book review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke





PIRANESI by Susanna Clarke
★★★★★
Bloomsbury, 2020


I’ve never read Susanna Clarke’s much-acclaimed debut Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and I don’t always do well with the sort of speculative novel where the reader is thrust into an undefined circumstance and spends the majority of the book waiting for the full picture to cohere. And that is… pretty much exactly what Piranesi is, so, it’s a testament to this book’s brilliance that I loved it despite how ill-suited it is to my personal tastes. So if, like me, you read the first page of Piranesi and groaned because it read like a bunch of gibberish, I’m going to have to implore you to stick with it for a hot second and let it work its magic. (It’s short!)

The thing that quickly won me over is Susanna Clarke’s writing and how beautifully-rendered this imaginative setting is. I think it’s best to go into Piranesi knowing as little as possible, so I won’t really talk about the plot, but suffice to say it’s set in a giant House which is essentially a labyrinth of halls, each lined with hundreds of statues, and in the middle of the House is an ocean. I’m usually not one to relish in descriptive writing but this setting was just so striking, so delightfully offbeat, that I was drawn in pretty effortlessly. As others have said, this book is kind of like a puzzle, but not one that you should race through the book to solve; it’s the sort of reading experience that’s better savored. 

Without saying too much, what hit me the hardest about this book is its depiction of loneliness. It’s ostensibly a cerebral, ethereal, illusory book, but the longer I think about it, the more current and relevant it feels and its inclusion on the Women’s Prize longlist makes perfect sense to me. I’m delighted to have read it and it’s a book I know I’m going to want to return to.

book review: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi





TRANSCENDENT KINGDOM by Yaa Gyasi
★★★★★
Knopf, 2020


This book absolutely floored me. I read it in under 24 hours, though it’s almost difficult to explain why: it’s not (ostensibly) a page-turner and there’s really no plot to speak of. But once I started reading I couldn’t stop; I found Gyasi’s prose so inviting and mesmerising and before I knew it I’d read the whole thing and it had utterly wrecked me.

The thing about Transcendent Kingdom is that it has no business working as well as it does. Gyasi tackles grief, siblinghood, loneliness, immigration, racism, science, religion, and opioid addiction, and it feels almost too ambitious for a book under 300 pages. Often when authors try to balance this many disparate threads, some get lost in the shuffle; it’s challenging to navigate each topic with the weight and respect they deserve, but that’s exactly what Gyasi does here–everything coheres seamlessly.

It’s a difficult book to review, though, because I’ve probably just made it sound like it’s a novel full of ideas and nothing else. But the most impressive thing Gyasi does is perform her thorough thematic excavation without sacrificing the narrative. Again, it’s not a plot-heavy book, but it’s effectively character-driven, and Gifty, a neuroscientist coping with the death of her brother and her difficult relationship with her mother, is a brilliant, vibrant, believable protagonist.

This is one of the most technically impressive and emotionally resonant books I’ve read in ages; it deserves all the hype and more.

book review: The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin






THE ART OF FALLING by Danielle McLaughlin
★★★☆☆
Random House, 2021


I started out loving this but it did eventually start to fall in my estimation. I adored McLaughlin’s writing: it’s clear-eyed and pacy and this is, on the whole, a fairly enjoyable read. I’m also a sucker for anything having to do with art or art history or museums, so I loved the plot thread involving a woman turning up out of nowhere and claiming to have been responsible for a sculpture supposed to have been created by the late, famous artist Robert Locke. 

Where I felt this novel fell short of its potential was in its domestic storyline: it follows art historian Nessa’s failing marriage (her husband has recently cheated on her and they’re trying to get past it for the sake of their teenage daughter), and it also introduces a figure from Nessa’s past who holds a secret about her. For one thing, the two threads (Nessa’s work at the museum and her home life) don’t dovetail in a way that I find satisfying or realistic (Luke’s hyperfixation on the statue was something I found almost absurd in how it was so transparently shoehorned in there). And for another thing, the secret about Nessa’s past revealed something that shone rather a different light on her husband’s cheating, which I felt could have added so much depth and complexity to that dynamic but which instead ended up feeling rather underexplored. 

On the whole this wasn’t bad but I also don’t think it quite showcases what Danielle McLaughlin is capable of.

