Tag Archives: fiction

the generational impact of trauma

Review: How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones

Women’s Prize progress: 8/16 (though I’m not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In this novel, the worlds of wealthy tourists and impoverished locals collide in historical Paradise, a beach-side Barbadian village. When a robbery goes wrong on the night that Lala’s daughter is born, it sets in motion a string of devastating events. …Or does it? As the story unfolds, rippling out from Lala’s perspective to touch on all of those ensnared in the fallout, the reader learns just how deeply ingrained the roots of this problem lie, how easily perpetuated by the wealth gap between the summering tourists and struggling locals, and we begin to understand that Lala’s pain is not new, but rather a fresh iteration of tragedy and misogygny inherited by generation after generation in Paradise, nearly impossible to escape.

“She did not understand that for the women of her lineage, a marriage meant a murder in one form or the other.”

Right off the top, I have to warn you this is a bleak book. Personally, I don’t mind reading bleak fiction, and coming on the tail as this one did for me of an extremely bleak nonfiction read, I had a very positive experience here, though I understand others may want to skip this one for its difficult themes and content. I’ve rounded up some CWs at the bottom of this review, and am mentioning that list now in case anyone wants to check before reading further.

What makes this book so dark and haunting is the relentlessness of the trauma, the Point of the book being (in my view, as you may have surmised from the title of this review) being that in a place with such imbalances of justice and privilege, pain begets pain; that misogyny, abuse, and injustice are a breeding ground for more of the same, internalized by perpetrators and victims alike, to be passed down from one generation to the next to such a point that even a newborn doesn’t seem to stand a chance. Almost every chapter reveals some deeper layer of despair in this story as the narration flits between linked characters, exploring past ghosts that persist as present motivators. Though this book covers a specific incident, in a specific family, it speaks to a much larger societal problem in which trauma is the norm, she who can’t take it with dignity is further punished and ostracized, and there are very few viable avenues for recourse or even exit.

“And she leaves Lala in the cold quiet room on her back with her legs still splayed and no feeling at all at the intersection of her thighs and it is nothing like the bliss on the posters in the clinic or on the TV ads or the faces of the wealthy tourist women who walk with their newborns on Baxter’s Beach. Instead, she realizes that she has now brought another person into the dark, that birth is an injury and having a baby has scarred her and when the nurse asks her if she wants to go with her to see her baby in the ICU she shakes her head No...”

While the painting of this unhappy picture is the book’s strength, How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House also meets its primary downfall in this dogged focus on trauma through the ages; the narrative becomes so focused on what seems an exhaustive list of tragedies that the characters have little personality beyond their particular pains. Some characters want to leave Paradise, some want to rise above, some want to come back to experience it with better fortunes, but these longings are all tied to what has happened to the local characters here, reactions rather than innate ideals. They don’t have dreams or quirks that make them unique- they could all be anyone, dropped into the events that happen to them. Only their situations set them apart.

For example, it’s eerie to see that Lala could read exactly like her grandmother does, with only a number of years separating their fates; sure one earns her keep making dresses and the other braiding hair, but neither skill is mined for character depth and both cater in the same way to the tourists- this similarity makes the generational span of the family’s trauma abundantly clear, but it also, regrettably, comes across as though all of these characters exist not to represent people but to be vehicles of pain, suffering, and violence, first and foremost. If I could’ve changed one thing about this book, it actually wouldn’t be any of the tragedy in these pages, brutal though that can be; I would wish rather that the reader be allowed to know these characters a little better as individuals.

But even with this flaw in view, I think How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is still fully worth the read. I was immediately gripped by the writing; for such a tragic tale, Jones delivers a compelling narrative with plenty of momentum, the writing smart and artfully circular, spiralling around its points in a way that builds up dread and anticipation before honing in for the kill. Every twist feels both surprising and inevitable- the perfect combination I’m always looking for in fiction. I also found the use of multiple POVs engaging and well-utilized; Jones allows us to see most of her characters at first from a distance, through someone else’s eyes; she piques our curiosity with circumspection and only then allows us a close glimpse into each new perspective, which expands upon or challenges what we’ve learned from other characters in a way that makes each new piece vital in its own right. The shifting narration gives the book a fluid, communal feel, though Lala is always at the center. Other characters include Lala’s grandmother, mother, husband, friend, the police officer who questions her, and the woman involved in the botched robbery. All of these perspectives add their own flavor to what is clearly a larger societal issue, though they also all feed into that single common thread- Lala.

“Mira Whalen closes her eyes. Just yesterday she had ventured outside, just a little walk on the beach, and had seen the neighbor’s dog die, had seen a woman too terrified to report an assault she had suffered. Mira Whalen did not think she could muster the energy to go outside again. Mira Whalen didn’t think she could muster the energy for anything.”

It’s a heartwrenching tale that offers little hope, though the fact that the main thrust of the story is set in 1984 with occasional flashbacks to even earlier years does seem to suggest that living conditions on Barbados beaches may have somewhat improved up to present day. Despite the time jumps and character switches I never had a hard time following along and personally I didn’t find the trauma too difficult to read. The robbery gone awry and segueing as it does into a difficult birthing scene sets up the book’s tone well, so that additional revelations feel somewhat expected, not intended to shock the reader at every turn. And the writing, the writing. Jones’s prose has such flow and rhythm, and the mechanics of her paragraphs continually impressed me. There’s a bit of dialect in the dialogue that’s easy enough to parse. For those willing to take the leap with the content, there really is so much to appreciate here. This is a book that will stick with me, I think.

CWs: murder, rape (including rape of minors), difficult birth, death of a child (infant), incest, physical (domestic) abuse, gun violence, death of a pet (dog), animal cruelty (cats), infidelity, misogyny

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I was halfway through this read when I assembled my Women’s Prize shortlist predictions, and that was enough to (correctly) include it on my list; I think How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House is fully deserving of its place on this year’s shortlist and well worth the read, for the right audience.

The Literary Elephant

talking about things on the internet

Review: No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

Women’s Prize progress: 7/16 (though I’m not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In this novel, an unnamed woman of viral tweet fame reflects on life as a minor internet celebrity- the highs and lows of being plugged in to social media sites all the time. This rumination is interrupted, however, when a real life family issue claims our protagonist’s attention. As she learns about the genetic disorder Proteus Syndrome and spends more time logged off to lend support, she realizes that there are some important aspects of human experience that are not encapsulated in the digital archive- at least, not inside the circle of popular trends she’s familiar with- and she’s forced to reevaluate the time she spends online.

“What did we have a right to expect from this life? What were the terms of the contract? What had the politician promised us? The realtor, walking us through being’s beautiful house? Could we sue? We would sue! Could we blow it all open? We would blow it all open! Could we…could we post about it?”

No One is Talking About This is a short novel constructed with brief, fragmented paragraphs. They’re not all of individual tweet-length, and as far as I remember Twitter is never mentioned by name, but the comparison in style is obvious and suits the content. This is a book full of direct references to social media trends and usage habits; to some extent, it’s appeal is going to be proportional to the amount of time the reader spends online. Personally, I am not Online in the way that this protagonist is, so there were some references that I sensed probably had a deeper relevance that was going over my head, though I still understood and enjoyed most of the read- being online 24/7 is not necessarily a prerequisite here. To be honest, the reason I don’t spend more time on Twitter and other social media sites is because I know I have a hard time breaking out of the urge to keep scrolling indefinitely and it becomes a huge time suck; even from that perspective, there’s a lot to relate to in this book, as our protagonist knows perfectly well how ridiculous it all can be. Nevertheless, there’s that irresistible drive to feel more connected to the people of our time.

