book review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell | BookBrowse

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HAMNET by Maggie O’Farrell
Tinder Press, 2020
★★★★★

 

William Shakespeare’s name is never used in Hamnet — a conspicuous absence around which Maggie O’Farrell forms her richly imaginative narrative. Instead, the novel tells the story of those closest to Shakespeare: his parents, John and Mary; his wife Agnes; his daughter Susanna; and his twin children Hamnet and Judith. Shakespeare himself features in the narrative, though he is only ever described in relation to those around him, referred to as the Latin tutor, the husband, the father, the son. The result of this narrative decision is twofold: it pushes Shakespeare’s family to the foreground, but it also humanizes Shakespeare himself by reminding the reader that none of his works were created in a vacuum. This is the central conceit around which the novel’s climax is formed, as O’Farrell imagines the potential influence of Hamnet’s death in 1596 on Hamlet, written between 1599 and 1601.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about the real Anne Hathaway and Hamnet Shakespeare HERE.

book review: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

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EXCITING TIMES by Naoise Dolan
★★★★★
Ecco, June 2, 2020

 

Exciting Times is the most Sally Rooney book to have not been penned by Sally Rooney.  In a way that statement is overly reductive of Naoise Dolan’s fresh and distinctive voice, but still, the fact remains: if you don’t find Sally Rooney to be much to write home about, steer clear of this debut about Irish socialist millennials overanalyzing their messy and self-destructive relationships.  But if you’re like me and that’s sounds like a recipe for perfection, you’ll probably love this.

Shown through the eyes of an Irish expat living in Hong Kong, Exciting Times essentially focuses on a love triangle between narrator Ava and two individuals who in many ways are polar opposites – the rich, tactless English banker Julian and the elegant, clever Hong Kong native Edith.  Each is distinctly compelling, though the love triangle itself isn’t what moves the narrative so much as Ava navigating her own boundaries and ethics and evolving perspective on relationships.  Irish identity is another theme that takes center stage; Ava is an English teacher and finds herself tempering her natural speech patterns so that she teaches ‘correct’ English to her students.  It’s a thoughtful, clever, meditative book from a number of angles.

Dolan’s prose is this novel’s shining jewel; she has such a compact, witty, dry voice – it won’t be for everyone and I can see where others might find that it grows wearisome as the novel chugs along, but I found it consistently charming.  ‘”Anything strange?” said Mam on the phone.  She really said it, “antin strange,” but if Brits spelled Glosster as Gloucester then I supposed Mam deserved similar leeway.’

Exciting Times is definitely this year’s Normal People while also being very much its own thing, and I recommend it very highly.

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


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

book review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

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MY DARK VANESSA by Kate Elizabeth Russell

William Morrow, 2020

 

My Dark Vanessa was an absolute tour de force and well worth all the hype it has been receiving.  The entire framework of the novel is startling – Vanessa, now in her 30s, reflects on a relationship she had with her high school English teacher, Mr. Strane, especially in light of that same teacher being accused of sexual abuse by another student, a young woman named Taylor.  I think this novel in most authors’ minds would have been conceived around Taylor – and indeed, though she’s mostly a shadowy figure in this book, there would be plenty to dig into if she were thrust into the limelight: the difficulty of coming forward with abuse allegations when you can’t produce ‘evidence’, the strength that requires, the unwarranted backlash it solicits.

Vanessa however is an entirely different kind of heroine.  In fact, we learn that in her 30s, she’s still in contact with Strane, and that she doesn’t believe Taylor’s allegations.  Vanessa doesn’t believe herself to have been abused, and she still sees her relationship with Strane as a love story – albeit a doomed one.  It’s a premise that could feel almost deliberately belligerent toward its reader, but what Kate Elizabeth Russell is able to achieve with this book is a textured analysis of the difficulty in identifying as a victim.  My Dark Vanessa doesn’t have a comforting and predictable trajectory of Vanessa slowly coming to terms with the reality of her situation – the process is messier and the conclusion arguably less satisfying, but it feels truer to life and successfully challenges the disturbing concept that some survivors are ‘good victims’ while others aren’t.

