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).

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: 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: 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.