Tag Archives: book reviews

Reviews: Things in Jars, In the Dream House, and The Mercies

Some recent non-Women’s Prize reads (the last you’ll be seeing from me for a while!):

 

One of the February releases I was eager to get my hands on was Jess Kidd’s newest novel: Things in Jars. I picked it up in early March and it took a little work, but I did enjoy this one in the end.

thingsinjarsIn the novel, an Irishwoman living in Victorian London works as a private investigator. Of course this is hardly an appropriate profession for a woman at the time, but Bridie has a medical background, a gentleman’s disguise, and a connection with a policeman that keeps her in business. Her latest case involves a missing child; the young girl and her new nurse have vanished without a trace, and her father does not want to report the kidnapping through official channels. Bridie learns that the child is suspected of being a merrow, a mythological Irish creature in danger of being “collected” and preserved in a jar, a fate befalling scientific oddities of the time. She also learns that the child is not exactly who the father claims her to be. Between the lies and the greedy anatomists, can Bridie rescue the girl in time?

“Bridie rekindles her pipe, giving it a few rapid drags. She squints at the dead man through the smoke. ‘I’m not in the market for a haunting.’ “

Things in Jars is a genre-bender: I would primarily deem it historical fiction, but it is also a mystery, dips into some science, and contains a few fantasy elements as well. There’s even a hint of romance. In addition, it presents some commentary on sexism and immorality relating to its time period, dealing in themes of scientific progress vs. morality, the divide between wealthy and poor, the truth in and power of folklore. There’s much to enjoy here, and I did actually enjoy most of it. Though it’s hardly a whodunnit, I found the layout of the mystery here particularly effective: alongside Bridie’s search, we are given chapters featuring the kidnappers and their attempt to escape with the unusual child, which means the question the reader is asking of the novel is constantly evolving. There are also flashback chapters woven in, which gradually unveil key moments of Bridie’s past that manage to feel both relevant and well-timed in the larger narrative.

The only aspect I didn’t like- and this was a big hurdle for me to overcome- was the writing style. Kidd employs a very high level of whimsy that I found almost unbearably cloying. In some ways it serves the story well- Bridie is smoking some potentially hallucinogenic drugs, leaving the reader with some uncertainty over whether her ghostly tag-along is present or imagined; the pervasive tone of, well, silliness, makes it easier to roll with some of those more absurd elements, while also softening the horror of others. Kidd isn’t romanticizing this time period, but rather presenting it warts and all to the reader. (If you’re squeamish about historical medical practices enter with caution. Pet lovers should also note that there are a couple of short but grisly scenes where misfortune/abuse to animals is unpleasantly detailed.)

Perhaps it says something about me that I would’ve preferred this book to take a more grave approach to the heavy subject matter it deals with and drop the attempt at lightheartedness, but the constant dramatics really were the only complaint I had about this book. Aside from the pets’ fates, of course.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I think Kidd is an excellent writer who clearly put a lot of research into this book and is in full command of the language. Though I did appreciate the plot, as well as the themes and commentary worked into it, I really struggled with the writing to the extent that I’m not sure I’ll ever be willing to try another of Kidd’s novels. Maybe if I give it some time.

 

Next I reached for my first non-fiction read of the year (yes, it’s been a long time coming), and one of the titles I was most sad not to have picked up in 2019: Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House, a memoir of abuse in same-sex relationships.

inthedreamhouseIn the book, Machado details meeting a charming woman, becoming her girlfriend, feeling increasingly stifled and unsafe in the relationship, and eventually dealing with the aftermath of psychological and emotional abuse.

“It’s not being radical to point out that people on the fringe have to be better than people in the mainstream, that they have twice as much to prove. In trying to get people to see your humanity, you reveal just that: your humanity. Your fundamentally problematic nature. All the unique and terrible ways in which people can, and do, fail.”

Acknowledging that people of the same gender can hurt each other in romantic relationships shouldn’t seem difficult, but Machado uses this book to outline a literary (and actual) history sadly lacking in any evidence of that this is a real phenomenon. She uses inventive structure and imagery to explore the difference between what she wanted from this relationship and what she got, and the resistance she found afterward when trying to tell her story. Each chapter is presented as a facet of the “dream house,” a different side of the relationship that looked like everything the author wanted from the outside but turned out to be something quite different once she found herself stuck inside.

Machado does an incredible job of conveying the mounting sense of tension and fear pervading this particular relationship without actually describing a lot of specific, personal information. In the Dream House is not a sensationalist cry for attention or attempt to shock the reader with horrifying anecdotes- Machado uses her experiences to talk about domestic abuse and queer relationships more broadly. It’s an exploratory work, a narrative meant to open the eyes of nonbelievers and give those who have seen it firsthand a sense of solidarity.

“Dream House as Epiphany / Most types of domestic abuse are completely legal.”

This is a powerful book that I would recommend to… anyone who’s ever been or will be in a relationship, honestly. I can’t relate personally to much of Machado’s experience, but some of the situations she describes and the commentary she explores surrounding them have made me rethink all sorts of interactions I’ve had in my own life and the ways that society has taught me to view relationships generally. Having read In the Dream House, I feel both more educated about a perspective that doesn’t match mine, and also seen in ways that I didn’t expect to be. (Bonus points for the Iowa City setting,  which I always love to see after spending my own college years there. I think I only missed being there at the same time as Machado by three months!)

