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: 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.

The Mid Year Freak Out Book Tag 2020

Better late than never!  I do this tag every year so I couldn’t let it pass me by.
2017 | 2018 | 2019

Question 1 – The best book you’ve read so far in 2020

I mean… the Complete Works of William Shakespeare will be my top ‘book’ of 2020 and you all know that.

The only two novels solidly in with a chance of making my top 10 (god I need my reading to pick up in the second half of 2020 or that top 10 is going to be so bleak) are The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel and Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.

Question 2 – Your favorite sequel of the year

N/A – I haven’t read a sequel.

Question 3 – A new release that you haven’t read but really want to

SO MANY but toward the top of my list are these three: Real Life by Brandon Taylor (getting to attend his book tour in LA was a wonderful experience!), Luster by Raven Leilani (I don’t think this is quite out yet but I have an ARC, and I have heard NOTHING by good things), and Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski (I don’t have a copy yet, but it sounds ridiculously up my alley).

Question 4 – Most anticipated release for the second half of the year

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld, The Harpy by Megan Hunter, and Snow by John Banville.

Question 5 – Your biggest disappointment

The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams, Saltwater by Jessica Andrews, Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey.  Bad, worse, disappointing.

Question 6 – Biggest surprise of the year

Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica – surprising in every sense of the word.

But honorable mentions to Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 which I expected to like in a lukewarm 3.5-4 star kind of way but which I was actually blown away by, and Hysteria by Jessica Gross – another legitimately shocking read.

Question 7 – Favourite new to you or debut author

T Kira Madden, Kate Elizabeth Russell, and Naoise Dolan are all authors I’d love to read more by (and Jessica Gross, from the last question).

Question 8 – Your new fictional crush

As always, pass.

Question 9 – New favourite character

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Constance from King John.  Getting to play her on Zoom has been one of my absolute highlights of the year.  She’s fierce, savvy, prideful, intelligent, and is the absolute heart and soul of this play – despite the fact that she has NO political power she sets the whole thing in motion and then is the one to most acutely suffer the consequences and has some of the most heart-rending monologues in all of Shakespeare (“grief fills the room up of my absent child”).  Also, THIS!!!

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Question 10 – A book that made you cry

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Hm, none so far.  But if I had a heart I would have cried at Traveling in a Strange Land by David Park.

Question 11 – A book that made you happy

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Rereading If We Were Villains was probably the most fun reading experience I’ve had all year, in light of my own newfound Shakespeare thing.

Question 12 – Your favourite book to movie adaptation that you’ve seen this year

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Lady Macbeth, directed by William Oldroyd and starring Florence Pugh.  Contrary to popular belief this is not an adaptation of Macbeth – it’s an adaptation of a Russian novella inspired by Macbeth; Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov.  I haven’t read the novella in question, though I’d like to; but I was really blown away by the film (despite some questionable racial optics…).

Question 13 – Favourite book post you’ve done this year

My Project Shakespeare wrap ups, probably: one, two, three, four.

Question 14 – The most beautiful book you have bought/received this year

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Daughter from the Dark by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko, translated by Julia Hersey.

Question 15 – What are some books you need to read by the end of the year

Other than the rest of Shakespeare’s plays?  Hopefully A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes and the Cromwell trilogy by Hillary Mantel to round out my (shitty) Women’s Prize reading for the year.

wrap up: June 2020

Am I posting my June wrap up on July 22?  Absolutely.  Who cares, time isn’t real.

 

  1. The Invited by Jennifer McMahon ★★★☆☆ | review
  2. Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare ★★★★★
  3. By The Way, Meet Vera Stark by Lynn Nottage ★★★★☆
  4. All’s Well That Ends Well by William Shakespeare ★★☆☆☆
  5. Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid ★★☆☆☆ | review
  6. Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare ★★★★☆
  7. If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio (reread) ★★★★☆ | review
  8. King John by William Shakespeare ★★★★☆
  9. Richard II by William Shakespeare ★★★★☆
  10. Three Plays by Lisa B. Thompson ★★★★☆ | review

JUNE TOTAL: 10
YEARLY TOTAL: 58

Favorite: Julius Caesar
Runner up: Revisiting If We Were Villains
Least favorite: Such a Fun Age

Other posts from June:

Life update:

Still got nothing.  I AM however FINALLY inspired to get back into the swing of blogging.  So, watch this space.  And by this space I mostly mean, your own blogs.  I will finally be reading them.  Sorry.  I don’t even know what happened to me these past few months.

Currently reading:

 

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

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: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo | BookBrowse

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KIM JIYOUNG, BORN 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo
translated by Jamie Chang
★★★★★
Liveright, April 2020

 

“Kim Jiyoung is thirty-three years old, thirty-four Korean age. She got married three years ago and had a daughter last year. […] Jiyoung’s abnormal behavior was first detected on 8 September.”

So begins Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, Cho Nam-Joo’s daring excavation of a young woman crumbling under the strain of unrelenting misogyny, which has sold over a million copies in its native South Korea. Jiyoung (the Korean naming convention places a person’s family name before their given name), an average, unremarkable woman, one day begins to imitate the voices of other women she has known throughout her life—a phenomenon neither she nor her husband can explain, which prompts them to visit a psychiatrist.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and a piece I wrote about feminist movements in South Korea HERE.


