Review: The Rending and the Nest by Kaethe Schwehn

34921578Verdict: Fascinating premise, weak characters.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

Published by Bloomsbury UK & NZ, February 20th, 2018

Genre: Dystopia/ Post-Apocalyptic

Find it on goodreads.

A chilling yet redemptive post-apocalyptic debut that examines community, motherhood, faith, and the importance of telling one’s own story.

When ninety-five percent of the world’s population disappears for no apparent reason, Mira does what she can to create some semblance of a life: She cobbles together a haphazard community named Zion, scavenges the Piles for supplies they might need, and avoids loving anyone she can’t afford to lose. Four years after the Rending, Mira has everything under control. Almost.

Then Mira’s best friend, Lana, announces her pregnancy, the first in this strange world and a new source of hope for Mira. But Lana gives birth to an inanimate object—and soon other women of Zion do, too—and the thin veil of normalcy Mira has thrown over her new world begins to fray. As the community wrestles with the presence of these Babies, a confident outsider named Michael appears, proselytizing about the world outside Zion. He lures Lana away and when she doesn’t return, Mira has to decide how much she’s willing to let go in order to save her friend, her community, and her own fraught pregnancy.

Like California by Edan Lepucki and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Rending and the Nest uses a fantastical, post-apocalyptic landscape to ask decidedly human questions: How well do we know the people we love? What sustains us in the midst of suffering? How do we forgive the brokenness we find within others—and within ourselves?

I love vague, quiet, introspective dystopian stories; the premise of this intrigued me to no end and I was hoping for something incredible. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely enjoyed this; just not as much as I thought I would.

I loved the vagueness of the world building. All the reader knows is that six years prior to the events of this book, most people and most things vanished without a trace. What is left of the things is mostly in random piles, while those who are left of the people have to try to make sense of the changed world. These exploration of what makes us human is exacerbated when women start to fall pregnant and then giving birth to objects rather than babies. I adore the setting and I love that Schwehn left the how unexplained. I am not interested in the mechanics of apocalypse but rather in the human condition as influenced by it. But, and this is my main problem with this book, the characters were not all that well explored.

The story is told in first person perspective by Mira who was 18 when the Rending (this is what her group of people started calling the apocalyptic event) happened and she lost her whole family. She is supposedly plagued by the guilt of losing her brother but this never really felt the case as she kept forgetting him the moment something happened. Her relationship to Lana and Rodney is at the core of this book, especially her friendship with the former. But again we are told of her friendship rather than it being shown. This lack of an emotional core made it difficult for me to connect with her. Parts of this is very much on purpose I am sure: Mira is blunted by the Rending, this new world does not offer anything in way of comfort and as such this could have worked brilliantly if it had been explored more. As it is, I cannot help but wonder if I would have liked the book better had the protagonist been older. Now her narration felt superficial and left me feeling at a distance.

The timeless manner in which the story is told (I was unsure for a while when the Rending had occured and had just settled on the nineties when Mira starts talking about smart phones) worked both for and against my enjoyment of the story. I liked how it underscored the parable like story and how it made the story both personal and universal. But at the same time it further led to the protagonist being ill-defined. Her pop culture references were dated without there being an in-story reason for that.

So overall, I loved the worldbuilding and the premise and the language of parable, while the characters and their relationships did not quite work for me.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing (UK/NZ) in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle – Stuart Turton

35967101Verdict: Compulsively readable, challenging without being overwhelming, and intriquately plotted.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Date read: January 15th, 2018

Published by Raven Books (Bloomsbury Publishing), February 8th, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

How do you stop a murder that’s already happened?

At a gala party thrown by her parents, Evelyn Hardcastle will be killed–again. She’s been murdered hundreds of times, and each day, Aiden Bishop is too late to save her. Doomed to repeat the same day over and over, Aiden’s only escape is to solve Evelyn Hardcastle’s murder and conquer the shadows of an enemy he struggles to even comprehend–but nothing and no one are quite what they seem.

Deeply atmospheric and ingeniously plotted, The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a highly original debut that will appeal to fans of Kate Atkinson and Agatha Christie.

