book review: The Project by Courtney Summers | BookBrowse




THE PROJECT by Courtney Summers
★★★★☆
Wednesday Books, 2020



Bea and Lo Denham are inseparable sisters until their parents die in a car crash that Lo narrowly survives. Bea, depressed and desperate after the accident, falls into the arms of The Unity Project, a religious community that embraces her as she abandons her sister to the care of their great aunt. Years later, alone in the world after the death of their aunt and working as a secretary for a prestigious journalist, 19-year-old Lo is determined to unmask The Unity Project for what she believes it to be: a cult that indoctrinated her unwitting sister.

You can read my full review HERE on BookBrowse, and you can read a piece I wrote about cult psychology HERE.

book review: That Way Madness Lies, edited by Dahlia Adler




THAT WAY MADNESS LIES edited by Dahlia Adler
★★★☆☆
Flatiron, March 16, 2021


I only requested this anthology so I could read the Lear story and move on with my life (in my quest to read every Lear retelling I can get my hands on), but what can I say, once I had it on my Kindle I couldn’t resist. Even though I don’t particularly like YA and didn’t have the highest of hopes that these stories would engage with the plays in particularly interesting ways. Still, there were some pleasant surprises here.

That Way Madness Lies is a YA anthology by a handful of noted writers, each retelling a different Shakespeare play. The selection of plays itself is very good–there are the crowd pleasers as well as a couple of unexpected ones. The organization of this anthology bothered me on a couple of levels–first off, why is The Winter’s Tale placed in the Late Romances category but not The Tempest? We’re also frequently treated to 1-page author’s notes after stories, all of the same tenor; “this is why the original play was problematic and here’s how I decided to fix it”. Which, aside from being jarring and downright annoying, showed such a blatant disregard for Shakespearean scholarship that I had to laugh–yes, of course this is a commercial anthology intended for a young audience but my god, patting yourself on the back for being brave enough to consider The Merchant of Venice through Shylock’s perspective as if scholars, directors, actors, and audiences haven’t been doing exactly that for centuries is solipsistic to the extreme. 

Anyway, as always with anthologies, it’s a mixed bag. Some of these stories are unexpected and brilliant and others fall spectacularly flat. So, let’s do this.

Comedies

“Severe Weather Warning” by Austin Siegemund-Broka and Emily Wibberley (The Tempest) – 4 stars
A nice and melancholy snapshot into sibling rivalry as a storm rages outside, delaying Prosper’s sister’s flight to a prestigious internship that she effectively stole from her sister. Really enjoyed this one and felt that it was one of the most successful stories in accessing the original play’s themes even as a nonliteral reimagining. 

“Shipwrecked” by Mark Oshiro (Twelfth Night) – 3 stars
Twelfth Night meets high school prom–we’ve got some love and heartbreak coupled with mistaken identity shenanigans as one twin has recently come out as nonbinary and has started to resemble their brother. It’s a bit corny but mostly harmless. 

“King of the Fairies” by Anna-Marie McLemore (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) – 1 star
Midsummer from the perspective of the “Indian” child abducted by Oberon and Titania. Hands down one of my least favorites from this collection; it couldn’t be more heavy-handed and patronizing if it tried. If you like McLemore’s writing you’ll probably like this story; I simply do not.

“Taming of the Soulmate” by K. Ancrum (The Taming of the Shrew) – 3 stars
A soulmate AU where Katherine doesn’t see color until she meets Petrucio at her sister Bianca’s party; rather an inconvenience for her 5-year plan. I take umbrage at a modern retelling framing Petruchio as the Reasonable One, but I grudgingly ended up appreciating where this story arrived.

“We Have Seen Better Days” by Lily Anderson (As You Like It) – 2 stars
I found this story perplexing. As You Like It, as far as I’m concerned, is fertile ground for a reimagining that focuses on gender identity (a topic otherwise omnipresent in this anthology)–and instead we get… a story about summer camp nostalgia and daddy issues? Anyway, I’d be happy to put my expectations aside about what this had the potential to be if it were any good at all, but it was objectively one of the weakest in the collection. 

“Some Other Metal” by Amy Rose Capetta and Cory McCarthy (Much Ado About Nothing) – 1 star
I kind of hate Much Ado so I was probably never going to like this very much but… yeah, it was bad. It follows two actors, Tegan and Taron, who play Beatrice and Benedick on stage, and off-stage have an antagonistic relationship, but they’re trying to be set up by their director. The meta narrative was painfully obvious and would be more fun if you enjoyed Beatrice and Benedick’s dynamic in the slightest which I can’t say I do. This story is also set in outer space for reasons that are of absolutely no consequence? 

