Review: Shelf Life by Lidia Franchini

43862291Verdict: Dark, brilliant, creepy, way too many dream sequences.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary fiction

Published by Random House UK, Transworld Publishers, August 29th 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

Ruth is thirty years old. She works as a nurse in a care home and her fiancé has just broken up with her. The only thing she has left of him is their shopping list for the upcoming week.

And so she uses that list to tell her story. Starting with six eggs, and working through spaghetti and strawberries, and apples and tea bags, Ruth discovers that her identity has been crafted from the people she serves; her patients, her friends, and, most of all, her partner of ten years. Without him, she needs to find out – with conditioner and single cream and a lot of sugar – who she is when she stands alone.

I don’t know if I have read a book lately with a blurb this accurate that nonetheless completely failed to give an indication what the book will be like. On the surface it’s correct; yes Ruth has just been left by her boyfriend of ten years and has to navigate her life and yes the story is told by way of the shopping list he left behind – but it also something else entirely. Told in varies formats (stream-of-consciousness in the present, a series of text messages in the past, mixing more straight forward narrations with vague ones) and from different perspectives (mainly Ruth’s perspective in first person, but also parts narrated from Neil’s perspectives, parts in second person, parts in first person plural), this book is a portrait of a woman who was very much broken before she met the awful man and became more so during the course of a fairly horrible relationship.

When the book worked, it really worked for me – but there were just so many parts I could not properly get on board with, starting with the endless accounts of weird dreams Ruth and Neil had. I am unsure I grasped what the narrative purpose of those were and I found them relentlessly boring and confusing. While I appreciated the mixed-media approach, I didn’t love reading text messages that just never ended.

I really liked the framing of the story and I thought Franchini did something very clever: in the first chapter, when Neil breaks up with Ruth I couldn’t help but think that was the right choice because she seemed fairly awful. And then Franchini goes back and recontextualizes the scene in a way that made my heart hurt. Neil is, for all intents and purposes, really really awful. He is not only a cheater but also a stalker, he made Ruth into the person he wanted her to be and then punishes her for it, and his thoughts on women are unkind and horrifying (at some point he says this about his girlfriend of ten years: “The fact of her aging makes me uneasy.”). While I found his characterization believable and him endlessly fascinating, spending time in his head was very much not fun. Ruth on the other hand was just the kind of difficult to root for woman I adore in my fiction. Overall, I found this book impeccably structured and impressively constructed  – but often difficult to stick with due to its deliberate darkness.

Content warning: stalking, grooming, eating disorders, disordered eating, cheating, emotional abuse, bullying, assault, sexual harrassment

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Netgalley and Transworld Publishers in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon

18366739._sx318_Verdict: Off the rails, addictive, wonderful.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Published by Bloomsbury, 2013

Find it on Goodreads.

It is the year 2059. Several major world cities are under the control of a security force called Scion. Paige Mahoney works in the criminal underworld of Scion London, part of a secret cell known as the Seven Seals. The work she does is unusual: scouting for information by breaking into others’ minds. Paige is a dreamwalker, a rare kind of clairvoyant, and in this world, the voyants commit treason simply by breathing.

But when Paige is captured and arrested, she encounters a power more sinister even than Scion. The voyant prison is a separate city—Oxford, erased from the map two centuries ago and now controlled by a powerful, otherworldly race. These creatures, the Rephaim, value the voyants highly—as soldiers in their army.

Paige is assigned to a Rephaite keeper, Warden, who will be in charge of her care and training. He is her master. Her natural enemy. But if she wants to regain her freedom, Paige will have to learn something of his mind and his own mysterious motives.

This book is off the rails, it reads like Samantha Shannon crammed about five books into one, and it follows familiar beats but I loved it. I had a complete blast reading this and I cannot believe I started a seven book series with only three books published so far. I loved this so, because it seems like it’s certainly not the most original thing I have ever read and it is in parts ridiculous – but Shannon gives her story and her tropes enough of a twist to keep me on my toes.

The book starts fairly unoriginal in a future dystopic world where clairvoyant people are hunted and their mere existence is outlawed but soon goes completely off the rails. Shannon does not give the reader any moment to breath before her main character kills somebody with her powers (it is self-defense, because let’s not get overly excited, the main character is a good person – which I happen to adore in my fiction to be honest, regardless of my snark) and has to run, only to be captured and driven to Oxford which is not supposed to exist anymore. And then suddenly – aliens. Sexy aliens even. I thought I could see where this was going from a mile away (there is even the inevitable early 2010s love triangle between her childhood friend and a sexy, dark, brooding stranger) but I did not care one bit and I was also not quite correct. Shannon had me hooked and increasingly frantic to find out more about this world and to see where this is going. In a way, I think this book was better for me because I have not read all that many of the YA staples and as such the familiar beats were comforting without being boring – also, this story while certainly not without crossover appeal, most certainly is a work of adult fantasy and worked all the better for me in its deliberate darkness. I also really think that Shannon’s writing and her characterization are on point. I found this addictive and her main character sympathetic without being unbelievable. Her reactions always made sense and even though she is impulsive this is always tempered by her wish to do what is right.

