The Mid Year Freak Out Book Tag 2019

Obligatory intro about how I cannot believe the year is halfway over.  Also, you can see my past answers for this tag here: 2017 | 2018

Question 1 – The best book you’ve read so far in 2019

Hands down, no competition, Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe, one of the most informative and engaging pieces of nonfiction I’ve read in years, which masterfully contextualizes the Troubles and fills in so many gaps that Keefe’s primarily American audience is bound to need filling in.  I can’t recommend this highly enough.  Review here.

The only two other books that I can confidently say will make my top 10 of the year so far are Maus by Art Spiegelman and The Fire Starters by Jan Carson.

Question 2 – Your favorite sequel of the year

I’ve only read one sequel in its entirety – The Killer In Me by Olivia Kiernan.  Thankfully I loved it – I thought it was a lot stronger than its predecessor, and even though I’m not wild about police procedurals most of the time I’m really hooked on this series.  Review here.

I’ve also started two others: The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang (I’m about 40% through) and Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb (around page 120) so the jury’s still out on both of these, but I don’t have any complaints about either so far.

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

All UK releases, but oh well.

A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes: This is an Iliad retelling that recounts the Trojan War from an all-female perspective: need I say more?

Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson: I believe this is a memoir (essay collection?) about health and the body and feminism, or something like that.  I haven’t heard a single negative thing about it.  This is the only one of these three that I own and I can’t wait to pick it up.

What Red Was by Rosie Price: I mean, I rationally understand that marketing comps aren’t to be taken too seriously, but when a book is pitched as Normal People meets Asking For It… I mean.  I need to read it.

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

The Glass Woman by Caroline Lea, Valerie by Sara Stridsberg, and The Sacrament by Olaf Olafsson will hopefully all be excellent.  More thoughts on why I’m excited for these here.

Question 5 – Your biggest disappointment

When All Is Said by Anne Griffin: I just don’t get this book; I simultaneously don’t get why I didn’t like it more and don’t get the excessive amounts of praise it has received.  Everything about this book seemed like it was going to be right up my alley (Irish! depressing!), so it’s probably my biggest disappointment of the year that I remained so utterly unaffected by it.  Review here.

Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden: Is there anything worse than enjoying a book only for it to be utterly undermined and destroyed by a horrifically bad conclusion?  More on that here in one of my rare spoiler-filled reviews.

The Cassandra by Sharma Shields: You know me – I love a Greek myth retelling and I adore Cassandra, but this was ruined by positively absurd characters and awful plotting.  Review here.

Question 6 – Biggest surprise of the year

Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev: This book seems to be very hit or miss for most people due to Shalmiyev’s slightly unconventional style of prose, but I really got on with it and this remains one of the most heart-wrenching memoirs I’ve read.  Review here.

The Parting Glass by Gina Marie Guadagnino: A very random title by a debut author that I hadn’t heard anything about – I picked it up on a whim and adored it.  Review here.

Cherry by Nico Walker: it is a rare and talented author that could keep me riveted by the story of a young, remorseless man who joins the army and develops a drug addiction.  Review here.

Question 7 – Favourite new to you or debut author

Mathias Énard: It could just be Charlotte Mandell’s exquisite translation, but Tell Them of Battles, Kings & Elephants probably had the most beautiful writing of anything I’ve read all year.  I just adored everything about that book and cannot wait to read more from Énard.

Robin Hobb: When I started Assassin’s Apprentice I fell instantly in love with Robin Hobb’s prose, and despite that book’s overly slow pace, I got the impression that I had found a new favorite fantasy author.  Royal Assassin has so far been confirming that suspicion!

Colin Barrett: Such a brilliant fresh new voice in Irish fiction that I cannot wait to read more from in the future.  Calm With Horses from his collection Young Skins remains one of the best short stories (novellas?) I’ve ever read.

Question 8 – Your new fictional crush

Pass.

Question 9 – New favourite character

Billy from Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid is so my type it’s not even funny.

Tom from A Natural by Ross Raisin is a quiet character who made a huge impression.

Fitz from the Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb has been a brilliant protagonist whose journey I’m really enjoying following.

Question 10 – A book that made you cry

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Only one – Maus by Art Spiegelman.  I pretty much don’t cry as a general rule, but my god, this book wrecked me.  Thankfully I was house-sitting while reading this and was alone so I could unashamedly weep through the last 100 pages or so.

