book review: The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

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THE DRAGON REPUBLIC by R.F. Kuang
(The Poppy War #2)
★★★☆☆
Harper Voyager, August 6, 2019

 

I was never going to love The Dragon Republic as much as The Poppy War, so let’s get that out of the way; The Poppy War is a book of two halves, and I preferred the first. However, it was still a 5 star read for me (review here), and with Kuang’s assertions on Twitter that The Dragon Republic was an objectively superior book, I was still cautiously optimistic about the sequel. And I didn’t hate it, but I’m disappointed.

Pacing is an issue in both of these books; in The Poppy War, things happen too fast; it feels like two books crammed into one. But I really didn’t mind that – I read a lot of literary fiction, so when I venture into genre fiction it’s with entirely different expectations and needs to be met – I like a bit of nonstop action in my fantasy as long as it doesn’t get too overwhelming, which I don’t think it did. But with The Dragon Republic the issue is the exact opposite. Nothing – and I cannot stress this enough – happens for the first three quarters of this book. Where The Poppy War feels like two books for the price of one, The Dragon Republic feels like a novella stretched out thin across 500 pages. Things of course do happen, technically, but there is so much filler. Stakes feel low (a problem that The Poppy War certainly did not have), because for the major part of this book, it feels like you’re spinning your wheels and still waiting for the main players to enter the ring.

But let’s talk about what I did like: the characters and the setting are some of my favorites from any fantasy series that I have ever read. The returning characters are as complex, endearing, and frustrating as ever, and the new characters shine as well – Vaisra in particular is a brilliant creation. And if The Dragon Republic has one thing that’s superior to The Poppy War, it’s the world building and the magic system, which is infinitely more fleshed out here with some truly fascinating developments.

It took me three months to read this, but I want to stress that every time I did pick it up, I enjoyed it. The issue is that I just seldom reached for it. I really hope this is just second book syndrome, and I do think one thing that Kuang was able to achieve with this book was laying a really solid foundation for whatever is to come next (and with that ending, I can promise you that the third book is going to destroy me). But even though I would still recommend this series wholeheartedly, this just wasn’t as good as The Poppy War, much as it pains me to say it.

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


You can pick up a copy of The Poppy War here on Book Depository, and The Dragon Republic here.

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book review: Permission by Saskia Vogel

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PERMISSION by Saskia Vogel
★★☆☆☆
Coach House Books, 2019

 

Comparisons between Permission and The Pisces are both understandable and reductive; understandable because sex-centric literary fiction set in Los Angeles is a pretty obvious comp, and reductive because sex and LA are pretty much where the similarities end. Where The Pisces excels, in my opinion, is in its refusal to sensationalize its explicit subject matter; Permission, on the other hand, never successfully avoids that trap.

Permission focuses on a young woman, Echo, who finds solace in the BDSM community after the sudden death of her father, when she befriends her neighbor Orly who happens to be a dominatrix. But what begins as a promising examination of sex as escapism from grief never really manages to take off. Echo, like her mythological namesake, is pretty much voiceless in this narrative, but in this case I don’t think it was deliberate: this book is just one of those character studies that centers on a character who’s drawn so anemically she may as well not exist at all. This goes for the other characters as well: there’s an interesting passage where Echo reflects on the fact that she’s been projecting onto Orly without fully realizing that she’s a human being in her own right, but then nothing is really done with this revelation, and Orly too remains unknowable.

Rather than using sex and BDSM as a vehicle to explore Echo’s loneliness (I think that was supposed to be the point), sex remains the focus in the shallow kind of way that I think could have been avoided if this story had a bit more depth and detail. I did enjoy Saskia Vogel’s prose and there were undoubtedly moments of poignancy here, but on the whole I was underwhelmed.

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


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

book review: Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

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STUBBORN ARCHIVIST by Yara Rodrigues Fowler
★★★★☆
Mariner Books, July 16, 2019

 

Stubborn Archivist is the sort of book that manages to feel both brilliant and incomplete – that’s the impression that I’m left with upon finishing it. Debut novelist Yara Rodrigues Fowler comes out of the gate strong with this book, which is an offbeat piece of auto-fiction that blends poetry and prose (think Eimear McBride, but more accessible) to tell the story of a young British-Brazilian woman growing up in South London.

This is one of the more ‘fresh’ and stylistically interesting things I’ve read in while; its challenge of structure feels authentic rather than arbitrary and the overall effect serves to put you in the head of the nameless protagonist. The one theme that is executed to perfection in this book is the exploration of what it’s like to grow up between two cultures, which Rodrigues Fowler portrays with heart-rending authenticity on both micro- and macro-cosmic levels.

