Spotlight on: Science Fiction

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I will be focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books! I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred. I’ll share what Science Fiction means to me, filling the post with iconic titles and recommendations, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

I know I’ve basically missed January already, which I don’t intend to make a habit, it’s just how it worked out this time. Without further ado…

What is Science Fiction (Sci-Fi)?

In my opinion, this is a genre of fiction that uses real or imagined science to explore unknown aspects or questions from the real world. It can lean toward the speculative, the fantastic, the sociopolitical, the philosophical, and more, but the defining characteristic is that these books attempt to explain their otherworldly aspects with facts and logic drawn from reality. Often, but not always, sci-fi tends toward the futuristic. It endeavors to explain something we don’t yet understand, or suggests that because there are things we don’t yet understand, more is possible than we know or accept. It can deliver a sense of foreboding.

I consider dystopia/utopia a subgenre of science fiction. These books usually have political leanings and are often futuristic, with logical explanations as to how the world might have evolved to reach a certain extreme. They also tend to have themes common among sci-fi books: that humans should be cautious with knowledge we already have, that discovering new scientific knowledge can be dangerous, or that we might be able to accomplish something momentous if humans are able to solve a currently unsolved problem.

I also sometimes consider supernatural and paranormal as subgenres of science fiction (other times as horror, depending on the book’s themes and use of the otherworldly elements). This includes ghosts, vampires, zombies, etc.

 

My History with Sci-Fi

The City of Ember (Book of Ember, #1)Early brushes with the genre for me included books like Jeanne DuPrau’s The City of Ember, Eoin Colfer’s The Wish List, Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, Vivian Vande Velde’s Heir Apparent, Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It, and of course, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight (though sci-fi is not the only genre I’d use to categorize this one). My taste has certainly evolved, but these are just a few of the books that kept me interested in dystopia, paranormal, and science fiction in general; in them I can see some of the sci-fi aspects I’m still fascinated with today. They paved the way for the YA icons of my high school years: Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. Veronica Roth’s Divergent. Lois Lowry’s The Giver (which was published earlier but saw a fresh heyday when the movie was released). The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)

YA exploded in popularity and availability around the time I was in jr. high and high school, partially thanks to the phenomenon that was Twilight. Hate it if you want, but that book had a big influence on what was getting published and what was getting read, as did The Hunger Games and Divergent. Dystopia saw such a huge wave of popularity in the 2010’s, and even though that’s died down, it was a big part of what kept me reading science fiction. I’m sure there are many more middle grade and YA options in this genre than I remember being available during my teenagerhood, probably in part because books like The Hunger Games sparked a wider interest, even among adult readers.

CarrieI also started reading Stephen King around this time. Though he’s widely known as a master of the horror genre, a lot of his work is indeed science fiction. As a teen I picked up Pet Sematary, The Dead Zone, Hearts in Atlantis, Carrie... King’s writing certainly has its flaws, but he’s a great gateway author, easy enough for younger readers to understand and enjoy. He was actually one of the first “adult fiction” authors I read, who helped convince me I was ready to stop browsing exclusively in the “teen” section at the library. He deals in extraterrestrial life, telekinesis, super powers, time travel, bizarre creatures, and so much more. From these topics, I ventured into:

 

Sci-Fi Classics

FrankensteinBy the time I graduated high school I had a lot better access to books than my small hometown library had afforded. What might have been lacking in my early years, I found in college and beyond. I reached for such titles as:

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, one of my all-time favorite books, dealing with mortality and morality. (Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein is an excellent recent homage dealing with many of the same themes, also tackling gender issues and robotics.)

Lord of the Flies by William Golding, featuring a group of pre-adolescent boys who attempt to form their own society on a deserted island.

Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, in which a fireman whose job it is to burn books begins to question his conformity.

19841984 by George Orwell, a political critique of government’s increasing ability to see (and thus police) its citizens’ private lives.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, an antiwar narrative following one man’s life through a WWII bombing, time travel, capture by aliens, and more.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, which features a dystopian society in which humans are genetically modified prior to birth and assigned careers based on their intelligence level.

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, following a scientist who creates a time machine and uses it to discover humanity’s downfall and earth’s dire fate.

even Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, though my appreciation for this game-like approach to alien warfare is much higher than my consideration for its anti-Semite author.

 

Modern Sci-Fi Staples and Recommendations

Station ElevenBut as with any genre, science fiction isn’t all stuffy classics. Here’s a look at some popular science fiction I’ve been reading more recently and would not hesitate to recommend to many newcomers and old fans alike: Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, an 80’s pop culture and video game fest; Jasper Fforde’s Early Riser, in which most of humanity hibernates through increasingly unbearable earthen winters; Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a Shakespeare-focused post-apocalyptic survival tale; Caroline Kepnes’s Providence, the story of a kidnapped boy with a superpower that endangers the girl he loves; Andy Weir’s The Martian, an interplanetary quest to bring a stranded astronaut home from Mars; Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, a feminist dystopia in which objectified women rebel against the status quo; Stephen King’s The Outsider, which features a shape-shifting villain who lives off of human fear; All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries, #1)Martha Wells’s All Systems Red, following a human/robot whose job is human safety but whose preference is avoiding all human contact in favor of watching serial television (review coming soon).

