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.

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: 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: Three Plays by Lisa B. Thompson

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UNDERGROUND, MONROE, & THE MAMALOGUES: THREE PLAYS by Lisa B. Thompson
★★★★☆
Northwestern University Press, August 15, 2020

 

This is a brilliant collection of three plays from scholar and playwright Lisa B. Thompson, each of which navigates issues of racism and trauma as they particularly pertain to the Black middle class.  Each play is distinct both in style and subject, but all thematically cohere into a sharp, savvy collection that makes for fantastic reading, though I imagine seeing any of these come to life on the stage with the right actors would be an even more entrancing experience.

Underground – 5 stars

Originally performed in 2017, Underground is the standout play from this collection, which focuses on the tension between two friends, two middle-aged, middle class Black men who had both been activists for the Black Panther movement, but who have drifted apart in life and in ideologies.  This play is razor-sharp and startlingly prescient; reading it amid the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement was a rather humbling experience, to be reminded so starkly that the movement’s catalysts have been decades, centuries in the making.  This exchange in particular drove home a relevant piece of discourse that’s been in the news a lot lately:

MASON: Wait. This is not just sensational journalism. They are out here bombing shit, man.
KYLE: Things. Not people. Statues of long dead white men can’t die again.

Monroe – 5 stars

Set in 1940s Lousiana, Monroe follows the impact of a lynching on a small-town community, including one young woman, the victim’s sister, who believes herself to be pregnant like the Virgin Mary.  Monroe has a sort of mystical, fable-like quality to it which makes it stand apart from the other two plays in this collection, but it’s all the more resonant for its examination of the timelessness of anti-Black violence in America.

The Mamalogues – 2 stars

This one’s tricky, because here’s the thing; I was never going to like this play.  I don’t like books (and films, and plays, and stories, more broadly) about motherhood and that’s what this is.  Three Black middle class single mothers compare their lived experiences in this sort of vignette-style play.  When you’re already disinterested in motherhood as a theme and there’s no actual narrative to sustain the play, it’s not fun reading.  But that criticism is very much on me so I won’t hold it against this collection too much.  Lisa B. Thompson is a brilliant writer and this is worth the price of admission for the first two plays alone.

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

book review: Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

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TENDER IS THE FLESH by Agustina Bazterrica
translated by Sarah Moses
★★★★★
Scribner, August 4, 2020

 

Effectively an anti-factory farming polemic satirized to its shocking, inevitable conclusion, Tender Is the Flesh is a horrifying and grotesque piece of work.  Translated from the Spanish brilliantly by Sarah Moses, it tells the story of a man named Marcos who recently lost his son to a cot death and is estranged from his wife as a result.  Marcos works at a local processing plant – but instead of cattle, the plant farms and slaughters humans, following a virus which infected all non-human animals, rendering their meat unsafe to eat.  But these people are no longer referred to as humans; so desensitized is everyone to their new dietary reality.

This book made me feel physically ill every time I picked it up, but I found it equally hard to put it down.  I’ve been a vegetarian for most of my life, primarily in protest against factory farming, so it’s safe to say that this novel’s central conceit resonated strongly enough to compel me to keep reading, but it would be reductive to say that condemning the meat industry is the only thing Bazterrica is doing here.  This book focuses equally on the question of what it means to be human (I can’t get a sort of half-baked Never Let Me Go comparison out of my head, even if the similarities truly do end there – but there’s a reason that’s my favorite book; it’s a theme that I find endlessly fascinating to wrestle with) and the ways in which we allow our personal ethics to be shaped by those in positions of power.

It’s not a flawless book – I think the (air-tight) worldbuilding occasionally overpowers the character-driven part of the novel, which I was honestly fine with until something happened that made me wish the character development hadn’t been quite so withheld from the reader, so I initially rated this 4 stars when I finished, but on second thought, I think this book will be seared into my brain forever, and I have nothing but respect and admiration for what Bazterrica has achieved here.

This is not an easy book to recommend, and I cannot emphasize just how strong of a stomach you need to make it through this, but, somewhat perversely, it’s not a hard book to love.  I’d say it’s probably the single most disturbing thing I have ever read (A Clockwork Orange has been dethroned at last), but that is in no way a criticism.

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


You can pick up a copy of Tender is the Flesh (already published in the UK) here on Book Depository.

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 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: If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

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IF I HAD YOUR FACE by Frances Cha
★★★★☆
Ballantine, April 21, 2020

 

If I Had Your Face is a searing debut that follows five young women living in the fringes of South Korean society, each struggling to make a living for themselves.  Few books that claim to tackle misogyny are as successfully unrelenting as this one is; it’s a bleak read, but also a beautiful one. This seems to be pitched as a book about the Korean beauty industry, which it is and it isn’t; plastic surgery and makeup mostly litter the background of a couple of the narratives, as Cha focuses instead on the women who are actively harmed by cruel and unrealistic beauty standards.

