book review: We Were Liars by E. Lockhart


WE WERE LIARS by E. Lockhart
★★★★☆
Delacorte Press, 2014






I read this because it’s allegedly a retelling of King Lear. It… isn’t really (and I’ll talk about that more when I one day inevitably do a blog post on retellings of King Lear) but I actually liked this a LOT more than I was expecting to. Usually when I read YA my overriding feeling is ‘this wasn’t written for me,’ but I actually didn’t feel that so much; this largely felt like an adult thriller when I was reading.  Yes, it contains Teenagers Experiencing Emotions, but that isn’t something I have an issue with; there was this sort of cool detachment to the writing that I felt worked in its favor and it was a fantastically paced, cleverly structured book that wasn’t weighed down by the protagonist’s navel gazing.  And yes, there’s The Twist—it didn’t blow my socks off because it ended up being something I’ve seen done in other books, but I actually thought the execution here was really fantastic and it was definitely worth the wait.  I did feel like the whole thing came together successfully, and it’s hard to talk about without giving anything away, but suffice to say this book was just delightful escapism if you prefer your beach reads to have a sharp edge. 

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: Out by Natsuo Kirino




OUT by Natsuo Kirino
translated by Stephen Snyder
★★★☆☆
Vintage, 2005



What Out does successfully is depict the utter exhaustion and desperation of the working class (focusing on a group of women working in a boxed-lunch factory in the outskirts of Tokyo).  This book is as bleak and gritty as it gets, but I liked that; I liked that Natsuo Kirino had no interest in shying away from the horrific realities that drove these characters to make the decisions that they did.  It’s also hard to come away from this book without admiring Masako Katori, its central character; she’s a brilliant creation and a fantastic focal point.

The entire time I was reading I was planning on giving this 4 stars – 1 star deducted for Snyder’s egregiously clunky translation.  Just one example among many passages that caused me to roll my eyes into the back of my head:

“Why?”
“Because you’re a smart-ass.  I’m going to teach you about the big, bad world.”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” she said.
[…]
‘Because you’re a smart-ass,’ he’d said.  She couldn’t let him get away with that.

So reading this was not entirely smooth sailing, but for the most part I found it admirable and compelling enough to compensate for the fact that it is not ostensibly a page-turner.

But then we got to the end, which… oh boy.  It’s hard to talk about without spoiling, but, in essence – this book starts to lead toward an inexorable conclusion, and it does arrive there, so that isn’t the issue.  The issue is how it unfolds, which… I personally found more offensive than I can even adequately describe, lol.  Ok, fine, spoiler: it involves a rape fetish that we got to experience through two (2) different perspectives in excruciating detail.  To say this served no purpose, was tonally incongruous, and bastardized Masako’s character – would all be an understatement. 

I’m glad I finally read this as it’s been sitting on my shelf for years, but it also felt like a shame that I decided to pick it up for Women in Translation Month (I’m reviewing it rather belatedly) when it ended on a note that I found to be so fundamentally antifeminist it kind of cancelled out the brilliant character work that had come before.

book review: The Lost Village by Camilla Sten





THE LOST VILLAGE by Camilla Sten
translated from the Swedish by Alex Fleming
★★★☆☆
Minotaur Books, April 6, 2021



The Lost Village, originally published in Swedish as Staden in 2019, has a rather striking premise: in the 1950s, all 900 inhabitants of a remote Swedish town vanished without a trace.  There were only two people left behind – a newborn baby and a woman stoned to death in the town square.  In the present-day, documentary filmmaker Alice has been obsessed with this town since she was a child, as her grandmother’s entire family disappeared in the incident (her grandmother had moved away and was living in Stockholm at the time), and Alice decides to make an excursion to the town with a small filmmaking crew to uncover the truth about what happened.

And the premise is indeed the strongest thing about it – it kept me turning pages simply because the central mystery was so bizarre and fascinating.  There are dual timelines, past and present, with the present-day getting more of a focus, and I thought this balance was done well.  The tone was also fantastic – I wouldn’t necessarily describe this book as creepy or gothic in atmosphere, but there was this sort of gently thrumming sense of terror throughout the whole thing (not dissimilar from Midsommar which this is probably going to be compared to quite a bit).

That said, my first issue with this book cropped up within the first few pages, which is simply that the writing is quite amateurish.  I’m not sure whether the clunkiness can be ascribed to the original prose or to the translation (I’m inclined to think the former – my issues weren’t typically with word choice as much as poorly written exposition), but either way, it took some getting used to.

