book review: The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis

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THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES by Mindy McGinnis
★★★★☆
Katherine Tegen Books, 2016

 

Well, The Female of the Species was just as brutal as everyone says it is, so naturally I thought it was great. All I knew about this book going in was that it’s somehow about rape culture, which it certainly is, but it’s not so much a ‘rape book’ a la Asking For ItSpeak, etc., as a teenage vigilante story that could be compared to Hard Candy or Sadie (if I’m allowed to compare it to a book that was published later). So, another successful foray into YA for me this month!

The Female of the Species follows three characters – Alex, the occasionally violent but intelligent loner girl whose sister was murdered, Jack, the popular jock with hidden depths, and Peekay, the preacher’s kid who’s recovering from a bad break-up. Alex is a brilliant character, and she’s ultimately at the center of this novel, tying together these three characters’ disparate plotlines. What I loved about Alex is how her violent streak is neither condemned nor romanticized by the narrative – this is not one of those books that falls victim to very basic ‘murder is wrong!’ moralizing (which, yes, we can all agree that murder is wrong, but reinforcing that point over and over doesn’t make for a terribly interesting story). Instead, McGinnis uses this character to explore a much more intriguing narrative.

To everyone who suggests it’s impossible to discuss rape in media without showing it in graphic detail, I say: read this book. When I mentioned above that this isn’t really a traditional ‘rape book,’ what I meant is that the only rape occurs off-screen before the story begins, and that gets a comparatively small focus in the story. Instead, this deals with those ‘almost’ situations, the grey areas, the insidious ways that rape culture informs teenage social situations in ways we don’t even think about. This is such an astoundingly important book for teenagers to read – like Asking For It, I think it adds a really unique and important slant to this conversation.

But of course, ‘important’ doesn’t really say anything about literary quality – a book can naturally be ‘important’ and terrible – but I thought The Female of the Species was very smart and engaging. This book builds tension brilliantly and culminates in a positively brilliant conclusion. It does take quite a dark turn, but I loved it; I don’t think anything else would have suited the story quite so well.

But I did have problems with this book, and they were essentially: Peekay and Jack. Both of these characters felt more like a construct than an actual human being to me. Jack was the Generic Romantic Hero straight out of any YA novel I’ve ever read, and Peekay’s character just felt so contrived to me. The extent to which being the preacher’s kid (PK = Peekay) informed her entire identity could have been believable to me if we had spent any time examining how that impacted her, or looking at her relationship with religion, but instead it’s reduced to almost a gag – apparently the entire town thinks of her as the preacher’s kid, but we have no concept of what that actually means to her. To this end, occasionally this felt like it fell on the younger end of the YA spectrum than its subject matter would imply; simplicity where there should be nuance. Not every character and theme fell victim to this, of course, but there was no reason for Alex to be so fleshed out at the expense of the other two main characters, and I just would have liked to have seen a bit more depth to each of them.

But for the most part I thought this was very well done and I enjoyed it immensely. Also, aside from the rape and violence that I mentioned, there’s a lot of animal abuse mentioned in this book – this one definitely requires a strong stomach.

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book review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

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I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK: ONE WOMAN’S OBSESSIVE SEARCH FOR THE GOLDEN STATE KILLER by Michelle McNamara
★★★★☆
Harper, 2018

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is the chilling, gripping account of crime writer Michelle McNamara’s passion project of tracking the Golden State Killer. Though this book only came to my attention because of the two special circumstances surrounding it – McNamara’s untimely death, and a suspect being charged in the investigation earlier this year – this book does stand up as a really fantastic contribution to the true crime genre. McNamara’s empathy, drive, and detail-oriented intelligence shine through her investigation, and it was fascinating to track her progress of investigating the Golden State Killer – a moniker that McNamara herself coined after DNA testing proved that the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, and the Visalia Ransacker were all the same person. Though the Golden State Killer had not yet been caught at the time of this book’s publication and therefore it lacks a neat and satisfying epilogue, it’s an interesting investigative journey that’s well worth reading.

