Review: Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

“I wanted to tell him that in a framework where affection was circumspect, its overt forms were necessarily hostile. Look, I’d say, it’s like English grammar. It doesn’t make sense but it’s too late to change it.”

Exciting Times – published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, April 2020

Ava, newly arrived in Hong Kong from Dublin, spends her days teaching English to rich children.

Julian is a banker. A banker who likes to spend money on Ava, to have sex and discuss fluctuating currencies with her. But when she asks whether he loves her, he cannot say more than ‘I like you a great deal’.

Enter Edith, a lawyer. Refreshingly enthusiastic and unapologetically earnest, Edith takes Ava to the theatre when Julian leaves Hong Kong for work. Quickly, she becomes something Ava looks forward to.

And then Julian writes to tell Ava he is coming back to Hong Kong….

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: Great beginning, brilliant ending, kind of terrible middle.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I love books about disaster women and unlike many of my bookish friends do not seem to tire of them at all. There is just something I really appreciate about women writing about women making terrible choices and being honest about that while they are doing it. It’s something I appreciate in memoirs and also in literary fiction. This year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist includes quite a few of these disaster women books and I for one am really pleased with that. That said, I did not always love this book.

Told in first person from Ava’s perspective, the tone and voice worked exceedingly well for me in the beginning. Ava is awful, or at least she thinks so and the way in which she treats first Julian, a banker who quickly starts to finance her life, and then Edith a woman she starts a relationship with while omitting the fact that she regularly slept with her “roommate” aka Julian, seems to agree with her. When this book works, it really works for me. Dolan has a brilliant way of writing dialogue and especially the kind of hostile banter between Ava (a self-proclaimed socialist) and Julian (a lot closer to a Tory) was just mesmerizing. They spar and they bicker and they treat each other horribly – but somehow it works. My favourite parts of the book were when Dolan leans into this narrative.

On the other end of the spectrum is Edith – who is by all accounts wonderful and who makes Ava want to be a better person. Their relationship is definitely the more healthy one but I found it boring and I also could not help but brace for the inevitable shoe drop. I do not deal well with lying in books.

I want to briefly touch onto the comparison to Sally Rooney which I do not think does this book all that many favours; while there are similarities, I do think that Exciting Times excels in different areas. It is a lot more overtly political and more successful at that part; Dolan does seem to know a lot about political and economical theory in a way that really worked for me. The asides on language did not work as well for me as they did for other readers but they do add another layer to the class discussion Ava is always having in her head. What this book does not quite as well but I do think on purpose is the secondary characters; Ava is not really all that great at reading other people (or herself for that matter) in a way that fits with her character but made for sometimes flat love interests.

Overall, I did enjoy this and thought parts were absolutely brilliant – I will definitely read whatever Dolan decides to write next. I cannot recommend the audiobook highly enough, it is narrated by the always great Aoife McMahon and gave this book the extra something I needed.

Content warnings: cheating, homophobia

I am not reading the complete longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year but I will attempt to review the books I do get to. I also cannot help myself and will rank the ones I read.

  1. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke (review)
  2. Luster by Raven Leilani (review)
  3. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Review: Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

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

Piranesi – published by Bloomsbury, September 15th 2020

Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

There is one other person in the house—a man called The Other, who visits Piranesi twice a week and asks for help with research into A Great and Secret Knowledge. But as Piranesi explores, evidence emerges of another person, and a terrible truth begins to unravel, revealing a world beyond the one Piranesi has always known.

For readers of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and fans of Madeline Miller’s Circe, Piranesi introduces an astonishing new world, an infinite labyrinth, full of startling images and surreal beauty, haunted by the tides and the clouds.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, an intoxicating, hypnotic new novel set in a dreamlike alternative reality.

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: Near perfect.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I loved this but talking about why I loved this is proving difficult. Normally, I do care about spoilers at all – but this time I genuinely think not knowing too much helps with appreciating the book, as then the reader’s experience mirrors the main character’s. While the mystery at the heart of this book is not the most important part, I enjoyed being able to guess and look for clues. One of the levels this book works as is as a puzzle box and I had so much fun.

I adored Clarke’s debut Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell but I might actually prefer her second novel. The books could not be more different: the former is a sprawling, long, and dense historical novel with Austenesque wit (plus, you know, fairies), the latter is a short, vague, interior novel focused on a very small cast of characters. Written in the form of diary entries, we never leave the main character’s head – and what a wonderful head to be in it was. Piranesi is fascinating: he is kind but set in his ways, he believes the House knows best but is still able to keep looking for answers once he wants them; I do not know that I have read about a character like him often and I adored the fact that before everything, he wants to do what is right.

