book review: No One Asked for This by Cazzie David




NO ONE ASKED FOR THIS by Cazzie David
★★★★★
Mariner Books, 2020





About a month ago I read an interview with Cazzie David about her breakup with Pete Davidson. I could not for a million dollars tell you why I clicked on that article, having no emotional investment in either of these people, but here we are. I was struck by two things: how resonant I found the way Cazzie talks about anxiety, and the fact that she’s open about having emetophobia, something I’ve struggled with since the age of eight. So that alone was enough to pique my curiosity about this essay collection. 

The thing about this book is that you need to accept what it’s trying to do and read it in good faith. Would this have been published if Cazzie weren’t Larry David’s daughter, of course not, but is she trying to join the ranks of great modern essayists like Jia Tolentino? Not in the slightest. These essays are self-indulgent, tone deaf, and solipsistic, but if you dwell on any of these things I promise you are taking this collection much more seriously than Cazzie is. 

So let’s focus on the good, because I unabashedly loved this book. Cazzie’s writing won’t win any literary awards but she’s surprisingly incisive, especially when it comes to talking about anxiety and her fear of mortality. Another thing is, the more neurotypical you are, the less this book is going to resonate with you (not that you’re necessarily neurotypical if you didn’t like it). Cazzie makes absolutely no effort to be likable; she paints a portrait of what it’s like to be fully in thrall of anxiety and the insidious ways it tears you apart from the inside out, affecting both your self-worth and your relationships. She makes comments like this, that are on one level dismissive and alienating (yes, some people simply “get really bad anxiety” and it’s still a bitch for them to live with), and on another level were like looking into a mirror:

“I never understood social media posts advising people that “it’s okay to not feel good all the time!” Who said that wasn’t okay? Who is so okay to the point where they need to be reminded that it’s okay when they don’t feel okay?! When people “reveal” they “get really bad anxiety,” I’m dumbfounded, because I’ve never not been anxious long enough to “get” anxiety. It doesn’t leave. Not ever.”

She’s also funny as hell. You’ll either get her humor or you won’t, and you’ll know by the end of the first essay which side you’re on. But–surprisingly, for the fact that you’re spending 300+ pages inside the head of an extremely unhappy person–this collection is fun. It’s self-deprecating, it’s clever, and above all else, it’s an entertaining way to spend an afternoon.

This isn’t for everyone (clearly), but I just really ‘got’ this book; I got what Cazzie was trying to do with it and I also got Cazzie as a person, and it made me feel slightly less alone in the world whenever I picked it up. At the end of the day, that’s all you can ask from a book like this.

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

book review: The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton | BookBrowse




THE DEVIL AND THE DARK WATER by Stuart Turton
★★★★☆
Bloomsbury, 2020



In 1634 on the day that world famous detective Samuel Pipps is set to board the Sardaam from Batavia to Amsterdam in handcuffs, the ship is approached by a leper who climbs atop a crate to declare a frightening prophecy: “The Sardaam‘s cargo is sin, and all who board her will be brought to merciless ruin. She will not reach Amsterdam.” The man then bursts into flames and dies moments later, at which time it’s discovered that, despite the prophecy he just announced, he has no tongue.

While the opening of this standalone mystery is explosive, The Devil and the Dark Water is a slow burner. It mostly follows Arent, Samuel Pipps’ bodyguard, a gruff yet honorable man intent on proving the innocence of his accused employer. It also follows Sara Wessel, a noblewoman trapped in an abusive marriage hoping to make a new life for herself in Amsterdam. The two form an unlikely friendship as the ship comes under siege by dark forces in the form of a demon called Old Tom that has a terrifying link to Arent’s past.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about the Dutch East India Trading Company HERE.

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: Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas




CATHERINE HOUSE by Elisabeth Thomas
★★★☆☆
Custom House, May 2020




Whenever I read a book with a suspiciously low Goodreads rating I’m always all the more determined to love it – there’s something kind of fun about being in the minority in really ‘getting’ a book that goes over so many heads.  Sadly not the case here.  While I didn’t find this objectively terrible in any way, neither did I find it particularly special or pleasurable to read.

