss in search of Yeoni, their missing elderly friend, and her day is spent looking after a mysterious, visiting poet. Their conversations take in art, love, food, and the inaccessible country to the north. Almost immediately, in the heat of Seoul at the height of the summer, order gives way to chaos as the edges of reality start to fray, with Ayami becoming an unwitting escort into a fever-dream of increasingly tangled threads, all the while images of the characters’ overlapping realities repeat, collide, change, and reassert themselves in this masterful work that upends the very structure of fiction and narrative storytelling and burns itself upon the soul of the reader.”
I haven’t read Bae Suah yet, but Deborah Smith, say no more.
Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh
May 7, 2020
“Calla knows how the lottery works. Everyone does. On the day of your first bleed, you report to the station to learn what kind of woman you will be. A white ticket grants you children. A blue ticket grants you freedom. You are relieved of the terrible burden of choice. And, once you’ve taken your ticket, there is no going back.
But what if the life you’re given is the wrong one?
Blue Ticket is a devastating enquiry into free will and the fraught space of motherhood. Bold and chilling, it pushes beneath the skin of female identity and patriarchal violence, to the point where human longing meets our animal bodies.”
I feel like The poor Water Cure couldn’t catch a break there for a while in the book community, but I actually thoroughly enjoyed it, and Mackintosh’s second novel sounds like it could be even better.
Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas
May 12, 2020
Custom House (UK)
“Catherine House is a school of higher learning like no other. Hidden deep in the woods of rural Pennsylvania, this crucible of reformist liberal arts study with its experimental curriculum, wildly selective admissions policy, and formidable endowment, has produced some of the world’s best minds: prize-winning authors, artists, inventors, Supreme Court justices, presidents. For those lucky few selected, tuition, room, and board are free. But acceptance comes with a price. Students are required to give the House three years—summers included—completely removed from the outside world. Family, friends, television, music, even their clothing must be left behind. In return, the school promises a future of sublime power and prestige, and that its graduates can become anything or anyone they desire.
Among this year’s incoming class is Ines Murillo, who expects to trade blurry nights of parties, cruel friends, and dangerous men for rigorous intellectual discipline—only to discover an environment of sanctioned revelry. Even the school’s enigmatic director, Viktória, encourages the students to explore, to expand their minds, to find themselves within the formidable iron gates of Catherine. For Ines, it is the closest thing to a home she’s ever had. But the House’s strange protocols soon make this refuge, with its worn velvet and weathered leather, feel increasingly like a gilded prison. And when tragedy strikes, Ines begins to suspect that the school—in all its shabby splendor, hallowed history, advanced theories, and controlled decadence—might be hiding a dangerous agenda within the secretive, tightly knit group of students selected to study its most promising and mysterious curriculum.”
I mean… this kind of sounds like it could be the perfect book.
Sisters by Daisy Johnson
June 4, 2020
Jonathan Cape (UK)
“After a serious case of school bullying becomes too much to bear, sisters July and September move across the country with their mother to a long-abandoned family home.
In their new and unsettling surroundings, July finds that the deep bond she has always had with September – a closeness that not even their mother is allowed to penetrate – is starting to change in ways she cannot entirely understand.
Inside the house the tension among the three women builds, while outside the sisters meet a boy who tests the limits of their shared experiences.”
I had something of a mixed experience with Everything Under – I was adoring it, ready to give it 5 stars, and then toward the end an extremely literal manifestation of a magical realism subplot kind of ruined things for me. That said, I loved Johnson’s writing, and I love the sound of her new book, so, count me in. Fingers crossed for less magical realism.
Home Before Dark by Riley Sager
July 7, 2020
“In the latest thriller from New York Times bestseller Riley Sager, a woman returns to the house made famous by her father’s bestselling horror memoir. Is the place really haunted by evil forces, as her father claimed? Or are there more earthbound—and dangerous—secrets hidden within its walls?
What was it like? Living in that house.
Maggie Holt is used to such questions. Twenty-five years ago, she and her parents, Ewan and Jess, moved into Baneberry Hall, a rambling Victorian estate in the Vermont woods. They spent three weeks there before fleeing in the dead of night, an ordeal Ewan later recounted in a nonfiction book called House of Horrors. His tale of ghostly happenings and encounters with malevolent spirits became a worldwide phenomenon, rivaling The Amityville Horror in popularity—and skepticism.
