book review: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen




NORTHANGER ABBEY by Jane Austen
★★★☆☆
originally published in 1817



I thought I had the full measure of Northanger Abbey when I first read it in 2017, so I nearly opted to skip it when my Jane Austen book club picked it up, but I decided to give it a re-read and I’m very glad I did. Having now read a couple of other Jane Austen novels, I found this book both richer and thornier the second time around, and also a hell of a lot more fun. 

While I did know it was satire the first time around, I didn’t think that made for a more pleasurable reading experience–though in retrospect I think it’s because I still insisted on treating this book with a level of seriousness that it doesn’t ask of the reader. This book is absurd and unapologetically so, and once that clicked for me it ended up working incredibly well–arguably even better than Pride and Prejudice, which is a practically faultless book, unlike Northanger Abbey which is something of a structural mess, but which still left me a bit colder than this one did.

What I continue to dislike about Northanger Abbey is its central romance. There’s no sense that Cathy has met her match with Henry Tilney, or he with her; instead their dynamic where her youthful naivety meets his playful condescension makes my skin crawl. (As someone who’s accustomed to liking books about unlikable characters, this ended up being much more of a sticking point for me than I thought it would, and probably points to my lack of familiarity with the romance genre.)

Anyway, I think I partially like this book for how unpolished and imperfect it is, and of the three Austen novels I’ve read so far, I think this is the one I’m most likely to return to. I keep thinking about it while Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice have almost left my mind entirely.

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: Kink by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell




KINK: STORIES edited by R.O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell
★★★☆☆
Simon & Schuster, February 9, 2021



Like most anthologies, Kink: Stories was a mixed bag, though it’s certainly enjoyable for its novelty alone (its thesis being that erotica has a place in literary fiction). I found the preponderance of stories about BDSM started to get a little boring after a while, but this was otherwise a refreshing collection that I enjoyed spending time with.

I felt the stories that were the most successful were the ones that contextualized the characters’ kinks—I don’t mean that in a ‘every kink comes from a fucked up childhood’ kind of way; I mean that your life and your sex life are part of the same whole and some of these stories were more interested in interrogating that intersection than others. 

The two absolute stand-outs were Brandon Taylor’s Oh, Youth (tender, devastating) and Carmen Maria Machado’s The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror (weird, sensual)–incidentally the two longest stories in the collection. The other surprising highlight for me was Trust by Larissa Pham, an author I’d never heard of, whose Vermont-set story I found evocative and effectively moving. 

The less said about Roxane Gay’s Reach the better, and a handful of other stories fell flat too, mostly the ones that lacked interiority of any kind. You could tell that a lot of these authors wanted to forgo character and dive straight into Commentary About Desire, and I always found that much less effective.

(Also, anyone looking forward to new Garth Greenwell should know that his story, Gospodar, is a chapter taken straight from Cleanness–I ended up skipping it when I realized I recognized what I was reading as I hadn’t particularly enjoyed that chapter the first time.)

Bottom line is that it’s honestly worth the price of admission for Taylor and Machado, but otherwise it didn’t totally reach its promising potential.


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

book review: The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton




THE QUEENS OF INNIS LEAR by Tessa Gratton
★★★☆☆
Tor, 2018


The Queens of Innis Lear is a fantasy retelling of King Lear, focusing on the young generation characters (primarily Cordelia, Goneril, Regan, and Edmund) in a fictional kingdom called Innis Lear. It starts off as a faithful adaptation (think Lear but with magic)–the titular King is abdicating the throne, and he makes a shocking choice to split the crown equally between his three daughters, provided that they pass the test he sets out for them: to each declare that they love him more than their sisters. Goneril (Gaela, in Gratton’s novel) and Regan (still Regan), manipulative and self-serving, both pass his test, but his youngest and most loyal daughter, Cordelia (Elia), refuses to participate and is banished.

