book review: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan






SMALL THINGS LIKE THESE by Claire Keegan
★★★★☆
Grove Atlantic, November 30, 2021






Small Things Like These is the second standalone novella by award-winning short story writer Claire Keegan. It tells the story of Bill Furlong, a man born to a single mother in a small Irish town in the 1940s, who now in the 1980s runs his own coal and timber business, and who, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, meets a girl at a Magdalen Laundry whose physical state and predicament concerns him. 

With shades of A Christmas Carol, Small Things Like These is the story of a man wrestling with his own morality when doing the right thing means going against the Catholic Church, which has a stranglehold over his town. What I found so affecting about this book was Keegan’s deft touch — her prose reads effortlessly and the horrors of the Magdalen Laundries are elucidated not through graphic, violent descriptions, but in the harrowing small moments of abuse captured. Character and setting are rendered with impressive detail given the scarcity of pages, and I found this to be a great place to start with Keegan, whose backlist I’m keen to explore now.


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

book review: The Burning Girls by CJ Tudor






THE BURNING GIRLS
★★☆☆☆
Ballantine Books, 2021





The Burning Girls follows Jack, a vicar who relocates from Nottingham with her daughter Flo to a small town in Sussex, a town that has a rich and eerie history involving Queen Mary’s purge of Protestants in the 1500s, and an unsolved mystery of two missing girls from the 1990s. Jack and Flo get drawn into the town’s mysteries almost immediately as a strange series of events begins to unfold, and Jack also has secrets of her own, because she’s a thriller protagonist so of course she does.

I mostly had a fun time reading The Burning Girls, but the whole thing fell apart for me at the end. This is a book that’s trying to do so many things and fully committing to none of them; I was rooting for it to all come together but it just didn’t. Threads are left open, subplots are left underdeveloped, the inclusion of certain details remains incomprehensible. I guessed the main twist out of left field very early on, so the whole time I had my eye on ‘evidence’ that would prove it, and I ultimately felt that it was so poorly executed it could hardly justify itself.

I also found the representation in this book incredibly concerning. The only Black characters are unhinged abusers committing welfare fraud, the only character with depression is a domestic abuser, the only gay character is closeted and self-loathing, and the less said about the character with dystonia, the better. None of these stereotypes are presented to be subverted or challenged or compensated with good representation elsewhere; it’s just a concerning blend of harmful tropes to absolutely no end.

Anyway, I’m not sure where to go from here with CJ Tudor — this is my third book of hers, and I’ve yet to give any of them higher than a 3-star rating, but I guess there’s something that keeps drawing me back to her. I should probably just accept that I enjoy her settings and premises more than I enjoy her writing (which I found especially corny here).


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

book review: Disoriental by Négar Djavadi | #WITmonth2021







DISORIENTAL by Négar Djavadi
★★★★★
Europa Editions, 2018




Both a multigenerational family saga and an intensive primer on modern Iranian history, Disoriental is translated from the French with skill and humor by Tina Kover; the resulting novel is an absolute tour de force. We meet Kimiâ Sadr in the waiting room of a fertility clinic in Paris, and the pages that follow tell the story of her family’s history, unfolding in a nonlinear fashion and focusing largely on her father, journalist and radical activist Darius Sadr.

This is a complex book both in terms of structure and subject, but Djavadi manages to navigate it with finesse, making this an unexpectedly smooth reading experience. I’m firmly of the belief that it’s not an author’s responsibility to educate the reader about their country’s history and culture, and I’m not sure what Djavadi’s intentions were with this novel, whether she envisioned it primarily in the hands of international readers, but as someone who knows shamefully little about Iranian history, I never felt out of my depth and I appreciated the level of detail — informative but not overwhelming. 

The story itself is hard to sum up in brief, so I’m going to take the easy way out and not attempt to, but Disoriental is a darkly funny, affecting, thought-provoking work that I’m happy to have read; maybe the highlight of Women in Translation Month for me.

book review: Madam by Phoebe Wynne







MADAM by Phoebe Wynne
★☆☆☆☆
St. Martin’s Press, 2021






Mamma mia where do I begin.