Today, Maggie is a restorer of old homes and too young to remember any of the events mentioned in her father’s book. But she also doesn’t believe a word of it. Ghosts, after all, don’t exist. When Maggie inherits Baneberry Hall after her father’s death, she returns to renovate the place to prepare it for sale. But her homecoming is anything but warm. People from the past, chronicled in House of Horrors, lurk in the shadows. And locals aren’t thrilled that their small town has been made infamous thanks to Maggie’s father. Even more unnerving is Baneberry Hall itself—a place filled with relics from another era that hint at a history of dark deeds. As Maggie experiences strange occurrences straight out of her father’s book, she starts to believe that what he wrote was more fact than fiction.”
I haven’t even read this summary yet, but I am all aboard the Riley Sager hype train. The Last Time I Lied didn’t entirely work for me, but Final Girls and Lock Every Door are two of my all-time favorite thrillers, so at this point I’ll read anything that Sager writes.
Luster by Raven Leilani
August 4, 2020
“Edie is stumbling her way through her twenties—sharing a subpar apartment in Bushwick, clocking in and out of her admin job, making a series of inappropriate sexual choices. She’s also, secretly, haltingly figuring her way into life as an artist. And then she meets Eric, a digital archivist with a family in New Jersey, including an autopsist wife who has agreed to an open marriage—with rules. As if navigating the constantly shifting landscapes of contemporary sexual manners and racial politics weren’t hard enough, Edie finds herself unemployed and falling into Eric’s family life, his home. She becomes hesitant friend to his wife and a de facto role model to his adopted daughter. Edie is the only black woman young Akila may know.”
I love the sound of this – I don’t know what it is about books about young women exploring unhealthy sexual arrangements that appeals to me so much, but here we are.
Hysteria by Jessica Gross
August 18, 2020
“In HYSTERIA, we meet a young woman an hour into yet another alcohol-fueled, masochistic, sexual bender at her local bar. There is a new bartender working this time, one she hasn’t seen before, and who can properly make a drink. He looks familiar, and as she is consumed by shame from her behavior the previous week— hooking up with her parents’ colleague and her roommate’s brother— she also becomes convinced that her Brooklyn bartender is actually Sigmund Freud. They embark on a relationship, and she is forced to confront her past through the prism of their complex, revealing, and sometimes shocking meetings.
With the help of Freud—or whoever he is—she begins to untangle her Oedipal leanings, her upbringing, and her desires. Jessica Gross’s debut is unflinchingly perceptive and honest, darkly funny, and unafraid of mining the deepest fears of contemporary lives.”
This sounds utterly unique and I am obsessed with that cover.
So, there we have it, at this point, these are my most anticipated books of 2020! Are you looking forward to any of these? Which other 2020 releases have caught your eye? Comment and let me know!
This has been going around WordPress and booktube, so let’s just jump straight into it.
I. Is there a book that you started that you still need to finish by the end of the year?
These books have been haunting me for months. It’s not even that I’m disliking any of them (well, I am disliking one) – it’s that this is a very bad combination of books to be reading together, apparently. But I will finish them all by 2020 for the sake of my sanity.
II. Do you have an autumnal book to transition to the end of the year?
Since I’m doing this tag late, I’ll choose a book that I think could work for fall or winter. Though Winter is in the title, I read this in September and I thought it was the perfect fall read.
III. Is there a release you are still waiting for?
There are plenty of anticipated 2019 reads that I haven’t had the chance to pick up yet, but I’m not waiting on anything else to be published before the end of the year, I don’t think.
IV. Name three books you want to read by the end of the year.
I’m doing a commissioned review for On Swift Horses so I know I’ll read that one, I have a group buddy read planned for The Tiger’s Wife, and I’m lucky enough to have an ARC of Daughter from the Dark, which isn’t out until February, but I’d love to read it before the end of the year as I read Vita Nostra last December, and for reasons I can’t quite explain I’d just like to keep up with reading the Dyachenkos in December.
V. Is there a book that can still shock you and become your favourite of the year?
My favorite book of the year has been locked down since February so I will be incredibly surprised if that happens.