I do have to say that I sort of regret listening to the audiobook – not because it wasn’t well-narrated, on the contrary I think the narrator does a brilliant job, but because I personally don’t retain things as well audibly as I do visually. And for me, a huge joy of reading books like this is in the details – keeping firm track of the names of suspects and investigators and victims and locations in my head. After a while here they started to blend together because of their sheer volume, which was a bit frustrating as I’m quite good at names when reading and I don’t enjoy the feeling that there are details out of my grasp. But that’s just me – if you’re more of an auditory learner than I am, the audiobook is a great choice. Either way, this is one that stands up to the hype and I’d highly recommend checking it out.

mini reviews #1: Wave, Mary Rose, Bluets, Another Brooklyn, Eurydice

This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, so, no time like the present.  I don’t always feel like writing multi-paragraph long reviews for every single book I read, but when my reviews are this short I don’t usually bother cross-posting them from Goodreads to WordPress.  So, I shall begin transferring them over here in a series of mini review posts.  Also, reminder that you’re welcome to add me on Goodreads!

15797917WAVE by Sonali Deraniyagala
★★★★☆
Knopf, 2013
date read: July 11, 2018

In Sonali Deraniyagala’s frank and candid memoir, she recounts the loss of her parents, husband, and two sons who were all killed in the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka. Wave is every bit as harrowing as you’d imagine, but it’s also refreshingly sincere and devoid of sensationalism – instead it rather beautifully captures one woman’s honest and occasionally ugly experience with grief. Although it’s at times a bit meandering and repetitive in execution it is utterly gripping from start to finish. There isn’t much hope or resolution here, but there is hardly a scarcity of gratitude or resilience.

36072356MARY ROSE by Geoffrey Girard
★★☆☆☆
Adaptive Books, April 2018
date read: June 29, 2018

This was… fine? I guess? I would not recommend listening to the audiobook. The narrator infuses it with a lot of melodrama and bad accents, and hearing the name ‘Mary Rose’ spoken aloud approximately eighty-five million times is grating. I don’t know. I just felt impatient listening to this. For the fact that about 95% of it was character development, none of the characters were particularly well developed. The 5% of actual story was fine, just not enough to really hold my interest. I’d like to read the JM Barrie play at some point though.

6798263BLUETS by Maggie Nelson
★★★☆☆
Wave Books, 2009
date read: June 22, 2018

Bluets had a lot of the same sharp wit and similar pithy observations that I enjoyed in The Argonauts but I think this one was just a bit too abstract for my tastes. I also didn’t do myself any favors by reading this in short bursts over the span of two weeks when I think Nelson’s writing best lends itself to a more immersive reading experience. Still enjoyed it, still looking forward to checking out her other works.

30064150ANOTHER BROOKLYN by Jacqueline Woodson
★★☆☆☆
Amistad, 2016
date read: June 8, 2018

I listened to this on audio and… got pretty much nothing out of it. The narrator did a good job, but I just never felt grounded enough in this story, which to me felt more like it wanted to be a slice of life/coming of age poetry collection than a novel. But at the same time I do understand why others have loved this – I think it comes down to whether or not you click with Woodson’s flowery style of prose.

 

5661021EURYDICE by Sarah Ruhl
★★★☆☆
Samuel French, originally published in 2003
date read: April 16, 2018

There’s an undeniable pathos at the heart of this play that I think is informed so strongly by Ruhl’s personal experiences it almost made me question the need for this to be disguised as Eurydice’s story. This felt more like I was reading a poetry collection than a play, which was fine, albeit not what I thought I’d signed up for. The climactic scene between Orpheus and Eurydice was the highlight for me, though clearly there was so much tenderness put into the relationship between Eurydice and her father. Ruhl’s dialogue is incisive and dreamlike all at once and this was a pleasure to read in many ways, but ultimately where it didn’t totally connect for me was that it didn’t feel grounded enough in its source material.