Despite having a deliciously enticing premise, Madam fails on just about every level. Set at the fictional Scottish all girls’ boarding school Caldonbrae Hall, Madam introduces Rose, a bright young ingenue of a teacher who gets a job as the head of Caldonbrae’s Classics department — notably and oddly, she’s the school’s first outside hire in over a decade. She arrives at Caldonbrae and quickly discerns that there is fuckery afoot. 

The entire function of Rose’s character is to unearth the fuckery. There is so little interiority to her character that there is never a sense that she is a real person living this experience; she is transparently a thriller protagonist bumbling around chasing clues, and she does an agonizingly terrible job at it. Every time a character starts to reveal something and then realizes they’ve said too much, Rose lets it go — quite the impressive regard for boundaries, given the fact that when she isn’t walking away from people mid-conversation, she’s asking everyone and their mother impertinent questions that go nowhere. This is, quite literally, the entire book. The fuckery is, of course, eventually unearthed, and yes, it was indeed the most obvious explanation that you guessed by page 50, but anyway, what happens at this point in the book? Rose actually takes the fate of her students into her own hands? She allies with someone to bring about systemic change? She realizes resistance is futile and makes a plan to get the hell out of Dodge? No, she basically just… asks more questions. More specific questions, this time around, to be fair to her.

Anyway, I mentioned briefly that Rose is a Classics teacher, so let’s go back to that. Having been raised by a second-wave feminist, Rose has internalized a lot of her mother’s values (she wouldn’t go as far as to call herself a feminist though, heaven forfend! Sidebar: I’m not sure that in 2021 we still need novels that spoon-feed feminist ideology to the reader by adding a spoonful of sugar to the medicine, holding our hand and reassuring us that “women are people too” isn’t a radical, scary notion, but… Phoebe Wynne disagrees, I guess). Anyway, Rose is drawn to female characters and historical figures from Greek and Roman mythology and history, and spotlights a handful of them — Antigone, Dido, Medea, Lucretia, et al. — in her classes. The integration of classics into this novel is so ham-fisted, so unsubtle, so unnecessary, it bears asking why it had to be the classics at all. The Secret History (a very different project with very different aims that I am not attempting to compare to Madam on a deeper level, to be clear) would not be The Secret History if it were about a group of chemical engineering students — the classics are so integral to that novel’s themes and framework that it would crumble without that element. If We Were Villains would not be If We Were Villains if the students were studying Jane Austen instead of Shakespeare. This isn’t a criticism; it shows how deliberately constructed those novels are. In Madam, the classics are merely an arbitrary addition that could have been substituted with impactful women from any period of literature or history and netted the exact same result: a half-baked commentary on how History Has Not Been Kind To Women.

Aside from being thematically careless, this book was just poorly written on a sentence-by-sentence level. Inexplicably, most scenes are recounted in the pluperfect tense:

“Earlier that morning she’d knotted her unruly hair into a thick plait[…]” 

“Rose had gazed at the delightful picture they all made, touching her own blazer with a tinge of shame.”

She’d stopped by Anthony’s office on Friday to see if he wanted to go for a walk together over the weekend.”

Why? Why are we being narrated scenes that already happened rather than just… being shown those scenes? The whole thing takes on a very tell-don’t-show style, which I believe can work in certain circumstances, but this ain’t it. Also, the details in this book are all in the wrong places. It’s set at a boarding school, and the school itself is barely described — we are usually up to date on the state of Rose’s hair, though. I also think it should be a cardinal sin for a book to start with a journey (in this case: Rose on the train to Caldonbrae), end the chapter when they arrive, and start the following chapter the next morning. We don’t see Rose settling into her flat, we don’t see her walking around the school, we don’t see any of it. The exposition is just terrible. Characters are also introduced at such a lightning speed that I couldn’t keep track of who anyone was and I had no sense of how many students or teachers were at this school.