Pretty much all of this worked for me, from the characters to the peculiar prose to the structure; especially the first half was near perfect for me. I do admit that this just hits a lot of my pleasure buttons and I can see where it might not work for other readers but I am glad that many people are taking a chance on this.

Ultimately, on a metaphor-level I think this is a book about loneliness and about the structures we impose to deal with it. Clarke is chronically ill and you can tell she knows what she is writing about here. For me, this hit particularly hard given the slowly becoming unbearable pandamic and the intrinsic loneliness of new motherhood. I will treasure this book.

Content warnings: murder, cult-like behaviour

I am not reading the complete longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year but I will attempt to review the books I do get to. I also cannot help myself and will rank the ones I read.

  1. Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
  2. Luster by Raven Leilani (review)
  3. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Review: Women and Other Monsters – Building a New Mythology by Jess Zimmermann

Verdict: Interesting framing, worked best in the more personal moments and less in the more political ones.

Published by Beacon Press, March 9th 2021

Find it on Goodreads.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A fresh cultural analysis of female monsters from Greek mythology, and an invitation for all women to reclaim these stories as inspiration for a more wild, more monstrous version of feminism

The folklore that has shaped our dominant culture teems with frightening female creatures. In our language, in our stories (many written by men), we underline the idea that women who step out of bounds–who are angry or greedy or ambitious, who are overtly sexual or not sexy enough–aren’t just outside the norm. They’re unnatural. Monstrous. But maybe, the traits we’ve been told make us dangerous and undesirable are actually our greatest strengths.

Through fresh analysis of eleven female monsters, including Medusa, the Harpies, the Furies, and the Sphinx, Jess Zimmerman takes us on an illuminating feminist journey through mythology. She guides women (and others) to reexamine their relationships with traits like hunger, anger, ugliness, and ambition, teaching readers to embrace a new image of the female hero: one that looks a lot like a monster, with the agency and power to match.

Often, women try to avoid the feeling of monstrousness, of being grotesquely alien, by tamping down those qualities that we’re told fall outside the bounds of natural femininity. But monsters also get to do what other female characters–damsels, love interests, and even most heroines–do not. Monsters get to be complete, unrestrained, and larger than life. Today, women are becoming increasingly aware of the ways rules and socially constructed expectations have diminished us. After seeing where compliance gets us–harassed, shut out, and ruled by predators–women have never been more ready to become repellent, fearsome, and ravenous.

I don’t really have much to say about this. I did in fact enjoy my time with this and I thought the framework Zimmermann uses – speaking about different female monster from Greek/ Roman mythology and using that as a jumping point to write more generally about sexism – was really well chosen. I just do not think it was as great as it could have been and that is such a shame. This book sits squarely in an intersection of two of my great loves: feminism and mythology. I should have adored this. I think what makes this such a difficult review for me to write is that there is nothing wrong with this book – but I was not the right reader.

I like my non-fiction either highly introspective and navel-gazing, or perfectly structured and researched. This was somehow neither. As such, I vastly prefered the parts where Zimmermann was close to her own life, using mythology to make sense of her experiences. These parts worked extremely well and gave me much to think about. On the other hand, the more general political points did not always convince me, probably because this was not really the focus of the book or because I found them very narrow in their application while Zimmermann made them sound universal. I am, however, not from the US – so your milage may absolutely vary here.

Content warnings: discussions of sexism and racism, (mythical) rape, (mythical) miscarriage, abortion, emotional abuse

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Edelweiss and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Hall of Smoke by H. M. Long

“Eang, Eang, The Brave, the Vengeful, the Swift and the Watchful.”

Hall of Smoke – published by Titan Books, January 19th 2021

An epic fantasy featuring warrior priestesses and fickle gods at war

Hessa is an Eangi: a warrior priestess of the Goddess of War, with the power to turn an enemy’s bones to dust with a scream. Banished for disobeying her goddess’s command to murder a traveller, she prays for forgiveness alone on a mountainside.

While she is gone, raiders raze her village and obliterate the Eangi priesthood. Grieving and alone, Hessa – the last Eangi – must find the traveller, atone for her weakness and secure her place with her loved ones in the High Halls. As clans from the north and legionaries from the south tear through her homeland, slaughtering everyone in their path, Hessa strives to win back her goddess’ favour.

