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Review: Sadie

I’d been hearing a lot of buzz about this new YA release from Courtney Summers long before it was listed as a Goodreads Choice Awards nominee, and for good reason. I picked up Sadie in early October, about a month after it came out. It was my first Summers novel, and I doubt it will be my last. I’ve been unusually interested in YA books that deal with heavy topics this year, like death, abuse, and rape. I haven’t read all of the titles that I’ve wanted to yet, but I think it’s important for teens to know about the scary topics, for the dark parts of the world to be as represented in YA literature as the bright parts. Awareness is important. At least, that’s my stance.

sadieAbout the book: Sadie and Mattie’s mom wasn’t much help to her daughters before she skipped town, but Mattie loved her anyway and is heartbroken by the abandonment. She fights seventeen year-old Sadie’s attempts to care for her after their mom leaves. Mattie tries to take off to rejoin their mother, leaving Sadie devastated when news of Mattie’s death reaches her shortly after. Though Mattie was difficult, all Sadie wanted was to make sure Mattie had a good, fair life, and Mattie’s murder leaves one thing on Sadie’s mind: revenge. News of Sadie’s disappearance makes interesting fodder for a podcast series as one man tries to follow the scant trail Sadie left behind, hoping to solve the mystery and receive some help from the listening public before Sadie meets the same fate as her sister.

“Every little thing about you can be a weapon, if you’re clever enough.”

This book alternates between traditional chapters in Sadie’s perspective, and chapters formatted as podcast episodes as her case is investigated after her disappearance. The podcast format has its ups and downs. The break from traditional narrative is an intriguing vote in the book’s favor, even for readers who pick up a physical copy (like me) instead of the audiobook (which I hear is really good). The format does mean that there are those little informational headers at the start of new sections including dates and names of speakers that are so easy to skip over visually, but I think that as with many unusual formats, this one will come down to personal preference rather than a flat consensus.

Some downsides to the podcast format: we’re only getting the part of the story that these characters are willing to say out loud, for strangers to hear. Sadie’s chapters are the exception, but the podcast chapters are entirely composed of monologues and dialogues, which reveals the usual barrier between what people think and what they say, as we only get the speaking portions. There are things we never know about people who don’t speak in the podcast, or who don’t speak truthfully. The killer never has a voice, which I think is a good message to send, though it does leave unanswered questions about some of his motives and logistics. The reader never knows for sure why the killer was in town that day, why he might have risked his current family situation for Mattie when he hadn’t bothered with her before, or even how he could’ve gotten away with her murder so easily.

But those aren’t the only curiosities Summers leaves to the reader: Sadie’s ending is also left ambiguous, with two major possibilities for the reader to choose from. It’s the sort of ending that might leave a lot of readers disappointed with the lack of closure, though Summers’s refusal to tie up loose ends sends a strong message about real cases of missing girls, and perpetuates the life-is-dark-and-messy sentiment that Sadie dredges up throughout the novel. I appreciated Sadie’s ending in this story a lot more than the nagging questions about the killer.

“It was a terrible thing, sure, but we live in a world that has no shortage of terrible things. You can’t stop for all of them.”

Another downside to the podcast format is that there are places where the narrative feels a bit forced, including dialogue that doesn’t seem entirely realistic in order to provide information to the reader that the narrative has left no other way to deliver. There are some places where West (the main voice of the podcast) must ruminate aloud, and conversations between West and his boss that seem planted only to convey emotion and motive that could best be shown through actions or thoughts.

On another note, I love that Sadie has a stutter. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that represented in a respectful way in any other book. Such a defining characteristic makes Sadie feel real enough to exist outside the pages of a fiction novel, which is important for a contemporary book meant to raise awareness of real world problems.