But I do wonder if Rodrigues Fowler was maybe a bit too ambitious; there were a number of other themes that were introduced without ample exploration (and it’s to her credit that I do have to wonder if this was the point – after all, what woman in her early 20s has sex and sexuality completely figured out; but there were still a few scenes whose inclusion I do have to wonder at). I also was less enamored with the passages that left our protagonist and focused on her parents and her aunt; I think the idea was to give a more complete picture of this family’s history, but again, I don’t think these scenes were developed as well as they could have been in order to justify their inclusion.

Ultimately though I did think this was an incredibly striking debut. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys ‘millennial fiction’ and contemporary literary fiction that features young women trying to find their place in the world.

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


You can pre-order a copy of Stubborn Archivist here on Book Depository.

book review: The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See

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THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN by Lisa See
★★★☆
Scribner, March 2019

 

It took me over three months to finish this book, and it wasn’t for a lack of interest in the author; this was my seventh Lisa See novel and interestingly, not even my least favorite. I wouldn’t say there’s anything ostensibly wrong with this book, and it’s not exactly a radical departure from the rest of See’s historical fiction: it follows a friendship between two women against the backdrop of a turbulent period in East Asian history (though here the setting is the Korean Jeju Island instead of See’s usual China).

But despite the tried and true blueprint whose familiarity should have been comforting, I really struggled to get invested in The Island of Sea Women. I think my main issue was with the protagonist, Young-sook (whose name I just had to look up even though I finished this book only two days ago, so that’s never a good sign). Young-sook and her best friend Mi-ja are haenyeo – female divers – and See’s exploration of this culture is as thorough as ever. However, Young-sook herself makes no particular impression, and I think it’s mostly down to how anemically drawn her character is: she’s a model haenyeo, so she loves being a haenyeo; she’s meant to desire marriage and children, so she desires marriage and children; she’s meant to honor her family, so she honors her family. She’s a collection of cultural values rather than a distinct person – a pitfall that I think See gracefully avoids with the protagonists of each of her other novels that I’ve read. I don’t ordinarily feel that she needs to sacrifice character development to establish historical context, but sadly I did here.

About 60% through the book, during a scene of a horrifying and brutal massacre, See’s decision to tell this story through Young-sook’s eyes finally, finally made narrative sense to me, but up until that point, I had been wondering why the focus hadn’t been on Mi-ja – an infinitely more interesting character for the ways in which she didn’t fit as neatly into the society in which she was raised. Their friendship is competently portrayed, but it’s missing a spark for me that I felt in so many of her other books, notably Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls.

And I think that’s the word I keep coming back to when I think about this book: it’s competent. It’s a great crash course in Jeju history for those of us who weren’t already familiar with the island. It’s an occasionally heart-wrenching story about loss and the inability to forgive. It’s just not spectacular, and it never quite gains the momentum needed for the most brutal scene to make as much of an impact as it should have.

All said, I liked this book but I didn’t love it, but I undoubtedly should have pushed myself through the rocky beginning rather than dragging this reading experience out for three months; and everyone else seems to adore it, so I’d encourage you to give it a shot if it interests you. But if you’re looking for somewhere to start with Lisa See, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls remain my go-to recommendations.

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


You can pick up a copy of The Island of Sea Women here on Book Depository.

book review: We Went to the Woods by Caite Dolan-Leach

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WE WENT TO THE WOODS by Caite Dolan-Leach
★★★★☆
Random House, July 2, 2019

 

Like most books compared to The Secret HistoryWe Went to the Woods isn’t as good, so let’s just get that out of the way. Which I’m not saying to be spiteful, I just genuinely don’t want to see this book flop because of unrealistically high expectations. Yes, it follows a group of friends who isolate themselves and end up propelled inevitably into tragedy, and yes, it reads like a train wreck in the best kind of way, so it’s an understandable comparison. But it’s also a deeply aggravating book, and I say that as someone who thoroughly enjoyed it.

We Went to the Woods focuses on Mack, a grad school dropout who, fleeing some kind of messy event in her past (more on that in a second), joins a group of idealistic young people who essentially endeavor to live in a modern-day socialist commune. That’s basically the plot: many pages of gardening and rivalries and sexual tension and social activism ensue.

My biggest issue with this book was the way Mack’s backstory was handled: what should have been presented to the reader on page one was nonsensically withheld for a lame kind of ‘gotcha!’ moment halfway through the book that added nothing to the narrative or the suspense. When Mack finally tells her story, it feels like a stranger reciting it rather than the narrator whose head we’d been inhabiting for several hundred pages – so little does the event actually impact her thoughts or actions (other than providing the incentive she needed to abandon her life and join this project).

