book review: Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton

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REMEMBERED by Yvonne Battle-Felton
★★☆☆☆
Dialogue Books, 2019 (UK)

 

Well that was… underwhelming. I had been saving this book for last in my Women’s Prize longlist read through, hoping to end the list on a high, but that sure didn’t go as planned. To be honest I don’t even have a great reason for disliking Remembered as much as I did, because objectively, I think this book is perfectly fine, it’s just… not much more than that.

I have to first express my annoyance at this book’s marketing, which I’m certainly not holding against Yvonne Battle-Felton, but it was frustrating nonetheless to be expecting a book about 1910 Philadelphia and ending up with a book about US Civil War era slavery, which isn’t even mentioned in any professional summaries that I’ve read of this book. What begins as a story about an African American man driving a streetcar into a shop window quickly devolves into an extended flashback of the family’s history, and though we return briefly to 1910 a few times, that narrative thread is only really picked back up in the last 5 pages. So, just know what exactly you’re signing up for.

But the fact that this book ended up being about slavery isn’t the problem, at all, it’s just that the execution comes up short of what it’s trying to achieve. At a slim 288 pages, this book is lacking the heft needed to successfully pull off the multi-generational family saga formula. The flashbacks just zip along without landing on any kind of emotional resonance, and the newer generation’s narrative doesn’t really thematically dovetail into the backstory beyond a very bare-bones parallel. Everything about this was disjointed and poorly paced, and I didn’t find myself emotionally affected by any of it in the way I arguably should have. So while this wasn’t a great note to end on, Women’s Prize-wise, it did end up being emblematic of a large part of this list for me: a brilliant set-up whose execution felt more like a first draft than a finished novel.


You can pick up a copy of Remembered here on Book Depository.

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book review: Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

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SWAN SONG by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott
★★☆☆☆
Hutchinson, 2018 (UK)

 

Much like Swan Song‘s subject, Truman Capote, Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s novel is at times charming, at times vicious, and at times insufferable. Despite the fact that it took me over a month to get through this and I was complaining about it for a lot of that time, Swan Song actually does have a lot to recommend it. Its first person plural narration is particularly well done as Greenberg-Jephcott attempts to reclaim the voices of the women whose social lives Truman Capote effectively destroyed with the publication of his salacious story La Cote Basque 1965 (the first chapter of Answered Prayers, which was eventually published unfinished, posthumously). In stealing the real life stories of his close circle of friends for his planned novel, Capote faced extensive backlash and was unable to repair his lost friendships, which ultimately haunted him until he died. It could have been a gripping tale of betrayal and a searing commentary on the kind of symbiotic relationship with high society that both made and destroyed Capote’s career, but while it had its moments, it sadly falls short.

My first issue with Swan Song is how ungodly long it is, which naturally leads to all of my other criticisms, being that this book overstays its welcome in every conceivable way. All of Greenberg-Jephcott’s party tricks wear thin after not very long, the worst offense probably being Capote’s characterization – he’s constantly infantilized and reduced to a caricature in a way that starts to feel more spiteful than constructive after not very long. He’s referred to as ‘the boy’ even as a grown man, his height and voice are incessantly referenced, he’s described as ‘elfin’ or even more derogatory synonyms on just about every page, and after a while it’s like… what’s the point of any of this? The bottom line is established early: Truman Capote was capable of extreme kindness and extreme cruelty. This book just revels in the latter in a way that never convincingly dovetails with the voices that are purportedly being reclaimed with this retelling.

Because that’s the other issue at the heart of this: I love the concept of reframing a traditionally male-dominated narrative by using women’s voices – it’s a concept that’s carried through many of my favorite Greek mythology retellings quite soundly – but here it falls flat, because Greenberg-Jephcott never makes a convincing case for why this is a story that need reclaiming. A bunch of high society women have affairs and sail around on yachts and they’re betrayed by their close friend but… so what? This books feels like an elaborate revenge fantasy that’s so mired in gossip and cattiness that it loses its thematic heft.

But, like I said, it’s not all bad: Greenberg-Jephcott’s writing is lively and charming, the style is inventive (elements of poetry and screenwriting are incorporated), the research is admirable, and maybe it’ll appeal more to a different kind of reader, but I’m afraid I just struggled to care.