“I can’t describe how bad it feels, this inability to communicate the way I want, when I need to.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I thought this was an intelligent YA book with important messages for readers of all ages (some of the content is a bit mature and may be upsetting for younger readers, but I do think it’s all presented in an appropriate way). I didn’t completely jive with the writing style, but I did like the book enough that I’ll give Courtney Summers another try. I’m thinking of trying All the Rage next, but I’m open to suggestions if you have any!

Further recommendations:

  • Mindy McGinnis’s The Female of the Species for another teenage girl who’s out to stop an adult male abuser, as well as a town full of teens who learn more about rape than they bargained for and decide not to allow it. It’s a book of strength.

Have you read Sadie, or other books by Courtney Summers? What did you think?


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Long Take

I picked up this Man Booker shortlist title in early October, hoping to finish at least the shortlist before the winner was announced. Spoiler: I didn’t quite. But I did enjoy the time I spent with Robin Robertson’s The Long Take, the only poetic narrative from the longlist.

thelongtakeAbout the book: Walker leaves Europe a changed man, unable to return to his Canadian home after the war. He writes to his parents and the girl he loved, but doesn’t go back to Nova Scotia to reunite with them. Instead he finds lodging and work in America’s cities, sampling mainly New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. In these places he tries to make sense of what he’s seen and what is left for him in post-war life, but he makes his home in a place that is falling apart, finding friends with similar post-war troubles who are being dragged down right along with the vanishing streets they inhabit.

” ‘…got shot up good.’ / ‘And welcomed home as a hero, I bet.’ / ‘Yeah. Just look at us now: two heroes in a hostel on Skid Row.’ “

The Long Take is a novel of sorts, told in verse but still a longer cohesive narrative. The plot is fairly simplistic, but as I went into this book expecting poetry I didn’t mind that the language took precedence over story arc.

The story is told through separated passages of prose that are each complete pieces in themselves. The writing style is consistent throughout, though some of the passages portray different things. Most of the narrative is composed of Walker’s present experiences (or recent past if the reader is to understand that he’s writing them himself in the aftermath). But there are also passages of dreams, and of flashbacks to scenes from Walker’s war experiences. There are notes he writes to send home, and memories of time spent with the girl he can’t bear to let see him again. It took me a few pages to know for sure what was what, as there are no labels to distinguish all of these parts, but it’s fairly easy to pick up on the distinctions and follow them through the book. 

Before I go beyond structure, let me mention that I don’t read a lot of poetry, and I’m especially behind in modern poetry, so I’m probably not the most knowledgeable critic for this book. But I can talk about the reasons I enjoyed reading it, and the biggest of those is the wording.

“He woke suddenly and turned around, but the door of the dream had / closed behind him. Scrabbling at the surface he could find no handle, no / handhold, to let him back in to his childhood, to the bar at the end of / the world.”

Do you ever read a passage so striking that you have to stop and go back to read it again, slowly, to savor it? I do, sometimes even with individual words that just sound unusually nice in my head. Though The Long Take was pretty easy to read and understand at a normal reading pace, I read it pretty slowly because I loved Robertson’s sentences and smaller word combinations. The style was just an all-around good fit for me, and that was the biggest contributor to my enjoyment here.

I also had a clear picture of each of the cities in my mind, which is something that honestly doesn’t happen for me very often in novels. I’m so much more invested in the characters and plot that setting is just sort of a foggy background blur that’s only present enough to give me an idea of the characters’ lives within it. But with The Long Take, I felt a familiarity with these cities I’ve never visited, even though they’re portrayed in another time period. The settings in this book are as essential as the characters, the settings are characters themselves, and those are the only settings that really make an impression on me. When I think of Los Angeles, I will think of The Long Take.

Furthermore, I was hooked on the PTSD and general deterioration aspects. They gave the book a sense of doom, which is an atmosphere that always keeps my attention pretty well. The tragedy that is post-war civilization was the only part of the book that I engaged with emotionally; Walker did what was asked of him, but didn’t find much help dealing with any of it afterward. The world takes and takes, and only seems to give to those who already have. That’s universal, which bridged the fact that I haven’t seen much of war firsthand.

