book review: The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez | #WITmonth2021

translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
Hogarth Press, 2021

I wasn’t the biggest fan of Mariana Enríquez’s collection Things We Lost in the Fire, an intriguing collection which I was disappointed to find favored the grotesque over the psychological, something that never fully works for me with horror, so this is more or less what I expected it to be. I did actually like The Dangers of Smoking in Bed much better (in spite of the fact that I’m giving these two collections the same star rating, lol), but it took a while to get going and fair amount of the stories fell into that same trap for me, where I felt like Enríquez was prioritizing shock value over something more organically unsettling. 

Highlights for me were Meat, a sinister story about two teenage girls idolizing a recently-deceased pop star; Where Are You, Dear Heart?, about a woman attempting to satiate her sexual desire for the human heart; and Back When We Talked to the Dead, the collection’s final story which ends it on a deliciously spooky note.

The least successful for me were Angelita Unearthed, the first story which actually caused me to DNF this book two months ago as it suggested to me that this collection would be everything I didn’t like about Things We Lost in the Fire — though I evidently decided to come back to it and give the rest of the book a shot; Kids Who Come Back, a promising concept literalizing the horrors of Argentina’s disappeared children which meanders and ultimately goes nowhere; and The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, the titular story which I couldn’t tell you a single thing about as it fell so flat for me.

So even though this didn’t completely work to my tastes, there’s something about Enríquez that I keep finding myself drawn back to. I love her creativity, I love the way she brings different areas of Argentina to life so distinctly, and when her stories strike that eerie, unsettling chord, they work beautifully for me. I’ll probably keep reading her books as they get translated into English, though I’m unsure whether I’ll end up loving any of them or whether they’ll remain in this murky promising-but-unsatisfying territory for me.

book review: The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris

THE OTHER BLACK GIRL by Zakiya Dalila Harris
Atria Books, 2021

The Other Black Girl is an interesting one — I don’t think this wholly succeeds either as a piece of literary fiction or genre fiction, but I still had a lot of fun reading it. Set at a fictional competitive publishing house in New York, Wagner, whose toxic work environment is captured with aplomb, it follows Nella, an editorial assistant and the only Black employee who is thrilled when a new Black girl is hired in a role similar to her own. But shortly after, Nella starts receiving cryptic messages begging her to leave Wagner, and she doesn’t know who she can trust.

Where this fails as a thriller, it succeeds as literary fiction: the pace is practically glacial, but not for nothing; Zakiya Dalila Harris uses that time to wholly develop her characters and depict the toxic insularity of workplace microaggressions. There’s a lot of sharp, biting commentary in here about what it means to be Black in a white office, and what it takes to get ahead in the publishing industry; it’s an incisive read in that regard and I would happily have read an entire novel devoted solely to this element. But then the day-to-day office drudgery starts to fade into the background when the mystery element comes to the forefront.

Where this fails as literary fiction, it succeeds as a thriller: the writing itself is engaging but otherwise nothing special, there’s a weird, quasi-speculative twist that comes out of nowhere, there are random POV chapters interspersed from other women embroiled in the bigger picture thing that’s going on that don’t further the story in any way, but which I assume are there to add tension and intrigue. But the tension and intrigue are never fully there because the pacing is so uneven.

You could certainly laud this book, as many have, for being a sort of ‘genre-defying’ creation, but for me, this was just an overly ambitious project, especially for a debut. Its refusal to fit staunchly into a ‘literary’ or ‘genre’ box isn’t the issue; it’s that we end up with a book that’s half scathing social commentary of racism in corporate America, half a Get Out-style thriller, and it didn’t fully execute either of those aims as well as it could have. That said, even though this never came together in the way I was hoping for, I certainly did enjoy reading it — it’s unexpected, it’s original, it’s sharp, it’s funny — and I think Zakiya Dalila Harris is an author to watch out for.

book review: The Girl Who Died by Ragnar Jónasson

THE GIRL WHO DIED by Ragnar Jónasson
translated from the Icelandic by Victoria Cribb
Minotaur Books, 2021

I have a rule that I don’t read thrillers by men; I break the rule every now and then (usually for Riley Sager, whose works I discovered when I still thought he was a woman), and I thought The Girl Who Died sounded so up my alley that I figured I’d also take a chance on new-to-me author Ragnar Jónasson. A few chapters in, the main (female) character, on her first night in a brand new town, is feeling restless and unsettled and can’t shake the feeling that someone’s watching her. She decides to clear her head by… going for a walk. At night. In the pitch black. By herself. This is why I don’t read thrillers by men.