I also found the treatment of mental health to be rather cringe-inducing.  Mild spoilers: It’s pretty obvious one character’s possible ‘psychosis’ is set up to be a red herring in a rather half-baked attempt to provide a meta commentary about the stigmatization of mental illness, which… isn’t half as progressive as thriller writers seem to think it is.  For one thing, try to read this exchange without rolling your eyes into the back of your head:

“I saw them in your tent,” he goes on.  “In the toiletry bag, when I was borrowing your toothpaste.  Abilify.”  He pauses.  When he goes on, his voice is heavy.

“Abilify is an antipsychotic.  Right?  That’s what it said on the packaging.”

And for another thing… why?  We know mental illness is stigmatized.  We know.  This is not a particularly clever or incisive or subversive commentary on that fact.  Maybe as a writer you could try to come up with a more creative way to sow seeds of doubt into a group of friends than the dramatic reveal of – gasp – Abilify

Anyway, it’s hard to comment on the resolution without giving anything away, so I’ll stay vague.  I found some parts satisfying, some annoyingly convenient, and some just raised the question how did the initial investigation overlook this?

So on the whole, I just found this frustratingly uneven in execution.  I certainly did enjoy reading this more often than not, I’d just encourage you to lower your standards if it piques your interest.

Thank you to Netgalley and Minotaur Books 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.

book review: They Never Learn by Layne Fargo




THEY NEVER LEARN by Layne Fargo
★★★★★
Gallery Scout Press, October 13, 2020





They Never Learn was the most fun I’ve had with a book in ages.  It’s far from perfect (it notably leans into an obsession with the glam femme fatale in a way that wouldn’t have been out of place with mid-2000s feminist media), but I’m just going to leave that criticism at the door because I had such a damn good time reading this.

It follows Scarlett, a professor-turned-vigilante serial killer who spends her evenings tracking down and murdering men who have abused women.  We also follow a student at her university, Carly, a shy 18-year-old who becomes infatuated with her roommate.  Their chapters alternate, each a short, 3-5 page segment that confidently leaps from one perspective to the next, daring the reader to keep up.  This book is a page-turner, first and foremost, and it does a spectacular job at cohering into something that you can devour in a single sitting if you’re so inclined. 

This book is so clever, so unexpected, so deliciously indulgent.  Scarlett is a brilliant creation, and Carly’s chapters work to ground the novel and develop a character whose quotidian anxieties you can sympathize with, while Scarlett’s chapters amp up the stakes.  Highly recommended to all thriller fans, with the caveat of there being a significant trigger warning for sexual assault.

I won an advanced copy of this book in a Goodreads giveaway; thanks Gallery Scout Press.  All thoughts are my own.

book review: The Invited by Jennifer McMahon

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THE INVITED by Jennifer McMahon
★★★☆☆
Doubleday, 2019

 

Set in the Vermont countryside (in my backyard, essentially), The Invited follows a couple, Helen and Nate, who have just bought property and are building a house from scratch – the only problem being that the land is supposedly haunted. This is the second book I’ve read by Jennifer McMahon (the other being The Night Sister) and honestly I feel similarly about both: I have a soft spot for McMahon and her spooky Vermont ghost stories and I would recommend them wholeheartedly to anyone looking for a quick and entertaining read, but they’re not without their significant issues.

The biggest problem with The Invited is that it takes an agonizingly long time to get going. Once it hits its stride it’s juicy enough, but for the first hundred or so pages, you will be inundated with more construction talk than is strictly necessary, and a parallel storyline following 14-year-old Olive failed to come to life for me (mostly because I never really believed Olive’s voice and found her sections a little tonally inconsistent).

What I did thoroughly enjoy though was the central mystery surrounding Helen’s haunted land and the ghost of Hattie Breckenridge. I’d honestly hesitate to classify this as a thriller (there were really only two twists, both of which I found painstakingly obvious), but if you’re in the mood for a compelling enough, unexpectedly subversive ghost story, I’d say this is a pretty safe bet.


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

book review: Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin | BookBrowse

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SAINT X by Alexis Schaitkin
★★★★☆
2020, Celadon

 

In the opening pages of her debut novel, Alexis Schaitkin introduces the reader to an idyllic beach scene, where mostly American tourists are lounging around on the fictional island of Saint X. Within a few pages idyll turns to tragedy as the 18-year-old daughter of the Thomas family, Alison, goes missing, and days later turns up dead. Two men are charged with her murder, but both are acquitted, and the mystery goes unsolved. Years later, we follow Alison’s younger sister, Claire, who was only seven years old at the time of Alison’s death. Now living in New York, Claire has a chance encounter that brings her into contact with Clive Richardson, one of the two men that had been charged with killing Alison. Believing their encounter to be an act of fate, Claire latches onto her connection with Clive in an attempt to discover what really happened to her sister.

You can read my full review HERE and a piece I wrote about Caribbean immigration to the US HERE.


You can pick up a copy of Saint X here on Book Depository.

