book review: On Swift Horses by Shannon Pufahl

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ON SWIFT HORSES by Shannon Pufahl
★☆☆☆☆
Riverhead, 2019

 

On Swift Horses is a book that seemed like it was going to be tailor-made for me; queer historical fiction and horses are two things I’m always drawn to.  But this unfortunately ended up being a slog, to the point where I forced myself to read the last 200 pages in one sitting because I never wanted to pick this up once I put it down.  (And I would have actually DNF’d this – I know, I never DNF books, but I swear to god I would have made an exception, if I hadn’t been assigned to review this for a publication. Which didn’t end up panning out, because I hated it too much.)

Basically, this book follows two characters, Muriel and Julius – Muriel is a young newlywed who’s recently moved from Kansas to San Diego with her husband, and Julius is her gay brother-in-law – and I’m not going to say any more than that, because apparently this is one of those cases where the dust jacket gives away the entire plot.

This may seem like a weird detail to get hung up on, but to me, this book’s most egregious offense was the author’s decision to write it in the present tense, especially given that she didn’t show much aptitude for it.  I felt like I was being forcibly dragged by the author from one sentence to the next.  Imagine looking at a painting with your nose pressed up against the canvas.  It’s a suffocating view.

I just felt like this book was trying so hard to come across as Literary and Important, and this forced ‘lyrical’ writing style came at the expense of… literally everything else.  Plot, character development, setting.  You may have noticed the incredibly bland words I used to describe Muriel and Julius up above – ‘newlywed,’ ‘gay’ – but I’m afraid that after hundreds of pages I still do not know a single thing about either of these people’s personalities.  I know what they want from life, I guess, but each of their characters felt so clumsily crafted that there was never really anything to latch onto.  I don’t know a single thing about these characters or this narrative that I hadn’t gleaned from the summary.  What a terrific waste of time.

book review: No One is Too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg

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NO ONE IS TOO SMALL TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE by Greta Thunberg
★★★☆☆
Penguin, 2019

 

How you feel about this book is entirely going to depend on what you’re expecting to get out of it.  This is not a scientific text, nor is it an in-depth exploration of possible solutions to climate change.  This is a rallying cry; a wake-up call to anyone who isn’t paying attention to the catastrophic state our planet is in.  If you’re familiar with Greta Thunberg from the news or social media, you’ll pretty much know what to expect from this, and it does deliver.

That said, my god did the repetition in this short book start to grate.  It actually rather irritates me how poorly curated this essay collection is; the impact of Thunberg’s words starts to neuter itself the further you read, by no fault of her own but because the editor saw fit to include near-identical speeches back-to-back on several occasions.


You can pick up a copy of No One is Too Small to Make a Difference here on Book Depository.

book review: In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado

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IN THE DREAM HOUSE by Carmen Maria Machado
★★★★★
Graywolf, November 2019

 

I finished In the Dream House a few weeks ago but I haven’t found myself able to rise to the challenge of reviewing this book.  It’s one of the best things I’ve read all year; one of the best memoirs I’ve read ever.  My instinct is to say that this book won’t be for everyone due to its highly inventive structure, but where I find that literary invention tends to be alienating, Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir is so fiercely personal that I doubt anyone could accuse it of being emotionally removed.

In the Dream House tells the story of an abusive relationship that Machado was in with another woman in her 20s; she draws the reader into the alarming reality that she lived for years, with just enough of the abuse detailed that it avoids gratuity while still becoming a sickening, terrifying read, oddly reminiscent of an old-fashioned horror film.  This book is written in first and second person, with present-day Carmen speaking to past-Carmen, allowing her to display a vulnerability to the reader that can be hard to achieve in even the most open of memoirs.

Machado is very conscious of the fact that she’s written a singular, pioneering text; there’s commentary woven throughout the narrative about how woefully under-researched the subject of abuse in queer female relationships is.  In contrast with the cultural misconception that women cannot abuse each other, she integrates references to myth, literature, history, and scholarship into her own story, heightening the timelessness, the commonality of her own horrifying experiences.

This is a chilling, clear-eyed, conceptually brilliant text that I sincerely hope reaches the readers who need it the most. Highly recommended.

Thank you to Graywolf for the comp copy; this did not impact my rating in any way.


You can pick up a copy of In the Dream House here on Book Depository.

book review: The Whisper Man by Alex North

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THE WHISPER MAN by Alex North
★★☆☆☆
Celadon Books, 2019

 

All I really look for when picking out a thriller is an intriguing premise, and The Whisper Man absolutely had that covered: 20 years ago in a small English town, a series of murders occurred where a man would lure little boys outside by whispering at their windows, hold them captive for a brief period, and then kill them. The culprit was caught with damning evidence, but now, 20 years later, a series of murders is starting up that bear a startling resemblance to those committed by ‘The Whisper Man,’ who is still incarcerated.

