book review: The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue




THE PULL OF THE STARS by Emma Donoghue
★★★★☆
HarperAvenue, 2020




I have a very strong stomach but I am triggered by three things. 1. Vomiting, 2. Childbirth, 3. Pandemics (this last one evoking existential dread more than nausea but do I find reading about them almost as painful as living through one). This book has all three, so, it’s a testament to how much I like Emma Donoghue’s writing that I: a. Made it through this book, and b. Actually enjoyed it. 

Set in a maternity ward in 1918 Dublin over the course of three days, The Pull of the Stars follows Julia Power, a nurse attending to expectant mothers who are sick with the flu.  It’s a fast-paced, frantic novel that contrasts the hectic episodes on the ward with the tender, budding friendship between Julia and her new volunteer helper, an uneducated girl named Bridie Sweeney.

This book is thoroughly engrossing–it immerses you in a borderline excessive amount of detail, but Donoghue manages it in a way so that it pulls the reader in rather than alienating them.  Full disclosure, I had to skip entire paragraphs of this book that were too gruesome for me, but it was entirely with regret that I did so–there’s something so transfixing about Donoghue’s storytelling, and I’ve felt this about all three of her books that I’ve read.  She also nails the evocation of this Irish hospital in a city under siege by a deadly virus. With obvious parallels to 2020 in a lot of ways, this still felt firmly fixed in its historical setting, which was a positive for me.

I did find The Pull of the Stars rather heavy-handed at times (notably in its treatment of Irish political history; it felt very transparent that Donoghue was framing Julia as an outsider to the rebellion in order to spoon feed the reader about how maybe the British empire aren’t the good guys after all!–though I will concede I probably read more of these narratives than most), but that was my only real complaint.  On the whole I thought this was a compelling, moving read, though I must caution that you need either a strong stomach or a strong conviction to make it through.

I won this copy in a Goodreads giveaway; all thoughts are my own.

book review: The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton | BookBrowse




THE DEVIL AND THE DARK WATER by Stuart Turton
★★★★☆
Bloomsbury, 2020



In 1634 on the day that world famous detective Samuel Pipps is set to board the Sardaam from Batavia to Amsterdam in handcuffs, the ship is approached by a leper who climbs atop a crate to declare a frightening prophecy: “The Sardaam‘s cargo is sin, and all who board her will be brought to merciless ruin. She will not reach Amsterdam.” The man then bursts into flames and dies moments later, at which time it’s discovered that, despite the prophecy he just announced, he has no tongue.

While the opening of this standalone mystery is explosive, The Devil and the Dark Water is a slow burner. It mostly follows Arent, Samuel Pipps’ bodyguard, a gruff yet honorable man intent on proving the innocence of his accused employer. It also follows Sara Wessel, a noblewoman trapped in an abusive marriage hoping to make a new life for herself in Amsterdam. The two form an unlikely friendship as the ship comes under siege by dark forces in the form of a demon called Old Tom that has a terrifying link to Arent’s past.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about the Dutch East India Trading Company HERE.

book review: The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave





THE MERCIES by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
★★★★☆
Little, Brown and Co., 2020



This was a compelling read, a chilly and melancholy story about a fishing disaster and religious fanaticism in early 1600s Norway, buoyed by Millwood Hargrave’s elegant prose and deeply sympathetic characters.  The author’s attention to historical detail really shone through in her depiction of the village of Vardø, devastated by the loss of most of the male members of the community following a brutal storm; the surviving women then face yet more ruin following the arrival of Absalom Cornet, a Scottish commissioner tasked with spreading Christianity by witch-hunting suspected pagans in the community. 

My reading experience with this was all over the place – it was a 5 star book that dropped to somewhere around 2 or 3 stars by the end.  For me, this book felt like it was building and building toward an explosive climax, but instead sort of fizzled out – and I don’t just mean in the final scenes, which I know some readers took issue with; for me the entire final act sort of fell flat on its face.  I don’t want to spoil anything, but partway through a romance develops which didn’t materialize in a particularly interesting way for me – I thought it would have been a stronger and more interesting book without this element.  And while I of course loved the commentary on men fearing powerful women, at times this element felt a little too on the nose.  It’s not that Millwood Hargrave’s feminist agenda did a disservice to the book – certainly to the contrary – I just would have preferred a slightly defter touch.