You can pick up a copy of Swan Song here on Book Depository.

book review: Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (spoilers)

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PRAISE SONG FOR THE BUTTERFLIES by Bernice L. McFadden
★★☆☆☆
Akashic Books, 2018

 

The ending rarely makes or breaks a book for me. Obviously I’d prefer my endings on the satisfying and hard-hitting side, but if a book is strong enough, I’m not usually going to fault it for a slightly lackluster conclusion. This is why I rarely write reviews with spoiler tags – I don’t have any problem talking about a book in general terms of what worked for me and what didn’t.

Praise Song for the Butterflies is the exception. Because for the most part, I really, really enjoyed this book. The characters were on the thin side and their motivations were at times difficult to discern, but that was my only note in what was otherwise proving to be a captivating story… maybe a bit simply told, but if anything, I thought McFadden’s pared down prose style suited this story which could have easily veered into melodrama with overly flowery writing. And it certainly was every bit as horrifying as it’s meant to be, but I couldn’t bring myself to look away – granted, it’s short, but I still read the whole thing in two sittings. So all things considered, it was going well.

And then it ended. [SPOILERS] The problem isn’t just the abysmal final scene, but we’ll get to that in a minute. The bigger problem is that what was shaping up to be a moving story of resilience very, very quickly devolved into a narrative about how a traumatized woman finds healing in a man; how having a pleasurable romantic and sexual relationship is the pinnacle of what humankind can achieve. And I get it, I understand that love is validating and even curative at times, I understand that it can be cathartic to read about characters who have suffered finding happiness, but what I don’t understand is the drastic shift from harrowing survival story to soppy, sensationalist drivel. And what I also don’t understand is how anyone could read this utterly vile ”romantic” declaration and find it moving or poignant or comforting or any of the things it’s supposed to be:

“But if that is the road God had you travel in order for our paths to cross, then we have no choice but to accept the purpose it has served and be grateful for it.”

So let me get this straight: Abeo is raped from ages 11 to 21, she gives birth to a child, she watches the child drown, and is so traumatized that she becomes catatonic for months even after she’s rescued… but wait, she finds a guy who doesn’t see her as damaged goods and suddenly she’s supposed to be grateful?! Again, I understand the intent here. But my god did this ever fail in execution.

And then we get to the final scene, the one that completely undoes the entire premise that ensnared the reader to begin with. Because in the prologue, Abeo kills the man who raped and tormented her; it’s a bold, shocking scene, and even knowing that event was coming added a layer of suspense and intrigue to the entire reading experience. But then it turns out to be — wait for it — a dream. And — wait for it — because she was able to kill this man in her dream, she can finally be at peace. Fin. What an utter cop-out. This book could have been an exploration of the lasting impact of trauma, it could have given its heroine a compassionate ending without compromising its exposition, but because of the last few chapters, a solidly captivating and eye-opening novel became a trite and forgettable one. Failing to live up to potential lends itself to a particularly potent kind of disappointment.[/SPOILERS]


You can pick up a copy of Praise Song for the Butterflies here on Book Depository.

book review: Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

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NUMBER ONE CHINESE RESTAURANT by Lillian Li
★★☆☆☆
Henry Holt, 2018

 

Everything about Number One Chinese Restaurant is just aggressively mediocre. I say ‘aggressively’ because you’re confronted with this mediocrity on practically every page; the prose is simultaneously lifeless and overwritten, the characters are poorly drawn caricatures, the plot meanders, and this book just never manages to hit any of the emotional beats that it strives for. It’s basically an emotionally hollow melodrama.

Not to fully absolve Lillian Li of all of these issues, but I do believe that a lot of this could have been solved with tighter editing. Because what works about this book are its bare bones: a dysfunctional Chinese-American family struggles to run a Chinese restaurant, with inter-generational tension providing the main conflict: how does one balance a family legacy with their own plans for the future? It’s a great concept, and I wanted to root for this book; I wanted to root for the Han family, but it all just fails in execution.

Certain plot threads are examined and re-examined through different perspectives ad nauseum; others are abandoned after a brief mention. This book is over-saturated with details, but it doesn’t pause to imbue key moments with any kind of emotional weight. When Jimmy Han’s family’s restaurant is set on fire, we learn the particulars of the fire-setting from about four different perspectives, but what about the aftermath? Jimmy, relying on insurance money to come through, quickly starts a new restaurant and hires staff and creates a new menu and this all happens off the page, we get from point A to point B so easily that it’s a wonder we should care at all, with characters overcoming obstacles this easily.