I think there are two types of successful thrillers: one where the delight comes from the reader feeling involved in the whodunnit, where there are so many potential suspects you’re bound to be wrong no matter who you guess; and one where guessing the identity of the murderer isn’t really the point, but there are still so many twists and turns that you enjoy the ride anyway. The Whisper Man manages to fall in neither category. This neither had a thrilling murderer reveal, nor much momentum on the way there. Instead it hinges on family dynamics and the theme of fatherhood, which I suppose is done well, though it appears to have been at the detriment of… literally everything else.

I’ve seen others describe this book as creepy, scary, etc., and I have to wonder if I just missed something. Aside from a few moments that hinted at the possibility of something paranormal at play, I just found the atmosphere in this book conspicuously absent. In fact, the whole book felt muted, like it was being held back from achieving the real dread or terror that it was obviously striving for. The plot was likewise uninspired and straightforward; I’m just not sure what this book’s hook was supposed to be, once the promising exposition is out of the way. We just sort of amble through a rather aimless narrative about serial killers and creepy children – it’s like Alex North put a bunch of horror tropes into a blender and mixed them until they lost their flavor. There was just nothing unique or potent or memorable about this book.

Contrary to everything I’ve just written, I might recommend this to readers who are new-ish to thrillers (I will concede that a few of my ‘that was so obvious’ moments come from too much familiarity with the genre) but my overwhelming feeling about this book is one of anticlimax. If you’re looking for a safe, tame option in the genre, give it a shot; if you need something a bit more dark and twisted, definitely keep looking.


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

book review: Lanny by Max Porter

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LANNY by Max Porter
★★★☆☆
Graywolf Press, 2019

 

This pretty much did nothing for me, but I am inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt as I recognize that I’m in the minority here.  I think I may not quite ‘get’ Max Porter, because I felt similarly about Grief is the Thing with Feathers: I appreciated it from a technical standpoint, but I found it utterly devoid of emotionality, which seems a silly thing to say about a pair of books that are about such heavy topics, and which have touched so many other readers, but I just find his writing technically brilliant and at the same time, curiously unaffecting.

What I admired: Again – Porter’s writing is lyrical and assured.  I think his descriptive imagery is gorgeous and evocative, and his portrait of small town England was beautifully rendered.  And the part of Lanny that did really work for me was the second section, where Lanny goes missing and his search is narrated by a chorus of characters in the town – it’s frantic, tense, and kept me turning pages in a way that I didn’t get from the first or third sections.

What I didn’t: Dead Papa Toothwort dragged this down for me, as I knew he would.  I’ve said it so many times I know you all must be getting tired of it, but I don’t like magical realism; I just find that it obfuscates more often than it augments a text.  I ultimately just didn’t see the point of this book.  I think Porter ruminates on a lot of interesting themes while never really driving any of them home – instead opting for this sort of half-baked mythical angle.

There was a point toward the end where I thought this book was going to ultimately go in a much more sinister direction, which I would have found more thought-provoking and hard-hitting, but the cloyingly sentimental resolution unfortunately made this a rather forgettable read for me.  I didn’t hate it, and there were times I was gripped by it, but this was just not my kind of book. A solid 2.5.


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

book review: The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

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THE DRAGON REPUBLIC by R.F. Kuang
(The Poppy War #2)
★★★☆☆
Harper Voyager, August 6, 2019

 

I was never going to love The Dragon Republic as much as The Poppy War, so let’s get that out of the way; The Poppy War is a book of two halves, and I preferred the first. However, it was still a 5 star read for me (review here), and with Kuang’s assertions on Twitter that The Dragon Republic was an objectively superior book, I was still cautiously optimistic about the sequel. And I didn’t hate it, but I’m disappointed.

Pacing is an issue in both of these books; in The Poppy War, things happen too fast; it feels like two books crammed into one. But I really didn’t mind that – I read a lot of literary fiction, so when I venture into genre fiction it’s with entirely different expectations and needs to be met – I like a bit of nonstop action in my fantasy as long as it doesn’t get too overwhelming, which I don’t think it did. But with The Dragon Republic the issue is the exact opposite. Nothing – and I cannot stress this enough – happens for the first three quarters of this book. Where The Poppy War feels like two books for the price of one, The Dragon Republic feels like a novella stretched out thin across 500 pages. Things of course do happen, technically, but there is so much filler. Stakes feel low (a problem that The Poppy War certainly did not have), because for the major part of this book, it feels like you’re spinning your wheels and still waiting for the main players to enter the ring.

