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.

book review: Tokyo Ueno Station by Miri Yū





TOKYO UENO STATION by Miri Yū
★★★☆☆
Riverhead, 2020


Tokyo Ueno Station is a short, sparse book which follows the life of Kazu, born in 1933, the same year as the Emperor.  Kazu’s life (mostly characterized by tragedy and poverty) is thematically entwined with the Emperor’s through a series of coincidences that tie their families together – and it’s also closely connected to Ueno Park, a historically significant site in Tokyo that Kazu’s spirit now haunts after his death.

This is a mournful, elegant book that ultimately didn’t leave much of an impression on me.  In fact, I’m struggling to write this review because I finished this a few days ago and it’s already slipped from my mind almost entirely.  I don’t know what it was, because I didn’t find a single thing about this book to be overtly objectionable; it just didn’t fully come together for me.  I think the fragmented, vignette-style structure paired with its incredibly short length left me wanting more.

Also – in some ways this comparison seems absurd but I also can’t get it out of my head – this reminded me so much of When All Is Said by Anne Griffin (a book I really didn’t care for), which follows an elderly Irish man looking back on his life and the people who shaped him the most.  In both cases I felt like I was being spoon-fed these tragic stories on a very surface level without organically feeling any of it.  I do think Tokyo Ueno Station is the more accomplished book, but I guess ‘old men mournfully looking back on their sad lives-lit’ is not for me?

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

book review: The Lost Village by Camilla Sten





THE LOST VILLAGE by Camilla Sten
translated from the Swedish by Alex Fleming
★★★☆☆
Minotaur Books, April 6, 2021



The Lost Village, originally published in Swedish as Staden in 2019, has a rather striking premise: in the 1950s, all 900 inhabitants of a remote Swedish town vanished without a trace.  There were only two people left behind – a newborn baby and a woman stoned to death in the town square.  In the present-day, documentary filmmaker Alice has been obsessed with this town since she was a child, as her grandmother’s entire family disappeared in the incident (her grandmother had moved away and was living in Stockholm at the time), and Alice decides to make an excursion to the town with a small filmmaking crew to uncover the truth about what happened.

And the premise is indeed the strongest thing about it – it kept me turning pages simply because the central mystery was so bizarre and fascinating.  There are dual timelines, past and present, with the present-day getting more of a focus, and I thought this balance was done well.  The tone was also fantastic – I wouldn’t necessarily describe this book as creepy or gothic in atmosphere, but there was this sort of gently thrumming sense of terror throughout the whole thing (not dissimilar from Midsommar which this is probably going to be compared to quite a bit).

That said, my first issue with this book cropped up within the first few pages, which is simply that the writing is quite amateurish.  I’m not sure whether the clunkiness can be ascribed to the original prose or to the translation (I’m inclined to think the former – my issues weren’t typically with word choice as much as poorly written exposition), but either way, it took some getting used to.

I also found the treatment of mental health to be rather cringe-inducing.  Mild spoilers: It’s pretty obvious one character’s possible ‘psychosis’ is set up to be a red herring in a rather half-baked attempt to provide a meta commentary about the stigmatization of mental illness, which… isn’t half as progressive as thriller writers seem to think it is.  For one thing, try to read this exchange without rolling your eyes into the back of your head:

“I saw them in your tent,” he goes on.  “In the toiletry bag, when I was borrowing your toothpaste.  Abilify.”  He pauses.  When he goes on, his voice is heavy.

“Abilify is an antipsychotic.  Right?  That’s what it said on the packaging.”

And for another thing… why?  We know mental illness is stigmatized.  We know.  This is not a particularly clever or incisive or subversive commentary on that fact.  Maybe as a writer you could try to come up with a more creative way to sow seeds of doubt into a group of friends than the dramatic reveal of – gasp – Abilify

Anyway, it’s hard to comment on the resolution without giving anything away, so I’ll stay vague.  I found some parts satisfying, some annoyingly convenient, and some just raised the question how did the initial investigation overlook this?

So on the whole, I just found this frustratingly uneven in execution.  I certainly did enjoy reading this more often than not, I’d just encourage you to lower your standards if it piques your interest.

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

book review: Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas




CATHERINE HOUSE by Elisabeth Thomas
★★★☆☆
Custom House, May 2020




Whenever I read a book with a suspiciously low Goodreads rating I’m always all the more determined to love it – there’s something kind of fun about being in the minority in really ‘getting’ a book that goes over so many heads.  Sadly not the case here.  While I didn’t find this objectively terrible in any way, neither did I find it particularly special or pleasurable to read.

Following 18-year-old Ines who goes off to an experimental college, Catherine House subverts a lot of campus novel tropes.  Ines isn’t characterized by a passion for academia or a thirst for belonging or a love for her school – she’s socially and academically dispassionate to a fault.  Along with Ines’s lack of drive is a particularly conspicuous lack of atmosphere, and I think the Kazuo Ishiguro and Sarah Waters comparisons do this book a disservice if you go into it expecting a lush, indulgent, immersive setting.