Beset by zealot soldiers, deceitful gods, and newly-awakened demons at every turn, Hessa burns her path towards redemption and revenge. But her journey reveals a harrowing truth: the gods are dying and the High Halls of the afterlife are fading. Soon Hessa’s trust in her goddess weakens with every unheeded prayer.

Thrust into a battle between the gods of the Old World and the New, Hessa realizes there is far more on the line than securing a life beyond her own death. Bigger, older powers slumber beneath the surface of her world. And they’re about to wake up.

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: Great world, great main character, interesting mythology – weirdly paced.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Books about gods are my favourite. As such I jumped at the chance to read this – not only does it feature gods, it features gods that walk among their people – and mythology that depends on the country it is told in. I love these kinds of ruminations on the nature of belief and culture.

The book starts with a bang when recently exiled Hessa is the only warrior priestess of Eang – the Goddess of War – to survive a sudden invasion. She was cast out of her order for failing to kill a visitor she had been foretold to kill. Killing him becomes her only focus – in the hopes of earning her Goddess’ forgiveness (a Goddess who is not known for being forgiving). The plot itself did not always grip me as we follow Hessa from one place to another (I am not that into travel fantasy) and I found it weirdly low-stakes given that the literal survival of a country is threatened but what I absolutely adored was the underlying mythology and Hessa herself. The story is told from a very close first person narration, a choice that is unusual for the genre but that worked extremely well as Hessa is our entry point into the world and we learn as she learns. As such I found the worldbuilding well integrated and easy enough to follow. It also helps to show just what a heavy burden is expected of Hessa to carry.

Hessa is a wonderful main character and one of the reasons I was so happy with this book. She is strong and stubborn but ultimately able to adapt to her changed circumstances – and she is warm and caring and absolutely kickass. I love kickass women in my fantasy reading and she definitely delivered.

Content warnings: genocide, gore, loss of loved ones

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quotations are taken from an unfinished copy and are subject to change.

Review: Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

Kim Jiyoung is a girl born to a mother whose in-laws wanted a boy. She is a sister made to share a room while her brother gets one of his own. A female preyed upon by male teachers at school. A daughter whose father blames her when she is harassed late at night. A good student who doesn’t get put forward for internships. A model employee but gets overlooked for promotion. A wife who gives up her career and independence for a life of domesticity.

Kim Jiyoung has started acting strangely. She ]is depressed. She is mad. She is her own woman. Kim Jiyoung is every woman.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is the life story of one young woman born at the end of the twentieth century raises questions about endemic misogyny and institutional oppression that are relevant to us all..

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: Depressing, infuriating, relevant, disappointing prose.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I don’t have all that much to say about this book. I find its impact more interesting than the book itself: this is one of the most successful Korean books of the last decade and reading it became a political statement. The book itself is an unflinching depiction of everyday sexism, many of the scenes will be familiar to most women, and very successful at that. It was just that for me I found the prose distinctly underwhelming. The author chose a matter-of-fact kind of language that, while effective, did not align with my personal taste.

My favourite part was the framing device which I thought was really clever and the final chapter really packed a punch in a way the rest of the book didn’t for me. The first and the last chapter sound like a fairly different book while the middle felt like an endless parade of sexism without much story around it. While this might very well be true to life (and rumours are, the book is at least in part biographical), I did not always enjoy my time with the book.

Ultimately, I think this was let down by its comparison to The Vegetarian which is a way more literary book as opposed to this more matter-of-fact novel and as such something that worked a lot better for my personal taste than this one did. As a companion piece it works well though because it illustrates the points The Vegetarian makes in a more straight-forward manner.

Content warnings: depiction of sexism, bullying

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quotations are taken from an unfinished copy and are subject to change.

Published by Scribner, March 1st 2020

Mini-Reviews: upcoming short story collections (Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz, Kink ed. by Garth Greenwell and R. O. Kwon, and The Ocean House by Mary-Beth Hughes)

Milk Blood Heat by Dantiel W. Moniz

Published by Grove Atlantic, February 2nd 2021

This is such a good debut collection of short stories. I especially liked the focus on girlhood and thought Moniz captures that particular time of life incredibly well – with all the inherent darkness a focus on girls can lead to. And dark these stories are – but I did not find them hopeless even if Moniz refuses to give her stories neat endings. I found this impeccably written, the metaphor heavy language a perfect fit for the format, and her characterization incredibly well-done. Some stories veered too much into darkness for me (I did not love “Tongues” and thought “Exotics” wasn’t half as clever as it should have been), but others were near pitch perfect (the collection starts incredibly strong with “Milk Blood Heat” which broke my heart but in a good way; “Thicker Than Water” with its examination of sibling relationships, guilt and grief was my favourite).