Have you guys read any of these?  Feel free to comment down below if you’d like to talk about any of them in more detail!

book review: Suicide Club by Rachel Heng

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SUICIDE CLUB by Rachel Heng
★★☆☆☆
Henry Holt, July 10, 2018

 

Suicide Club is a book full of brilliant concepts that never develop into a convincing or engaging narrative. It’s a speculative novel set in a near-future New York society in which death is illegal and the pursuit of immortality is all-consuming. 100-year-old Lea Kirino is a model citizen; she has a high-level job on the New York exchange, which now deals in trading human organs, she has a genetically beautiful fiancé, and she’s being considered for a promotion. But things change for Lea when she spots her estranged, fugitive father for the first time in 88 years, and she comes in contact with a group called the Suicide Club, which advocates for the right for everyone to live and die on their own terms.

So it pretty much goes without saying that this is a fantastic premise; where Suicide Club falls apart is in the execution. It starts out on a promising enough note – the worldbuilding at first seems impressive, and Rachel Heng does a good job of integrating her new terminology into the narrative so that it doesn’t overwhelm. It’s not until you get a decent amount of the way in that numerous holes begin to develop – and it’s not so much in the nitty-gritty details as it is in the overarching concept. If society is still comprised of so many “sub-100s” (people with a ‘normal’ lifespan), how has death become such a cultural taboo? And why don’t these groups revolt against those in power to gain access to their technology? Why is Lea so closely monitored for a supposed suicide attempt after she’s hit by a car; does no one ever have a genuine accident in this society? In some ways this reminded me of Felicia Yap’s Yesterday, another underwhelming speculative novel whose premise falls to pieces if you look too closely.

But the biggest problem with this book was the protagonist, Lea. I don’t even know where to begin. I was sort of buddy reading this with my friend Hannah, who at one point said that the only logical explanation she would accept for Lea’s behavior was if she were revealed to be an alien at the end of the book. Spoiler alert: she isn’t. But I think that just about sums it up. Even though Lea has a lifespan of 200-300 years (so she’s technically only middle aged), she’s still 100-years-old, so you’d think we’d see some wisdom and life experience occasionally reflected in her behavior. Instead, she is the world’s most wooden, immature, simple-minded character, who makes the most incomprehensible decisions and shows absolutely zero critical thinking skills. This would be convincing characterization for an 11-year-old girl; not a 100-year-old New York businesswoman. Her backstory too is laughably incongruous with her characterization, and her character development is hackneyed and unrealistic. Despite the questionable worldbuilding and positively dull narrative, I think this book could have been saved if we’d been focusing on someone other than Lea.

Which brings my to my next point, which is that we follow another character for a few chapters, Anja, a Swedish immigrant living in New York with her mother who is being kept alive in a vegetative state. Anja is vulnerable, complex, sympathetic – everything I hoped Lea would be – and it makes no sense to me why we follow Lea’s journey so closely at the expense of Anja’s. The split between their chapters is probably 70/30 in Lea’s favor, which makes me wonder how Lea can come across as so under-developed when she has more than twice the narrative that Anja has.

So all in all, a disappointment. But it’s worth noting that this is a debut novel, and a rather ambitious one at that. The writing itself was solid, and again, the premise was brilliant, so I think Rachel Heng shows promise. I’ll be interested to see where she goes from here – though hopefully it’s somewhere with a more convincing and sympathetic protagonist.

Thank you to Netgalley, Henry Holt, and Rachel Heng for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

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BLOOD WATER PAINT by Joy McCullough
★★☆☆☆
Dutton Books, March 2018

I really wanted to love this book. I studied art history extensively in college, I love Artemisia Gentileschi, and the promise of a story from her perspective was so tantalizing that I ended up ignoring my suspicions that this book was going to be too young and too heavy-handed for me. I really should have listened to my gut on this one.

Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian Baroque painter, whose works are often overshadowed by the fact that she was raped by her mentor, Agostino Tassi. She and her father Orazio took him to trial and eventually won the case, though she was subjected to torture to verify her claims, and Tassi only served two years in prison before his release. Blood Water Paint is a novel in verse told from Artemisia’s perspective, which focuses mainly on her rape and the subsequent trial, which explores the way she drew on the biblical figures Susanna and Judith for inspiration.