While I did feel that Thomas did a great job of building suspense, to the point where I read this book in two sittings because there was something rather hypnotic about it, I also didn’t particularly care about what I was reading.  There’s a mystery at the heart of the school’s scientific research department, and I’m not sure whether the twist fell flat or whether I just was never invested enough to be moved by it.

Again, I don’t think this was bad or even unsuccessful in what it set out to do, and I can see it working perfectly for a certain type of reader.  Sadly it just wasn’t quite what I was looking for.

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

book review: They Never Learn by Layne Fargo




THEY NEVER LEARN by Layne Fargo
★★★★★
Gallery Scout Press, October 13, 2020





They Never Learn was the most fun I’ve had with a book in ages.  It’s far from perfect (it notably leans into an obsession with the glam femme fatale in a way that wouldn’t have been out of place with mid-2000s feminist media), but I’m just going to leave that criticism at the door because I had such a damn good time reading this.

It follows Scarlett, a professor-turned-vigilante serial killer who spends her evenings tracking down and murdering men who have abused women.  We also follow a student at her university, Carly, a shy 18-year-old who becomes infatuated with her roommate.  Their chapters alternate, each a short, 3-5 page segment that confidently leaps from one perspective to the next, daring the reader to keep up.  This book is a page-turner, first and foremost, and it does a spectacular job at cohering into something that you can devour in a single sitting if you’re so inclined. 

This book is so clever, so unexpected, so deliciously indulgent.  Scarlett is a brilliant creation, and Carly’s chapters work to ground the novel and develop a character whose quotidian anxieties you can sympathize with, while Scarlett’s chapters amp up the stakes.  Highly recommended to all thriller fans, with the caveat of there being a significant trigger warning for sexual assault.

I won an advanced copy of this book in a Goodreads giveaway; thanks Gallery Scout Press.  All thoughts are my own.

book review: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave





THE MERCIES by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
★★★★☆
Little, Brown and Co., 2020



This was a compelling read, a chilly and melancholy story about a fishing disaster and religious fanaticism in early 1600s Norway, buoyed by Millwood Hargrave’s elegant prose and deeply sympathetic characters.  The author’s attention to historical detail really shone through in her depiction of the village of Vardø, devastated by the loss of most of the male members of the community following a brutal storm; the surviving women then face yet more ruin following the arrival of Absalom Cornet, a Scottish commissioner tasked with spreading Christianity by witch-hunting suspected pagans in the community. 

My reading experience with this was all over the place – it was a 5 star book that dropped to somewhere around 2 or 3 stars by the end.  For me, this book felt like it was building and building toward an explosive climax, but instead sort of fizzled out – and I don’t just mean in the final scenes, which I know some readers took issue with; for me the entire final act sort of fell flat on its face.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but partway through a romance develops which didn’t materialize in a particularly interesting way for me – I thought it would have been a stronger and more interesting book without this element.  And while I of course loved the commentary on men fearing powerful women, at times this element felt a little too on the nose.  It’s not that Millwood Hargrave’s feminist agenda did a disservice to the book – certainly to the contrary – I just would have preferred a slightly defter touch.

That said, I did mostly enjoy reading this.  I think its biggest strength was the bleak, isolated atmosphere, which Millwood Hargrave captured to perfection.  (It reminded me quite a lot of Burial Rites in that regard.) I also thought Maren and Ursa were fantastic protagonists, each with a distinctive narrative voice. So ultimately, not a new favorite like I wanted it to be, but certainly worth a read.

book review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell | BookBrowse

43890641._sy475_

 

HAMNET by Maggie O’Farrell
Tinder Press, 2020
★★★★★

 

William Shakespeare’s name is never used in Hamnet — a conspicuous absence around which Maggie O’Farrell forms her richly imaginative narrative. Instead, the novel tells the story of those closest to Shakespeare: his parents, John and Mary; his wife Agnes; his daughter Susanna; and his twin children Hamnet and Judith. Shakespeare himself features in the narrative, though he is only ever described in relation to those around him, referred to as the Latin tutor, the husband, the father, the son. The result of this narrative decision is twofold: it pushes Shakespeare’s family to the foreground, but it also humanizes Shakespeare himself by reminding the reader that none of his works were created in a vacuum. This is the central conceit around which the novel’s climax is formed, as O’Farrell imagines the potential influence of Hamnet’s death in 1596 on Hamlet, written between 1599 and 1601.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about the real Anne Hathaway and Hamnet Shakespeare HERE.

book review: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

91twkwwssil

 

SUCH A FUN AGE by Kiley Reid
★★☆☆☆
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019

 

So, first things first: my expectations for this book were all wrong.  Most summaries of this book describe in detail the novel’s first 20 or so pages, in which the protagonist, Emira, a young Black woman, takes the white toddler she’s babysitting to a local supermarket and is accused of kidnapping her.  From this I expected something sort of Celeste Ng-esque, or maybe even comparable to Jodi Picoult’s courtroom thrillers; the reality of this book is much more banal.  Shortly after The Inciting Incident, everything goes back to normal, except for the fact that Alix, the mother of the toddler Emira was babysitting, becomes fixated on making amends, to the point where Emira’s wishes are disregarded entirely in Alix’s attempt to do good by her.