To say I love this play is an understatement (hi, if you’re new here, King Lear is my favorite play) and I’m finding it nearly impossible to untangle my thoughts on how I feel about this as a novel from how I feel about it as a retelling, so we’re just going to go into an aggressive amount of detail and hope something coherent materializes. Mild spoilers forthcoming (mostly about the narrative roles of the characters within the novel, not about specific plot points).

Tonally and thematically, Tessa Gratton accesses a lot of what makes Lear so special and I found that I mostly enjoyed my reading experience for that alone. I always say that Lear is a simultaneously cosmic and intimate play, concerned both with Nature and human nature, and the way Gratton literalizes these themes into her magic system and her worldbuilding is done tremendously well. The writing too has a rich, indulgent quality that suits the tone of the book; it’s slowly paced and thoughtful, which felt appropriate to the story, though I imagine others may get bored early on without a love of Lear driving you forward.

Though, that love of Lear (along with how intimately well I know this play) did end up being a double-edged sword. Gratton had my investment from the very first page without really needing to earn it, and that certainly helped me devour this 600 page book in a little over a week. But on the other hand, I started to become more and more frustrated with the ways in which Gratton engaged with this play.

First is a rather specific annoyance, that luckily only occurred four or five times, but it was jarring enough that I have to mention it. The first half or two thirds of this novel follow the plot of Lear very closely, to the point where entire scenes from the play were acted out in this book. In theory that’s not something that bothers me; what does bother me is Gratton taking word-for-word dialogue from the play and modernizing it so I felt like I was reading No Fear Shakespeare. 

Here are a couple of direct side-by-side comparisons so you can see what I mean. Gratton’s sentences are first, Shakespeare’s are second:

“He has always loved Astore rather more than Connley.”
“I thought the King had more affected the Duke of Albany than Cornwall.”

“Nothing will come from nothing. Try again, daughter.”
“Nothing can come of nothing. Speak again.”

“I cannot heave my heart into my mouth, Father. I love you… as I should love you, being your daughter, and always have. You know this.”
“Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave/ My heart into my mouth. I love your Majesty/ According to my bond; no more nor less.”

“It is only a note from my brother, and I’ve not finished reading it. What I’ve read so far makes me think it’s not fit for you to see.” 
“I beseech you sir, pardon me. It is a letter from my brother that I have not all o’er-read; and for so much as I have perus’d, I find it not fit for your o’erlooking.”

It’s this but it would go on for entire conversations. Here’s the thing: this is pointless and distracting and when you go up against Shakespeare on a sentence by sentence level, you’re going to lose every time. 

Now, let’s get into the characters, because that’s where my real problem with this book lies.

I found Gratton’s portrayal of the Edmund character (Ban) endlessly frustrating. You could see her bending over backward to humanize Edmund, making these minor, pointless adjustments (Ban being older than his legitimate brother rather than younger, meaning his bastardy is the only thing standing in the way of his inheritance; Gloucester [Errigal] insisting that Edgar [Rory] inherit even after his alleged betrayal of his father) to amp up the reader’s sympathy, but frankly, a lot of Edmund’s charm was lost in the process. Edmund is my favorite character and I know I’m not alone in holding that opinion: the reason people love Edmund is because of his complexity and contradictions; he’s already deeply human in the play and I felt that Gratton flattened that out of him in an attempt to make his transgressions to come from a play of moral purity.

The parallel/inversion between Edmund and Cordelia in the play is fascinating to me–both youngest children, both loved by their fathers, one good, one evil, their fates intertwined in a chilling way. That Gratton chose to explore this connection was an exciting choice for me, but I felt that turning it into a romance added nothing, and in fact lost quite a bit, especially when it came at the narrative expense of what I think a lot of readers find to be a much more compelling dynamic; that between Ban and Morimaros (the King of France figure). (That’s another thing. This book had every opportunity to be explicitly queer, but there were only ever hints and whispers of queerness on the page, which I found frustrating.) 

