book review: The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

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THE MOST FUN WE EVER HAD by Claire Lombardo
★★☆☆☆
Doubleday, 2019

 

I finished The Most Fun We Ever Had weeks ago, after a rather agonizing month-long reading experience, and despite my fondness for writing negative reviews, finding the motivation to review this book has been… a struggle; so happy was I to be blissfully done with it.  The only thing compelling me to write this review now is the promise that after I click post I will never have to think about this book and these inane characters ever again.

The most frustrating thing about this book to me was its wasted potential.  When I started reading it, I was sure I was going to love it in the same way I love soap operas; I’m a sucker for mindless, messy, salacious family drama.  This could have been 200 pages shorter; it could have been an unapologetically entertaining romp through the ripple effects of one daughter’s unplanned pregnancy 15 years after she gave the child up for adoption; it could have been a lot of things.  Instead it was agonizingly, embarrassingly sincere.  Meet David and Marilyn, the parents: they’re still disgustingly in love after all these years.  Meet their children: Wendy’s a fuck-up, Violet’s frigid, Liza’s naive, Grace is the baby.  Meet Violet’s illegitimate child, Jonah: he’s never known stability so he has trouble adjusting to it.  Congratulations, you have now read The Most Fun We Ever Had.

None of these characters undergoes any development.  Any.  At all.  This book is 532 pages.  That is 532 pages of painfully one-note characters arguing with each other about any given character’s one (1) allocated personality trait.  The repetition is insufferable.  And yet, this book really believes it has something to say?  The reader is simply bashed over the head with the most mundane and trite pontifications on life and love and growing up and it’s all so bizarrely earnest for the fact that none of it has any particular depth.

The one thing I will hand Lombardo is that her treatment of the family’s wealth was very self-conscious and well-executed; it’s tempting to dismiss this as a ‘rich people problems book’ (and it’s understandable if that’s a premise that just flat-out does not interest you), but I did feel like Lombardo did a good job contextualizing their struggles and providing a somewhat thoughtful commentary on class disparity.

But ultimately a pretty massive waste of time.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviewsDominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | Girl, Woman, OtherHow We Disappeared | Red at the Bone | The Most Fun We Ever Had | Weather


You can pick up a copy of The Most Fun We Ever Had here on Book Depository.

book review: Weather by Jenny Offill

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WEATHER by Jenny Offill
★★☆☆☆
Knopf, 2020

 

I don’t think this is a bad book at all, I want to make that clear right away.  I think Jenny Offill is a talented writer, and that she achieves everything she set out to achieve with this little book, a potent commentary on the impossibility of balancing every day domesticity with encroaching anxiety about the climate crisis.

But with that said… I didn’t particularly like it?  I mostly found this book incredibly forgettable.  It was a short, breezy read, but for whatever reason I didn’t have time to read it in a single sitting, and every time I put it down and picked it back up, I couldn’t remember where I had left off.  I had to constantly remind myself who was who – Ben, Eli, Henry, I think were their names, but even now I couldn’t tell you who was the husband, brother, and son – and there was nothing about Lizzie’s story in particular that justified to me why this was the particular story that Offill chose to tell.  I ultimately just needed a bit more from it, but I think that’s on me rather than the author.  Maybe I’ve just read a few too many navel-gazing literary novels lately for this to shine through.


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


Women’s Prize 2020 reviews: Dominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | Girl, Woman, OtherHow We Disappeared | Red at the Bone | Weather

book review: The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams

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THE ILLNESS LESSON by Clare Beams
★★☆☆☆
Doubleday, 2019

 

The thing about The Illness Lesson is that it isn’t enough of anything. It isn’t historical enough, it isn’t weird enough, it isn’t feminist enough.  The premise – girls at a boarding school who fall prey to a mysterious illness – sounds like it’s going to make for a positively entrancing book, but I could not have been more bored while reading this.  It never felt grounded enough in its setting to really provide much commentary about the time period (which historical fiction is wont to do) – not to mention that about a quarter of the way through the book I had to ask a friend who was also reading it if it was set in the U.S. or the U.K.

