wrap up: November 2019

  1. Cleanness by Garth Greenwell ★★★★☆ | review
  2. The Body Lies by Jo Baker ★★★★★ | review
  3. The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy ★★★★★ | review
  4. Cove by Cynan Jones ★★★★☆ | review
  5. Know My Name by Chanel Miller ★★★★★ | review
  6. Notes to Self by Emilie Pine ★★★☆☆ | review
  7. The Ruin by Dervla McTiernan ★★★★☆ | review to come

Favorite: The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy
Runner up: Know My Name by Chanel Miller
Least favorite: Notes to Self by Emilie Pine

NOVEMBER TOTAL: 8
YEARLY TOTAL: 100

Other posts from this month:

Currently reading:

Among all the other books I’ve been reading since August/September, I’ve also added Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips, and I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya (which I should have finished by now but only I could manage to drag out a 2 hour audiobook to last over a week).  Both are great so far.

What was the best book you read in November?  Comment and let me know!

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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: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

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THE COLOR PURPLE by Alice Walker
★★★★☆
Mariner Books, 2015
originally published in 1982

 

Any of the adjectives you could use to describe The Color Purple – gorgeous, moving, heart-wrenching, etc – unfortunately sound rather trite, but this book is the real deal. The Color Purple is an epistolary novel that follows the relationship between two sisters who are torn apart early in life, but who nevertheless spend a lifetime trying to communicate with one another. The protagonist Celie is married off to an abusive husband, while her sister Nettie becomes a missionary in Africa. Celie’s husband, known only as Mr. ____, hides the letters that Nettie writes to Celie, who believes for years that her sister is dead. Robbed of contact with the only person who ever loved her, Celie contents herself by writing a series of letters that she addresses ‘Dear God’.

Celie’s voice is arguably the strongest element of this novel; Walker captures the voice of a poor, uneducated woman living in the American south in the 1900s with a vibrant authenticity. Nettie’s voice is similarly convincing, though distinct; it’s filled with a similar dialect but more polished and educated – this book is a case study in how to strengthen characterization through voice. The relationship between these two sisters is the heart and soul of The Color Purple, though Celie’s relationship with God and its different manifestations over time provides the novel with one of its most salient themes that develops beautifully over time. The novel’s title comes from an exchange where Celie’s lover challenges Celie’s conception of God as a larger-than-life white man; she tells Celie that she doesn’t think of God as a person, but as an invisible force that’s inside all of us, and then remarks “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”

So while this book is relentlessly brutal, documenting rape and abuse and pervasive racism, there’s also a thread of hope that runs through it, and it’s ultimately an unexpectedly empowering tale. This book is every bit as beautiful as it is disturbing.

One last note: I don’t want to derail this review too drastically with a lengthy meditation on whether it’s possible to separate art from the artist, but suffice to say that being aware of Alice Walker’s well-documented antisemitism did impact my reading experience somewhat, and I don’t think I’ll be able to call this as all-time favorite. But still, it would be wrong to deny this book of its merits and cultural impact. I can’t judge anyone else for deciding not to pick this up out of a discomfort with Walker’s personal beliefs, but if you’re on the fence, I do think it’s well worth reading.

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

book review: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

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ON CHESIL BEACH by Ian McEwan
★★★★★
Jonathan Cape, 2007

What a quietly stunning little book. I didn’t know what to expect from On Chesil Beach, having only read and been somewhat underwhelmed by Atonement about a decade ago, but I have now officially been converted to the church of Ian McEwan. I could not believe the emotional torment he managed to put me through in the space of 200 bite-sized pages.

On Chesil Beach is an almost-love story about Florence and Edward, two young lovers on their honeymoon on the coast of England in 1962. What should be a romantic weekend quickly devolves into something much sadder as an ocean of miscommunications piles up between the two characters. Florence is asexual, though the term asexual is never used because of the time period, and the lack of access to this concept and vocabulary has led Florence to believe that she’s fundamentally broken. As she’s unable to communicate this feeling to Edward, he imbues her actions with false meanings, drawing from his understanding of social conventions to fill in the blanks – she’s shaking because she’s terrified and repulsed and ashamed, but Edward assumes she’s shaking because she’s nervous and excited, because don’t all young women act demure to mask a secret sensuality? There is no precedent for Florence falling outside this expected norm.

McEwan also ties in Florence and Edward’s story to the shifting social attitudes of the time – they’re living in a Britain which hasn’t quite normalized sexuality and celebrated youthful freedom. The two are inexperienced and unable to communicate their thoughts and feelings and desires and expectations to one another, because how do you even start a conversation about sex when it just feels like this abstract concept both to be revered and ashamed of?

I wasn’t prepared for how expansive this book was going to be – McEwan dexterously explores themes of class differences, propriety, love and sex and sexuality, all in economical prose that says so much in a book whose conflict ironically hinges on a lack of articulation on the part of both characters. And above all else this book is just bitterly sad. The final pages are like an emotional gut-punch. If McEwan managed all this in 200 pages, I can’t wait to see what he’s done in his other novels.

book review: The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

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THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 by Ruth Ware
★★☆☆☆
Gallery/Scout Press, 2016

I’m always stunned when I end up disliking a thriller this much, because I never go into them with particularly high expectations. If it can provide me with some suspense and some fun escapism for a few hours, I’m pretty easy to please. Unfortunately, The Woman in Cabin 10 slid under my relatively low bar.

