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.

Reading Ireland Month 2020 TBR

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… Reading Ireland Month!

You can read Cathy’s post about it HERE, but basically, it’s what it says on the tin: you read Irish books throughout the month of March.  You can read exclusively Irish lit all month, or you can mix it up – I’ll probably end up doing the latter since March is when the Women’s Prize longlist gets announced, but I still want to cram in as much Irish lit as I can.

Cathy laid out a schedule which you are welcome to follow, should you so desire:

2nd – 8th March – Contemporary Irish Novels

9th – 15th March – Classic Irish Novels

16th – 22nd March – Irish Short Story Collections

23rd – 29th March – Irish Non-Fiction

Last year I themed my reading around the schedule and it worked out really well, but this year I think I’m going to do things a bit more free-form.

Before you see this massive list and panic on my behalf, I am under NO illusions that I will read all of these books in March.  This is just a selection off my shelves that I feel particularly drawn to at this moment in time.  Who knows what I’ll end up going for.

So without further ado, here are some of the books I’m thinking about picking up in March:

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton
The Dregs of the Day by Máirtín Ó Cadhain
The Cruelty Men by Emer Martin
For the Good Times by David Keenan
The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor
Dancing at Lughnasa by Brian Friel
Being Various edited by Lucy Caldwell
The Long Gaze Back edited by Sinéad Gleeson

Honestly I think if I manage to read even 2 or 3 of these, I will be happy!  Or maybe I’ll read something else entirely, but this list is what I’m feeling drawn toward at this very moment.  So there you have it.  Have you read any of these, and what are your Reading Ireland Month plans?  Comment and let me know!

book review: Long Bright River by Liz Moore

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LONG BRIGHT RIVER by Liz Moore
★★★★☆
Riverhead, January 2020

 

Long Bright River may be nearly 500 pages, but it reads as though it’s half the length, even though (paradoxically?) I wouldn’t describe it as a page-turner.  It’s definitely a slow-burner, and it takes its time setting the stage for its central mystery, instead focusing brilliantly on establishing the setting and the atmosphere of some of Philadelphia’s poorer neighborhoods; but there’s something so engrossing about it from the onset that it’s hard to put it down.

What drew me to Long Bright River, aside from my fondness for thrillers, is the focus on the opioid crisis, and this Moore handled spectacularly.  First off, if you haven’t read Dopesick by Beth Macy, what are you waiting for; second of all, I’m always so drawn to books which humanize drug addicts and treat their stories with respect and sensitivity (recommendations welcome!); Moore achieves this while also keeping up the momentum of the narrative.

Moore’s prose is another strength; this is the first novel of hers that I’ve read, but I’m definitely more likely to pick up something off her backlist now.  This book’s one failing for me is something that I find myself frequently lamenting in thrillers; a too-quick denouement and a too-neat resolution of character arcs.  But still, my opinion of Long Bright River is mostly favorable, and I think it’s very deserving of all the hype.


You can pick up a copy of Long Bright River here on Book Depository.

book review: Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey

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TOPICS OF CONVERSATION by Miranda Popkey
★★☆☆☆
Knopf, January 2020

 

In a way I feel a bit bad contributing to this book’s overwhelmingly negative reception, because I do think it has more going for it than its low Goodreads rating might suggest, and I can see where others could get something out of it.  But at the same time, this did literally nothing for me, so here we are.

The Rachel Cusk comparisons are a dime a dozen, and I will spare you from that seeing as I’ve never read Rachel Cusk; I will instead address the Sally Rooney comparisons.  Both authors interrogate themes on womanhood, sex, sexuality, and give voice to a subset of young women who may have never seen these topics addressed so starkly in fiction.  But for me the difference between these two authors lies in the fact that Rooney explores themes through character, and Popkey explores themes at the expense of character.  The aptly unnamed narrator of Topics of Conversation feels like a prototype of Generic Young Woman Angst – maybe that’s the point, maybe not – but her struggles all felt very Grand and Societal without being grounded in the microcosm enough to hold my interest.  Basically: this is a book of commentary and ideas, and that’s not an inherently bad or valueless thing; I just failed to engage with it.

Anyway, the thing that actually grated on me more than anything was Popkey’s writing.  This book is largely told in chunks of dialogue; characters relaying monologues to the narrator.  I found that Popkey attempted to imitate the features of verbal speech in a way that came across to me as forced and labored; it was peak stylized MFA-prose.   “Her hair was down and her cheeks were stiff and pink from smiling and the freckles on her neck, down her forearms, dotting her ankles, they were shining, they were giving off some kind of heat, she was glowing.”

Again, I don’t think this was a bad book, and if it interests you, I’d definitely encourage you to pick it up; it just wasn’t what I was looking for and I found it rather unremarkable at the end of the day.


You can pick up a copy of Topics of Conversation 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.

Women’s Prize for Fiction – Longlist History

Something a bit different for today’s post…

This is a bit of a passion project inspired by Hannah, Callum, Naty, Emily, Sarah, and Marija.

In case you were not aware, I’m more than a little invested in the Women’s Prize for Fiction, an annual literary prize awarded to the ‘best’ book by a women written that year, awarded by a panel of judges.  The above group of bloggers and I were discussing which authors have been longlisted in the past, which is actually a deceptively tricky thing to find anywhere online, as the Women’s Prize Wikipedia page only lists the winners + shortlisters.  The Women’s Prize website does have detail the prize’s complete history, which is where I got all of the information from for this post; however, the layout is a bit tricky to navigate and involves a lot of clicking around; there’s really no clean, easily digestible list for this information.

That’s where this post comes in.  For posterity, I wanted to record the complete list of Women’s Prize longlisters, shortlisters, and winners, all in one post, easy enough to scroll through.

I realize this is a bit niche, but I hope it’s of interest or assistance to someone out there, even if it’s just the 7 of us who came up with this idea!

Enjoy!

Read More »

wrap up: January 2020

 

  1. Saltwater by Jessica Andrews ★☆☆☆☆ | review
  2. What Red Was by Rosie Price ★★★☆☆ | review
  3. Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park ★★★★☆ | review
  4. Little Gods by Meng Jin ★★★★☆ | review to come for BookBrowse
  5. Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino ★★★★☆ | mini review
  6. The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel ★★★★★ | review to come for BookBrowse
  7. Daughter from the Dark by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko ★★★★★ | review

Favorite: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel
Runner up: Daughter from the Dark by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko
Least favorite: Saltwater by Jessica Andrews

JANUARY TOTAL: 7
YEARLY TOTAL: 7

January was not a great month for me: personally, professionally, as a reader, none of it.  So I don’t have a whole lot to say here!  I did end the month with two books that I absolutely adored, so that’s always exciting, and reviews will be coming very soon.  Thank you all for bearing with me as I’ve been very behind on blogging lately; I haven’t been reading a whole lot and tend to find myself gravitating away from ‘filler content’ for my blog, so sometimes that naturally leads to weeks-long hiatuses.  Hopefully February will see my triumphant return.

Currently reading:

 

What was the best book you read in January?  Comment and let me know!

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