“The papers say / ‘Keep dogs and cats inside on the Fourth of July’ / but nothing about ex-servicemen. / You can’t get tanked enough to block / the fireworks’ whine, their / door-burst slam, the rustling / shiver as they fail, fissling away.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I picked this up when I needed a break from novels, and not expecting to love it. I think the lower expectations helped make this an enjoyable reading experience for me, but I don’t think my appreciation for it was entirely circumstantial. I just like words, and Robertson seems to be one of those writers who has a great relationship with words. They just work for him. I was not surprised that this one didn’t win the Man Booker Prize, but it will certainly stick in my mind for a while. I might even read it again.

Other Man Booker reviews in order of most to least favorite: Everything Under, The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, Warlight, Washington Black, Snap. (I’ve also now read Milkman, The Overstory, and Sabrina with reviews for those coming soon!)


The Literary Elephant

Review: Sea Prayer

I’ve only read one other Khaled Hosseini book so far, but I loved it (A Thousand Splendid Suns). For so long I’ve been meaning to read another, and I still do intend to pick up more of Hosseini’s novels, but in the meantime a short picture book seemed too easy and intriguing to pass up: so I borrowed a copy of Sea Prayer as soon as it was released, and read it in the first days of October.

seaprayerAbout the Book: A father speaks to his son (or imagines speaking to his son) about the reasons they need to leave their home country and the dangers that lie ahead in crossing the sea. The boy is small enough that he won’t remember some of the good things about his country’s and family’s history, but his father doesn’t want him to forget or to be forgotten, no matter what happens to them when they leave.

This is a very short book, so I’ll keep it brief: Sea Prayer is for adults who like to look at beautiful pictures while they read, and feel that they’re contributing to a cause. Author proceeds from this book are going to the UN Refugee Agency. The book is inspired by a real tragedy, with an eye toward the current refugee situation. It is timely, important, and gorgeous.

You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned anything about plot. The thing is, this book is a poem rather than a story. The story lies between the lines. Maybe it’s even more of a concept than a story. It’s a worthwhile concept: that escaping a torn country– especially by sea– is a potentially fatal risk that unfortunately many people are forced to take.

This book is undoubtedly beautiful and well-meant, but I generally pick up a book hoping for a good story that leaves me thinking– and Sea Prayer is a little lax on narrative. I’ve struggled with this rating and review quite a bit, because I am happy that this book exists and is raising awareness, and that people are buying it and thus contributing to refugee funds. And yet… it’s just something pretty to look at for a few minutes rather than an example of thought-provoking literature. The synopsis tells you exactly what you’re getting– no more, no less. If the synopsis sounds good to you, and you like the cover art (which is a good representation of the art on the interior pages), you won’t be disappointed.

“Because all I can think tonight is / how deep the sea, / and how vast, how indifferent. / How powerless I am to protect you from it.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I borrowed this from the library before I knew where the proceeds were going, because I have a hard time paying full price for short books. But I think I will be buying a copy for my own shelf at some point, and I do recommend the read– even if you only borrow it from the library to enjoy the pictures for a few minutes. You won’t regret those minutes.


The Literary Elephant

Review: Mr. Mercedes

I fell so far behind on book reviews since the beginning of October… I’ve been keeping notes so that I can try reviewing with my usual thoroughness, but it has been a hot minute since I read many of the books that I’ll be reviewing this month, so I might keep catch-up reviews a little briefer and stick to what I remember most strongly.