Question 11 – A book that made you happy

This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps: Though this occasionally touches on heavier subjects, there were so many anecdotes that actually made me laugh out loud.  The story about Busy breaking her leg while moshing to Nirvana at a school dance makes me laugh even thinking about it now.

My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: To describe this as a romp would be somewhat dismissive of its thematic depth, but my god did I have fun reading this.

Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett: Bizarre and occasionally unsettling, but very hilarious as well.

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

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I haven’t read this book yet, but I absolutely adored the film The Miseducation of Cameron Post.  I don’t usually get on with films aimed at teenagers (which is fine! I can admit when I’m not the target audience!), but I thought this film navigated its horrifying subject matter with the right amount of warmth and seriousness, and I was really moved by Chloë Grace Moretz’s performance.

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

Read More Women: a post I did for International Women’s Day where I talk about several popular male-authored works and suggest female-authored alternatives.

Also, all of my Women’s Prize coverage:

Women’s Prize Longlist Predictions
Women’s Prize Longlist Reaction
Women’s Prize Shortlist Reaction
Women’s Prize Longlist Reflections
Women’s Prize Shortlist Review & Winner Prediction

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

Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants by Mathias Énard, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, and Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler are all gorgeous.

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

Everything left on my 2019 Backlist TBR, Five Star Predictions Round 3, and ARCs I need to read #4 posts, among other things.

How’s your reading year been going so far?  Comment and let me know!

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book review: Country by Michael Hughes

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COUNTRY by Michael Hughes
★★★★☆
John Murray, 2018 (UK)

 

Country is the most literal Iliad retelling I’ve ever read, which came as a surprise given that its premise is worlds away from Ancient Greece. Michael Hughes’s interpretation is set in 1990s Northern Ireland, twenty-five years into the conflict known as the Troubles, and yet despite the wildly different setting it hits all the same beats as Homer’s tale, each scene and character a perfect mirror to the original story, and easy to identify with names like Achill (Achilles), Nellie (Helen), Henry (Hector), and Pat (Patroclus).

This level of faithfulness was a double-edged sword for me: it led to moments of brilliance and moments that were a little too on the nose. Mostly brilliance, so let’s start there: the decision to adapt the Iliad to the Troubles was an inspired one, a pairing linked by the tragedy of lives lost needlessly to a cause whose rhetoric is shrouded in talk of honor, but whose reality is starker and more senseless.

This passage in particular as the Hector figure, a war-weary SAS man, is on the verge of death called to mind a passage from the Iliad that hits home its driving thematic conceit:

“The fucking spooks, the fucking politicians. Moving the pieces on the board, doling out life or death with a flick of the wrist. Not one of them was in harm’s way. Not one of them could ever die this death. He was charged to defend their will, their country’s honour, but all he could ever defend was his own life. It wasn’t their blood on the road. It never would be. They didn’t understand.

No. They understood. They didn’t care.”

– Michael Hughes, Country

“So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men
live on to bear such torments—the gods live free of sorrows.”

– Homer, The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles

Used as a pawn by gods in one case and government and/or paramilitary leaders in the other, the individual lives affected amidst the brutality are the focus of both texts, and Hughes capitalizes on the opportunity to tell this story with the abject tragedy it deserves.

And overarching themes aside, the level of detail here is just delightful for Homer fans: the SAS base is called Illiam because the W fell off the William Castle sign; the IRA pub is referred to as ‘The Ships’ in reference to the Greeks’ camp outside the walls of Troy.

However, there were some bits that didn’t translate perfectly: Achill’s widely accepted irreplaceability felt shoehorned in – the role of the individual in modern-day warfare just isn’t perfectly equitable with ancient battle. And a few scenes felt like they were only there in the name of keeping the structure as close to the Iliad as possible – I wouldn’t have minded, for example, the omission of a few scenes like the funeral games (which went into a level of detail that was admirably authentic but frankly excessive) in favor of adding a bit more heft to the weightier scenes like Achill’s confrontation with the Priam character.

I was very cognizant as I was reading that this wasn’t going to be an easy book to recommend; it’s not, so to speak, baby’s first Troubles book. You don’t exactly need a PhD in Irish History to be able to follow this, but I do want to be clear that almost none of the dialect (which Hughes renders beautifully) or cultural references are explained or contextualized (read Say Nothing first!). I’d actually stress that an interest in the Iliad is much less essential to get something out of this than knowing a bit about the Troubles. Still, for the right reader this is a sharp and cleverly written retelling whose literality is an asset more often than not. Though it did strike me that I may, ironically, be a bit too familiar with the Iliad to be this book’s ideal reader.