If I were to detail every single character-related annoyance I had we’d be here for a while, so here are some other highlights: I felt that Edgar (Rory) was underutilized and misrepresented when he was on the page. Aefa is the single most pointless character I have read in anything, ever, and the fact that her POV chapters weren’t cut suggests to me that the editor just gave up. The old generation characters were all incredibly one-note; if you want to write a retelling focusing on the younger generation, that’s fine, but King Lear himself shouldn’t need to have a POV chapter to be a complex and interesting character. 

But we’re getting rather nitpicky now so let’s zoom back out. This book was marketed as a “feminist King Lear retelling” and a word that I’ve seen a lot of people use to talk about it is “subversive.” But my issue is that it was not, at all. As I mentioned above, the first half of the book follows Lear with dogged faithfulness, and after that, things start to go off the rails. Which is fine, fun, exactly what I’m here for! If I wanted to read King Lear I’d just read King Lear. But when Gratton started taking control of the narrative, her choices, to me, started to become more and more unwieldy. Nothing she did felt to me like a direct, deliberate subversion of the play; it felt like she had more interest in telling her own story with these characters than doing so as a means to engage with the original text, and that’s something that I think makes for an unsuccessful retelling. I don’t think you need to have complete and utter reverence for the original, but I think a love for the play coupled with a clear vision for how to engage with it is necessary. I felt–especially after reading an interview with Gratton–that her aim here was as nebulous as ‘King Lear but with better female characters’, and as a staunch Lear fan, I was rooting for this book but it really let me down in the end.

But I will end on a positive note (sort of): while I felt that Elia was as stiff and uninteresting as cardboard, I thought Gratton succeeded in doing some very interesting things with Gaela and Regan; Gaela particularly. The ways in which Gratton played with gender in Gaela’s chapters were dynamic and exciting and I think that along with the aforementioned magic system, Gaela’s character is this novel’s primary strength. 

This is already the longest review I’ve written in ages and I’m not sure how to end it. Bottom line, do I recommend this book? While I appreciate you sticking with me for this long, probably in hopes of me answering that question, I’m sorry to say that I really don’t know. I think you should be interested in Lear but not love Lear, maybe that’s the key to unlocking the optimal reading experience.

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: Bunny by Mona Awad

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BUNNY by Mona Awad
★★★☆☆
Viking, 2019

 

I liked the idea of this book more than I ended up liking the execution.  A horror novel set on a college campus surrounding a toxic friend group sounds like a recipe for perfection, but I found the result a little uneven.  I didn’t dislike reading it, but I also didn’t find it nearly as weird or groundbreaking or darkly funny as other readers have.

There was a sort of disorienting quality to this book that I didn’t particularly enjoy.  As you read you have the feeling that there’s something just outside your grasp that remains integral to the plot, and that feeling of being slightly unmoored was never compensated with a compelling enough hook to make me really care to figure out what it was that I was missing.  It’s one of those books that sort of sat in that nebulous grey area between being a chore to read and a pleasure.

The thing that I did absolutely adore about this book was the ending.  No spoilers, but suffice to say I found the resolution well worth waiting for.  And I feel I may have been overly harsh here, but expectations were high and I just didn’t enjoy the ride nearly as much as I hoped I would.


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

book review: Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

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FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE by Taffy Brodesser-Akner
★★★☆☆
Random House, 2019

 

This book was a bit of a rollercoaster for me: I loved it and I hated it, I found it brilliant and I found it frustrating.  I was actually expecting very little from it (books about rich people’s marriages failing just aren’t my thing; see: Fates and Furies) so on the whole I’d categorize it as a pleasant surprise, though I do have a few too many qualms to raise my rating higher than a solid 3 star.

What I found brilliant about this book was the character work.  As others have said ad nauseum, every character in this book is deplorable, and if that’s a problem for you, you aren’t going to get anything out of this.  I didn’t like Toby and Rachel, I didn’t find them sympathetic, and I found the stakes (how ever will this family survive on Toby’s $200k salary alone!) mind-numbingly low.  So I suppose it’s to Brodesser-Akner’s credit that I was invested.  I did care about whether these annoying kids would have to be uprooted from their life.  I did care about whether Rachel would resume the mantel of motherhood, or whether she had abandoned her family for good.  And I think the reason for that is that every major character in this book felt so thoroughly fleshed out and human.  This is a book about fallible people failing; it’s a train wreck that you can’t look away from.  That’s exactly what it sets out to be, and it succeeds magnificently in that regard.

