book review: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

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RED AT THE BONE by Jacqueline Woodson
★★★★☆
Riverhead, 2019

 

In Red at the Bone, a quick, engrossing, fairly plotless read, Jacqueline Woodson dissects the anatomy of a family.  She’s able to skillfully distill a collection of lives down to their bare essentials, without anything feeling rushed or underdeveloped, a feat in a book that’s scarcely 200 pages.  The novel is narrated by a handful of characters and centers on Melody, a teenage girl preparing for her coming of age ceremony in her family’s home in Brooklyn.  The narrative then weaves in and out of the past and present, in short, readable chapters, all pervaded by a sense of nostalgia and melancholy.

At times I found Woodson’s writing a tad overwrought (here I will cite the most obvious offender: WHY do authors feel compelled to have characters narrate their own births – has anyone else noticed that this is a growing trend?!).  However, on the whole I found that subjects were navigated with deftness and subtlety – the chapter in particular which introduces a major world event I found positively gutting.

The downside of short, punchy books like this is that they never tend to leave much of a lasting impression on me, and I doubt Red at the Bone will be an exception in the long run, but I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent with it.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviewsDominicana | Fleishman is in TroubleGirl | How We Disappeared | Red at the Bone | Weather


You can pick up a copy of Red at the Bone here on Book Depository.

book review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

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HOW WE DISAPPEARED by Jing-Jing Lee
★★★★☆
Hanover Square Press, 2019

 

Set in Singapore, How We Disappeared centers on Wang Di, an elderly woman who survived Japanese occupation during WWII by being forced into serving as a comfort woman.  We follow her present-day narrative as well as seeing flashbacks to the war, which comprise the bulk of this novel.  Meanwhile we also follow Kevin, a teenage boy whose grandmother has just made a shocking confession on her death bed, which propels Kevin to dig into his family history.

I found this to be an occasionally frustrating and messy yet ultimately satisfying read.  Its main strength was Jing-Jing Lee’s skill at immersing the reader, and the chapters set during WWII really came to life.  I do think a bit too much of the narrative focused on Kevin – not to the detriment of Wang Di’s narrative, as I felt that her sections were properly fleshed out – it’s more that Kevin himself added very little as a character.  I tend to prefer historical fiction that doesn’t have a past/present framing, and this was no exception; I kept wishing it would stay in the 1940s.  That said, I do feel that Jing-Jing Lee ultimately justified this narrative decision with the way the story wrapped up, even if it wouldn’t have been my first choice of how to tell it.

But where I felt this book really excelled was Jing-Jing Lee’s descriptions of Wang Di’s life as a comfort woman, but then also in the depiction of the aftermath.  The shame and stigma attached to these young women after they returned home was a heartbreaking thing to reckon with, but I felt the book was strengthened by Lee’s willingness to confront this head-on.  I know that we in the book community collectively feel a bit of fatigue where WWII novels are concerned, but I felt that this one was a worthwhile read – impeccably researched and harrowing while still providing a strong and compelling narrative.  (If you’re going to read one book about sexual slavery off the Women’s Prize longlist, make it this one instead of Girl.)


You can pick up a copy of How We Disappeared here on Book Depository.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviewsDominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | How We Disappeared | Red at the Bone | Weather

book review: Long Bright River by Liz Moore

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LONG BRIGHT RIVER by Liz Moore
★★★★☆
Riverhead, January 2020

 

Long Bright River may be nearly 500 pages, but it reads as though it’s half the length, even though (paradoxically?) I wouldn’t describe it as a page-turner.  It’s definitely a slow-burner, and it takes its time setting the stage for its central mystery, instead focusing brilliantly on establishing the setting and the atmosphere of some of Philadelphia’s poorer neighborhoods; but there’s something so engrossing about it from the onset that it’s hard to put it down.

What drew me to Long Bright River, aside from my fondness for thrillers, is the focus on the opioid crisis, and this Moore handled spectacularly.  First off, if you haven’t read Dopesick by Beth Macy, what are you waiting for; second of all, I’m always so drawn to books which humanize drug addicts and treat their stories with respect and sensitivity (recommendations welcome!); Moore achieves this while also keeping up the momentum of the narrative.

Moore’s prose is another strength; this is the first novel of hers that I’ve read, but I’m definitely more likely to pick up something off her backlist now.  This book’s one failing for me is something that I find myself frequently lamenting in thrillers; a too-quick denouement and a too-neat resolution of character arcs.  But still, my opinion of Long Bright River is mostly favorable, and I think it’s very deserving of all the hype.


You can pick up a copy of Long Bright River here on Book Depository.

book review: Little Gods by Meng Jin | BookBrowse

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LITTLE GODS by Meng Jin
★★★★☆
Custom House, January 2020

 

Little Gods, Meng Jin’s intricate, emotionally intelligent debut, opens with a scene in which physicist Su Lan gives birth in Beijing in 1989. Through the eyes of a nurse working the night shift, we learn that inside the hospital, Su Lan is abandoned by her husband, while outside, the violence of the June 4th Tiananmen Square Massacre erupts around her. The narrative then skips forward 17 years to Su Lan’s death.

