book review: The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton




THE QUEENS OF INNIS LEAR by Tessa Gratton
★★★☆☆
Tor, 2018


The Queens of Innis Lear is a fantasy retelling of King Lear, focusing on the young generation characters (primarily Cordelia, Goneril, Regan, and Edmund) in a fictional kingdom called Innis Lear. It starts off as a faithful adaptation (think Lear but with magic)–the titular King is abdicating the throne, and he makes a shocking choice to split the crown equally between his three daughters, provided that they pass the test he sets out for them: to each declare that they love him more than their sisters. Goneril (Gaela, in Gratton’s novel) and Regan (still Regan), manipulative and self-serving, both pass his test, but his youngest and most loyal daughter, Cordelia (Elia), refuses to participate and is banished.

To say I love this play is an understatement (hi, if you’re new here, King Lear is my favorite play) and I’m finding it nearly impossible to untangle my thoughts on how I feel about this as a novel from how I feel about it as a retelling, so we’re just going to go into an aggressive amount of detail and hope something coherent materializes. Mild spoilers forthcoming (mostly about the narrative roles of the characters within the novel, not about specific plot points).

Tonally and thematically, Tessa Gratton accesses a lot of what makes Lear so special and I found that I mostly enjoyed my reading experience for that alone. I always say that Lear is a simultaneously cosmic and intimate play, concerned both with Nature and human nature, and the way Gratton literalizes these themes into her magic system and her worldbuilding is done tremendously well. The writing too has a rich, indulgent quality that suits the tone of the book; it’s slowly paced and thoughtful, which felt appropriate to the story, though I imagine others may get bored early on without a love of Lear driving you forward.

Though, that love of Lear (along with how intimately well I know this play) did end up being a double-edged sword. Gratton had my investment from the very first page without really needing to earn it, and that certainly helped me devour this 600 page book in a little over a week. But on the other hand, I started to become more and more frustrated with the ways in which Gratton engaged with this play.

First is a rather specific annoyance, that luckily only occurred four or five times, but it was jarring enough that I have to mention it. The first half or two thirds of this novel follow the plot of Lear very closely, to the point where entire scenes from the play were acted out in this book. In theory that’s not something that bothers me; what does bother me is Gratton taking word-for-word dialogue from the play and modernizing it so I felt like I was reading No Fear Shakespeare. 

Here are a couple of direct side-by-side comparisons so you can see what I mean. Gratton’s sentences are first, Shakespeare’s are second:

“He has always loved Astore rather more than Connley.”
“I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.”

“Nothing will come from nothing. Try again, daughter.”
“Nothing can come of nothing. Speak again.”

“I cannot heave my heart into my mouth, Father. I love you… as I should love you, being your daughter, and always have. You know this.”
“Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/ My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty/ According to my bond; no more nor less.”

“It is only a note from my brother, and I’ve not finished reading it. What I’ve read so far makes me think it’s not fit for you to see.” 
“I beseech you sir, pardon me. It is a letter from my brother that I have not all o’er-read; and for so much as I have perus’d, I find it not fit for your o’erlooking.”

It’s this but it would go on for entire conversations. Here’s the thing: this is pointless and distracting and when you go up against Shakespeare on a sentence by sentence level, you’re going to lose every time. 

Now, let’s get into the characters, because that’s where my real problem with this book lies.

I found Gratton’s portrayal of the Edmund character (Ban) endlessly frustrating. You could see her bending over backward to humanize Edmund, making these minor, pointless adjustments (Ban being older than his legitimate brother rather than younger, meaning his bastardy is the only thing standing in the way of his inheritance; Gloucester [Errigal] insisting that Edgar [Rory] inherit even after his alleged betrayal of his father) to amp up the reader’s sympathy, but frankly, a lot of Edmund’s charm was lost in the process. Edmund is my favorite character and I know I’m not alone in holding that opinion: the reason people love Edmund is because of his complexity and contradictions; he’s already deeply human in the play and I felt that Gratton flattened that out of him in an attempt to make his transgressions to come from a play of moral purity.

The parallel/inversion between Edmund and Cordelia in the play is fascinating to me–both youngest children, both loved by their fathers, one good, one evil, their fates intertwined in a chilling way. That Gratton chose to explore this connection was an exciting choice for me, but I felt that turning it into a romance added nothing, and in fact lost quite a bit, especially when it came at the narrative expense of what I think a lot of readers find to be a much more compelling dynamic; that between Ban and Morimaros (the King of France figure). (That’s another thing. This book had every opportunity to be explicitly queer, but there were only ever hints and whispers of queerness on the page, which I found frustrating.) 