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

some brief thoughts on Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen



PRIDE AND PREJUDICE by Jane Austen
★★★★☆
originally published in 1813




Pride and Prejudice is a lovelier, funnier, and more confident book than Sense and Sensibility and I certainly enjoyed it much more than its predecessor. Very glad to have finally read this one and I’m just as charmed by Lizzy Bennet as most readers have been for centuries. I still feel like I’m missing something though, I must confess. While I chalked up some of my Sense and Sensibility apathy to that book’s relative messiness and immaturity, Pride and Prejudice is inarguably an air-tight work–and yet, one that I can’t say I loved reading from start to finish. I’m not sure what this is. I don’t get on with Austen’s writing style as well as I do with other classic authors but I’m also wondering if the stakes in her books are simply too low for me–this is a personal taste thing, not a criticism. Stay tuned for more installments of me articulating my muddled thoughts on Austen over the next few months. 

book review: Consent by Annabel Lyon



CONSENT by Annabel Lyon
★★★★★
Knopf, 2021


Well, this was a weird one and its relatively low Goodreads rating is hardly a mystery; what I’m finding more difficult is talking about how brilliant I thought it was. Due to its title I was expecting Consent to be a book about sexual violence, which seems like a reasonable expectation, so I think it’s good to say upfront that it’s not at all — instead it’s a sort of domestic drama about two sets of sisters, Sara and Mattie (Sara is older and cares for her intellectually disabled younger sister) and Saskia and Jenny (twins). 

I’m not going to say anything about the plot, because reading the summary gives away a good chunk of the book, which I found sort of odd. It does take quite a while for Annabel Lyon to get to ‘the point,’ so to speak, but to summarize what happens at 20% is to do a huge disservice to the preamble, which, far from being irrelevant, is a wonderfully mesmerizing and offbeat introduction into these characters’ lives. This was one of the most pleasurable books I’ve read in ages; Lyon’s writing goes down easy but there’s also something acerbic just below the surface. The story itself twists and turns, but it’s still more literary than thriller; the mystery aspects are almost window dressing to the darker, weirder thing living at this book’s center. 

I can imagine what the critiques of this book look like: unfocused, joyless, slow, unresolved, odd. It’s not for everyone. It has no interest in answering the reader’s questions. But still it’s a striking, affecting examination of obligation and shame and guilt. I don’t really see it advancing to the Women’s Prize shortlist, but it’s one of the smartest and most confident books I’ve read in a while and destined to be one of my personal favorites off the list.

book review: The Project by Courtney Summers | BookBrowse




THE PROJECT by Courtney Summers
★★★★☆
Wednesday Books, 2020



Bea and Lo Denham are inseparable sisters until their parents die in a car crash that Lo narrowly survives. Bea, depressed and desperate after the accident, falls into the arms of The Unity Project, a religious community that embraces her as she abandons her sister to the care of their great aunt. Years later, alone in the world after the death of their aunt and working as a secretary for a prestigious journalist, 19-year-old Lo is determined to unmask The Unity Project for what she believes it to be: a cult that indoctrinated her unwitting sister.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about cult psychology HERE.

book review: That Way Madness Lies, edited by Dahlia Adler




THAT WAY MADNESS LIES edited by Dahlia Adler
★★★☆☆
Flatiron, March 16, 2021


I only requested this anthology so I could read the Lear story and move on with my life (in my quest to read every Lear retelling I can get my hands on), but what can I say, once I had it on my Kindle I couldn’t resist. Even though I don’t particularly like YA and didn’t have the highest of hopes that these stories would engage with the plays in particularly interesting ways. Still, there were some pleasant surprises here.

That Way Madness Lies is a YA anthology by a handful of noted writers, each retelling a different Shakespeare play. The selection of plays itself is very good–there are the crowd pleasers as well as a couple of unexpected ones. The organization of this anthology bothered me on a couple of levels–first off, why is The Winter’s Tale placed in the Late Romances category but not The Tempest? We’re also frequently treated to 1-page author’s notes after stories, all of the same tenor; “this is why the original play was problematic and here’s how I decided to fix it”. Which, aside from being jarring and downright annoying, showed such a blatant disregard for Shakespearean scholarship that I had to laugh–yes, of course this is a commercial anthology intended for a young audience but my god, patting yourself on the back for being brave enough to consider The Merchant of Venice through Shylock’s perspective as if scholars, directors, actors, and audiences haven’t been doing exactly that for centuries is solipsistic to the extreme. 

Anyway, as always with anthologies, it’s a mixed bag. Some of these stories are unexpected and brilliant and others fall spectacularly flat. So, let’s do this.