This book’s main asset has to be the characters: it’s also been a while since I’ve read anything with characters this convincing.  Of the five protagonists, four of them alternate first person point-of-view chapters, and each of their voices is so distinctive I never had trouble remembering whose head I was inhabiting, which tends to be a common pitfall of similarly structured fiction.

Narratively, this falls a bit short; it wraps up rather quickly and at the point where it ends, you feel like it could keep going for at least another 150 pages.  One of the characters’ arcs felt unfinished to me.  And a few of the book’s key events feel rushed, even before the end.  But despite that, my impression of this book is largely favorable.  I don’t think I’ll forget this in a hurry, and I can’t wait for whatever Frances Cha does next.

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


You can pre-order a copy of If I Had Your Face here on Book Depository.

book review: Cleanness by Garth Greenwell

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CLEANNESS by Garth Greenwell
★★★★☆
FSG, January 14, 2020

 

Cleanness is a sparse and melancholic novel about an American man living in Bulgaria.  His sexual encounters with other men – some of these encounters loving, some purely transactional – mostly take center stage in this story that unfolds across nine vignettes, in which the narrator reflects on the time he’s spent living and teaching in Sofia.

Greenwell’s linguistic prowess is this book’s greatest strength; I think On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is an obvious enough comparison, though they vary in subject matter – but these are the kind of novels that won’t appeal to anyone who grows weary of lyrical prose and introspection, who instead need a diverting plot or a strong attachment to characters.  (I have to wonder if I’m becoming such a reader, because my only qualm with this book was a certain lack of narrative cohesion that seemed to be beside the point entirely.)  But the writing is worth the price of admission alone:

“But none of this was right, I rejected the phrases even as they formed, not just because they were objectionable in themselves but because none of them answered his real fear, which was true, I thought: that we can never be sure of what we want, I mean of the authenticity of it, of its purity in relation to ourselves.”

The narrative mostly centers on the protagonist’s relationship with a man he calls R. – his ideal, pure image of R. in stark contrast to the degrading sex he seeks from other men after his relationship with R. crumbles.  This tension between cleanness and toxicity underscores his interactions, and the alienation he feels as he grapples with shame and desire can be acutely felt.  Cleanness is a challenging, sexually explicit book that isn’t going to be for everyone, but I found it fascinating for its insight and the prolonged sort of aching sadness it sustains.

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


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

book review: Valerie by Sara Stridsberg

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VALERIE (or THE FACULTY OF DREAMS) by Sara Stridsberg
translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner
★☆☆☆☆
FSG, August 2019

 

When you read a quote unquote highbrow book, the impulse (at least for me) is usually to try to write a quote unquote highbrow review.  Because there isn’t much dignity in reading an intelligent book like Valerie (published as The Faculty of Dreams in the UK) and dismissing it with pedestrian critique, but whatever, I’m going to do it anyway.  I found this both boring and deeply annoying.

I can never really figure out what I want from novels which fictionalize the lives of real people.  Because my impulse is to lean more toward more factual, biography-style novels (see: Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault), but then it’s almost like… why don’t I just read a biography of that person?  Why am I even reading a novel if I’m so opposed to creative liberties?  But I have also been known to enjoy more abstract fictionalizations (see: An Imaginary Life by David Malouf) which take a real life person and imagine, fictionalize, or dramatize details of their life, so it’s not something I’m inherently opposed to. Valerie falls into the latter category to an extreme.  Sara Stridsberg in her forward admits that this is not an attempt to recreate the details of Valerie Solanas’s life; it’s more of a ‘literary fantasy’ where she loosely spins together fragments of Valerie’s life and ideologies, while deliberately skewing facts (changing Valerie’s birthplace from Ventnor to Ventor; moving it from New Jersey to a desert in Georgia).  It just… didn’t work for me.

This is a book of ideas with nothing to ground them; the narrative threads are too few and far between for me to have anything to really grasp onto.  I didn’t understand for the longest time why Stridsberg was bothering to disguise this fragmented, meandering, awkward novel as the story of Valerie Solanas, and while I did feel like that question was eventually answered, it was too little too late for me.  I read this entire book thinking ‘I don’t care, I should probably care, why don’t I care, does the author care at all about how disengaged I am?’

But I do feel the need to remind everyone that I use the star rating system subjectively and I use my reviews to explain why I react to books in a certain way; I don’t think this is a ‘bad book’ and I would dissuade no one who’s interested in it from giving it a shot.  It just did nothing for me.  Though the US cover is one of the prettiest I’ve seen in a while, so there’s that.

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


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