 

If you’re new to the genre and don’t think reading a lot of science is going to appeal, let me make some recommendations based on other categories you might already enjoy (these are based on my own reading, so it’s not an exhaustive list! If anyone has more ideas, please share them below!):

If you like YA: Illuminae by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, Cinder by Marissa Meyer, Wilder Girls by Rory Power

If you like mysteries and thrillers: Recursion by Blake Crouch, The Oracle Year by Charles Soule, Origin by Dan Brown

If you like history: Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H Wilson, The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom MillerThe Clockwork Dynasty

If you like fantasy: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, Red Rising by Pierce Brown

If you like supernatural: The Raven Boys by Maggie Steifvater, The Anomaly by Michael Rutger

If you like literary: Severance by Ling Ma, The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker, The Test by Sylvain Neuvel

If you like romance: A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

If you like comics: Watchmen by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins

 

Like any other genre, categorization of sci-fi is not determined upon hard rules. You may disagree with my placement of some of the books I’ve mentioned above, and you may call something sci-fi that I wouldn’t. All’s fair! Genres are slippery, and their main purpose (other than helping publishers market books) is simply to guide readers toward similar books they might also enjoy. Hopefully showcasing some of the many facets of science fiction will help anyone who’s not sure where to go next in the genre find something that appeals!

 

Sci-Fi on my TBR:

Jurassic ParkI don’t expect my own sci-fi adventures to stop here! These are some other exciting titles I’m hoping to read in the future: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, Exhalation by Ted Chiang, Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar, The Seep by Chana Porter, Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh.

 

And just a few extras that aren’t currently on my TBR that you may be familiar with or might want to read: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Dune by Frank Herbert, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle.

 

Why read science fiction?

I read sci-fi because it makes me look at the real world in a new light. It’s full of big ideas, concepts that I wouldn’t necessarily consider on my own, as well as hope (and yes, fear) for the future. It’s a stretch of imagination on a grand scale that often considers humanity as a whole in a way that character-specific narratives usually do not. It encourages thinking outside the box.

 

Your turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about the genre. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for sci-fi, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about the genre. That’s the point of this post! A genre can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Martian

This was one of those tragic cases of neglecting to read the book before watching the movie, and so I’ve been waiting YEARS to forget enough of the details to pick up Andy Weir’s The Martian– this year, the time finally seemed right.

themartianIn the novel, Mark Watney and 5 other crew members are on a 31-day NASA mission on Mars. When a sudden storm cuts their stay short, Watney is left behind in the evacuation, believed dead. When he regains consciousness, he finds himself in dire circumstances, injured, running out of oxygen, his suit breached, his contact with Earth severed, and the exit spacecraft gone along with all of his colleagues. But Watney isn’t ready to give up. If he can find a way to stretch the crew’s 31 days of supplies for a couple of years and travel to the site of the next Mars mission, maybe he can hitch a ride back home.  And so begins an interplanetary quest for survival.

“The answer is: I don’t know. I suppose I’ll think of something. Or die.”

I hated math and science classes in school. I managed to avoid calculus and chemistry completely in both high school and college so I’m as amazed as the next person that I found a story so rooted in science to be such a good time. I can’t speak at all for the accuracy of the numbers and equations and details in this book, but Weir states in an author’s note that people in the know mostly agree with The Martian‘s accuracy, and I’m inclined to believe that. It turned out to be a slower read than I expected despite the easy-going first person narration and constant threat of death, because I’m not a reader who can skim sentences/passages without comprehending them- I didn’t pull out my calculator to double check Watney’s math, but I did take the time to absorb the information and understand how he was getting from point A to point B. The good news is that The Martian is a science-heavy book written for the layperson, and there’s enough of a narrative behind the technicalities that I can see why this book appeals to science buffs and novices alike.

What worked best for me, essentially, is the puzzle of it. Having already a sense of the basic story line and quickly realizing that the film didn’t capture all the details, what kept my attention in this book was a constant curiosity about how Watney was going to solve each of the problems Mars throws his way. Not enough water? No worries, he’ll make some. Accidentally create a bomb? No worries, he can defuse that. Get stuck in a sandstorm that makes recharging his vital power supply impossible? No worries, he’ll chart his way out just in time. But I would have no idea how to do any of those things, which made his solutions fascinating to discover. Watney’s light tone as a narrator makes this dire situation surprisingly fun, and also prevents the reader from worrying too much about him dying amidst all of these setbacks. Until the final sequence is in motion, The Martian is more a tale of when he’ll escape, not an if. Thus, the method becomes the most interesting element.

Actually, as readable as Watney’s log entries are, the parts of the book that held my attention best were the glimpses of the other characters trying to help Watney, watching him via satellite and worrying about launch deadlines while they have very little communication with him. There isn’t much of a psychological exploration in this book, but most of it comes through in these third-person sections. Here, we can see just how alone Watney is even though it seems all of Earth is following his progress. We see how all of the technology and intelligence available at NASA is limited in its ability to help him and how frustrating that can be. We see leaders and captains making expensive, life-or-death decisions based on how their astronauts may be affected mentally.

” ‘What must it be like?’ he pondered. ‘He’s stuck out there. He thinks he’s totally alone and that we all gave up on him. What kind of effect does that have on a man’s psychology?’ “

But as much as I enjoyed The Martian, it wasn’t quite a perfect read. As one of the laypeople, I appreciated the extent to which the science was painstakingly explained, but it didn’t feel organic to the story. It’s framed as Watney leaving a detailed log so that anyone who might eventually find it will know what happened to him, in case he doesn’t survive. I had some difficulty believing someone with a low level of expertise was going to be the one to find Watney’s log on Mars. Additionally, the simplification goes beyond Watney’s circumstances and personality- we do see other characters and locations in the novel: the rest of Watney’s crew and the high-ups at NASA mainly, and they all have a tendency of speaking to each other in a way that seems redundant to their perspectives, the dialogue obviously aimed toward the reader rather than realistic for the characters.

Even so, these insights into the team working on Earth and in orbit to bring Watney home were largely my favorite parts of the novel, mainly because Watney’s humor didn’t translate as well for me on the page as it originally did in the film.