If I were to detail every single character-related annoyance I had we’d be here for a while, so here are some other highlights: I felt that Edgar (Rory) was underutilized and misrepresented when he was on the page. Aefa is the single most pointless character I have read in anything, ever, and the fact that her POV chapters weren’t cut suggests to me that the editor just gave up. The old generation characters were all incredibly one-note; if you want to write a retelling focusing on the younger generation, that’s fine, but King Lear himself shouldn’t need to have a POV chapter to be a complex and interesting character. 

But we’re getting rather nitpicky now so let’s zoom back out. This book was marketed as a “feminist King Lear retelling” and a word that I’ve seen a lot of people use to talk about it is “subversive.” But my issue is that it was not, at all. As I mentioned above, the first half of the book follows Lear with dogged faithfulness, and after that, things start to go off the rails. Which is fine, fun, exactly what I’m here for! If I wanted to read King Lear I’d just read King Lear. But when Gratton started taking control of the narrative, her choices, to me, started to become more and more unwieldy. Nothing she did felt to me like a direct, deliberate subversion of the play; it felt like she had more interest in telling her own story with these characters than doing so as a means to engage with the original text, and that’s something that I think makes for an unsuccessful retelling. I don’t think you need to have complete and utter reverence for the original, but I think a love for the play coupled with a clear vision for how to engage with it is necessary. I felt–especially after reading an interview with Gratton–that her aim here was as nebulous as ‘King Lear but with better female characters’, and as a staunch Lear fan, I was rooting for this book but it really let me down in the end.

But I will end on a positive note (sort of): while I felt that Elia was as stiff and uninteresting as cardboard, I thought Gratton succeeded in doing some very interesting things with Gaela and Regan; Gaela particularly. The ways in which Gratton played with gender in Gaela’s chapters were dynamic and exciting and I think that along with the aforementioned magic system, Gaela’s character is this novel’s primary strength. 

This is already the longest review I’ve written in ages and I’m not sure how to end it. Bottom line, do I recommend this book? While I appreciate you sticking with me for this long, probably in hopes of me answering that question, I’m sorry to say that I really don’t know. I think you should be interested in Lear but not love Lear, maybe that’s the key to unlocking the optimal reading experience.

book reviews: two pieces of Shakespearean nonfiction




THIS IS SHAKESPEARE by Emma Smith
★★★★★
Pantheon Books, 2019



This Is Shakespeare is an essay collection by Shakespeare scholar and Oxford lecturer Emma Smith, whose work I first encountered on her excellent podcast Approaching Shakespeare. In each lecture-turned-podcast-episode she dissects a different play through the lens of a very specific question (“what is the narrative and thematic role of Antonio in Twelfth Night,” “why does Bassanio choose the lead casket in Merchant of Venice,” “why doesn’t Marcus offer Lavinia first aid in Titus Andronicus“).

This Is Shakespeare is basically just her podcast in book form and slightly condensed, but you certainly don’t need to be familiar with her already (and in fact, it’s probably better if you aren’t–I didn’t mind the repetition between this book and her podcasts, but for someone even marginally less invested, these essays might feel extraneous). An interest in Shakespeare, whether you’ve read all of his plays or only read one, is really the only requirement to picking this up. Smith doesn’t give broad strokes overviews of the plays, but instead she zeroes in on details that stick out to her in each one, which start to tie into one another with the more essays you read. This was an incisive, thoughtful, and ultimately fun read that certainly helped augment my understanding of each of the 20 plays she covers.



THE YEAR OF LEAR by James Shapiro
Simon & Schuster, 2015
★★★★☆


The Year of Lear focuses on one specific year as it pertains to Shakespeare’s life and works–1606, the year he wrote Antony and CleopatraMacbeth, and King Lear. This is a historical rather than literary text–Shapiro doesn’t give a line-by-line analysis of any of the aforementioned plays, but rather, he fills in the historical context surrounding their respective compositions, particularly highlighting the Gunpowder Plot and its aftermath. 