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Very nearly 5, and I’m not sure if I can explain why it didn’t quite hit that mark for me; I suppose I knew enough about the book going in that it lost its ability to really surprise me in the way that I tend to reserve my 5-star ratings for, which of course isn’t any fault of the book. It’s a brilliant read that I highly recommend and am unlikely to forget.

 

Last but not least, I finished reading Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s The Mercies earlier this week, and absolutely loved it!

themerciesIn the novel, the Norwegian island Vardo is hit hard by a sudden storm in the early 1600s. The storm kills most of the town’s men, who were out on the sea in their fishing boats when it struck. The women left behind must learn to survive on their own, to find their own food, light their own fires, and carry on in a world where women are not supposed to hold any power. Soon after the storm, a new commissioner is appointed to their area; he believes that such a sudden and devastating storm could not have been a natural occurrence, and makes his home in Vardo to root out the witches to blame. In a divided and changing community, the women soon learn that no one is truly safe.

” ‘You’re no witch.’ / ‘It doesn’t matter what I am, only what they believe I am.’ “

Historical fiction is a genre that doesn’t always work for me- I enjoy learning about events from the past through invented narratives, but I dislike romanticizing, sensationalizing, and sentimentalizing approaches, and so I always go in a bit wary that the tone and style just won’t be to my taste. Much to my pleasant surprise, The Mercies drew me in right away, presented zero cause for disappointment at any point, and held my attention rapt until the end. Though it centers around a famous set of witch trials in Norway at this time, the focus is mainly aimed at the distressed community on Vardo. In the wake of such an impactful storm, life has changed drastically; the women argue over what should be done and how to go about it. Old rifts are wedged wider, new rifts form out of the grief and uncertainty that now (in 1618) defines life on Vardo. Into this fraught setting enters an outsider, a man with a singular goal: to hunt witches. In 2020, of course, we know that “witches” were simply social outcasts who couldn’t prove their innocence in a system designed to fabricate guilt. The author does not attempt to surprise the reader with this familiar revelation, but rather to explore the social conditions that make this phenomenon possible.

As such, Millwood Hargrave supplies the reader with very human, very compelling characters, a setting that’s practically a character in its own right, and a tale brimming with tension and emotion. The women feel both like people of their own time and neighbors you could have today (supposing you lived on a very cold and isolated island). They are strong and flawed, just doing their best to navigate life under the rules they’ve been given (as are we all). There’s a great LGBTQ+ relationship in this story, plenty of tragedy, and village’s worth of determination. I found the writing very immersive and enjoyed every page.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This was one of my most anticipated releases of the year, and yet even so I was not prepared to love it as much as I did. I believe this is the author’s first adult novel, but I’ll certainly be picking up more of her work in the future, including some of her YA content.

 

If you’ve read any of these books, let me know what you thought! If you haven’t, do any catch your eye?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Reviews: Disappearing Earth and The Snow Collectors

Two recent reads!

I don’t tend to pick up books just because they’re pretty, but a beautiful cover definitely draws me in to looking at the synopsis more closely. Such was the case with Julia Phillips’s Disappearing Earth; add on the National Book Award shortlisting and some  great reviews, and I was sold. I only wish I’d picked this one up sooner!

disappearingearthIn the novel, two young girls disappear from a Russian city on the Kamchatka peninsula. Opinions are divided on what has happened to them- one woman reports seeing a man with the two girls at their last known location, but when she can’t provide the police with any further details even they doubt her claim. In a series of chapters each following a different woman in a different month of the year following the girls’ disappearance, a web of connected story lines from all over the peninsula slowly come together to resolve the mystery of the missing children.

“It hurts too much to break your own heart out of stupidity, to leave a door unlocked or a child untended and return to discover that whatever you value most has disappeared. No. You want to be intentional about the destruction. Be a witness. You want to watch how your life will shatter.”

Disappearing Earth is a beautiful, brilliant book. The chapters read somewhat like individual short stories, though this is rather a novel of connected pieces. The frequent shifts of perspective may be jarring or disappointing for readers who prefer to follow a smaller cast more closely- though Phillips refers back to many previously mentioned characters, we don’t see much of them beyond the ends of their respective chapters. Fortunately, I found every new perspective as interesting as the last, and I thought that the emotion each chapter ended on segued nicely into the start of the next, a sense of quiet tension building steadily throughout the book across this set of self-contained arcs.

Though this is indeed a sort of mystery, it’s a slow-paced journey whose purpose is not the quick entertainment of a typical mystery/thriller (there’s no way of guessing the whodunnit before it is revealed, the criminal’s motives and actions go unexplored, and none of the characters other than the two missing girls seem to be in imminent danger) but instead a methodical unveiling of a culture- the challenges faced by the people living in this part of the world. Through these characters we see strong local prejudices, honored traditions that feel like trappings,  critiques of insufficient police response to crime, and more. There’s so much sadness and frustration in this book, but Phillips paints this place with a respectful hand, one that sees room for change and hope for its future.

This is sure to be a divisive book, in that the mystery at its core makes it impossible to describe the novel without attracting a crowd looking for something flashier while Disappearing Earth is in fact very subtle. Readers drawn in by the missing girls of the premise may not find what they are looking for here, whereas others (like me) will delight in the small moments where the chapters intersect and the larger picture of a community at odds with itself shines through.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This has been one of my favorite reading experiences of the year so far. I read it as slowly as I could in order to savor it, while also finding myself virtually unable to set the book down.

