book review: Either/Or by Elif Batuman | BookBrowse




EITHER/OR by Elif Batuman
★★★★★
Penguin Press, 2022




“I felt that this is what I was fighting against, and always had been: the tyranny of the particular, arbitrary way that things happened to have turned out.”

Elif Batuman’s debut novel, The Idiot, published in 2017, chronicles a year in the life of Harvard freshman Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants who has vague notions of becoming a writer and thinks she may achieve this goal by looking closely at the way language works. Though she is derailed from her objective, the events of Batuman’s first novel take Selin on an odyssey through the Hungarian countryside in the summer between her freshman and sophomore years as she chases the affections of an aloof older student, Ivan, who has just graduated and is about to move to California.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse and a piece I wrote about Søren Kierkegaard HERE.

book review: The Book of Cold Cases by Simone St. James





THE BOOK OF COLD CASES by Simon St. James
★★☆☆☆
Berkley, March 2022





I think in a better mood I could have enjoyed this book a bit more, but I also firmly believe I would not consider this a good book under any circumstances. I really admired St. James’s The Broken Girls and was hoping for a similarly gripping paranormal thriller here, but I thought The Book of Cold Cases was largely a slog. The first half of the book drags, the twist is revealed early on and it’s easy to guess even earlier on, the paranormal element doesn’t dovetail with the mystery well enough to really justify its inclusion, and the whole premise is predicated on detectives having overlooked a painfully obvious link during a very high-profile murder case. And where I thought that Shea was a well constructed character, I felt that the way her trauma and eventual recovery was rendered was a bit overly simplistic. Anyway, if you like your paranormal thrillers heavy on tedious domestic drama, for whatever reason, this will be the book for you; otherwise, it’s just a bit of a flop. St. James can do better.

book review: Sleepwalking by Meg Wolitzer





SLEEPWALKING by Meg Wolitzer
★★★★☆
Riverhead, 2014; originally published in 1982



It feels a bit silly and pointless to critique the 1982 debut of a prolific and well-established author on the grounds that it reads like a debut, but I have to get my criticisms out of the way: this book was remarkably clumsy—it reads like two concepts for two different novels stapled rather than sewn together.

The first of the two concepts is the story of ‘the death girls,’ three Swarthmore freshman who are each obsessed with a different female poet who died by suicide (Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and an invented poet, Lucy Ascher). The novel introduces the three girls with the striking opening sentence ‘They talked about death as if it were a country in Europe’ and the prologue continues on to explain their strange friendship, predicated on a similar reverence for death—but then this conceit falls away completely. Naomi and Laura, two of the death girls, barely factor into this novel at all—this is the story of Claire, coming to terms with the death of her brother as well as the death of her favorite poet; her story is shared only by the parents of Lucy Ascher, who have fallen apart in the years since their daughter died.

Enter the second concept: an unsentimental excavation of the many faces of grief. In spite of the obvious thematic parallels between these two narratives that Wolitzer thought up, she is unable to integrate them into one another in a way that doesn’t feel forced and unnatural. The ‘death girl’ setup (as well as the introduction to Claire’s narratively pointless boyfriend, Julian) is ultimately the framework for the novel’s real aims, but it’s flimsy and unconvincing and honestly a bit of a letdown to anyone who approaches this looking for a Secret History-esque campus novel about close-knit friendships. (The bulk of the novel takes place off campus, to add insult to injury.)

But that’s all okay—again, it’s a debut by an author who’s been working for 40 years, so it’s hard not to give Wolitzer the benefit of the doubt. And in spite of all the aforementioned clumsiness, I really enjoyed reading this book. Wolitzer’s meditations on death and grief are surprisingly fresh and insightful, and though the other death girls don’t leave much of an impression, Claire is a remarkably well-drawn character. This was actually my first Wolitzer, and I’m interested to see how her style has evolved through the years.

book review: Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park | BookBrowse





LOVE IN THE BIG CITY by Sang Young Park
translated by Anton Hur
★★★★★
Grove Press, 2021



Set in Seoul, South Korea, Love in the Big City is a warm, playful, emotionally rich novel that weaves together four interconnected vignettes to tell the story of its narrator, Park Young, as he matures over the course of his 20s and 30s. Split into four sections—each of which could conceivably stand alone as a short story—Love in the Big City first introduces the friendship between Park Young and Jaehee, a fellow student who, like Young, spends most of her free time drinking and hooking up with random men. The two move in together, sharing everything, and the platonic love between them is palpable; Young keeps Jaehee’s favorite Marlboro cigarettes stocked and Jaehee buys him his favorite frozen blueberries. When Jaehee uncharacteristically decides to settle down and get married after years of the two sharing their young and free lifestyle, Young feels betrayed and unmoored, which leads to a series of inauspicious romantic trysts.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse and a piece I wrote about contemporary Korean literature in translation HERE.

book review: Voting Day by Clare O’Dea





VOTING DAY by Clare O’Dea
★★★☆☆
Fairlight Books, April 1, 2022




Set in 1959 against the backdrop of Switzerland’s failed referendum for women’s suffrage, Voting Day is split into four sections, each dedicated to a different Swiss woman, all of whose lives end up intersecting. This novella is short, sweet, and to the point: O’Dea deftly carves out a rich inner life for each of her four protagonists, and the story crescendos bittersweetly during the anticlimax of the result of the vote. 