There’s a recurring motif of red birds throughout the novel – strange red birds have flocked to the school for reasons no one knows.  This was an intriguing thread that proved to be, like everything else in this book, utterly inconsequential; it’s empty symbolism shoehorned in in order to imbue this book with some kind of meaning that wasn’t actually there.

As for the girls falling ill: this plot point is relegated to the latter half of the book (what happens before that, I don’t think I could tell you), and I was frustrated and a little sick at the way their invasive treatment was narratively handled.  This book does contain an element of rape, which is never given the depth or breadth it deserves; instead it seems like it’s there for shock value in the eleventh hour, not offering near enough insight to justify its inclusion.

On the whole, I found this book incredibly anemic and unsatisfying.  I finished this a few weeks ago and I think, at the time, there was a reason I opted for 2 stars instead of 1, but I may need to downgrade my rating because I cannot think of a single thing I liked about this.

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


If you think you will fare with it better than I did, you can pick up a copy of The Illness Lesson here on Book Depository.

book review: Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey

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TOPICS OF CONVERSATION by Miranda Popkey
★★☆☆☆
Knopf, January 2020

 

In a way I feel a bit bad contributing to this book’s overwhelmingly negative reception, because I do think it has more going for it than its low Goodreads rating might suggest, and I can see where others could get something out of it.  But at the same time, this did literally nothing for me, so here we are.

The Rachel Cusk comparisons are a dime a dozen, and I will spare you from that seeing as I’ve never read Rachel Cusk; I will instead address the Sally Rooney comparisons.  Both authors interrogate themes on womanhood, sex, sexuality, and give voice to a subset of young women who may have never seen these topics addressed so starkly in fiction.  But for me the difference between these two authors lies in the fact that Rooney explores themes through character, and Popkey explores themes at the expense of character.  The aptly unnamed narrator of Topics of Conversation feels like a prototype of Generic Young Woman Angst – maybe that’s the point, maybe not – but her struggles all felt very Grand and Societal without being grounded in the microcosm enough to hold my interest.  Basically: this is a book of commentary and ideas, and that’s not an inherently bad or valueless thing; I just failed to engage with it.

Anyway, the thing that actually grated on me more than anything was Popkey’s writing.  This book is largely told in chunks of dialogue; characters relaying monologues to the narrator.  I found that Popkey attempted to imitate the features of verbal speech in a way that came across to me as forced and labored; it was peak stylized MFA-prose.   “Her hair was down and her cheeks were stiff and pink from smiling and the freckles on her neck, down her forearms, dotting her ankles, they were shining, they were giving off some kind of heat, she was glowing.”

Again, I don’t think this was a bad book, and if it interests you, I’d definitely encourage you to pick it up; it just wasn’t what I was looking for and I found it rather unremarkable at the end of the day.


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

book review: The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

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THE DREAM THIEVES by Maggie Stiefvater
(The Raven Cycle #2)
★★☆☆☆
Scholastic, 2013

 

I think I may have to throw in the towel with this series.  In my weirdly negative 4 star review of The Raven Boys I more or less said ‘I didn’t love this, but I think it has the potential to grow on me as I get more invested in the characters.’  Instead, the exact opposite happened when I finally picked up the sequel: I became even less invested, and the characters became even less interesting to me.

To be fair, I was always going to struggle with The Dream Thieves (which I’ve seen widely hailed as the strongest book in this series) because its very premise hinges on something I can’t stand: fictional dreams.  But honestly, I didn’t care for a single one of the subplots, dreams or no dreams.  And something else that surprised me is how much I’m disliking Maggie Stiefvater’s prose in this series, given how strong I thought it was in her standalone novel The Scorpio Races.  Maybe I should stop trying to make YA happen for me?