 

The Snow Collectors, by Tina May Hall, was a February release that caught my eye last month. I grabbed a copy as soon as I added the title to my TBR because I knew otherwise I’d be waiting until next winter. Ironically, for the first time that I can really remember, we’re having an unusually early spring where I live so I actually missed out on reading it surrounded by snow anyway! Perhaps I would have liked it more in that weather.

thesnowcollectorsIn the novel, Henna has recently moved to an unnamed town on the US east coast, where a brutal winter is in full swing. Her family is long missing, presumed dead, and Henna has left all of her attachments behind to start fresh in a new place. Unfortunately, this place might not be any better than the last- she discovers a dead woman in the woods behind her house, and thus begins her hunt to solve two mysteries: that of the woman’s death, and that of the scrap of paper clutched in her hand, pertaining to an Arctic expedition from the 1850’s.

“No one knew if we would get another winter. Minute by minute, the world we rode was transformed, bone to coral, feather to web, ice to stone, and back again.”

This story is a very interesting collection of elements- an atmospheric Eastern winter, in a future not too far off (references to the extinction of bees and deserts where the Midwest had been presenting as some of the only clues that the setting isn’t present day), with a strong focus on a specific historical moment- the missing Franklin expedition, part of the search for a northwest passage. Henna thinks of herself as a sort of gothic heroine in this mystery, at times following and at others defying tropes of that genre. There’s also a bit of a magical/sci-fi element, in that Henna is skilled at dowsing water (and perhaps ancient clues) using only her body as a tool. She spends her days writing encyclopedia entries about water, her neighbor/best friend is mute, the police chief is mysterious but also a flirt, the other newcomer to town is the owner of an extinction show, and her sister’s unlikely hero of a dog, Rembrandt, is never far from the action. Oh, and at the heart of the Franklin expedition’s disappearance is the question of whether or not cannibalism has occurred, which lends the novel a macabre air.

“I rested my head on my hand, flipping through the notes, trying to estimate how many days of hunger it took to break a person, trying to imagine the dead men, lying huddled on the ice where they had fallen, their living compatriots too weak to bury them, the temptation of so much wasted meat.”

This read was a mix of extreme ups and downs for me. On the one had, I adored the writing, found so many of the individual elements fascinating, and was constantly curious about what these bizarre characters would do next. On the other, I thought the culprit was obvious from the beginning, did not understand why Franklin’s family would’ve cared so much about the possible cannibalism long after people had forgotten that they were even connected to Franklin, and found the resolution entirely anticlimactic and unsatisfactory. Unfortunately I was also reading this book on the days surrounding the Women’s Prize longlist announcement, and my desire to be reading those books was so great at the time that anything else I was reading was bound to suffer for the fact that my interest was simply elsewhere. Ultimately, while I enjoyed a lot of The Snow Collector‘s pieces, it didn’t quite manage to hold my attention as a narrative, though I can’t blame that entirely on this book.

Even though this one didn’t quite live up to expectations for me, I still found it a very interesting read, and recommend it to those who like unusual, somewhat dark books.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. To be honest, I wavered between 3 and 4 here because this is a wonderful, weird little book with plenty of merit, though I didn’t end up enjoying it quite as much as I’d hoped to. I am glad I picked it up and am sure to remember it for a long time because I’ve read nothing else like it. I’d certainly like to try more of the author’s work.

Have you read or are you interested in either of these books?

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: One Day in December, The Kingdom of Copper, and The Institute

First off, apologies to anyone who wanted to share a comment on my last post and wasn’t able to, thanks to a WordPress glitch. I’ve corrected the post settings and the comment box is back now, so I’ll link it here just in case: Reviews: Know My Name and The Body in Question. (No worries if you don’t want to comment, of course.)

For today, I’ve got another set of short reviews. These don’t have anything in common except for the time period in which I read them, so feel free to skip around if you prefer.

onedayindecemberJosie Silver’s One Day in December is a popular romance novel that I received last Christmas and waited all year for the right time to pick it up! In the end, reading this between Christmas and New Year’s was really the highlight of my experience. It’s formatted as a set of New Year’s resolutions followed by snippets from the year, over the course of a decade.

Other than the perfect timing, a lot of this story just didn’t work for me. First, it’s the least romantic romance I’ve ever read. The main couple “meet” in the first five pages of the book by glimpsing each other through a bus window. This moment was supposedly important enough that neither of them are able to fully love anyone else afterward. Through ten years of narration, we follow both of them as they date various other people; the romance we’re unarguably supposed to be rooting for through nearly 400 pages doesn’t come together until the LAST PAGE of the book. So, no steamy scenes between the two of them, and for most of the interim they can’t even be honest or open with each other. (Where’s the romance?!)

To some extent, I appreciate the longer timeline and the messy relationships, but I didn’t feel that the author used this setup to develop much of a rapport between the two main characters. Both the man and the woman find excellent partners in these 10 years that I would have rather seen them with than each other, which is partially due to the fact that the reader simply spends more time with those couples than the main ship. Even with 390+ pages and ten years’ worth of plot, we don’t really get to know any of the main characters well enough. The writing is so much telling rather than showing, to the point where the characters remain completely unpredictable because they don’t exhibit clear personalities or motives. They seem more like vehicles to push us through this story rather than just, you know, being the story. This made it impossible to invest emotionally, a crucial flaw in a romance.