Changing gears now: as other reviewers have noted, the white saviorism and the tokenistic portrayal of a group of Japanese students is downright shameful. Diversity does not need to serve a narrative function, and indeed, it’s often better when it does not, especially in the hands of a white author writing about non-white characters. Here, the function is both extant and obvious: it’s to illustrate by comparison how progressive Rose is. And I quote:

“The general spread of white faces made Rose uncomfortable despite the small handful of Asian girls, who seemed to group together. This lack of diversity leaked across the staff, too — not at all appropriate or modern for the nineties, she thought.” 

Speaking of diversity and representation, I’m not sure why some people are calling this book queer? It’s not. There is one (1) lesbian character, not the protagonist, and she’s a self-loathing alcoholic, so… not sure why that’s something to celebrate, but whatever.

Anyway, back to the above quote, gross depiction of Japanese students aside — this book is set in the 1990s. That sweet spot for dark academia novels, where authors have the convenience of writing virtually about the present-day, but where the characters don’t have cell phones and laptops which would destroy both the atmosphere and undermine the characters’ work at solving the mystery. That’s all fine and well, but if you take out all the references to Queen and Batman Begins, this book feels like something out of the 1800s. You will hear no disputes from me about the fact that misogyny is alive and well and that certain individuals and institutions hold antiquated values, but those conservative values are satirized to such an extreme here that they start to feel utterly absurd. And the problem is that this book is not trying to be satire. I’m supposed to take it at face value, even when it’s pushing my suspension of disbelief further and further past its breaking point.

Which brings us to The Fuckery. As discussed, I found it very obvious, but that is honestly the least of my damn concerns. The details here were just… so, so ridiculous, trying so hard to be provocative. The “Worship” scene (if you know you know) is the most unintentionally funny thing I have read in my entire life. This was supposed to be a horrifying scene and I just couldn’t stop laughing at the fact that someone actually greenlit this garbage. I could practically see Phoebe Wynne rubbing her hands together in glee for having shocked the reader with something so DARING and TABOO when it actually just served to undermine the impact of whatever psychological abuse was going on here by turning the whole thing into a dark, fucked up cartoonish pantomime. 

This was just an incoherent, poorly-constructed project that had no ardor, no artistic integrity, and no intrigue. It was bizarrely terrible and did not have a single redeeming quality and it made me feel cynical about my profession (I’m an editor) and if you take anything from this review let it be this: read literally any other book! Please! I don’t care how good the summary is! I suffered so you don’t have to!!!


Thank you to Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.

book review: Mirrorland by Carole Johnstone






MIRRORLAND by Carole Johnstone
★★☆☆☆
Scribner, 2021





Pitched as Gone Girl meets Room, Mirrorland tells the story of identical twin sisters Cat and El, who survive a bizarre, insular childhood in Edinburgh by inventing Mirrorland, an imaginary, Narnia-esque world that lives under the pantry stairs. Years have gone by and now we follow Cat, who’s estranged from her sister and living in Los Angeles, until she gets a call from El’s husband, Ross, begging her to return to Edinburgh as El has gone missing, which involves returning to the house they grew up in, as Ross and El are now living there.

That this is the author’s debut novel is very apparent; most of the problems are with its poor pacing and its inexpert synthesis of the mystery and childhood trauma narratives. Flashback passages are shoehorned into the present-day narrative with an abruptness that almost feels deliberate, almost feels like a commentary on trauma, but which mostly ends up feeling poorly written. These flashbacks were so detailed and so repetitive that I mostly found myself skimming them as they failed to advance the characterization or the present-day narrative in any way; they did, ultimately, contain clues that tied into the mystery, but I ended up guessing most of the twists anyway, even without giving large segments of this book my full attention. 

I’m struggling a bit to rate this one as I weirdly did enjoy reading parts of it — once it really got its momentum up, around 50-60% in, I couldn’t put it down — but the negatives far outweigh the positives of this reading experience. I’d skip it unless there’s something unique about this premise that appeals to you.


