book review: Luster by Raven Leilani





LUSTER by Raven Leilani
★★★☆☆
FSG, 2020


I guess it’s natural to be slightly underwhelmed by a book that’s gotten as much hype as Luster has.  And it absolutely does deserve the hype, in a lot of ways.  Raven Leilani’s voice and writing style are spectacular, and so is her characterization of protagonist Edie.  This is very much a “disaster women” book (i.e., a subgenre of literary fiction about 20-something year-old women having a lot of casual sex and making terrible life decisions) but it’s also its own thing, refreshing both in voice and structure. 

My main issue with this book isn’t even something it did wrong, per se – but about 40% through the book it took a turn that I didn’t want it to take, and we ended up spending the rest of the book in a situation that I found much less interesting than the one that had been presented to us at the beginning.  I didn’t find Rebecca to be a particularly convincing figure and her dynamic with Edie really failed to engage or move me.  Even less interesting to me was Eric, Edie’s love interest, an older, married, white man (Edie is a Black woman, and much younger than Eric – it’s a dynamic that facilitates moments of sharp insight on Leilani’s part but Eric himself is something of a wet blanket).  It’s Edie herself that holds this novel together (she’s a realistic, sympathetic, compelling figure); it’s the circumstances she finds herself in that I felt didn’t ultimately live up to their narrative potential.

I initially gave this 4 stars but I waited a few weeks to write this review and in that time this book has sort of faded in my estimation and I haven’t really thought about it since putting it down, so that’s never an amazing sign.  I think this is a promising debut in a lot of ways and Raven Leilani is absolutely an author I’ll be keeping an eye on, but this didn’t quite do what I wanted it to do for me.

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

wrap up: September 2020

  1. Coriolanus by William Shakespeare ★★★★☆
  2. Slave Play by Jeremy O. Harris ★★★★★
  3. They Never Learn by Layne Fargo ★★★★★ | review
  4. The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare ★★★★☆
  5. Antony & Cleopatra by William Shakespeare ★★★★★
  6. The Year of Lear by James Shapiro ★★★★☆
  7. Henry VI Part 1 by William Shakespeare ★★★★☆
  8. Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas ★★★☆☆ | review
  9. The Lost Village by Camilla Sten ★★★☆☆ | review
  10. The Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher ★★★★☆
  11. The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare ★★★☆☆
  12. Tokyo Ueno Station by Miri Yu ★★★☆☆ | review
  13. Luster by Raven Leilani ★★★★☆ | review
  14. So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo ★★★☆☆

SEPTEMBER TOTAL: 14
YEARLY TOTAL: 86

Favorite: Antony & Cleopatra
Least favorite: Catherine House

Other posts from September:

I managed to read 4 books for my and Hannah’s readathon: Catherine House, Tokyo Ueno Station, Luster, and The Lost Village. Of course, since then I’ve also acquired (checks notes) 5 more ARCs from Netgalley, so it does feel a bit like I’m running on a hamster wheel here.

Life updates:

Pass.

Currently reading:

I am so sick of myself. If I don’t finish Death in Her Hands and Brideshead Revisited in October I am throwing them into the ocean.

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book review: Tokyo Ueno Station by Miri Yū





TOKYO UENO STATION by Miri Yū
★★★☆☆
Riverhead, 2020


Tokyo Ueno Station is a short, sparse book which follows the life of Kazu, born in 1933, the same year as the Emperor.  Kazu’s life (mostly characterized by tragedy and poverty) is thematically entwined with the Emperor’s through a series of coincidences that tie their families together – and it’s also closely connected to Ueno Park, a historically significant site in Tokyo that Kazu’s spirit now haunts after his death.

This is a mournful, elegant book that ultimately didn’t leave much of an impression on me.  In fact, I’m struggling to write this review because I finished this a few days ago and it’s already slipped from my mind almost entirely.  I don’t know what it was, because I didn’t find a single thing about this book to be overtly objectionable; it just didn’t fully come together for me.  I think the fragmented, vignette-style structure paired with its incredibly short length left me wanting more.

Also – in some ways this comparison seems absurd but I also can’t get it out of my head – this reminded me so much of When All Is Said by Anne Griffin (a book I really didn’t care for), which follows an elderly Irish man looking back on his life and the people who shaped him the most.  In both cases I felt like I was being spoon-fed these tragic stories on a very surface level without organically feeling any of it.  I do think Tokyo Ueno Station is the more accomplished book, but I guess ‘old men mournfully looking back on their sad lives-lit’ is not for me?

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

book review: Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas




CATHERINE HOUSE by Elisabeth Thomas
★★★☆☆
Custom House, May 2020




Whenever I read a book with a suspiciously low Goodreads rating I’m always all the more determined to love it – there’s something kind of fun about being in the minority in really ‘getting’ a book that goes over so many heads.  Sadly not the case here.  While I didn’t find this objectively terrible in any way, neither did I find it particularly special or pleasurable to read.

Following 18-year-old Ines who goes off to an experimental college, Catherine House subverts a lot of campus novel tropes.  Ines isn’t characterized by a passion for academia or a thirst for belonging or a love for her school – she’s socially and academically dispassionate to a fault.  Along with Ines’s lack of drive is a particularly conspicuous lack of atmosphere, and I think the Kazuo Ishiguro and Sarah Waters comparisons do this book a disservice if you go into it expecting a lush, indulgent, immersive setting.

While I did feel that Thomas did a great job of building suspense, to the point where I read this book in two sittings because there was something rather hypnotic about it, I also didn’t particularly care about what I was reading.  There’s a mystery at the heart of the school’s scientific research department, and I’m not sure whether the twist fell flat or whether I just was never invested enough to be moved by it.

Again, I don’t think this was bad or even unsuccessful in what it set out to do, and I can see it working perfectly for a certain type of reader.  Sadly it just wasn’t quite what I was looking for.

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

Hannah and I have too many ARCs: an emergency readathon – 2020 edition

Last year around this time Hannah and I created a 2-person readathon to tackle some of our ARCs, and we are going to do the same this year, for the last two weeks of September.

I say it’s a 2-person readathon just because we are not planning on doing prompts or hashtags or anything that would accompany an Official readathon, but if you want to join us, by all means do! The only prompt is to read your ARCs.

I’m not going to do a set TBR because I know I won’t follow it, so I’m just going to show you all of my possibilities.

So without further ado… my ARCs. These are only the ones I’ve acquired since this time last year but I think this is more than enough to choose from.

So… what should I read?! Help!

EDIT: I’ll update this as I go.

READ:

Catherine House ★★★☆☆ | review
The Lost Village ★★★☆☆ | review

wrap up: August 2020

  1. The Bookwanderers by Anna James ★★★★★ | review to come
  2. Stop Kiss by Diana Son ★★★★☆
  3. Henry IV Part 1 by William Shakespeare ★★★☆☆
  4. Cymbeline by William Shakespeare ★★★★☆
  5. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave ★★★★☆ | review
  6. The Perfect Nanny by Leila Slimani ★★★★☆
  7. Henry IV Part 2 by William Shakespeare ★★☆☆☆
  8. Out by Natsuo Kirino ★★★☆☆ | review

AUGUST TOTAL: 8
YEARLY TOTAL: 72

Favorite: The Bookwanderers
Least favorite: Henry IV Part 2

Other posts from August:

Life updates:

I got an iPhone 11 Pro and the quality of my cat photos has VASTLY IMPROVED. Follow on Twitter for daily cat spam.

Currently reading:

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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:

 

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