Following 18-year-old Ines who goes off to an experimental college, Catherine House subverts a lot of campus novel tropes.  Ines isn’t characterized by a passion for academia or a thirst for belonging or a love for her school – she’s socially and academically dispassionate to a fault.  Along with Ines’s lack of drive is a particularly conspicuous lack of atmosphere, and I think the Kazuo Ishiguro and Sarah Waters comparisons do this book a disservice if you go into it expecting a lush, indulgent, immersive setting.

While I did feel that Thomas did a great job of building suspense, to the point where I read this book in two sittings because there was something rather hypnotic about it, I also didn’t particularly care about what I was reading.  There’s a mystery at the heart of the school’s scientific research department, and I’m not sure whether the twist fell flat or whether I just was never invested enough to be moved by it.

Again, I don’t think this was bad or even unsuccessful in what it set out to do, and I can see it working perfectly for a certain type of reader.  Sadly it just wasn’t quite what I was looking for.

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

book review: They Never Learn by Layne Fargo




THEY NEVER LEARN by Layne Fargo
★★★★★
Gallery Scout Press, October 13, 2020





They Never Learn was the most fun I’ve had with a book in ages.  It’s far from perfect (it notably leans into an obsession with the glam femme fatale in a way that wouldn’t have been out of place with mid-2000s feminist media), but I’m just going to leave that criticism at the door because I had such a damn good time reading this.

It follows Scarlett, a professor-turned-vigilante serial killer who spends her evenings tracking down and murdering men who have abused women.  We also follow a student at her university, Carly, a shy 18-year-old who becomes infatuated with her roommate.  Their chapters alternate, each a short, 3-5 page segment that confidently leaps from one perspective to the next, daring the reader to keep up.  This book is a page-turner, first and foremost, and it does a spectacular job at cohering into something that you can devour in a single sitting if you’re so inclined. 

This book is so clever, so unexpected, so deliciously indulgent.  Scarlett is a brilliant creation, and Carly’s chapters work to ground the novel and develop a character whose quotidian anxieties you can sympathize with, while Scarlett’s chapters amp up the stakes.  Highly recommended to all thriller fans, with the caveat of there being a significant trigger warning for sexual assault.

I won an advanced copy of this book in a Goodreads giveaway; thanks Gallery Scout Press.  All thoughts are my own.

book review: Three Plays by Lisa B. Thompson

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UNDERGROUND, MONROE, & THE MAMALOGUES: THREE PLAYS by Lisa B. Thompson
★★★★☆
Northwestern University Press, August 15, 2020

 

This is a brilliant collection of three plays from scholar and playwright Lisa B. Thompson, each of which navigates issues of racism and trauma as they particularly pertain to the Black middle class.  Each play is distinct both in style and subject, but all thematically cohere into a sharp, savvy collection that makes for fantastic reading, though I imagine seeing any of these come to life on the stage with the right actors would be an even more entrancing experience.

Underground – 5 stars

Originally performed in 2017, Underground is the standout play from this collection, which focuses on the tension between two friends, two middle-aged, middle class Black men who had both been activists for the Black Panther movement, but who have drifted apart in life and in ideologies.  This play is razor-sharp and startlingly prescient; reading it amid the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement was a rather humbling experience, to be reminded so starkly that the movement’s catalysts have been decades, centuries in the making.  This exchange in particular drove home a relevant piece of discourse that’s been in the news a lot lately:

MASON: Wait. This is not just sensational journalism. They are out here bombing shit, man.
KYLE: Things. Not people. Statues of long dead white men can’t die again.

Monroe – 5 stars

Set in 1940s Lousiana, Monroe follows the impact of a lynching on a small-town community, including one young woman, the victim’s sister, who believes herself to be pregnant like the Virgin Mary.  Monroe has a sort of mystical, fable-like quality to it which makes it stand apart from the other two plays in this collection, but it’s all the more resonant for its examination of the timelessness of anti-Black violence in America.