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.

mini reviews #8: all kinds of fiction

You can see all my previous mini reviews here, and feel free to add me on Goodreads to see all of my reviews as soon as I post them.

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THE RUIN by Dervla McTiernan
★★★★☆
date read: November 25, 2019
Penguin Books, 2018

Every time I read a police procedural I feel obligated to start my review by saying that I don’t particularly like police procedurals; I only ever pick them up if I feel strongly drawn toward other elements of the summary (in this case, Ireland did it for me – shocking, I know). And while this reaffirmed a lot of the reasons why police procedurals are never going to be my favorite subgenre (I frankly didn’t care about any of the inter-departmental drama; Cormac Reilly is an incredibly forgettable Brooding Everyman-Detective of a protagonist) there was a lot here that I thoroughly enjoyed. The writing was strong and evocative, the periphery characters were incredibly well-crafted, particularly Aisling, and I felt so compelled by the central mystery. This isn’t the kind of thriller with a big twist that will blow your socks off, but it’s so intricately crafted that it’s hard to put down once you’re drawn in.

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


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DISAPPEARING EARTH by Julia Phillips
★★★★★
date read: December 9, 2019
Knopf, 2019

Disappearing Earth is bound to disappoint anyone who picks it up looking for a thriller, especially a fast-paced one. So if that’s what grabs your interest from the summary – a mystery about two kidnapped sisters – I’d urge you to either adjust expectations or avoid altogether. That said, if you do know to expect something slower paced, this is a knock-out of a debut. Set in northeastern Russia, Disappearing Earth is a complex and intricate portrait of a close-knit and dysfunctional community, whose culture is marred by misogyny and racism against the indigenous population. It’s very similar in structure to There There by Tommy Orange – a central event causing a ripple effect that’s told in vignettes through the eyes of seemingly unrelated characters – but I have to say this one hit me harder and felt more technically accomplished. Julia Phillips is an author to watch.

You can pick up a copy of Disappearing Earth here on Book Depository.


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NIGHT BOAT TO TANGIER by Kevin Barry
★★★☆☆
date read: December 15, 2019
Canongate, 2019

I’m devastated that I didn’t love this, given how much this seemed to be right up my literary alley. I was confident that the criticisms I’d heard – slow, not emotionally engaging enough, too much drug talk – wouldn’t faze me. I mean, I know my tastes; two aging Irish gangsters sitting on a pier discussing their shared history of drug smuggling actually seems like a recipe for perfection. But to say that this left me cold would be an understatement. Barry’s writing is really very good, so that was never the problem. I think my main issue was the alternating past and present chapters; the present held my attention while the past chapters were nothing but tedium. As others have mentioned, it’s very reminiscent of Waiting for Godot, but while Barry occasionally nailed Beckett’s madcap humor, this had none of the pathos.

You can pick up a copy of Night Boat to Tangier here on Book Depository.


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VAMPIRE ACADEMY by Richelle Mead
★★★★☆
date read: December 15, 2019
Razorbill, 2007

I had to read this for a work assignment, and while it’s not something I ordinarily would have reached for, you know what? I really didn’t hate it. For what it is, I think it succeeds: it’s gripping, has one of the best and most complex female friendships I’ve ever read in YA, has a surprisingly progressive focus on mental health, and is framed in a really unique way (it uses The Chosen One trope but tells the story from the pov of The Chosen One’s friend, who happens to be an infinitely more interesting character). The unrepentant slut-shaming is its most egregious offense, and what dates it the most (I’d find its regressive attitudes toward female sexuality more disturbing had it been published in 2019, but for over a decade ago, it’s less surprising). But all in all, a fun, mostly harmless read; I may even reach for the sequel if I get bored.

You can pick up a copy of Vampire Academy here on Book Depository.


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THE MARQUISE OF O– by Heinrich von Kleist
★★☆☆☆
date read: December 20, 2019
Pushkin Press, January 7, 2020
originally published 1808

[sexual assault tw] It’s a challenge to discuss this book (originally published in 1808) in any kind of measured way in 2019 and not sound like a sociopath. Through a contemporary lens, its premise is unarguably disgusting: a widow finds herself pregnant, having been raped while she’s unconscious, and puts a notice in the paper saying that she’s willing to marry any man who comes forward as the father. If you can’t stomach this on principle (and you would certainly be forgiven), stay far away. I do try my best to engage with classics on their own terms and I must admit this one leaves me somewhat baffled. While I found this to actually be curiously engaging, I’m ultimately unsure of what Kleist was trying to say with it and I must concede that this probably was not the best place to start with this author with only the translator’s brief introduction for context.

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

You can pick up a copy of The Marquise of O– here on Book Depository.


Have you guys read any of these, and what did you think? Feel free to comment if you’d like to discuss anything in more detail.