But let’s talk about what I did like: the characters and the setting are some of my favorites from any fantasy series that I have ever read. The returning characters are as complex, endearing, and frustrating as ever, and the new characters shine as well – Vaisra in particular is a brilliant creation. And if The Dragon Republic has one thing that’s superior to The Poppy War, it’s the world building and the magic system, which is infinitely more fleshed out here with some truly fascinating developments.

It took me three months to read this, but I want to stress that every time I did pick it up, I enjoyed it. The issue is that I just seldom reached for it. I really hope this is just second book syndrome, and I do think one thing that Kuang was able to achieve with this book was laying a really solid foundation for whatever is to come next (and with that ending, I can promise you that the third book is going to destroy me). But even though I would still recommend this series wholeheartedly, this just wasn’t as good as The Poppy War, much as it pains me to say it.

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


You can pick up a copy of The Poppy War here on Book Depository, and The Dragon Republic here.

book review: Lock Every Door by Riley Sager

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LOCK EVERY DOOR by Riley Sager
★★★★☆
Dutton, July 2019

 

I can’t think of another contemporary thriller writer that does the page-turner as well as Riley Sager, and here he’s come up with yet another brilliant premise: a young woman answers an ad to be an apartment sitter in a swanky building in the Upper West Side – and she’s being paid $12,000 to do it, so what’s the catch? (I think the less you know going into this book the better, so I’ll just leave it there.) I imagine that Lock Every Door‘s pace will be the main drawback for some – our protagonist Jules does play amateur detective to no avail for about half the book – but with the way Sager writes, she probably could have been playing a game of chess and I’d have been equally as thrilled.

And no spoilers, but I loved that ending. I imagine it’s also going to divide opinions, as it’s not the most… conventional thriller resolution, but I thought it hit that perfect sweet spot of ‘I really should have thought of that, but I never would have thought of that.’ In my opinion this isn’t as strong as Sager’s debut Final Girls (which is pretty hard to beat), but I liked it a lot better than his follow-up effort The Last Time I Lied. I found Lock Every Door to be creepier and more original, and its protagonist more convincing. I do think Final Girls and The Last Time I Lied are more traditional crowd-pleasers, so maybe stick to one of those for an introduction to Sager, but I loved this; this is the most fun I’ve had with a thriller in ages.


You can pick up a copy of Lock Every Door here on Book Depository.

book review: Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer

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ROUGH MAGIC: RIDING THE WORLD’S LONELIEST HORSE RACE by Lara Prior-Palmer
★★★★★
Catapult, 2019

 

Rough Magic is a coming of age story, an interrogation of naked ambition, and a self-conscious meditation on English colonialism, all wrapped up in a thrilling tale of a 19-year-old girl entering and winning the most difficult horse race in the world. Lara Prior-Palmer’s underdog story couldn’t have been any more pitch-perfect if it were scripted: she entered the Mongol Derby on a complete whim, underestimated its difficulty, was dismissed by the other competitors early on, but still rallied to become the first woman to win the race and the youngest person ever to finish. But it’s far from the conventional sports memoir, as winning is never really the point, or even the goal, for Lara, whose motivation for entering the race is hazy even to herself.

This book’s greatest strength is something that often irritates me in memoirs: that Lara doesn’t have much distance from the experience she’s writing about (she won the race in 2013, her memoir was published in 2019). Had she waited 15 or 20 years to tell this story, it could have been more polished, more articulate, but that sophistication would have come at the detriment of its charm, its passion, its frenetic energy. Perhaps the most successful thing about this book is that due to her lack of emotional distance from it, Lara doesn’t place her own character development front and center; instead she takes us through the race step by agonizing step, showing us rather than telling us about the physical and psychological toll it was taking. This entire memoir cleverly circles the question ‘is naked ambition in and of itself a virtue or a vice?’ (a character trait she sees reflected in her main competitor, Devan) – and the few moments where Lara zeroes in on it have the emotional punch they’ve earned.

“Our pace slowed. I began imagining Clare and Kirsten catching us. Nothing is swift as thought—I felt it jumping through me. But riding in a big group just wasn’t efficient. It was a simple thought, and when it came, I knew the race had me.”

And then, shortly after:

“What if I wanted to win for myself, without wanting to beat Devan or please Charles or any other audience? It’s a lonely thought; I wish I were strong enough for it.”