Comedies

“Severe Weather Warning” by Austin Siegemund-Broka and Emily Wibberley (The Tempest) – 4 stars
A nice and melancholy snapshot into sibling rivalry as a storm rages outside, delaying Prosper’s sister’s flight to a prestigious internship that she effectively stole from her sister. Really enjoyed this one and felt that it was one of the most successful stories in accessing the original play’s themes even as a nonliteral reimagining. 

“Shipwrecked” by Mark Oshiro (Twelfth Night) – 3 stars
Twelfth Night meets high school prom–we’ve got some love and heartbreak coupled with mistaken identity shenanigans as one twin has recently come out as nonbinary and has started to resemble their brother. It’s a bit corny but mostly harmless. 

“King of the Fairies” by Anna-Marie McLemore (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) – 1 star
Midsummer from the perspective of the “Indian” child abducted by Oberon and Titania. Hands down one of my least favorites from this collection; it couldn’t be more heavy-handed and patronizing if it tried. If you like McLemore’s writing you’ll probably like this story; I simply do not.

“Taming of the Soulmate” by K. Ancrum (The Taming of the Shrew) – 3 stars
A soulmate AU where Katherine doesn’t see color until she meets Petrucio at her sister Bianca’s party; rather an inconvenience for her 5-year plan. I take umbrage at a modern retelling framing Petruchio as the Reasonable One, but I grudgingly ended up appreciating where this story arrived.

“We Have Seen Better Days” by Lily Anderson (As You Like It) – 2 stars
I found this story perplexing. As You Like It, as far as I’m concerned, is fertile ground for a reimagining that focuses on gender identity (a topic otherwise omnipresent in this anthology)–and instead we get… a story about summer camp nostalgia and daddy issues? Anyway, I’d be happy to put my expectations aside about what this had the potential to be if it were any good at all, but it was objectively one of the weakest in the collection. 

“Some Other Metal” by Amy Rose Capetta and Cory McCarthy (Much Ado About Nothing) – 1 star
I kind of hate Much Ado so I was probably never going to like this very much but… yeah, it was bad. It follows two actors, Tegan and Taron, who play Beatrice and Benedick on stage, and off-stage have an antagonistic relationship, but they’re trying to be set up by their director. The meta narrative was painfully obvious and would be more fun if you enjoyed Beatrice and Benedick’s dynamic in the slightest which I can’t say I do. This story is also set in outer space for reasons that are of absolutely no consequence? 

“I Bleed” by Dahlia Adler (The Merchant of Venice) – 5 stars
Annoying author’s note aside I honestly adored this. The Merchant of Venice + high school doesn’t seem like a match made in heaven–right down to Antonio’s occupation being declared in the title, this is an inarguably adult work. Part of the fun, then, becomes seeing how deftly Adler adapts this story’s mature moving parts to a context which shouldn’t work at all… but somehow does, brilliantly. It’s a very literal adaptation which otherwise isn’t my favorite approach in this collection, but I found this one very successful. 

A Sonnet

“His Invitation” by Brittany Cavallaro (Sonnet 147) – 4 stars
A couple take a road trip to California in the only story in this collection that tackles a sonnet. I have to say, this one didn’t make a huge impression on me as I was reading (part of it due to being the shortest story in this collection), but interestingly it’s really the only one I’m still thinking about after having finished. 

Tragedies

“Partying is Such Sweet Sorrow” by Kiersten White (Romeo and Juliet) – 4 stars 
Yes, the title is stupid, but let’s move on. White actually does a remarkable job at capturing the simultaneous foolishness and lovability of the titular protagonists. This story is told entirely in text speak which admittedly is not my favorite, but it makes for fast, feverish reading, which is probably the effect that White intended. This story I felt was one of the most successful at transporting the emotional landscape of Shakespeare to a much smaller and more modern setting, and hands down the most effective story in the tragedy section. 

“Dreaming of the Dark” by Lindsay Smith (Julius Caesar) – 2 stars
Julius Caesar meets a private girl’s school and dark magic. The context of this one was so utterly contrived (Briony and Cassie have just killed Julia as a sacrifice to a dark god; Annamaria wants revenge) I couldn’t really take it seriously.

“The Tragedy of Cory Lanez” by Tochi Onyebuchi (Coriolanus) – 2 stars 
This one is probably better than I’m giving it credit for. Cameron Marcus, known by stage name Cory Lanez, is a rapper who was recently stabbed to death; this story tackles family, sexuality, and LA gang violence. Unfortunately it’s also told as an oral history, and it’s that format that I couldn’t really get past–I don’t think it works at all in short story form; the author hasn’t earned the reader’s investment in the character that we’re mourning and the result is tedium. Which is kind of fitting for Coriolanus to be fair.