“Despite the fairy-tale snowstorm out there, this isn’t Narnia. This is London, real life, where hearts get kicked and bruised and broken, but somehow they still keep beating.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Full disclosure, I think I’ll end up lowering this rating after some time has passed. I had low expectations going in and picked it up at a time when I wanted something light and inconsequential so I didn’t hate the read, but I think it will be the complaints that stick with me most.

thekingdomofcopperI read S. A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass, the first book in her Daevabad trilogy, almost an entire year ago, and I don’t think I did it justice in my (3-star) review. I remember my expectations not quite fitting what I actually knew about the book (that it’s the first in a Muslim, Middle Eastern high fantasy series), so that’s on me. I also remember feeling a bit disappointed in the use of a few tropes, which seemed to be driving the story in a predictable direction. Long story short, my expectations for The Kingdom of Copper were a bit wonky when I picked it up soon after, and I am now relieved that I set it aside in March and finished it in December. This was the better time for it in my reading life.

I don’t want to say much about the plot since this is a sequel, but in this second volume Chakraborty leaves the cliches behind and gives us three well-developed characters who are growing and changing in interesting ways, who are all brought together into the same conflict, on different sides of the issue. The magic and politics are intriguing, the world-building is excellent, and the characterization is absolutely superb- I found all three POVs equally engaging, which is rare and didn’t happen for me even in the first book of this series. If you enjoy adult high fantasy, this is really a stellar trilogy so far. I can’t wait to see how it all comes together in The Empire of Gold (out in June 2020).

“I know what it’s like to have ambitions, to be the cleverest in the room- and have those ambitions crushed. To have men who are less than you bully and threaten you into a place you know you don’t belong.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It’s my own fault, but it was definitely a bit jarring trying to jump back into this right in the middle. I think my ratings could definitely change (for the better) in a proper reread of all three books together.

theinstituteMuch to my surprise, after this buddy read went off the rails in early December, my friend and I suddenly decided to try finishing Stephen King’s The Institute in the last three days of the year (while also wrapping up other books)- and succeeded! Aside from that rewarding victory, this was a mixed bag for me.

On one hand, this started out so promisingly with an interesting ex-cop on an unhurried adventure, picking up an old-timey job in a random small town when struck with a whim. As soon as he’s settled in what is foreshadowed to be an important location to the overall plot, the narration switches to a genius boy of twelve who’s taking his SATs (as a formality) in preparation of beginning his college education at two elite schools- at the same time. But something happens that he doesn’t see coming- he’s kidnapped and taken to a secret facility in Maine where children with light psychic abilities are tested, used, and abused. Of course if anyone can figure out a way to stop what’s happening there, it’s the genius kid, and so a large turn of events is set in motion as soon as he arrives. Looks good, right? Unfortunately, it started unraveling for me about right at that point.

My biggest issue was simply that I didn’t buy it. The secret place where thousands of kids have been held captive over the course of 50+ years and used as psychic tools by conspiratorial adults could have been fantastic if it had been a bit more grounded and developed, but instead it feels like a quick sketch of an idea that’s not entirely thought out. There’s no nuance to the adults at this facility, they’re absurdly cruel and apathetic without reasonable explanations. The tests sound cool and retro (“shots for dots”) or provide a vivid image (the immersion tank), but they don’t make much sense. The plot is riddled with holes (it definitely shouldn’t have taken a genius to escape this place), the Stranger Things and even Miss Peregrine’s vibes are weak and doesn’t carry the story, the characters begin to feel less like people and more like plot devices the longer the book goes on. I also kept having to double check that this is set in modern day because the kids don’t speak and behave like modern day kids.

That’s a lot of complaining, but the worst part is King’s tone deafness. In The Institute he commonly refers to a group of kids as “gorks.” These are kids who’ve been kidnapped and abused to the point of essentially losing their minds, and it feels incredibly unfair of him to lump them together with such a thoughtless, hurtful term. Near the end of the book, there’s one character who tries to urge the others not to say “gorks” because its rude, but within two pages she admits it’s too hard not to, and everyone goes on using this term without another thought. This seems to indicate that King knew he would be called out for insensitivity, but either didn’t understand why or didn’t care enough to remove the offensive comments. (And I haven’t even started on how the one woman on the small town police force was “never cut out to be a cop.”)

I’ll leave The Institute at this: I like the core idea and the first third of the book was a 4- or even 5-star read for me, but the execution fell apart in the latter half. I hope King will continue to publish future novels, because I’d really like to see him do better, for old times’ sake.

“It was so simple, but it was a revelation: what you did for yourself was what gave you the power.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I enjoyed bits and pieces, I enjoyed the buddy read experience (as always), but this one is going nowhere near my favorites list.

Have you read any of these? What did you think?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Reviews: Know My Name and The Body in Question

I’ve already read a book in January that I’m very excited to review, but I SUPPOSE it would make more sense to catch up on my December reviews first. I am going to try implementing my “shorter reviews” goal for 2020 right away here and cram them all into a couple of posts before the end of the week- not because I disliked these books, but because I just don’t have time to do full reviews for all 6 books (plus short stories) if I want to get around to January reviews within the month. So, we’ll see how this goes! For today, I’m looking at Know My Name by Chanel Miller, one of my favorite books of 2019, and at The Body in Question by Jill Ciment. Let’s dive in!

knowmynameIn Chanel Miller’s nonfiction memoir, she shares what happened on the night she was sexually assaulted, how her life changed leading up to the trial, and the ways in which the US legal system proved to be a hostile place for victims.