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

book review: Seek You by Kristen Radtke | BookBrowse






SEEK YOU by Kristen Radtke
★★★★☆
Pantheon Books, 2021




In the first pages of Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, Kristen Radtke’s sophomore work, she explains that radio operators call out across frequencies with what is known as a “CQ call,” named as such because “CQ” sounds like the first syllable of sécurité, or “pay attention,” in French. In English, radio users took to calling it “seek you.” In this graphic work of nonfiction, Kristen Radtke explores this concept of reaching outward, turning the CQ call into a metaphorical representation of 21st century American existence.

With a muted palette of mostly blues, greens and oranges, Radtke illustrates a series of graphic essays, each devoted to a different sociological study or phenomenon or observation on loneliness.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse and you can read a piece I wrote about graphic works of nonfiction HERE.

book review: Persuasion by Jane Austen





PERSUASION by Jane Austen
★★★★★
originally published in 1817




I thought Persuasion was brilliant and when I finished I briefly flirted with the idea that it might be my favorite Austen novel. I ultimately decided that I was downplaying my feelings for Mansfield Park in favor of what I feel might be a technically better book, but I can no longer deny that Mansfield Park touched me in a way that Persuasion did not. 

Still, this is a damn good book. Decidedly more mature and melancholy than most of Austen’s works, Persuasion is probably the slowest of all of Austen’s slow burns, but I felt that the pacing was so deliberate and the setup so juicy that I couldn’t fault it for that. (Plus, it’s 200 pages shorter than Emma.)

Continuing on in my love for Austen’s more reserved heroines, I found Anne Elliot to be a brilliant creation. Having once been persuaded by her family to refuse the proposal of naval officer Frederick Wentworth, Anne finds herself eight years later confronted with Wentworth once again and is forced to face the feelings for him that she thought she had long buried. Interestingly, not a whole lot of interaction between Anne and Wentworth ensues (and there isn’t much plot to speak of beyond a secondary character having a traumatic head injury) — but still Anne and Wentworth’s relationship is one of my favorite things Austen has written. This is an unfalteringly internal work, and Austen chronicles the growth in Anne with such convincing subtlety that this novel’s realism can’t help but to be marveled at.

Some might fault this book for being less witty and humorous than her others, but I think her wit shines through in her piercing observations about class and the shifting social hierarchy. It’s certainly a less lively novel than any of her earlier works, but that’s what I admire so much about it: that Austen was able to create such a compelling and insular story that’s captivating not for its sarcasm and banter, but for its earnest and reflective depiction of two people finding their way back into each other’s lives at the right moment.

book review: Emma by Jane Austen






EMMA by Jane Austen
★★☆☆☆
originally published in 1815




I know that sometimes when reviewing classics I have to fight against the impulse to defer to centuries’ worth of scholarly analysis when my own opinion doesn’t align with the masses: but in this case, I will confidently own the fact that I hated every single second of this book. And I am sure that I will be met with backlash, but this is a subjective blog review. My opinion on this book quite literally does not matter. Please keep scrolling if this offends your Austenite sensibilities. But I do want everyone to know that I think Emma is garbage.

However, what I will also own is the fact that I didn’t choose a particularly prudent moment in my life to read this book. I am going through a situation that made being asked to sympathize with a privileged, entitled, manipulative protagonist feel like having teeth pulled. I know that these qualities objectively make Emma Woodhouse a more interesting character — but I quite literally could not care less! There is nothing on earth I would have resented reading about more in that moment.

Anyway, personal baggage aside, I found this book to be tremendously bloated and self-indulgent. I know that Austen novels aren’t exactly page turners on the best of days, but my god, there was not a single thing here that managed to earn my investment. When I wasn’t irrationally furious about the way Emma was treating Harriet (ok, fine, maybe my personal baggage isn’t totally aside), I was bored out of my mind. I can imagine that a lot of readers are compelled by the fact that Emma doesn’t need to marry in the way that other Austen heroines do, but I found that that took away the very limited intrigue that Austen novels hold for me.

I should also confess that I just don’t really *get* that famous Austenian wit that readers find so endearing, and which seems to be a huge draw for Emma in particular. I just didn’t find this book particularly charming or funny or lively and if that element is taken away, what on earth is even left?