“I Bleed” by Dahlia Adler (The Merchant of Venice) – 5 stars
Annoying author’s note aside I honestly adored this. The Merchant of Venice + high school doesn’t seem like a match made in heaven–right down to Antonio’s occupation being declared in the title, this is an inarguably adult work. Part of the fun, then, becomes seeing how deftly Adler adapts this story’s mature moving parts to a context which shouldn’t work at all… but somehow does, brilliantly. It’s a very literal adaptation which otherwise isn’t my favorite approach in this collection, but I found this one very successful. 

A Sonnet

“His Invitation” by Brittany Cavallaro (Sonnet 147) – 4 stars
A couple take a road trip to California in the only story in this collection that tackles a sonnet. I have to say, this one didn’t make a huge impression on me as I was reading (part of it due to being the shortest story in this collection), but interestingly it’s really the only one I’m still thinking about after having finished. 

Tragedies

“Partying is Such Sweet Sorrow” by Kiersten White (Romeo and Juliet) – 4 stars 
Yes, the title is stupid, but let’s move on. White actually does a remarkable job at capturing the simultaneous foolishness and lovability of the titular protagonists. This story is told entirely in text speak which admittedly is not my favorite, but it makes for fast, feverish reading, which is probably the effect that White intended. This story I felt was one of the most successful at transporting the emotional landscape of Shakespeare to a much smaller and more modern setting, and hands down the most effective story in the tragedy section. 

“Dreaming of the Dark” by Lindsay Smith (Julius Caesar) – 2 stars
Julius Caesar meets a private girl’s school and dark magic. The context of this one was so utterly contrived (Briony and Cassie have just killed Julia as a sacrifice to a dark god; Annamaria wants revenge) I couldn’t really take it seriously.

“The Tragedy of Cory Lanez” by Tochi Onyebuchi (Coriolanus) – 2 stars 
This one is probably better than I’m giving it credit for. Cameron Marcus, known by stage name Cory Lanez, is a rapper who was recently stabbed to death; this story tackles family, sexuality, and LA gang violence. Unfortunately it’s also told as an oral history, and it’s that format that I couldn’t really get past–I don’t think it works at all in short story form; the author hasn’t earned the reader’s investment in the character that we’re mourning and the result is tedium. Which is kind of fitting for Coriolanus to be fair.

“Elsinore” by Patrice Caldwell (Hamlet) – 3 stars 
Hamlet retold as a penny dreadful–we’re in Victorian England, and Claudius is a vampire. Anne (Hamlet) and Camilla (Ophelia) team up to take him down. This will work for a lot of readers better than it worked for me, it simply wasn’t to my taste.

“Out of the Storm” by Joy McCullough (King Lear) – 1 star
Oh boy, HERE WE GO. I was already approaching this with trepidation after despising McCullough’s bestselling Blood Water Paint, but I think my mind was as open as it could have been under the circumstances. Anyway, I remain unconvinced that McCullough has read anything more than the wikipedia summary for Lear as this really failed to engage with it on… any level deeper than ‘three sisters whose names start with G, R, C.’ Written like a play script, it’s a snapshot piece where we see Gabi and Cora at their dying father’s bedside at the hospital; Rowan, the middle daughter, bursts in and we discover that she’s absented herself from the family to get out from under their strict minister father’s thumb. Arguments ensue; Rowan is accused of being selfish, she retaliates that she had the fortitude to escape, etc., that kind of thing. Look, I’m sympathetic to the fact that Lear is one of the hardest plays to retell and I’m happy for a reimagining to be nonliteral, as long as it accesses some of the original play’s themes, which this just didn’t, at all. Ample meditation on truth, power, aging, justice, human nature, and cosmic inevitability to draw from and you opt for… three sisters with an over-controlling father? (The play script format was insufferable as well; if this were a real play it would be peak ‘family arguing at the dinner table’ theatre.)

“We Fail” by Samantha Mabry (Macbeth) – 1 star 
Just dreadful. Drea, a high school senior, has recently suffered a miscarriage, and her fiancé, Mateo, has been passed over for a football scholarship. When the two get in a car crash and their friend Duncan is pinned beneath the car, Drea convinces Mateo to wait before calling for help, so Duncan will die and Mateo can take his scholarship; and also because she’s still mourning the loss of her child and needs to take control of their future. I really despise Macbeth retellings that have a hyperfixation on Lady Macbeth’s fertility, and for that narrative to be given to a high schooler made it all the more perplexing and oddly melodramatic in a way that didn’t show a similar self-awareness as the Romeo and Juliet story. This was too rushed as well; maybe it could have done something interesting as a longer story, but hurtling through the events of Macbeth at breakneck speed just didn’t work.

