book review: Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

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SUCH A FUN AGE by Kiley Reid
★★☆☆☆
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2019

 

So, first things first: my expectations for this book were all wrong.  Most summaries of this book describe in detail the novel’s first 20 or so pages, in which the protagonist, Emira, a young Black woman, takes the white toddler she’s babysitting to a local supermarket and is accused of kidnapping her.  From this I expected something sort of Celeste Ng-esque, or maybe even comparable to Jodi Picoult’s courtroom thrillers; the reality of this book is much more banal.  Shortly after The Inciting Incident, everything goes back to normal, except for the fact that Alix, the mother of the toddler Emira was babysitting, becomes fixated on making amends, to the point where Emira’s wishes are disregarded entirely in Alix’s attempt to do good by her.

The theme of performative allyship is a topical one, but it’s not navigated with any particular finesse.  I think there’s a good book in here somewhere, buried deep under irritating dialogue and commonplace events unfolding with melodrama; take for example this description of a toddler throwing up at a dinner party – this is the seriousness with which this utterly unremarkable event is written: “And when Emira grabbed what she knew was a very expensive napkin and dove across the table to cover the toddler’s mouth, Jodi was the first to notice and scream.”  The chapter ends there.  At ‘Jodi was the first to notice and scream’ I thought the child was about to have a seizure and be rushed to the hospital, but not even in a way where I felt the tension?  This whole book was melodrama one-step removed.

And as much as I admired Reid’s intentions, I couldn’t help but to feel that the whole thing was just so heavy-handed.  It’s so easy to intuit Emira, Alix, and Kelley’s narrative functions so early on that I could never quite believe any of them as real people or become invested.  I just felt like Reid knew exactly what she wanted to say with this book but not how she wanted to say it; the novel as a whole feels clunky and unfocused, like a quilt that’s stapled together rather than sewn.

Ultimately: a perfectly fine debut and a good book club book (I don’t mean that in a judgmental way! if you want to force your friends or coworkers into having a serious conversation about racism and white allyship, by all means start here!) but as a literary novel this left so much to be desired that its inclusion in the Booker longlist is… baffling to me.

on rereading If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

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IF WE WERE VILLAINS by M.L. Rio
★★★★☆
Flatiron Books, 2017

 

I do not reread books very frequently; between having a pretty decent memory and being in a constant state of intimidation regarding my TBR I rarely feel compelled to revisit books I’ve already read, especially if they aren’t all-time favorites.  If We Were Villains falls into that category; I first read it as an ARC in 2017 (original review here – from before I was any good at writing reviews, hah) and I really enjoyed it – I found it fun and compelling and moving, but it wasn’t a book that I actually expected to revisit at any point.

Cue the unexpected plot twist where I would spend most of 2020 injecting Shakespeare straight into my veins.  If you do go back and read my not very good original review, you’ll see that I actually talk about my opinions on Shakespeare, which were, at the time, middling – in the sense that I had a couple of Shakespeare plays I loved, and I typically enjoyed the productions I’ve gotten the chance to see, but until this year Shakespeare had never been a very big part of my life.  Now (in case you haven’t been following my recent obsession), a group of friends and I spend every Saturday evening performing a different Shakespeare play over Zoom, and I thought that revisiting If We Were Villains in this context would make for a more exciting reading experience than it was for me in 2017.

And yes, it certainly was.  Despite having more issues with this book the second time around – I’ll get to that in a second – I had so much fun with this.  Obviously an informal production over Zoom is not the same as intensive study at a Shakespearean academy, but still; I felt so much more engaged in the drama surrounding character types since I was able to quickly mentally sort every single person in our group into one of the seven types Rio presented (I’m James, if anyone was wondering).  The constant quoting of Shakespeare too took on a whole new life for me; I’ve only been doing this since March, and still I find myself quoting Shakespeare out of context in my daily life.  Yes, the extent that these characters do it is deliberately heightened to the point of being unrealistic, but they’ve also immersed themselves in intensive Shakespearean study every day for four years so I’ll give them a pass.