Image result for the martian filmI remember liking Watney’s personality a lot when I first watched the film (4 or 5 years ago), but it just wasn’t coming across for me in the physical book. (A few people who knew I was reading this suggested the audio, but it’s currently checked out from my library. I’ll still look into that at least to sample it, but wasn’t able to get to it in time to finish reading.) However, after reading the book, I rewatched the film (my second viewing ever), and was less charmed there too. So, perhaps the change was me and not the medium. I found the jokes rather man-ish, repetitive, and often focused on the wonders of duct tape or Watney’s dislike of disco. There’s a bit of a formula to it, every serious moment broken up with an irreverent comment about death, NASA’s safety regulations, or one of his crew members. It didn’t take long for this to feel forced, or at least, predictable. He would’ve gotten along well with my high school science teacher.

“Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.”

But, humor aside, The Martian is still one of my favorite survival stories, both in print and film. I do think it’s worth experiencing both mediums, but if you only go for one I’ll add that the film goes more for emotional impact while the book goes for impressive scientific depth. You may find yourself more interested in the science than you expect!

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I usually don’t go for survival stories, because they seem a bit “if you’ve read one you’ve read them all” to me, but this one is pretty unique. At least, in my experience. Having seen the movie already, I did know the broad strokes of the narrative going in, but I still found myself pleasantly caught up in the minutiae. I’ll definitely be reading Weir’s Artemis at some point because I have a copy, but I’ve seen enough disappointed reviews that I’m not in a hurry to get to it.

 

The Literary Elephant

Top of the TBR 1.27.20

Top of the TBR is a (now biweekly) post that showcases some of the books recently added to my Goodreads TBR, with a short explanation of why each caught my interest. Each title will be linked back to its Goodreads page for anyone interested in exploring further. Anyone who wants to take part in this series with me is absolutely welcome! Please link back to any of my Top of the TBR posts so I can see what you’re looking forward to reading! 🙂

Here are some of the books I’ve added on Goodreads recently:

36365112. sy475 Travelling in a Strange Land by David Park (Pub: March 2018- UK)

How I found it: I read Rachel’s excellent review!

Why I added it: I’m very curious about this book as a driving narrative; driving in poor conditions is something I’ve experienced but not really read about, and I’d be interested to see how well Park captures it (very well, according to Rachel!). I’m also interested in the grief angle.

Priority: Low, because I don’t have a copy on hand and by the time a Book Depository order would arrive I think I’ll be less inclined to read a snow story- perhaps next winter!

10560393The Doll: The Lost Short Stories by Daphne du Maurier (Pub: Jan 2011)

How I found it: Callum mentioned this one in the comments of my recent review for du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel.

Why I added it: I’d like to pick up some short story collections this year, and I definitely want to read more of du Maurier’s gothic/horror fiction this year. In particular I’m very attracted to the idea that these are “lost” stories published before her Rebecca fame and gone out of print for years.

Priority: Middling. It doesn’t look like this one’s at my library so I’ll have to find a copy, but I’d really like to read this in 2020.

46263943Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Pub: Feb 2020)

How I found it: I’ve seen this one around, mostly in anticipated releases posts but also a couple of advance copies. But I hadn’t really looked into it until I came across it again in the Goodreads list of Feb. releases.

Why I added it: It’s LGBTQ+ fiction about an African-American man at a Midwestern university whose encounters with other various other people “conspire to fracture his defenses, while revealing hidden currents of resentment and desire that threaten the equilibrium of their community.” It sounds like a potentially fantastic read.

Priority: Middling. This one doesn’t seem to be on my library’s radar yet, but I’m making a point to keep checking on 2020 releases that I’m interested in. If I find it there, I’ll definitely pick it up. If not, I’m not sure when I will get to it.

41933195100 Times: A Memoir of Sexism by Chavisa Woods (Pub: May 2019)

How I found it: I read Karissa’s compelling review!

Why I added it: This is a book in which the author recounts a hundred times that she’s encountered/experienced sexism. I suspect it’ll have a similar effect on me as Not That Bad did, though the subject matter is slightly different.

Priority: Middling. I want to read this very badly, but again, it doesn’t seem to be available at my library so I’ll have to keep an eye out for it elsewhere.

36429751. sy475 Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak (Pub: 2016)

How I found it: Gilana mentioned this one!

Why I added it: Gilana’s post was a First Line Friday meme, but even just the first line managed to catch my interest. I wasn’t sure right away after reading Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World whether I would venture into more of the author’s work, but something about this one appeals to me. It takes place in one evening, the narration apparently split between present terrorist attacks and memories of a scandal in the narrator’s past.

Priority: Low. This one is available at my library so I should be able to pick it up easily- my reading schedule is packed already for February though, and the Women’s Prize longlist will be coming up in March, so I’m not ready to focus on this one yet.

43352954. sx318 This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar (Pub: July 2019)

How I found it: I’ve been seeing this one around for months, but it first caught my interest based on Naty’s wonderful review!

Why I added it: In all honesty I am not really sure what this book is. I’ve read the synopsis, I’ve read reviews, and something about it remains elusive. But I keep seeing it come up with rave reviews and high ratings, and I love a good genre-bender, so I think I need to give this one a chance!

Priority: Middling. I’ve been reading (a little) and thinking (a lot) about sci-fi this month, in preparation for a post I’ve got coming up this week, so this one fits my current reading mood. However, I’ve been reading slower than I’d like and I don’t have time to pick it up in conjunction with that post. It is available at my library though, so I’m hoping to pick it up later this year! It’s a short book, so it should be easy enough to squeeze in somewhere.

26883528Hot Milk by Deborah Levy (Pub: March 2016)

How I found it: This book was nominated for the Booker Prize in 2016, which is probably what put it on my radar. I recently read another Levy book (The Man Who Saw Everything) and highly enjoyed it, so I went looking for more info on this one!

Why I added it: Liking another one of the author’s books is generally enough to convince me to pick up a further title. This one’s about an anthropologist who travels to Spain with her mysteriously ill mother, seeking a last-chance cure.

Priority: Low. Available at my library when I’m ready for it.