The only problem I had was with the sentence-by-sentence writing, which felt overly modern, simplistic, and occasionally under-edited:

Oh God, she saw Luigi. I can’t say he’s a work colleague… maybe a neighbour? I’m so disappointed in him. He was up front all along, so why did he have to get so secretive in the end? It doesn’t do justice to what we had together.

Well, seeing as I was in that special situation with Herr Fasel, and not looking for anything serious, I thought, why not? I have no time for all this fuss people make about love and heartbreak and bagging a man. I’m a modern woman, and I don’t have to fit into some outdated mould.

(This seems to be a theme with a lot of my recent reading, doesn’t it: liking the idea of a story more than I like the prose.)

As this only takes about an hour to read, I have no hesitation in recommending it if this is a premise or period of history that particularly interests you, but unfortunately I don’t think this was as brilliant as it had the potential to be.


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

book review: A Cathedral of Myth and Bone by Kat Howard





A CATHEDRAL OF MYTH AND BONE by Kat Howard
★★☆☆☆
Saga Press, 2019




I was so sure I was going to love this short story collection—modernized mythology is a conceit that excites me—but ultimately found it pretty one-note and heavy-handed. This is a YA collection in adult clothing, and I think it’s a shame that it wasn’t edited with a young adult audience in mind (characters are all adults but feel like teenagers, and a few passing references to sex are clearly made to age it up; it doesn’t work). Anyway, it leaves me in this awkward place where I don’t like to criticize YA books for being YA (they just weren’t written for me, and that is a-okay!), but this book was explicitly marketed as adult and I did go into it expecting that it had been written for me so here we are.

I pretty much knew I wasn’t going to get on with this from the author’s forward, which ends with the words: ‘Turn the page. I have miracles to offer you.’ If that isn’t the most self-aggrandizing way to begin a book, I don’t know what is. I was just at odds with Kat Howard’s style prose style the whole time, with lines like that as well as ‘There had been a woman, Madeleine, he thought her name was, who smelled of paper and stories.’

This whole collection can pretty much be summed up in this line, from the story The Green Knight’s Wife (hey, I like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, maybe that story will finally be the one for me… never mind):

He feels more comfortable in a place that is like him: forest, secret, overgrown.
 
No one ever asked me what my comforts were[…]

This collection is just a mindless chorus of similar female voices lamenting being overshadowed by men; a theme I can absolutely love when done well, but here it isn’t executed with particular craft or purpose. I could pretty much hear Howard’s internal monologue as she was writing: “What if The Green Knight… but feminist? What if Orpheus and Eurydice… but feminist? What if Macbeth (kind of)… but feminist?” Like… ok, great, good start—and then what? Feminism is just an idea, an ideology, not a fully-constructed narrative. Each story just felt like a rough sketch of something and each ended in an anticlimax.

Thankfully the story that I enjoyed the most was the longest one—the novella-length Once, Future, a meta retelling of Le Morte D’Arthur. I thought this one was fun, at least: I think Howard’s strength is plot, which is why it was frustrating to see so little of it across these stories. I don’t think she excels at theme, atmosphere, or descriptive writing, and that’s pretty much all these stories purportedly have going for them.

This just wasn’t at all what I expected it to be. It clearly works well for the right reader, so if it interests you at all I’d absolutely encourage you to read a sample and see what you make of the writing style, but I just didn’t get on with it at all and I hope Marija forgives me.

book review: Learwife by J.R. Thorp





LEARWIFE by J.R. Thorp
★★☆☆☆
Pegasus Books, 2021





Classic literature retold through the eyes of a minor (or in this case, absent) female character is a trend that I am honestly growing a bit weary of, so perhaps some of my frustration with this book is down to the fact that I have read its ilk so many times in recent years. Reclaiming women’s voices in fiction is an exercise that appeals to me so much in theory, and I’ve certainly read quite a few standouts in this subgenre, but so often these stories just hit the exact same exact narrative beats, examine the exact same themes which can be summarized, in brief, as: history has not been kind to women, isn’t that sad. I mean, yes, of course, but I don’t need a novel-length project to tell me what can be summed up in a sentence.