It’s an interesting text as long as you’re compelled by this level of historical specificity. If you’re looking for a literary analysis of Lear or a biography of Shakespeare’s life, look elsewhere, but as a piece of historical nonfiction this is a fascinating snapshot into a turbulent piece of early modern history and the literature it directly and indirectly inspired.

book review: No One Asked for This by Cazzie David




NO ONE ASKED FOR THIS by Cazzie David
★★★★★
Mariner Books, 2020





About a month ago I read an interview with Cazzie David about her breakup with Pete Davidson. I could not for a million dollars tell you why I clicked on that article, having no emotional investment in either of these people, but here we are. I was struck by two things: how resonant I found the way Cazzie talks about anxiety, and the fact that she’s open about having emetophobia, something I’ve struggled with since the age of eight. So that alone was enough to pique my curiosity about this essay collection. 

The thing about this book is that you need to accept what it’s trying to do and read it in good faith. Would this have been published if Cazzie weren’t Larry David’s daughter, of course not, but is she trying to join the ranks of great modern essayists like Jia Tolentino? Not in the slightest. These essays are self-indulgent, tone deaf, and solipsistic, but if you dwell on any of these things I promise you are taking this collection much more seriously than Cazzie is. 

So let’s focus on the good, because I unabashedly loved this book. Cazzie’s writing won’t win any literary awards but she’s surprisingly incisive, especially when it comes to talking about anxiety and her fear of mortality. Another thing is, the more neurotypical you are, the less this book is going to resonate with you (not that you’re necessarily neurotypical if you didn’t like it). Cazzie makes absolutely no effort to be likable; she paints a portrait of what it’s like to be fully in thrall of anxiety and the insidious ways it tears you apart from the inside out, affecting both your self-worth and your relationships. She makes comments like this, that are on one level dismissive and alienating (yes, some people simply “get really bad anxiety” and it’s still a bitch for them to live with), and on another level were like looking into a mirror:

“I never understood social media posts advising people that “it’s okay to not feel good all the time!” Who said that wasn’t okay? Who is so okay to the point where they need to be reminded that it’s okay when they don’t feel okay?! When people “reveal” they “get really bad anxiety,” I’m dumbfounded, because I’ve never not been anxious long enough to “get” anxiety. It doesn’t leave. Not ever.”

She’s also funny as hell. You’ll either get her humor or you won’t, and you’ll know by the end of the first essay which side you’re on. But–surprisingly, for the fact that you’re spending 300+ pages inside the head of an extremely unhappy person–this collection is fun. It’s self-deprecating, it’s clever, and above all else, it’s an entertaining way to spend an afternoon.

This isn’t for everyone (clearly), but I just really ‘got’ this book; I got what Cazzie was trying to do with it and I also got Cazzie as a person, and it made me feel slightly less alone in the world whenever I picked it up. At the end of the day, that’s all you can ask from a book like this.

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

book review: The Butchers’ Blessing by Ruth Gilligan





THE BUTCHERS’ BLESSING by Ruth Gilligan
★★★★☆
Tin House Books, 2020


Set in 1990s Ireland, The Butchers’ Blessing (originally published as The Butchers in the UK) tells the story of a group that travels through the country, practicing an ancient ritual of cattle slaughter for farmers who still believe in the old customs.  It follows a handful of characters – primarily Úna, the preteen daughter of a Butcher whose life’s aspiration is to follow in her father’s footsteps.  We also follow Grá, Úna’s mother, trapped in an unhappy marriage; Ronan, an ambitious photographer; Fionn, a semi-retired farmer whose wife is dying of cancer, trying to atone for past sins; and Davey, Fionn’s son, a teenage boy who’s immersed in classical studies and dreams of escaping to Dublin.  

Gilligan does an expert job of weaving historical context throughout the narrative.  The novel’s backdrop mainly concerns BSE, also known as mad cow disease, as the crisis kicks off throughout the UK and Ireland.  While Gilligan excellently captures the resulting tension of that social climate, her skill in establishing the setting is right down to the nitty-gritty details; the Spice Girls playing on the radio, The Beauty Queen of Leenane on a the local playhouse, Ballykissangel on tv.  Setting historical fiction in a moment that your readers have lived through is a unique challenge, but Gilligan has a talent for the immersive.  The details of Celtic folklore were also well-woven in; this probably isn’t the Gothic or eerie book you’re expecting from its premise, but the way the folklore was presented as a part of these characters’ daily realities was handled incredibly well.