You may have heard of Emily Doe, the girl sexually assaulted by a talented swimmer on the Standford campus in 2015 whose victim impact statement went viral the following year. That statement is published in Know My Name, along with the rest of Miller’s story. There is certainly difficult content here, including the details of the assault, Miller’s mental struggle in reassembling her life and surviving the trial, and some of the terrible things people have said to and about her as the case began making headlines. And yet, it is absolutely worth the read.

This book looks closely at one case, but with incredible insight and understanding, Miller uses this single experience to explore the ways in which society allows these tragedies to continue to occur. She’s not here to blame her attacker, but to hold him accountable, and to hold accountable every part of the system that makes it so easy for a man with a little money and talent to walk away from a life he’s permanently marred, without ever realizing that what he’s done is wrong. Miller describes her emotions and the challenges she’s faced not because she’s seeking pity, but as a means to explaining why the system in place needs to change- or at least be improved upon.

Miller’s writing is perfectly suited to her task, and every bit as worth reading as this topic. She’s clear and straightforward, explains the legal process in an easily understandable way, and has a natural knack for pacing and balancing events, info, and opinions. She also takes the time at the end of her own narrative to mention how other well-known cases and the #metoo movement are affecting the way the US sees and deals with these cases. Despite the darkness she’s been through and the fury she inspires, Miller’s tone is ultimately hopeful that people will come together over this and ensure a better future. I sincerely hope she’s right.

“It had never occurred to me that the system itself could be wrong, could be changed or improved. Victims could ask for more. We could be treated better. Which meant my onerous experiences were not useless, they were illuminating. Being inside the system would give me insight; the more I encountered issues, the more I’d be able to see what needed to be fixed. I could convert my pain into ideas, could begin brainstorming alternate futures for victims.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is as close to perfect as a book gets, in my opinion. If you haven’t yet, I urge you to pick it up.

thebodyinquestionI wanted to segue back into fiction after Know My Name with another trial book, so I picked up this little volume next, Jill Ciment’s The Body in Question.

In this short novel, a woman is summoned for jury duty. Before going in, she jokes with a summoned man about how they might get out of serving; neither follows through, and they end up watching the case unfold together. The trial, at which a teen girl is accused of setting a fire that killed her infant brother, is a sensational one, and the jury is sequestered. During the weeks of the trial, the man (young, single) and the woman (older, married) strike up a clandestine affair.

This is really intriguing in concept, as it primarily examines whether the jury can remain impartial as relationships and opinions are formed (the other jurors, of course, sensing that something is going on among them). Perhaps if I hadn’t picked this up immediately after a 5-star all-time favorite I might have had a slightly better time reading it, but despite both this one and Know My Name exploring the failings of the US legal system in fascinating ways, this book did not work as well for me as I’d hoped, for two main reasons.

The first is that I found most of the characters unpleasant, and the main woman in particular I found abrasively judgmental. I suspect the author wanted her to seem a bit sharp-edged and rebellious so that the reader wouldn’t question this married woman starting an affair at the drop of a hat, but instead it alienated me from the main character. There’s nothing “wrong” with the other characters, but the book is so short and sticks faithfully to the first woman so the reader is never given enough opportunity to warm to them. My apathy made it nearly impossible to invest in any part of the story.

The second is that the book is so divided between the trial and the affair that the two pieces never came together appreciably for me. We see the trial in bits and pieces; new information is still being conveyed as the jury votes. I could never form an opinion on whether the girl accused of arson was actually guilty or not, which made it hard to form an opinion on whether the jurors having an affair were actually messing up the trial. The main character’s opinion is clear, and her reasoning is clear, but it’s also clear that she’s not giving the reader all of the evidence. On the other hand, if we try to look past the insufficient trial details and focus only on the affair, what is the message? Is it to avoid sleeping with other jury members while on jury duty? (Is that a common problem?!) Or is the point a broader one, that the justice system has plenty of room for error? In which case, is it advocating for stricter observation of jury members under sequestration? For removal of jury from the justice system? Or just stating that human error happens in all sorts of places? I’m really not sure. As intriguing as I found the concept, the two halves of this story just didn’t quite sum up what it had started for me, even though the main character seems certain in the end about what has happened.

“She hardly remembers Tim’s testimony- only that he clenched his molars and ranked Stephana over Jesus. Would she have remembered more of what Tim said if she hadn’t been distracted by the notes her lover had written to her in his jury notebook and then angled the page so she could read the words from one row back, two chairs over?”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was entertaining and quick, but never quite convinced me. If the concept intrigues you I’d definitely still recommend giving it a go, I think it’s one of those books that could have very different effects on different readers!

