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

39866294

 

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.

Advertisements

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

42179785

 

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

42388020

 

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

40718353

 

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.

book review: Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton

42868415

 

REMEMBERED by Yvonne Battle-Felton
★★☆☆☆
Dialogue Books, 2019 (UK)

 

Well that was… underwhelming. I had been saving this book for last in my Women’s Prize longlist read through, hoping to end the list on a high, but that sure didn’t go as planned. To be honest I don’t even have a great reason for disliking Remembered as much as I did, because objectively, I think this book is perfectly fine, it’s just… not much more than that.

I have to first express my annoyance at this book’s marketing, which I’m certainly not holding against Yvonne Battle-Felton, but it was frustrating nonetheless to be expecting a book about 1910 Philadelphia and ending up with a book about US Civil War era slavery, which isn’t even mentioned in any professional summaries that I’ve read of this book. What begins as a story about an African American man driving a streetcar into a shop window quickly devolves into an extended flashback of the family’s history, and though we return briefly to 1910 a few times, that narrative thread is only really picked back up in the last 5 pages. So, just know what exactly you’re signing up for.

But the fact that this book ended up being about slavery isn’t the problem, at all, it’s just that the execution comes up short of what it’s trying to achieve. At a slim 288 pages, this book is lacking the heft needed to successfully pull off the multi-generational family saga formula. The flashbacks just zip along without landing on any kind of emotional resonance, and the newer generation’s narrative doesn’t really thematically dovetail into the backstory beyond a very bare-bones parallel. Everything about this was disjointed and poorly paced, and I didn’t find myself emotionally affected by any of it in the way I arguably should have. So while this wasn’t a great note to end on, Women’s Prize-wise, it did end up being emblematic of a large part of this list for me: a brilliant set-up whose execution felt more like a first draft than a finished novel.


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

book review: Lie With Me by Philippe Besson

40539136

 

LIE WITH ME by Philippe Besson
translated by Molly Ringwald
★★★★☆
Scribner, April 30, 2019

 

Lie With Me felt to me like a cross between Call Me By Your Name and Tin Man, but stronger and less heady than the former, and more bitter and perhaps more ambitious than the latter. Translated beautifully from the French by Molly Ringwald (yes, that Molly Ringwald), Lie With Me tells the story of a love affair between two teenage boys in 1984 rural France, narrated years later by Philippe with the kind of mature perception that only time can bring.

Nothing about this story is new; homophobia, class disparity, and shame all chart the course for this short novel, whose inherent tragedy makes itself apparent to the reader in an exchange between Philippe and Thomas, the latter of whom lays their dynamic out plainly the very first time they speak (“you will leave and we will stay”) – but it felt immeasurably fresh nonetheless. Probably most interesting is the sharp contrast between Philippe, whose candid narration reads as more of a confession than a monologue, and Thomas, who remains largely unknown except for the parts of himself that he allows Philippe to see. The character work is deceptively impressive, and Besson’s unrelenting attention to these characters’ similar and disparate vulnerabilities effectively cultivates an atmosphere of longing and regret and anxiety.

There’s something I can’t quite put my finger on that’s holding me back from the full 5 stars (maybe I should have read this in one sitting, I think that might be it), but this is a very strong 4.5, and one of the more accomplished novels that I’ve read recently. Ultimately it’s an intimate, erotic, sparse yet hard-hitting read that ends with one of the saddest sentences that I think I’ve ever read, and if that doesn’t make you want to rush out and read this 160 page book immediately, I don’t know what will.

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


You can pre-order a copy of Lie With Me here on Book Depository.

book review: The Missing Years by Lexie Elliott

40953912

 

THE MISSING YEARS by Lexie Elliott
★☆
Berkley, April 23, 2019

 

Beginning with the terrifically gothic premise, The Missing Years is an easy book to like. Ailsa Calder, a young woman living in London, finds herself inheriting half of an old Scottish manor when her mother dies. Though she initially wants nothing to do with it, she’s unable to sell it unless the joint owner agrees; the problem being that the other half belongs to her father, who disappeared without a trace twenty-seven years ago. So Ailsa moves into the manor with her half-sister, and from the very first night, she can’t shake the suspicion that something is deeply wrong with the house.

The atmosphere in this book, as I’m sure you can imagine, was pitch-perfect, and that’s really the main reason I’d recommend it. The setting of a creepy old house in the Scottish Highlands is hard to mess up, and Lexie Elliott mercifully uses it to its potential. The potentially supernatural element (is the house actually haunted?) is mostly kept ambiguous until the conclusion, which is how I prefer it when a supernatural element encroaches on a thriller; it’s always interesting to me when characters feel like they’re losing their grip on reality.

The problem with this book for me was that it was severely under-edited. This is a very slow-building mystery, which is fine, but when your book is a slow burn, you still need something to propel it forward; instead I felt like The Missing Years was just spinning its wheels for about two-hundred pages. I felt like I was slowly being driven mad by the sheer amount of repetition here – I wasn’t sure I could take another instance of Aisla anthropomorphizing the house without losing the last shred of my own sanity. I’m not kidding, there is barely a page where Aisla doesn’t reflect on the feeling that the house is watching her, which I thought was a rather ham-fisted addition to what was otherwise a fantastically rendered setting.

I still mostly enjoyed reading this, and I’d suggest picking it up if the setting appeals to you, but if you prefer your thrillers on the fast paced side, it’s probably best to skip this one.

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


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