To start, I read Mr. Mercedes in early October with a buddy– we both wanted to get into this series (the Bill Hodges series, which is a sort of prequel to King’s 2018 release, The Outsider) and now we’re hooked. I’ve been too busy to continue the series immediately, but I have ordered the next book and am looking forward to it! My buddy reader is in the third book now and still loving the series, so I have high hopes.

mr.mercedesAbout the book: Detective Bill Hodges is retired, but a few unsolved cases continue to nag at him even though he’s not supposed to work on them any longer and has lost his access to police resources. When he receives a letter from Mr. Mercedes, the unknown culprit of a terrible hit-and-run case that left eight dead and another four wounded, he knows he should turn it in as evidence, but can’t shake the feeling that starting a private dialogue with the killer will provide more leads. Meanwhile, Mr. Mercedes continues to watch Hodges’ house, hoping that his gloating, accusatory letter will be just the thing to convince Hodges to commit suicide– adding another tally to Mr. Mercedes’s body count and eliminating the detective who lead investigations into his biggest crime. But if Hodges’s death doesn’t pan out, Mr. Mercedes has some other deadly ideas, and his recent conversation with Hodges might hold the only clues to stopping his plans.

“The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue.”

I’ve seen Mr. Mercedes classified as mystery, thriller, and yes, horror, but I would say it’s a pretty straightforward crime novel. King always excels at characterization, and above all else, this book is an examination of character– of a heartless killer and of the bizarre cast of accomplices trying to thwart him. Often mystery novels that feature a whimsical band of misfits chasing a notorious criminal seem overly fabricated to me– the fact that these unique mystery solvers came together in the first place feels so constructed and unlikely (see Night Film). But Hodges’s friends are another story. Jerome is Hodges’s neighbor and already a friend before Mr. Mercedes comes along. Janey and Holly’s interest in the case makes perfect sense as they are relatives of one of Mr. Mercedes’s victims. Even the people Hodges interviews for clues act like real people, rather than the overly chatty sources of necessary info-dumping that mysteries often rely on. Each character and their motives are clear and distinct– including the killer’s.

That’s right, one of the highlights of Mr. Mercedes is that King provides plenty of perspective chapters direct from inside the mind of the killer. This is why I hesitate to call this novel a mystery or thriller; seeing this man’s side of the story takes out a high percentage of the guesswork and fright for the reader. We know where he is and what he’s doing. But I thought Mr. Mercedes’s sections of the book were highly engaging and indeed the most interesting parts of the book, so I didn’t mind learning early the identity of the killer. In my opinion, King does an excellent job of balancing the how’s and why’s, which lets him get away with offering the who’s and what’s at the front and center.

The only flaw for me was the increasing thinness of Hodges’ excuses for refusing to involve the police. What seemed a bad but understandable decision in the beginning eventually turns toward the unreasonable. When things really start going bad, he keeps going basically on momentum alone, and even though all the signs point to needing professional help and reinforcements, Hodges keeps refusing to do that. With more lives at stake, his excuses make less sense, and believability definitely takes a hit when his “assistants” start spouting their own flimsy excuses:

“Speaking carefully, enunciating each word as if to make up for what has probably been a lifetime of mumbling, Holly says, ‘No one can catch him but you.’ “

But those excuses come late in the game, and by that point I was almost too invested in the story to care why the “heroes” close themselves off so entirely. Perhaps with a little more attention to this question, King would’ve been able to provide a more satisfactory answer– the problem seemed more like an oversight than the product of poor planning or writing. Overall, this book was a fun time with a fascinating(ly dark) plot unlike anything I’ve encountered before, even in previous King novels.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This one isn’t going to be joining my all-time favorites list, but it is on my list of favorite King novels. It was a fast, interesting read that held my attention 100% from start to finish. I’ll definitely be reading on, though it might take me a couple of months to get around to it. October was a great time of year to start this series though, and I’m glad I finally picked it up. This one’s been sitting on my shelf since… probably 2013, so I’m glad I finally picked it up.

Further recommendations:

  • Robert Galbraith’s Career of Evil is actually the third book in what is currently a 4-book series by J. K. Rowling (Galbraith is a pen name). Unless you’re really into the will-they-won’t-they dynamic between the detective and his assistant, there’s really no reason to read the first two before this one, which was by far the strongest of the three that I’ve read so far. It also features interesting chapters from the killer’s perspective.
  • Caroline Kepnes’ YouAgain, if you like getting Mr. Mercedes’s whacked perspective, this is another fascinating story from the eyes of the deranged.

