book review: Valerie by Sara Stridsberg

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VALERIE (or THE FACULTY OF DREAMS) by Sara Stridsberg
translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner
★☆☆☆☆
FSG, August 2019

 

When you read a quote unquote highbrow book, the impulse (at least for me) is usually to try to write a quote unquote highbrow review.  Because there isn’t much dignity in reading an intelligent book like Valerie (published as The Faculty of Dreams in the UK) and dismissing it with pedestrian critique, but whatever, I’m going to do it anyway.  I found this both boring and deeply annoying.

I can never really figure out what I want from novels which fictionalize the lives of real people.  Because my impulse is to lean more toward more factual, biography-style novels (see: Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault), but then it’s almost like… why don’t I just read a biography of that person?  Why am I even reading a novel if I’m so opposed to creative liberties?  But I have also been known to enjoy more abstract fictionalizations (see: An Imaginary Life by David Malouf) which take a real life person and imagine, fictionalize, or dramatize details of their life, so it’s not something I’m inherently opposed to. Valerie falls into the latter category to an extreme.  Sara Stridsberg in her forward admits that this is not an attempt to recreate the details of Valerie Solanas’s life; it’s more of a ‘literary fantasy’ where she loosely spins together fragments of Valerie’s life and ideologies, while deliberately skewing facts (changing Valerie’s birthplace from Ventnor to Ventor; moving it from New Jersey to a desert in Georgia).  It just… didn’t work for me.

This is a book of ideas with nothing to ground them; the narrative threads are too few and far between for me to have anything to really grasp onto.  I didn’t understand for the longest time why Stridsberg was bothering to disguise this fragmented, meandering, awkward novel as the story of Valerie Solanas, and while I did feel like that question was eventually answered, it was too little too late for me.  I read this entire book thinking ‘I don’t care, I should probably care, why don’t I care, does the author care at all about how disengaged I am?’

But I do feel the need to remind everyone that I use the star rating system subjectively and I use my reviews to explain why I react to books in a certain way; I don’t think this is a ‘bad book’ and I would dissuade no one who’s interested in it from giving it a shot.  It just did nothing for me.  Though the US cover is one of the prettiest I’ve seen in a while, so there’s that.

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


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

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book review: Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson

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FRANKISSSTEIN by Jeanette Winterson
★★★★☆
Grove Press, October 1, 2019

 

Frankissstein is a bold, bawdy, and tremendously clever creation; the first of its two storylines follows Mary Shelley as she writes Frankenstein, and the second follows a host of characters in the present-day, chronicling the love story between Ry, a transgender doctor, and Victor Stein, a scientist with a passion for artificial intelligence.  The thematic interplay between these two narratives is genius, and Winterson brilliantly highlights the timelessness of the classic she’s riffing off, as themes of death, gender, and bodily limitations underscore both narratives.

But for me, the storyline in the past was the much more unique and engaging one.  These chapters were just begging to be developed into a full-blown novel fictionalizing Mary Shelley, and frankly, if that’s all Frankissstein was, I’m sure I’d give it 5 stars with no reservations.  Though these chapters were largely figments of Winterson’s imagination, the parallels she draws between Mary Shelley’s personal life (what we know of it, anyway) and the content of Frankenstein were incredibly stimulating.

“I have love, but I cannot find love’s meaning in this world of death.  Would there were no babies, no bodies; only minds to contemplate beauty and truth.  If we were not bound to our bodies we should not suffer so.  Shelley says that he wishes he could imprint his soul on a rock, or a cloud, or some non-human form, and when we were young I felt despair that his body would disappear, even though he remained.  But now all I see is the fragility of bodies; these caravans of tissue and bone.

At Peterloo, if every man could have sent his mind and left his body at home, there could have been no massacre.  We cannot hurt what is not there.”

The issues I had with the present-day chapters were twofold: first, I found some of the philosophizing on artificial intelligence to be overwrought, and second, the humor was a series of constant misses for me.  Winterson often employs humor in this novel to drive home the absurdity behind certain characters’ misogyny, but she would make her point and then continue to bash you over the head with jokes about sex-bots; it got very old for me.

In spite of this, the parallels between the two storylines were brilliantly rendered, and the overall impression I’m left with of this book is that I am very impressed, and I think this would have made a truly interesting addition to the Booker shortlist.

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


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

Hannah and I have too many ARCs: an emergency readathon

Hannah and I are always lamenting how many unread ARCs we have, so we finally decided to put our money where our mouth is and actually, you know, read some of them.  So we are doing a two-person readathon for the first 2 weeks of September, where we read only ARCs in that time.  I say it’s a two-person readathon, but feel free to join us!  This isn’t going to be a big affair with prompts and hashtags and all that good stuff.  The only prompt is to read your damn ARCs already.  But if this endeavor inspires you, please do join in, we’d love to hear from you.

So, what will I be reading?  No clue.  So I am just going to tell you all of the ARCs I have.  Please don’t judge me too unkindly.

Links are included to Book Depository for each of these titles, in case you’d like to grab a copy or read more about them.

Frontlist

Backlist

The only book I can tell you with 100% certainty that I will be reading for this readathon (assuming it arrives in the mail on time) is Liar.  Two I’ve started reading since starting this post are We, The Survivors, and Isolde and I’ll probably finish them before September so there’s really no point in including them here but I’m doing it anyway.

Otherwise, who knows.  Tell me what to read!  If a particular book gets mentioned a lot in the comments, or if someone makes a particularly compelling case, I’ll definitely be more inclined to prioritize that one.  I do know that I want to tackle a bit of backlist, so I may try to focus my attention there, but I haven’t decided yet.

Which ARCs do you have that you’re behind on reading?  Anything from this list that catches your eye?  Let’s chat!

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.

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.