That said, I did mostly enjoy reading this.  I think its biggest strength was the bleak, isolated atmosphere, which Millwood Hargrave captured to perfection.  (It reminded me quite a lot of Burial Rites in that regard.) I also thought Maren and Ursa were fantastic protagonists, each with a distinctive narrative voice. So ultimately, not a new favorite like I wanted it to be, but certainly worth a read.

book review: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell | BookBrowse

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HAMNET by Maggie O’Farrell
Tinder Press, 2020
★★★★★

 

William Shakespeare’s name is never used in Hamnet — a conspicuous absence around which Maggie O’Farrell forms her richly imaginative narrative. Instead, the novel tells the story of those closest to Shakespeare: his parents, John and Mary; his wife Agnes; his daughter Susanna; and his twin children Hamnet and Judith. Shakespeare himself features in the narrative, though he is only ever described in relation to those around him, referred to as the Latin tutor, the husband, the father, the son. The result of this narrative decision is twofold: it pushes Shakespeare’s family to the foreground, but it also humanizes Shakespeare himself by reminding the reader that none of his works were created in a vacuum. This is the central conceit around which the novel’s climax is formed, as O’Farrell imagines the potential influence of Hamnet’s death in 1596 on Hamlet, written between 1599 and 1601.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about the real Anne Hathaway and Hamnet Shakespeare HERE.

book review: The Everlasting by Katy Simpson Smith | BookBrowse

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THE EVERLASTING by Katy Simpson Smith
★★★★☆
2020, Harper

 

Broad and ambitious in scope, The Everlasting endeavors to capture the history and spirit of Rome across generations. It opens with an epigraph from the poem “Adonais” by Percy Bysshe Shelley:

“Go thou to Rome—at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness.”

The plot begins in 2015 with a section titled “The Wilderness,” which introduces us to Tom, an American field biologist studying a group of crustaceans called ostracods. Though still married, Tom spends his days alone while his wife is back in California with their daughter, and reflects on the failed state of their marriage. This novel is dense at times, and Tom’s sections offer little reprieve; the crumbling marriage and allure of an enigmatic Italian woman a sort of clichéd setup that doesn’t feel like it quite earns its length, or the reader’s investment. This section does, however, establish the novel’s central theme: desire and temptation, and whether succumbing to temptation is inherently immoral.

You can read my full review HERE and a piece I wrote about books set across huge spans of time HERE.


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

book review: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

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HOW WE DISAPPEARED by Jing-Jing Lee
★★★★☆
Hanover Square Press, 2019

 

Set in Singapore, How We Disappeared centers on Wang Di, an elderly woman who survived Japanese occupation during WWII by being forced into serving as a comfort woman.  We follow her present-day narrative as well as seeing flashbacks to the war, which comprise the bulk of this novel.  Meanwhile we also follow Kevin, a teenage boy whose grandmother has just made a shocking confession on her death bed, which propels Kevin to dig into his family history.

I found this to be an occasionally frustrating and messy yet ultimately satisfying read.  Its main strength was Jing-Jing Lee’s skill at immersing the reader, and the chapters set during WWII really came to life.  I do think a bit too much of the narrative focused on Kevin – not to the detriment of Wang Di’s narrative, as I felt that her sections were properly fleshed out – it’s more that Kevin himself added very little as a character.  I tend to prefer historical fiction that doesn’t have a past/present framing, and this was no exception; I kept wishing it would stay in the 1940s.  That said, I do feel that Jing-Jing Lee ultimately justified this narrative decision with the way the story wrapped up, even if it wouldn’t have been my first choice of how to tell it.