It’s a disturbing, uncomfortable read – the passages which detail the ways Strane groomed and manipulated Vanessa are almost unbearable in their verisimilitude – but at the same time it’s almost impossible to put down.  The Lolita intertextuality is occasionally heavy-handed, that’s my one complaint, but the Nabokov references ultimately do serve to give the reader an idea of how 15-year-old Vanessa attempts to make sense of her situation through the classic novels that Strane lends her.  It’s a wonderfully paced, brilliantly characterized book that’s as harrowing as it is engrossing.


You can pick up a copy of My Dark Vanessa here on Book Depository.

book review: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel | BookBrowse

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THE GLASS HOTEL by Emily St. John Mandel
★★★★★
2020, Knopf

 

Vincent—a young woman named for American poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay—is working as a bartender in a hotel on a remote island in British Columbia, when one day a message is scrawled across the hotel window that reads: “Why don’t you swallow broken glass.” This sets off the unexpected chain of events that are chronicled by Emily St. John Mandel in her highly anticipated novel The Glass Hotel, which follows Vincent from rural Canada to Wall Street as she becomes involved with a high-level financial executive, whose successful business is revealed to be fronting a Ponzi scheme. This is the first novel that Mandel has published since the release of the wildly successful Station Eleven in 2014.

You can read my full review HERE and a piece I wrote about Ponzi schemes HERE.


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

book review: The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

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THE SPINNING HEART by Donal Ryan
★★★★★
Doubleday Ireland, 2012

 

The Spinning Heart is just tremendously, unbelievably good.  Set in post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, Donal Ryan chronicles the impact of the recession on a close-knit rural community.  With about twenty different points of view, the chapters are short, each a couple of pages long, and the novel is bookended by chapters from a married couple, Bobby and Triona.  Bobby is the novel’s central character, each of the other characters connected to his story in some way, but it’s hard to give a plot synopsis without giving anything away.  Suffice to say it opens with the brilliant lines “My father still lives back the road past the weir in the cottage I was reared in.  I go there every day to see is he dead and every day he lets me down.”

Though The Spinning Heart is Ryan’s debut, this is my third novel by him, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s cemented him as one of my all-time favorites.  His prose is just top-notch, lyrical and evocative, and he has a way of capturing the distinct voice of each of his narrators while still allowing his own style to creep in – I just find it so compelling and pleasurable to read any of his books.  The plot isn’t heavy in this one, though there’s a kidnapping and a murder going on in the background, but it was still hard for me to put it down.  In fact, I’d recommend reading it in as few sittings as possible, lest you begin to forget the hundred names you’re meant to be keeping track of.  Though I’d argue that if you forget who’s who a couple of times, as long as you remember who Bobby is, the impact won’t really be lessened.  This ultimately succeeds as a portrait of a community economically depressed, and is more about the overall effect that Ryan achieves with the panoply of voices, rather than the intricacies of the characters’ lives.

Anyway, as I’m sure you can tell, I loved this. Maybe not QUITE as much as I loved All We Shall Know, but it’s close.


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

book review: Daughter from the Dark by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko

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DAUGHTER FROM THE DARK by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko
translated by Julia Meitov Hersey
★★★★★
Harper Voyager, February 11, 2020

 

Daughter from the Dark is the latest offering from Ukrainian husband and wife team Marina and Sergey Dyachenko, translated brilliantly from the Russian by Julia Meitov Hersey.  Their 2018 release, Vita Nostra, is one of the most bizarre, exhilarating, mind-bending things I’ve read, and while I cannot wait for the next installment of that series to be available in English, this standalone was a lovely treat in the meantime.

For those who haven’t read Vita Nostra yet, I’d argue that Daughter from the Dark may be a slightly more palatable place to start.  It’s a shorter book, for one, and its ideas are much more easily digested.  But that’s not to say that it’s a traditional, predictable book by any means – these are the authors of Vita Nostra, after all – and it’s not a simple book to summarize.  But, roughly: it follows a DJ called Aspirin, who one night finds a young girl, Alyona, standing alone in the dark, clutching a teddy bear; she won’t tell him where she came from so he takes her home with him, and one she’s in his apartment, she refuses to leave.  And also, her teddy bear might be a vicious monster.

