wrap up: January 2020

 

  1. Saltwater by Jessica Andrews ★☆☆☆☆ | review
  2. What Red Was by Rosie Price ★★★☆☆ | review
  3. Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park ★★★★☆ | review
  4. Little Gods by Meng Jin ★★★★☆ | review to come for BookBrowse
  5. Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino ★★★★☆ | mini review
  6. The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel ★★★★★ | review to come for BookBrowse
  7. Daughter from the Dark by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko ★★★★★ | review

Favorite: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
Runner up: Daughter from the Dark by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko
Least favorite: Saltwater by Jessica Andrews

JANUARY TOTAL: 7
YEARLY TOTAL: 7

January was not a great month for me: personally, professionally, as a reader, none of it.  So I don’t have a whole lot to say here!  I did end the month with two books that I absolutely adored, so that’s always exciting, and reviews will be coming very soon.  Thank you all for bearing with me as I’ve been very behind on blogging lately; I haven’t been reading a whole lot and tend to find myself gravitating away from ‘filler content’ for my blog, so sometimes that naturally leads to weeks-long hiatuses.  Hopefully February will see my triumphant return.

Currently reading:

 

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

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book review: Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park

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TRAVELLING IN A STRANGE LAND by David Park
★★★★☆
Bloomsbury, 2018 (UK)

 

This was a lovely, devastating little book.  It’s a simple story which follows Tom, a Northern Irish man making a road trip from Belfast to Sunderland to pick up his son Luke from uni for the Christmas holidays.  This reverse-Odyssey is being undertaken as weather has made road conditions terrible and all public transport has been shut down, and Luke is too sick to drive himself.

On a very surface level, David Park captures the fortitude required to drive in unsafe weather conditions in a way that hooked and compelled me instantly, but obviously this book is so much more than that.  I don’t want to give away too much as it has such a short page count, but this book delves so deep into grief and guilt that it’s a wonder Park could do it all in under 200 pages.

The only issue that cropped up for me on occasion was something that frequently bothers me with books written in the first-person; when the narrator becomes overly articulate in such a way that you can feel the author using them as a mouthpiece.  I found the writing mostly lovely and authentic, and this was only an occasional criticism, but it was enough to knock it back from 5 stars.

Still, it’s a tremendously affecting book that I’d recommend highly, especially on a snowy day.


You can pick up a copy of Travelling in a Strange Land here on Book Depository.

book review: What Red Was by Rosie Price

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WHAT RED WAS by Rosie Price
★★★☆☆
Crown, 2019

 

[trigger warning for sexual assault]  I think this is a very interesting, very uneven book.  What Red Was follows Kate and Max, two friends who meet during the first week of university and become inseparable.  They come from very different backgrounds – Kate is from a poor single-parent household and Max’s family is large and affluent – and after they graduate university, Kate’s life is shattered when she’s raped during a party at Max’s family home.

From reading this book’s summary and seeing its comparisons to Normal People by Sally Rooney and Asking For It by Louise O’Neill, I expected two things from What Red Was: a nuanced exploration of the aftermath of sexual assault (and Price mostly delivered here – more on this in a minute), and alternating perspectives between Kate and Max.  What I didn’t expect was that Max’s family would feature so heavily into the narrative.  We do indeed hear from both Max and Kate, but we also hear from Max’s mom, Max’s cousin, Max’s uncle, Max’s father, Max’s sister, all of whom have very generic Rich People Problems.  There’s talk of depression, alcoholism, inheritance drama, all of which in theory has the potential to be compelling, but none of it really is.  I can only imagine that Rosie Price structured her book this way because she wanted this to be more robust than ‘a book about rape’; the result is that characters and stories which should merely exist to contextualize Kate’s own narrative end up overpowering it.

The other problem which I encountered early on was that I didn’t love Rosie Price’s prose, which felt to me very conversational and millennial to the point where it distracted when we were in the heads of older characters.

However, when this book did focus on Kate, it excelled.  This is a brilliant examination not only of the long-lasting physical toll taken by sexual assault, but also of the delicate balance that every victim must go through of deciding who to share their story with, and how much of their story to share.  This isn’t a book that advocates that victims not speak out, but it is an incredibly sympathetic look on how much more challenging it can be in reality than in theory.

I also thought Rosie Price did an excellent job at writing Kate and Max’s friendship – a lot of the foundation of their relationship was glossed over given that four years of university were covered in about fifty pages, but I still found myself believing them and sympathizing with the extent to which Kate was concerned with Max’s feelings.

Ultimately, I thought this was an important and nuanced book when it zeroed in on its central topic, but it did meander a bit too much for my liking.


You can pick up a copy of What Red Was here on Book Depository.

book review: The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

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THE TIGER’S WIFE by Téa Obreht
★★★★☆
Random House, 2011

 

What an incredibly pleasant surprise.  Not only did this not sound like my type of book (it has been well documented that I don’t get on with magical realism), I was doing a group buddy read – I started the book last, and by the time I picked it up, only one other person in the group ended up liking it.  So despite all the critical acclaim, I thought it was a foregone conclusion that I was going to hate The Tiger’s Wife.  But I actually have to side with the critics on this one!