The one issue I had that I wanted to talk about in some detail is the rather uninspiring treatment of gender.  First to give some context: there are seven fourth year students, 4 boys and 3 girls.  One girl (Wren) is always cast as the ingenue, another (Meredith) as the temptress, and the third girl (Filippa) is put wherever they need a spare actor, either in a male role or a female one.  Filippa constantly laments that she doesn’t have the opportunity to play more female roles; Wren and Meredith are both content with the roles they get cast in.

Now, here’s the thing.  At the beginning of the novel, they’re doing Julius Caesar, and a very big deal is made of the fact that Richard, playing Caesar, doesn’t have anything to do after act 3 when Caesar is killed.  No mention is made of the fact that Wren and Meredith, playing Portia and Calpurnia respectively, are each only in two scenes, and neither returns after act 2.  Calpurnia only has 27 lines (compare to Caesar’s 151 and Brutus’s 721).  Yet both Wren and Meredith are perfectly content with their roles, which they’re implied to have auditioned for, and Filippa’s only grievance is that she can’t play a woman.

This is what I don’t understand.  This is a college production at an experimental arts academy – why in god’s name would none of these three young women audition for Brutus or Cassius?  Why is Filippa more bothered by the fact that she has a male role than a small role?  What performer on earth – regardless of gender – would rather play Calpurnia than Caesar?  And if Rio wanted to fall back on the excuse that this was the 90s and things were altogether less progressive, fine, or even that women are more accustomed to keeping their mouths shut when they get shafted, I’d get it; what I find disingenuous is that this is never addressed.  A lot is made of the male characters’ discontent with the roles they end up playing, but I found the complacency of the female characters incredibly unrealistic.  And you can’t argue that this is besides the point of the novel when the entire premise is rooted in tension over casting.

This isn’t a criticism that overpowered the rest of my reading experience, but it was in the back of my mind pretty much the whole time that I read. But that said, this is a book I really enjoy engaging with and I can see myself returning to it again and again as my own personal relationship with Shakespeare and performing evolves.

book review: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell

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MY DARK VANESSA by Kate Elizabeth Russell

William Morrow, 2020

 

My Dark Vanessa was an absolute tour de force and well worth all the hype it has been receiving.  The entire framework of the novel is startling – Vanessa, now in her 30s, reflects on a relationship she had with her high school English teacher, Mr. Strane, especially in light of that same teacher being accused of sexual abuse by another student, a young woman named Taylor.  I think this novel in most authors’ minds would have been conceived around Taylor – and indeed, though she’s mostly a shadowy figure in this book, there would be plenty to dig into if she were thrust into the limelight: the difficulty of coming forward with abuse allegations when you can’t produce ‘evidence’, the strength that requires, the unwarranted backlash it solicits.

Vanessa however is an entirely different kind of heroine.  In fact, we learn that in her 30s, she’s still in contact with Strane, and that she doesn’t believe Taylor’s allegations.  Vanessa doesn’t believe herself to have been abused, and she still sees her relationship with Strane as a love story – albeit a doomed one.  It’s a premise that could feel almost deliberately belligerent toward its reader, but what Kate Elizabeth Russell is able to achieve with this book is a textured analysis of the difficulty in identifying as a victim.  My Dark Vanessa doesn’t have a comforting and predictable trajectory of Vanessa slowly coming to terms with the reality of her situation – the process is messier and the conclusion arguably less satisfying, but it feels truer to life and successfully challenges the disturbing concept that some survivors are ‘good victims’ while others aren’t.

It’s a disturbing, uncomfortable read – the passages which detail the ways Strane groomed and manipulated Vanessa are almost unbearable in their verisimilitude – but at the same time it’s almost impossible to put down.  The Lolita intertextuality is occasionally heavy-handed, that’s my one complaint, but the Nabokov references ultimately do serve to give the reader an idea of how 15-year-old Vanessa attempts to make sense of her situation through the classic novels that Strane lends her.  It’s a wonderfully paced, brilliantly characterized book that’s as harrowing as it is engrossing.


You can pick up a copy of My Dark Vanessa here on Book Depository.

monthly wrap up: April 2020

  1. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson ★★★★☆ | review
  2. Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare (reread) ★★★★☆
  3. Mad, Bad, Dangerous To Know by Colm Toibin ★★★★☆ | review
  4. As You Like It by William Shakespeare ★★☆☆☆
  5. Macbeth by William Shakespeare (reread) 
  6. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo ★★★★☆ | review
  7. Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo | review to come for BookBrowse
  8. The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare ★★★★☆
  9. Hamlet by William Shakespeare (reread)

APRIL TOTAL: 9
YEARLY TOTAL: 33

Favorite: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo
Runner up: Macbeth
Least favorite: As You Like It

Other posts from April:

Life update:

I got nothing.