Learwife isn’t quite a retelling, as it begins right where King Lear leaves off. I have to say right away that I was never fully on board with this premise: the ending of Lear feels so apocalyptic that extending the story feels fundamentally incompatible with the text in a way that I struggled with. (Also, in case you don’t know this about me: hi, my name is Rachel and King Lear is my favorite Shakespeare play and literally one of my favorite pieces of literature of all time and I have read it more times than I can count and I’m afraid that I can’t divorce myself from my love of this play when evaluating retellings.) In Learwife, JR Thorp accounts for the conspicuous absence of Lear’s wife in the original story by positing that she was banished to an abbey shortly following the birth of Cordelia, the couple’s youngest daughter. Learwife begins with Lear’s wife receiving the news of Lear and her children’s death—and then the novel just spins its wheels for several hundred pages, with Lear’s wife at the abbey, considering visiting the place where Lear and her daughters died, but instead navigating nunnery politics while treating the reader to the odd flashback to her life at court.

The thing about Learwife that I struggled so much with was the fact that it didn’t engage with the original story in any kind of worthwhile way. The mystery of why Lear’s wife was banished is a lukewarm attempt at holding the reader’s interest; the reveal is not only boring, but I also think it crumbles under a single ounce of scrutiny if you hold it up next to King Lear—it just isn’t compatible with events and characters in a way that I think Thorp intends for it to be. But even if she didn’t: for a novel which proposes to answer the age-old question of what happened to Lear’s wife, I guess I was just hoping for that answer to be something that could realistically supplement the original play. A few quotes from Shakespeare are scattered throughout Learwife, like the following—I honestly just found the result a bit corny and try-hard:

Is that my name? I seem to lose it. I reach for it sometimes and there is nothing. Hands empty; hands full of water, of girls’ hair. I smile. Well, it does not matter. Nothing will come of nothing.

I wish I felt like this was achieving something, but it honestly just leaves me with the impression that Thorp is sitting there patting herself on the back for shoehorning one of Lear‘s most recognizable lines in there. Nothing in this book does any work to augment or enrich the original play’s events or themes.

But even putting that aside, even just attempting to evaluate this on its own merits and not contrast it to Shakespeare, I guess I just don’t understand what the point of this book was. It’s repetitious and thematically anemic; the abbey scenes are dull and the flashbacks of court are silly anecdotes that do nothing to craft a novel that stands on its own. This whole book feels like it serves no purpose except to construct the identity of a woman who remains elusive even after reading hundreds of pages of her stream-of-consciousness narration.

Also, a brief detour: in this book, Learwife had had a first husband, named Michael, of all things, and I just found that so silly and incongruous that it’s worth mentioning. Also, the name Michael, as I understand it, has been used in England since the twelfth century; the legend of Lear, or Leir, would have taken place around the eighth century BCE. A friend did my homework for me and listened to a podcast with Thorp where she talked about deliberately transposing the play’s setting to follow the advent of Christianity, as she was particularly interested in the religious tension in medieval England; a theme that I didn’t think was given enough weight here to justify the change in setting. And speaking of changes: Lear is canonically eighty; here she makes him much younger, around fifty, a choice that chafes with the original text and doesn’t really give the reader anything new to chew on.

Perhaps if I loved King Lear less I could have loved Learwife more, but I also found the prose style overwrought and tedious so at the end of the day I don’t think I was ever going to get on with this book. It seems to have been mostly well-received (Jane Smiley, the author of my favorite King Lear retelling, gave it a mostly favorable review; and just anecdotally, none of my Goodreads friends has given this under a 4-star rating) so I’m not sure that I can in good conscience tell you to avoid if it appeals to you, but wow, literally nothing about this book worked for me. It didn’t prompt me to think about the original play in a new way and it didn’t give me enough to enjoy it as a story in its own right and I’m mostly just annoyed that I wasted my time with it.

book review: True Biz by Sara Nović





TRUE BIZ by Sara Nović
★★★★☆
Random House, April 5, 2022




I’ve been having a lackluster reading month and was craving something engrossing, and True Biz ended up fitting the bill perfectly. Set at the fictional River Valley School for the Deaf, True Biz is effectively a love letter to deaf culture, couched in a coming of age narrative mostly focusing on the budding relationship between two teenage students, Austin and Charlie. Austin comes from generations-old deaf family, whereas Charlie is the first deaf member of her own family; she was never taught sign language and was forced to grow up having very little communicative ability as her cochlear implant is barely functional. The novel also follows February, the school’s headmistress, dealing with her failing relationship, her mom’s poor health, and the potential imminent closure of the school. The novel’s prologue also introduces the fact that three of the students at the school have just gone missing; we then go back in time six months to see the factors that led up to this event.