 

This might be the first time there were no high priority books on the list! That’s not because I’m not highly interested in these books, but because I call a “high priority” book something that I’m trying to pick up immediately, which is hard to do when I’ve got my February TBR already planned and am expecting to read the Women’s Prize longlist in March and April. Still, I’m looking forward to picking up these books when I can!

Have you read any of these books, or recognize them from your own TBR?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Reviews: The Memory Police and Topics of Conversation

Another round of “short” reviews, featuring two of my recent reads!

I picked up my first Yoko Ogawa novel this month, The Memory Police (translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder). After seeing it nominated for the National Book Award last year and loving the synopsis, it seemed like a good place to start with her work- and even though I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as expected, I’ll certainly be reading further!

thememorypoliceIn the novel, an author lives on an island where things have a tendency to “disappear.” Islanders wake in the morning with a sort of hole in their memories, ponder until they realize which object used to fill that space in their hearts and minds, then destroy all physical traces of the thing that has “disappeared.” The Memory Police hunt down forgotten items, and  remove those people with perfect memories who resist the disappearances. The novelist becomes concerned when she realizes her editor is resisting, but she can’t hide everything that’s important to her; as she sadly complies with devastating disappearances, the editor tries to trick her memory into holding on to the things that are essential to her.

“Nothing comes back now when I see a photograph. No memories, no response. They’re nothing more than pieces of paper. A new hole has opened in my heart, and there’s no way to fill it up again. That’s how it is when something disappears…”

Structurally, this one reminded me of Blind Assassin, in which the novelist’s current manuscript appears occasionally between chapters of her own life. There are certain similarities between the two plots, with the novelist’s emotions and fears coming out plainly in her written story.

It’s an evocative, atmospheric tale full of secrecy and fear, an all-too-powerful government, a public that quietly acquiesces (following the path of least resistance) and a few rebels who fight back. The Memory Police is a novel that asks how much of our lives should be decided for us, and how much should be left to our own control. It’s a question that goes beyond what we are expected do, to what we are expected to feel. The magical element- the disappearances are not a choice- keeps the story from feeling like a direct parallel to any particular place or body of government, and yet it is otherworldly enough that many aspects of it feel widely applicable, linked easily to any place. It’s a story that frightens and demands further thought.

But I had a few hangups. I found the disappearances rather arbitrary and confusing through most of the book- some things, for instance, aren’t entirely gone: the ferry is “disappeared,” and yet it is still docked, its operator still lives on board, and he remembers the days when he happily ferried people across the water. The disappearances seem to be more of an emotional response, and thus are somewhat difficult to understand and to define; I prefer magic with clearer limits. I was also left with many questions about how things started disappearing at all, and why, and how the disappearances affected some people and not others, and who the memory police even are- designated islanders? Volunteers? Outsiders? Where are they taking the people who still have their memories? How do they know when someone or something is being hidden? Why do they care? Etc. These seemed to me like basic world-building and title-explaining questions, and instead of answering any of them, Ogawa asks the reader to trust and follow along blindly. In a way, this is exactly what the islanders must do- most of them don’t question anything and have no qualms about complying, and so the reading experience is a bit like the novelist’s life in that regard. And yet I couldn’t help feeling that opportunities were missed when the novel failed to delve more deeply into the particulars of its world and constraints.

“I had only to surrender to each new disappearance to find myself carried along quite naturally to the place I needed to be.”

Ultimately, though I enjoyed the writing, the plot, and many of the ideas driving this story, I was left wishing for more. More from this novel, but also more of Ogawa’s work. This book does seem to be a better fit for many other readers, so don’t let me dissuade you if you’re interested in the premise.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad to have finally read one of Ogawa’s translated works, and I’m certain it won’t be my last. I’m aiming to read more translations throughout the year in 2020, and even though this one didn’t excite me quite as much as I’d hoped, it was an encouraging start.

Additionally, I flew through my January BOTM selection- Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation is a slim literary fiction volume just over 200 pages. It was also a mixed experience.

topicsofconversationIn the novel, a woman recalls various encounters and conversations she’s had over the course of about twenty years. Most of these conversations take place privately between women, though not all. In a series of vignette-like chapters, we follow the narrator from place to place as she carries the burdens of each confession throughout her life.

This is a novel that shows how quietly but relentlessly gender-specific abuse can affect women. When I say abuse, I mean that there’s a woman who is stabbed in one of these stories (though not on the page), and at least one who is raped (also not on the page), but much of it is more subtle. It’s seen in the women who admit they liked being told what to do, or who tell themselves that an affair with a professor was mutual and fair, or who feel guilty staying in a relationship with a nice guy. Women tell each other privately about the men who’ve hurt them, and the part that cuts to the heart the most is that the book is not a rage-fest but a quiet sharing of shame, acceptance of blame in many cases, and at times even a manipulation tactic. Our narrator, whether she knows it or not, is internalizing these horrid little stories and it’s obvious that they are shaping her idea of what is normal and acceptable, even desirable.

“I was pretty sure I knew where this story was going, not only because the man in the story had been identified as a sexual predator but also because it was late and it was only women and we were all a little drunk and under those conditions there is only one place a story about a boy and a girl ever goes.”

Though I loved the intent I saw behind these conversations, the persistant toxicity of a male-dominant power imbalance, the execution simply did not work for me. The writing style is a bit experimental, sometimes using quotation marks and sometimes not, flowing freely from dialogue to thought to exposition and back again in a single sentence. It’s not impossible to follow, but I couldn’t pinpoint any reason for using this sort of erratic style, and ultimately it did nothing for me. It’s also not entirely clear whether these conversations are all being told in retrospect- there are comments about future events woven into the narration, though the stories seem to offer very little of the reflection or that should come with twenty years of contemplation. Furthermore, it’s not entirely clear whether the narrator is reliable or not. There are moments when she’s all but bragging about her bad experiences, or inventing bits of her stories as she goes, or telling them for the sole purpose of making her listener react in a certain way. Of course these are all realistic ways in which women react to their experiences, but if our narrator here can admit to being untruthful and using her conversations to invoke a certain impression in her audience, how can we trust anything that she’s saying? And what is the point of the book if we can’t? With the possibility that the narrator is lying about ALL of her experiences, is there anything to learn from them?