The novel unfolds in a non-linear fashion; in the opening chapters we’re introduced to a shadow of the woman that Su Lan becomes—a distant, hardworking single mother—before we delve into the past and begin to reconstruct her character.

You can read the rest of my review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about the Tienanmen Square Massacre HERE.


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

book review: The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall

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THE SNOW COLLECTORS by Tina May Hall
★★★★☆
Dzanc, February 12, 2020

 

The Snow Collectors, the arresting debut by Tina May Hall, is a tremendously interesting yet very uneven book.  Hall fuses gothic horror, mystery, and historical fiction into a bizarre yet intriguing blend (made more bizarre by the fact that it’s not a historical novel at all – it’s set in the present-day, or maybe the near-future).  It’s almost tongue-in-cheek at times in a way that weirdly reminded me of Northanger Abbey – the narrator comparing herself ironically to a gothic heroine – but the classic comparisons stop there as this is a much weirder book than a lazy Rebecca or Frankenstein comparison would convey.  Anyway, when it works, it’s brilliant, and when it falters, it does fall a bit flat.

I think the strongest element here is the snowy New England atmosphere, which is paying a deliberate homage to the arctic backdrop of the Franklin Expedition of 1845.  The protagonist, Henna, finds the body of a dead girl in her woods, and in investigating the crime as an amateur sleuth, she traces it back to the Franklin Expedition and more notably to John Franklin’s wife, the Lady Jane.  I did think these segments that focused on Jane were refreshing and interesting enough to mostly carry the novel.

Where this book never fully worked for me was in the contemporary murder mystery; it felt like an after-thought to the point where suspects were never properly introduced; I found the resolution obvious in the sense that it was the only resolution that had ever really been set up at all.  The present-day characters and their motivations also remain hazy to a frustrating extent, though Henna herself is a fascinating character.  All said, I did want a bit more from this, but I do also recommend checking it out if it appeals.  3.5 stars.

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


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

book review: Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park

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TRAVELLING IN A STRANGE LAND by David Park
★★★★☆
Bloomsbury, 2018 (UK)

 

This was a lovely, devastating little book.  It’s a simple story which follows Tom, a Northern Irish man making a road trip from Belfast to Sunderland to pick up his son Luke from uni for the Christmas holidays.  This reverse-Odyssey is being undertaken as weather has made road conditions terrible and all public transport has been shut down, and Luke is too sick to drive himself.

On a very surface level, David Park captures the fortitude required to drive in unsafe weather conditions in a way that hooked and compelled me instantly, but obviously this book is so much more than that.  I don’t want to give away too much as it has such a short page count, but this book delves so deep into grief and guilt that it’s a wonder Park could do it all in under 200 pages.

The only issue that cropped up for me on occasion was something that frequently bothers me with books written in the first-person; when the narrator becomes overly articulate in such a way that you can feel the author using them as a mouthpiece.  I found the writing mostly lovely and authentic, and this was only an occasional criticism, but it was enough to knock it back from 5 stars.

Still, it’s a tremendously affecting book that I’d recommend highly, especially on a snowy day.


You can pick up a copy of Travelling in a Strange Land here on Book Depository.

book review: The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

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THE TIGER’S WIFE by Téa Obreht
★★★★☆
Random House, 2011

 

What an incredibly pleasant surprise.  Not only did this not sound like my type of book (it has been well documented that I don’t get on with magical realism), I was doing a group buddy read – I started the book last, and by the time I picked it up, only one other person in the group ended up liking it.  So despite all the critical acclaim, I thought it was a foregone conclusion that I was going to hate The Tiger’s Wife.  But I actually have to side with the critics on this one!

This book was enchanting, I can’t think of a better word for it.  I was so impressed with Téa Obreht’s writing; if I hadn’t known that she had written this in her early 20s I never would have believed it.  Her ability to craft atmosphere in this meticulously detailed family saga kept me spellbound, even through sections where the narrative slightly stalled.

However, it didn’t completely work for me.  The Tiger’s Wife is a story within a story – the protagonist Natalia is a young doctor on her way to a remote orphanage in the generalized Balkan country in which she lives, when she receives word that her grandfather has died.  She then weaves together her own story with stories about her grandfather’s life, and the result is a case study in why I hate first-person minor so much.  I found the frame narrative incredibly flimsy, to the point where I’d have gladly done away with it altogether and focused entirely on Natalia’s grandfather.  Those chapters were the shining beacon of light in this book, and I can guarantee that a year from now I’m going to remember those vividly while not recalling a single thing about Natalia.

But all said, I thought this was a really enjoyable and worthwhile read that I’m glad to have finally picked up.


If you’re interested in reading the rest of the reviews from my buddy read group:

★★★★☆ | Naty
★★★☆☆ | Emily, Hannah RTC
★★☆☆☆ | Callum


You can pick up a copy of The Tiger’s Wife here on Book Depository.