What’s your favorite Stephen King novel?


The Literary Elephant

Review: Washington Black

Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black was my 7th Man Booker longlist title (of 13), and my 3rd read from the shortlist (of 6). So I’m officially halfway through. Washington Black was just released in the US last week, so I chose this one next based on availability.

washingtonblackAbout the book: Wash is a young slave on Faith Plantation in Barbados. His life is hard, but he’s got a friend, and he will follow where she leads. At least, until the new master’s brother visits, and selects Wash as his new assistant in scientific endeavors. Removed from the life of a field worker, new opportunities open for Wash– though he is still another man’s property. Titch is against slavery morally, but his attempts to remove Wash from hideous treatment in the sugar fields does not necessarily lead Wash to a better life. Circumstances lead Titch to escape Faith in a flying ship– a “Cloud-cutter.” Wash leaves with him, beginning a grand and terrifying journey through a harsh world that shows little respect for him, no matter how learned Titch has made him.

Washington Black is one of those books that I was happier to reach the end of than I was during any point while reading. The first section is a promising introduction to the story, detailing life on the Barbados plantation and ending with the odd pair– Titch and Wash– setting off through the sky in their own invention. But from there, the story wanders a bit aimlessly as years pass before Wash finds a sort of goal to work toward as well as the additional emotional complexity of a forbidden love. But much of the middle sections– indeed, much of the entire book– relies on telling rather than showing, as Wash seems to be relating his adventures from some point in the future. From this perspective, Wash notes moments of confusion or misunderstanding in his younger self, though he offers little in the way of explanation or growth that he may have gained through further experience.

“I was young and terrified and confused, it is true. But it is also true that the nature of what happened isn’t fixed; it shifts and warps with the years.”

I had two main issues with this book, issues that indicate this simply wasn’t the right book for me rather than that the novel is flawed. First, this is a very specific story. The events of Wash’s life are probably not events that have happened to any other people or characters ever in existence– and I found little to relate to or to learn from such specificity of experience nearly 200 years past. It’s not a broad look at culture or personality so much as a close-up of one man’s suffering. Some of the underlying messages might apply more widely, but the generalization of the underlying messages was my other issue with this story– I didn’t find that Washington Black had anything new to say on the injustices of slavery it highlighted. A white man taking credit for a black man’s work. A black man taking the blame for a white man’s actions. A white man trying to end slavery at least for one child, by giving him tools the world will not allow him to use. These are important pages in history, but I’ve encountered them before, in other stories. I found it frustrating to read such a unique tale to find only familiar morals.

“I felt Titch was trying to liberate himself from me. And again he would do it under the guise of granting me safety.”

But there is no mistaking the competency of Edugyan’s prose or the intelligence behind her words. There are bits and pieces of this story that will stay with me long after the plot fades, abstract ideas and emotions.

“There was but a thread between life and death, and he had stumbled blamelessly onto the wrong side of it.”

I’ll also remember the scientific aspects of the story: primarily the cloud-cutter and Ocean House. I didn’t look too closely at the premise of Washington Black before diving in, but with such a focus on science so early in the story I was hoping for something a little more zany, like The Underground Railroad. I knew there was no magical realism aspect to Washington Black, but I was disappointed with how quickly the cloud-cutter seemed to fade from its pages. I think the biggest failure of this novel is its hesitance to follow the science to more adventurous conclusions; Edugyan introduces some fascinating concepts, but lets them linger in the background of Wash’s life as he turns his attention instead to the scientist: Titch.