There were a few things that didn’t work for me – the whole story was framed in a past/present way with the present being narrated by the least interesting character, which unfortunately causes the interludes to lag more than they should.  But on the whole I thought this was a clear-eyed, unsettling, morally ambiguous read that captures this moment in modern Irish history brilliantly. 

book review: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart


WE WERE LIARS by E. Lockhart
★★★★☆
Delacorte Press, 2014






I read this because it’s allegedly a retelling of King Lear. It… isn’t really (and I’ll talk about that more when I one day inevitably do a blog post on retellings of King Lear) but I actually liked this a LOT more than I was expecting to. Usually when I read YA my overriding feeling is ‘this wasn’t written for me,’ but I actually didn’t feel that so much; this largely felt like an adult thriller when I was reading.  Yes, it contains Teenagers Experiencing Emotions, but that isn’t something I have an issue with; there was this sort of cool detachment to the writing that I felt worked in its favor and it was a fantastically paced, cleverly structured book that wasn’t weighed down by the protagonist’s navel gazing.  And yes, there’s The Twist—it didn’t blow my socks off because it ended up being something I’ve seen done in other books, but I actually thought the execution here was really fantastic and it was definitely worth the wait.  I did feel like the whole thing came together successfully, and it’s hard to talk about without giving anything away, but suffice to say this book was just delightful escapism if you prefer your beach reads to have a sharp edge. 

book review: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue




THE PULL OF THE STARS by Emma Donoghue
★★★★☆
HarperAvenue, 2020




I have a very strong stomach but I am triggered by three things. 1. Vomiting, 2. Childbirth, 3. Pandemics (this last one evoking existential dread more than nausea but do I find reading about them almost as painful as living through one). This book has all three, so, it’s a testament to how much I like Emma Donoghue’s writing that I: a. Made it through this book, and b. Actually enjoyed it. 

Set in a maternity ward in 1918 Dublin over the course of three days, The Pull of the Stars follows Julia Power, a nurse attending to expectant mothers who are sick with the flu.  It’s a fast-paced, frantic novel that contrasts the hectic episodes on the ward with the tender, budding friendship between Julia and her new volunteer helper, an uneducated girl named Bridie Sweeney.

This book is thoroughly engrossing–it immerses you in a borderline excessive amount of detail, but Donoghue manages it in a way so that it pulls the reader in rather than alienating them.  Full disclosure, I had to skip entire paragraphs of this book that were too gruesome for me, but it was entirely with regret that I did so–there’s something so transfixing about Donoghue’s storytelling, and I’ve felt this about all three of her books that I’ve read.  She also nails the evocation of this Irish hospital in a city under siege by a deadly virus. With obvious parallels to 2020 in a lot of ways, this still felt firmly fixed in its historical setting, which was a positive for me.

I did find The Pull of the Stars rather heavy-handed at times (notably in its treatment of Irish political history; it felt very transparent that Donoghue was framing Julia as an outsider to the rebellion in order to spoon feed the reader about how maybe the British empire aren’t the good guys after all!–though I will concede I probably read more of these narratives than most), but that was my only real complaint.  On the whole I thought this was a compelling, moving read, though I must caution that you need either a strong stomach or a strong conviction to make it through.

I won this copy in a Goodreads giveaway; all thoughts are my own.

book review: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh




Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
★★★★☆
originally published in 1945

I’m rarely at a loss for words but Brideshead Revisited has thoroughly stumped me.  I cannot put my finger on how I feel about this book.  It took me the better part of half a year to read, so… that is certainly a point against it – but I also found it remarkable?  I think it’s worth noting that my expectations going into this book were all wrong; I neither expected nor needed this to be an explicit romance between Charles and Sebastian, but I did expect Charles’ and Sebastian’s relationship (in whatever form) to provide this novel’s framework, and I couldn’t help but to find it occasionally aimless as a result – though that isn’t really a fair criticism.  I also felt a bit “right book, wrong time” syndrome-y about this; I didn’t feel like I was in the right headspace to engage with it exactly the way it deserved (notably on a theological level).  But that said, I did find it worthwhile and certain passages quite arresting.  I think this book captures the feeling of nostalgia in a poignant and special way – it left me aching for a time that I never lived through.  I’m definitely going to want to revisit this one day when I can give it the attention it deserves.


VOTE IN THE U.S. ELECTION.

book review: The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton | BookBrowse




THE DEVIL AND THE DARK WATER by Stuart Turton
★★★★☆
Bloomsbury, 2020



In 1634 on the day that world famous detective Samuel Pipps is set to board the Sardaam from Batavia to Amsterdam in handcuffs, the ship is approached by a leper who climbs atop a crate to declare a frightening prophecy: “The Sardaam‘s cargo is sin, and all who board her will be brought to merciless ruin. She will not reach Amsterdam.” The man then bursts into flames and dies moments later, at which time it’s discovered that, despite the prophecy he just announced, he has no tongue.