This might be the most backhandedly complimentary four star review I have ever written but I did really love it, even if I can see on some level why it totally would not work for other readers. But I will surely read every single thing Shannon ever writes.

Content warning: Slavery, bigotry, mind rape, assault, a really uncomfortable sex scene tinged with regret

Review: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

39689872._sx318_Verdict: Gutting, viscerally upsetting, stunningly written.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published by Faber & Faber, 2014

Find it on Goodreads.

Eimear McBride’s debut tells, with astonishing insight and in brutal detail, the story of a young woman’s relationship with her brother, and the long shadow cast by his childhood brain tumour. Not so much a stream of consciousness, as an unconscious railing against a life that makes little sense, and a shocking and intimate insight into the thoughts, feelings and chaotic sexuality of a vulnerable and isolated protagonist. To read A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing is to plunge inside its narrator’s head, experiencing her world first-hand. This isn’t always comfortable – but it is always a revelation.

Touching on everything from family violence to sexuality and the personal struggle to remain intact in times of intense trauma, McBride writes with singular intensity, acute sensitivity and mordant wit. A Girl is a Half-formed Thing is moving, funny – and alarming. It is a book you will never forget.

I don’t know what to say about this book. We have been buddy reading this with my Women’s Prize group (Rachel (5 stars), Callum (4 stars), Naty (currently reading), Emily (5 stars), and Sarah (in a reading slump)) and I have been periodically telling them that the book is killing me. And killing me it did. I do not know that I have ever read a book that I found this viscerally upsetting. It’s brilliant, mind, but so raw and so upsetting that I am glad to be done with it – while simultaneously wanting to read eveything Eimear McBride has ever written.

Told in fragmented sentences that are not so much stream-of-consciousness (although they are this too) but rather a stumbling, breathless kind of impressionistic language, the prose is the first and obvious draw here. It took me about three chapters of my audiobook to find my bearing (I listened to each of those first three chapters at least twice, frequently skipping back to relisten) but once I did, I found it mesmerizing. The rhythm to the language is stunning and McBride’s audio narration was just brilliant. I am a huge fan of books told in second person singular – and this rambling, raw narrative, addressed to the unnamed narrator’s older brother hit very many sweet spots for me.

This is a story about grief and trauma and I could not ever listen to more than half an hour before needing a break. The main character is traumatized: first by her brother’s brain tumor and her parent’s abuse, then again when, at 13, her uncle brutally rapes her. After this, she never finds her bearing again, getting lost in toxic behaviour and self-harm spirals. I found this book endlessly bleak – so much that by the end I could only listen to minutes before becoming overwhelmed. I also wish the people in the narrator’s life weren’t all this horrible – the horribleness of the uncle nearly eclipsed what an awful person her mother was as well. I thought the prose worked best in moments of immediate trauma but there were moments when I found it more vague than impactful. Still, what a brilliant, brilliant book.

Content warning: sexual assault, rape, pedophilia, cancer, familial death, religious bigotry, self-harm, alcoholism, abuse.

 

 

Review: Véra by Stacy Schiff

18667133Verdict: Fascinating, incredibly well-researched picture of a brilliant and frustrating woman.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Biography

Published by Random House, 2000

Find it on Goodreads.

Hailed by critics as “monumental” (Boston Globe) and “utterly romantic” (New York magazine), Véra, the story of Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov, brings to shimmering life one of the greatest literary love stories of our time. Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita, Pale Fire, and Speak, Memory, wrote his books first for himself and secondly for his wife.

Set in prewar Europe and postwar America and spanning much of the twentieth century, this telling of the Nabokov’s fifty-two-year marriage reads as vividly as a novel. Véra, both beautiful and brilliant, is its outsized heroine, a woman who loves as deeply and intelligently as did the great romantic heroines of Austen and Tolstoy. Stacy Schiff’s Véra is a triumph of the biographical form.

A biography written after its subject has died must necessarily be an approximation. This is never more true than in a case like this, where the subject wanted to be unknowable, even while alive (“I am always there. But well-hidden.”). It is this book’s greatest strength that Schiff manages to paint a vivid picture of Vera in all her wonderful contradictions regardless.