Content warning: rape, child sexual abuse, miscarriage, abortion, cannibalism, suicide, suicidal ideation, grief induced hallucinations

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Kink: Stories ed. by Garth Greenwell and R. O. Kwon

Published by Simon & Schuster, February 9th 2021

The second I heard about this anthology, I knew I needed to read it. The subject matter is right up my alley and the list of contributors is just incredible. The book did not disappoint in the slightest. Of course, when it comes to anthologies there will always be stories that work better for me than others but I genuinely thought all of these stories did something interesting.

The biggest surprise was Trust by Larissa Pham which I found emotionally resonant and super well-written – by an author I had not heard of before and whose other work I cannot wait to check out. Not surprising in the least was that I liked Carmen Maria Machado’s story The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror – because I genuinely do not think she could write a bad story if she tried. That she made me enjoy a historical fiction story speaks for itself. My absolute favourite of the bunch, however, was Brandon Taylor’s Oh, Youth. This story was pitch-perfect and heart-breaking and impeccably paced. It made me even more excited for his upcoming collection if that is at all possible.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Content warning: death of a loved one, death of a pet, insomnia, suicidal idolation, divorce

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Edelweiss and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Ocean House by Mary-Beth Hughes

Published by Grove Press, January 12th 2021

I did not get on with this. I struggled from the first story on and liked the second even less. Most of the things that didn’t work for me are very much subjective: the stories that I read were all historical fiction with the accompanying trope and style choices and that is a genre I rarely enjoy. I also found the characters deeply unpleasant (and while I often enjoy that in novels, I prefer more readily sympathetic characters in short stories) and the stories felt cynical in a way that I am sure will be perfect for the right reader. There was also something about the sentence structure that made the prose feel more convoluted than I like.

I wish I had liked this more because I do love interconnected short stories, but I am just not in the mind set to be able to force myself to read things that I am only partly enjoying (for what it’s worth, this probably would have been a three star in the end, so it is definitely not a bad book!).

DNF

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Pew by Catherine Lacey

“I nodded, but I was still thinking about Nelson’s dream, and wondering why it was that anyone believed the human body needed to be any particular way, or what was so important about the human body. Was it possible for a human’s mind and memory and ideas to live inside the body of a horse, and if it was, did that make being a human or a horse? What difference did it make, one life or another.”

Pew – published by Granta Publications, May 14th 2020

Fleeing a past they can no longer remember, Pew wakes on a church bench, surrounded by curious strangers.

Pew doesn’t have a name, they’ve forgotten it. Pew doesn’t know if they’re a girl or a boy, a child or an almost-adult. Is Pew an orphan, or something worse? And what terrible trouble are they running from?

Pew won’t speak, but the men and women of this small, god-fearing town are full of questions. As the days pass, their insistent clamour will build from a murmur to a roar, as both the innocent and the guilty come undone in the face of Pew’s silence.

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: Allusion-rich prose and vague story that I adored until I didn’t.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

For the first half – I was in love. I adored the prose and thought the structure of the book worked wonderfully to invoke a sense of mounting dread. Catherine Lacey constructs a story that feels more like an extended fable than like a novel – in the best possible way. The story begins when a person is found sleeping in a church’s pew. The people in this small town take them in but as the person is not speaking (and nobody seems to be able to agree what they look like, how old they, what gender they are), it does not take very long for the others to turn on them. The book is infused with a growing sense of dread, as Pew (as they are called by the people who took them in) meets different people who all start telling them their darkest secrets, filling the silence the only way they know how. In the background are preparations for an ominous festival, the purpose of which remains cloaked in secrecy for Pew.

The first few chapters really worked for me, I thought the introductions of the different people and their backstories were intriguing, the prose was incredible, and Pew a sympathetic main character that I could not help but deeply root for. I also appreciated how the people were more archetypes than proper characters (unlike Pew who feels real if vague). I thought this worked really well for the fable-like mood. As this pattern kept repeating (Pew is sent to some person, that person assumes to have knowledge of Pew and then starts telling Pew their story), the sense of dread kept ratchetting up. However, as soon as Lacey started showing her hands and actually filling in the blanks a bit, the story lost its appeal to me.

Additionally, I thought the commentary on gender worked a lot better and was smoother integrated than the commentary on race where the fable-like prose felt ill-fitted. I think, ultimately, the prose was not quite strong enough for me to distract from the problems I had with the book. But when it worked for me, it worked so brilliantly that I am very glad to have read this.