“Elsinore” by Patrice Caldwell (Hamlet) – 3 stars 
Hamlet retold as a penny dreadful–we’re in Victorian England, and Claudius is a vampire. Anne (Hamlet) and Camilla (Ophelia) team up to take him down. This will work for a lot of readers better than it worked for me, it simply wasn’t to my taste.

“Out of the Storm” by Joy McCullough (King Lear) – 1 star
Oh boy, HERE WE GO. I was already approaching this with trepidation after despising McCullough’s bestselling Blood Water Paint, but I think my mind was as open as it could have been under the circumstances. Anyway, I remain unconvinced that McCullough has read anything more than the wikipedia summary for Lear as this really failed to engage with it on… any level deeper than ‘three sisters whose names start with G, R, C.’ Written like a play script, it’s a snapshot piece where we see Gabi and Cora at their dying father’s bedside at the hospital; Rowan, the middle daughter, bursts in and we discover that she’s absented herself from the family to get out from under their strict minister father’s thumb. Arguments ensue; Rowan is accused of being selfish, she retaliates that she had the fortitude to escape, etc., that kind of thing. Look, I’m sympathetic to the fact that Lear is one of the hardest plays to retell and I’m happy for a reimagining to be nonliteral, as long as it accesses some of the original play’s themes, which this just didn’t, at all. Ample meditation on truth, power, aging, justice, human nature, and cosmic inevitability to draw from and you opt for… three sisters with an over-controlling father? (The play script format was insufferable as well; if this were a real play it would be peak ‘family arguing at the dinner table’ theatre.)

“We Fail” by Samantha Mabry (Macbeth) – 1 star 
Just dreadful. Drea, a high school senior, has recently suffered a miscarriage, and her fiancé, Mateo, has been passed over for a football scholarship. When the two get in a car crash and their friend Duncan is pinned beneath the car, Drea convinces Mateo to wait before calling for help, so Duncan will die and Mateo can take his scholarship; and also because she’s still mourning the loss of her child and needs to take control of their future. I really despise Macbeth retellings that have a hyperfixation on Lady Macbeth’s fertility, and for that narrative to be given to a high schooler made it all the more perplexing and oddly melodramatic in a way that didn’t show a similar self-awareness as the Romeo and Juliet story. This was too rushed as well; maybe it could have done something interesting as a longer story, but hurtling through the events of Macbeth at breakneck speed just didn’t work.

Late Romance

“Lost Girl” by Melissa Bashardoust (The Winter’s Tale) – 4 stars 
This was a lovely story about Perdita who recently discovered the identity of her absent father, trying to cope with that as her new relationship with classics student Zal blossoms. It’s short and sweet and a nice note to end on.

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

book review: Big Girl, Small Town by Michelle Gallen




BIG GIRL, SMALL TOWN by Michelle Gallen
★★★☆☆
Algonquin Books, 2020

This was a fine and forgettable read. Big Girl, Small Town follows Majella, a fast food worker on the autism spectrum in the fictional town of Aghybogey, Northern Ireland. Like most post-Troubles lit this deals with lingering tensions between Protestants and Catholics, the unresolved and unstable social climate narratively underscored by the disappearance of Majella’s father, who went missing during the Troubles. 

I can’t quite put my finger on what didn’t work for me, beyond feeling sort of vaguely unconvinced by Majella who felt to me very much like a character in a novel and not an actual person. This felt like it was desperately trying to be quirky but didn’t quite have the finesse needed to pull it off; it comes off as rather prosaic and muted. I didn’t mind reading this–it’s a short book–but I also found it so unnoteworthy that I can’t come up with anything else to say about it. Read it if you feel like it but if you’re new to Northern Irish lit, there are better places to start.

book review: Dark Horses by Susan Mihalic | BookBrowse




DARK HORSES by Susan Mihalic
★★★★★
Gallery/Scout, February 16, 2021


Dark Horses is a shocking, heart-pounding debut; it’s both a coming-of-age novel and an unflinching story of resilience and survival. Fifteen-year-old Roan Montgomery is an equestrian prodigy; she attends a private high school, where she is given a special schedule allowing her to miss afternoon classes to train for her horseback riding events, which are a stepping stone to her plan of one day riding in the Olympics. In spite of her shortened class schedule, Roan receives straight As, and isn’t allowed to date or attend any social events outside of school. The reason why, the reader soon finds out, is disturbing and sinister: Roan’s father, also her riding coach, is in complete control of every facet of her life, and on top of the daily emotional abuse he inflicts on her, he has been sexually abusing her since early childhood.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about equestrian eventing HERE.