You can pick up a copy of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 here on Book Depository.

book review: Hysteria by Jessica Gross

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HYSTERIA by Jessica Gross
★★★★☆
Unnamed Press, August 18, 2020

 

Hysteria belongs to a Marmite subset of literary fiction that I like to call ‘books about disaster women’.  (Other disaster women books include, for example: The Pisces, My Year of Rest and RelaxationAlmost Love.)  These books tend to feature young women in their 20s-30s who have abrasive personalities and make poor decisions and have a lot of casual sex usually for the wrong reasons.  If you do not enjoy disaster women books, you will not like Hysteria, it’s important to get that out of the way.  This will not be the book to change your mind and embrace this whole subgenre if it’s something you’ve henceforth found uninteresting or repulsive.

But with that said, if you do enjoy disaster women books, it’s a damn good one.  In Hysteria we follow an unnamed narrator living in Brooklyn, who goes into her local bar one day and discovers a new bartender has just started working there; she becomes compelled by him and starts to believe that he is none other than Sigmund Freud.

Hysteria is short, punchy, and shocking.  The way Jessica Gross juxtaposes the narrator’s meditations on sexual desire and meditations on daughterhood are uncomfortable to the extreme – I’m trying to avoid using the word oedipal in this review as I know that isn’t an enticing prospect for most people – but what works is that Gross’s writing never tips into gratuitousness.  It isn’t provocative for the sake of being provocative; she actually does have incisive points to make as she simultaneously celebrates and interrogates the narrator’s lasciviousness.  Not a book for everyone but highly recommended to those who it appeals to.

Thank you to Unnamed Press for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.


You can preorder a copy of Hysteria from the publisher here (not an affiliate link).

book review: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

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EXCITING TIMES by Naoise Dolan
★★★★★
Ecco, June 2, 2020

 

Exciting Times is the most Sally Rooney book to have not been penned by Sally Rooney.  In a way that statement is overly reductive of Naoise Dolan’s fresh and distinctive voice, but still, the fact remains: if you don’t find Sally Rooney to be much to write home about, steer clear of this debut about Irish socialist millennials overanalyzing their messy and self-destructive relationships.  But if you’re like me and that’s sounds like a recipe for perfection, you’ll probably love this.

Shown through the eyes of an Irish expat living in Hong Kong, Exciting Times essentially focuses on a love triangle between narrator Ava and two individuals who in many ways are polar opposites – the rich, tactless English banker Julian and the elegant, clever Hong Kong native Edith.  Each is distinctly compelling, though the love triangle itself isn’t what moves the narrative so much as Ava navigating her own boundaries and ethics and evolving perspective on relationships.  Irish identity is another theme that takes center stage; Ava is an English teacher and finds herself tempering her natural speech patterns so that she teaches ‘correct’ English to her students.  It’s a thoughtful, clever, meditative book from a number of angles.

Dolan’s prose is this novel’s shining jewel; she has such a compact, witty, dry voice – it won’t be for everyone and I can see where others might find that it grows wearisome as the novel chugs along, but I found it consistently charming.  ‘”Anything strange?” said Mam on the phone.  She really said it, “antin strange,” but if Brits spelled Glosster as Gloucester then I supposed Mam deserved similar leeway.’

Exciting Times is definitely this year’s Normal People while also being very much its own thing, and I recommend it very highly.

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


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

book review: The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo

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THE MOST FUN WE EVER HAD by Claire Lombardo
★★☆☆☆
Doubleday, 2019

 

I finished The Most Fun We Ever Had weeks ago, after a rather agonizing month-long reading experience, and despite my fondness for writing negative reviews, finding the motivation to review this book has been… a struggle; so happy was I to be blissfully done with it.  The only thing compelling me to write this review now is the promise that after I click post I will never have to think about this book and these inane characters ever again.

The most frustrating thing about this book to me was its wasted potential.  When I started reading it, I was sure I was going to love it in the same way I love soap operas; I’m a sucker for mindless, messy, salacious family drama.  This could have been 200 pages shorter; it could have been an unapologetically entertaining romp through the ripple effects of one daughter’s unplanned pregnancy 15 years after she gave the child up for adoption; it could have been a lot of things.  Instead it was agonizingly, embarrassingly sincere.  Meet David and Marilyn, the parents: they’re still disgustingly in love after all these years.  Meet their children: Wendy’s a fuck-up, Violet’s frigid, Liza’s naive, Grace is the baby.  Meet Violet’s illegitimate child, Jonah: he’s never known stability so he has trouble adjusting to it.  Congratulations, you have now read The Most Fun We Ever Had.

None of these characters undergoes any development.  Any.  At all.  This book is 532 pages.  That is 532 pages of painfully one-note characters arguing with each other about any given character’s one (1) allocated personality trait.  The repetition is insufferable.  And yet, this book really believes it has something to say?  The reader is simply bashed over the head with the most mundane and trite pontifications on life and love and growing up and it’s all so bizarrely earnest for the fact that none of it has any particular depth.

The one thing I will hand Lombardo is that her treatment of the family’s wealth was very self-conscious and well-executed; it’s tempting to dismiss this as a ‘rich people problems book’ (and it’s understandable if that’s a premise that just flat-out does not interest you), but I did feel like Lombardo did a good job contextualizing their struggles and providing a somewhat thoughtful commentary on class disparity.

But ultimately a pretty massive waste of time.


Women’s Prize 2020 reviewsDominicana | Fleishman is in Trouble | Girl | Girl, Woman, OtherHow We Disappeared | Red at the Bone | The Most Fun We Ever Had | Weather


You can pick up a copy of The Most Fun We Ever Had here on Book Depository.

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.