So, naturally, there’s a lot going on in this book, and where it succeeds is in the thorough immersion it provides in deaf culture (Nović herself is a deaf author). This book informs and engages in equal measure; it’s a crash course in deafness for those of us who are lacking in knowledge of deaf culture and history, but none of it feels rushed or underexamined or patronizing. (It’s not for me to decide, but I can imagine that this book will be as much of a joy for deaf readers as it is for hearing readers.) That said, Nović’s dedication to giving the reader the most thorough portrait of deaf culture possible was often to the novel’s disadvantage; it resulted in a few unfortunate side effects, one of which was a Black character only receiving one single point of view chapter, which existed solely for the benefit of giving the reader a quick lesson on BASL (Black American Sign Language). The differences between ASL and BASL and the stigmas attached to the latter are fascinating, but it felt really shoehorned in, in an attempt to leave no stone unturned—I ultimately just wished that that character had more of a role in the narrative. 

This novel isn’t plot heavy, and for the most part, that works well. The quieter approach to depicting daily life at the school suits Nović’s aims with this novel perfectly. That’s why it’s unfortunate that the decision was made to use the framing device which positions this book as some kind of mystery. I’ll just say right now that the reality behind the disappearance of the three students is very anticlimactic, and I’m guessing the end of this book wouldn’t have felt like such a whimper if we weren’t told from the beginning that the whole novel was building to this event.

But critiques aside, I actually did really enjoy spending time with this book and I do think it’s going to be a big hit when it publishes. Its characters are mostly complex, its style is compulsively readable, and its depiction of deaf culture is multifaceted and warm and unlike any other book I’ve read on the subject. 

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

book review: Matrix by Lauren Groff




MATRIX by Lauren Groff
★★★☆☆
2021, Riverhead



I wanted more than anything to have a strong reaction to this book. If I hated it, it would have validated how strongly I disliked Fates and Furies and how staunchly I have been avoiding Groff’s books ever since then; if I loved it, it would have been amusing for that same reason. Regrettably I thought it was just fine.

Matrix is an interesting project. Groff fictionalizes the life of Marie de France, a figure we know very little about, and discards the details we do know in favor of creating her own version of history. Matrix is more of a feminist fantasy of medieval life than it is an effort to accurately recreate historical detail. Groff isn’t interested in humanizing Marie as much as girlbossifying her, assigning conflicts to the narrative only as minor hurdles for Marie to overcome. 

I thought this book’s main strength was in its depiction of the abbey as an institution; underscoring that institutions are run by people and not by divine intervention. The tension between Marie’s relative faithlessness and her competence at leading the abbey from poverty to prosperity is where this relatively meandering novel feels the most focused. 

What this did affirm for me is that I just don’t get on with Groff’s writing on a sentence-by-sentence level; I find her prose very labored and there’s just no momentum for me. This was a bit of a chore to get through, honestly, which is odd to say as it’s such a slim tome. I largely admired what Groff was trying to do with this book, but found the execution lacking more often than not.

book review: The Latinist by Mark Prins





THE LATINIST by Mark Prins
★★★☆☆
January 2022, W.W. Norton


This is one of those frustrating novels that you want to grab by the shoulders and shake because it has all the potential in the world to be something extraordinary, but for whatever reason it seems content to just be Fine. Roughly tracing the outlines of the Apollo and Daphne myth, The Latinist follows Oxford classics scholar Tessa, who discovers that her supervisor, the renowned scholar and Head of Department Chris Eccles, is sabotaging her career. This novel’s main strength lies in this conceit — Prins does an eerily brilliant job at capturing the quiet horror of finding yourself trapped in a situation where you’re entirely dependent on another person, who you’re slowly realizing does not have your best interests at heart. Certain passages of this novel cut me to my core, made me feel physically ill with recognition. 

Unfortunately, Prins is determined to undermine his own fantastic setup by indulging the urge to humanize Chris in ways that I felt pulled against the novel’s main objectives. At first, I didn’t mind reading the passages from Chris’s perspective, as they initially just serve to corroborate how disturbing his behavior is; it seemed like a harmless if unnecessary addition. But then there’s a whole subplot involving his dying mother that ultimately doesn’t go anywhere worthwhile, that I was just itching to cut out of the manuscript altogether. What is even accomplished by reiterating to the reader that Chris is a fallible human? We know that from the start, and having that point belabored just feels patronizing. 

I have a few other complaints — for whatever reason Prins likes to throw in a mini-flashback on every other page, telling the reader about a scene that had happened two days prior, rather than just showing that scene to the reader in real-time; there’s also an anthropological discovery made partway through that hinges on such an enormous assumption that it was rather maddening that none of the characters seemed to question it — but on the whole, I can’t say I didn’t enjoy reading this. Prins’s writing is sharp and readable, Tessa is a fantastically written character, and certain passages that deal with obsession and power really sing. It just feels a bit aimless and rushed in places and I think really would have benefited thematically from keeping its narrative focus on Tessa.


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