book review: A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley




A THOUSAND ACRES by Jane Smiley
★★★★★
Anchor, originally published in 1991



A Thousand Acres is King Lear meets twentieth-century midwestern farming; oddly enough, a thematic match made in heaven, the mores of the small Iowan community so richly detailed that the stakes effortlessly mirror medieval English court life. It’s told through the eyes of Ginny, the eldest daughter and Goneril figure, who lives on their father’s thousand acre farm with her husband in a house adjacent to her sister Rose’s (Regan)–the youngest sister, Caroline (Cordelia) has moved away and works as a lawyer. When their aging father announces his retirement and intention to turn the farm over to his three daughters, Caroline admits skepticism and is turned away; Ginny and Rose are then left to battle his cruelty and deterioration into drunkenness while keeping the farm afloat.

While the premise sounds literally transposed from the Shakespeare play, enough details are reinvented to assure the reader that literality is not Smiley’s intention. Rose has cancer, and she has two daughters; Ginny has had five miscarriages and desperately wants a child; Loren (Edgar), in my opinion one of the smartest characters in the original play, is here an afterthought and a bit of a sycophantic idiot; Pete (Cornwall) is a recovering abusive husband, his relationship with Rose unhappy and volatile, while Ginny’s marriage to Ty (Albany) is placid in comparison; the Fool is omitted; Jess (Edmund) is not a scheming mastermind, but instead an unmoored drifter whose interruption of Ginny’s life is unplanned, haphazard. 

And as someone who’s read King Lear about a million times and has spent countless hours thinking about these characters, if I am actively choosing to spend my time reading King Lear retellings, I can’t allow myself to get mired in the details, or else reading retellings just becomes a self-defeating exercise. Half of what I just wrote, what Smiley decided to do with these characters, I don’t agree with; it doesn’t fit my own idea of what a picture-perfect retelling should look like. So I’m much less interested in the details and more interested in the author’s vision, in the ways in which they interact with the original play even–especially–when they choose to deviate. This is where The Queens of Innis Lear, a high fantasy Lear retelling, fell spectacularly short for me, and this is where Smiley succeeded.

Each of Smiley’s characters is tremendously well-drawn, none more-so than the narrator Ginny. Ginny is obedient and self-effacing, the modest counterpart to her sister Rose who blows through the story like a hurricane. The dynamic between these two sisters, united against the obdurate front that is their father, yet more severed than either of them realizes, is what makes this book so memorable and horribly devastating. This is a bleak, stark, humorless work, which accesses the tragic inevitability of the original play and refocuses it. This isn’t the tragedy of Lear as much as it is the tragedy of Goneril, the long-suffering eldest daughter, and in turning this into Ginny’s story, part of the cosmic scale is lost, but the calamity and the creeping dread is recaptured on a smaller, more intimate scale. This is an engrossing, quietly devastating book that deftly examines power, corruption, and betrayal through a melancholic, reflective lens, and I found the result both beautiful and heart-rending.

I prefer to write my reviews without spoilers, but in this case, the spoiler is also a huge trigger, so I do want to talk about that before we go. Highlight the following paragraph to read:

[Trigger warning for sexual assault of a minor. The reveal that the Lear figure had raped Ginny and Rose when they were teenagers didn’t sit well with me at first; for one thing, I tend to take the opinion that books should not introduce sexual assault as a plot point if sexual assault is not their primary focus; for another, it felt to me like a lazy shortcut to giving Ginny and Rose permission to defy their father, an unnecessary addition when the justification for their behavior is already built into the framework of the story. What I did find interesting, though, was how this related to Ginny and Rose’s relationship to Caroline; it was refreshing to see a Lear retelling finally do something interesting with Cordelia, turning her from the archetype of the perfect woman to a stubborn, ungrateful child, choosing not to see the full picture of what Ginny and Rose shielded her from. There’s a line toward the end where Ginny is about to tell Caroline the full truth, and Caroline turns away and refuses to hear it; there’s an acknowledgement that truth can’t be delivered without it being asked for, a shocking subversion from Cordelia’s role in the original play that I found tremendously effective.