Anyway, this was fine. I thought the premise was brilliant: in the 1980s, Una, a young teacher from Reykjavik, takes a post teaching two students in a small Icelandic town called Skálar which is so remote only ten people live there. (Skálar was a real town, but Jónasson explains in a forward that he took artistic liberties as it hasn’t been occupied since the 1950s.) Una receives a less than warm welcome and can’t shake the feeling that even though this teaching position was advertised, none of the locals want her there.

I had a lot of problems with this book but I’ll stick to my two main criticisms. The way Una’s ‘alcoholism’ is treated is absolutely laughable; this woman will drink a single bottle of wine in a week and the whole town will be whispering about how she must be an alcoholic, the ridiculous nature of which isn’t remotely addressed; it’s like the reader is also meant to question Una’s credibility, seeing as Una herself starts to after a while (which leads to a moment which is just ridiculously outlandish if you can’t buy that Una actually believes her sanity is slipping away — which, sorry, I couldn’t!). For one thing, is there anything more tired than alcoholic narrators in thrillers, and for another, if you’re going to use that trope, at least… do it convincingly? 

There are also chapters interspersed throughout Una’s story, each about two pages long and fully italicized, from the perspective of an unknown character. Again, this isn’t a convention that I’m ever particularly wild about, but I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen it executed in a way where there was LESS payoff than there was in this book. As in, these passages could have been cut out and not a single thing would change about this book’s resolution.

What Jónasson does well is create Skálar’s atmosphere, so if you like eerie, slightly spooky books set in remote Icelandic villages, it’s worth a read, but mystery fans are bound to feel a bit underwhelmed by this one.

book review: Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy

MIGRATIONS by Charlotte McConaghy
Flatiron, 2020

I didn’t expect to love this book nearly as much as I did. When I started reading, I was immediately turned off by the writing, which I thought was overwrought and stylized to a frankly annoying degree — but I pushed through and I actually found that the writing mellowed out after the first chapter; the prose does have a distinct lyrical flair throughout, but there was almost an air of desperation to the first chapter that the rest of the book was mercifully lacking. (It reminded me of this phenomenon that you sometimes see where it is very transparent that the author workshopped the hell out of chapter 1 to submit to agents, and then settled into a more organic style after that. I can’t say for sure that that’s what happened here, but that was the impression I got.)

Migrations is set in a version of the near-future where almost all animal life has died out, and it tells the story of Franny, a woman determined to follow a species of bird called the Arctic tern on their final migration from Greenland to Antarctica. Because she doesn’t have any funding for this expedition, the only way to make it is to join a fishing vessel and convince the captain to reroute the boat. Obviously she succeeds, or there wouldn’t be a book, but the novel is less about the journey itself and more about Franny’s past, and the trauma that led her to undertake such a dangerous expedition. 

Large swathes of this book are downright implausible, let’s just get that out of the way. If you have a particular interest in environmentalism specifically through a scientific lens, I cannot in good faith recommend this book. It takes liberties, it gets facts wrong, its worldbuilding is under-developed. Personally, nature writing is one of my very least favorite things and the less time spent on it the better, so this catered to my personal tastes quite nicely, but there’s every chance you’ll find this element silly and distracting. 

Regardless, I ended up loving this. Migrations has been compared a lot to Station Eleven and I found that actually rang true for me — there’s something in the character work that felt really similar and familiar. McConaghy’s characters, like Mandel’s, are brilliantly drawn — even the most minor characters feel like they have an entire story hidden in them. 

It’s honestly challenging to describe this book’s strengths when its weaknesses are so evident and tangible; the strengths are a lot more slippery and understated. I think where this worked for me is in its depiction of a very flawed person searching for atonement in all the wrong places. It’s a deeply human, deeply sad work, and it ended up being one of the most emotionally affecting books I’ve read in a long time. Definitely recommended more from a character-driven angle than a dystopian one.

Thank you to Flatiron for the free copy.

book review: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

Riverhead, 2020

The Vanishing Half tells the story of identical twins Desiree and Stella, Black girls with very light skin who grow up in a small Louisiana town called Mallard. While they were once inseparable in childhood, as adults they take very different paths — they move away from Mallard at a young age and Desiree has a daughter with a Black man, while Stella passes as white to take a secretary job, then cuts off contact from her family and spends the rest of her life hiding her true heritage from her husband and child (until, of course, a surprise encounter brings everything to a head). 