“When she set the portal down, the Thread tugged her back toward it. She could not help following it. This might be the one that connected everything, that would knit her to an indestructible coherence.”

But while I found a lot of individual statements about the internet spot-on, this wasn’t a novel that worked for me as a whole. No matter how directly some of the one-liners spoke to me, I never felt engaged in the underlying plot. Part of the reasoning for that may lie in the fact that our protagonist isn’t a very active agent throughout this story; she’s commenting on what has become for her a routine, daily existence, and next on something that is happening to a family member, something that she is witnessing but has no control over. It’s all observational. Another downfall is that this is a book in two parts: one about excessive internet (“portal”) engagement, one about Proteus Syndrome, and the connection between the two feels tenuous at best. Both are happening to the same person, essentially, and at that someone who is struggling to contain both experiences in her mind at the same time even while she is living them.

Furthermore, I felt the central message here- that being online is useless in the face of Proteus Syndrome- to be simplistic and somewhat unhelpful. To claim that no one is talking about Proteus is… probably not true. That it’s not a mainstream topic probably is true, but as an extremely rare disorder currently without a cure, I’m not convinced that more people worrying about it out loud on the internet (or elsewhere) would be particularly productive in the first place (which is not to say that no one should talk about it). Furthermore, though viral posts can indeed be shockingly arbitrary, the implication that there is no value to social media while “real things” are happening in the tangible world also feels like an unconsidered, extreme viewpoint. For this particular protagonist, yes, being online all the time and endeavoring to find fame through shitposts like “can dogs be twins” probably is unhealthy, but this is not necessarily the default experience. In fact, I would argue relatively few of us, even those who are Incredibly Online, are unhealthily ignoring real world problems in favor of crafting infamous tweets in the name of digital fame.

“‘I can do something for her,’ she tried to explain to her husband, when he asked why she kept flying back to Ohio on those rickety $98 flights that had recently been exposed as dangerous by Nightline. ‘A minute means something to her, more than it means to us. We don’t know how long she has- I can give them to her, I can give her my minutes.’ Then, almost angrily, ‘What was I doing with them before?'”

But aside from the fact that No One is Talking About This speaks about a very specific experience in a way that seems- perhaps a bit awkwardly- meant for the masses to find relatable, it is arguably an important story. Maybe more people should be talking about Proteus Syndrome, and about the myriad effects (both negative and positive) of modern social media use. Reading this book as an example of reality vs. internet conflict rather than the example allows room for some interesting consideration regarding modern life. If the reason you’re online is to feel yourself a part of the moment, why not read a new book that’s trending thanks to its Women’s Prize nomination and which focuses very intently on the state of our (digital) world at present? Though I felt I should’ve had more of an emotional reaction to the sad content here than I actually did, this read certainly sparked some thought for me about how I use my time online and how I balance internet and tangible-world time; it may do the same for you.

CW: death of a child

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. This book certainly had its ups and downs for me, and it’s so current that if you’re going to read it I’d suggest doing it asap (already a few of the references feel dated), but it’s a book I’m glad I took a chance on. I related, I learned, I reconsidered. Though I don’t think this is presented well enough to be a literary masterpiece, it’s one of the most experimental and “of our time” books I’ve encountered so far on the Women’s Prize longlist, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see it advance to the shortlist, and while I’m not especially rooting for that outcome I suppose I wouldn’t mind it.

The Literary Elephant

a modern love triangle

Review: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Women’s Prize progress: 5/16 (though not aiming to read all 16)

Book Cover

In this novel, Ava has moved from Dublin to Hong Kong post-university, and is teaching English as a foreign language to local children while she tries to sort out what to do with her life. At a bar she meets Julian, a British investment banker, who likes keeping her around even though he insists she is not his girlfriend. They use each other, and Ava continues living in his apartment while he takes a months-long work trip to London. In his absence, she meets someone else, a Chinese lawyer named Edith, a woman who wants a real relationship and is kind to Ava. But Ava is living in Julian’s apartment and part of her feels the toxic relationship she has with him is what she deserves. Of course, he won’t be away forever, so she won’t be able to hide them from each other for long.

“I told myself: This is why you’re single. This is how you can be having sex with two people, tell neither about the other, be living with one of them, and still be single.”

While Exciting Times focuses on two (very different) romances, it is much more of a literary character study than a romance novel. Ava’s relationships with Julian and Edith represent two sides of herself at a moment when her life is at a crossroads. Her TEFL job is temporary, and she’s landed in Hong Kong not because she has any personal connection to it but rather out of a strong desire to leave Dublin, where she’d felt the need to hide her bisexuality. And despite how easy it may sound to choose the loving relationship over the toxic one, part of Dolan’s brilliance here is showcasing how complex it can be for someone to choose something that might ultimately be good for them- Ava enjoys the detached banter she and Julian have perfected to an art form, feels like she understands him, and, for all his rich male flaws, Julian is easier to talk to her mother about, whereas she’s wary of how her Irish Catholic family would react to being told about her girlfriend.

The book is divided into three sections. The first follows Ava’s developing relationship with Julian, showing the reader how they met, why they seem to tolerate and loathe each other simultaneously, and how Ava comes to be living full time in the guest room of his apartment. The next section takes place while Julian is away on business, focusing on Ava’s budding romance with Edith from those awkward early days of obsessing over the meaning of every little thing she does to how Ava balances this new relationship with her already-established tie to Julian, and how even a good thing can make one feel boxed in and afraid. Finally, in the last section, the inevitable conflict sparked by Julian’s return arises and Ava must face up to the mess she’s made of juggling them both, and decide which path forward she should take.

“At least Julian was honest. He’d never experienced anything but permission, I hated him for it, but all the same I was glad he knew he had it. Most men with permission never realized.”

“Edith was calm about things she couldn’t change. Her firm was full or horrible men and she had to be nice to them. You did in every job, and at least hers paid well.”

Though each section has its own merits, Exciting Times‘s greatest fault may be that it tries to present each portion of the book as though it bears equal weight. While each of the three sections is necessary to advancing Ava’s predicament, the segments looking at Ava’s individual relationships with Julian and Edith feel introductory, and introductory chapters have no business taking up two thirds of a book. The final segment of the novel that brings the three main characters all into the same space at last and pits Edith and Julian against each other is by far the most interesting, though it’s slightly shorter than either of the two earlier segments. The friction between Ava and Julian helps move the first part of the book along, though I didn’t need as many pages as were provided to get the gist of their dynamic, and Ava’s comparatively healthy relationship with Edith in the middle of the book, the longest segment, is so devoid of conflict and surprise that it borders on downright boring. The only tension in this portion of the book is the looming awareness that Ava is lying to both Julian and Edith about what’s going on and will have to face the consequences in the near future- I spent most of these pages just waiting for the expected drama of the final piece.

But despite finding the novel unbalanced, it was overall a fantastic read. Though Ava’s life is nothing like mine, though she can be contrary and cold, I found Ava’s narration surprisingly relatable. Don’t we all feel the urge to self-sabotage sometimes, and get in our own way? I found it easy to sympathize with Ava for getting into a relationship with someone she knew was bad for her, and just as easily understood the craze of finding someone who excites you, stalking their social media (but being careful not to like anything, especially not anything old) and then pretending indifference in front of them so as not to give yourself away. And it’s not only the romances that felt fitting here: Ava is a modern young-twenties woman concerned with feminism, the pitfalls of capitalism, the worsening climate crisis, etc.; she toggles between presenting these views outwardly as part of her identity and realizing inwardly that actually she might be bad at acting out her ideals. And she’s got that familiar 21st century internet-era malaise:

“The trouble with my body was that I had to carry it around with me.”