“I am often thinking of the better story because the actual story is so often boring.”

I marked so many thought-provoking lines and passages from this book, and each chapter did eventually manage to  capture my interest. But ultimately, the pieces just didn’t add up as a whole. Each “conversation” is more or less a monologue from one character or another (mixed with the narrator’s commentary), and feels complete in itself, making the transitions rough and the stories disjointed. The common denominator, the narrator, remains too elusive to provide a sense of purpose. Though I really liked the themes I drew from this book, I did not particularly enjoy/appreciate the read, and am left wondering whether this one was worth my time at all.

“And yes I know no one keeps blogs anymore.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I hope BOTM will keep offering experimental lit fic selections this year, even though this one did not quite live up to expectations.

Please let me know if you’ve read either of these books, I’d love to hear some different opinions!

 

The Literary Elephant

Wrap-Up: Booker Prize 2019

The Booker season has passed, the year has passed, a lot of the buzz surrounding these books has passed, but it’s time to collect my thoughts on the 2019 Booker Prize now that I’ve read the whole list. (Well, almost the whole list.)

I’m going to start by ranking the longlist in order of personal preference, with a few words about my reading experience. I’ll link the titles to my reviews if you’re looking for more in-depth thoughts or general information about any particular book.

 

13. Quichotte by Salman Rushdie. I expect I’ll get around to reading this one eventually. BUT Quichotte wasn’t published in the US until the shortlist was announced, and I wasn’t prepared to read both Cervantes’s Don Quixote (which I would want to read beforehand) and Quichotte while the prize was going on, and now it feels less urgent. I know Rushdie is a big name in the literary world and a previous Booker Prize winner, but I can’t claim an opinion. (The only reason I’m placing it at the bottom of this list.)

44599127

12. An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma. 2 stars. I can see why this was nominated. There ARE some appreciable elements here: the commentary on racism and prejudice in Africa (and beyond), and what is, in most respects, a wonderful cultural snapshot; both fit in well with this year’s other nominees. But I found its structure more like a gimmick that never panned out and I HATED the male character’s attitude toward the woman he supposedly loved. While I can admit there are some good aspects here and that part of my dislike is personal (such as not enjoying the writing style), I was dismayed to see this made the shortlist.

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11. The Wall by John Lanchester. 2 stars. This one was very readable and unproblematic, but I don’t understand the choice to longlist it at all. Despite how glaringly obvious its parallels to real-world issues are, it fails to offer any new observations or perspectives. There’s just… nothing to dig into here, and the ending addresses none of the concerns raised. Perhaps I somehow missed it, but I found no worthwhile statement or even question here, despite the story being perfectly fine.

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10. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. 2 stars. I don’t begrudge this book its fan base, but this was not a good fit for me. I loved The Handmaid’s Tale especially for its ambiguous ending, and found myself frustrated with its sequel for spoon-feeding me the answers to all of the questions I didn’t ask. Which isn’t to say it’s objectively a bad book. My main criticism with seeing it longlisted is simply that it reads more like a predictable YA dystopia than literary fiction, so while ultimately I’m glad that this one’s making waves and capturing the hearts of many, I don’t think the Booker prize was the right placement for it, especially beyond the longlist.

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9. Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry. 3 stars. Despite a premise that struck me as highly intriguing, I felt mostly indifferent toward this one in the end. It’s got some beautiful prose, if that’s your thing, but not much plot, and again, just nothing really to dig into. Unlike with The Wall, it did at least seem like an attempt was being made, and there were a few individual elements I enjoyed- a chapter here, a character there, etc. Ultimately I was left wishing it had simply gone farther in any of the promising directions it could have taken based on its premise. I can see why this is working better for some readers, but it was underwhelming for me.

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8. Lanny by Max Porter. 4 stars. This was mostly a fun read (despite the heavy topics of otherness, child safety, and mortality) and beautiful on the page. It’s divided into three parts that are all very different from each other, and I had a very different experience with each: the first piqued my interest, the second COMPLETELY hooked me, and the third took the magical element too far for my taste. I wouldn’t have been heartbroken to have missed this one, but it doesn’t seem out of place on the longlist.

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7. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak. 4 stars. This book is not without its flaws, but I came to it late after seeing quite a few negative reviews, which worked in my favor. Though the execution falls apart to some extent in the second and third parts of this narrative, it’s a readable tale with an interesting structure and worthwhile themes of prejudice and injustice in Turkey. I’m indifferent to its placement on the shortlist; its advancement encouraged me to pick it up, which I don’t resent, but it wouldn’t have been one of my top choices to advance.

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6. Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli. 4 stars. Admittedly it did take a while for this one to convince me, but in the end it won me over. I thought the structure and plot worked well together, I was emotionally invested, and appreciated the dive into a timely topic. I think a spot on the shortlist would’ve been well-deserved and I’ll continue to be disappointed that it missed the chance both with the 2019 Women’s Prize and now the Booker. I highly recommend picking up Luiselli’s nonfiction Tell Me How it Ends alongside this one if you’re interested in the topic of Mexican and Central American migrants crossing into the US.

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5. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. 4 stars. This was a very high 4-star read for me; I loved its themes, the narrative voice, the vignettes that read almost like individual short stories (though I’ll continue to argue that they’re not), the range of unique and fascinating characters. I had only a couple of small hang-ups about the overarching plot and the themes feeling a bit forced at times, but ultimately I appreciated this book quite a lot and highly recommend it- it holds up as a Booker winner. Even though it wasn’t my personal favorite read from the longlist, I would’ve been happy to see it as the sole winner this year.