I think this book does a laudable job at its commentary on racial identity; the problem is, I don’t think it really has anything else going for it. The characters felt underdeveloped, the writing itself was mediocre, huge plot points often hinged on coincidences in a way that didn’t feel sufficiently self-conscious (the coincidences were acknowledged by the narrative, but in a way that felt to me less like ‘I am playing with fate as a deliberate thematic construct’ and more like ‘haha whoops this coincidence is a bit silly, I’m going to comment on how silly it is before anyone else can’), and every time you finally got settled into a particular narrative, the book would lurch ahead in time at nonsensical moments. 

I just got the impression that Bennett was trying to do too much — I think that if you isolate this novel’s core conceit, it could have made for a stunning novella or short story. For a novel, it was juggling too many elements and dropping balls left and right. For example, Desiree’s daughter has a trans partner, and while I assume that this detail was included to frame this story through different axes of oppression, his particular story and identity ultimately felt rather under-examined. When I compare this to something like its fellow Women’s Prize shortlister Transcendent Kingdom which tackles a broad spectrum of topics and coheres them into a single narrative with finesse, The Vanishing Half just feels like a flimsy shadow of what it’s trying to be.

All that said, I think this book absolutely does deserve its large readership, as it examines race through the very specific lens of colorism which I think is largely underrepresented in literature, and I’m glad to have read this. I’m glad that it has touched so many readers. I can’t really bring myself to give it a rating under 3 stars, because I don’t think it deserves that — and I do think its thoughtful approach to racial identity is worth a lot. I just don’t think it’s a particularly well-constructed novel, and I came away from it feeling frustrated and underwhelmed.

book review: The Revolt by Clara Dupont-Monod | #WITmonth2021

THE REVOLT by Clara Dupont-Monod
translated from the French by Ruth Diver
Quercus, 2020

Both epic and intimate, The Revolt tells the stories of Eleanor of Aquitaine and her son Richard I — a complex piece of history deftly distilled down to about 200 pages in Clara Dupont-Monod’s novel. A baseline familiarity with the Plantagenets I think is a strong asset in approaching this book — its function isn’t didactic and as such I can imagine it’s easy to get a bit lost in the historical narrative, which is presented coherently, but without much interest in the broader historical context.

But as someone already deeply invested in this particular period of English history, this read like a dream. The characters are all so well-drawn and Ruth Diver’s translation is stunning. Dupont-Monod manages to imbue this period of history with a vibrancy and heightened emotional landscape that does border on the anachronistic, but this isn’t the sort of historical fiction that aims for perfect historical accuracy — these figures are more of a vehicle for Dupont-Monod to explore the bigger ideas that preoccupy us today when we look back at the Plantagenets. The complex and thorny relationships within that family are a never ending source of fascination, and here those relationships are excavated alongside a potent commentary on familial love and power. This won’t be for everyone, but it’s a must-read for anyone who enjoys looking at history through an imaginative, literary lens.

book review: How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

Little, Brown and Co, 2021

There’s a lot to admire in How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House. It’s a gritty, unapologetic excavation of the wealth divide in a small Caribbean tourist destination, cleverly juxtaposing idyllic tourism with the locals’ reality of violence and poverty. I appreciate what this book was trying to do. But my god, did I hate reading it.

I neglected to highlight any passages and don’t particularly feel like going back to it now, so apologies for the lack of evidence, but I hated the writing style; I tend to struggle with books written in dialect and this was no exception. 

I also quickly grew weary of how relentlessly bleak it was. I don’t usually do this, but I made the mistake of reading my friend Marchpane’s review in the middle of writing this one and I cannot get over how succinctly she summarized my issues with this book, and anything I write in my own words about this would only be a pale imitation, so I am going to take the lazy route and just quote from her review (and I suggest you go read the whole thing):

This book’s traumas are so relentless—incest; viscerally brutal beatings; an incident you might call infanticide via neglect. There is really no light with the shade here, not that you necessarily need light and shade to tell a sad story. The never letting up is precisely the point this novel is making. And I have no doubt this is (tragically) true-to-life for many women out there.

But in a work of fiction, this has the effect of flattening everything about the characters to this aspect of their experience. I was never less than 100% conscious that I was reading about invented people, sketches on a page who only exist in order to show me this violence. It was a barrier between me and the characters that only grew, brick by brick, as each awful, violent incident unfolded.