This book was boring. I don’t say that a lot. I read a lot of character-driven literary fiction, and not a whole lot of what I read is terribly plot-heavy. I don’t need consistently high stakes or action packed adventure to hold my interest. But this was boring. Lo Blacklock is a travel journalist who goes on a luxury cruise, and while she’s on the boat, she believes she witnesses a murder. The majority of this book is then Lo just attempting to convince people of what she saw, and it gets old pretty fast.

This book also required a positively excessive amount of suspension of disbelief. Characters consistently did not act like real people, or else their motives, Lo’s in particular, made zero sense. An early example of this is when Lo’s long-time boyfriend, Judah, asks her to move in with him. Until this point in the book, Lo had essentially been waxing eloquent for thirty pages about how much she loves him, and then when he poses this question, she completely freaks out and they get into a fight. And there are plenty of reasons why someone wouldn’t want to move in with their partner, even if they’re in love, but are any of these reasons actually explored? Not particularly. Their argument is a pretty transparent plot device to drive a wedge into their relationship before Lo embarks on her cruise. Also, at the very beginning of this book, Lo’s apartment is burgled while she’s inside, an event that was supposedly terrifying and which had a pretty huge effect on her for the rest of the novel, but while we’re told over and over again just how traumatic and upsetting this was for Lo, I never really felt it. There’s this constant disconnect between her actions and what she’s relaying (in first person) to the reader. ‘I need to snap out of this,’ she muses frequently, without ever detailing what THIS actually is.

Anyway, back to the boat. Ruth Ware was clearly attempting an Agatha Christie-esque locked door mystery, but where she failed was the sheer amount of interchangeable characters. First of all, while there are only ten cabins, you’d think that that would limit the number of suspects to ten, right? Incorrect – there are so many crew members on this boat I couldn’t even begin to keep track of them. And even of the aforementioned ten guests, only about three of them had any sort of personality. The rest just bled together. I figured out pretty early on in this book that I wasn’t going to care about the whodunnit reveal, because these were some of the least interesting characters I have ever encountered.

There are also some pretty gargantuan leaps of logic on a fairly regular basis. For example. Lo thinks she sees a woman get thrown overboard; she tells the security guard about a woman in that room lending her some mascara earlier that day, and the security guard and Lo both conclude that the ONLY possible person who could have been thrown overboard is that particular woman – he doesn’t even bother taking inventory of all the passengers and crew members?? In what universe does this make sense??

It finally, finally picked up toward the end – even though there weirdly was not much of a climax to this book, the final five or six chapters do provide a bit of long-overdue excitement. But by this point I really didn’t care what happened either way.

But my biggest problem with The Woman in Cabin 10 was actually its treatment of mental illness, which, interestingly, I’ve seen praised by a lot of reviewers. And look, I get it. I think this book thinks it’s conveying a pro-medication message, and it’s easy to be distracted by its good intentions and not examine just how offensive these words actually are. (For the record, I have been taking anxiety medication for over five years, which I’m only disclosing to let you guys know that this is something I care a lot about on a personal level as well as an academic one.)

“There’s no reason, on paper at least, why I need these pills to get through life. I had a great childhood, loving parents, the whole package. I wasn’t beaten, abused, or expected to get nothing by As. I had nothing but love and support, but that wasn’t enough somehow.”

I’m tired of even well-meaning narratives feeding into this idea that depression needs to be justified. You’re allowed to be depressed without having had a shitty childhood. And yes, you could argue that that’s exactly what Ruth Ware is saying here, but this entire book bends over backwards to remind us how normal Lo is, and isn’t it weird how someone so normalneeds to take medication?? Sorry, but if her intention is to normalize medication, she’s failing miserably. I felt condescended to by the fact that every time meds were brought up in this book, there was this aura of othernessabout them – in fact, early on in this book, we find out that Lo is taking medication for something, but we don’t know what, and it isn’t until her sanity is being called into question that another character reveals (in hushed tones, of course) that Lo is taking meds for… dun dun dun… depression. Is it too much to ask that a character can just take depression or anxiety medication without there being a whole song and dance about it??

“Cognitive behavioral therapy, counseling, psychotherapy – none of it really worked in the way that the pills did. Lissie says she finds the notion of chemically rebalancing your mood scary, she says it’s the idea idea of taking something that could alter how she really is. But I don’t see it that way; for me it’s like wearing makeup – not a disguise, but a way of making myself more how I really am, less raw. The best me I can be.”

And then there’s this. Where do I even begin with this. Wearing makeup isn’t empowering or feminist. There is a social and historical precedent that women are expected to wear makeup in order to be taken seriously, in order to succeed at our careers that should have nothing at all to do with appearance. It’s one thing to enjoy wearing makeup on an individual level, but it’s important to acknowledge just how messed up it is that women are fed this idea from an early age that we aren’t our best selves until we paint our faces on. (I don’t want to derail this review too badly, so here is a great article that goes into this in more depth. And this tumblr post, while brief, pretty much sums up my feelings exactly.)