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4. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. 5 stars. This one’s ranked ahead of Girl, Woman, Other only by a very small margin, as is the next book. I simply had such a fun time with this one. It took me completely, pleasantly by surprise- the fact that it’s probably one of the first literary thrillers I’ve read couldn’t have hurt. I’m neither shocked nor disappointed that it didn’t advance farther than the longlist, but it’s quick, accessible, thought-provoking, and a bit hard to categorize; all elements I love.

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3. The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy. 5 stars. Another short book that accomplishes a lot, this one manages to address a range of interesting topics while also being one of the most structurally innovating books on the longlist. It’s not quite as… politically charged as the shortlisted books, so I can see why it didn’t advance farther, but I am so glad it was longlisted; I for one, might have missed it otherwise, and found it entirely worth the read.

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2. Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson. 5 stars. This is definitely a book for Frankenstein fans, of which I am one, so this was always going to work for me, I think. There’s not a lot of plot and the humor doesn’t always hit the mark, but on the whole I loved Winterson’s prose, I loved the emotion it was able to provoke and the avenues of thought it led me down. This one manages both to expand upon Shelley’s original themes and take them in new directions, while also Frankenstein-ing the structure, adding Shelley herself and her characters into the mix, and contributing to modern gender discourse. It’s absolutely everything I wanted it to be and I loved every page.

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1. Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann. 5 stars. This one takes patience. At 1000 pages, it’s probably the least “accessible” book on the longlist, though aside from the time commitment I did not find it particularly challenging to read. Some aspects of this worked better for me than others, but at the end of the day this is THE book from the longlist that impressed me most and will stay with me the longest. I love the import it gives to a seemingly unimportant character, I love the perspective it highlights, I love the way it loops around and doubles back on itself, drawing a complete narrative out of an exhaustive strand of thought. I understand that this isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but in my mind it was the most deserving of this year’s Booker win. It’s timely, it’s experimental and ground-breaking, it’s feminist, and, a lot of the time, it really is fun. At least, for me it was. This ended up being my favorite read of 2019 as well. It raises the bar high. There’s nothing like it.

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As a whole, it’s not a bad or unusual longlist. Thematically there’s a lot of focus on political unrest, on the very divided opinions we’re seeing in the world right now and what the long-term effects might be. There’s a lot of fear for the future here, and a close examination of injustices. A fair amount of feminism as well, and more than half the list written by women. All of which I can appreciate.

It’s not been my favorite longlist though (I’ve only read one other full Booker list so take that as you will); despite the four 5-star ratings, this felt like a safe list, with a lot of big authors starring. Two that I liked a lot were titles I’d already read, and THREE 2-star ratings was a real low for me. I wasn’t originally planning to read the entire list, and I might’ve ended up having a better time if I hadn’t pushed myself through so many that weren’t doing much for me. So, a mixed year. What I’ve learned is that I shouldn’t ALWAYS read the full longlist, especially if it doesn’t appeal to me initially as a whole.

I’ll link my initial longlist reaction post here for anyone curious, though it’s mainly a preview of which books I expected to read or not at the time, which definitely changed.

 

Now for the shortlist. Unfortunately, the one book I didn’t end up reading was shortlisted, so I’m still not entirely informed here, but I’ll do my best.

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On the shortlist: Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities, Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, Atwood’s The Testaments, Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, and Rushdie’s Quichotte.

Again, on the surface, not a bad list. Countries represented include: Nigeria, Turkey, US, UK, Canada, and India. 4 out of 6 are female authors. Every book here (that I’ve read, at least) is structurally interesting, challenges the political status quo, and offers a unique perspective, generally through a particularly well-drawn character. But… both authors with a previous win appear here (Atwood and Rushdie), as does a previously shortlisted author (Obioma). There are several here I would’ve traded, if the choice had been up to me. I would’ve loved to see Frankissstein in place of The Testaments (both are gender-focused sci-fi tales), Lost Children Archive in place of An Orchestra of Minorities (both tell a story of people traveling to an unfamiliar country) and perhaps The Man Who Saw Everything in place of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (the only similarity I can think of drawing here is a spoiler, so I’ll refrain). I have no idea whether I’d be willing to trade Quichotte or with what. Admittedly my choices would leave us with more UK- and US-based writers, which would be disappointing though not the only consideration.

I’ll link my initial reaction to the shortlist here for the sake of completion, though if I remember correctly it’s mainly a sum of what I’d read so far and still intended to read.

 

I hoped that Milkman winning last year while I was in the midst of reading it boded well for Ducks, Newburyport this year, which I was reading at the time of the winner announcement. Unfortunately, the winner(s) announcement turned into quite a mess, instead.

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Both Atwood and Evaristo were named as the winners of 2019’s Booker Prize, which… a lot of people had a lot of issues with. I’ll link my initial winner reaction here, which includes some of the arguments being raised at that time; primarily, that Atwood’s book was not particularly literary, and that the joint win wasn’t fair to Evaristo, the first black woman ever to win the Booker.

After writing that post, quite a bit more drama ensued. I read several articles that were published after the fact, a couple of which stood out; this one, for instance, in which the judges discuss their deliberations and admit to choosing the winner not by weighing the literary merit of each story, but by looking at the authors’ careers and critical/cultural standing as well. Then there was this article from Ducks’ publisher about the difficulties small publishing houses face participating in big literary prizes, and thus the unfairness felt when they’ve put in the money and work and aren’t given a fair chance at winning. It was quite a debacle, and that’s not even taking into account the fact that the judges’ SOLE JOB was to choose a single winner, which they failed to do.