What’s your favorite court/legal story?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Little Darlings

The summer spooks continue with twins and changelings, a new mom who’s a bit mentally unstable, and a years-old unsolved case of attempted baby-snatching. Such is the content of Melanie Golding’s thriller debut, Little Darlings.

littledarlingsIn the novel, Lauren gives birth to twins. The experience is much more traumatizing than she had been led to believe, and she’s beyond exhausted before she even meets them. To make matters worse, she endures a terrifying experience in the hospital, in which a strange, dirty woman with eel-like twins of her own threatens to take Lauren’s babies when she refuses a one-for-one trade. No one believes Lauren’s story. But the strange woman is persistent, and when an accident with the twins culminates in Lauren insisting that her babies have been exchanged, it’s up to one stubborn detective to find proof that Lauren’s claims are not as crazy as everyone thinks.

The early chapters start this book off with a bang as the narration takes the reader through visceral details of Lauren giving birth to the twins. A bit of grit always appeals to me in novels- I like to know that the author won’t shy away from anything difficult, and Golding proves herself right away with ripped stitches and an invasive fix made by a doctor who says “tell me to stop if it hurts too much,” and then doesn’t. I’ve never given birth, but by the time Lauren is finished I felt like I had.

I also appreciated the way that the narration flirts with Lauren’s “madness” throughout the story. The chapters alternate between Lauren’s perspective and that of DS Harper, a woman willing to bend the rules and follow her hunches; neither of them can abide by the hospital’s assurances that the woman who threatened to take the twins was a figment of Lauren’s overtired imagination. And yet, there’s plenty of room for doubt. Through these two women’s experiences we see many other characters dismiss Lauren’s claims primarily because they seem too far-fetched or inconvenient. The doctors seem eager to medicate Lauren into a stupor and the police just don’t want the expense of spending more time on the case than needed. Is Harper’s gut correct? Are money and protocol guiding the case toward its easiest conclusion, or is Lauren seeing things that aren’t there? A shadow on the hospital camera and trampled grass in an area where Lauren claims to have seen the threatening woman suggest one possibility, while Lauren’s own admittance that she’s only been managing a couple of hours of sleep at a time for weeks and is off her depression medication suggest quite another. It’s a proper mystery.

” ‘You used to walk, every day,’ said Patrick, apparently struggling not to sound accusatory, failing. ‘You said it kept you sane.’ […] For thirty-one days, her boots had stood unused on the shoe rack by the back door.”

Unfortunately, I felt that some of the characterization was overdone and at times even nonsensical. Of course different characters perceive each other in different ways, but Patrick (Lauren’s husband) swung so wildly from devoted family man to selfish cad that it’s impossible to say what kind of person he is or what his motives might be.

DS Harper bothered me as well. It seems she is meant to be taken as a sympathetic and plucky detective, willing to see past the beauracracy of the police department and go the extra mile to track down criminals. Instead, her flagrant and unnecessary penchant for rule-breaking mars this image and makes it difficult to take her seriously. If she doesn’t respect the law enough to follow it, how can we respect her as the potential hero? Many of her decisions seem poor and/or unnecessarily risky. Harper jumps to quick assumptions, makes impulse decisions, and is clearly willing to believe what seems plausible to no one else. Her vote of confidence in Lauren, sadly, does not particularly imply credibility.

Furthermore, there seems to be an odd gap between the real and the magical in this story. Lauren keeps the otherworldly details about the mysterious woman and her babies-that-are-not-quite-babies to herself. Somehow, everyone concludes she is seeing things even without those details. And yet, how could so many people become involved in a case involving infant twins whose mother is worried about them being “changed” without anyone even jokingly making a connection to changeling tales? (Isn’t changeling lore fairly common knowledge?) For the reader, the magical influence is obvious; the characters, even Lauren, seem to remain oblivious.

But the biggest disappointment arrives in the final few chapters, as the solution to the mystery is finally revealed. My issue is not with the reveal itself- it’s not offensive or plot-holed or particularly problematic. Strangely, it does not adhere to traditional changeling narratives at all. I expected, from the premise and the direction the entire novel seemed to be taking, at least the possibility of fairies. Instead, after following Harper into the beginning of a seemingly-unrelated case, we learn a very different truth about what has happened, a truth not hinted at in the premise and tangentially mentioned only once in the story. To me, this complete change of direction feels like a cop-out of sorts; a departure from the original topic. It’s a creative answer to the problem, but left me feeling like I was in one of those awkward conversations where two people are talking about two different things without realizing that they’re not on the same page.

Nevertheless, I found Lauren and the central mystery engaging throughout most of the novel. I never stopped wanting to know whether the mysterious woman was real and what would happen to Lauren’s babies. Despite its faults, I cannot say that Little Darlings was not an entertaining read. It has some great things to say about new motherhood and modern relationships, and will probably delight many readers who their thrillers dark with a dash of magic.

“You can’t stay here until you’re sane. You won’t ever leave.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This was a pretty average read for me- some ups, some downs, worth a few hours of amusement. It’s quick and easy to read as a great summer thriller should be, though ultimately it left me dissatisfied. Little Darlings is a debut that feels like a debut, but I enjoyed enough of its elements that I would probably give this author another try in the future.

Have you read Little Darlings? 

 

The Literary Elephant

Mini-Reviews: Faber Stories Pt. 5

I’ve now read 17 / 20 of the individually bound short stories that comprise the Faber Stories collection, and I’m still so pleased overall with the selection and experience! These little books have been a great way for me to incorporate more short stories into my 2019 reading, and to check out authors I might not otherwise have picked up. Today I’ll be sharing thoughts on my three most recent Faber Stories reads.