Book Depository links: The Raven Boys | The Dream Thieves | The Scorpio Races

mini reviews #8: all kinds of fiction

You can 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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THE RUIN by Dervla McTiernan
★★★★☆
date read: November 25, 2019
Penguin Books, 2018

Every time I read a police procedural I feel obligated to start my review by saying that I don’t particularly like police procedurals; I only ever pick them up if I feel strongly drawn toward other elements of the summary (in this case, Ireland did it for me – shocking, I know). And while this reaffirmed a lot of the reasons why police procedurals are never going to be my favorite subgenre (I frankly didn’t care about any of the inter-departmental drama; Cormac Reilly is an incredibly forgettable Brooding Everyman-Detective of a protagonist) there was a lot here that I thoroughly enjoyed. The writing was strong and evocative, the periphery characters were incredibly well-crafted, particularly Aisling, and I felt so compelled by the central mystery. This isn’t the kind of thriller with a big twist that will blow your socks off, but it’s so intricately crafted that it’s hard to put down once you’re drawn in.

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


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DISAPPEARING EARTH by Julia Phillips
★★★★★
date read: December 9, 2019
Knopf, 2019

Disappearing Earth is bound to disappoint anyone who picks it up looking for a thriller, especially a fast-paced one. So if that’s what grabs your interest from the summary – a mystery about two kidnapped sisters – I’d urge you to either adjust expectations or avoid altogether. That said, if you do know to expect something slower paced, this is a knock-out of a debut. Set in northeastern Russia, Disappearing Earth is a complex and intricate portrait of a close-knit and dysfunctional community, whose culture is marred by misogyny and racism against the indigenous population. It’s very similar in structure to There There by Tommy Orange – a central event causing a ripple effect that’s told in vignettes through the eyes of seemingly unrelated characters – but I have to say this one hit me harder and felt more technically accomplished. Julia Phillips is an author to watch.

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


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NIGHT BOAT TO TANGIER by Kevin Barry
★★★☆☆
date read: December 15, 2019
Canongate, 2019

I’m devastated that I didn’t love this, given how much this seemed to be right up my literary alley. I was confident that the criticisms I’d heard – slow, not emotionally engaging enough, too much drug talk – wouldn’t faze me. I mean, I know my tastes; two aging Irish gangsters sitting on a pier discussing their shared history of drug smuggling actually seems like a recipe for perfection. But to say that this left me cold would be an understatement. Barry’s writing is really very good, so that was never the problem. I think my main issue was the alternating past and present chapters; the present held my attention while the past chapters were nothing but tedium. As others have mentioned, it’s very reminiscent of Waiting for Godot, but while Barry occasionally nailed Beckett’s madcap humor, this had none of the pathos.

You can pick up a copy of Night Boat to Tangier here on Book Depository.


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VAMPIRE ACADEMY by Richelle Mead
★★★★☆
date read: December 15, 2019
Razorbill, 2007

I had to read this for a work assignment, and while it’s not something I ordinarily would have reached for, you know what? I really didn’t hate it. For what it is, I think it succeeds: it’s gripping, has one of the best and most complex female friendships I’ve ever read in YA, has a surprisingly progressive focus on mental health, and is framed in a really unique way (it uses The Chosen One trope but tells the story from the pov of The Chosen One’s friend, who happens to be an infinitely more interesting character). The unrepentant slut-shaming is its most egregious offense, and what dates it the most (I’d find its regressive attitudes toward female sexuality more disturbing had it been published in 2019, but for over a decade ago, it’s less surprising). But all in all, a fun, mostly harmless read; I may even reach for the sequel if I get bored.

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


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THE MARQUISE OF O– by Heinrich von Kleist
★★☆☆☆
date read: December 20, 2019
Pushkin Press, January 7, 2020
originally published 1808

[sexual assault tw] It’s a challenge to discuss this book (originally published in 1808) in any kind of measured way in 2019 and not sound like a sociopath. Through a contemporary lens, its premise is unarguably disgusting: a widow finds herself pregnant, having been raped while she’s unconscious, and puts a notice in the paper saying that she’s willing to marry any man who comes forward as the father. If you can’t stomach this on principle (and you would certainly be forgiven), stay far away. I do try my best to engage with classics on their own terms and I must admit this one leaves me somewhat baffled. While I found this to actually be curiously engaging, I’m ultimately unsure of what Kleist was trying to say with it and I must concede that this probably was not the best place to start with this author with only the translator’s brief introduction for context.