I probably would never have read this book if it hadn’t turned up on the Man Booker longlist the year that I decided to read every nominated book. Its spot on the shortlist led me to pick it up even sooner. But because I did find and read it because of the Man Booker longlist, I can’t help but compare my experience reading it to my similarly disappointing experience with Warlight. Though I preferred Ondaatje’s prose to Edugyan’s, I was pleased that Edugyan offered more directionality of narrative– and yet despite these minor differences, I spent much of my time with both books waiting for a reason to care about the main character and closing the book in the end without any real sense of connection.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I don’t regret having read this book, but I don’t think I’ve gained anything from reading it beyond crossing off another title on my trek through the longlist. My goal is to finish reading the shortlist before the winner is announced (I still have The Overstory, Milkman, and The Long Take to read), and then wrap up the longlist titles I have left (Sabrina, Normal People, and In Our Mad and Furious City). Next up for me will be The Overstory, which is really the only title I have left that I have doubts about enjoying. If I can get through that one, I should have no trouble with the rest.

In lieu of further recommendations, I’m linking the rest of my Man Booker reviews (so far) here, in order of favoritism: Everything Under, The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, Warlight, and Snap.

Is there a book you’re glad you read even though you didn’t enjoy reading it? Why did you feel that way?


The Literary Elephant

Review: November Road

Lou Berney’s new historical fiction/suspense novel November Road was a Book of the Month selection for September. I did not choose this book through BOTM, but I did add it to my Goodreads TBR to keep it on my radar. I saw that there was a giveaway going on for it, so I thought, “Why not?” and entered. And won! I received an advanced copy a couple of weeks before publication (it releases October 9) and read my first ever ARC. I usually prefer finished copies and don’t even seek out ARCs, but who knows, that could change.

novemberroadAbout the book: Mobster Frank Guidry is just doing his job, but his boss has put him in a bad situation. John F Kennedy has just been assassinated, and Frank knows that what the public knows isn’t the truth. He dropped off the getaway car for the real assassin, and now he’s got to destroy it– before his boss destroys him. Frank is on the run, fully aware that his boss has connections in every major city of the US and that none of his old friends can be relied on to resist cashing in on the reward for turning Frank over to his boss. He’s going to need some help getting out of the country, and finds the perfect disguise when he meets a woman fleeing her drunk husband with her two daughters and their dog. They set off on the road as a “family,” dodging trouble along the way.

The most interesting feature of this book is that it is told in alternating chapters between the perspectives of Charlotte (the woman leaving her inadequate husband), Frank (the man who’s using her to escape his own problems), and Barone (the hitman sent to take Frank out). The timeline jumps a bit to allow the characters to explain what’s happening on their end at the same time as something is happening with one of the others, but the chronology is easy to follow and the characters are distinct. Seeing all sides of the situation removed some of the suspense for me, perhaps because I found Barone’s character the most interesting (he’s like a cat with nine lives, nothing keeps him down) and found myself rooting for him against all odds. I just couldn’t connect with the other characters– Frank is a bit of a macho man, and Charlotte, despite her willingness to leave her life behind, is a somewhat passive character who exists in this novel mainly to increase Frank’s vulnerability as he falls in love with her on the road.

Frank is clearly the main character, which is perhaps why I didn’t love this book. I don’t know exactly how to articulate what I didn’t like about him other than he’s simply very male. He’s in love with his power, and his life is a string of days spent exercising that power and nights spent in bed with women he has no interest in seeing again. He’s charming and he knows it– everyone knows it– but… I wasn’t charmed. I know this book is set in 1963, a time with a considerably different feminist atmosphere than I’m familiar with today, and Charlotte is certainly an attempt at including a strong woman. But there are a few gross male-dominance moves that I just can’t get past: the worst being Frank’s scheme to separate Charlotte from her car. He wants her to ride along with him, so he pays off the mechanic to tell Charlotte her car is totaled even though it could have been easily fixed. It’s a slimy thing to do, and the year doesn’t excuse that sort of character flaw. I had a hard time caring about him after that. For more context, here are his first thoughts about Charlotte:

“The woman by the pool wasn’t bad. He’d had a look at her yesterday when they crossed paths at the pay phone. Big serious eyes, rosebud lips. She needed to let her hair down, switch to a brighter shade of lipstick, and get out of that dress– a modest high-waisted number that Donna Reed would consider square. At another time, in happier days, Guidry might have enjoyed warming her up, feeling her melt in his palm.”