In case you missed them, here are the links to the rest of my Faber Stories mini-reviews: part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4. And without further ado, part 5:

faberstories5

Cosmopolitan by Akhil Sharma. 3 stars.

In this 2017 piece, a man is left behind as first his grown daughter moves out of the family home, and then his wife takes a trip to India and decides not to return. After a period of moping and mourning over his solitude, Gopal meets a neighbor who excites him, and decides to try his hand at an affair.

The title drew me to this story, and the synopsis further explains that Gopal uses an article from Cosmopolitan magazine as a set of guidelines for pursuing his female neighbor. The article was actually aimed at women who wanted to attract men. I expected a bit of comedy. Instead, Gopal takes this endeavor very seriously while struggling to determine whether he is in love with Mrs. Shaw or not, and whether she might be in love with him. However, this is not a romance as much as a searching of the soul, which adds depth to this awkward situation.

Even so, upon finishing this volume, I found that it hadn’t made me think or feel in any meaningful way. It’s a perfectly competent story about unattached romance and self-discovery that sadly just didn’t leave any impression whatsoever. I’m afraid this will probably be the most forgettable story of the entire set for me, though I can’t complain that anything actually bothered me about it.

“To fall in love I think you need a certain suspension of disbelief, which I don’t think I am capable of.”

Dante and the Lobster by Samuel Beckett. 3 stars.

Published in 1934, this one is a stand-out from the Faber set because of its unrelenting oddness. I’m not sure if I “got” everything here, but the plot seems to feature a man named Belacqua going about his typical mid-day routine. He does some reading, makes lunch, runs an errand, attends an Italian lesson, and visits his aunt. It sounds straightforward, but nothing goes quite as the reader expects, nor as Belacqua expects.

I was immediately struck by the style of writing in this volume. (The flap states that Beckett’s style in this early work is “indebted to his mentor, James Joyce,” but it’s been years since I’ve read anything from Joyce and only excerpts for college then, so I can’t say for sure if this explains my reaction.) Belacqua, as a character, is very particular and intent about even the most mundane things, and yet his thoughts and actions are strangely absurd. For example, deliberately toasting his bread to a blackened crisp, over a low enough flame to avoid leaving any soft spots in the middle. Despite his laying out the afternoon plan for the reader by page three, one can never be sure what will happen next with Belacqua. It’s entertaining and amusing, though admittedly also confusing at times.

This was a fun read that constantly left me wondering. And yet, at the end, I found that I still didn’t know quite what I had read, or why. I’m good with weird, but I also need a sense of purpose, and I didn’t find that here. Who is Belacqua? Why has his aunt requested a lobster? What does the reader gain from following him through this afternoon? I just don’t know. Proof that an ordinary day can go awry? Do we need proof of such a possibility? It’s entirely possible I’m missing something, but it seems to me that this story relies on a certain level of whimsy and nonsense that is not meant to be organized into neat reasons and meanings. This was both the best and worst feature of the story for me.

The Lydia Steptoe Stories by Djuna Barnes. 4 stars.

This volume is actually a set of three stories which first appeared in the years 1922-24. All are written as journal entries penned by the central character (each story has its own unrelated cast), over a period of several months. The three main characters set out with a certain sexual intent (or are set upon by someone else’s) that is overthrown in the course of the story. I’m not sure how to explain what these stories do in any better way without giving away their small plots. The official synopsis shares more specifics, but I felt spoiled by that information while reading and don’t want to cause the same for anyone else. But let me try again.

In the first story, a young woman sees two choices for her future: marry and submit, or live a life of seduction and independence. In a disturbing (to her) turn of events, she must face the possibility that the choice was never hers to make. In the second story, a young man is tricked by someone he innocently believes to be a cousin. In the third story, an older woman reflects on the sense of youth still within her, only to become appalled by the desires her young heart harbors.

It’s a strange set, but thought-provoking and full of commentary about the relationships we’re led to expect and those we’re willing to accept- as well as the possibility that other options exist, for better or for worse. There’s also a subtle disregard for gender that I found appealing; a woman dresses up as a man, which has a powerful effect on her child. A girl longs not to become a woman but rather to run away as a boy. Another woman tells herself to “be a man.” It’s a challenging set, thematically; I think there are many conclusions to be sifted through from these small pieces rather than any obvious Point to these stories, and the more times one reads them the more one might find. I suspect that this is a volume I’ll be revisiting, in any case.

“He is broad-minded. He takes in all human aspects.

I wonder when I’m going to be a human aspect?”

 

Concluding thoughts:

The only author I feel at all inspired to look into further from this batch is Djuna Barnes, as The Lydia Steptoe Stories were by far my favorite between these three. And yet, as the volume is filled with three stories rather than one of greater length, I don’t feel like I have any sort of grasp on Barnes’s style yet. I would have no idea what to expect from her in any further reading. I’ll probably look into her oeuvre out of curiosity, but I can’t say I’m committed at this point; the stories were just so short!

I’m not sure where to go from here with the rest of the Faber Stories collection, either. Just as I’d decided that I might as well read them all, the prices of the last three titles I needed more than doubled. I am usually such a completist, but even so I can’t afford to spend $8+ each on single short stories, no matter how pretty they may be. I was planning to rank all twenty in terms of personal favoritism once I’d completed the set, and I do want to complete my set, so I’ll keep an eye on the prices, but it will have to wait for now, unfortunately. 