Late Romance

“Lost Girl” by Melissa Bashardoust (The Winter’s Tale) – 4 stars 
This was a lovely story about Perdita who recently discovered the identity of her absent father, trying to cope with that as her new relationship with classics student Zal blossoms. It’s short and sweet and a nice note to end on.

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

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 Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

17347389

 

THE DREAM THIEVES by Maggie Stiefvater
(The Raven Cycle #2)
★★☆☆☆
Scholastic, 2013

 

I think I may have to throw in the towel with this series.  In my weirdly negative 4 star review of The Raven Boys I more or less said ‘I didn’t love this, but I think it has the potential to grow on me as I get more invested in the characters.’  Instead, the exact opposite happened when I finally picked up the sequel: I became even less invested, and the characters became even less interesting to me.

To be fair, I was always going to struggle with The Dream Thieves (which I’ve seen widely hailed as the strongest book in this series) because its very premise hinges on something I can’t stand: fictional dreams.  But honestly, I didn’t care for a single one of the subplots, dreams or no dreams.  And something else that surprised me is how much I’m disliking Maggie Stiefvater’s prose in this series, given how strong I thought it was in her standalone novel The Scorpio Races.  Maybe I should stop trying to make YA happen for me?


Book Depository links: The Raven Boys | The Dream Thieves | The Scorpio Races

book review: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

18659623

 

THROUGH THE WOODS by Emily Carroll
★★★★☆
Faber & Faber, 2014

 

A few months back, I asked on Twitter what everyone’s favorite short story collections were, and Through the Woods came up a lot.  I found the premise enticing (I love horror, and I hadn’t ever read a short story collection in graphic novel form), so I decided to give it go, which ended up being a good decision.

Ultimately: 3 stars for the stories and 5 stars for the artwork.  These short stories had moments of creepiness, but they were only ever moments; on the whole they were a bit on the perfunctory side and usually ended all too abruptly.  Some of the ambiguity worked; some just left me wanting, and not in the good way.  I did enjoy reading them in the moment, but I don’t think any are going to stay with me, and I wouldn’t have minded a bit more bone-chilling terror.

The artwork, on the other hand, was nothing short of breathtaking.  A Lady’s Hands Are Cold just about knocked my socks off on a strictly visual level – the color palette in this story in particular is incredibly striking.  I buy a lot of books that I haven’t read yet and I rarely keep the ones that I don’t love or don’t plan on rereading, but I think I’m going to hang onto this one just so I can flip through and look at the art on occasion.   But maybe I’ll reread it next year around Halloween; these stories are all very light on text and you can easily read this in under half an hour so why not.  A quick, enjoyable read for horror fans, even if it wasn’t revolutionary.


You can pick up a copy of Through the Woods here on Book Depository.

book review: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

32075671

 

THE HATE U GIVE by Angie Thomas
★★★☆☆
HarperCollins, 2017

 

It was fine.

I’ll start with what I liked: this book is as important as everyone says it is. It’s an unflinching look at police brutality, told through the eyes of a teenage girl who witnessed the senseless murder of her friend who was pulled over by a cop for a broken taillight. This happens in the second chapter and the majority of the book deals with the aftermath; the guilt Starr feels over surviving the incident and not being there for her friend in the months leading up to it, the tension that exists between her home life (where she lives in a very poor black neighborhood) and her school life (where she attends a private school on a scholarship, which is attended mostly by rich white students). Starr’s narrative voice was wonderfully authentic and this book just provides such a necessary perspective on the racism and violence that run rampant in this country. Having finally read this, I can say I’m genuinely thrilled that this book has become such a cultural phenomenon as well as a commercial success.

But in the interest of giving you the full picture, let’s move onto what I didn’t like. It was overly long and I found the dialogue and the ‘cute’ domestic moments particularly inane. Moments like this caused more than a few eye rolls: “He grins and he feeds her a grape, and I just can’t. The cuteness is too much. Yeah, they’re my parents, but they’re my OTP. Seriously.” I get that when you’re dealing with such a serious topic (especially in YA) you do need moments of levity if you don’t want your book to be a nearly-500-page misery fest, but all of the humor felt shoehorned in. There were so many discussions of Harry Potter and Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and meanwhile nothing was actually happening and I didn’t feel bored, necessarily, because YA contemporary reads so quickly, but I did feel a bit cheated whenever the main narrative got derailed for these fan-service moments.