But where I felt this book really excelled was Jing-Jing Lee’s descriptions of Wang Di’s life as a comfort woman, but then also in the depiction of the aftermath.  The shame and stigma attached to these young women after they returned home was a heartbreaking thing to reckon with, but I felt the book was strengthened by Lee’s willingness to confront this head-on.  I know that we in the book community collectively feel a bit of fatigue where WWII novels are concerned, but I felt that this one was a worthwhile read – impeccably researched and harrowing while still providing a strong and compelling narrative.  (If you’re going to read one book about sexual slavery off the Women’s Prize longlist, make it this one instead of Girl.)


You can pick up a copy of How We Disappeared here on Book Depository.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviewsDominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | Girl, Woman, Other | How We Disappeared | Red at the Bone | Weather

book review: Dominicana by Angie Cruz

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DOMINICANA by Angie Cruz
★☆☆☆☆
Flatiron, 2019

 

Dominicana was one of the flattest and most poorly written things I have read in a while.  There was a sort of painful obviousness to the way this entire story was told; if you’ve read even a single historical fiction novel about immigration, this will offer nothing new or fresh or dynamic.  The whole thing unfolded so predictably that I don’t think I experienced a single moment of tension or anxiety while reading.

That’s mostly down to the fact that Angie Cruz never earned my investment, and I didn’t believe any of it; I didn’t believe the story and I didn’t believe the characters.  At one point in this book, Ana, the narrator, has resolved to leave her husband, Juan, and return to the Dominican Republic.  Juan is abusive (a decision which I found frustrating in and of itself – the arranged marriage with an abusive black immigrant husband was chock full of stereotypes, none of them challenged), and Juan has just choked her so hard she passed out.  She wakes up, terrified, puts on all of the clothes she owns, and runs to the bus terminal, where she happens to run into her brother-in-law César.  While reminding you that Ana was AFRAID FOR HER LIFE moments ago, this is how the exchange between Ana and César is written:

“He pulls out a cigarette from his jacket pocket.  You leaving without saying good-bye?

It’s not like you’re ever around, busy with all your girls.  I say it in a voice I don’t recognize.  Why am I flirting?  Now?  And with César!”

Some other choice quotes to illustrate the egregious prose:

“I just wish he would say to me that I’m beautiful, whisper in my ear that I’m his only little bird and mean it.  That he would cover the bed with flowers and look at me like a man in love, like Gabriel looked at me as if my curves were a riddle.”

“Juan is pale, César the color of the crunchy skin off of juicy roast chicken thigh, creamy hot chocolate, buttered toast, dark honey, the broth of slow-cooked sancocho.”

“I love him.  I fucking love him.  His mischievous eyes, his firm ass, his muscular legs.”

Moreover, this book was a structural enigma to me. It felt to me like Angie Cruz was so determined to Capture the Immigrant Experience that she crammed in as many details as possible to further this goal while following through on none of them.  The historical details felt shoehorned in to remind the reader of historical context (Malcolm X is assassinated right outside Ana’s door, conveniently) while lacking sufficient commentary; none of the characters’ motives are really explored outside of Ana’s and therefore everyone feels like a caricature or a plot device; the way Cruz attempted to balance Ana’s first-person narration in New York with updates from back home was… perplexing.  The result is a disjointed mess.

The one thing I thought Angie Cruz did well was capture Ana’s loneliness and alienation in the United States, but even the strength of this element began to wane once Ana met César.  Ultimately I hated reading this, and how it earned its way onto the Women’s Prize longlist is beyond me.


If you think you will fare with it better than I did, you can pick up a copy of Dominicana here on Book Depository.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviews: Dominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | Girl, Woman, OtherHow We Disappeared | Red at the BoneWeather

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.

book review: On Swift Horses by Shannon Pufahl

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ON SWIFT HORSES by Shannon Pufahl
★☆☆☆☆
Riverhead, 2019

 

On Swift Horses is a book that seemed like it was going to be tailor-made for me; queer historical fiction and horses are two things I’m always drawn to.  But this unfortunately ended up being a slog, to the point where I forced myself to read the last 200 pages in one sitting because I never wanted to pick this up once I put it down.  (And I would have actually DNF’d this – I know, I never DNF books, but I swear to god I would have made an exception, if I hadn’t been assigned to review this for a publication. Which didn’t end up panning out, because I hated it too much.)