I knew nothing about Vera Nabokov when I started this book and I left it feeling like I had known her personally. The picture Schiff paints is endlessly fascinating: of a woman who was proud of her own opinions and quick to judge others who nonetheless thought her life’s work was to assist her genius husband while at the same time denying being part of his creative process in any shape or form (even if there are countless instances of her handwriting in his manuscript), of a genius polyglot who corrected translations of her husband’s works even in languages she didn’t properly speak who still felt like her English wasn’t good enough after dealing with legal affairs for decades, of a woman who well into her 80s absolutely loathed communism in an obsessive way, or a woman who obviously deeply loved her husband but seemed slightly cold towards her son with him.

The first half of the book was near perfect and incredibly well-researched, the ideal combination of literature critique and historical narrative (I learned things about the Russian emigré community in Berlin between the first and second world war that I didn’t even know I could learn about), and Vera was just the perfect combination of awful and brilliant – I do love unlikable women characters, apparently not only in fiction. I thought the second half (after Nabokov found lasting success with Lolita) was not quite as strong and started to feel repetitive. Her refusal to admit her importance for her husband’s work is fascinating – but I also got it the first three times Schiff made that point. I did, however, absolutely adore the last chapter and found the way in which Vera did not change her approach after her husband’s death incredibly interesting.

Content warning: Infidelity, Familial Death, anti-semitism (Vera was Jewish in early 20th century Europe…)

Review: Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

36203384Verdict: Indulgent.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction.

Published by Hutchinson, June 2018.

Find it on Goodreads.

They told him everything.

He told everyone else.

Over countless martini-soaked Manhattan lunches, they shared their deepest secrets and greatest fears. On exclusive yachts sailing the Mediterranean, on private jets streaming towards Jamaica, on Yucatán beaches in secluded bays, they gossiped about sex, power, money, love and fame. They never imagined he would betray them so absolutely.

In the autumn of 1975, after two decades of intimate friendships, Truman Capote detonated a literary grenade, forever rupturing the elite circle he’d worked so hard to infiltrate. Why did he do it, knowing what he stood to lose? Was it to punish them? To make them pay for their manners, money and celebrated names? Or did he simply refuse to believe that they could ever stop loving him? Whatever the motive, one thing remains indisputable: nine years after achieving wild success with In Cold Blood, Capote committed an act of professional and social suicide with his most lethal of weapons . . . Words.

A dazzling debut about the line between gossip and slander, self-creation and self-preservation, SWAN SONG is the tragic story of the literary icon of his age and the beautiful, wealthy, vulnerable women he called his Swans.

‘Writers write. And one can’t be surprised if they write what they know.’

I am in two minds about this book: while I thought there were moments of brilliance, overall I found it indulgent, tedious, and way too long. Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcotts sets out to retell Truman Capote’s final years from the perspectives of his ‘Swans’, high society ladies he first befriended and then betrayed.

The strength of this book for me was hands-down the narrative choice to tell the story from a we-perspective, reminiscent of Greek choruses. As such she creates a cacophony of voices and competing narrative strands that I enjoyed. Listening to the audiobook worked really well for this facet of the story. I found some of these stories, especially Slim’s and Babe’s compelling and interesting to follow – but there were some women I just could not tell apart; they blended together in a picture of overwhelming privilege. I think Greenberg-Jephcott set out to make these women sympathetic victims of Capote’s scheming – but for this to work they have to be just that: sympathetic. But it is difficult to feel for people whose whole lives seem to revolve around gossip (who wore the wrong dress to whose party on a yacht is also not particularly interesting gossip).

The book would have been altogether a lot better had it been a lot shorter; as I said, I really enjoyed the narration and for the first two hours I found the glib narrative voice charming and interesting. But once it got old, it got really old and then I had to spent hours upon hours listening to what read for vast stretches like a gossip column. Had the book been 200 pages shorter and more focused on the compelling Swans (yes, Babe and Slim but also CZ and Gloria), I could have really loved this book.

By biggest problem, however, was Capote’s characterization. Come to think about it, cutting his parts nearly completely would have made for a much more interesting reading experience. While I know next to nothing about the man and he might very well have been awful, I found the gleeful hatefulness in which he is described both uncomfortable and uninteresting. He is referred to throughout the book as “the boy”, we are constantly hit on the head about his height (or rather, lack of height) to in a way that just felt unnecessary and steeped in deeply disturbing ideas about masculinity, and calling him repeatedly “the fag” or “the kobold” or variations thereof is offensive and pointless.