The one thing I will hand this book is that the narration is executed very well, but that doesn’t justify there being 500 pages of it. And make no mistake, the length IS the problem. I felt that a similar length was warranted in Mansfield Park which used those pages to develop theme and social commentary; Emma, in contrast, unfolds like a very straightforward parable, whose trajectory and moral can be summed up in a single sentence, and I have very little patience for this kind of book, where I feel like I get the point about 20 pages in and am then made to suffer through an agonizingly slow pantomime acted out by dull, lifeless, and/or irritating characters.

I should probably give Emma a second chance at some point in my life but I can fairly confidently say that I do not want to, so, here we are. Sorry. At least I will always have Clueless.

book review: Mansfield Park by Jane Austen






MANSFIELD PARK by Jane Austen
★★★★★
originally published in 1814




Full disclosure that I wouldn’t exactly call myself the biggest Austen fan — I can recognize where Pride and Prejudice is romantic and Sense and Sensibility is charming, but personally I remain curiously unmoved by most of her works. But I still went ahead and read through all of them this year, and a few months after having finished this project, the one that stands out to me head and shoulders above the rest is Mansfield Park. This is the only Austen novel I actively enjoyed reading; the only one I thought about when I put it down; the only one that I actually think will be worth revisiting. I’m sure some of you will think I’m being a contrarian just for the sake of it, given that this is widely regarded as her worst novel, but hopefully I can convince you of some of its merits by the end of this (highly anticipated????) review.

One thing that I tend to look for in books, strictly as a personal preference, is high stakes, which are something that’s conspicuously lacking from most Austen novels. This isn’t a criticism; I can’t fault her for something she isn’t trying to do. But it’s the reason I can’t really get into romance narratives; I need there to be something bigger going on than ‘will x and y end up together’. (This isn’t confined solely to the romance genre; it’s the reason Much Ado About Nothing is one of my least favorite Shakespeare plays. Sorry.)

Mansfield Park just had that elevated je ne sais quoi that I was looking for. Unlike most of Austen’s heroines, Fanny Price is poor, with little to no prospects in her life, until she’s plucked from obscurity at age 11 to live with her wealthy cousins at the titular Mansfield Park, who give her quite the Cinderella treatment, with the exception of her cousin Edmund, who actually dares to pay her the time of day. Consequently, Fanny is nothing like the brash Emma Woodhouse or the self-assured Lizzy Bennet or any of the other bold, brazen Austen heroines that are so universally adored — and it’s because she quite literally cannot afford to be. That Fanny’s social status is so precarious added a layer of intrigue for me — the stakes may not be sky high, but suddenly there’s something darker and more sinister at play. 

Fanny herself is, you guessed it!, my favorite heroine for similar reasons. It’s easy to dismiss Fanny for being dull, quiet, and submissive, but the context of her upbringing can’t be ignored. In her rousing defense of Fanny Price from a 2014 Paris Review essay, Tara Isabella Burton writes:

“The qualities of your typical Austen heroine—charming, forward, quick at learning—are rooted in privilege […] And so Fanny is never given the chance to exhibit the qualities of a “good” Austen heroine; she’s told from childhood that she is dull, stupid, and inadequate until she herself internalizes “my situation—my foolishness and awkwardness.” […] In wanting Fanny to be cleverer, bolder, sexier than she is—in wanting her to be more like Mary—we become complicit in the world of Mansfield Park, and in the politics of exclusion through which Mansfield thrives.”

This is what I find so dismaying about the way a lot of people talk about Mansfield Park. To be bored by the novel is one thing, fair enough; but to hate Fanny for her timidity when she is a poor, neglected, emotionally abused child living under the thumb of her cruel and capricious family who expect her to perform nothing but gratitude while failing to allow her a seat at their table is something I can’t quite understand. I also can’t imagine reading a passage like this and not being moved, or maybe this just hit too hard when I think back on the experience of being a Shy Kid who used to live in the background of other people’s stories:

“She could not equal them in their warmth. Her spirits sank under the glow of theirs, and she felt herself becoming too nearly nothing to both, to have any comfort in having been sought by either.”