This could have been good but it just wasn’t. I’d gladly read more from Lillian Li in the future, as this was a debut and it wasn’t so abysmal that I’ll completely write off her potential, but as a Women’s Prize read it sadly felt like a waste of time.


You can pick up a copy of Number One Chinese Restaurant here on Book Depository.

book review: When All Is Said by Anne Griffin

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WHEN ALL IS SAID by Anne Griffin
★★☆☆☆
Thomas Dunne Books, March 5, 2019

 

Oh man, this is a tough one. It is not often the case that I look at glowing reviews and think ‘did we read the same book?!’ but here we are… I was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was going to love this, too! When All Is Said is a contemporary Irish novel about an old man named Maurice who’s looking back at his life and giving a toast to the five people who had the greatest influence on him, most of whom are already dead. So it’s a premise that promises nostalgia and regret and heartache, but I never really felt any of it.

My main issue with this book was Maurice’s first-person narration – I just wasn’t convinced by his voice. Forgive me, but you know how sometimes you read a female character and think ‘yep, a man wrote this book’ – I felt the opposite here. (Which is more of a gut feeling and probably a baseless one that’s impossible to quantify, so I’m just going to move on.) It’s established early on in this book that Maurice has dyslexia which led him to quit schooling at a very early age and develop a lifelong antipathy for literature; instead he fills his days with farming and various other business ventures. So while Maurice is clearly an intelligent man, and I have no qualms with that intelligence being on display, I’m not sure why Anne Griffin wanted us to believe he was a poetic one? Lines like this:

But her story is like the wind under the front door, whistling its way through the crevices, getting through the cracks in my skin.

and this:

There was a love but of the Irish kind, reserved and embarrassed by its own humanity.

pulled me out of the story again and again, because why would this 84 year old farmer use that simile, why would he have that sophisticated emotional vocabulary? I guess this goes hand in hand, but what also grated on me was the fact that we were essentially spoon-fed the ways in which the love and loss of these five characters shaped Maurice. Take this passage from the first chapter, where Maurice describes the death of his older brother Tony:

It’s so hard to lose your best friend at any time, but to do so at such a young age was pure cruel. At sixteen I was heading into my life. Having travelled those precious years with Tony by my side, I now had to venture forth into the most significant of them alone. Without his guidance, his cajoling, his slagging. It didn’t feel possible.

It’s too articulate, it’s too on the nose. Funny that this is called ‘When All Is Said,’ because that was exactly my problem: nothing is left unsaid. There is no room for the reader to think or feel anything organically, because we are told exactly how we should think and feel about Maurice’s story. This was missing tension, nuance, thematic complexity. I’ll concede that Maurice is a well-constructed character, and that Anne Griffin makes a real effort to weave together moments of joy with moments of sorrow to paint a three-dimensional picture of this character’s life, I just felt utterly empty while reading this.

Thanks to Netgalley and Thomas Dunne Books for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review. Quotes are from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.

You can pick up a copy of When All Is Said here on Book Depository.

mini reviews #5: recent literary releases & classic nonfiction

I’ve decided to start swapping these over from Goodreads in chunks of 4 rather than 5.  Big changes around here, clearly.  See all my previous mini reviews here, and feel free to add me on Goodreads to see all of my reviews as soon as I post them.

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WAITING FOR EDEN by Elliot Ackerman
★★★★☆
date read: December 25, 2018
Knopf, 2018

For being so sparse, Waiting for Eden manages to pack a powerful punch. Ackerman meditates with surprising insight (aided by potent religious symbolism) on the very nature of life and the impossible decisions we have to make when our loved ones are suffering. This was succinct and chilling.  Pick up a copy of Waiting for Eden here on Book Depository.

 

 

38819868MY SISTER, THE SERIAL KILLER by Oyinkan Braithwaite
★★★★☆
date read: January 15, 2019
Doubleday Books, 2018

This was tremendous fun from start to finish. Sure, certain elements could have withstood a bit more depth and detail, and it’s destined to disappoint anyone expecting a proper thriller, but for a quick and pacy character study it was extremely satisfying. Braithwaite toes the line between satire and realism so deftly that you manage to get properly invested in these sisters even as their actions shock and horrify.  Pick up a copy of My Sister, The Serial Killer here on Book Depository.