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

You can pick up a copy of The Marquise of O– 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 Whisper Man by Alex North

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THE WHISPER MAN by Alex North
★★☆☆☆
Celadon Books, 2019

 

All I really look for when picking out a thriller is an intriguing premise, and The Whisper Man absolutely had that covered: 20 years ago in a small English town, a series of murders occurred where a man would lure little boys outside by whispering at their windows, hold them captive for a brief period, and then kill them. The culprit was caught with damning evidence, but now, 20 years later, a series of murders is starting up that bear a startling resemblance to those committed by ‘The Whisper Man,’ who is still incarcerated.

I think there are two types of successful thrillers: one where the delight comes from the reader feeling involved in the whodunnit, where there are so many potential suspects you’re bound to be wrong no matter who you guess; and one where guessing the identity of the murderer isn’t really the point, but there are still so many twists and turns that you enjoy the ride anyway. The Whisper Man manages to fall in neither category. This neither had a thrilling murderer reveal, nor much momentum on the way there. Instead it hinges on family dynamics and the theme of fatherhood, which I suppose is done well, though it appears to have been at the detriment of… literally everything else.

I’ve seen others describe this book as creepy, scary, etc., and I have to wonder if I just missed something. Aside from a few moments that hinted at the possibility of something paranormal at play, I just found the atmosphere in this book conspicuously absent. In fact, the whole book felt muted, like it was being held back from achieving the real dread or terror that it was obviously striving for. The plot was likewise uninspired and straightforward; I’m just not sure what this book’s hook was supposed to be, once the promising exposition is out of the way. We just sort of amble through a rather aimless narrative about serial killers and creepy children – it’s like Alex North put a bunch of horror tropes into a blender and mixed them until they lost their flavor. There was just nothing unique or potent or memorable about this book.

Contrary to everything I’ve just written, I might recommend this to readers who are new-ish to thrillers (I will concede that a few of my ‘that was so obvious’ moments come from too much familiarity with the genre) but my overwhelming feeling about this book is one of anticlimax. If you’re looking for a safe, tame option in the genre, give it a shot; if you need something a bit more dark and twisted, definitely keep looking.


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

book review: Permission by Saskia Vogel

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PERMISSION by Saskia Vogel
★★☆☆☆
Coach House Books, 2019

 

Comparisons between Permission and The Pisces are both understandable and reductive; understandable because sex-centric literary fiction set in Los Angeles is a pretty obvious comp, and reductive because sex and LA are pretty much where the similarities end. Where The Pisces excels, in my opinion, is in its refusal to sensationalize its explicit subject matter; Permission, on the other hand, never successfully avoids that trap.

Permission focuses on a young woman, Echo, who finds solace in the BDSM community after the sudden death of her father, when she befriends her neighbor Orly who happens to be a dominatrix. But what begins as a promising examination of sex as escapism from grief never really manages to take off. Echo, like her mythological namesake, is pretty much voiceless in this narrative, but in this case I don’t think it was deliberate: this book is just one of those character studies that centers on a character who’s drawn so anemically she may as well not exist at all. This goes for the other characters as well: there’s an interesting passage where Echo reflects on the fact that she’s been projecting onto Orly without fully realizing that she’s a human being in her own right, but then nothing is really done with this revelation, and Orly too remains unknowable.

Rather than using sex and BDSM as a vehicle to explore Echo’s loneliness (I think that was supposed to be the point), sex remains the focus in the shallow kind of way that I think could have been avoided if this story had a bit more depth and detail. I did enjoy Saskia Vogel’s prose and there were undoubtedly moments of poignancy here, but on the whole I was underwhelmed.

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


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

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.

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.