You can pick up a copy of Country here on Book Depository.  It will also be published in the US in the fall.

book review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong | BookBrowse

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ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS by Ocean Vuong
★★★★★
Penguin Press, June 4, 2019

 

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the bold and bracing debut novel by acclaimed poet Ocean Vuong, centers on Little Dog, the son of a Vietnamese immigrant mother and an absent father. Raised in present-day Hartford in a predominantly white community, Little Dog struggles from an early age to both assimilate with his peers and to honor his Vietnamese heritage, but here Vuong deviates from the standard immigration story blueprint in favor of something more darkly sensual and internal. As the story unfolds, the reader comes to understand that the novel is an elaborate letter written from Little Dog to his mother, though she will never read it, as she is illiterate: the story he tells her is consequently private and unsparing. “The impossibility of you reading this makes my telling it possible,” Little Dog confesses.

Read the rest of my review HERE on BookBrowse, and if you’d like a little more context on this book, you can read my piece on Vietnamese Amerasians HERE.


You can pick up a copy of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous here on Book Depository.

some of my favorite book blogs | part 2

Nearly a year ago I made a post where I listed 10 of my favorite book bloggers – I figured it was time for an update!  All of my recommendations in my last post still stand – all of those blogs are still active and I’d highly recommend checking them out.  But now for some new blood!

Requisite disclaimer about how I follow 500+ blogs on here and this is by no means a comprehensive list – if I follow your blog and regularly interact with you I promise I adore your blog as well and you will probably show up in part 3.  But lists that go much higher than 10 start to get boring so I’m keeping it concise.

Now, the list, alphabetically:

Ally @ Ally Writes Things: I love everything about Ally’s blog: concise reviews, interesting discussion posts (this one about cancel culture is a standout), and an abundance of tags and memes.  I think Ally and I mostly have a pretty similar taste, but even where we don’t overlap I always love reading her thoughts.  She’s also the sweetest person with the cutest horse.

Aurora Librialis: It’s probably no secret that my favorite posts, both to read and write, are book reviews, and most of my favorite blogs are review-heavy.  But I’ve loved Aurora’s blog for ages, and a few months back she mentioned that she doesn’t write book reviews, and I remember thinking ‘wait, you don’t?!  Oh, right, I guess you don’t.’  That’s how thorough her lists and wrap ups are: I never feel like her posts are wanting for anything, either information or analysis.  And her taste is refreshingly diverse: her lists will include everything from the latest YA release to rather dense literary fiction, all in the same post.  I love the range!

Books and Bao: Because there are only so many hours in the day to devote to blogging, as a rule I don’t subscribe to any blogs that aren’t hosted on WordPress since I rely pretty heavily on the WordPress Reader to stay updated.  But I have to make an exception for Will and Jess, the annoyingly cute couple behind Books and Bao: their blog is a hybrid of books and travel and culture – all great things! – and the books they review are refreshingly international.  Their blog has a wealth of info on translated lit, and I would highly recommend checking them out.

Cathy @ 746 Books: If I ever go bankrupt from all the books I buy, I swear Cathy’s blog will singlehandedly be responsible.  As the queen of (Northern) Irish lit around here, Cathy’s reading taste overlaps considerably with my own, but even though I own a truly ridiculous amount of yet unread Irish lit, I’m still learning about new and fascinating titles every time Cathy posts.  But if Irish lit doesn’t interest you, never fear, there’s plenty of other content on Cathy’s blog, the concept of which (realizing she owned 746 unread books and deciding to read them all before expanding her collection) she’s stuck to admirably.  Realizing I hadn’t included in Cathy in my first post (I don’t think I’d followed her at that point, but I think I’ve since made up for lost time!) actually prompted me to write this one.  Follow her!

Laura Frey @ Reading in Bed: Laura’s arguably a bit more active on booktube (which I also love!), but I think she does a really excellent job splitting her content between there and her blog, which is always a joy to read.  Laura mostly reads literary fiction and classics, and in particular has a passion for Canadian lit, which I’m sorry to say I haven’t actually read very much of, so I do love that I can count on Laura to keep me up to date with what’s going on in the world of Canadian publishing.  Plus, you can always count on her to be brutally honest in her assessments, and I mean that as the highest compliment.