I can’t deny I wanted Ducks, Newburyport to win. I hadn’t finished reading it and I hadn’t read Girl, Woman, Other yet, but my opinion hasn’t changed after reading them. I do think that Evaristo’s novel is a quality winner. It’s arguably more readable than Ellmann’s novel for the sheer difference in size, and its themes are just as timely, insightful, and significant. Evaristo’s win puts a great story with a creative structure and messages of equality into the hands of readers who might not have bothered reading the Booker winner this year if it clocked in at 1000 pages. If I had to pick a second choice for a winner, Evaristo would’ve been it, and honestly maybe it is the better fit. I can live with it, anyway. I can be happy about it.

On the other hand, I mostly ignore Atwood’s win. I can’t help it. I love her writing, and she probably deserved to win for The Handmaid’s Tale, but for The Testaments? In a way, I feel that her 2019 win was a way for the judges to retroactively award her for Handmaid’s and the huge fandom it inspired. I think of Atwood’s 2019 win as a sort of lifetime-achievement award, which isn’t what the Booker should be, but I just can’t wrap my head around anyone thinking The Testaments is one of the top literary achievements of the year. It’s not a bad book. I’m not trying to say it’s not an achievement, or an important piece of modern culture, or fully deserving of its popularity. It’s just… not a Booker winner. Not in my mind.

 

And thus ends my experience with the 2019 Booker Prize. (At least until I eventually read Quichotte, but I’ll confine my thoughts to a single review for that.) I had a much better time with the 2018 list, so this isn’t going to scare me off of ever reading the Booker longlist again, but it does encourage me to be more choosy.

If you followed along at all last year, feel free to share your level of satisfaction with the 2019 Booker Prize below!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Man Who Saw Everything

I was really hoping to read Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything in December and wrap up with my 2019 Booker experience before the end of the year, but my library hold took longer to come in than it should’ve (we no longer have late fees), so instead the time is now. This was 12/13 from the Booker longlist for me, though I’ve decided I’m not reading the 13th in the near future just for timing reasons. I’ll talk more about that, and about all of the Booker books, in a full wrap-up coming soon. In the meantime, my review of The Man Who Saw Everything:

themanwhosaweverythingIn the novel, Saul is hit by a car. The year is 1988, he’s crossing Abbey Road, and a car grazes him in the crosswalk before stopping. He’s a bit sore but goes on his way without any serious health consequences; he’s supposed to be leaving for a trip to (Communist) East Berlin as a historian, intending to research and write a report. The incident with the car doesn’t prevent this trip, although it does initiate a host of other odd effects. These include what seem to be flashes of future moments, though he also encounters  people he thinks he’s met before, and people who don’t seem to believe or understand what he’s saying. Nothing quite makes sense, until it does.

“There were new images in my mind that resembled Jennifer’s photographs, images from another geography, another time. I was convinced that Jennifer had not yet taken those photographs, which I saw like slides in a carousel.”

The entire book is told through Saul’s perspective, though his mental state will turn out to be more fractured than the reader at first sees. He’s not an entirely likeable character, though his main fault seems to be simply a blindness to others’ perspectives that leads him to hurt the people he loves, however unintentionally. He makes mistakes along the way, but is nevertheless a sympathetic character.

I’ve been a bit vague on the plot, as is the jacket, because the plot is tangled with an impressive framing device that’s meant to surprise the reader. About halfway through the book, the reader becomes aware of a development that reshapes the way we view the narrative and provides a key with which to parse what follows. The latter half of the book is less linear, weaving through time and creating its own chronology as Saul’s memories mix with his present life. Ultimately, it’s an examination of time and perspective, the way that age and experience alter the choices we make and the way we understand them; and it’s executed perfectly.

To be completely honest, I wasn’t very interested until the framing device became clear in the second half. The characters are interesting enough, but I wasn’t hooked until it became clear how much more was going on than Saul was seeing and understanding at that time. The little clues that something strange was happening with the timeline were the biggest draw for me in the first portion of the book, though later on I did become more invested in the characters’ relationships and fates. It can take a bit of patience, but the book is short (just under 200 pages), so the wait for the moment of understanding to arrive doesn’t feel unreasonable. There’s a surprising amount of depth packed into these few pages, and I imagine both the themes and framing device would make for a rich reread as well.

” ‘Hey Saul. How’s it going?’ / ‘I’m trying to cross the road,’ I replied. / ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘you’ve been trying to cross the road for thirty years and stuff happened on the way.’ “

Something specific to me that affected my experience with this book is the fact that I read Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise earlier this month. Although their content and structures are unique, both books elicited the same sort of reaction from me- disinterest in the slow first half, overturned by the introduction of a crafty alteration to structure in the second. While ultimately I liked Trust Exercise a bit more (its feminist themes held greater appeal for me), I thought Levy’s prose and pacing more palatable. There are certainly pros and cons to both, as they are very different stories, but I think reading them so close together took some of the power and surprise out of The Man Who Saw Everything for me, which is, of course, not a fault of this book.

Otherwise, this was certainly an enjoyable experience. Sad, but so fun to see it all come together. It’s a bit lighter on social issues than the shortlisted Booker books (that I’ve read) so I can see why the longlist is as far as it went, but I think it’s well worth the read for anyone who likes a good character-driven story with a strong literary element.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. Full disclosure, I almost went with 4 here and it’s not as likely to be a long-term favorite as Trust Exercise, but in the end that didn’t feel like enough to dock a star for. I do think this is a really good book, and I’d be curious to check out more of Levy’s work (this was the first book of hers I’ve read). All in all, a great way to end my Booker journey for the 2019 season.