This book was enchanting, I can’t think of a better word for it.  I was so impressed with Téa Obreht’s writing; if I hadn’t known that she had written this in her early 20s I never would have believed it.  Her ability to craft atmosphere in this meticulously detailed family saga kept me spellbound, even through sections where the narrative slightly stalled.

However, it didn’t completely work for me.  The Tiger’s Wife is a story within a story – the protagonist Natalia is a young doctor on her way to a remote orphanage in the generalized Balkan country in which she lives, when she receives word that her grandfather has died.  She then weaves together her own story with stories about her grandfather’s life, and the result is a case study in why I hate first-person minor so much.  I found the frame narrative incredibly flimsy, to the point where I’d have gladly done away with it altogether and focused entirely on Natalia’s grandfather.  Those chapters were the shining beacon of light in this book, and I can guarantee that a year from now I’m going to remember those vividly while not recalling a single thing about Natalia.

But all said, I thought this was a really enjoyable and worthwhile read that I’m glad to have finally picked up.


If you’re interested in reading the rest of the reviews from my buddy read group:

★★★★☆ | Naty
★★★☆☆ | Emily, Hannah RTC
★★☆☆☆ | Callum


You can pick up a copy of The Tiger’s Wife here on Book Depository.

book review: On Swift Horses by Shannon Pufahl

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ON SWIFT HORSES by Shannon Pufahl
★☆☆☆☆
Riverhead, 2019

 

On Swift Horses is a book that seemed like it was going to be tailor-made for me; queer historical fiction and horses are two things I’m always drawn to.  But this unfortunately ended up being a slog, to the point where I forced myself to read the last 200 pages in one sitting because I never wanted to pick this up once I put it down.  (And I would have actually DNF’d this – I know, I never DNF books, but I swear to god I would have made an exception, if I hadn’t been assigned to review this for a publication. Which didn’t end up panning out, because I hated it too much.)

Basically, this book follows two characters, Muriel and Julius – Muriel is a young newlywed who’s recently moved from Kansas to San Diego with her husband, and Julius is her gay brother-in-law – and I’m not going to say any more than that, because apparently this is one of those cases where the dust jacket gives away the entire plot.

This may seem like a weird detail to get hung up on, but to me, this book’s most egregious offense was the author’s decision to write it in the present tense, especially given that she didn’t show much aptitude for it.  I felt like I was being forcibly dragged by the author from one sentence to the next.  Imagine looking at a painting with your nose pressed up against the canvas.  It’s a suffocating view.

I just felt like this book was trying so hard to come across as Literary and Important, and this forced ‘lyrical’ writing style came at the expense of… literally everything else.  Plot, character development, setting.  You may have noticed the incredibly bland words I used to describe Muriel and Julius up above – ‘newlywed,’ ‘gay’ – but I’m afraid that after hundreds of pages I still do not know a single thing about either of these people’s personalities.  I know what they want from life, I guess, but each of their characters felt so clumsily crafted that there was never really anything to latch onto.  I don’t know a single thing about these characters or this narrative that I hadn’t gleaned from the summary.  What a terrific waste of time.

book review: If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

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IF I HAD YOUR FACE by Frances Cha
★★★★☆
Ballantine, April 21, 2020

 

If I Had Your Face is a searing debut that follows five young women living in the fringes of South Korean society, each struggling to make a living for themselves.  Few books that claim to tackle misogyny are as successfully unrelenting as this one is; it’s a bleak read, but also a beautiful one. This seems to be pitched as a book about the Korean beauty industry, which it is and it isn’t; plastic surgery and makeup mostly litter the background of a couple of the narratives, as Cha focuses instead on the women who are actively harmed by cruel and unrealistic beauty standards.

This book’s main asset has to be the characters: it’s also been a while since I’ve read anything with characters this convincing.  Of the five protagonists, four of them alternate first person point-of-view chapters, and each of their voices is so distinctive I never had trouble remembering whose head I was inhabiting, which tends to be a common pitfall of similarly structured fiction.

Narratively, this falls a bit short; it wraps up rather quickly and at the point where it ends, you feel like it could keep going for at least another 150 pages.  One of the characters’ arcs felt unfinished to me.  And a few of the book’s key events feel rushed, even before the end.  But despite that, my impression of this book is largely favorable.  I don’t think I’ll forget this in a hurry, and I can’t wait for whatever Frances Cha does next.

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


You can pre-order a copy of If I Had Your Face here on Book Depository.

book review: No One is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg

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NO ONE IS TOO SMALL TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE by Greta Thunberg
★★★☆☆
Penguin, 2019

 

How you feel about this book is entirely going to depend on what you’re expecting to get out of it.  This is not a scientific text, nor is it an in-depth exploration of possible solutions to climate change.  This is a rallying cry; a wake-up call to anyone who isn’t paying attention to the catastrophic state our planet is in.  If you’re familiar with Greta Thunberg from the news or social media, you’ll pretty much know what to expect from this, and it does deliver.

That said, my god did the repetition in this short book start to grate.  It actually rather irritates me how poorly curated this essay collection is; the impact of Thunberg’s words starts to neuter itself the further you read, by no fault of her own but because the editor saw fit to include near-identical speeches back-to-back on several occasions.


You can pick up a copy of No One is Too Small to Make a Difference here on Book Depository.