Throughout the book, the reader also takes a pleasant dive into Ava’s TEFL classes, which prompt her to consider the differences between the English she learned growing up in Ireland, “proper” British English, and the the students’ Hong Kong English, small grammar tics she’s supposed to correct lest they give these children away as non-native speakers. There are English language sounds that she can’t make with her Irish accent and formal grammar rules she’s required to teach that go against what she’s learned as a native speaker. It’s an exploration of language that digs into class, privilege, and communicability in a way I found immensely appealing. Though Ava’s teaching work is more or less routine and has little bearing on the more prominent love triangle plot, the commentary around her language usage does provide further insight into Ava’s societal views and how she relates to (or doesn’t) the people and cultures around her.

And perhaps best of all, this entangled romance is probably the most convincing case for polyamory I’ve ever read, though ultimately it won’t work here. The three main characters make an odd trio and it’s not an entirely healthy relationship for anyone while Ava is seeing both Julian and Edith, but these two relationships fulfill different needs for her such that it’s hard not to imagine a world where she might manage to balance them both. I absolutely loved the excitement and tension of seeing the three of them trying to function together (brief though that portion of the novel is), and found myself frustrated when Ava is eventually forced to make a choice due to logistics and the preferences of her partners.

But this is more of a story about our messy, modern way of connecting to others than about right and wrong, so even when I disliked these characters or their actions I found them believable and had great fun following along.

CW: toxic relationship

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I had been wanting to read this book for months and was glad the Women’s Prize nomination gave me that extra nudge to finally pick it up. Though it wasn’t always a smooth read, I thought it encapsulated a bit of the messy drama of exploring one’s social identity, and explored character dynamics in a memorable way. I’d be happy to see this one advance to the shortlist.

The Literary Elephant

long live disaster women

Review: Luster by Raven Leilani

Women’s Prize longlist progress: 4/16 (I am not planning to read all 16 longlisted titles this year but am not sure yet how many I will read.)

Book Cover

In this novel, Edie is a young artist working for a publishing company that won’t put her in the art department. In return, Edie refuses to be the Black hire who works twice as hard and sucks up to her colleagues as though to apologize that she isn’t as white as the rest of them. But anyone could do her job, and Eidie knows it’s only a matter of time before the new Black girl, who is willing to play by white rules, gets her spot. And who can Edie turn to when the going gets rough? The guy she’s seeing is an older white man in an open marriage, and while even Edie knows this is a bad idea she can’t resist. Luckily his wife is willing to hold out a helping hand- such as it is- in Edie’s hour of need, in exchange for Edie’s guidance with the white couple’s Black daughter.

” ‘You noticed our daughter. When you came to the house,’ she finally says, and in this moment it becomes clear to me that despite this evening-long conspiracy, she is moving toward her most natural conclusion, which is to engage me not as a person who has just watched her dissect a man but as a person who is black, and who is, because of that, available for her support.”

I’ve been struggling with this review, because I did not enjoy the read nearly as much as I expected even though on paper Luster is pretty much perfect for my reading taste. It’s one of those messy/disaster woman books in which a young millennial seems to be deliberately tanking her life; in this case, Edie is sleeping around with everyone at the office who catches her eye, putting no effort into staying ahead of the new hire who’s clearly working her way up the office hierarchy. And then there’s Eric, the white guy whose biggest attraction seems to be that he’s significantly older than Edie. She knows he won’t be leaving his wife, and his relationship with Edie is selfish and unhealthy, but maybe Edie is looking to be used. On top of all this are the rejections of her art, the rent increase she can’t afford, the end of her health insurance coverage, a series of increasingly ill-fitting job interviews, and lingering grief over the death of her mother. Edie is down on her luck, a bit lost on her journey of self-discovery, and all she wants is to make bad decisions like the rest of us and scrape by until she stumbles upon something better. Why shouldn’t she have that?

I never tire of this sort of book, and the fact that Leilani is offering a captivating Black protagonist amid a predominantly white category of literature is appealing in itself. Many disaster women books by nature engage in a feminist commentary that challenges the societal expectations regularly placed upon women and the harsh consequences of failing to live up to that model standard; Leilani takes this commentary a step farther by reminding the reader of how much higher that bar of expectation is for women of color, and how any period of complacency- even one justifiably fueled by grief and job frustration- can tear everything she’s built down in a moment and leave her with barely a foothold for finding a next step. It’s a timely and important theme, and for me at least, always a pleasure seeing women be women, in all their flawed complexity.

In addition, Leilani is simply an incredible writer. Her prose is perceptive and bold, making skillful and relatable connections between the tangible, modern world and Edie’s emotions. Even though my circumstances are nothing like any of these characters’, I marked so many lines that reflected a true feeling I’d had and never known how to articulate, which is exactly the sort of sharp, intellectual narration that impresses me most.

“It’s not that I want exactly this, to have a husband or home security system that, for the length of our marriage, never goes off. It’s that there are gray, anonymous hours like this. Hours when I am desperate, when I am ravenous, when I know how a star becomes a void.”

And yet, for all of these positives, Luster focuses so heavily on its main character and themes that I found the overall story to be missing a necessary hook. Surprisingly for a book just over 200 pages, I set Luster down so many times and always had to talk myself into picking it back up. I think the reasons for this are twofold:

First, there’s so little plot to this novel. Such is the case with many character studies, and in Edie’s case in particular I think it’s fair to say that the whole point of the book is the derailment of Edie’s life. She doesn’t know what to do next or how to go about it, so of course her narration wanders uncertainly from one encounter to the next, just waiting for something to happen to give her a sense of direction again. She spends the entire novel trying to rediscover who she is as a person and as an artist. It makes sense , and yet the meandering story line can make for a challenging investment.

“I wake up in the morning and think for a moment that I am someone happier and then I remember where I am.”

Another disappointment for me was Edie’s relationship with Rebecca, Eric’s wife, and this disappointment stems largely from having read too many reviews before picking up this book myself, I think. I knew based on others’ reactions not to expect much from Eric- and indeed, he’s more interesting for the role he plays in Edie’s life than as a character in his own right. He really is just another white guy who doesn’t have much going for him beyond the privilege he’s lived with for so long. In contrast, may reviewers seem to have liked the relationships that develop between Edie and Eric’s wife and daughter. The daughter is a pre-teen, and her relationship with Edie is a bit rocky as the two are thrown together with little more than skin color as a commonality. Even as they eventually grow closer, this is clearly an adult/minor relationship in which Edie cannot voice her woes, and thus I was looking to Rebecca as someone I hoped would be a little closer to a friend for her, a peer.

Many other readers have called Edie and Rebecca’s relationship a friendship, but unfortunately I never saw it as such. Instead, even while they occasionally do nice things for each other, I saw them more as rivals circling each other out of curiosity and a need for validation. It is always an unbalanced relationship in which Rebecca has the upper hand and does not hesitate to exercise the power of that position. Even offering Edie a place to stay at a time when Edie is considering the legality of sleeping in her rental storage unit seems to be a way for Rebecca to show Edie what she, Edie, doesn’t have with Eric, and what Rebecca does. Their actions around each other feel like a performance- even scenes when the two seem to be comfortably spending time alone together feel like a demonstration of tolerance, just two people proving their humanity to each other in resistance of the natural rivalry they feel. It strikes me as no healthier than Eric’s affair with Edie. And while it may seem unfair to criticize Luster for failing to present something it never promised to, something that I only latched on to from others’ (equally valid) impressions, I think one positive relationship in this story might have been enough to draw me back into the plotless wallowing. If not Rebecca, then someone else. I needed something to hold on to while Edie was stumbling around, waist-deep in injustice and negativity. Unfortunately, Luster didn’t deliver that.