VI. Have you already started making reading plans for 2020?
My 2019 goals went to shit pretty quickly, so I may need to just accept that I’m not a reading goals person, but who knows. Right now these are the only concrete plans on my horizon:
Read the Women’s Prize 2020 longlist
Participate in Reading Ireland Month in March
Participate in Women in Translation Month in August
DIVIDE ME BY ZERO by Lara Vapnyar
Tin House Books, 2019
Divide Me By Zero begins with an encounter between the narrator, Katya Geller, a 40-something mother of two, and a fish seller in Staten Island from whom Katya is buying caviar. “I was brought up in the Soviet Union, where caviar was considered a special food reserved for children and dying parents,” Katya says. The fish seller, another Soviet immigrant, understands Katya’s meaning and the two lock eyes and begin to cry. This moment of intense connection between two strangers charts the course for Lara Vapnyar’s frank and emotionally honest story of love and loss.
You can read the rest of my review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote on the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky HERE.
THROUGH THE WOODS by Emily Carroll
Faber & Faber, 2014
A few months back, I asked on Twitter what everyone’s favorite short story collections were, and Through the Woods came up a lot. I found the premise enticing (I love horror, and I hadn’t ever read a short story collection in graphic novel form), so I decided to give it go, which ended up being a good decision.
Ultimately: 3 stars for the stories and 5 stars for the artwork. These short stories had moments of creepiness, but they were only ever moments; on the whole they were a bit on the perfunctory side and usually ended all too abruptly. Some of the ambiguity worked; some just left me wanting, and not in the good way. I did enjoy reading them in the moment, but I don’t think any are going to stay with me, and I wouldn’t have minded a bit more bone-chilling terror.
The artwork, on the other hand, was nothing short of breathtaking. A Lady’s Hands Are Cold just about knocked my socks off on a strictly visual level – the color palette in this story in particular is incredibly striking. I buy a lot of books that I haven’t read yet and I rarely keep the ones that I don’t love or don’t plan on rereading, but I think I’m going to hang onto this one just so I can flip through and look at the art on occasion. But maybe I’ll reread it next year around Halloween; these stories are all very light on text and you can easily read this in under half an hour so why not. A quick, enjoyable read for horror fans, even if it wasn’t revolutionary.
Cynan Jones is an author I’ve been interested in for a while, so I finally decided to pick up Cove for Novellas in November. It’s under 100 pages and it’s the sort of book that raises more questions than it answers, so I’m finding it particularly difficult to review, but I also found it to be an incredibly worthwhile read.
Set out at sea, Cove follows a man in a kayak who’s been struck by lightning. It’s a traditional survival story in that sense, but nothing about this book is straightforward; it’s equally about grief and memory. This novella’s main strength is Jones’s prose style – lyrical, poetic, and disorienting – but that disorientation necessarily means that you’re signing yourself up for something of a rocky reading experience. Which is my main complaint: for such a short book, it took me longer than I’d have liked to really get my footing with Jones’s style. But days later I’m still thinking about this, and I’m really looking forward to reading more from him in the future, and perhaps revisiting this at some point.
Chanel Miller’s memoir Know My Name is aptly titled; the name Brock Turner is known by most Americans who watch the news, while Miller was known for years only as ‘Emily Doe,’ the nameless, faceless girl that he attempted to rape at a Stanford frat party in January 2015. Turner’s case gained notoriety after his sentencing where he received only 6 months of prison time – he only served 3 – and Miller’s victim impact statement was published to Buzzfeed, receiving millions of hits and sparking conversations about sexual assault on college campuses, as well as the lenient sentences that privileged young men receive. In September 2019, Miller finally broke her anonymity, appearing on 60 Minutes and publishing this memoir.
Miller’s memoir isn’t only extraordinary for the fact that, for female victims, putting yourself out there necessarily means abuse, dismissal, and violated privacy; it’s extraordinary because it is a damn good book. It’s clear-eyed while still being pointed and righteously furious; it’s razor-sharp and compassionate in equal measure; it’s deeply personal and macrocosmic all at once. This memoir highlights the impact and recovery process for sexual assault, with Miller stressing that it isn’t a simple road with a happy ending. That said, she wants to make it clear that she writes for victims above all others, hoping her honesty will touch others who have lived through similar horrors. Know My Name is an accomplished, impressively self-aware piece of writing that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to everyone who can stomach the subject matter. (I listened to the audiobook which Miller herself narrates, and I cannot recommend that highly enough.)
THE MAN WHO SAW EVERYTHING by Deborah Levy
Simply put, one of the most rewarding reading experiences I’ve ever had. I think it’s best to approach this book while knowing as little as possible about it, so I’m not really going to talk about the plot. Instead I’ll just say that this book is like Penelope’s tapestry; Levy weaves a brilliant tale in the first act, only to unweave it halfway through and then stitch it back together, and she does it carefully without sacrificing either the details or the big picture.