But beyond a few issues with gender dynamics (and these weren’t prevalent), Berney’s story is solid. The twists are unpredictable, though I would hesitate to classify the book as a thriller. Each character’s motives are specific and clear, their paths entertainingly tangled. The ending isn’t neat and happy, though everyone gets what they deserve. It’s a readable page-turner with plenty of casualties to keep things interesting. I was not at all reluctant to continue picking it up once I’d started reading.

“He thought about what Leo had said: With every decision we create a new future. We destroy all other futures. Guidry had made his decision. He’d destroyed all futures but this one.”

Before I close, I want to mention something that may have influenced my opinion of this book– I’ve read JFK assassination fiction before: Stephen King’s 11/22/63. I had such a good time reading King’s novel that the assassination conspiracy in November Road‘s premise was a big part of what drew me in to Berney’s. But there’s so little about JFK, and what few details are mentioned seem an afterthought, the alternative explanation thin and far-fetched. Sure, the point of this novel is that Frank is on the run, but I expected when JFK’s assassination came up in the first sentence of November Road’s synopsis to be immersed in details from that political atmosphere. I felt that way with 11/22/63, but not with November Road. Frank could have been running from any crime, though the clothing and dialogue is clearly (sometimes cringe-worthily) 60’s; but after the first news of Kennedy’s death, he’s hardly mentioned. Granted, King’s novel is more than twice the length of November Road, and preconceptions are rarely beneficial to one’s reading experience.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This one just didn’t make much of an impression on me either way. It was perfectly easy and engaging to read, but it didn’t excite me. I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it, and it probably won’t stick with me very long. I’m not interested in reading more from Berney, though I did appreciate the chance to read this book early. I think I just wasn’t the right audience for this book, and I hope it finds more suitable readers.

Further recommendations:

  • I highly recommend Stephen King’s 11/22/63 if you’re interested in JFK fiction, though King’s novel has a strong science fiction element tied into the history. Namely: time travel, and a sort of personification of the past. But it’s an incredibly character-driven story with plenty of 60’s details and conspiracies, and one of my favorite King novels.

Have you read a book recently that you wanted to like but just wasn’t to your taste? What do you do when an ARC you were excited about disappoints you?


The Literary Elephant

Review: The Silence of the Girls

Booker Prize Winner Pat Barker’s new release, The Silence of the Girls, was one of my Book of the Month selections for September. It’s a somewhat-modernized retelling of Homer’s The Iliad with a heavier focus on some of the female characters– primarily Achilles’s new slave woman, Briseis.

thesilenceofthegirlsAbout the book: Briseis has married a king and done well for herself, even if her husband prefers another woman and his mother hates her for her apparent barrenness. She’s royalty. At least, she is until her city falls to Achilles. The men are killed, the goods looted, and the women taken to the encamped Greek army on the shores of Troy– Briseis among them. To the Greeks, she is no one. Maybe an important slave because of her previous royal ranking, but a slave nonetheless. She is given to Achilles as a war prize. In his huts and throughout the army compound, she becomes acquainted with the other women and the notable Greeks, just as the war is reaching its dramatic climax.

“I didn’t feel like anything that might have a name.”

The Silence of the Girls is a beautiful book that gives women a voice in a tale that’s been dominated by men for thousands of years. It gives a girl that Homer doesn’t honor with much mention a whole life, thoughts, opinions, and wishes. For that alone, I wanted to love this book, but in the end, I only liked it.