“If I’m honest, all my relationships have been like this, parsing the intent of the jaws that lock around my head. Like, is he kidding, or is he hungry? In other words, all of it, even the love, is a violence.”

Nevertheless, with its examinations of race, grief, artistry, capitalism, and modern relationships, this is absolutely a worthwhile addition to the disaster women category (long may it reign) and to the Women’s Prize longlist this year. It’s a strong debut that’s leaving me eager to pick up whatever Leilani will write next.

CWs: racism, police brutality, miscarriage, death of pet (mentioned with the implication that someone has harmed it, but this is not detailed explicitly), physical abuse, grief (relating to death of a parent)

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I don’t particularly expect to see Luster on the WP shortlist in a couple of weeks, but I’m glad to have read it and to see so many others doing the same. Leilani is certainly an author to watch.

The Literary Elephant

into the labyrinth

Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Women’s Prize Longlist 2021 Progress: 3/16

Piranesi

In this novel, a man called Piranesi (though this is not his name) lives in a labyrinthine House that consists entirely of elaborate classical Halls that are filled with Statues and washed by the Sea. For Piranesi, this is the entire World. He keeps an extensive Journal, recording both scientific observations and any notable occurrences or day to day thoughts. Through these entries, we learn about his movements through the Halls and his immense Knowledge of them, as well as the Events that begin to unravel his understanding of this World and his place in it.

“The Beauty of the House is immeasurable; its Kindness infinite.”

This is a difficult book to talk about, because despite everything I’d like to say, the less you know going in the better. And yet, how do you know if you want to go in unless you have some idea of what the book’s about?

There is a fantasy/sci-fi aspect to Piranesi, which probably narrows the field of readership a bit, but I’d argue that the otherworldly details are more of an intriguing background that won’t necessarily make or break the experience, while the deeper theme of coping with trauma and the driving forces of logic and mystery will more likely be the determining factors for reader appreciation.

At it’s core, Piranesi is a puzzle of a novel; it is a book for those who love inventive (though still very accessible!) structuring and clues. A great fan of mysteries and puzzles myself, I wholeheartedly loved the slow unveiling of subtle hints. Everything we learn about this World opens a door to further questions, many of which are answered through Piranesi’s observations and exchanges with the Other in ways that Piranesi himself does not seem to grasp. The Other is the only other living Person that Piranesi typically interacts with in the House. For a time, the Other and various features of the House itself are the only things Piranesi comes into contact with to provide context of what he is like outside of his own Head.

Because we are learning about our MC through his Journal, it is a very internal story in some ways; luckily Piranesi shares dialogue, movements, and entire thought processes- he places great weight on data, logic, and records. But the reader can learn as much about Piranesi’s circumstances by looking beneath the surface of the stated to note what is and isn’t important to him in these recordings: aided by his tendency to capitalize every significant noun, and his avoidance of certain seemingly obvious questions (if Piranesi meets with the Other twice a week in one specific Room, knows the Other doesn’t venture further into the House, and never sees him in the central Rooms outside of that appointed meeting hour, where does the Other go?).

The downside to this narrative approach is that it is immediately clear that Piranesi’s World is not our world; there is an imbalance of knowledge between character and reader. Thus, certain revelations about Piranesi’s past and present circumstances come as monumental shocks to him when the curious reader has already been able to guess the truth, somewhat lessening the impact of big reveals after all the careful clue-dropping has worked it’s magic. However, the gradual realization that Piranesi’s ignorance is in large part a coping mechanism makes it easy to forgive the novel for occasionally making clear the same point twice. Piranesi’s thoughts, actions, and narrative style are so directly linked and speak so well toward the ways in which a person might react to trauma that it’s hard to ignore the brilliance at work here even when things feel a little too spelled out.

But I’m brushing up against spoiler territory and don’t want to get too close, so let’s turn away from the mystery now and look toward the fantasy/sci-fi element: Piranesi’s World. I want to call it fantasy, because that’s generally what you do with an entire world that is an unending House throughout which Tides and Statues are abundant. It’s an extraordinary place. Beautiful, but also brutal, in a potentially deadly way that makes one respect it all the more. Some of the Halls are derelict, some Tides violent, and classical architecture is not much protection against the elements of the Seasons.

“There is a thing that I know but always forget: Winter is hard. The cold goes on and on and it is only with difficulty and effort that a person keeps himself warm. Every year, as Winter approaches, I congratulate myself on having a plentiful supply of dry seaweed to use as fuel, but as the days, weeks and months stretch out I become less certain that I have sufficient. I wear as many of the clothes as I can cram onto my body. Every Friday I take stock of my fuel and I calculate how much I can permit Myself each day in order to make it last until Spring.”

But this World and… how it works, for want of a better phrase… functions scientifically and logically within the novel, so calling it sci-fi or speculative is just as valid a choice. Classification is up to the reader, really. Whatever you want to call it, this World is lovingly rendered and evocative in such a way that it makes Piranesi a delight to read even when the themes turn dark or the mystery feels too obvious. If you’re looking for escapism, what better than a labyrinth built right on the sea?

If it hasn’t been clear, the only thing that would have improved this read for me further would’ve been a bit more surprise in watching the mystery unfold, but timing with solving the mystery will probably vary reader to reader and in any case there is enough else here to appreciate in depth and detail to make this novel worth recommending. I suspect it will be a polarizing read, but I hope more readers will take a chance on it. I think this is the sort of fantasy/sci-fi that could appeal to readers who don’t normally reach for those genres, because the science isn’t too technical and this world does not involve any supernatural creatures or spells. It’s ambiguous enough that the otherworldly element could be explained away by an alternative explanation, if one really doesn’t like magic as an answer. The mystery is layered and intelligent, but the gaps in Piranesi’s knowledge make it a fair choice even for readers who won’t want to do the heavy lifting of sifting through his clues before Piranesi understands what has happened. You can engage as much or as little as you like- the House has something to offer for all.

CWs: kidnapping, imprisonment, gaslighting, gun violence, death.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. A very strong 4- I loved reading this. Unfortunately it’s too early to say whether I would predict or want this book to advance to the Women’s Prize shortlist, but barring the possibility that there might end up being 6 other longlisters I’m even more attached to, I can safely say I wouldn’t be disappointed to see this one stay in the running!

The Literary Elephant

life without bees

…would be bleak, if Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees (translated from the Norwegian by Diane Oatley) is any indication!

In this novel, an English man in 1852 throws himself into inventing a revolutionary hive for beekeepers, hoping his work will bring fame and fortune to the family he’s struggling to provide for. On another timeline, an American man in 2007 tends to the bee farm that’s been in his family for generations, though his wife would prefer to sell and their son would rather pursue journalism than take up the mantle. Finally, a Chinese woman in 2098 works long hours pollinating fruit trees by hand; she and her husband barely make enough money to keep themselves and their small son fed in a world devastated by food shortages, in the wake of mass bee extinction.