My other main issue was that I would have loved to have seen some more nuance. It’s hard to talk about this in detail without getting into spoilers, but as an example, one of the subplots shows how over the course of the novel Starr comes to realize that one of her best white friends is racist, and I thought this would be a good opportunity for the author to explore the subtle ways that racism can manifest in even well-meaning white allies, but instead the execution was a bit heavy-handed. The kind of racist remarks this girl made toward Starr were… not subtle in ANY way, which made me wonder why she was even friends with her in the first place. And the fact that Starr’s white boyfriend could basically do no wrong added to this kind of weird dichotomy that white people are all either Good or Evil? When in reality the grey area between those two extremes is so much more realistic and would have been a good focal point for this part of the narrative.

But anyway. This is a book for teenagers, first and foremost, and I’m happy that it has been received so well among teenagers, and among adults who read more YA than I do. I hope you don’t take this review and rating as me being dismissive of this book’s themes and its cultural impact; I’m just afraid that it didn’t totally work for me personally. Which is fine, not every book is going to work for every reader. I’m very glad The Hate U Give has found its readers.

book review: The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

17675462

 

THE RAVEN BOYS by Maggie Stiefvater
★★★★☆
Scholastic, 2012

 

I’m going to do something a bit odd here and base my rating for this book more on what I think it has the potential to become than how much I actually enjoyed it. Because this feels more like a 400 page prologue than it does an actual book. But I’m willing to overlook the spectacularly poor pacing and haphazard plotting if the rest of the series actually builds on the foundation Stiefvater set up here, and she definitely hooked me enough that I want to keep going with it.

I’m still not totally sure what to make of this premise (apparently this series is about a group of students trying to find a dead Welsh king, WHO KNEW, not me), and I think the execution was a bit of a mess. The first 200 pages are total filler; the villain’s backstory is awkwardly shoehorned in without much exploration; perspective shifts aren’t employed effectively (sometimes I couldn’t tell whose head we were in until the end of a chapter); information that could have been withheld in order to build tension is readily offered up to the reader at all times; and the ending just kind of… plateaus without much of a climax. Stiefvater can clearly write (though I actually preferred her prose in The Scorpio Races) but I don’t think The Raven Boys is a well-constructed book at all.

But the characters I think are intriguing. By ‘intriguing’ I mean ‘have the potential to become interesting.’ Because right now a lot of them still feel like tropes – you’ve got the quirky loner girl, the leader, the asshole, the one with money problems, and… that’s just about it – but judging from others’ assessment of the series, it does seem like some character development is on the horizon. But what’s compelling me more than the characters themselves are the dynamics between them. So even though I wasn’t totally wowed by this book, it has a certain je ne sais quoi that makes me want to keep going with it… hopefully the second book picks up.

book review: The Female of the Species by Mindy McGinnis

25812109

THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES by Mindy McGinnis
★★★★☆
Katherine Tegen Books, 2016

 

Well, The Female of the Species was just as brutal as everyone says it is, so naturally I thought it was great. All I knew about this book going in was that it’s somehow about rape culture, which it certainly is, but it’s not so much a ‘rape book’ a la Asking For ItSpeak, etc., as a teenage vigilante story that could be compared to Hard Candy or Sadie (if I’m allowed to compare it to a book that was published later). So, another successful foray into YA for me this month!

The Female of the Species follows three characters – Alex, the occasionally violent but intelligent loner girl whose sister was murdered, Jack, the popular jock with hidden depths, and Peekay, the preacher’s kid who’s recovering from a bad break-up. Alex is a brilliant character, and she’s ultimately at the center of this novel, tying together these three characters’ disparate plotlines. What I loved about Alex is how her violent streak is neither condemned nor romanticized by the narrative – this is not one of those books that falls victim to very basic ‘murder is wrong!’ moralizing (which, yes, we can all agree that murder is wrong, but reinforcing that point over and over doesn’t make for a terribly interesting story). Instead, McGinnis uses this character to explore a much more intriguing narrative.