The Mamalogues – 2 stars

This one’s tricky, because here’s the thing; I was never going to like this play.  I don’t like books (and films, and plays, and stories, more broadly) about motherhood and that’s what this is.  Three Black middle class single mothers compare their lived experiences in this sort of vignette-style play.  When you’re already disinterested in motherhood as a theme and there’s no actual narrative to sustain the play, it’s not fun reading.  But that criticism is very much on me so I won’t hold it against this collection too much.  Lisa B. Thompson is a brilliant writer and this is worth the price of admission for the first two plays alone.

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

book review: Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

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TENDER IS THE FLESH by Agustina Bazterrica
translated by Sarah Moses
★★★★★
Scribner, August 4, 2020

 

Effectively an anti-factory farming polemic satirized to its shocking, inevitable conclusion, Tender Is the Flesh is a horrifying and grotesque piece of work.  Translated from the Spanish brilliantly by Sarah Moses, it tells the story of a man named Marcos who recently lost his son to a cot death and is estranged from his wife as a result.  Marcos works at a local processing plant – but instead of cattle, the plant farms and slaughters humans, following a virus which infected all non-human animals, rendering their meat unsafe to eat.  But these people are no longer referred to as humans; so desensitized is everyone to their new dietary reality.

This book made me feel physically ill every time I picked it up, but I found it equally hard to put it down.  I’ve been a vegetarian for most of my life, primarily in protest against factory farming, so it’s safe to say that this novel’s central conceit resonated strongly enough to compel me to keep reading, but it would be reductive to say that condemning the meat industry is the only thing Bazterrica is doing here.  This book focuses equally on the question of what it means to be human (I can’t get a sort of half-baked Never Let Me Go comparison out of my head, even if the similarities truly do end there – but there’s a reason that’s my favorite book; it’s a theme that I find endlessly fascinating to wrestle with) and the ways in which we allow our personal ethics to be shaped by those in positions of power.

It’s not a flawless book – I think the (air-tight) worldbuilding occasionally overpowers the character-driven part of the novel, which I was honestly fine with until something happened that made me wish the character development hadn’t been quite so withheld from the reader, so I initially rated this 4 stars when I finished, but on second thought, I think this book will be seared into my brain forever, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for what Bazterrica has achieved here.

This is not an easy book to recommend, and I cannot emphasize just how strong of a stomach you need to make it through this, but, somewhat perversely, it’s not a hard book to love.  I’d say it’s probably the single most disturbing thing I have ever read (A Clockwork Orange has been dethroned at last), but that is in no way a criticism.

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


You can pick up a copy of Tender is the Flesh (already published in the UK) here on Book Depository.

book review: Hysteria by Jessica Gross

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HYSTERIA by Jessica Gross
★★★★☆
Unnamed Press, August 18, 2020

 

Hysteria belongs to a Marmite subset of literary fiction that I like to call ‘books about disaster women’.  (Other disaster women books include, for example: The Pisces, My Year of Rest and RelaxationAlmost Love.)  These books tend to feature young women in their 20s-30s who have abrasive personalities and make poor decisions and have a lot of casual sex usually for the wrong reasons.  If you do not enjoy disaster women books, you will not like Hysteria, it’s important to get that out of the way.  This will not be the book to change your mind and embrace this whole subgenre if it’s something you’ve henceforth found uninteresting or repulsive.

But with that said, if you do enjoy disaster women books, it’s a damn good one.  In Hysteria we follow an unnamed narrator living in Brooklyn, who goes into her local bar one day and discovers a new bartender has just started working there; she becomes compelled by him and starts to believe that he is none other than Sigmund Freud.

Hysteria is short, punchy, and shocking.  The way Jessica Gross juxtaposes the narrator’s meditations on sexual desire and meditations on daughterhood are uncomfortable to the extreme – I’m trying to avoid using the word oedipal in this review as I know that isn’t an enticing prospect for most people – but what works is that Gross’s writing never tips into gratuitousness.  It isn’t provocative for the sake of being provocative; she actually does have incisive points to make as she simultaneously celebrates and interrogates the narrator’s lasciviousness.  Not a book for everyone but highly recommended to those who it appeals to.

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


You can preorder a copy of Hysteria from the publisher here (not an affiliate link).