Laura Tisdall: I feel like I’ve been following Laura for quite some time but we didn’t really start interacting until recently – and I am so glad for it!  When I started reading Laura’s blog more closely I realized how similar our taste was (both inside and outside of the wonderful world of literary prizes), and as fun as disagreement can be, it’s always nice to talk books with someone who often comes to very similar conclusions about the books you both read.  And aside from all that, she writes some of the most intelligent reviews on this website.

Michael @ Inexhaustible Invitations: Speaking of intelligent reviews, Michael’s tend to be rather brilliant.  He’s another one where we see eye to eye more often than not, but even when we don’t I find his analyses fascinating and astute.  (Plus, I love the sleek black and white aesthetic of his blog – busy headers/backgrounds are a big pet peeve of mine because I am apparently 80 years old.)

Naty @ Naty’s Bookshelf: Naty is one of the sweetest people I have had the pleasure of getting to know through book blogging, and I can’t recommend her blog highly enough.  She reads a pretty big range, everything from literary fiction to YA to SFF, and recently I had the pleasure of chatting with her while we both read through the Women’s Prize longlist.  Even though our assessments didn’t always align (she’s #teamCirce, I’m #teamSilence, somehow our friendship has survived), she always presents her opinions so thoughtfully that it’s a joy to read them.

Rebecca Foster @ Bookish Beck: As an active freelance reviewer, Rebecca writes at the quality you’d expect, covering a refreshingly massive range of literature on her blog.  I’m constantly reading about new releases I haven’t even heard of on Rebecca’s blog, which isn’t always great for my TBR, but I could read her thoughts on books for days, she’s always so smart and perceptive.

Ren @ What’s Nonfiction?: In theory I shouldn’t have a whole lot of bookish common ground with Ren, as she exclusively reads nonfiction and I read about 85% fiction, but some of the most stimulating conversations I’ve had on here have been with her.  The interesting thing about both of our blogs is that I think we value very similar elements in the books we read, even if the books themselves rarely overlap, so if you like my blog but wish I read more nonfiction, or if you’re interested in nonfiction at all, I can’t recommend What’s Nonfiction? highly enough for intelligent, thorough, well-argued reviews.  And that’s not to mention that Ren is a ridiculously kind person who is always up for some thorough discussions in the comments section (my favorite!).

So that’s that – go follow them all, and then let me know who some of your favorite book bloggers are!  Bonus points if anyone can name a brilliant adult/literary fiction blogger I don’t already follow.

book review: We Went to the Woods by Caite Dolan-Leach

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WE WENT TO THE WOODS by Caite Dolan-Leach
★★★★☆
Random House, July 2, 2019

 

Like most books compared to The Secret HistoryWe Went to the Woods isn’t as good, so let’s just get that out of the way. Which I’m not saying to be spiteful, I just genuinely don’t want to see this book flop because of unrealistically high expectations. Yes, it follows a group of friends who isolate themselves and end up propelled inevitably into tragedy, and yes, it reads like a train wreck in the best kind of way, so it’s an understandable comparison. But it’s also a deeply aggravating book, and I say that as someone who thoroughly enjoyed it.

We Went to the Woods focuses on Mack, a grad school dropout who, fleeing some kind of messy event in her past (more on that in a second), joins a group of idealistic young people who essentially endeavor to live in a modern-day socialist commune. That’s basically the plot: many pages of gardening and rivalries and sexual tension and social activism ensue.

My biggest issue with this book was the way Mack’s backstory was handled: what should have been presented to the reader on page one was nonsensically withheld for a lame kind of ‘gotcha!’ moment halfway through the book that added nothing to the narrative or the suspense. When Mack finally tells her story, it feels like a stranger reciting it rather than the narrator whose head we’d been inhabiting for several hundred pages – so little does the event actually impact her thoughts or actions (other than providing the incentive she needed to abandon her life and join this project).

My other main issue is pace: though I found this compelling, mostly due to Caite Dolan-Leach’s elegant and clever writing, I imagine that for a lot of readers, it’s probably going to drag. With a cover and title like this it’s easy to imagine that you’re in for some kind of thriller, but like We Went to the Woods‘ predecessor, Dead Letters, I fear that this book is going to suffer from ‘marketed as a thriller, gets bad reviews because it’s actually literary fiction’ syndrome. However, where Dead Letters (an underrated gem, in my opinion) is the kind of book where a single word isn’t out of place, We Went to the Woods languishes, unnecessarily so. I can only hope a few hundred more redundant words are chopped before its publication date.