To everyone who suggests it’s impossible to discuss rape in media without showing it in graphic detail, I say: read this book. When I mentioned above that this isn’t really a traditional ‘rape book,’ what I meant is that the only rape occurs off-screen before the story begins, and that gets a comparatively small focus in the story. Instead, this deals with those ‘almost’ situations, the grey areas, the insidious ways that rape culture informs teenage social situations in ways we don’t even think about. This is such an astoundingly important book for teenagers to read – like Asking For It, I think it adds a really unique and important slant to this conversation.

But of course, ‘important’ doesn’t really say anything about literary quality – a book can naturally be ‘important’ and terrible – but I thought The Female of the Species was very smart and engaging. This book builds tension brilliantly and culminates in a positively brilliant conclusion. It does take quite a dark turn, but I loved it; I don’t think anything else would have suited the story quite so well.

But I did have problems with this book, and they were essentially: Peekay and Jack. Both of these characters felt more like a construct than an actual human being to me. Jack was the Generic Romantic Hero straight out of any YA novel I’ve ever read, and Peekay’s character just felt so contrived to me. The extent to which being the preacher’s kid (PK = Peekay) informed her entire identity could have been believable to me if we had spent any time examining how that impacted her, or looking at her relationship with religion, but instead it’s reduced to almost a gag – apparently the entire town thinks of her as the preacher’s kid, but we have no concept of what that actually means to her. To this end, occasionally this felt like it fell on the younger end of the YA spectrum than its subject matter would imply; simplicity where there should be nuance. Not every character and theme fell victim to this, of course, but there was no reason for Alex to be so fleshed out at the expense of the other two main characters, and I just would have liked to have seen a bit more depth to each of them.

But for the most part I thought this was very well done and I enjoyed it immensely. Also, aside from the rape and violence that I mentioned, there’s a lot of animal abuse mentioned in this book – this one definitely requires a strong stomach.

mini reviews #1: Wave, Mary Rose, Bluets, Another Brooklyn, Eurydice

This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while, so, no time like the present.  I don’t always feel like writing multi-paragraph long reviews for every single book I read, but when my reviews are this short I don’t usually bother cross-posting them from Goodreads to WordPress.  So, I shall begin transferring them over here in a series of mini review posts.  Also, reminder that you’re welcome to add me on Goodreads!

15797917WAVE by Sonali Deraniyagala
★★★★☆
Knopf, 2013
date read: July 11, 2018

In Sonali Deraniyagala’s frank and candid memoir, she recounts the loss of her parents, husband, and two sons who were all killed in the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka. Wave is every bit as harrowing as you’d imagine, but it’s also refreshingly sincere and devoid of sensationalism – instead it rather beautifully captures one woman’s honest and occasionally ugly experience with grief. Although it’s at times a bit meandering and repetitive in execution it is utterly gripping from start to finish. There isn’t much hope or resolution here, but there is hardly a scarcity of gratitude or resilience.

36072356MARY ROSE by Geoffrey Girard
★★☆☆☆
Adaptive Books, April 2018
date read: June 29, 2018

This was… fine? I guess? I would not recommend listening to the audiobook. The narrator infuses it with a lot of melodrama and bad accents, and hearing the name ‘Mary Rose’ spoken aloud approximately eighty-five million times is grating. I don’t know. I just felt impatient listening to this. For the fact that about 95% of it was character development, none of the characters were particularly well developed. The 5% of actual story was fine, just not enough to really hold my interest. I’d like to read the JM Barrie play at some point though.

6798263BLUETS by Maggie Nelson
★★★☆☆
Wave Books, 2009
date read: June 22, 2018

Bluets had a lot of the same sharp wit and similar pithy observations that I enjoyed in The Argonauts but I think this one was just a bit too abstract for my tastes. I also didn’t do myself any favors by reading this in short bursts over the span of two weeks when I think Nelson’s writing best lends itself to a more immersive reading experience. Still enjoyed it, still looking forward to checking out her other works.

30064150ANOTHER BROOKLYN by Jacqueline Woodson
★★☆☆☆
Amistad, 2016
date read: June 8, 2018

I listened to this on audio and… got pretty much nothing out of it. The narrator did a good job, but I just never felt grounded enough in this story, which to me felt more like it wanted to be a slice of life/coming of age poetry collection than a novel. But at the same time I do understand why others have loved this – I think it comes down to whether or not you click with Woodson’s flowery style of prose.