When Fanny stands up for herself by denying a wealthy suitor that everyone in her life wants her to accept, that moment hits all the harder for the fact that you know exactly what this moment of defiance is costing her. For me, that moment is the boldest display of strength that any Austen character shows.

Choosing to frame this story around Fanny in the first place is also a choice worth examining; her foil, Mary Crawford, an interesting character in her own right, has more in common with Austen’s other heroines than Fanny does. This book isn’t interested in selling the reader a romantic fantasy of living in Regency England, a narrative which could have been achieved quite easily by telling this story through Mary’s eyes — more than in any other work, the social commentary takes center stage, and it was this too that compelled me.

I’ve heard some people say that this book is more intriguing than it is enjoyable, but I have to disagree there too. The sequence of chapters leading up to the play is the most tension I have personally experienced in any Austen novel; I flew through those pages. Say what you will about Edmund and how much or little you personally would want to date him, but I felt Fanny’s love for Edmund in a way that I couldn’t personally feel in a single other Austen novel. I’m not saying that her other heroines weren’t actually in love; just that their love wasn’t communicated to me in a deeper way than simply reading the words on a page. Fanny felt like a real person to me in a way her characters often do not.

This is easily Austen’s most didactic and most conservative work, and my enjoyment of it isn’t meant to be taken as a tacit endorsement of every idea she espouses here about Christian virtue and class and social status. In fact, I agree with almost none of it. But I don’t enjoy books for being a series of observations on life and society that I happen to agree with; I enjoy them for compelling me, moving me, challenging me, and making me think. Mansfield Park achieved all of that and none of Austen’s other novels did, and for that it is my favorite, and one that I wish more people would spend some time with.

book review: Cassandra by Christa Wolf | #WITmonth2021






CASSANDRA: A NOVEL AND FOUR ESSAYS by Christa Wolf
translated from the German by Jan van Heurck
★★★★☆
FSG, 1983





I read and adored Christa Wolf’s Medea years ago — a fiercely human and political retelling of the myth — and have been wanting to read Cassandra ever since. Oddly, I’ve been misremembering for years that these books have the same English-language translator; they do not, and I think that factor alone might be responsible for the fact that I had a stronger reaction to Medea than I did to Cassandra. Jan van Heurck’s translation here is serviceable, but John Cullen’s Medea translation really sings in a way this one does not. (Hannah, whose favorite novel is Cassandra, has assured me that the German-language prose in Cassandra is much stronger than in Medea, but knows other English-language readers who share my assessment of the two.)

In this volume published by FSG in the 80s, Wolf’s novel Cassandra is published alongside four essays which were originally presented as a lecture series. The first two are travel diaries that detail Wolf’s journey to ancient sites in Greece, the next is a personal journal entry, and the final one is a letter. Through these essays the reader comes to not only see what a passion project this novel was for Wolf, but also to see the myriad of factors from her contemporary sociopolitical perspective that influenced her perception of the Cassandra character. She writes of the ways in which her concept of Cassandra evolve throughout her research:

The character continually changes as I occupy myself with the material; the deadly seriousness, and everything heroic and tragic, is disappearing; accordingly, compassion and unilateral bias in her favor are disappearing, too. I view her more soberly, even with irony and humor. I see through her.

The novel, which comes first in this bind-up, is essentially a monologue from Cassandra’s perspective, narrating her account of the Trojan War as her death draws nearer. Like Medea, this is a very political retelling, focused not only on Cassandra’s life but also the machinations of the Trojan court, notably subverting the romantic notion that the war was waged for Helen’s honor and beauty, instead exposing that that was a smoke screen for Greek occupation, actually driven by an interest in Troy’s trade routes.

This book in both of its halves — novel and essays — is a beautiful and thoughtful meditation on the destructive effects of war on the individual. I’m glad I finally made the time to read it, I only wish I were capable of reading it in the original German, in which I suspect it may have affected me a bit more.