The three threads are linked, on one side a bit more directly than the other; the narration weaves back and forth between each of the main timelines, drawing parallels between the three parents who are all in their own way trying to guide their children into a life of stability. However, the adults all seem to be afflicted by the same parental blindness, believing that what’s best for their sons is to keep them close behind on the paths the parents themselves have forged, using the lessons learned from past mistakes and lost opportunities to show the children how to succeed where others- perhaps even themselves- have failed. Of course, the children have their own dreams and ideas about what’s best for them and nothing goes quite as planned.

“It was as if I’d created a bond between my own childhood and his, between us and the world, between the world and the universe.”

This is actually the part of the novel that worked the least well for me; as someone who has only ever been the child in the “parent knows best” tug of war, I was not especially inclined to feel sympathetic toward the parent narrators trying to reshape their sons’ futures, good as their intentions may have been. The trajectories of these relationships feel drawn out and obvious. I would much rather have seen these three characters more clearly as individuals, with the focus primarily on their bee-related passion projects, than so preoccupied with their familial relationships. Of course parents are often preoccupied with trying to care for their children, but that can be true without also redirecting the entire novel (though perhaps parents who can relate to worrying about their children in this way may find the family focus a more appealing aspect altogether than I did). Giving the reader more than one generation to invest in along each timeline does help bridge the gaps between the centuries covered here, but I think The History of Bees would have stood firm (perhaps even firmer) without losing focus on the relationship between humans and bees over time to a very repetitive sort of family drama replaying itself over and over again.

What interested me most here was, by far, the bees. This is a fiction book, not a source of scientific authority, but there are some fascinating asides detailing how bee colonies function, some of the labor involved in beekeeping, general bee habits, and population changes across a span of decades. I did not know, for instance, but have looked up on my own to confirm, that bee farmers rent their bees to fruit farmers for pollination purpose; apparently apiarists really do pack their hives up on trucks and tour them around to make a little money aiding fruit production. I was also unaware of Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon in which seemingly healthy colonies suddenly abandon their homes and disappear in large numbers, for unknown reasons. I loved seeing how a beekeeper might feel about these parts of the job, how they could affect the work both logistically and emotionally.

“In 1988 the number of hives had been halved. Bee death had afflicted many places, in Sichuan as early as in the 1980s. But only when it struck in the US- and as dramatically as it did precisely in 2006 and 2007, farmers with several thousand hives suffered mass disappearances in the course of a few weeks- only then did The Collapse receive a name. Perhaps because it happened in the US, nothing was really important at that time until it happened in the US: mass death in China didn’t merit a worldwide diagnosis. That’s how it was back then.”

The economic Collapse that occurs in this novel in conjunction with the dying out of the bees is futuristic and built upon speculation, but Lunde’s proposed science provides intriguing food for thought and feels plausible enough. This part of the book, the explanation of Lunde’s dystopia and the weaving together of the three narrative threads, was another strong suit for me. Unfortunately this comes very late in the novel; despite the shortness of the chapters and frequent switches between characters to keep the plot from stagnating at any point, I found the majority of the read to be dull and dry, my time with the book mainly spent waiting for those impending connections as the characters walked slowly into fates that are all too obvious, sometimes even to the characters themselves:

“Perhaps I had known it all along, but couldn’t bear to take it in, because it was too big, too important.”

Ultimately, I do appreciate how all of the pieces of this plot fit together, as well as the environmental themes I’m left with. It’s simply much more pleasing to consider this novel in concept after the fact than it was to read through, and I’m not sure that I have any good ideas about what might have improved it for me. Perhaps if the whole thing had been presented as a heavily bee-detailed dystopian with more expansion on the futuristic timeline given up front, and the historical portions left as more of a footnote? The characters from the past do have their place here, but those old family squabbles carry very little of the book’s weight.

A final nagging complaint: either Lunde or Oatley seems to have had a penchant for placing commas between full sentences, where periods, dashes, semicolons, or just about any other stylistic choice would have made a better fit. I take no issue with the prose itself, but the comma usage gave the whole narrative an awkward flow I could never quite get past.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad I finally read this one, even if I didn’t find it quite as scintillating as I’d hoped. And I’m leaving this experience more interested in learning about bees and how necessary they are to human life than I was when I began, so I’ll chalk this up as a win. Further bee-related recommendations (of any genre) are welcome!

The Literary Elephant

it’s always a good time to read Black History

I wanted to post this review earlier, as a recommendation for Black History Month reading, but since we’re nearing the end of the month I’ll share a reminder instead that Black History is well worth reading year-round; Robert Jones, Jr.’s new historical fiction novel The Prophets was one of my most anticipated reads of the year, and let me assure you that you can believe the hype with this one!

The Prophets

In the novel, Samuel and Isaiah share a close bond after finding each other in childhood and growing into their shared job tending the animals in Empty’s barn (circa 1830’s). Empty is what the Black folk call the Deep South plantation where they live and labor- Empty because it is a heartless place. When one enslaved man decides to ask the master for a favor, he turns to Christianity as a means of convincing the white man of his worthiness and sincerity. The master prides himself on his religion, and through the power of his new disciple’s sermons most of the enslaved are swayed to the side of the Christian gospel, where they begin to see Samuel and Isaiah’s love as a grievous sin, paving the way for further animosity.

“Empty was another thing. It was the deepest. It was the lowest. It was the down and below. It was the bluest depth. It was the grave and the tomb. But briefly, ever so briefly, you could still come up for air. Despite the blood and the screams and the smothering hot, here, too, was where Essie sometimes sang in the field and made the picking less monstrous, if not less grueling.”

The Prophets is a beautiful, nuanced book that addresses many injustices faced by enslaved persons in antebellum US, taking its narrative a step farther than other popular fiction on this topic by centering LGBTQ+ experiences. At the center is, of course, the relationship between the two gay main characters, but they are not the only characters defying heteronormativity in one way or another. Though quite a few of the atrocities doled out to Black people on plantations in this time period are details I’ve come across before, they are used here not as individual shocks but rather as incremental weights steadily increasing the burden of homophobia on the shoulders of our main characters and their allies.

I found the prose style artistic enough to be a little challenging in places- the story itself is easy enough to follow, but Jones’ structure and wording bears enough poetic weight that what you get out of the writing will probably be proportional to the effort you put into parsing it. If you’re here for the plot alone, you’ll be just fine, but the brilliance of Jones’ prose is that it holds up to much closer scrutiny as well. Likely some of the cultural meaning went over my head, but as a white reader and reviewer I didn’t necessarily feel that all The Prophets has to offer was meant for me, which is fair. I’d call The Prophets light literary fiction with a high level of commercial appeal.

“Everyone got a turn, at some point, to be on top or on bottom. It didn’t matter how good you were or how evil you were. All that mattered was that you were alive and, therefore, unsafe. Subject to His will in the here and, likely, the hereafter. And His will was as brutal as it was arbitrary.”

Another key feature here is the examination of religion. The Prophets is structured similarly to the Christian bible, the chapters in roughly chronological order but each exploring a different perspective or facet related in some way to a greater narrative tapestry. Many of the chapter titles directly echo bible chapter titles, playing on and often critiquing how white folk have used various biblical stories and themes for their own benefit, by reframing it all to centralize Black history and culture.