 

5661021EURYDICE by Sarah Ruhl
★★★☆☆
Samuel French, originally published in 2003
date read: April 16, 2018

There’s an undeniable pathos at the heart of this play that I think is informed so strongly by Ruhl’s personal experiences it almost made me question the need for this to be disguised as Eurydice’s story. This felt more like I was reading a poetry collection than a play, which was fine, albeit not what I thought I’d signed up for. The climactic scene between Orpheus and Eurydice was the highlight for me, though clearly there was so much tenderness put into the relationship between Eurydice and her father. Ruhl’s dialogue is incisive and dreamlike all at once and this was a pleasure to read in many ways, but ultimately where it didn’t totally connect for me was that it didn’t feel grounded enough in its source material.

Have you guys read any of these?  Feel free to comment down below if you’d like to talk about any of them in more detail!

book review: Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

35540804

BLOOD WATER PAINT by Joy McCullough
★★☆☆☆
Dutton Books, March 2018

I really wanted to love this book. I studied art history extensively in college, I love Artemisia Gentileschi, and the promise of a story from her perspective was so tantalizing that I ended up ignoring my suspicions that this book was going to be too young and too heavy-handed for me. I really should have listened to my gut on this one.

Artemisia Gentileschi was an Italian Baroque painter, whose works are often overshadowed by the fact that she was raped by her mentor, Agostino Tassi. She and her father Orazio took him to trial and eventually won the case, though she was subjected to torture to verify her claims, and Tassi only served two years in prison before his release. Blood Water Paint is a novel in verse told from Artemisia’s perspective, which focuses mainly on her rape and the subsequent trial, which explores the way she drew on the biblical figures Susanna and Judith for inspiration.

Look, I am a self-proclaimed feminist. I could not agree more with McCullough’s indictment of the patriarchy, her lament of how women are treated in society, the parallels between Artemisia’s circumstances and the #MeToo movement. The problem is, she sacrifices subtlety and authenticity at the altar of these ideas. This book is one of the most maddeningly simplistic, binary, melodramatic, and anachronistic things I’ve ever read. While the word ‘feminism’ never appears in this book (thankfully – not because I don’t like the word feminism, but because it isn’t a concept yet in in the seventeenth century), we do see a lot of hot-button issues that we’ll all recognize, like:

(Why, though, does it take
a mother, daughter, sister
for men to take
a woman at her word?)

and:

If I wait it out, he’ll go.
I learned this as a child:

When boys pull your hair,
it means they like you.
Just ignore them.

… which, I’m sorry, but narrated from the perspective of a seventeen-year-old girl in 1610 just strike me as laughably unbelievable. Not because these aren’t universal, timeless ideas, but because they’re stated so eloquently by this character who I hesitate to even refer to as Artemisia because she is so transparently a mouthpiece for the author.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible to write a historical novel that focuses mainly on themes which don’t have an established vocabulary or some kind of developed social discourse at the time the book is set. I recently read and loved On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, which deals primarily with asexuality in a time before the term was coined, and the way McEwan handled the subject was done with subtlety and brilliance. I guess I was just looking for more of this here, I was hoping for a more nuanced and intellectually stimulating rumination on the themes in this book, rather than having everything stated so plainly and positively shoved down the reader’s throat. (I mean, I guess it’s also worth noting that Blood Water Paint is YA, so maybe I’m being unfair here, but I’d argue that it’s even more unfair to posit that YA doesn’t have the capacity to be more nuanced than this.)

There’s also another element to this whole thing that admittedly grates on me. As I’ve said, I really love Artemisia Gentileschi. But the way she’s become a cipher for contemporary feminism I think does a disservice to the complexity of her character, as well as to the sundry other groundbreaking female artists we tend to overlook in holding Artemisia up as this feminist poster child. So when I say that I wasn’t impressed with the research and historical accuracy in this novel, I’m not trying to be some kind of academic purist. It just felt like the author had seen a tumblr post about how ‘Artemisia Gentileschi painted herself as Judith and her rapist as Holofernes!!!1! Badass feminist ICON!!!!’ and spun the novel out of this half-formed idea of who Artemisia actually was. The few times the art itself is referenced also suggests to me that McCullough is out of her depth. If you’re looking for historical accuracy, please pick up one of the many brilliant biographies written about Artemisia, notably those by Mary Garrard.

So, to wrap up this novel length review (sorry, thanks for sticking with me): This is a book of (relevant, necessary) 21st century feminist concepts that try to masquerade themselves as Artemisia Gentileschi’s story at the expense of narrative, character development, and subtlety, which I felt ultimately did a disservice to its protagonist. But clearly I do not hold the majority opinion about this book, and that is perfectly fine. There are many brilliant and eloquent reviews which discuss this book’s virtues, if that’s what you’re looking for.