The theme of performative allyship is a topical one, but it’s not navigated with any particular finesse.  I think there’s a good book in here somewhere, buried deep under irritating dialogue and commonplace events unfolding with melodrama; take for example this description of a toddler throwing up at a dinner party – this is the seriousness with which this utterly unremarkable event is written: “And when Emira grabbed what she knew was a very expensive napkin and dove across the table to cover the toddler’s mouth, Jodi was the first to notice and scream.”  The chapter ends there.  At ‘Jodi was the first to notice and scream’ I thought the child was about to have a seizure and be rushed to the hospital, but not even in a way where I felt the tension?  This whole book was melodrama one-step removed.

And as much as I admired Reid’s intentions, I couldn’t help but to feel that the whole thing was just so heavy-handed.  It’s so easy to intuit Emira, Alix, and Kelley’s narrative functions so early on that I could never quite believe any of them as real people or become invested.  I just felt like Reid knew exactly what she wanted to say with this book but not how she wanted to say it; the novel as a whole feels clunky and unfocused, like a quilt that’s stapled together rather than sewn.

Ultimately: a perfectly fine debut and a good book club book (I don’t mean that in a judgmental way! if you want to force your friends or coworkers into having a serious conversation about racism and white allyship, by all means start here!) but as a literary novel this left so much to be desired that its inclusion in the Booker longlist is… baffling to me.

book review: Othello by William Shakespeare

81qz-9gkm7l

 

OTHELLO by William Shakespeare
★★★★☆
first published 1603

 

Othello is undoubtedly a brilliant piece of literature and theatre; it’s a riveting story about the worst parts of human nature that culminates in a satisfyingly tragic conclusion.  And Iago is undeniably a brilliant character; his masterclass in manipulation is mesmerizing to watch.  But it was also a particularly interesting play to read amidst the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, as discussions about Black representation in the media are currently in our cultural foreground.

There’s a contradiction at the heart of Othello that makes for unsettling reading: Iago, while ostensibly the villain to Othello’s tragic hero, is also the character that the audience has the strongest connection with through a series of prominent soliloquies (that Othello himself is denied); Iago is also a flagrant racist.  Reconciling these two truths about Iago is a challenge, and no matter which way you look at it, it doesn’t sit comfortably as we circle the ‘is this play racist’ question.

On the one hand it’s easy to argue that because Othello is the hero and Iago is the villain, the play itself has (what we would call in our contemporary terminology) anti-racist intentions.  But I also think that largely discounts the shocking, brutally violent act that Othello commits on stage in (spoiler) killing his white wife Desdemona, the archetype of the waify ingenue.  Even if you know it’s coming, the optics of this scene are shocking and hard to stomach.  In the 1990s British-Ghanaian RSC actor Hugh Quarshie actually argued that Othello is the one Shakespeare role that should never be played by a Black actor; he then surprisingly went on to play Othello in 2015 (incidentally in the first RSC production to cast a Black actor as Iago as well), stating “Only by black actors playing the role can we address some of the racist traditions and assumptions that the play is based on.”

If there are any hard and fast conclusions to be drawn here regarding Othello and representation, they’re certainly not meant to be drawn by me as a white person.  This was just on my mind as I read and I’d find it disingenuous to pretend my overall feelings on the play weren’t at all affected by considering this question and its implications.

However, on an entirely separate note: one thing I don’t love about this play is how utterly ambivalent I am to the characters’ inner lives.  I do think there’s depth to be added to these characters by good actors and good directors, but I also think a lot of that depth is not necessarily present in the text itself.  What’s compelling about this play is the interpersonal dynamics, not the characters individually.  I almost feel like everyone’s character is inextricably tied to the events of the play, in a way that feels almost the antithesis of Hamlet or Lear, where all of the characters’ inner lives and motives are so intricate.

But, as I said, the interpersonal really shines here.  Othello and Iago positioned as mirrors to one another’s jealousy is done expertly.  And Emilia is a fascinating character to me as well as she relates to Iago and Desdemona, with the apparent contradiction in her actions and loyalties.  Anyway to say I have mixed feelings on Othello is an understatement, but that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy it or haven’t enjoyed the time I’ve spent wrestling with it.


NB.  Project Shakespeare, in which a small group of friends and I perform a different Shakespeare play each week over Zoom, is mostly all-white, which is unfortunate for a lot of reasons, and we have collectively made the decision to not perform the plays with non-white characters: Othello, Titus Andronicus, Merchant of Venice, and Antony & Cleopatra.  I was planning on making a single blog post about these 4 plays in the vein that I’ve been doing my monthly Project Shakespeare wrap ups.  But this weekend some of us from our group had a mini book club session on Othello and it got my mind racing and I knew if I held off until I read all 4 of these plays I’d have a lot less to say – SO, it looks like you’re getting individual reviews!