And look, I don’t care if this character likes wearing mascara. But Ruth Ware drawing a comparison between makeup (an artificial standard of beauty that forces unhealthy expectations onto young women) and medication (something that actually saves lives) is offensive, and counterproductive to whatever point she was trying to make. You’re really going to try to frame your narrative as progressive by asserting that it’s okay to take medication for mental illness, and in that same breath feed into this false makeup = empowerment narrative?

Basically, this book dropped every ball it was trying to juggle. The plot was weak, the characters were weaker, and the treatment of Lo’s mental illness would have been laughable if I weren’t so offended by it. The only reason this is getting 2 stars instead of 1 is that 1-star books require a certain passionate hatred that this book didn’t inspire in me. It mostly held my interest and offered a few surprises, but on the whole I just wanted it to end.

book (play script) review: A Skull in Connemara by Martin McDonagh

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A SKULL IN CONNEMARA by Martin McDonagh
★★★☆☆
Heinemann, 1997

 

A Skull in Connemara is playwright-director Martin McDonagh’s second play in his Leenane trilogy – three unrelated plays set in the same Irish village. It follows Mick Dowd, who each year disinters bones from the local cemetery to make way for new arrivals. When he’s forced to dig up the remains of his late wife, questions arise about his possible involvement in her death.

What I enjoyed about A Skull in Connemara is exactly what I enjoy about all of McDonagh’s plays: morally corrupt characters, the banality of small-town life highlighted with humor and irony, morbid humor, razor sharp dialogue. I mean:

MAIRTIN: What kind of questions, Mary beag?
MARY: Questions about where did he put our Padraig when he dug him up is the kind of question, and where did he put our Bridgit when he dug her up is the kind of question, and where did he put my poor ma and da when he dug them up is the biggest question!
MAIRTIN: Where did you put all Mary’s relations, Mick, then, now? The oul bones and the whatnot.

That’s pretty great.

Anyway, this isn’t one of McDonagh’s stronger stories. His characters aren’t as well-developed as usual – the relationships between them and their motivations remain hazy, and the result is that I’m just not as invested as I’d like to be. In typical McDonagh fashion, his characters are all distinct and wacky, but none here are as memorable as Katurian from The Pillowman or Padriac from The Lieutenant of Inishmore.

Maybe the right cast and the right production could breathe some life into this. I enjoyed reading it well enough, it was an entertaining enough way to spend an hour, and the final scene was definitely thought-provoking, but there was a certain lack of gravitas that McDonagh usually is able to incorporate into his black comedies. The biggest problem here is that the stakes in this play are low and they feel low, and I know McDonagh can do better.

book review: The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

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THE IMMORTALISTS by Chloe Benjamin
★★★☆☆
Putnam, January 9, 2018

 

I’m so conflicted about The Immortalists. On the one hand, it was compulsively readable and at times rather hard-hitting, and on the other, I found the effort as a whole rather trite. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t particularly striking or memorable.

In the novel’s prologue, in 1969 New York, the Gold siblings – Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon – visit a Romani fortune teller, who tells each of them the date they’re going to die. The Immortalists is told in four sections, one for each of the siblings, and one by one, we see a snapshot of each of their lives, ending in each of their deaths.

It’s a chilling and intriguing premise, but Chloe Benjamin doesn’t really do a whole lot with it. My problem with this book is that it was just so… obvious? Imagine you’re told beyond a shadow of a doubt that you’re going to die young. You’ll probably shape your life decisions around the short-term, and live in the present, and these are the very careless actions that will probably end your life. This is the premise of the book, and each of the Gold siblings’ fates unfolds in a similarly straightforward manner. I really wanted something more, I wanted Benjamin to dig in a bit further, to explore this theme from a less obvious vantage point. But I ultimately didn’t get much more out of this book than if I’d stuck to reading its summary.

As a whole, the four sections are rather well balanced. I think everyone is going to have a preference for which sibling’s story they prefer, but each is similarly well-researched, and I don’t think there’s a clear objective frontrunner, or one that’s notably weaker than the others, which is a good thing for a novel of this format. Unfortunately I did find that each of the sections suffered from the same issues – unclear timeline, emotionally manipulative plot points, the role of certain characters being ridiculously contrived (notably Eddie).

Though this book is relentlessly depressing, the only part I found viscerally difficult to read was Varya’s section, and the descriptions of the experiments Varya’s lab conducts on primates. Though it was a comparatively small part of the book (if each of the siblings’ sections comprises 25% of the book, the plight of Frida the monkey is only about 25% of that 25%), I found myself so upset by this one scene that I almost regretted reading this book at all. Thankfully Chloe Benjamin acknowledges her passion for the welfare of primates who have been used for lab research in her afterward, but animal lovers, approach this section with caution.

I have no doubt that many others will love this book, but I can’t help but to be somewhat underwhelmed. One last thought – maybe people with siblings will feel a stronger connection to this story than I did?

Thank you to Netgalley, Putnam, and Chloe Benjamin for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.