While the opening of this standalone mystery is explosive, The Devil and the Dark Water is a slow burner. It mostly follows Arent, Samuel Pipps’ bodyguard, a gruff yet honorable man intent on proving the innocence of his accused employer. It also follows Sara Wessel, a noblewoman trapped in an abusive marriage hoping to make a new life for herself in Amsterdam. The two form an unlikely friendship as the ship comes under siege by dark forces in the form of a demon called Old Tom that has a terrifying link to Arent’s past.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about the Dutch East India Trading Company HERE.

book review: Out by Natsuo Kirino




OUT by Natsuo Kirino
translated by Stephen Snyder
★★★☆☆
Vintage, 2005



What Out does successfully is depict the utter exhaustion and desperation of the working class (focusing on a group of women working in a boxed-lunch factory in the outskirts of Tokyo).  This book is as bleak and gritty as it gets, but I liked that; I liked that Natsuo Kirino had no interest in shying away from the horrific realities that drove these characters to make the decisions that they did.  It’s also hard to come away from this book without admiring Masako Katori, its central character; she’s a brilliant creation and a fantastic focal point.

The entire time I was reading I was planning on giving this 4 stars – 1 star deducted for Snyder’s egregiously clunky translation.  Just one example among many passages that caused me to roll my eyes into the back of my head:

“Why?”
“Because you’re a smart-ass.  I’m going to teach you about the big, bad world.”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” she said.
[…]
‘Because you’re a smart-ass,’ he’d said.  She couldn’t let him get away with that.

So reading this was not entirely smooth sailing, but for the most part I found it admirable and compelling enough to compensate for the fact that it is not ostensibly a page-turner.

But then we got to the end, which… oh boy.  It’s hard to talk about without spoiling, but, in essence – this book starts to lead toward an inexorable conclusion, and it does arrive there, so that isn’t the issue.  The issue is how it unfolds, which… I personally found more offensive than I can even adequately describe, lol.  Ok, fine, spoiler: it involves a rape fetish that we got to experience through two (2) different perspectives in excruciating detail.  To say this served no purpose, was tonally incongruous, and bastardized Masako’s character – would all be an understatement. 

I’m glad I finally read this as it’s been sitting on my shelf for years, but it also felt like a shame that I decided to pick it up for Women in Translation Month (I’m reviewing it rather belatedly) when it ended on a note that I found to be so fundamentally antifeminist it kind of cancelled out the brilliant character work that had come before.

book review: Luster by Raven Leilani





LUSTER by Raven Leilani
★★★☆☆
FSG, 2020


I guess it’s natural to be slightly underwhelmed by a book that’s gotten as much hype as Luster has.  And it absolutely does deserve the hype, in a lot of ways.  Raven Leilani’s voice and writing style are spectacular, and so is her characterization of protagonist Edie.  This is very much a “disaster women” book (i.e., a subgenre of literary fiction about 20-something year-old women having a lot of casual sex and making terrible life decisions) but it’s also its own thing, refreshing both in voice and structure. 

My main issue with this book isn’t even something it did wrong, per se – but about 40% through the book it took a turn that I didn’t want it to take, and we ended up spending the rest of the book in a situation that I found much less interesting than the one that had been presented to us at the beginning.  I didn’t find Rebecca to be a particularly convincing figure and her dynamic with Edie really failed to engage or move me.  Even less interesting to me was Eric, Edie’s love interest, an older, married, white man (Edie is a Black woman, and much younger than Eric – it’s a dynamic that facilitates moments of sharp insight on Leilani’s part but Eric himself is something of a wet blanket).  It’s Edie herself that holds this novel together (she’s a realistic, sympathetic, compelling figure); it’s the circumstances she finds herself in that I felt didn’t ultimately live up to their narrative potential.

I initially gave this 4 stars but I waited a few weeks to write this review and in that time this book has sort of faded in my estimation and I haven’t really thought about it since putting it down, so that’s never an amazing sign.  I think this is a promising debut in a lot of ways and Raven Leilani is absolutely an author I’ll be keeping an eye on, but this didn’t quite do what I wanted it to do for me.

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