Tell me about a book you’ve read with a twist that completely changed your perspective on the story!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: My Cousin Rachel

It’s been almost TWO YEARS since I read and loved Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, a book that left me suspecting I’d found a new (to me) favorite author, so it was beyond time to try another of her books and seal the deal. This month, I picked up my second-ever du Maurier novel, My Cousin Rachel, in a lovely buddy read with Melanie (@ Grab the Lapels). Fortunately, we both loved it! I’ve linked to her review.

mycousinrachelIn the novel, Philip resides on his uncle’s estate, of which he is the sole heir. When he was orphaned as a baby, this uncle took him in; they are each other’s closest family, and remarkably similar in appearance, opinion, and habit. For his health, the uncle has recently begun wintering away from the property at Cornwall, where much to his surprise Philip one day receives a letter stating that his uncle has married their cousin Rachel and will not be returning home as early as planned. Before long more letters start to arrive- mysterious, accusatory letters, begging Philip to come quickly- which he does, but not before his uncle is pronounced dead. Angry and disbelieving of the supposed cause of death, Philip invites Rachel to stay with him in Cornwall, intending to punish her for whatever role she may have played in his uncle’s demise. But when she arrives, nothing goes quite the way he thought it would.

My Cousin Rachel is a gothic novel with an air of mystery, though ultimately it’s du Maurier’s insightful characterization and atmosphere that drive the reader onward. The ever-present question of whether Rachel had anything to do with her husband’s sudden death is never far from the reader’s mind, though so much else is happening in the foreground that it’s impossible to call this novel anything other than a masterful, layered work.

The entire novel is narrated from Philip’s perspective, which I found immensely interesting as there’s also quite a bit of commentary on- or at least implication surrounding-  the unfairness of traditional gender roles and stereotypes. It seems to have been written with a female audience in mind, as the criticisms lie mainly in understood but unspoken motivations and undercurrents in dialogue, rather than bold statements. Nevertheless, the hint of feminism is no less exciting for its subtlety. Perhaps moreso for the fact that it is apparent through the lens of a self-entitled young man.

” ‘Louise isn’t a woman,’ I said, ‘she’s younger than myself, and I have known her since she ran around in petticoats.’ “

Of course, Philip isn’t the only interesting character; the framing of the novel around his perspective is apparent even in the title, but he is not the titular character. Rachel herself is vibrant and enigmatic; she’s polite, ladylike, and impeccably behaved on the surface, but it’s clear from the start that she’s intelligent and secretive, and won’t take anyone else’s word for who she should be and what she should do. She is entirely worthy of the mystery revolving around her. Additionally, the handful of secondary characters each have their own unique angle into the story, each a necessary cog that keeps the central wheel spinning.

As for the mystery, it plays out perfectly. A slow setup of the situation in the opening chapters allows readers a chance to meet all of the key players and acquaint themselves with the central conflict- the debate over whether or not Rachel is guilty of murder- which begins to wind ever tighter as soon as Rachel arrives on the page. From there, the tension and pacing gradually increase as these disparate personalities bounce off of one another in lieu of much real plot; relationships become increasingly nuanced and disaster looms. The final clues aren’t distributed until the very end of the novel, keeping the reader hooked and questing for answers up to the very last page- and beyond. This is a book that stays with the reader, that keeps asking questions after the cover is closed, and that promises a rich reread as well.

But, despite everything that I loved about this reading experience, there were a couple of elements to it that didn’t quite win me over. (I believe they worked better for Melanie, so be sure to check out her review for another opinion!)

The first is Philip. I’ve already mentioned being impressed with some of what was accomplished with his characterization, so clearly he was a double-edged sword for me. He’s an engaging and readable narrator, and the perfect perspective from which to view this series of tragedies as a mystery, but he’s also not the most likeable character; in itself, that wouldn’t bother me as long as his characterization serves a narrative purpose, but I’m not convinced Philip’s mildly selfish, spoiled personality ever does. It’s not strong enough for me to hate him, nor for me to pity him. He’s single and childless, and his uncle is already dead, so the reader must care about Philip for his own sake, which I never quite did. I found the matter of Rachel’s potential crimes against his family an intellectual curiosity at most, and unfortunately was never emotionally invested in Philip’s fate.

” ‘You have grown up ignorant of women, and if you ever marry it will be hard on your wife. I was saying so to Louise at breakfast.’ / He broke off then, looking – if my godfather could look such a thing – a little uncomfortable, as if he said more than he meant. / ‘That’s all right,’ I said, ‘my wife can take care of all the difficulties when the time comes.’ “

I also found myself frustrated over the murkiness of a few of the characters’ loyalties, especially those of Rachel’s friend/lawyer, and those of Philip’s godfather. I was never quite clear on whether their actions stemmed from genuine feelings, or whether they were merely following the letter of the law and came across as a bit suspicious only because it fed into the pull of the main mystery. I don’t think a bit more clarity on their motives would have hurt the story at all, and so I was disappointed not to have it.

And last but not least, though I did find plenty of surprises in the plot, I also found some aspects very predictable, which is not necessarily a fault of the book but probably inevitable 70 years after a mystery publication with the level of popularity du Maurier’s work has always seen. Though I enjoyed all of it, I saw through some of it, which made me impatient at points. Not a big deal at all, and I can’t be more specific without spoiling things, but I wanted to mention a bit of potential predictability for mystery fans.

” ‘Sometimes,’ she said slowly, ‘you are so like him that I become afraid. I see your eyes, with that same expression, turned upon me; and it is as though, after all, he had not died, and everything that was endured must be endured once more.’ “

Ultimately, My Cousin Rachel lacked for me that sense of everything falling perfectly into place (such as I found in Rebecca), though I did appreciate most of the lingering ambiguity. At the end of the story, there’s still a major choice of belief left up to the reader, narrowed down to a simple yes or no question that even a strong opinion one way or the other will not banish uncertainty from. It’s cleverly crafted and fun from start to finish, entirely worth the read.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was really close to a 5 star rating, and even though it didn’t quite make it for me, the experience has cemented du Maurier as one of my favorite authors, and leaves me determined to read the rest of her work. Next up for me (though I’m not sure when I’ll get to it) will probably be The House on the Strand. I’ll also be watching the film adaptation for My Cousin Rachel as soon as possible.

Have you read or seen this one?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

The Literary Elephant