The entire novel is a commentary on religious bigotry and the toxicity of patriarchy, but the best part is that it’s delivered in a measured way that condemns the bigotry without falling into the simplistic maneuver of bashing Christianity as a whole; it also condemns white supremacy, duly calling out those who cause harm, without falling into the simplistic maneuver of labeling all white people as inherently villainous. The white characters are the villains here, of course, and Jones doesn’t go easy on them. But he lays out their actions and motivations in such a way that the reader can see how white supremacy ultimately fails everyone, even those it serves to uplift- a message that retains its value today and proves the continued relevance of the book’s themes and topics in contrast to many modern Americans’ belief that US slavery and all its accoutrements is a thing of the past.

“There was no such thing as monsters. Every travesty that had ever been committed had been committed by plain people and every person had it in them, that fetching, bejeweled thing just beneath the breast that could be removed at will and smashed over another’s head before it was returned to its beating place.”

It’s an ambitious book and there were occasional moments when I wondered whether The Prophets might be taking on a little too much; the cast of characters is large and the list of grievances endured by those enslaved runs the constant risk of feeling like a checklist of horrors, but Jones manages to link every moving piece of this story successfully, using its broad scope to show how very widely and negatively the effects of homophobia and religious bigotry can spread throughout an entire community, reaffirming that the side of acceptance and allyship is worth standing on even for cis-het folks who might want to think themselves safe in the choice of holding on to homophobia or even neutrality.

The only area where The Prophets was a little less successful for me was in its episodic nature, and this is more a reflection of the type of reader I am than any fault with the book. Much like the bible, each chapter of The Prophets is separate enough that it could probably stand alone fairly well, and possibly the pieces could even be read out of order without losing the overall affect. Jones times introductions to character histories brilliantly, but he also gives those characters secondary roles in chapters that highlight other perspectives so that the details are layered together in such a way that it’s impossible to pick up on everything at once- it’s a book that would make for a rich reread, I’m sure. But because the book is something of a patchworked piece, I did find it easy to put the book down at any point and harder to get back into the flow of the story when picking it up again.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I can absolutely see why this book has been making waves, and I hope it’ll continue to do so. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it faring well with the book prizes this season. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for future work from this author.

The Literary Elephant

are reality dating shows romantic?

Review: One to Watch by Kate Stayman-London

One to Watch

In this novel, Bea is a popular plus-size fashion blogger who goes viral for a posted complaint about all of the female stars on reality dating show Main Squeeze being model-thin; for a show whose purpose is to uphold the prospect of fairytale love for the ‘average’ American, shouldn’t the cast be more… representative of actual Americans? Bea would like to know.

She’s been unlucky in love herself, but when the season of Main Squeeze that she criticized flatlines and the producers decide to try a new tactic by hiring Bea as the next star, it’s not exactly love she signs on for. So much of reality dating tv is staged, she knows, and the engagements from each season’s final episode tend to last the contractual six weeks before the couple cuts ties. But going on the show would boost Bea’s fashion business and help show women who look like Bea that they can have fairytale love, too. With twenty-five eligible men vying for her hand though, will Bea be able to keep love out of the arrangement?

“…a lot of people find the existence of a fat woman something to get worked up about.”

CWs: body shaming, fatphobia, sexism, infidelity

I’m afraid this review is going to come off as a rant by the end, but I did appreciate a lot of things about this book and enjoyed the read, so I want to start off with some positives.

The body positivity and critiques of fatphobia first and foremost are incredible here, as one might expect from the premise. Bea is the main narrator throughout the book and is presented as a full, complex human being who calls out those who wrong her and deals with trolls on the internet and occasionally makes a bad call, as do we all. She’s humanized through and through, and while her experience as a plus-size woman colors every part of her life, Stayman-London avoids the mistake of letting Bea’s fatness make up her entire characterization.

“If the other kids just didn’t pay her any mind, that meant they weren’t being cruel, either. But being ignored is its own kind of hurtful.”

There’s some great diversity among the rest of the cast, as well. Main Squeeze has just changed hands from a lazy old white guy producer to a young woman on the rise and eager to move the show in a more inclusive direction. Bea’s bachelors include a Black man, a Frenchman, a single dad with a gender-nonconforming child, an asexual and aromantic man, a fat man, and more. Bea’s best friend is a lesbian. The best part is that all of these characters are given great scenes in which they get to just be a person- they’re not stereotyped, but their actions and advancement on the show make some great statements as well. I don’t want to say more and spoil any of the twists of Bea’s Main Squeeze episodes, but let me assure you that there are so many positive messages in One to Watch, both directly in the prose and also in the structure of the plot. (Watch out for those internet trolls though, they do spew some absolute venom along Stayman-London’s road to incredible commentary.)

And it’s not only the inclusivity. One to Watch is FUN. Woven in with the narration are bits of multimedia related to Bea and Main Squeeze– texts, group chats, think pieces, blog posts, tabloid articles, contracts, emails, tweets, interviews, and more. Though the book did get off to a bit of a slow start for me, once Bea is on Main Squeeze even the chapters are laid out as episodes of the show, complete with bits of script and film direction. All of this formatting keeps the story feeling fresh , fast-paced, and realistic, and most of all, it brings the Main Squeeze fandom to life.

I actually do not watch The Bachelor or any of its spinoffs- I am not a part of that fandom, which One to Watch is clearly mirroring. But it is so easy to get sucked in right along with the fans in the book: hashing over who’s been cut from the show, guessing who’ll stick around for the next episode, wanting to comment over every shocking comment and gesture. The drama is all there, and allows for a high level of reader engagement. It had all the appeal for me that murder mystery whodunnits usually do, only without bringing death into the equation. This would be a fantastic book to read along with a group or buddy, to weigh in every chapter or two and talk over what’s happened and predict what will happen next. It’s juicy in a way that’s exciting to share.

But it didn’t sell me on reality dating TV. And here is where I run out of praise, even though I did know going in to expect a Bachelorette-type story- One to Watch is upfront and correct about the sort of book it is, so my complaints do not lie with the novel, exactly. I saw a few reviews from readers who aren’t Bachelor franchise fans but loved this book, and I decided to take a chance and hope Bea would be doing some dismantling. Bea does dismantle stereotypes, but aside from wanting to make Main Squeeze more inclusive she accepts the show as is, questionable ethics and all, and that’s essentially where my issues lie. I do understand that the people on these shows sign contracts and know what they’re agreeing to and do actively agree to participate, and that in this case those characters are also entirely fictional, all of which is good. But humiliating someone on live TV as a “plot twist” to boost ratings? Keeping “villain” suitors around for intrigue? Filming personal conversations for public consumption. Having to take all these random suitors you hardly know into your family’s home for someone else’s entertainment. Broadcasting genuine heartbreak for the sake of the fans. It just feels gross to me, so the TV part of this book was never going to be the right fit.

“This is reality television, not a symposium on ethics and moral philosophy.”

Not only do I dislike the general premise and practice, but a story using this format is also necessarily going to rely on some of my least favorite tropes- there’s the instalove factor (the show takes place over several weeks, but there are so many people involved that a lot of decisions are made based on first impressions), the fake dating (these people have signed contracts and are getting paid to act as love interests; even if they are actually looking for love there are mixed motivations here, especially in Bea’s case, as she goes through several episodes and dates without her heart in it at all), and dating as a competition (Bea has to judge these men against each other and they are competing- the drive to “win” perhaps does not always coincide perfectly with the goal of finding real love). If these tropes are more your jam than mine, that’s totally fine, of course! Personally I’m into romance novels more for the angst, for relationships (of any sort: friends, enemies, coworkers, etc) that slow-burn develop into something more, and for characters pretending they’re not in love when they secretly are. I like my love stories a bit more on the emotionally torturous side, apparently. The fairytale/fantasy/money-is-no-object stuff just isn’t what I’m generally looking for, and again, I did read the synopsis of this book and decide to chance it, so any disappointment over finding what I expected not to like in these pages is on me.