Content warnings: Racism, description of lynchings, police corruption, religious fundamentalism, trans racial adoption

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quotations are taken from an unfinished copy and are subject to change.

Review: Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam

“Three flamingos lifted out off the pool’s surface with a masculine flaunting of wings. Any flamingo, seeing this, would have wanted to incubate their issue. These were flamingos, the best of flamingos, hale and powerful. They rose into the air, a simple trick, and above the trees. The flamingos on the grass followed, seven human-sized pink birds, twisty and strange, ascending into the Long Island night, beautiful and terrifying in equal measures.”

Leave The World Behind – published by Bloomsbury Publishing, October 6th 2020

A magnetic novel about two families, strangers to each other, who are forced together on a long weekend gone terribly wrong

Amanda and Clay head out to a remote corner of Long Island expecting a vacation: a quiet reprieve from life in New York City, quality time with their teenage son and daughter, and a taste of the good life in the luxurious home they’ve rented for the week. But a late-night knock on the door breaks the spell. Ruth and G. H. are an older black couple—it’s their house, and they’ve arrived in a panic. They bring the news that a sudden blackout has swept the city. But in this rural area—with the TV and internet now down, and no cell phone service—it’s hard to know what to believe.

Should Amanda and Clay trust this couple—and vice versa? What happened back in New York? Is the vacation home, isolated from civilization, a truly safe place for their families? And are they safe from one another? 

Suspenseful and provocative, Rumaan Alam’s third novel is keenly attuned to the complexities of parenthood, race, and class. Leave the World Behind explores how our closest bonds are reshaped—and unexpected new ones are forged—in moments of crisis.

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: Very much not for me.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

Sometimes I am so in the minority with a book that I am starting to question whether I read the same book as everybody else. This is one of those cases (partly at least, because an abundance of DNF-reviews agrees with me). I did not get on with this. Maybe I should have called it quits when at 15% in, Alam had managed to reference the genitalia of three of the four family members. Snark aside, I was very much the wrong reader for this – where other people read scenes as tense, I found them satirical – and I do not particularly like satire. I found the tone impossible to pin down and as such the reading experience was more frustrating than anything else. Additionally, there were mainly three things that did not work for me: uneven perspective, disdainful characterisation, and a lack of trust in the reader’s intelligence.

Alam chose a omniscient narrator for his story, flitting between his characters’ heads, often within the same paragraph. While this might have worked had the tone been different, here I found this led to a lack of tension and an immense amount of frustration on my end because he chose to keep things artificially hidden from the reader. I would have prefered the narration to be either closer to the two couples or further away, as it was, the sprinkled-in sentences about the outside world took the little bit of tension I felt completely away.

I do not mind unlikable characters (at all, especially when they are women) but I need to feel like the author cares for their characters. Here I felt like I could basically see Alam sneering at his characters and I found that approach unkind – and again leading to my lack of interest in what was going on. He is also weirdly focussed on genitalia in a way that I found frankly baffling – I do not know what purpose the masturbation and sex scenes played for the story and I would have rather not spent this much time reading about a teenager’s penis.

It felt like Alam did not trust his readers to understand subtext or character development. Everything is spelt out, excrutiatingly. So much that I started to wonder if something really obvious was flying over my head. By the time I finished this book, all goodwill I had towards this book based on the incredible premise was lost.

Content warnings: depiction of racism, vomit, loss of teeth, disease on unknown origin, alcohol abuse, spiders

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quotations are taken from an unfinished copy and are subject to change.

Review: Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

“Why did it feel so much safer to be wanted or needed than to be the one who wanted or needed?

I was terrified of being rejected. I didn’t want to be a loser. That was the word that came into my head whenever I ran the risk of caring about someone: loser. I couldn’t remember my mother ever saying it to me. It was something I must have come up with all by myself.”

Milk Fed – Published by Scribner, February 2nd, 2021

Rachel is twenty-four, a lapsed Jew who has made calorie restriction her religion. By day, she maintains an illusion of existential control, by way of obsessive food rituals, while working as an underling at a Los Angeles talent management agency. At night, she pedals nowhere on the elliptical machine. Rachel is content to carry on subsisting—until her therapist encourages her to take a ninety-day communication detox from her mother, who raised her in the tradition of calorie counting.