Look, I am a self-proclaimed feminist. I could not agree more with McCullough’s indictment of the patriarchy, her lament of how women are treated in society, the parallels between Artemisia’s circumstances and the #MeToo movement. The problem is, she sacrifices subtlety and authenticity at the altar of these ideas. This book is one of the most maddeningly simplistic, binary, melodramatic, and anachronistic things I’ve ever read. While the word ‘feminism’ never appears in this book (thankfully – not because I don’t like the word feminism, but because it isn’t a concept yet in in the seventeenth century), we do see a lot of hot-button issues that we’ll all recognize, like:

(Why, though, does it take
a mother, daughter, sister
for men to take
a woman at her word?)

and:

If I wait it out, he’ll go.
I learned this as a child:

When boys pull your hair,
it means they like you.
Just ignore them.

… which, I’m sorry, but narrated from the perspective of a seventeen-year-old girl in 1610 just strike me as laughably unbelievable. Not because these aren’t universal, timeless ideas, but because they’re stated so eloquently by this character who I hesitate to even refer to as Artemisia because she is so transparently a mouthpiece for the author.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible to write a historical novel that focuses mainly on themes which don’t have an established vocabulary or some kind of developed social discourse at the time the book is set. I recently read and loved On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, which deals primarily with asexuality in a time before the term was coined, and the way McEwan handled the subject was done with subtlety and brilliance. I guess I was just looking for more of this here, I was hoping for a more nuanced and intellectually stimulating rumination on the themes in this book, rather than having everything stated so plainly and positively shoved down the reader’s throat. (I mean, I guess it’s also worth noting that Blood Water Paint is YA, so maybe I’m being unfair here, but I’d argue that it’s even more unfair to posit that YA doesn’t have the capacity to be more nuanced than this.)

There’s also another element to this whole thing that admittedly grates on me. As I’ve said, I really love Artemisia Gentileschi. But the way she’s become a cipher for contemporary feminism I think does a disservice to the complexity of her character, as well as to the sundry other groundbreaking female artists we tend to overlook in holding Artemisia up as this feminist poster child. So when I say that I wasn’t impressed with the research and historical accuracy in this novel, I’m not trying to be some kind of academic purist. It just felt like the author had seen a tumblr post about how ‘Artemisia Gentileschi painted herself as Judith and her rapist as Holofernes!!!1! Badass feminist ICON!!!!’ and spun the novel out of this half-formed idea of who Artemisia actually was. The few times the art itself is referenced also suggests to me that McCullough is out of her depth. If you’re looking for historical accuracy, please pick up one of the many brilliant biographies written about Artemisia, notably those by Mary Garrard.

So, to wrap up this novel length review (sorry, thanks for sticking with me): This is a book of (relevant, necessary) 21st century feminist concepts that try to masquerade themselves as Artemisia Gentileschi’s story at the expense of narrative, character development, and subtlety, which I felt ultimately did a disservice to its protagonist. But clearly I do not hold the majority opinion about this book, and that is perfectly fine. There are many brilliant and eloquent reviews which discuss this book’s virtues, if that’s what you’re looking for.

book review: Sadie by Courtney Summers

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SADIE by Courtney Summers
★★★★☆
Wednesday Books, September 4, 2018

I had no idea what to expect from Sadie, but I’d heard it described as dark and chilling so I thought it might be worth one of my occasional forays into YA. And I’m so glad I decided to give it a try. Sadie is an absolute tour de force of a thriller, told in alternating perspectives – one in which Sadie tells her own story of the vigilante road trip she goes on to track down her sister Mattie’s killer, and one from the host of a Serial-inspired radio show which is attempting to track down Sadie’s whereabouts.