To me, this is solidly the weakest offering on the Women’s Prize shortlist. It showcases an important cultural commentary, but lacks the literary craft to justify its accolades as a work of fiction. I think it’s a promising debut and hope that Jones will master the finesse needed to weave narrative and social commentary together in future works, but personally, I disliked this book’s style so strongly (a personal hangup, I’ll readily admit) that I’m not sure I’ll be following her career with much interest. 

Trigger warnings for a lot of things, mostly sexual assault and child death.

book review: Ru by Kim Thúy | #WITmonth2021

RU by Kim Thúy
translated by Sheila Fischman
Bloomsbury, 2012

Ru is as easy to read as it is to forget once you finish–sadly! I wish I had a more positive impression of this book overall, but I just think it’s so slim, so focused on its lyrical writing style, that it loses some of its potency. I’ve been meaning to read this for years and ultimately I’m glad I did; I enjoyed spending time with it, but it almost entirely left my brain once I put it down. 

It also gets a bit saccharine for my tastes and it does this very specific thing I don’t like; the narrator will be recalling a very minor event from her childhood and it will be recounted with the same urgency as though it had just happened yesterday; an emotion experienced by a child over a minor incident still being experienced by the adult–and I know that that is actually an effect of trauma, but the thread between trauma and memory felt under-explored to me, so it did fall a bit flat in this regard.

That said, it’s worth a read, and I can see why some people adore this one–I just needed a bit more from it!

book review: Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski

SWIMMING IN THE DARK by Tomasz Jedrowski
William Morrow, 2020

I liked everything about this book except for the writing style–this is where the Aciman and Greenwell comparisons do Swimming in the Dark a disadvantage, because Jedrowski’s novel is a much more commercial creation and the caliber of prose isn’t quite there. There are a lot of painfully on the nose declarations throughout, like “It struck me how little my name meant to me, how absurd it was in its attempt to contain me.” It was just lacking the sort of finesse that its comparison authors are able to achieve more effortlessly. 

There’s also Jedrowski’s penchant for similes that started to drive me mad after about five pages:

“I ran and started to shiver all over, like a child who’s broken through ice and fallen into a lake and only just managed to crawl out.” 

“A pair of panties. White and lacy, discarded like someone’s fantasy.” 

“Your ass was powerful, like two great smooth rocks sculpted by the sea.”

“Winter came early that year. Every week pulled us deeper into its gloom, every day shorter than the last, as if time was running out.”

If you don’t mind that sort of thing this obviously won’t be an issue for you, but it wasn’t really for me and was definitely an insurmountable hurdle when it came to loving this book as much as I had hoped to.

Still, I enjoyed my time with it well enough. It’s a fiercely political coming-of-age story about two gay students in 1980s Poland, both educative and entertaining in equal measure. The Giovanni’s Room commentary is well-employed, the historical detail is immersive, the novel’s structure is impeccable. It’s an intimate, sad, moving story; its characters are vibrant and life-like, and the feeling of loss throughout is palpable. It’s just a bit overwritten.

book review: Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

ARIADNE by Jennifer Saint
Flatiron, 2021

Whenever a Greek mythology retelling featuring a female character is published within the next five years, at least, the comparisons to Circe are going to be inevitable, but this is truly a ‘for fans of Circe’ book if I’ve ever read one, so in this instance I’d actually recommend that you heed that comparison, whatever that means for you. (I thought Circe was just okay–definitely not my favorite style Greek myth retelling; I prefer them to be a little more offbeat and literary.)

Though to be fair, I actually enjoyed Ariadne more than Circe; where I felt a distinct lack of tension throughout Circe which made for a somewhat bland reading experience, I felt that Jennifer Saint did an excellent job at maintaining high stakes, even when the characters were living through periods of mundanity. But still, there’s something at the heart of these two books that inextricably links them for me; both novels aim to subvert the original tale, but the execution is done in such a quiet, subtle way that you’re basically following along a well-trodden narrative trajectory, the subversion living more internally for these characters in their narration than externally in events of the plot. 

So this quiet tale of Ariadne falling in love with Theseus before being marooned on a beach in Naxos and meeting the alluring god Dionysus certainly didn’t blow my socks off, but I found it to be an easy, thoughtful read that I ultimately did enjoy spending time with. If you don’t like Greek myth retellings, this won’t be the one to change your mind, but if you do, it’s worth a read.

Thank you to Flatiron for the advanced copy.