Early in the detox, Rachel meets Miriam, a zaftig young Orthodox Jewish woman who works at her favorite frozen yogurt shop and is intent upon feeding her. Rachel is suddenly and powerfully entranced by Miriam—by her sundaes and her body, her faith and her family—and as the two grow closer, Rachel embarks on a journey marked by mirrors, mysticism, mothers, milk, and honey.

Pairing superlative emotional insight with unabashed vivid fantasy, Broder tells a tale of appetites: physical hunger, sexual desire, spiritual longing, and the ways that we as humans can compartmentalize these so often interdependent instincts. Milk Fed is a tender and riotously funny meditation on love, certitude, and the question of what we are all being fed, from one of our major writers on the psyche—both sacred and profane.

Find it on Goodreads.

Verdict: Sharp prose, brilliant characterization, very very awkward.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

This hurts a bit. I was so very sure I would love this (The Pisces is one of my all-time favourite books and I had been anticipating Broder’s second novel for what felt like ages) and while Broder’s writing is as sharp as ever and there is much to love, ultimately this did not always work for me. Where Lucy (the main character in The Pisces) is deeply unpleasant and unhappy but so witty and sharp that I could not help but root for her, here the main character, Rachel, is also prickly but before anything else deeply, deeply unhappy. She looks for acceptance in all the wrong places, trying to be somebody she is not in the hopes of finally finding somebody who unconditionally (or even conditionally) loves her.

For me, Broder’s biggest strength lies in drawing these women that feel real, with internal voices that are consistent and believable. Rachel feels like a complete person – and I felt for her. Her every moment is taken over by her eating disorder, her calorie counting, and her obsessive tendencies – and her aforementioned need to be loved by somebody. Her inner monologue is claustrophobic to the extreme, especially in the very first chapter when she outlines her daily routine. Rachel is without a plan for her life, except to stay as thin as humanly possible by any means necessary, and when she latches on to Miriam, an orthodox Jewish woman who works in the frozen joghurt shop Rachel frequents, the crush quickly becomes unhealthy and obsessive as well. The book was hard on my second hand embarassment and took me a lot longer to finish than it might have otherwise taken me.

All these are not objective criticisms of this book but rather reasons why I did not always enjoy my time with it. Ultimately, this is good and it seems unfair to measure any book against Broder’s debut which kickstarted my love affair with books about disaster women, but I could not help doing so and thus couldn’t love it the way I wanted to love it.

Content warnings: disordered eating, calorie counting, vomit, binge eating, homophobia, self harm, addiction, suicidal ideation, parental abuse

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Edelweiss and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Mini-Reviews: creative nonfiction about illness (Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein and The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey)

Pain Studies by Lisa Olstein

Published by Bellevue Literary Press, March 10th 2020

This is a book of creative nonfiction in the vein of Sarah Manguso, focussing pain in general and migraine in particular – and as such I was just the right reader for this. I like this kind of nonfiction that jumps from topic to topic, organized in short, punchy essays. Olstein looks at philosophical thought on pain, on its depiction in pop culture (especially in House, M. D.), there is a part dedicated to Joan of Arc, and so much more. I love this jumping around and connecting different train of thoughts to a more or less coherent whole, so for me this absolutely worked. I did think that sometimes this connecting could have been done a little bit more explicitly, but I did like having to close some gaps myself. For me the descriptions of migraine really resonated but I am unsure how the book reads for somebody who does not know the weird state of being a strong migraine with an aura invokes.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Edelweiss and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey

Published by Grove Press, May 12th 2020

I tried and failed to read this book several times during the last few months of my pregnancy where I suffered, for the first time in my life, from insomnia myself. But the beginning of this book rang so true that it ended up too much for me. Now that falling asleep really is not a problem anymore, I finally finished the book and I am glad I did, even if it did not often work for me. Samantha Harvey approaches her insomnia from different angles, many of which are experimental in narrative structure. I did not like this as much as I hoped I would – particularly in the middle there were long passages that I found uninteresting and also not as well thought-out as I would have liked. I think the approach would have worked better for me had it either been closer to her own life or more thoroughy researched and cited, this middle ground made me impatient. Harvey plays with perspective in a way that I found inappropriate for non-fiction but that might have worked better in a novel; for example she imagines in great detail the thoughts one of her doctors might have to suit her narrative and I could not get on board with it (I don’t even want to imagine what her point was when she compared a homeless person to a bin bag and imagined their thoughts that she assumed would be filled with self-loathing).

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Content warning: death of a loved one, death of a pet, insomnia, suicidal idolation, divorce

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for an honest review.