35487749CENSUS by Jesse Ball
★★☆☆☆
date read: January 31, 2018
Ecco, 2018

I had trouble engaging with this book emotionally or intellectually, which isn’t to say that it isn’t intelligent or emotional, just that I personally did not find it particularly accessible. There is a very real possibility that a lot of this just went over my head, I will admit that, but so much of this book just felt wanting; the relationship between the father and son seemed generic, the experimental narrative came across as underdeveloped, the speculative element and the characters’ journeys felt dissonant. I have no doubt that this was an intensely personal project for Ball based on the novel’s introduction, and I’m sure it will be feel intensely personal to a lot of readers, but something about it just didn’t click for me.  Pick up a copy of Census here on Book Depository.

730745SISTER OUTSIDER by Audre Lorde
★★★★☆
date read: February 19, 2019
Crossing Press, 2007
originally published 1984

Sister Outsider was a really fantastic introduction to Audre Lorde for me, though its episodic nature isn’t my favorite way to digest nonfiction and I think I would have preferred to stay on track with any one of these essays for a hundred pages rather than to bounce around from topic to topic the way this collection is structured (though all pieces are obviously interconnected to an extent). But still, this is a sharp and insightful and seminal work that I’d recommend.  Pick up a copy of Sister Outsider here on Book Depository.

Have you guys read any of these, and what did you think? Feel free to comment if you’d like to discuss anything in more detail.

book review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

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THE POWER by Naomi Alderman
★★☆☆☆
Little, Brown and Co. 2017

 

Well, that was… anticlimactic.

I’m sure there isn’t a whole lot that needs to be said about The Power, as I’m rather late to the party with this one: it’s set in a dystopian future where suddenly girls have developed the ability to generate electric shocks from their fingertips. The novel mainly follows four characters: the feisty British girl Roxy, the American politician Margot, the Nigerian journalist Tunde, and the teenager Allie who escapes from her abusive foster parents and turns to a self-made religion.

So, it’s undoubtedly a great premise, but problem #1: I was bored to death by each one of these characters, and I was also frustrated by the unwieldy execution of the point of view shifts. The entire book is narrated in a third-person omniscient POV, but is broken up into chapters whose headings are one of the four characters’ names. But, the head-hopping always felt arbitrary; for example we’d have a chapter called ‘Roxy,’ where the focus is actually on Allie, and it was all a bit ironic given the fact that everyone in this story just blurred together anyway. I do not need to personally care about the characters to enjoy a book, but I do need there to be a certain level of intrigue, a certain understanding of why this person’s story in particular is worth telling, and I just didn’t get that from any of the four protagonists here.

But, my bigger issue with The Power was the distinct lack of narrative. You’d think, with the amount of literary fiction I read, that I wouldn’t need a clear-cut plot to keep me engaged, but I’m learning that with SFF, a good idea alone isn’t nearly enough to sustain my interest. I can’t help it – I want a good story. And there just wasn’t one to be found in these pages. The narrative felt scattered and uneven, potentially interesting plot threads were underdeveloped, and the pacing was either rushed or stilted. Each chapter would read as a solitary vignette before we skipped ahead another year and the characters would be doing something else entirely, and while the sections themselves were counting down to some big event – ‘9 years to go,’ ‘8 years to go,’ the section headings would read – this didn’t provide enough tension or intrigue to counteract the boredom that mainly characterized my reading experience. I wasn’t wowed by the ending, either. I did think the novel’s framing device was effective, if a bit heavy-handed, but I put this down feeling nothing but relief to finally be done with it.

And I mean, it’s undeniable that the premise is brilliant and that certain themes in this book are fascinating. As others have observed, this is less a book about gender than it is about power; gender may be the vehicle that Alderman chooses to use, but it’s less a ‘feminist dystopia’ than a relentlessly dark fantasy that interrogates humanity’s innate blood-lust. But the fact remains that this was just so, so much better in concept than in execution. I thought Alderman’s writing was simplistic and downright lifeless, which is also how I felt about her Jewish lesbian romance Disobedience, another book that fell short of its potential for me. I was hoping that my experience with this one would be different as it’s a completely different genre, but I think I should just accept that I don’t get on with Alderman’s writing.

You can pick up a copy of The Power here on Book Depository.