Currently reading:

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

P.S. Follow me!  @ Twitter | Goodreads | Instagram | Letterboxd | Ko-fi

An Alternate Women’s Prize Longlist

As we all know, I’m a devoted follower of the Women’s Prize.  I tried my best with the 2020 longlist – I really did.  Here’s where I landed on this group of 16 books:

Shortlist

Remaining longlist

  • Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara | will not read/don’t care enough to prioritize this
  • Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner | read ★★★☆☆
  • Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams | will not read/don’t care enough to prioritize this
  • Actress by Anne Enright | on-hold for now; I read 50 pages, had to put it down when various library holds all came in at the same time, and now it’s been too long to pick it back up, so I’m going to wait a couple of months and start over
  • Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie | will not read/don’t care enough to prioritize this/have heard it’s awful
  • How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee | read ★★★★☆
  • The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo | currently reading/suffering
  • Girl by Edna O’ Brien | read ★☆☆☆☆
  • The Dutch House by Ann Patchett | will not read/don’t care enough to prioritize this/have heard it’s awful
  • Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson | read ★★★★☆

At this point, I’m just sort of fed-up.  I haven’t had a single 5-star read off this list, I’ve read two that I positively HATED, and if I have to read another book about motherhood I’m going to fucking scream.  Luckily the 3 shortlisted titles that I haven’t already read (A Thousand Ships, Mantel, Hamnet) are the 3 that I was most looking forward to off the longlist, so, that was fortuitous, and I’ll definitely be reading those.  As for the rest… nope!


So a group of blogging friends and I decided to take the initiative to create our own 2020 longlist.  In a perfect world where we were the judges, these are the books we would have longlisted this year (adhering to all the Women’s Prize eligibility criteria):

It’s a group of 8 of us, so we each put forward 2 titles.  (See if you can guess mine.)

The Judges: Callum, EmilyHannahMarijaNatySarahSteph, and myself.

The longlist:

  1. The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy | review ★★★★★
  2. My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell | currently reading
  3. Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo
  4. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo | review ★★★★☆
  5. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
  6. Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann
  7. The Body Lies by Jo Baker | review ★★★★★
  8. The Fire Starters by Jan Carson | review ★★★★★
  9. Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips | review ★★★★★
  10. Bunny by Mona Awad
  11. Supper Club by Lara Williams
  12. My Name is Monster by Katie Hale
  13. Actress by Anne Enright
  14. Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater
  15. The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld
  16. Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson | review ★★★★☆

All of us have a bit of literary prize fatigue at the moment, so we aren’t setting ourselves a deadline to read the list and come up with a shortlist.  It’s just something we’re going to meander through and hopefully revisit in a few months’ time.

That said, if you want to join us in reading any of these titles, please do!  The idea is ultimately to spotlight a group of books that we think either flew somewhat under the radar this year, or which we think are deserving of all the accolades they’ve been getting.

Comment and let me know your thoughts on the following: 1. the official longlist, 2. our alternate longlist, and 3. your own ideal longlist!

book review: The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel | BookBrowse

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THE GLASS HOTEL by Emily St. John Mandel
★★★★★
2020, Knopf

 

Vincent—a young woman named for American poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay—is working as a bartender in a hotel on a remote island in British Columbia, when one day a message is scrawled across the hotel window that reads: “Why don’t you swallow broken glass.” This sets off the unexpected chain of events that are chronicled by Emily St. John Mandel in her highly anticipated novel The Glass Hotel, which follows Vincent from rural Canada to Wall Street as she becomes involved with a high-level financial executive, whose successful business is revealed to be fronting a Ponzi scheme. This is the first novel that Mandel has published since the release of the wildly successful Station Eleven in 2014.

You can read my full review HERE and a piece I wrote about Ponzi schemes HERE.


You can pick up a copy of The Glass Hotel 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.

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.