It’s arguably easier to talk about this book’s themes than its actual plot, but I don’t want to suggest that my interpretation is the be all end all, because this is the sort of book that lends itself to discussions and contradictions. Above all else this is book is about memory – are we more than our memories, or are our memories all we are – but what also stuck out to me was Levy’s deft meditation on what it means to age, what it means to live as a foreigner abroad, what it means to love, what it means to be a part of a culture’s shifting landscape. It seems like a tall order to balance all of this in just under 200 pages while also prioritizing structural innovation, but this book is a case of form and content coming together perfectly. I wouldn’t change a single page – a single sentence – of this book, and I cannot say that often.
That said, I understand why this hasn’t worked for some readers, especially those who err on the side of more traditional storytelling, but for anyone who’s willing to take a risk, and willing to stumble blindly through the dark at times, you can rest easy with the confidence that Levy knows exactly what she is doing here. I can say with absolute confidence that I am going to reread this at some point, and I’m sure I’ll find it even more revelatory when I do.
Despite not fitting neatly into the mystery/thriller genre, The Body Lies is one of the most tense, terrifying things I’ve ever read. It follows an unnamed narrator (a normally irritating, overused convention, which is employed here with actual purpose) who takes up a teaching position somewhere in the north of England following a violent assault in London. While at the university, she awkwardly attempts to mediate heated discussions on gender politics in her MA writing course, while receiving increasingly disturbing submissions from one of her students.
The Body Lies has a meta element that’s almost tongue in cheek; one of her students criticizes another for writing a detective novel which opens with the discovery of a dead girl, while Baker’s novel also opens with a dead female body. But this book is a series of subverted tropes, of self-conscious commentary on these common, taken-for-granted elements that comprise so many thrillers. It’s a razor sharp commentary and a compelling story all in one.
What also sets it apart from the genre is that the identity of the dead girl never really feels like the point. For the first time… probably ever reading a thriller, I cared less about the mystery and more about the safety and the sanity of the protagonist, whose experiences as a woman in academia are all chillingly relatable. This book isn’t the type of terrifying where there’s a serial killer lurking in the corner – it’s the sort of terrifying that hones in on the disturbing, oddly normalized commonalities of womanhood that are too easily accepted. I raced through this, not because I was intent on getting to the bottom of the mystery, but because of the increasing sense of crushing dread that I couldn’t escape every time I attempted to step away from this book.
If I have to nitpick, I’d say the ending was let down by a too-long resolution which insisted on wrapping up every minor subplot in a neat bow, which is probably my least favorite way to end a novel, but I loved everything else about this, and I think it’s one of the smartest, most unsettling things I’ve read in a long time, that I’d encourage literary readers and genre readers alike to pick up.
CLEANNESS by Garth Greenwell
FSG, January 14, 2020
Cleanness is a sparse and melancholic novel about an American man living in Bulgaria. His sexual encounters with other men – some of these encounters loving, some purely transactional – mostly take center stage in this story that unfolds across nine vignettes, in which the narrator reflects on the time he’s spent living and teaching in Sofia.
Greenwell’s linguistic prowess is this book’s greatest strength; I think On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is an obvious enough comparison, though they vary in subject matter – but these are the kind of novels that won’t appeal to anyone who grows weary of lyrical prose and introspection, who instead need a diverting plot or a strong attachment to characters. (I have to wonder if I’m becoming such a reader, because my only qualm with this book was a certain lack of narrative cohesion that seemed to be beside the point entirely.) But the writing is worth the price of admission alone:
“But none of this was right, I rejected the phrases even as they formed, not just because they were objectionable in themselves but because none of them answered his real fear, which was true, I thought: that we can never be sure of what we want, I mean of the authenticity of it, of its purity in relation to ourselves.”
The narrative mostly centers on the protagonist’s relationship with a man he calls R. – his ideal, pure image of R. in stark contrast to the degrading sex he seeks from other men after his relationship with R. crumbles. This tension between cleanness and toxicity underscores his interactions, and the alienation he feels as he grapples with shame and desire can be acutely felt. Cleanness is a challenging, sexually explicit book that isn’t going to be for everyone, but I found it fascinating for its insight and the prolonged sort of aching sadness it sustains.
Thank you to Netgalley and FSG for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.