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Pisces

I could not let summer escape completely without jumping on the literary mermaid trend. I added several mermaid books to my TBR this year, but the first one I picked up features a merman. Melissa Broder’s The Pisces is a 2018 release about a woman who falls completely in love with a merman, and wow, is it weird. In a good way.

thepiscesAbout the book: Lucy, 38, has been working on her thesis about the spaces in Sappho’s poetry for 7 years. Her funding is going to be pulled if she doesn’t have a satisfactory draft to share with her advisory committee by the end of the summer. And to top it off, her boyfriend just traded her in for a younger woman. Things get pretty dark before Lucy’s sister convinces her to dog-sit at her fancy house on a Californian beach. In California, between group therapy meetings for the love obsessed, Lucy rediscovers the world outside of her long-standing and dissatisfying relationship– by sampling other relationships, including one with a mysterious merman who just might be the perfect match for Lucy.

“I knew that what I wanted was something that couldn’t exist. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t something I wanted.”

I can see why a lot of people might dislike this book. Lucy herself is unlikable, the narration is intimate and graphic (bordering on merman erotica), there’s some neglect and mistreatment of the dog, and the premise is just downright strange (as is the case with much of the magical realism genre, in my opinion). But I found some redeeming qualities.

“I’d always imagined that there was a subjective reality. But there was nothing subjective about this. I was objectively selfish and cruel.”

First, is the narrative voice. Despite her flaws, some of Lucy’s thoughts are surprisingly relatable. They simultaneously make a farce of modern relationships and serve as a guide through them. There’s a point at which adult language and content in a book can become excessive and overbearing, but in my experience it’s also such a relief to read a book with language that doesn’t shy away from expletives and bodily functions– when literature skirts around them there’s almost a sense that that content is undesirable, abnormal. The Pisces talks about farts, and dog breath, and waxing, and menstrual blood. There were a few times while reading this book that I thought the details were almost too much, but I appreciated Lucy’s bare honesty.

There’s also an admirable level of honesty in Lucy’s relationship with Theo (the merman) in this book. Sure, sometimes she lies and she’s quick to admit it to the reader, but one reason her relationship with Theo seems to work so well is because they are so willing to speak whatever’s on their minds. About death, sex, poetry, love, etc. They can admit when they’re scared. Some truths are omitted, but what they do share is refreshingly straight-forward.

“Was it ever real: the way we felt about another person? Or was it always a projection of something we needed or wanted regardless of them?”

Next, I loved the way that Lucy’s other relationships– though some of them are clearly bad and going nowhere– offset the cues Broder lays out for healthy relationships. What goes wrong with these other men (and with the female friendships Lucy is forming in California as well) is held up as an example of what doesn’t work, and why. Lucy is flawed, yes, but she admits her flaws and sometimes even embraces them. Which doesn’t mean that thinks she’s always right, only that she’s always Lucy. Maybe she doesn’t know what she wants or how to get it, but she’s learning which questions to ask and she’s always listening for answers. With Theo, she learns a sort of gender-defying love in which sometimes he seems (to her) more like a woman and is “strong in his softness,” and sometimes when she detects his vulnerability and comforts him she seems (to herself) more like a man. Much like the two fish that comprise Pisces, Lucy claims that she and Theo are two parts of one being, that they are the same. This complete acceptance is balanced by the more rigidly gender-typical encounters Lucy has with other men who only want to sleep with her. Between the lines lies a beautiful exploration and defiance of gender norms.

“You never think, in your fantasies, that the object of the fantasy can be hurt. I had known that he was sensitive. But I hadn’t trusted that it was real, or at least, that it was as real as my own sensitivity. I didn’t believe that he could actually feel betrayed. Was it because he was a man and I was a woman? I thought that only I could feel that kind of shame, need, and rejection. I thought that only a woman could feel that. It all seemed crazy now. I was crazy when I was the one begging for someone to stay and I was crazy when I was the one leaving.”

And, of course, there are the Greek elements and parallels. Mermaids, mermen, sirens, etc. all come with certain stereotypes from Greek mythology, and while The Pisces does not strictly adhere to what one might expect from merfolk, there are darkly captivating parallels in Lucy and Theo’s story that harks back to the old myths in a way that Greek fans will enjoy. There’s also ample mention of Sappho and her work, with strong echoes in Lucy’s own work and experiences. The Pisces is modern through and through, but it shows plenty of respect for its Greek roots.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I must admit I wavered on this rating. There were a few things I disliked about the book (especially the pet neglect),  but I don’t think I’ll be able to stop thinking about this one for a while and it was certainly an engrossing read. This is one of the easiest 5-star reviews I’ve written lately, which I think speaks to how incredibly interesting I found this book. I’ll be keeping an eye out for any future novels from Broder, and you can bet that I’ll be picking up more of these new books about merfolk.

Further recommendations:

  • The narrator of The Pisces strongly reminded me of the narrator of Emma Cline’s The Girls, not necessarily in style but in content, despite the vast difference in premise between these two novels. The Girls is a fictionalized account of the Manson cult in 1960’s California, but just as Lucy explores love and desire (and the trauma that accompanies them), so too does Evie brush with love and violence, searching for herself within the narrative of her life.

Have you read any (great or terrible) sea creature novels this year?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant