Tag Archives: new release

Reviews: Sisters and The Poet X

Next up in catch-up reviews are two titles I picked up in late September: Daisy Johnson’s spooky 2020 release: Sisters, and Elizabeth Acevedo’s debut for young adults, the award-winning contemporary The Poet X. These books have little in common aside from my reading them back to back; I suppose both main characters are sisters, both are teenage girls, and both narratives focus on careful use of language in one way or another. And I loved both books, which means this is also a nice break from all of my 3-star reviews of late!

In Sisters, we follow two girls and their mother moving to an old family property near the sea after an incident at the girls’ school in Oxford. September and July, less than a year apart in age, share a bond so incredibly close that even their mother, their only remaining parent, cannot find space for herself in their relationship. The two girls, both teens, have a history of playing dangerous games, and in the course of this story we see just how far out of control they’ve spun.

“It would have surprised neither of us to have found, slit open, that we shared organs, that one’s lungs breathed for the both, that a single heart beat a doubling, feverish pulse.”

With characters that are obviously keeping secrets and antagonizing each other from the start and the atmospheric old house they’re returning to after many years, there are some excellent gothic and horror elements to this book that make it a creepy read even before anything of note is happening. The family has known abuse in the past, and even the close and loyal bond between the two sisters is expanded upon to feel less like a relationship of mutual love (though there is some) and more like barely-contained manipulation and violence. The girls behave like twins, though they do not look alike, and the exploration of their connection and the family history before we learn what happened at the school does well to hold the reader’s interest.

“It was only when September was around that color returned and I could experience pain or smell the lunch cooking in the school kitchens. She tethered me. Not to the world but to her.”

The plot itself is rather scant, and slow to start. The reader knows right away that something has happened at school, that there’s another layer to the story that we’re not immediately privy to, and that somehow this will come to a head as tensions rise in the secluded house. Johnson drops small clues and a big red herring, all the while slowly expanding our awareness of this family so that it doesn’t quite feel like a waiting game though we are certainly expecting a big reveal. Is it the most original twist? Perhaps not, but it’s one I particularly like, and one I guessed incorrectly, which made it land particularly well for me when the truth did hit. Johnson’s writing is so admirably graceful and calculated, and there’s some appealing commentary here on sisterhood, revenge and guilt, abuse and independence, so that I think even a reader who guesses where the plot is headed would find something to appreciate. That said, it’s really best to go into Sisters knowing as little as possible, and so I’ll leave you here, with a simple recommendation to pick this one up if literary horror sounds like your style.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I was struggling somewhat with reading when I picked this one up, so what might have ordinarily been a 4-star read for me just felt utterly perfect at the time. I will definitely remember this one fondly and am eager to pick up whatever Johnson publishes next. I’ve already enjoyed both of her previous works, Fen (short stories), and Everything Under (a fabulist Greek retelling that earned Johnson the title of youngest author ever shortlisted for the Booker), so Johnson is quickly becoming a favorite for me!

In The Poet X, Xiomara is half of a set of Dominican American twins living in Harlem. She does her best to listen to her parents and stay out of trouble, but this is no easy task with a mother so strict. When she’s prodded into confirmation class, it seems no one will give her a straight answer about why it seems like God doesn’t pay attention to girls like her, and why men staring at her body is considered the fault of her “sinful” behavior. The one place she can be open and share all of her thoughts is in her journal, where she hones her poetry; but this talent too is seen as an unholy distraction.

Told in verse (though not the stuffy rhyming sort, so don’t run yet if you’re already thinking poetry isn’t your taste!), The Poet X is basically everything I want in a YA novel: there’s the adorable bloom of first love, emotional conflict as a teen grapples with how far to follow her parents and where to give her own self room to grow, and meaningful commentary: in this case touching on what it means to be Dominican in America.

Half of the conflict here revolves around religion; I imagine this could be a little challenging for some Christian readers to sit with, but ultimately I think it’s handled well and the questions it raises about how Christianity doesn’t always seem to accept certain people as they are, are probably worth thinking about even (especially) for staunch believers who might initially reject criticism. Xiomara’s questioning of God and religion are based in the unfair ways she is treated, and that does deserve an honest answer; she isn’t blindly denouncing her faith, just trying to figure out why the role she’s told to fill isn’t one that seems to fit.

“Just seems as I got older/ I began to really see / the way that church / treats a girl like me differently. / Sometimes it feels / all I’m worth is under my skirt / and not between my ears. / Sometimes I feel / that turning the other cheek / could get someone like my brother killed. / Sometimes I feel my life would be easier / if I didn’t feel like such a debt / to a God / that don’t really seem / to be out here checking for me.”

The other half of the novel’s conflict has to do with Xiomara’s personal relationships. She’s met this cute boy she likes, but she’s not allowed to date. Her brother is keeping a major secret, one her parents will have just as much trouble accepting as Xiomara’s prospective boyfriend. There’s a teacher Xiomara admires at school who runs a poetry club, but Xiomara doesn’t feel free to pursue it. Most of these problems stem from her mother’s unwillingness to bend her plans for her children, though Xiomara knows that her mother’s strictness came as a product of her Domincan upbringing and her own past unhappiness- she wants the best for her children, and after all she’s been through she doesn’t want them to let her down either. Motives on both sides are clear and organic, and all of the emotion feels very real and raw.

“I will never / let anyone / see my full heart / and destroy it.”

Xiomara is ordinary, and she’s brave. She’s strong, and she’s broken. She’s not perfect, but she’s doing her best, and isn’t that what makes for the best YA protagonists? This girl has something to say, and once she begins to speak it’s hard not to listen. The Poet X is a captivating and inspiring story that both wears you down and lifts you up; I learned about an experience different from my own, but I also found pieces to relate to, and I think with the book’s focus on words, language, and finding one’s voice, almost anyone who loves books (and probably some who don’t) will grow and find a place to belong in this book as well. It’s a quick, impactful, and intelligent read that’s easy to recommend to just about everyone.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I devoured this book. Parts of it hurt, parts of it made me smile, all of it was completely effective. I now understand the hype around Acevedo’s work, and I’ll surely be reading more of it.

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: Gutshot and Death, Desire, and Other Destinations

The only two books I’ve finished reading so far this month are two surreal collections of very short stories. Both contain magical and/or speculative elements, both focus on human relationships, both are divided into very small individual pieces- flash fiction. And so, I thought it made sense to review them together, and I hoped this would be an easy entrance to resuming my reviews.

I read Gutshot by Amelia Gray as a buddy read with the lovely and astute Melanie, who has also recently posted a review that you shouldn’t miss!

Gutshot

For me, Gutshot was a fun read full of creative premises and surprising events. These stories typically begin with a concept that seems ordinary or at least straightforward, and then follows the trail down an imaginative path of bizarre what ifs. Gray often uses otherworldly elements as symbolism, as an exaggerated way of pointing something out about our familiar world or human habits/emotions in a new light. A man enters a mysterious labyrinth, hoping his peers will think him brave. A damaged gravestone reveals beauty in destruction and incites a frenzy. One story about marriage is titled ‘Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover,’ in which the reader is advised to literally eat her husband piece by piece for every move he makes, because inevitably he’ll go astray anyway and deserve such a fate. The stories are designed to make one rethink assumptions: a piece about swans, those lovely creatures who mate for life, actually reveals them to be rather disgusting. I’d be shocked to find anyone who can say that Gray’s writing is ever predictable or boring.

And yet while I found the stories engaging and pleasant to read, I found the implied meanings of them either far too obvious to excite me or too vague to unravel at all- and in both cases, the lack of a nuanced concept to ponder past the end of each story ultimately meant that very few of the pieces in this set were memorable for more than bare details and their ability to amuse me at the surface level.

There are two qualities that particularly appeal to me in short story collections- the first is a touch of the bizarre, which is what originally drew me to Gutshot. I love magical or speculative elements in fiction that push the boundaries of reality; for a short story to impress me it needs to be unique and punchy from start to finish, without a lot of backstory or elaborate world building to bog it down, and a bizarre twist is usually the best way to draw me in immediately and set the story apart. It’s also typically a fun way to examine the real world at an unexpected slant; fantasy, sci-fi, and speculative elements are great for commentary on society or human nature. Sometimes Gray achieves this, but other times the moments of unreality feel too silly and unexplored.

“Flesh is siphoned into a bowl and poured without discrimination into a freestanding grandfather clock that is set on fire and rolled into the street.”

The other quality I prefer (again just a personal choice), is that while the collection may have some broader theme or style that holds all of the stories together, each story should ideally also stand on its own. For the brevity of the short story to keep its appeal, it’s best to be able to dip in and out of the set, in my opinion, without feeling you’re missing something when you don’t read it all at once. But Gutshot doesn’t quite work in this way for me. The collection is divided into sections, and the closest I came to finding any depth of meaning from the book was to look at all of the stories in a section together and consider what they had in common. This of course necessitates reading at least one full section at once, which isn’t too challenging in a book of this size (just over 200 pages, each of the stories 10 pages or less) but just isn’t quite the reading experience I hope for with short pieces.

Across the five sections of this book, I found such concepts explored as: the danger in putting one individual above the good of the group, the violent and ugly side to love, the sorrowful and deadly nature of isolation, the consequences of loving something too much, and the possibility that nothing ever really ends, but all repeats again in its own cycle. The titular piece involves a man who has been shot in the gut; the shooter is remorseful and those sought for help are sympathetic, but none can provide sufficient care for the victim’s wound. Jesus Christ “helps” him in the end by telling him about people passing in a plane overhead. This is one of the stories that didn’t entirely make sense to me- is the focus on futility and despair? Is the message that kindness only goes so far? That the individual is small, and the world goes on? All a bit grim, and are we to determine from the title that one of these possibilities is central to the whole set? My confusion here is an accurate indicator of my struggle to find thematic depth throughout this entire read. I can make out some overlying arcs between the sections, but I am left frustratingly uncertain about what the reader is meant to take away from this experience.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m undetermined on whether I’ll try more of this author’s work- it sounds like she’s got a novel that might appeal to me more, and I do generally like unpredictable and puzzling fiction, but I didn’t quite get what I came for here despite my surface-level amusement with the stories.

Death, Desire, and Other Destinations

Next, I read Tara Isabel Zambrano’s debut short story collection, Death, Desire and Other Destinations, which released September 15. The stories in this set are incredibly short, most of them 2-4 pages in length; the longest is 9 pages, and it’s an outlier. Many of these stories also include some sort of otherworldly element, infusing the work with a dreamlike quality.

Unlike Gutshot, this collection manages to accomplish both of the things I enjoy in short story collections- it is packed with bizarre details that effectively further a point about the human experience, and each of the stories stand alone well, though the style and themes are consistent throughout the book, linking them all together.

The stories in this collection tend toward the sapphic, though there are a fair amount of exceptions. Zambrano doesn’t shy away from sexual descriptions in the relationships that unfold across these pages, which I liked in principle but occasionally found overbearing in practice. The characters are diverse or unspecified, which gives the set a very inclusive and limitless aura. As the title indicates, most of the stories focus on death and desire in some form; there are many losses and longings in these pages, including miscarriages, breakups, and various other endings and false starts. A woman who goes for a bikini wax would rather forget about her husband and enjoy the touch of the esthetician. A widow believes her husband, upon death, became one with their house. A poisonous courtesan who can kill with a kiss but not feel love becomes entangled with a girl even more deadly than she. One girl removes the heart from her chest in order to get to know it properly.

What I liked most about these stories is that each one digs into a particular emotion that is easy to comprehend and even relate to, never mind the fact that the characters include aliens, snakes, ghosts, and more. Zambrano writes about the nuances of the human heart, with an otherworldly slant (just the way I like). Her writing is full of unusual imagery, especially involving the body and weather/atmosphere, and I found her metaphors constantly thought-provoking even if sometimes challenging to decipher. Though these moments contain impossibilities, they always paint a clear and intriguing idea.

“The shining dust from the rubble streams in and mixes with your breath. Like a fish swimming to the surface for oxygen, you open your mouth wide, eat the day slowly.”

If I had to pick a genre I’d say these stories are speculative overall, though there’s a timelessness to them that makes appearances of modern devices and futuristic scenarios (like weddings on the moon being a common practice) feel shocking in the reminder that these narratives are grounded in real possibilities- in essence, if not in details. All of these stories are separate and complete in themselves, though none of them seem mutually exclusive, and small details (like a particular animal or object or personality) popping up casually later on gives the whole collection a beautiful sort of flow.

I think there will be a particular sort of reader best suited to this collection; so much of it is melancholy and possibly triggering (CW: miscarriage, death of a loved one, cheating, mild body horror), the writing is gorgeous but oblique, and the reader needs a certain willingness to accept things that don’t make literal sense. It’s dreamy and evocative, but also strange. I know this won’t be to every reader’s taste, but for the right reader I think there’s a lot to love in this collection and in Zambrano’s style. I know I enjoyed my time with it, and I hope others will too.

“Abandoned, I hold on to the shape her body has left behind in me, part home, part grave.”

If you’re curious to learn more about the author and her work, Melanie hosted an interview with the Zambrano a few weeks ago on her blog!

I received an eARC; it’s possible that quotes and details could be different in the final version of this book.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. So much about this collection was just perfectly tailored to my short story tastes, and I had a delightfully sad time reading it (I love sad books). Though there are too many stories for me to say I’ll remember them all individually, I can already tell that the broader topics and emotions will stick with me.

The Literary Elephant

Review: Midnight Sun

If you’re actively opposed to all things Twilight, feel free to skip this post; I’m going to be talking about Stephenie Meyer’s new Twilight Saga release here, the long-awaited Midnight Sun.

To start off, I’d like to point out that I was intending to read one chapter of this book per day over about a month (there are 29 chapters), and finish with a post titled ‘A Case Against Wish Fulfillment Books.’ This plan was derailed two weeks in when I finished reading the chapters that leaked a decade ago in the Midnight Sun manuscript; I ended up binging and quite enjoying the rest of the book. In place of that more critical post, I’m simply going to cover all of the discussion points I think other Midnight Sun readers will potentially be interested in; sorry to everyone who doesn’t fit in that category, but also… not sorry. My 2020 needed this diversion.

Midnight Sun is the same exact YA fantasy romance delivered in Twilight: a love story between a 109 year-old vampire in a 17 year-old’s body (Edward) and a human teenage girl (Bella), with a simple narrator POV swap. As with Twilight, the story starts with Bella’s first day at school in Forks and continues up to the couple’s evening at prom a couple of months later. The first twelve chapters are VERY similar to the corresponding chapters of the partial Midnight Sun manuscript circa 2008. If you’ve already got those firm in your mind (I suspect the audience for this book will largely overlap with the audience who read that leaked draft), you could skip right to chapter 13 if you felt so inclined.

I fully expected to enjoy this in a cringe-y, nostalgic, guilty pleasure sort of way, but am instead here to confirm that Midnight Sun is just as addictive as any of the Twilight novels ever have been, for better or for worse.

Having read both perspectives now, it seems shocking that one version of this romance could ever have existed without the other, that the two were not written simultaneously, so tidily do they complement each other. There are a few awkward moments in Midnight Sun where the established dialogue doesn’t quite match Edward’s newly revealed thought process and he has to wonder ‘why did I say that?’ or note that his behavior isn’t following his conscious intentions; the symbolism of the title and cover is also hit harder than necessary. But these clumsy maneuvers are few and far between, and on the whole I think Midnight Sun does an excellent job of connecting previously invisible dots; every time Edward speaks or gestures too fast for Bella to catch is now captured on paper. And these two spend so much time wondering what the other is thinking that having access to both of their thoughts suits the story. As far as I can tell the details track- I took a cursory look through the meadow scene from both books to compare, and found only minor differences between how actions are meant vs perceived, and which details are made note of or ignored by each character; these small differences are not mutually exclusive, and in fact I think they improve this project, exploring the idea that no two people experience the same thing in the exact same way.

I thought Twilight coming from Bella’s perspective was the perfect choice at the time- as the reader’s first foray into this world, of course it makes sense to introduce fantasy elements from the point of view of someone who is also newly discovering them. But in the same vein, Edward’s perspective is the right choice for a new Twilight novel today, when even those who haven’t read the books or watched the films likely have some knowledge of the story. Edward is all extremes, so the series might have died here if it had started this way originally, though he is by far the more interesting of the two, and the only character capable of breathing some life back into this overblown piece of pulp fiction. Seeing his point of view at this point allows Meyer to add depth to the now-familiar story that no other angle could provide. So much of this book is exactly the same and yet it also manages to be new and different, thanks to this one vital shift.

There’s no point in denying that this book is entirely gratuitous and unnecessary- yes, it’s a bit ironic to call any of these books necessary, but the rest of them do at least advance the scant plot; Midnight Sun adds virtually nothing new beyond Edward’s voice, and even this is not a surprise, as his position has been made clear from his dialogue in the rest of the series. This is, plain and simple, a wish fulfillment book for long-time Twilight fans, which is apparent even in the book’s dedication. I was prepared to hate it for not bringing anything new to a table that’s already stacked with a lot of issues, and indeed: the vast majority of the content here is comprised of the exact same plot, scenes, dialogue, and backstory that are already familiar from Twilight. The two books correlate practically chapter for chapter- about half even share the same titles. The two books are warped mirror images of each other. There are four extra chapters in Midnight Sun, and almost 200 more pages than Twilight contained, but that’s easily explained by Edward’s obsessive over-analyzing of every. thing.

“Not for the first time in my life, I wished that I could make my brain slow down. Force it to move at human speed, if only just for a day, an hour, so that I wouldn’t have time to obsess over and over again about the same solutionless problems.”

Some patience is clearly required, but I think those who are still interested after the twelve year hiatus from this series won’t mind that the final product comes with plenty of padding.

I do want to acknowledge before going further that the same flaws plaguing the earlier books of the Twilight Saga still exist here in Midnight Sun, though it’s clear Meyer is more aware of those criticisms by now. Unfortunately I think she spends more effort tying up little plot holes (admittedly a gratifying element) than addressing the more serious characterization problems, and some of those she acknowledges without cleaning up which actually makes them seem worse (Edward’s stalking and spying tendencies, for one, are fully acknowledged and dismissed). But to be fair I think it would be pretty hard to change the canon believably at this point, within the strict constraints imposed upon this novel. So, enter at your own risk- Edward is still a controlling, manipulative boyfriend no one should aspire to have, Bella is gilded a bit when seen through Edward’s eyes but still a single-minded idiot no one should aspire to be, the Quileutes are still presented unfairly as an antagonistic enemy, and the age gap in the romance is still uncomfortable (Edward thinks of the high schoolers as children). Additionally, Edward’s thought-reading reveals a lot of unpleasantness in the personalities of many formerly benign side characters, including Rosalie, most of Bella’s human friends, and even Bella’s mother.

On the plus side, there’s a lot more time spent on the uber-supportive Cullen family dynamic and on teasing out individual quirks for each of the vampires. Emmett shines as the best friend Edward ever could’ve asked for, Alice has some real prowess with the future visions (and I found her all-but-silent conversations with Edward incredibly amusing; Alice has always been my favorite Cullen), Jasper’s mood controlling makes sense and is put to fantastic use at last, and Carlisle and Esme’s kindness radiates off the page (though Esme is still the flattest of them all, sadly). There’s even a bit of silent observation from Edward’s side that endeavors to prove he loves Bella for more than the smell of her blood, which is a nice addition.

It’s still a romance, of course. But where Bella’s POV makes Twilight revolve entirely around the love story and the discovery of magic hiding in her ordinary world, Edward’s POV brings us less of a love story and more of a war with his own self-worth and self-control. The falling in love part happens early and easily, immediately apparent in the angst and (melo)drama if not in Edward’s conscious awareness. What drives this version of the story instead is his internal grappling; he loves her, but he wants to kill her. The thing he wants most is the thing he poses the most danger to. He can have momentary happiness, or he can endure intense momentary discomfort for long-term happiness. His long-term happiness on the other hand would require certain sacrifices from the object of his affections, and can he ask that of her? Her happiness is a double-edged sword that incites both pain and pleasure- which is stronger, and what will that mean for her future? For his?

Edward loathes himself for bringing someone he loves and believes innocent into his world of vampirism; he considers himself the monster, the nightmare, full stop. It’s a dark and anxious book, and the fraught self-hatred and denial is the main draw. It’s a book full of pain and suffering, much of it self-inflicted. The gloomy psychological battle won’t be for everyone of course, but if you’ve ever been Team Edward this is likely what you’ve been craving all along- Edward’s uncomfortable predicament has been clear through all of these books, though it’s never been this potent.

“As I stared at her, I began to feel almost agonized at the thought of saying even a temporary goodbye. She was so soft, so vulnerable. It seemed foolhardy to let her out of my sight, where anything could happen to her. And yet, the worst things that could happen to her would result from being with me.”

Because the reader already knows what is happening and how this world is built, and because Edward is the mythical creature rather than the painfully ordinary human, Midnight Sun is able to start in the thick of things even as it goes back to the very beginning, and it’s able to take the otherworldly aspects farther than Bella’s perspective allowed. Meyer knows the reader is already familiar with her brand of vampirism, and in any case by the time this story starts Edward has already been a vampire for close to a century, so he doesn’t get caught up in world-building minutiae the way Bella does.

There’s a bit more magical behind-the-scenes action going on here too, and a deeper dive into Edward’s backstory and his behavior unbeknownst to Bella. None of this changes canon content, and the extra details aren’t anything that couldn’t be guessed at based on remarks from the other books, but it’s still amusing to see in print. To be honest, I think being willing to laugh at these books has always been a prerequisite for enjoying them, and that’s no different here.

“For half a second I was distracted by the idea, the impossibility, of what it would be like to try to kiss Bella. My lips to her lips, cold stone to warm, yielding silk…

And then she dies.”

I mean, it’s so bad it comes all the way around the spectrum to good again. Like 90s horror flicks. I think this is why I can read Midnight Sun in 2020 and not something like The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes; the Twilight Saga all but begs not to be taken seriously, and thus is easier to pick back up even when reading tastes have changed.

Honestly I think the only thing here that will disappoint readers who’ve been more or less enjoying the series up to now is that as Midnight Sun nears its climax, as Bella breaks away from the Cullens to run toward her own demise, Edward is able to block out most of his worry about her safety when it should be at its most heady. Luckily the plot picks up with some grand theft auto and vampire magic to help redirect attention, but this doesn’t quite replace the glut of emotion I think most readers will expect in that scene. Ah, well. I suppose even vampires must have a breaking point.

In the end, I would argue that Midnight Sun is better than Twilight, although I think both objectively leave a lot to be desired, just as both have served their purpose and proved wildly entertaining in their own time and place. I don’t expect that Midnight Sun is going to win this series many new readers, however. Even though it is just another iteration of the first book, and would probably work as an entrance to the series, it doesn’t seem intended for that purpose. This is an expansion of known story, not an organic introduction to this world. Furthermore, I suspect this will be the end of the Edward-perspective books, which means anyone looking to jump into this saga is going to have to face Bella’s POV sooner rather than later if they plan to continue reading.

Enough of Edward’s thoughts and motivations are clear here that it’s easy to imagine how and why the rest of the series’ plot unfolds the way it does, and drawing out Edward’s perspective further would feel incredibly repetitive and even more superfluous than it does in Midnight Sun. He’s already (unknowingly) contemplating a lot of the issues that will come up for him in the future: how and why he might leave Bella, what that would feel like, how and why he might come back. Why a physical relationship between them would be dangerous. What he thinks about her potentially becoming a vampire vs staying human. His jealousy. His stance on letting her go or even encouraging a more normal life for her, separate from him. His anxiety when she’s out of sight. His fear of her inevitable death looming above everything else. It’s all here, and I think Meyer provides it with the understanding that it’s all the reader is getting. Midnight Sun adds an indulgent layer, but further books would probably become too cloying. Especially given that the second installment would just be a massive tome of severe depression, given the plot of New Moon.

And yet, despite the doom and gloom and obvious predictability, it is still fun. I suppose this is why wish fulfillment books exist.

“Run, Bella, run. Stay, Bella, stay.”

I enjoyed this read far more than I expected based on my present reading taste; I don’t regret picking it up, I’m excited to talk about it with anyone who’s read it or is planning to read it, and I could even envision doing a reread someday- I’d be curious to try Midnight Sun and Twilight side by side, scene by scene, eventually. But there’s only so much sparkly vampire romance I can take in one dose these days and I’ve hit my limit for now, so I’ll be taking a break.

Have you read or are you planning to read Midnight Sun? Hit me with all your Twilight Saga thoughts down below, I’m in some kind of teenage angst mood.

The Literary Elephant

Review: Tender is the Flesh

It’s August, and that means it’s WIT (Women in Translation) month! Since I have so many reading priorities on the go right now I’m not sure how many translations I’ll be able to get to in the next couple of weeks, but I’m off to a great start with Augustina Bazterrica’s Tender is the Flesh, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses!

Before I get started… CWs for: cannibalism, dehumanization of marginalized persons, abuses of power (both personal and systemic), brutal deaths (animal and human), captivity, genetic modification, rape, and basically anything else horrible you can imagine one person doing to another. There’s absolutely no shame in skipping this review if the content isn’t for you!

tenderisthefleshIn the novel, a disease has supposedly rendered all animals lethal to humans- this means no more pets, no zoos, no stepping outside without an umbrella to fend off stray birds, and most significantly, a need for an alternative source of meat. Various vulnerable peoples are rounded up, and so begins the breeding of humans for the production of “special meat.” Our main character, an important man who keeps one of the big processing plants running smoothly, guides the reader through the new legal methods, all while dealing with a personal challenge: through no desire of his own, he is now the sole owner of a valuable specimen whose presence requires him to participate in this new societal scheme in ways that abhor him- at least initially.

” ‘I know that when I die somebody’s going to sell my flesh on the black market, one of my awful distant relatives. That’s why I smoke and drink, so I taste bitter and no one gets any pleasure out of my death… Today I’m the butcher, tomorrow I might be the cattle.’ He downs his wine and tells her he doesn’t understand, she has money and can ensure she’s not eaten when she dies, a lot of people do. She gives him a look of pity: ‘No one can be sure of anything.’ “

To call this book “dark” would be an understatement. I thought I was prepared, but there were still a few moments when I had to set the book aside and find relief in the fact that our reality has not reached this level of depravity… yet. Bazterrica does an incredibly convincing job of pointing out the ways in which our known world may already be heading in this (or an equally horrible) direction, grounding this premise in social, political, and environmental issues that are currently dividing opinions around the world. It’s a satire aimed at capitalism, factory farming, blind consumerism, and more. She also demonstrates that deft use of language (counting the victims as “head,” like cattle, and avoiding any terminology in the process or product that would render the eaten on an equal level with the eater) can be all that is needed to normalize today what seemed morally repugnant yesterday.

“The craving for meat is dangerous.”

In all transparency, I appreciated the intent of the novel a bit more than the execution. Bazterrica builds this world painstakingly, painting the image of a near-future dystopia that feels all the more real for its level of thorough detail. We learn here all the ins and outs of both one individual processing plant, as well as the greater societal changes that keep this world in business, and it truly is the stuff of nightmares. But the amount of actual plotting going on in these pages is minimal. Our main character, Marcos, often feels more like a writing tactic than a protagonist. We are told about his family’s past and his present circumstances; these do shape his decisions and explain his attitude, but important people in his life get only brief cameos on page, and even the problematic “head” on his premises is often relegated to the background while the narrative focuses on Marcos’s day-to-day tasks in the industry. The format reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which Offred is primarily used as a tool to explain the workings of Gilead; so too is Marcos a rather bland character who serves best as a guide. (And so too is there a focus here on normalized violence against women, though general humanity is the deeper theme of this book.)

But, despite my finding Marcos a bit lacking, the setting he is able to reveal to the reader is more than enough to hold the reader’s interest, and the psychological change evident in Marcos through the brief plot is fascinating to watch as well. At first I wondered whether a more willing participant in this system than Marcos might have made for a better lead- it would have allowed for more nuance in the revelations of ulterior motives, and would have made this society all the more horrifying by demonstrating directly how quickly it has been rationalized. But as things progress with Marcos and the person-turned-product in his care, the reader gradually sees his actions and mentality shifting in a way that is all the more frightening for how disgusted he’d been at the book’s beginning. I don’t want to say more about the plot than that, other than it’s worth reading for if you’re willing to wade through the gruesome details.

The only other downside for me was some unaddressed and unnecessary poor treatment of women. Marcos apparently has very little regard for the female half of his species, and with no point being made through his behavior I found it distasteful. Perhaps his misogyny could have been used to further the theme of power abuse or to hint at a gap in his persistent morality that paves the way for the greater collapse in his beliefs of basic equality later on. If it was meant to be read in these ways, I didn’t find that to be clear in the text.

“It disturbs him that there’s something feminine beneath the brutal aura she takes great care to give off. There’s something admirable in her artificial indifference. There’s something about her he’d like to break.”

The writing itself I found to be a bit awkward in places, and I’m not sure whether it’s Bazterrica’s style I didn’t fully get on with or just a bit of flow lost in the translation; either way, style is subjective so perhaps this will work better for other readers, and even for me it was not a major obstacle.

In the end, though I would’ve liked a few minor changes, I was utterly captivated by what Tender is the Flesh does have to offer (repugnant as it may be), and for anyone intrigued by the synopsis I’d say this is indeed a great WIT title to pick up. I’d love to check out more work from Bazterrica in the future!

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. For content, this is probably the most disturbing book I’ve read all year, and it will be hard to top in that regard (not that I’ll make a point of trying). But I generally appreciate anything that succeeds in making me think and feel, and this book thoroughly succeeded on both counts even with the high level of horror and grotesquerie. I’ll be remembering this one for a long time.

Is this a book you’d ever consider reading?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Home Before Dark

Today’s review, featuring Riley Sager’s latest thriller release, the haunted house tale Home Before Dark!

homebeforedarkIn the novel, the Holt family moves into an old, gothic Vermont house when Maggie is a child. After only a few weeks, they flee, claiming the house is haunted and vowing never to return. Maggie’s father produces an incredibly popular horror book based on what he argues to be the family’s exact experience. But Maggie has never believed he wrote the truth. Now, as an adult, she returns to the house to fix it up and sell it, and search for clues about her family’s past. The house has plenty of its own history to reveal as well. And of course when Maggie goes digging, she’ll find plenty of shocks, including some proof behind her father’s story, and some details that never made it into his book.

” ‘You’re the one who forced us to move into this godforsaken house.’ / ‘I didn’t force you!’ I yelled back. ‘You loved this house, too.’ / ‘Not as much as you. I saw it on your face the moment we stepped inside. That this was the house you wanted.’ / ‘You could have said-‘ / ‘No?’ Jess said, cutting me off. ‘I tried, Ewan. It didn’t work. It never works. You debate and cajole until you get your way. Always. And Maggie and I have no choice but to go along with it. Now we’re in a house with a fucking graveyard out back and our daughter acting weirder than she’s ever acted before and then this goddamn ceiling-‘ “

I’ve been a Riley Sager fan since Final Girls, though not all of his books work for me. I struggled with his second release, The Last Time I Lied, then loved Lock Every Door, and have now found a new least favorite Sager novel in Home Before Dark. (This pattern means his next book should be a hit for me though, right?!). Let me clarify that I didn’t necessarily think this was a poorly written book, and I’m fairly sure I’ll be the odd one out with this negative opinion.

So what was the problem? I simply didn’t buy into any of it. The characters felt flimsy and untapped for potential. Maggie’s staunch disbelief in the possibility of ghosts chasing her family out all those years ago made it hard for me to find the haunting angle plausible at all, and without believing in the ghosts the house itself failed to scare me. I spotted the villain the first time this character appeared. While I didn’t exactly predict the entire plot, I did feel like I was constantly able to guess what was coming next right before it happened, which of course was frustrating. It’s also a pet peeve of mine when a character has all the information she needs stored up in her head but she just… can’t remember. Fair enough when past events happened at the tender age of five I suppose, but it does feel cheap when this character manages to dredge some accurate details up later on to make sense of things, but only when it’s too late to be truly helpful. Oh and… mild spoiler coming, skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to see it: (What kind of architect builds a house with a concealed second entrance that connects to a piece of interior furniture and bolts from the outside? How does one suspend disbelief for this stuff??)

But what bothered me most was the back-and-forth format between Maggie’s past and present experiences with the house- it didn’t exactly feel like past details were being withheld for the sake of plot twists, but I did spot a pattern: Maggie’s present discoveries often lead to an “oh, that bit from the book was actually true?” revelation for her, which then segue into a chapter from that horror book featuring the same spooky element; relying on Maggie to announce what is true or not after the fact allows for less fun than being given those past details up front and choosing for myself what to believe is going on (at least until proven otherwise). I wonder what the book would’ve looked like if it were divided in half- maybe still starting with a chapter about adult Maggie returning to the house, but then having a more evenly split “part 1” and “part 2” containing the past and present horrors individually, perhaps bridging the gap with an echoing scene that blurs the line between the two timelines… I don’t know, a different structure might not have resolved my issues any better, I think I have to admit this one just wasn’t for me.

In the end, most of my complaints are simply details that didn’t impress me, which may very well work better for another reader. The plot itself is perfectly adequate and logical. I simply didn’t find the house or the characters spooky enough to meet my expectations, which… probably says more about me than the book with two haunted house plots running side by side. And there were a few fun moments for me even if the book didn’t work as a whole- some truly uncomfortable things show up unexpectedly in the house. Even though I wasn’t on the edge of my seat about any of it, I did still find this a quick and readable story, and remain wholly invested in reading Sager’s follow up release. I hope his next thriller will have that fun comedic tone of Final Girls, which pokes fun at slasher thrillers, or digs into deeper social issues, like Lock Every Door does with the abuse of wealth, and commentary on class divisions. Sager definitely has some magic to his writing. Unfortunately I found so little of it here.

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. This one sounded so promising, but it’s probably my own fault for expecting too much from what is arguably a very decent representation of its genre. I just couldn’t sink into the atmosphere of this one, unlike with another recent spooky read, Mexican Gothic, whose atmosphere worked so well for me that I was able to overlook almost all of my complaints. Taste is so subjective. Oh well. Better luck next time, I hope.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Mexican Gothic

I’ve had Mexican-Canadian author Silvia Moreno-Garcia on my radar for a while and when her latest release, a gothic-style mystery with a sci-fi element, Mexican Gothic, made such a big splash last month, I couldn’t hesitate any longer! Luckily Melanie also had her eye on the book and suggested a buddy read, which was a great fit for this adventure- a new author for both of us. Be sure to check out Melanie’s well-crafted review today as well.

mexicangothicIn the novel, fun-loving Noemi is called out of a party in the 1950’s by her father, who’s received a worrying letter from Noemi’s recently married cousin in the Mexican countryside. Noemi packs her bags and travels to the isolated mansion where the money is running dry and the house hasn’t been updated in decades- giving it a Victorian aura. The entire entourage at High Place seems sinister, sheltered, and unwelcoming, and the once-grand but now damp and moldly house is hardly a luxurious accommodation. Noemi’s cousin has brought the family a reasonable sum with her marriage, which is why Noemi has arrived to investigate whether her mysterious illness is as it appears or requires her removal from the house. Of course her search is impeded at every turn, and the deeper Noemi digs, the harder it seems to manage an escape from High Place.

“Of course he had a point. Catalina was his wife, and he was the one who could make choices for her. Why, Mexican women couldn’t even vote. What could Noemi say? What could she do in such a situation? Perhaps it would be best if her father intervened. If he came here. A man would command more respect. But no, it was as she’d said: she wasn’t going to back down.”

Mexican Gothic was a read full of ups and downs for me. The major positive is that I was able to sink almost immediately into the atmosphere of the tale and enjoyed Moreno-Garcia’s storytelling enough to overlook a lot of small issues I had with the writing and plot choices. I liked the many references to gothic classics scattered throughout the book though some felt too blatant- nevertheless, recalling classic favorites to mind while reading a fresh take on the genre proved a good fit for me. I also liked that Noemi was a strong lead despite the limitations that existed for Mexican women in the 50’s; characterization may have been a bit basic all around, but I liked that Noemi is intelligent AND loves having a good time, and isn’t shy about being recognized for both traits. She’s not perfect, but I found her human and endearing and pleasantly modern without any aspect of her personality going over the top of believability.

“Noemi’s father said she cared too much about her looks and parties to take school seriously, as if a woman could not do two things at once.”

While I had fun reading this book, I did struggle a bit with the writing and some of the technical choices in the novel. In all honesty, Mexican Gothic read like a debut for me; Moreno-Garcia seems to switch genres with every publication so this makes sense despite it being her sixth (I believe) novel- I understand this to be her first gothic mystery, and I think that shows. The pacing is rather slow in the first half; it took me a full 150 pages to understand what the hype was all about. I realized after finishing that the only passages I marked while reading pertained to plot or characterization; I was never impressed by the wit or beauty of any particular sentences.

I also had a few quips with some of the technical details. Aside from Noemi (who is, perhaps, not so unique herself), most of the characterization in the novel feels cheaply done and flat, with the exception of Francis, the closest Noemi comes to having a guide and sidekick in her search for answers at High Place- I found him fascinating as a character if not as a person, but I wonder now whether he stood out simply for being the only living character in the book with a bit of complexity to his personality. You’ll notice I said ‘living’- there are a handful of dead characters equally significant to the solving of this mystery, most of them related. The family tree is somewhat challenging to memorize.

Melanie and I discussed a few more downsides- the completely unnecessary romance side plot, the fact that the love interest’s most memorable attribute is that he’s “not as handsome as that other guy,” and the fact that the English immigrants at High Place do not really seem very English. One of them seems to have learned fluent Spanish in young childhood without losing a word of it into adulthood despite infrequent use, which I found more plausible than the fact that none of the rest of the family seems interested in the furtive conversations in a language they don’t understand supposedly happening within their hearing.

But, despite their number, all of these were small complaints that didn’t give me much pause: I was completely invested in discovering what was going on at High Place and how Noemi was going to get her cousin and herself to safety. What really makes the novel work, I think, is that it starts with the implication of a simple whodunnit case of poisoning and then takes a sharp left into supernatural territory that changes the entire playing field. (I have historically loved otherwise realistic stories with a bizarre, otherworldly twist.) It may start slow, but for the patient reader I think the climax will be worth the wait. I’ve never been and know embarrassingly little, but I found the setting and its details a helpful learning experience toward some of the Mexican landscape and culture that I was previously unfamiliar with. And Moreno-Garcia plays into some pleasing commentary by bringing the selfish English settlers into question rather than the Mexican natives (especially as conversations of eugenics enter the narrative), and by using Noemi’s self-confidence and determination to emphasize feminism. Despite a few hang-ups, I found plenty to like here.

“She thought that men such as her father could be stern and men could be cold like Virgil, but women needed to be liked or they’d be in trouble. A woman who is not liked is a bitch, and a bitch can hardly do anything: all avenues are closed to her.”

And of course I liked chatting with Melanie about the book- we did a video chat to compare notes, so I feel like I finally “met” her after many months of virtual acquaintance! It was all around a lovely and adventurous experience that my small complaints aren’t really marring. I know this review has been somewhat erratic, but I enjoyed the read enough to speed through it in one day, which is I think what I’ll remember most, and fondly. If the premise appeals, and you don’t mind a dash of the supernatural in your horror, I’d highly recommend giving this one a try.

CW: threats of rape, rape-adjacent bodily violations, mentions of eugenics (recognized as racist/xenophobic within the text), rampant disregard for others’ lives and well-being.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’ll happily read more of Moreno-Garcia’s work despite my nitpicking issues with the details in this one; I like her storytelling ability and am curious to see how her writing fluctuates across the genres she’s chosen. Please recommend your favorite title(s) from her backlist below! 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Mother Daughter Widow Wife

I don’t often read ARCs, but when I get a physical copy of an anticipated book from The Library Hotel I read it! The premise of Robin Wasserman’s Mother Daughter Widow Wife sounded so good to me that I’d been looking forward to it for months and was thrilled to see it offered during my stay in New York earlier this year. Unfortunately the experience was a bit more mixed for me than I expected from the synopsis.

Disclaimer: quotes and thoughts are taken from the ARC, and may not reflect the content of the final copy.

motherdaughterwidowwifeIn the novel, Wendy Doe arrives in Philadelphia without any identification or memory of her life up to that point. After a few weeks of struggle to find a safe place to stay and an idea of how to proceed, she agrees to live at the Meadowlark, a place of psychological (specifically focused on memory) study. Lizzie, a brand new fellow at the institute and looking for a new research project, takes on Wendy Doe’s case. While studying her, Lizzie builds an unexpected friendship with Wendy, and a relationship with the man who runs the facility and oversees her project. Years later, Lizzie’s career has taken a sharp left, her husband is dead, and an eighteen year-old girl comes knocking at her door, claiming that her mother was Wendy Doe, who’s disappeared from her “real” life again.

“Wendy Doe, as capable of taking care of herself as she was without material means to do so: no money, no social security card, no ID, no chance of legal employment or government subsidy. Not ill enough to be permanently housed by the state, not well enough to house herself- the kind of liminal existence Strauss’s institute was made for. Strauss gave her a bed, an allowance, supervised liberties, in exchange for her willing participation in the research. Our research, he’d suggested Lizzie make a habit of saying, as if a pronoun could fool Wendy into believing she was studying herself.”

For a book that is actually everything the synopsis claims it to be, this was not at all the read I expected. I think the biggest thing to note is that Mother Daughter Widow Wife is not a mystery. The question of who Wendy Doe is and what has happened to cause her diagnosed dissociative fugue hangs constantly in the balance, but Lizzie and co. are not trying to work backwards to piece together Wendy’s former identity, they’re more interested in who she is at present. The dissociative fugue itself is being studied; this is not an attempt to return Wendy to her previous life or seek justice for whatever trauma incited the fugue. That would, actually, be detrimental to the study. And thus, there’s very little actual plot to the tale; rather the book is a more introspective, scientific and philosophic look at identity and relationships that straddle the line between personal and professional. Think Helen Phillips’s The Need, another science-y novel about identity that focuses primarily on the protagonist’s frame of mind.

In Mother Daughter Widow Wife, we have several protagonists, and two timelines, about 20 years apart. The chapters shift between the main perspectives and the crucial years. We see a few journal entries from Wendy Doe, addressed to her unknown “other self,” but otherwise the novel mostly focuses on the characters around her, their perceptions of Wendy and of themselves after interacting with her. The writing is intelligent, and I found many of the points made through the narration deeply interesting. It’s clear that Wasserman has done a fair amount of research into the science and history of memory (and beyond), but the result of this careful attention to facts and ideas is that the novel feels more like a series of thoughtful ruminations than a story with a proper hook. There’s so little momentum. The pace is so slow. We don’t know what we’re reading to learn or to see solved, because the stakes are low and the plot lacks a central question. Those with an interest in memory, psychology, or the history of “hysterical” women will likely have the highest level of enjoyment from this read.

“The brain takes its pleasure from remembering. Even a bad memory, after enough time has passed, feels like home.”

There is also a strong feminist focus, which works to great purpose in descriptions of the history of women who have been locked away and taken advantage of and cruelly “studied” essentially for men’s entertainment, but I found the modern applications less convincing. Much could be made of the patriarchy’s role in Lizzie’s career change and marriage, of Wendy’s treatment at Meadowlark, of Alice’s very existence, and more. But the book focuses on relationships and character dynamics to make these points, and this is where the theme falters for me. So much of the drama surrounding the friendships and romances begun and ended felt inauthentic to me. Forced, for the sake of commentary. I never believed that Lizzie loved her husband, which made her drastic decisions and responses revolving around him difficult to accept. While I could agree with Alice that seeking unhealthy relationships and exhibiting destructive behavior can be a normal reaction to major upheaval, she explores the way her questionable new lover is helping her to heal without acknowledging the accompanying damage. Wendy is undeniably in a vulnerable position, but her take-no-shit attitude and complete disregard for her “normal” self makes it hard to understand why she would choose to protect what she does, in the way that she does it.

I know I’m being vague, but revelations about characters and their relationships are the biggest “twists” Mother Daughter Widow Wife has to offer and I don’t want to spoil those by going into detail about the toxicity and lies involved in basically all of them. Ultimately, despite my great fondness for imperfect women, these characters seemed needlessly problematic (i.e. problematic in ways that aren’t interrogated to any sort of benefit) to the extent that the potential complexities of their emotional journeys felt undermined by their conflicting behavior. To what extent a reader believes a character and/or takes narrative statements at face value is certainly subjective though, so I’m sure other readers will have a range of different experiences in this regard, and I hope my disappointment will be in the minority.

“He says we, as if they are one person, and that one person is him.”

While I loved the concepts here and got along well enough with the writing style, the very intriguing individual pieces did not make for a compelling whole in my experience. I wouldn’t say this is a bad book at all, and I hope other readers will find more to appreciate in it, but while I was reading  Mother Daughter Widow Wife I found it easy to put down and hard to pick back up again. Perhaps my expectations were too high.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. On paper, there’s so much that I should have loved about this book, but unfortunately, confusingly, the reality just didn’t pan out with any of the promise the synopsis showed. I so wanted to love this one. It’s certainly possible the final copy turned out a bit more exciting (I believe it is out now!), but I don’t think I’m invested enough to check it out.

 

The Literary Elephant

Reviews: The Tenant and Recipe for a Perfect Wife

I thought I was being selective with my monthly anticipated releases lists but apparently I will have to be even more selective about which of those books I try to read immediately. I’ve been focusing on the choices available at my library, but am realizing that my time would be better spent focusing on the titles I’m most excited for, even if that means passing up easily available books and spending a bit more money. Because unfortunately, not all releases live up to expectations. Today I’m talking about two perfectly adequate January releases I’ve read recently that just didn’t quite win me over.

 

I picked up The Tenant by Katrine Engberg (translated by Tara Chace) partially because I haven’t read a mystery/thriller in a while, and partially because I wanted to read more translations this year- this one’s from Denmark.

thetenantIn the novel, a police detective who’s recently gone through a divorce is given the lead role in a new case, even though everyone knows he’s been off his game since his wife left him. The case is a grisly one, in which a young woman is found murdered and mutilated in her own apartment. Though there’s no clear motive, there are a daunting number of connections to relatives, friends, past acquaintances, and everyone else living in the building- including the owner, who is working on a manuscript for a murder mystery, featuring the very woman who’s just turned up dead.

What drew me to this particular mystery was that meta writing element, which I did end up enjoying even though it turned out to be only one facet of a larger story. The whole plot came together quite nicely for me, with a decent pace, a good variety of clues all pointing in different directions, and enough action scenes to break up the theorizing. I was able to guess some of the twists though not all, and the characters continued to surprise me even after I thought I had them pegged. I would’ve liked a bit more of a social connection for a lasting impact ( admittedly there is a bit of commentary on orphanages, mentioned rather than explored), but the way that the mystery spins out and winds back together is very well done and I would certainly recommend this book as a smart whodunnit.

” ‘Esther made the story up in two rounds: first the part about the young woman who moves to the capital and meets a man… And three weeks later the description of the murder itself? […] The killer could certainly have inspired Esther, through Julie, to write the first part and then found his own inspiration to commit the murder from the second part. Reality, book- book, reality.’ Jeppe sighed. ‘It’s starting to get quite convoluted, this is.’ “

So what didn’t work? Mainly, the characters. I remained emotionally detached from them throughout the book, which detracted from any tension the plot might have held. Jeppe’s divorce, affair, and back pain weren’t enough to make me care whether he solved this case or not, and his little feuds with Annette didn’t convince me to invest in their friendship/rivalry. There’s very little departmental drama during the investigation and none of the characterization outside of the case developments actually seemed relevant. The suspects felt like pawns being moved around a chessboard. I just wasn’t hooked.

Additionally, the translation seemed a bit unbalanced in places. Some details that probably wouldn’t have needed an explanation in the Danish version are explained in text for the English reader (like gaekkebrev, a form of paper cutting), but the wonderful sense of setting I’d seen so much praise for on the cover turned out to feature mainly street names and landmarks I wasn’t familiar with, rather than anything visual or cultural for an outsider to grasp. This isn’t a criticism of Engberg’s or Chace’s writing; I can understand this being a popular mystery in Denmark, and even in English it’s not the author or translator’s job to educate the reader. But these aspects did affect my experience with the book.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I’m glad I read this. I found it readable and fun and didn’t hate anything about it. It just didn’t stand apart from other mystery/thrillers I’ve read.

 

Shifting gears entirely, I also finished Karma Brown’s Recipe for a Perfect Wife just yesterday. This one’s contemporary fiction with a historical element and strong feminist themes. Also a mixed bag for me.

recipeforaperfectwifeIn the novel, the narration alternates between the lives of two women: one a 50’s housewife, the other freshly married in 2018, leaving a busy and mostly fulfilling Manhattan life for a work-from-home job in the suburbs while her husband commutes. The modern woman, Alice, finds a box of the previous owner’s belongings in her house’s the basement, including a stack of women’s magazines from the 1950s and a well-used cookbook. Alice feels a sense of kinship with her predecessor and begins researching the older (now deceased) woman’s life.

It’s my own fault I expected this to be something it wasn’t, and thus liked it less than expected. I thought there were going to be obvious similarities between the two women’s lives, perhaps in a “these are the ways the patriarchy is still holding women back” vein. Instead, it seems to be aimed at readers who don’t already know how misogynistic 50s marriages could be, as it seems this fictional modern woman did not. The two timelines are barely related, except for the fact that the present-day woman is immersing herself in 50s housewife culture as research for her novel.

Despite being a very quick and easy read, this book didn’t push any boundaries for me, and I disliked a lot of the plot. I saw the big reveals of the 50s storyline coming a mile away and found that entire narrative arc very predictable. The modern plot is less straightforward, but only because the present-day wife acts erratically for no apparent reason. She’s lying to her husband, who seems receptive and caring enough, unlike the 50s husband. She insists on having a sort of 50s housewife experience, but then is angry that she’s expected to cook and clean and bear children and defer to her husband even though… she’s the only one placing those expectations on herself? (I know there’s an argument to be made for internalized gender stereotypes here but I really don’t think that’s what Brown is going for.) I firmly believe that an honest conversation or two would’ve completely resolved Alice’s plot before it began, a pet peeve of mine. There’s a lot of potential here for commentary on marriage and feminism, both historically and in the present. Instead, the messages are fairly blatant and what you see is what you get.

But even so I did appreciate the themes, as well as the expository nature of the historical chapters. I couldn’t have cared less about the recipes, but that’s down to my lack of interest in cooking. However, the chapters that don’t include a recipe feature quotes from various publications that real wives and husbands might have had access to in this time period, all highlighting some piece of awful, misogynistic advice. Here are a few infuriating little gems:

“Don’t mope and cry because you are ill, and don’t get any fun; the man goes out to get all the fun, and your laugh comes in when he gets home again and tells you about it- some of it. As for being ill, women should never be ill.” -Advice to Wives, The Isle of Man Times (1895)

“Don’t expect your husband to make you happy while you are simply a passive agent. Do your best to make him happy and you will find happiness yourself.” -Blanche Ebbutt, Don’ts for Wives (1913)

“Be a good listener. Let him tell you his troubles; yours will seem trivial in comparison.” -Edward Podolsky, Sex Today in Wedded Life (1947)

“Just as the vampire sucks the blood of its victims in their sleep while they are alive, so does the woman vampire suck the life and exhaust the vitality of her male partner- or victim.” -William J. Robinson, Married Life and Happiness (1922)

I hope the source of Robinson’s bitterness was a wife that refused to be “put in her place.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. In the end, this book didn’t do what I wanted it to, and I didn’t particularly enjoy the story it did have to tell. But it’s heart was in the right place and it did make me righteously angry about the way women have been treated by society, which I think was ultimately the point.

 

Because these reviews have been littered with minor complaints, I’d just like to reiterate that my reviews are a reflection of my personal experiences and not an attempt to steer anyone away from certain books. Though neither of these quite impressed me, both are sure to work better for other readers; if you’re interested at all I would definitely recommend checking them out!

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Review: Long Bright River

I grabbed Liz Moore’s new mystery novel Long Bright River from BOTM and managed to pick it up in January, right around the time it was released. I had such a good time reading this book (which should make it a good place to start catching up with reviews)!

longbrightriverIn the novel, Mickey is a Philadelphia policewoman, patrolling a neighborhood where opioid addictions and deaths are tragically commonplace. She cares about the people there, building a rapport with those who live and work in the area rather than training up to become a detective. Complicating matters, Mickey’s own family has brushed close to the opioid epidemic; her sister still uses and abuses in Mickey’s district. Their relationship is rocky, but Mickey can’t help panicking when Kacey goes missing. It doesn’t help that someone seems to be murdering women on the street at the same time- so Mickey decides to do a little of her own investigating.

Don’t do anything stupid, Truman said to me yesterday. But it isn’t stupid, I believe, to follow through on leads. In fact, it only seems reasonable.”

For a book nearly 500 pages long, Long Bright River is a surprisingly quick read (and I’m not a fast reader, so you can trust me on that). The entire story is told in Mickey’s first person perspective, dancing between her familial history and the present, in which she patrols, takes care of her son, and investigates her sister’s disappearance, with the recent murder spree often on her mind if not an actual facet of her daily job. I wasn’t stunned by the prose- I marked very few passages while reading, and most of them I saved for content rather than beauty. Even so, once I started I had a hard time putting the book down. Mickey is a flawed character and not someone I particularly related to, and yet I found her narrative so easy to settle into and follow wherever it would go.

I’ll be honest: the mystery elements (where is Kacey, and who is killing women like her?) are not this book’s strong suit. The plot is slow paced, Mickey makes obvious mistakes, and some of the red herrings are obvious. Enough is going on in Mickey’s life that the book dips in and out of various lines of inquiry and concerns, which can disrupt the tension. Furthermore, Mickey is worried about her missing sister, but as more of her past is revealed it becomes increasingly clear that even finding her will not ensure her safety; this murder spree is one danger among many in the difficult life of an addict, and Mickey knows that when/if she finds Kacey it won’t necessarily be a joyous reunion and a happy ending in rehab, which means Kacey’s uncertain status is not the vehicle propelling the reader through the story. If you’re looking for a thriller, you won’t find it here.

Instead, what drives the narrative is the commentary on addiction and the opioid epidemic. Mickey is not an addict, but through her we see what it is like to live with an addict, what it is like to love someone who refuses to be helped, who may try to get clean but repeatedly falls back into bad habits. We see how addiction broke their family apart, how it drives their choices as children, as adults. We see how addiction can land a person on the streets, how it can entrap a person in bad relationships, etc. Moore does an excellent job of depicting how very much of addiction is outside of anyone’s control.

I also loved the complicated character dynamics at the heart of this story. Mickey may be an outsider in that she cannot tell the reader personally what addiction is like, but she is very close to the epidemic and can share a lot of firsthand experience nonetheless. She has taken care of her sister when possible. She remembers her mother, before the overdose that killed her. She remembers her father leaving. She remembers (and still interacts with) the grandmother who raised Mickey and her sister, the ways she attempted to pick up the pieces and the rules she wouldn’t bend on after seeing her own daughter ruined by drugs. Through other perspectives, we might still have gotten a decent plot and plenty of insight into widespread opioid use, but Mickey adds an extra layer to the dialogue, the layer of a non-user who still can’t escape the web of this epidemic. Opioid addiction is a problem that affects not only those who use the drugs, but all those who are in their lives, by choice or blood or circumstance. It affects whole communities, and Mickey is the right narrator to convey that.

“When it is necessary to do so, I gently place handcuffs on the wrists of my sister, and I tell her the particular offense for which she is being arrested (usually, solicitation and possession of narcotics, one time with intent to sell), and then I narrate her rights to her, then I place a gentle hand on the crown of her head to ensure that she doesn’t obtain an injury as she enters the backseat of our vehicle, and then I quietly close the door, and then I drive her to the station, and then I book her, and then the two of us sit silently across from one another in the holding cell, not speaking, not even looking at each other.”

The details that affected me most are spoilers, so I’ll say only that there’s even more commentary and emotion here than is apparent on the surface. For me, that was enough to make up for the lack of a twisty plot, though for others it might not be; ultimately, while coming to this story with the wrong expectations could ruin this experience for some, I do think it is an excellent book for what it does accomplish, and I hope it’ll see plenty of attention this year. If you’re on the fence, let me reassure you: this one’s worth the read.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I suspect I’ll end up bumping this down to 4 in time due to the weak mystery element, but for now my rating reflects how readable and engrossing I found the book, and how valuable its commentary seemed. Honestly if all mysteries had as much to say about difficult topics in the real world, I’d be reading a lot more of them. I like a good plot as much as the next person, but gaining a new perspective on opioid addiction will stay with me longer. I would definitely read more from this author.

Have you read this one, or are you planning to pick it up? Let me know what you think!

 

The Literary Elephant

Top of the TBR 2.10.20

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

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

49223060. sy475 Darling Rose Gold by Stephanie Wrobel (Pub: Mar 2020)

How I found it: I’ve seen a lot of anticipation for this one among thriller readers, but wasn’t really paying attention to it until I saw it on Kristen’s list of her favorite mysteries and thrillers!

Why I added it: I haven’t been reading as many thrillers the last couple of years, but I’d love to find more that can really surprise me and/or give me some commentary to sink my teeth into. I thought this one was in good company on Kristen’s list, which bodes well!

Priority: Low. This book comes out in March, but my focus at that time will be on the Women’s Prize longlist, which means this will have to wait for now!

45730892Anti-Diet: Reclaim Your Time, Money, Well-Being, and Happiness Through Intuitive Eating by Christy Harrison (Pub: Dec 2019)

How I found it: Melanie posted an excellent review of this one on her blog!

Why I added it: I don’t often (okay, ever) read self-help or health books, but I found myself so interested in the details of this book- about the history of dieting and its place in society, and modern wellness crazes as dieting. It sounds like there’s interesting info here for anyone with an eye toward body image, good or bad.

Priority: Low. It’s not currently available through my library.

47364233Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (Pub: Feb 2020)

How I found it: I think I’ve seen other readers anticipating this one, but it was Emily May’s review on Goodreads that hooked me!

Why I added it: This is a 1980’s story of a young Scottish boy with a distracted father and alcoholic mother, whose older siblings find their own ways to escape and leave him to hold the family together. It looks like a hard-hitting story that I could love.

Priority: Middling. This one is available at my library, and I am trying to keep up with as many new releases this year as I can. But again, I’m trying to keep my reading schedule open until I can plan around the Women’s Prize.

45553633. sy475 The Truants by Kate Weinberg (Pub: Jan 2020)

How I found it: This one has been on my radar for months, but comparisons to The Secret History had me keeping a cautious distance- then I read Karissa’s wonderful review and my optimism was restored!

Why I added it: If it can live up to the Secret History comparisons, this could be absolutely brilliant. It’s a campus novel about a group of students and a teacher who becomes perhaps too involved in their lives. Of course the synopsis also promises a tragedy, a secret, a mystery…

Priority: Middling. This one is also available at my library, and a recent release that I’d love to pick up soon. Once the Women’s Prize list is announced in March I’ll have a better idea of where I can fit this into my reading schedule, and hope to bump it up to high priority as soon as possible.

42119168. sy475 Anna K by Jenny Lee (Pub: Mar 2020)

How I found it: This one’s a BOTM selection for February!

Why I added it: This is a young adult contemporary romance marketed as a Gossip Girl-esque retelling of Anna Karenina. I actually read the sample on BOTM’s website (I’d link it, but I don’t think you can see anything on the site without a membership) and hated it, and yet I’m so morbidly curious that I couldn’t walk away. This will be an interesting experience for sure, and very possibly a miss for me, but I was in the mood to give it a chance!

Priority: High. I’d like to keep up with my BOTM choices this year (as I say every year, before failing miserably), and it would also give my romance reads some more variety this month, in preparation for my romance Spotlight post coming up later in February.

826846The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (Pub: 1951)

How I found it: Wyndham was an author I missed in my recent Spotlight on Sci-Fi post, who came up in the comments (thanks Callum)!

Why I added it: I was thrilled to add several sci-fi books to my TBR based on titles and authors that different commenters had mentioned there, but instead of turning this into a sci-fi TBR post I’m sticking to mentioning this one title I’m excited about: a post-apocalyptic classic in which plants walk about, wreaking havoc on humanity.

Priority: Low. This is available through my library, so it’s ready when I am; but I’m now realizing a downside to my spotlight series this year: it’ll be harder to pick up fresh recommendations promptly while I’m focusing on the next upcoming genre.

38599259. sy475 Black Girl Unlimited by Echo Brown (Pub: Jan 2020)

How I found it: Booksandlala has been mentioning this one on various social media!

Why I added it: Sometimes I agree with Lala’s recommendations. This looks like a fantasy/magical realism YA book about a black teen girl in New York who “travels between two worlds,” which seems both literal as a magical element but also may serve as a commentary on culture? GR calls it “heavily autiobiographical.” I don’t read a lot of YA these days, but this would be perfect for Black History Month and sounds like just the sort of story I would still enjoy from the YA age range.

Priority: Middling. My library doesn’t seem to have it, but I’d be happy to pick up a copy.

45046574You Let Me In by Camilla Bruce (Pub: Apr 2020)

How I found it: Hadeer briefly mentioned this one in her January wrap-up post! This is kind of comical actually, as she had only a sentence or so about it in her post and wasn’t finished reading it at the time, but I was attracted to the cover (not this cover) and went looking for the blurb, and was sold on the premise of a maybe-dead novelist who left behind a final manuscript full of secrets.

Why I added it: Hadeer calls it a “very creepy supernatural thriller.” Goodreads likens it works by Gillian Flynn and Neil Gaiman. What’s not to like?

48128302. sy475 The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall (Pub: Feb 2020)

How I found it: This has been on my radar, but it wasn’t until reading Laura’s appealing description in her recent review(s) that I realized this might be a great fit for me! Even though sadly it wasn’t for Laura.

Why I added it: It looks like a gothic historical novel about a solitary woman thrown into an old mystery. GR has this to say: “Suspenseful and atmospheric, The Snow Collectors sketches the ghosts of Victorian exploration against the eerie beauty of a world on the edge of environmental collapse.” It sounds right up my alley.

Priority: High. I just put a hold on this one through my library, letting it jump the queue in my TBR because with a title like The Snow Collectors I know I won’t get to it until next winter at least if I don’t pick it up now.

1012204. sx318 Appetites: Why Women Want by Caroline Knapp (Pub: Apr 2003)

How I found it: Gil mentioned this one as a favorite in her nonfiction wrap-up for January, and for a book 17 years old it still sounds (frustratingly) timely.

Why I added it: Knapp asks (and attempts to answer, I’m sure) “How does a woman know, and then honour, what it is she wants in a culture bent on shaping, defining and controlling women and their desires?”

Priority: Low. This is available through my library, so it’s ready when I am! But again, Women’s Prize.

 

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

 

The Literary Elephant