But to be honest, the only reason I’m dwelling so much on the negatives is because I did enjoy it so much – it’s the kind of book that fully earned my investment and therefore frustrated me all the more in the areas where it fell short. That said, there’s so much to recommend it. This book is a contemporary zeitgeist, taking a premise that seems to belong in the 60s and modernizing it with urgency. In a scene where the characters learn the results of the 2016 election, their reactions are almost painfully recognizable, and the book’s main themes and social commentary dovetail again and again, always asking the same question: how important is activism in late-stage capitalism; is it better to try something that turns out to be futile or not try anything at all? Though the characters do quite a bit of moralizing, Dolan-Leach doesn’t, as she recognizes the complexity of the book’s central conceit.

And on top of all that, I found it incredibly entertaining. Slow pace aside, I was so drawn into this story and couldn’t wait to find out what happened next. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone who needs their protagonists to be likable, but if you enjoy character studies about twisted, flawed individuals, this is a pretty good one.

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

You can pre-order a copy of We Went to the Woods here on Book Depository.

book review: Devotion by Madeline Stevens

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DEVOTION by Madeline Stevens
★★★★☆
Ecco, August 13, 2019

 

Devotion is this summer’s Social Creature, a propulsive ‘poor girl meets rich girl’ story set in Manhattan, chronicling the mutually destructive relationship between two young women, Elle and Lonnie. Elle is hired as a nanny for Lonnie’s infant son, and soon her resentment toward her employer turns into an unhealthy obsession.

Despite the inevitable Social Creature comparison, Devotion isn’t quite as suspenseful or climactic, and its protagonists left less of an impression on me. Even so, I had a hard time putting this down; for a slow-moving story it never really loses momentum, and it has that ‘need to know what happens next’ quality that mercifully doesn’t feel like a cop-out when nothing ever really happens.

Madeline Stevens achieves this with pitch-perfect characterization of the novel’s narrator, Elle, whose ‘do I want to be her or do I want to sleep with her’ dynamic with Lonnie is the morbidly compelling thread that holds this plotness novel together and keeps you turning pages. Ultimately: a quick, addictive read that doesn’t offer much in the way of thrills or chills, but still has an eerie and unsettling quality that makes it impossible to look away, and which offers a deceptively nuanced commentary on living on the periphery of extreme wealth.

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

You can pre-order a copy of Devotion here on Book Depository.

book review: The Fire Starters by Jan Carson

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THE FIRE STARTERS by Jan Carson
★★★★★
Doubleday, April 2019 (UK)

 

For whatever reason I never tire of reading about the Troubles, but The Fire Starters is not your average ‘Troubles book.’ Set in modern-day East Belfast, Jan Carson imagines a series of fires that break out throughout the city, initiated by an enigmatic figure referred to as the Fire Starter, who revels in the blood lust that his havoc causes. Amidst this violence we have two fathers, Sammy Agnew, an old man and former paramilitary, and Jonathan Murray, a socially awkward new father, both of whom fear their own children, as Sammy begins to suspect that his son is the cause of the Tall Fires, and Jonathan begins to suspect that his newborn daughter is a Siren.

This is a singular, inventive, tragic, and wildly funny book about the legacy of violence and the lasting scars it leaves on a community. The novel’s central conceit is reminiscent of Milkman, and of other quintessential Northern Irish lit – that terror begins at home, that trust cannot automatically be extended to one’s own family – but Jan Carson’s interpretation of this theme is far more abstract than any I’ve seen before.

I’ll be honest, I’m so relieved that I didn’t know there was going to be a magical realism element to this book before picking it up, because as I’m sure you all know by now, magical realism almost never works for me – but fortunately, Carson shows us how it’s done. This book quite literally mythologizes the Troubles as the threat of Sophie the maybe-Siren looms large over Jonathan, but her narrative role is more ambiguous; is Jonathan merely appropriating the grandiosity of the cultural narrative he was raised into, or is Sophie actually a danger to society? As Jonathan fears for the future, Sammy reminisces on the past and the violent role he played in the conflict in the 1970s; he fears that he can never wash his hands clean, and that his actions have irrevocably damaged his son.

As I’m sure you can tell, I loved this. Jan Carson’s writing is sharp and funny and piercing; the fusion of perspectives works magnificently; the examination of Belfast’s history of violence and the ever-present threat of its resurgence is timely and unapologetic. And this is, frankly, one of the most original things I’ve read in a very long time.


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