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
  2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
  3. Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
  4. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  5. Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn (review)
  6. Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott
  7. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (review)

 

Review: Milkman by Anna Burns

36047860Verdict: Hard work.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published by Faber & Faber 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous. Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes ‘interesting’. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous.

Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.

I did not always enjoy my reading (or rather listening) experience. This book combines many things I dislike in fiction: unfairness and characters that drove me up the walls being the most important factors here but also a fairly non-existent plot. But I cannot deny the genius of this book either. Anna Burns has a brilliant way with words and the atmosphere she created here is breathtaking in its claustrophobic intensity.

Told in conversational stream-of-consciousness, the language is the obvious draw here. Anna Burns has crafted sentences so wonderful, I was in awe. Listening to the audiobook worked exceedingly well for me because the conversational and circular narration could shine this way without me skipping whole sentences (as I would surely have done had I read this on paper). Burns works with thoughtful repetition here, making this a stylistically interesting book. Intellectually, I found this stimulating and I absolutely appreciate how she slowly but surely expands on her insular narrative in a way that felt highly rewarding, with themes flowing together and building a cohesive whole.

Ultimately, while I can admire the craft, I really did not enjoy myself. In the middle, I was very close to frustrated tears and wanted to shake the narrator. While I understand what Burns was doing, I would have prefered to follow a different narrator. She really drove me up the walls with her incapability of talking to anybody in any meaningful way. While nobody is ever referred to by their name but rather by descriptors such as “maybe-boyfriend” or “first brother-in-law”, some of these characters became more real than others and the narrator sadly remained a mystery to me until near the end. I might have enjoyed this more otherwise.

So, yes, it’s brilliant, yes, it probably deserves all the accolades it got, but it is very much not the book for me. Writing this review nearly changed my mind, because there really is so much to admire here, but fact is, if I hadn’t read this for the longlist, I would not finished it.

I am reading the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist this year. My current ranking is as follows:

  1. The Pisces by Melissa Broder (review)
  2. Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review)
  3. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  4. Milkman by Anna Burns

Review: Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

18369376Verdict: Absolutely wonderful.

My rating: 4,5 out of 5 stars.

Published by Hachette, 2010.

Genre: Biography

Find it on Goodreads.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer brings to life the most intriguing woman in the history of the world: Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt.

Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnets, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator.

Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first when both were teenagers. She poisoned the second. Ultimately she dispensed with an ambitious sister as well; incest and assassination were family specialties. Cleopatra appears to have had sex with only two men. They happen, however, to have been Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, among the most prominent Romans of the day. Both were married to other women. Cleopatra had a child with Caesar and–after his murder–three more with his protégé. Already she was the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean; the relationship with Antony confirmed her status as the most influential woman of the age. The two would together attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled their ends. Cleopatra has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since.

Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Shakespeare and Shaw put words in her mouth. Michelangelo, Tiepolo, and Elizabeth Taylor put a face to her name. Along the way, Cleopatra’s supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order. Rich in detail, epic in scope, Schiff ‘s is a luminous, deeply original reconstruction of a dazzling life.

This was incredible. The depth in which Stacy Schiff took her book is incredible, both in scope as well as in narrative prowess. She takes a story that has been told countless times and meticulously shows how that picture we all have of Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic queen, has been influenced and changed over the centuries and what might be the truth underneath all the propaganda. And she does it with wry wit and a wonderful sense of pacing.

I obviously knew the bare bones of the story going in (Cleopatra smuggling herself into Caesar’s camp, having a child with him, Caesar being killed [Et tu, Brute?], her having children with Marc Antony, Civil War between Marc Antony and Octavian, her death by snake venom) but Stacy Schiff showed me how large the holes in my knowledge are in fact. I am in absolute awe of this achievement in research and in story telling. Sometimes the details got a little bit overwhelming but overall Schiff manages to comprise this crucial part of history into a narrative that left me engaged until the very end.

What struck me most while listening to this book was how very different the Romans were – my history teachers always emphasized the Roman Empire as the birth place of Europe as we know it but Schiff shows exactly how different Roman culture if from my own. The actions some of these men took make literally no sense from a modern viewpoint – and Schiff makes no attempt to give them other reasonings except for the ones written down by the actors themselves. Marc Antony in particular often acts in a way that seems highly illogical but obviously makes sense in the cultural framework. I have a lot to think about now, about the way in which I view the world mostly.

I also take away from this book a whole new appreciation of Cleopatra – she is my hero; she was clever and shrewed and witty and apparently so charismatic that men promised her the world. I just wish we had more things she had written herself because even though this is her story it is also always framed by the men in her life – and many of them did not appreciate her in the slightest.