But weighing my likes and dislikes here, I’m realizing that I did enjoy One to Watch, I just didn’t find it romantic. I wanted to know who Bea would choose in the end because I wanted to be right about my guess, not because I felt chemistry between any of these characters. A comment from one of the fans in the book about one contestant potentially winning an engagement “by default” when love gets messy toward the end of Bea’s season left me wondering whether fans of reality dating shows (and/or this book) are in it for the romance, or the game? What makes a romance a romance- are dates enough to put a book in the romance genre, even if they’re paid, even if they’re fake? I don’t mean to push anyone’s trope-loving buttons here, I’m genuinely curious to hear about what draws you (or doesn’t) to reality dating, whether you find reality dating truly romantic, and what you look for in romance media.

Because with this book, even though a few of the guys are very decent, I was surprised to find that the only one warming my heart was Bea.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’d definitely recommend this book if the premise appeals; it delivers exactly what it says it will, and does it well. I found it inspiring and encouraging even if not exactly romantic, and I’ve already loaned out my copy to someone who barely reads because I think this is an easy book to love and a fun one to talk about. The only downsides for me were ones I foresaw from the start, so I’ll absolutely be keeping an eye out for any further work from Stayman-London, especially if it steers away from reality dating!

The Literary Elephant

cowboys, clones: my first brushes with 2021 lit

As usual, I’ve kicked off my reading year mostly with titles I already owned, mainly releases from the year before that I just hadn’t quite gotten around to. But shiny new books are too exciting to resist for long, so I’ve got a couple of 2021 releases to review now!

Outlawed

First up is Anna North’s Outlawed, a January publication that reinvents history. Set in the 1890s west, the US has been torn apart and rebuilt as something new in the wake of the Great Flu, which decimated the population enough to inspire a total societal fixation on reproduction. Women are valued only for their ability to bear children- many children. Ada, our MC, is in her late teens when she faces trouble: she’s been married for a year, tried a second partner in desperation, but her womb remains empty. She joins a convent to escape being hung as a witch, discovers that there’s a whole community of barren women just trying to survive, and joins the Hole in the Wall Gang to reclaim some of what’s been lost to her and to others marginalized by a zealous society with its cornerstone in bigotry.

Outlawed is tricky for me to talk about, because I don’t think it really has anything new to say and yet it has been the most fun read I’ve picked up so far this year. The writing isn’t anything flashy- I marked only three quotations, and all of them were chosen for their ability to capture the story’s essence in various ways, not on the basis of remarkable wording. The format is straightforward, chronological with a single first person narrator in a book that would probably have been served better with a wider range of perspectives- North apparently wants to deliver these characters’ backstories and rationalizations, but doing so through one primary MC means that Ada asks a lot of nosy questions and the reader gets to roll their eyes as her companions just… tell her whatever she wants to know. But there’s such a playful tone to it all that I found it to be an utterly addictive read nonetheless. It’s a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously, that spins out a theme in a mildly ridiculous way and just has fun delivering its messages, which are good one even if you’ve heard them before. Not for content, but my experience with Outlawed had a lot in common with my experience of My Sister, the Serial Killer; I loved them both for being theatrical, entertaining, a bit absurd.

It takes two chapters to get past the character introduction and plot setup, but then we’re thrown into a world of women and non-binary characters dressed up like men, running heists and getting into trouble and helping each other out again. The cast is lovable and diverse; I had a slight reservation at first about barrenness being highlighted as The Ultimate Persecuted Thing when there’s still racism and homophobia active in this world as well, but in the end I think North does a fair job of highlighting one issue without belittling others. There are squabbles and particular alliances among the outlaws, but the complicated dynamics between them all adds to the strength and appeal of this diverse found family.

“‘It’s a way of holding us up,’ Elzy said. ‘It’s how the Kid reminds us who we are.’ / ‘And who are we?’ / We heard hoofbeats in the distance. / The Kid appeared at the lip of the gulch then, nose and mouth already covered by a scarf of purple silk. Elzy smilied at me, then removed a checked bandanna from her pocket. / ‘Didn’t you hear?’ she asked. ‘We’re kings.'”

Other slight hangups for me included the brevity of the world building and a glossing over of morality. In the case of the former, small details are scattered throughout the book, leaving the politics of this setting feeling half-finished; we get small hints about the Great Flu and the Independent Townships that formed after America fell and the sheriffs who police them, but it’s bare bones- only enough to understand the logistics of the plot. As for the latter complaint, North delivers here a band of outlaws who are fully willing to kill any man who gets in their way, and there’s very little personal reckoning over this state of affairs. Of course the entire Hole in the Wall Gang has been cast out and persecuted, but it seems there should be a distinction made between recognizing harm from society as a whole and taking individual lives. Especially for a group with prices on their heads who are endeavoring to create a safe haven, I expected some deeper examination into the decision to murder, but instead its taken largely as a matter of course. The whole book, perhaps, could have been served well by an extra 50-100 pages in order to tease things out properly. That I never wanted the book to end probably serves as an indicator that I found it lacking in some ways even while the story engrossed me.

For all my little quibbles, I loved picking this book up every time I had a chance to read, was shocked at some of the twists, and heartbroken over a particular death. Outlawed has great energy. I was invested. I had a good time.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I could see myself potentially bumping this down to 4 in time, as it wasn’t a flawless read, but I was completely hooked all the way through and sad to reach the final page. I’ll absolutely be reading more from this author.

The Echo Wife

Next is Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife, which is a February 16 release- I received an eARC via Netgalley and Tor Books in exchange for an honest review. All of my thoughts and reactions come from the advance edition of this book.

This plot follows a renowned woman scientist who learns her husband is having an affair- with a clone he built from his wife’s research, programmed to be docile and accommodating in all of the ways Evelyn is not. At first Evelyn cuts her losses and keeps her distance, but soon the clone has as much reason to hate the man as Evelyn, and the two women bond over an attempt to cover up his murder.

I was under the impression that this book would be a fast-paced, plotty sci-fi, perhaps even a sci-fi thriller, but instead found it to be fairly slow and introspective. Part of what makes it drag is the narration’s tendency to over-explain, pausing each scene to tell the reader outright what each gesture, expression, and comment means, leaving nothing for the reader to decipher or interpret. The careful detailing of minutiae makes it easy to see which direction the book is going at almost every turn, before it gets there. It takes a full quarter of the book for the plot to progress beyond what’s stated directly in the synopsis, and each new piece of information (the affair! the clone! the murder! *gasp*) is presented as a plot twist even though it’s all setup, primarily, for what is in actuality a very character-driven story in which one woman grapples with who she is and who she could have been under other circumstances and who she could never have been at all- as well as an inquiry into that which makes us human.

I mostly agreed with and appreciated the book’s feminist commentary but didn’t feel it pushed any boundaries- that some women desire to reproduce, others do not, and both choices are valid is not new to me, nor is the narrative of a man taking advantage of a smart/successful woman in a quest to secure his own power both personally and professionally, though they’re nice points to see made in mainstream lit and I know there will be other readers newer to the nuances of both who will likely find these themes more exciting than I did.