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Photo credit: Richard Dunwoody

All that said, this book isn’t the easiest to settle into; Lara Prior-Palmer’s prose is almost a perfect reflection of her flighty, restless nature – she jumps from one thought to another with no preamble, she constructs an elaborate metaphor unnecessarily and follows it a bit too long. But there were also lines that I adored, that I found especially resonant (more than enough to compensate for the more awkward passages), like:

“I’m just so used to swallowing myself as I speak that I can’t help seeing self-assuredness as indulgent.”

So while I don’t think this was a perfect book (not that anything is a perfect book), I do think it was a really special one that I enjoyed reading immensely, that filled me with anxiety and excitement in equal measure. Lara Prior-Palmer is a fascinating, sympathetic, strong and vulnerable person who doesn’t spare herself for a second on the page, making this story as personal as it is informative about the Mongol Derby. I’d highly recommend Rough Magic if you like horses, coming of age stories, underdogs, memoirs about young women, or any combination of the above.


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

book review: Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler

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STUBBORN ARCHIVIST by Yara Rodrigues Fowler
★★★★☆
Mariner Books, July 16, 2019

 

Stubborn Archivist is the sort of book that manages to feel both brilliant and incomplete – that’s the impression that I’m left with upon finishing it. Debut novelist Yara Rodrigues Fowler comes out of the gate strong with this book, which is an offbeat piece of auto-fiction that blends poetry and prose (think Eimear McBride, but more accessible) to tell the story of a young British-Brazilian woman growing up in South London.

This is one of the more ‘fresh’ and stylistically interesting things I’ve read in while; its challenge of structure feels authentic rather than arbitrary and the overall effect serves to put you in the head of the nameless protagonist. The one theme that is executed to perfection in this book is the exploration of what it’s like to grow up between two cultures, which Rodrigues Fowler portrays with heart-rending authenticity on both micro- and macro-cosmic levels.

But I do wonder if Rodrigues Fowler was maybe a bit too ambitious; there were a number of other themes that were introduced without ample exploration (and it’s to her credit that I do have to wonder if this was the point – after all, what woman in her early 20s has sex and sexuality completely figured out; but there were still a few scenes whose inclusion I do have to wonder at). I also was less enamored with the passages that left our protagonist and focused on her parents and her aunt; I think the idea was to give a more complete picture of this family’s history, but again, I don’t think these scenes were developed as well as they could have been in order to justify their inclusion.

Ultimately though I did think this was an incredibly striking debut. Highly recommended to anyone who enjoys ‘millennial fiction’ and contemporary literary fiction that features young women trying to find their place in the world.

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


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

book review: Constellations by Sinéad Gleeson

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CONSTELLATIONS by Sinéad Gleeson
★★★★★
Picador Books, April 2019 (UK)

 

Constellations is the debut memoirist essay collection by noted Irish arts critic Sinéad Gleeson, and it’s a collection that appears to have been years in the making. It’s unsurprising then that the result is as masterful as it is – I inhaled this utterly marvelous book in one day and could not stop thinking about it after I finished.

Gleeson puts her own body at the front and center of these essays; she writes of hip replacements, leukemia, arthritis, and childbirth, deftly tying in her own stories with broader observations about the politicization of women’s bodies. These essays are at their best when they’re the most personal, I think, because Gleeson has the remarkable ability to express vulnerability without self-pity, but there isn’t a single essay in this collection that isn’t in its own way thought-provoking and memorable.

This is perfect for fans of Maggie O’Farrell’s I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes With Death, though I consider Constellations to be (perhaps ironically) more thematically coherent. ‘Blue Hills and Chalk Bones’ opens the collection with a story about a school trip to France and coming to terms with her body’s limitations, a moving opening that segues into the more widely accessible ‘Hair,’ which interrogates the relationship between hair and identity. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that captures the utter senselessness and cruelty of death better than ‘Our Mutual Friend,’ far and away the collection’s standout, but even though that emotional crescendo comes early, the essays that follow continue to hold their own and deliver the occasional gut-punch while meditating on themes of illness, death, motherhood, and the interplay between art and health.

All said, this collection is essentially a reminder of the importance of bodily autonomy (which Gleeson fights for most ardently in her essay in which she reflects on Ireland’s notoriously harsh abortion policies). But despite the relentlessly heavy subject matter, this is the kind of book that you feel lighter having read, because it isn’t weighed down by the kind of hopelessness and despair that Gleeson has been fighting through ever since her first health diagnosis. As a self-proclaimed lover of all things macabre I tend to shudder at the word ‘uplifting’ so I’m trying to avoid using it, but suffice to say that this is a beautiful book that works through a number of difficult subjects to a consequential and impactful end. Read it.


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