My other main issue is pace: though I found this compelling, mostly due to Caite Dolan-Leach’s elegant and clever writing, I imagine that for a lot of readers, it’s probably going to drag. With a cover and title like this it’s easy to imagine that you’re in for some kind of thriller, but like We Went to the Woods‘ predecessor, Dead Letters, I fear that this book is going to suffer from ‘marketed as a thriller, gets bad reviews because it’s actually literary fiction’ syndrome. However, where Dead Letters (an underrated gem, in my opinion) is the kind of book where a single word isn’t out of place, We Went to the Woods languishes, unnecessarily so. I can only hope a few hundred more redundant words are chopped before its publication date.

But to be honest, the only reason I’m dwelling so much on the negatives is because I did enjoy it so much – it’s the kind of book that fully earned my investment and therefore frustrated me all the more in the areas where it fell short. That said, there’s so much to recommend it. This book is a contemporary zeitgeist, taking a premise that seems to belong in the 60s and modernizing it with urgency. In a scene where the characters learn the results of the 2016 election, their reactions are almost painfully recognizable, and the book’s main themes and social commentary dovetail again and again, always asking the same question: how important is activism in late-stage capitalism; is it better to try something that turns out to be futile or not try anything at all? Though the characters do quite a bit of moralizing, Dolan-Leach doesn’t, as she recognizes the complexity of the book’s central conceit.

And on top of all that, I found it incredibly entertaining. Slow pace aside, I was so drawn into this story and couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who needs their protagonists to be likable, but if you enjoy character studies about twisted, flawed individuals, this is a pretty good one.

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

You can pre-order a copy of We Went to the Woods here on Book Depository.

book review: Devotion by Madeline Stevens

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DEVOTION by Madeline Stevens
★★★★☆
Ecco, August 13, 2019

 

Devotion is this summer’s Social Creature, a propulsive ‘poor girl meets rich girl’ story set in Manhattan, chronicling the mutually destructive relationship between two young women, Elle and Lonnie. Elle is hired as a nanny for Lonnie’s infant son, and soon her resentment toward her employer turns into an unhealthy obsession.

Despite the inevitable Social Creature comparison, Devotion isn’t quite as suspenseful or climactic, and its protagonists left less of an impression on me. Even so, I had a hard time putting this down; for a slow-moving story it never really loses momentum, and it has that ‘need to know what happens next’ quality that mercifully doesn’t feel like a cop-out when nothing ever really happens.

Madeline Stevens achieves this with pitch-perfect characterization of the novel’s narrator, Elle, whose ‘do I want to be her or do I want to sleep with her’ dynamic with Lonnie is the morbidly compelling thread that holds this plotness novel together and keeps you turning pages. Ultimately: a quick, addictive read that doesn’t offer much in the way of thrills or chills, but still has an eerie and unsettling quality that makes it impossible to look away, and which offers a deceptively nuanced commentary on living on the periphery of extreme wealth.

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

You can pre-order a copy of Devotion here on Book Depository.

book review: The Missing Years by Lexie Elliott

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THE MISSING YEARS by Lexie Elliott
★☆
Berkley, April 23, 2019

 

Beginning with the terrifically gothic premise, The Missing Years is an easy book to like. Ailsa Calder, a young woman living in London, finds herself inheriting half of an old Scottish manor when her mother dies. Though she initially wants nothing to do with it, she’s unable to sell it unless the joint owner agrees; the problem being that the other half belongs to her father, who disappeared without a trace twenty-seven years ago. So Ailsa moves into the manor with her half-sister, and from the very first night, she can’t shake the suspicion that something is deeply wrong with the house.

The atmosphere in this book, as I’m sure you can imagine, was pitch-perfect, and that’s really the main reason I’d recommend it. The setting of a creepy old house in the Scottish Highlands is hard to mess up, and Lexie Elliott mercifully uses it to its potential. The potentially supernatural element (is the house actually haunted?) is mostly kept ambiguous until the conclusion, which is how I prefer it when a supernatural element encroaches on a thriller; it’s always interesting to me when characters feel like they’re losing their grip on reality.

The problem with this book for me was that it was severely under-edited. This is a very slow-building mystery, which is fine, but when your book is a slow burn, you still need something to propel it forward; instead I felt like The Missing Years was just spinning its wheels for about two-hundred pages. I felt like I was slowly being driven mad by the sheer amount of repetition here – I wasn’t sure I could take another instance of Aisla anthropomorphizing the house without losing the last shred of my own sanity. I’m not kidding, there is barely a page where Aisla doesn’t reflect on the feeling that the house is watching her, which I thought was a rather ham-fisted addition to what was otherwise a fantastically rendered setting.

I still mostly enjoyed reading this, and I’d suggest picking it up if the setting appeals to you, but if you prefer your thrillers on the fast paced side, it’s probably best to skip this one.

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


You can pick up a copy of The Missing Years here on Book Depository.