Ultimately this story just wasn’t quite as punchy and innovative as I expected, though I did enjoy the focus on morality, on personality, on what (if anything) differentiates a human from a highly successful clone. The writing style never managed to win me over, though it’s competent enough and clearly shows that Gailey has put some effort into the science. To be honest most of the scientific details meant nothing to me without much of a background in the field myself, and thus some suspension of disbelief was required, but having them in the story did lend a sense of authenticity to Evelyn’s lab and increase my willingness to follow Gailey through that setting. In the end I’d say this is sci-fi for fans of books like Robin Wasserman’s Mother Daughter Widow Wife and/or Helen Philips’s The Need, both lighter on the actual science and heavier on feminist and woman-centered commentary; I’d recommend it to readers who like attention to detail and no questions left unanswered. Those who already know they like Gailey’s writing will probably fare well here, too.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars. Unfortunately, my expectations from the synopsis got in the way of fully enjoying what is actually presented here, and I suspect that in the end Gailey’s writing style is just not for me. This was my first time reading their work and I won’t rule out an exciting premise in the future convincing me to give them another go, but I don’t plant to read further for now.

Are either of these books on your radar for 2021?

The Literary Elephant

Could Do Better book tag

Something juicier than reviews today- I’ve been tagged to share some covers that could be better by Marija, who is the reigning queen of Judging Books By Their Covers content! At least two of her choices in this tag were the first titles that came to mind for me as well, so be sure to check out her spot-on answers! And for more Could Do Better cover fun, you can check out this youtube video filmed by the creator herself: CJ Reads.

And as an added challenge, I’m going to try to find books for each of these prompts that I’ve read and rated highly (4 or 5 stars), because while I do believe we can get useful information about whether or not we’ll like a book based on its cover appearance, sometimes a perfectly adequate and lovable book falls victim to subpar cover art and I want to focus on a few of those books today. So without further ado, the prompts:

Say it Don’t Spray it: cover with the most offensive use of type

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

Something that I tend to dislike in title appearance is when the words are broken up so that the reader has to assemble it. I also do not like curved titles (and these curves are not uniform- why?!) or people on book covers in general (but that’s another matter). It’s got black AND white typeface but they’re close to the same size so the eye (my eye, at least) doesn’t know where to go. This title is also using the most obnoxiously boring font imaginable (it’s ranking right up there with comic sans for me). Furthermore, why are we highlighting the eye with that title placement? If this face is supposed to represent the MC… well, she’s dead, so a staring eye makes no sense, and the fact that the eye is YELLOW is making it impossible to ignore whatever weird orange washing is going on with the photo. An artful title might have gone some way toward making this cover more palatable, but alas.

She’s Serving Reese’s Book Club: cover with the most commercial book club energy

Actress

Actress by Anne Enright

When I think of book club covers, I think of images that are pretty in perhaps too obvious a way; often they seem to have contrasting colors, sort of abstract or symbolic images, something that maybe looks nice enough but really doesn’t give any hints as to what the book’s about. So, Actress. The only image we get here is half of a head, presumably the actress in question. Her red hair provides the color contrast with the green background, her expression is maybe supposed to entice us, but ultimately it doesn’t give us anything the title isn’t doing already (and again, people on covers just don’t work for me. They interfere with whatever image I might create in my own head of the characters). And then, that nebulous green background. What is that. My best guess is blurry background trees, like in portrait mode. It’s a nice enough color, but why are blurry trees 90% of the cover image? Just for the sake of the jewel-toned cover catching the most possible eyes on the shelf.

Yes Girl, Give Us Nothing!: cover with seemingly no energy put into it

Ninth House (Alex Stern, #1)

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

I actually really like this monochrome color scheme and have no beef with the font. But this cover gives us… nothing. A line between the title and the author’s name, and that generic YA book snake that has starred on so many covers it really deserves a proper name at this point. It is our pet, whether we like it or not. Admittedly it’s been at least half a year since I read this, but are there even any snakes in the book? There’s so much worldbuilding going on in Ninth House, with magic and secret societies and ghosts, and the dismantling of Harvard traditions is pretty enticing in itself; the design team really missed an opportunity in putting literally ANYTHING interesting on this cover. And sadly, as the first book in a series, I suspect that there will be some attempt at matching going on with future volumes so it’s especially disappointing knowing we’re doomed to more of this nothingness in the future, as well.

A Face Only a Mother Could Love: a cover that is so hideous, but the book is so good, you can’t help but keep it around

Her Body and Other Parties

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Perhaps a controversial opinion? This cover just does not work for me, but I want it to! It’s so close! And yet, for over a year I had this book on my shelf and could not even tell what the cover image was- I thought it was a floating red party dress, a bit disheveled, with a green snake coiled around it. What? It’s actually the musculature of a neck, with a green ribbon. I get it now. But it took me three stories beyond the green ribbon one in the book for me to figure it out! Probably I’m just dumb, but even knowing what it is, the skinniness of the green ribbon looks snakelike and repulsive to me, I’m sorry. Why is it not wider. Why is it floating. Why does the musculature just end at the collar, where are the shoulders. Why is the title divided into individual words and why is it directly on top of the only imagery we’re given. I don’t know. But I loved these stories, so it’s here to stay.

Take One Thing Off Before Leaving the House: cover that could use one less element

The Bass Rock

The Bass Rock by Evie Wyld

This is another one that I want to love. I like the color scheme a lot, and the cutouts in the black background. The face is striking, and I want to make an exception for it in my strict ‘no people on covers’ stance. Even the animals, fine. Except all together, it’s too much. The title and author hardly even seem to fit, like they’re an afterthought, and it bothers me that the background scenery is continuous in all of the cutouts but the people and animals don’t extend past individual cutouts. I get how that fits with the premise of the book, with so many lives layered on top of this one unchanging place, but it doesn’t work visually for me as well as it works thematically. I keep thinking the girl is just a head with a whale tail and the fox is growling at her and the rest of the whale (or shark? I believe there’s only a whale in the book but the image looks shark-like to me) is just flying through the air, disembodied. There’s just too much going on to really appeal.

Hypebeast: cover that is clearly going for all the trends at the same time

Mexican Gothic

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate this one. But it just screams “I want to be popular!” It’s got florals. It’s got print. It’s got a person, in that recently popular way where some part of the face is obscured or out of frame. It’s got a vintage dress. It’s got contrasting colors, managing to be simultaneously dark and bright. It’s got a blurb right on the front so you can be reassured that people are loving this one. It mentions more of the author’s work under her name, to draw you in with another title you might’ve heard of and maybe even already enjoyed. It just really doesn’t want to be overlooked! And it hasn’t been, evidenced by that “New York Times Bestseller” line stamped proudly across the middle, so clearly adhering to cover trends works. Apparently we really are that easy to please.

My Bonus: No Explanation Necessary!

Because I’ve run out of prompts before bad covers, here are a few extras I’ve disliked in the last year (including some with lower personal ratings) that I think speak for themselves, for your viewing displeasure!

Redhead by the Side of the Road
Call Down the Hawk (Dreamer Trilogy, #1)
Midnight Sun (Twilight, #5)
Mother Daughter Widow Wife
Red at the Bone
A Crime in the Neighborhood

Tagging: anyone who wants to participate! I’ve got another book tag coming up soon so I’ll leave this one open-ended, but if you decide to join in the cover-judging fun please link back to my post so I can see the covers you’ve hated!

And just a reminder that this is all in fun and completely subjective; if you’ve loved covers I’ve mentioned disliking here, it’s totally your right to do so and I’ve got no complaint against it. Let me know below if you agree or disagree about any of these covers!

The Literary Elephant