I have quite a list of pros and cons. First, this is a modernized retelling. It still takes place in ancient Greece on the same shores of the legendary city of Troy, but all of the dialogue comes from present-day Britain. This tactic makes the characters more reachable and human than those wisps of imagination, the gods. Giving them present-day mannerisms allows for updated commentary and an easier reading experience.

“It was astonishing the way really quite intelligent women seemed to believe that if they carried their eyeliner beyond the outer corner of the lid and gave it a little upward flick, they’d have Helen’s eyes.”

But the modernization didn’t work for me across the entire board. Briseis’s notice of and reaction to the unfairness of her circumstances is too modern in places to fit its story. The worst part of her slavery in The Iliad is that it is a common practice, it is the norm; though Briseis is not the only female slave whose main job is to warm some important man’s bed, she reacts to it in a way that reveals modern knowledge that such customs will be overturned, that there will be a time and place where women are closer to equals. This change made the book less of a cultural/historic learning experience and more of a modern outrage toward gender inequality, which could have been a clear enough theme through a more subtle handling of perspective.

Things do change. And if they don’t you bloody well make them.’

‘Spoken like a man.’ “

One of the biggest differences between Barker’s work and Homer’s is that The Silence of the Girls is more of a nuanced study of human character while The Iliad uses godly interference as reasoning for many outcomes. I loved the balance of gods and men in The Iliad, but to Briseis the gods are distant beings who don’t hear prayers or intervene. I missed the gods, personally, but their absence does allow for a deeper characterization. I was particularly moved by Patroclus in this version of the story, and hated Achilles with a passion I’ve never been able to summon for him before.

Which leads me to another pro/con: that Briseis’s story becomes Achilles’s almost as soon as she becomes his slave. To an extent, I liked what Barker does to control the narrative, showing the way ancient girls were silenced in greater history not just by taking their voices but every choice they could possible make:

“I’d been trying to escape not just from camp, but from Achilles’s story; and I’d failed. Because, make no mistake, this was his story– his anger, his grief, his story. I was angry, I was grieving, but somehow that didn’t matter. Here I was, again, waiting for Achilles to decide when it was time for bed, still trapped, still stuck inside his story, and yet with no real part to play in it.”

But that was also a frustrating element for me because it made the plot predictable. I think the fact that I had just read 3/4 of The Iliad (primarily because I wanted to read this Briseis retelling), took out any surprise I might have found in the storyline. Reading The Iliad with an eye out for Briseis’s tragedies put a lot of the ideas that The Silence of the Girls explores into my mind before I read it: the horror and brutality of being pulled from one’s home, seeing one’s family killed, and being treated as an object by your enemies were all emotions I was able to pull from the plot of The Iliad and the premise of The Silence of the Girls alone, and seeing them played out over a full 300 pages didn’t change the way those concepts affected me.

And then there were a few truly baffling moments, like this one:

“Even though it made no sense, to me or to anybody else, that the two most powerful men in the Greek army should fall out over a girl.”

(Why not? Helen started a major war. The same war, in fact, that this Greek army is fighting for.)

But despite a few dissatisfactions, I did find The Silence of the Girls to be a much pleasanter reading experience than The Iliad; it’s a quick, compelling read, and I think ultimately I would recommend it in place of The Iliad,or at least, to be read before The Iliad. It’s not so much a change from the original as a fairer presentation of the traditional story. Color picture rather than the black and white classic. I think I was simply expecting too much going in to appreciate the strong simplicity Barker weaves, though I might have loved it more under other circumstances.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This has been one of the highlights for me from my BOTM choices this year. I liked it better than Madeline Miller’s Circe, the other Greek mythology retelling I’ve read in the past months, but it didn’t impress me as much as I expected to be impressed. I’m more interested in finally picking up Miller’s The Song of Achilles to round out my Trojan War reading experience, but I think I need a little break from Troy. I’ll read The Odyssey first, for a change of pace.

What’s your favorite retelling?


The Literary Elephant