This book doesn’t have much of a mystery – the whole thing is pretty much spelled out for you early on – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the ride Courtney Summers takes you on. This book is absolutely harrowing. It deals with some dark themes (notably sexual abuse and pedophilia) as well as others which aren’t quite as viscerally painful to read about, but still important (drug addiction, class and poverty, being belittled for speaking with a stutter). It’s all dealt with thoroughly but none of it is preachy – it’s all navigated with a real authenticity and sensitivity.

And Sadie is a phenomenal protagonist. From the very beginning she’s intriguing and vulnerable, and the chapters from her point of view are consistently the highlight. But what was a pleasant surprise for me was just how brilliant all of the other characters ended up being. Summers would lull me into a sense of complacency where I felt like I had the full measure of a character early on, only for them to be so much more multifaceted than I’d anticipated. Probably the most noticeable case of this was with Claire, Sadie’s drug addict mother who abandoned her two daughters and left them to the care of a family friend. When we finally get Claire’s perspective, her actions are never pardoned, but the story is flavored with even more depth than what we began with.

My only critique – and it really is minor compared to how much I loved the rest of this book – is that Sadie occasionally felt too competent and adroit at social situations which didn’t ring true with the kind of isolated upbringing she’d had. It was made very clear that Sadie was forced to grow up to soon and consequently a lot of her resourcefulness did feel realistic, but when it came to navigating tricky social situations and gaining the upper hand with much older adults, it felt a bit like wish fulfillment that Sadie was so skilled (but I also think this is one of those YA commonalities where you just have to suspend your disbelief a bit – admittedly not my strong suit).

But all things considered, I loved this book. It is on the very mature side of YA, so I’d still highly recommend it to those who mostly read adult lit. Solidly 4.5 stars.

Thank you to Netgalley, Wednesday Books, and Courtney Summers for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: The Blood Miracles by Lisa McInerney

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THE BLOOD MIRACLES by Lisa McInerney
★★★★★
John Murray, 2017
(review of The Glorious Heresies)

Apparently this is an unpopular opinion, but I loved this just as much as The Glorious Heresies. I understand why a lot of people didn’t. The Glorious Heresies is dark but it still retains a lot of signature Irish humor, and some warmth along with that. The Blood Miracles on the other hand is just a black tragedy. It picks up where McInerney’s previous novel left off, but it follows the thread of only one of the protagonists (though a few others play peripheral roles). And it was an interesting choice to shift from following five characters to following only one, but I have no complaints here as McInerney picked the right one.

I can’t think of any character I’ve read recently who I love as much as Ryan Cusack. Ryan is a drug dealer, both his own worst enemy and a victim of circumstance as he was raised by his abusive alcoholic father after his mother’s death. While The Glorious Heresies thoroughly examined Ryan’s relationship with his father and the near impossibility of breaking out of the life of crime and poverty that he’s been raised into, The Blood Miracles shifts the focus to another aspect of Ryan’s identity – the Italian side he inherited from his mother. As his boss Dan brokers a deal with the Italian Camorra and forces Ryan into the role of translator, Ryan faces conflicts both internal and external, as he tries to forge a place for himself in this new enterprise without alienating his concerned girlfriend Karine.

The main reason I imagine The Blood Miracles hasn’t gone over as well as The Glorious Heresies is that the only plot here revolves around the intricacies of drug dealing and Irish gang dynamics, and if you tried to sell this book to me with that pitch alone I can’t say I’d be terribly excited about it. But I think it’s a testament to McInerney’s skill that I was riveted. She expertly peels back the layers of contemporary Irish society to reveal its dark underworld, infusing her narration with Cork dialect to lend it a vibrant authenticity. This book is brutally, unflinchingly honest in a way that I find so refreshing.

I just adore McInerney’s writing. I love her distinctly unpolished style, her flawed and vulnerable and occasionally loathsome characters, her skill at tying together personal and social conflicts. This book is even darker and more violent than its predecessor and I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, but if any of that appeals to you, I cannot recommend these books highly enough. I’m not sure if she’s planning on writing more in this series, but I thought the ending was perfect – it ties up all loose ends while still leaving the door open if she chooses to continue Ryan’s story. I really hope she does.