Daughter from the Dark is thrilling and enchanting, and the dynamic between Aspirin and Alyona is nothing short of brilliant.  The pace is slower and more meandering than that of Vita Nostra, but it wasn’t to the book’s detriment as the Dyachenkos excel so much at atmosphere.  This is a dirty, grungy book, which paradoxically reads like a fairy tale, and that tension between beauty and horror is exactly what makes it so unforgettable. I can’t recommend this author/translator team enough to anyone who likes their fantasy light on plot and heavy on the sort of ideas that won’t leave you alone long after you put the book down.

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


You can pick up a copy of Daughter from the Dark here on Book Depository.

book review: Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb

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ROYAL ASSASSIN by Robin Hobb
(Farseer trilogy #2)
★★★★★
Harper Voyager 2014
originally published in 1996
[Assassin’s Apprentice ★★★★☆]

 

A 5-star rating feels a little disingenuous seeing as it took me over 6 months to finish this book, but the best books aren’t always the ones you race through.  I liked taking my time with Royal Assassin, the second book in Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, which I enjoyed so much more than the first now that I was properly invested in the characters and the conflicts.

Is this book perfect, no; is it about 200 pages longer than it needs to be, YES; but there’s just so much to love here.  I think Fitz is an incredibly complex and sympathetic protagonist, his bond with Nighteyes was fascinating, and I absolutely adored that all of the female characters (namely Patience, Kettricken, and Molly) were so much more fleshed out here than they were in Assassin’s Apprentice.  (I’m gathering from scanning some other reviews that people really don’t like Molly?  I don’t understand that; I think she’s a great character and I don’t think her relationship with Fitz is framed as something we’re meant to root for, at least at this stage – I think it’s painfully clear to the reader how blind he is to the suffering their situation causes her, and that is very much the point.)

Anyway, I can’t wait to continue this series and then hopefully move onto the Liveship Traders soon after.  I think 2020 will be a big Robin Hobb year for me. It’s been a while since I’ve been this excited about a fantasy writer.


Book Depository links: Assassin’s Apprentice | Royal Assassin

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: In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

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IN THE DREAM HOUSE by Carmen Maria Machado
★★★★★
Graywolf, November 2019

 

I finished In the Dream House a few weeks ago but I haven’t found myself able to rise to the challenge of reviewing this book.  It’s one of the best things I’ve read all year; one of the best memoirs I’ve read ever.  My instinct is to say that this book won’t be for everyone due to its highly inventive structure, but where I find that literary invention tends to be alienating, Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir is so fiercely personal that I doubt anyone could accuse it of being emotionally removed.

In the Dream House tells the story of an abusive relationship that Machado was in with another woman in her 20s; she draws the reader into the alarming reality that she lived for years, with just enough of the abuse detailed that it avoids gratuity while still becoming a sickening, terrifying read, oddly reminiscent of an old-fashioned horror film.  This book is written in first and second person, with present-day Carmen speaking to past-Carmen, allowing her to display a vulnerability to the reader that can be hard to achieve in even the most open of memoirs.

Machado is very conscious of the fact that she’s written a singular, pioneering text; there’s commentary woven throughout the narrative about how woefully under-researched the subject of abuse in queer female relationships is.  In contrast with the cultural misconception that women cannot abuse each other, she integrates references to myth, literature, history, and scholarship into her own story, heightening the timelessness, the commonality of her own horrifying experiences.

This is a chilling, clear-eyed, conceptually brilliant text that I sincerely hope reaches the readers who need it the most. Highly recommended.

Thank you to Graywolf for the comp copy; this did not impact my rating in any way.


You can pick up a copy of In the Dream House here on Book Depository.

book review: Divide Me By Zero by Lara Vapnyar | BookBrowse

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DIVIDE ME BY ZERO by Lara Vapnyar
★★★★★
Tin House Books, 2019

 

Divide Me By Zero begins with an encounter between the narrator, Katya Geller, a 40-something mother of two, and a fish seller in Staten Island from whom Katya is buying caviar. “I was brought up in the Soviet Union, where caviar was considered a special food reserved for children and dying parents,” Katya says. The fish seller, another Soviet immigrant, understands Katya’s meaning and the two lock eyes and begin to cry. This moment of intense connection between two strangers charts the course for Lara Vapnyar’s frank and emotionally honest story of love and loss.

You can read the rest of my review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote on the Russian poet Joseph Brodsky HERE.


You can pick up a copy of Divide Me By Zero here on Book Depository.