Basically, this book follows two characters, Muriel and Julius – Muriel is a young newlywed who’s recently moved from Kansas to San Diego with her husband, and Julius is her gay brother-in-law – and I’m not going to say any more than that, because apparently this is one of those cases where the dust jacket gives away the entire plot.

This may seem like a weird detail to get hung up on, but to me, this book’s most egregious offense was the author’s decision to write it in the present tense, especially given that she didn’t show much aptitude for it.  I felt like I was being forcibly dragged by the author from one sentence to the next.  Imagine looking at a painting with your nose pressed up against the canvas.  It’s a suffocating view.

I just felt like this book was trying so hard to come across as Literary and Important, and this forced ‘lyrical’ writing style came at the expense of… literally everything else.  Plot, character development, setting.  You may have noticed the incredibly bland words I used to describe Muriel and Julius up above – ‘newlywed,’ ‘gay’ – but I’m afraid that after hundreds of pages I still do not know a single thing about either of these people’s personalities.  I know what they want from life, I guess, but each of their characters felt so clumsily crafted that there was never really anything to latch onto.  I don’t know a single thing about these characters or this narrative that I hadn’t gleaned from the summary.  What a terrific waste of time.

book review: A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

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A SPELL OF WINTER by Helen Dunmore
★★★★★
Penguin, 2007
originally published in 1995

 

I had such a strange reaction to this book: I loved this more than anything I have read in a long time, but when I started thinking about writing this review, I had the hardest time putting my finger on why.  Its structure is a bit messy and tonally inconsistent; it doesn’t really deliver anything promised on the blurb (not a fault in the book itself – but I think it’s bound to frustrate a lot of readers who go into expecting a mystery or a Shirley Jackson-esque haunted mansion tale); but it really came together for me and gave me one of the most enthralling reading experiences I have had in a while.

A Spell of Winter is a difficult book to categorize and difficult to explain without giving too much away – but it follows siblings Cathy and Rob who have spent their lives in a quasi-abandoned manor in the English countryside which belonged to their parents; their father is now dead and their mother ran off when they were young.  As adults, Cathy and Rob’s relationship begins to develop into something forbidden, and it sets off a tragic chain of events that spread into the years of the First World War.

This was my first Helen Dunmore, which I decided to pick up as it won the inaugural Women’s Prize for Fiction back when it was known as the Orange Prize, and the first thing that struck me about it was how enchanting I found her prose.  Even when you get past the arresting first sentence (‘“I saw an arm fall off a man once,” said Kate‘) the writing itself continued to beguile – her prose is descriptive and evocative without being overly flowery; there was something distinctly reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier there, and indeed the book’s setting and atmosphere called to mind Rebecca (though the comparisons really do stop there).

The other reason this book came alive for me is that Cathy was such a fascinating, sympathetic, well-developed character, and the depth of emotional complexity that Dunmore was able to excavate with this book was staggering.  This book is about sexuality, societal restraints, and female agency, all examined through the lens of one woman’s fraught relationship with her own family inheritance. It all sounds like a rather standard female-centric historical fiction novel, but Cathy’s journey and Dunmore’s psychological insights took on a hard edge that subverted all of my expectations and then some.

I don’t think this is the kind of book that people intensely hate – I think it’s more of a ‘it was fine, nothing special’ for a lot of readers. So again, it’s hard to recommend this enthusiastically knowing that it’s bound to fall flat for a lot of people who find themselves disappointed by the (anticlimactic?) direction it takes. But I was so utterly enchanted and riveted by this book, and I cannot wait to see what else Dunmore has to offer.


You can pick up a copy of A Spell of Winter here on Book Depository.