What I found frustrating about this book was the structure.  For one thing, it was overly long: this could have been an intimate, thorough excavation of this marriage, and still been 150 pages shorter.  It wasn’t the page-count alone that bothered me: it was the fact that flashbacks were awkwardly woven into the narrative in a way that was like ‘Toby saw a family with three kids get on the subway.  He and Rachel used to want to have three kids.  [Cue 8 page backstory about that.]’  Incessantly.  It felt rather amateurishly constructed in this regard.

My biggest problem though was the book’s choice of narrator.  Full disclosure: first person minor rarely ever works for me, and this was not the book to change my mind.  It’s not narrated by Toby or Rachel, but rather Libby, one of Toby’s college friends who becomes invested in their marriage.  I found this to be such a flimsy framing device that ultimately didn’t add very much, and there were a few painfully on the nose moments where the author aimed for a larger commentary about how Libby’s role in the narrative was being sidelined (middle aged women are invisible, etc), but the fact that it was the author’s own narrative choice to sideline Libby made the whole thing a bit of an eye-roll.

So anyway, a mixed bag, but I certainly got a lot more out of this than I had expected to.  I do think it’s a brilliant commentary on marriage and the sort of contradictory societal expectations placed on women, and if that sounds appealing to you and you’re willing to navigate through it with loathsome characters, I would recommend it.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviewsDominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | Girl, Woman, Other | How We Disappeared | Red at the BoneWeather


You can pick up a copy of Fleishman is in Trouble here on Book Depository.

book review: What Red Was by Rosie Price

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WHAT RED WAS by Rosie Price
★★★☆☆
Crown, 2019

 

[trigger warning for sexual assault]  I think this is a very interesting, very uneven book.  What Red Was follows Kate and Max, two friends who meet during the first week of university and become inseparable.  They come from very different backgrounds – Kate is from a poor single-parent household and Max’s family is large and affluent – and after they graduate university, Kate’s life is shattered when she’s raped during a party at Max’s family home.

From reading this book’s summary and seeing its comparisons to Normal People by Sally Rooney and Asking For It by Louise O’Neill, I expected two things from What Red Was: a nuanced exploration of the aftermath of sexual assault (and Price mostly delivered here – more on this in a minute), and alternating perspectives between Kate and Max.  What I didn’t expect was that Max’s family would feature so heavily into the narrative.  We do indeed hear from both Max and Kate, but we also hear from Max’s mom, Max’s cousin, Max’s uncle, Max’s father, Max’s sister, all of whom have very generic Rich People Problems.  There’s talk of depression, alcoholism, inheritance drama, all of which in theory has the potential to be compelling, but none of it really is.  I can only imagine that Rosie Price structured her book this way because she wanted this to be more robust than ‘a book about rape’; the result is that characters and stories which should merely exist to contextualize Kate’s own narrative end up overpowering it.

The other problem which I encountered early on was that I didn’t love Rosie Price’s prose, which felt to me very conversational and millennial to the point where it distracted when we were in the heads of older characters.

However, when this book did focus on Kate, it excelled.  This is a brilliant examination not only of the long-lasting physical toll taken by sexual assault, but also of the delicate balance that every victim must go through of deciding who to share their story with, and how much of their story to share.  This isn’t a book that advocates that victims not speak out, but it is an incredibly sympathetic look on how much more challenging it can be in reality than in theory.

I also thought Rosie Price did an excellent job at writing Kate and Max’s friendship – a lot of the foundation of their relationship was glossed over given that four years of university were covered in about fifty pages, but I still found myself believing them and sympathizing with the extent to which Kate was concerned with Max’s feelings.

Ultimately, I thought this was an important and nuanced book when it zeroed in on its central topic, but it did meander a bit too much for my liking.


You can pick up a copy of What Red Was here on Book Depository.