Groundhog Day Meets Agatha Christie was all I needed to hear to be completely positively intrigued by this book. I had an absolute blast reading this and trying (and failing) to figure things out. Aiden Bishop wakes up in a body that is not his with no memory at all. He learns that he will wake up on this same day 8 times in 8 different hosts to solve a murder that will occur in the evening. We follow him chronologically (from his perspective), but everything is always happening at once. There are two others trying to solve the same murder and he will have to figure out who is on his side and who isn’t. This is such a staggeringly brilliant premise that is then executed stunningly.

Stuart Turton juggles many moving parts in a way that makes it relatively easy for the reader to follow along. He has all his moving pieces coming together beautifully and effortlessly and I think this is the biggest strength of this very strong book: this could have been a confusing mess but never was. The different versions of Aiden Bishop feel distinct enough to be complete characters while there is also a piece of him that is always recognizable. I adored the ruminations on identity and responsiblity, with a strong emphasis on action rather than personality.

Aiden Bishop has an incredible disdain for his hosts, who to be fair are mostly unpleasant, but I sometimes found his descriptions unnecessarily cruel, especially regarding one of his host’s overweight body. He went into detailed description of why this body was disgusting and this just did not sit well with me – especially when juxtaposed with his descriptions of another of his hosts (who is a rapist) who he also hates but not that viscerally. It makes sense from an in-book-perspective (his hosts’ personalities influence his reactions and the rapist sees nothing wrong with his behaviour) but still did not work for me. But this was a slight issue I had in the grand scheme of this highly enjoyable book.

I found this extremely clever, very well-written, and exceptionally well-plotted. I cannot wait to hold a finished copy in my hands to reread parts of this to find the hidden clues that I might have missed in my rush to finish this and to know. I cannot wait what Stuart Turton writes next.

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

 

Review: Folk – Zoe Gilbert

35892355Verdict: Somehow disappointing.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Date Read: January 8th, 2018

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc (UK & ANZ), February 8th, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Every year they gather, while the girls shoot their arrows and the boys hunt them out. The air is riddled with spiteful shadows – the wounds and fears and furies of a village year.

On a remote and unforgiving island lies a village unlike any other: Neverness. A girl is snatched by a water bull and dragged to its lair, a babe is born with a wing for an arm and children ask their fortunes of an oracle ox. While the villagers live out their own tales, enchantment always lurks, blighting and blessing in equal measure.

Folk is a dark and sinuous debut circling the lives of one generation. In this world far from our time and place, the stories of the islanders interweave and overlap, their own folklore twisting fates and changing lives.

A captivating, magical and haunting debut novel of breathtaking imagination, from the winner of the 2014 Costa Short Story Award.

I was so very much looking forward to this; I even featured it on my list of most anticipated books. This collection of connected short stories is steeped in myth and folktale and set on an island with an absolutely gorgeous cover – how could I not read this? This sounds like absolute perfection. And the writing is lyrical and the atmosphere haunting. But it is also disjointed and lacks a sufficient emotional punch to be the great book it could have been.

As is normal with short story collections, there were some that worked better for me and some that left me cold. I absolutely adored Swirling Cleft with its rumination on family and loss and love. It was stunningly beautiful and left me aching. On the other end of the spectrum I did not like Fishskin, Hareskin and thought its rumination on postpartum depression stayed on a superficial level.

The language is absolutely stunning with vivid imagery and interestingly structured sentences (that sometimes border on inaccessible). Zoe Gilbert has a brilliant way of creating metaphors and storylines that feel familiar while still being original. Her original fairy tales feel just like that: fairy tales. Their  matter-of-factness in their weirdness is spot on and brilliantly done.

I think ultimately my main problem was that the connections between the stories were not strong enough to give the individual stories the impact and depth I would have liked while the stories themselves often were not strong enough to stand on their own. I could never remember the characters between each stories because they mostly did not leave all that deep an impression on me and I think this lack of connection is what ultimately left me feeling mostly ambivalent about this book.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Relive Box and Other Stories – T. C. Boyle

34121921My Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Date read: September 20, 2017

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing, October 2017

Verdict: Unpleasant characters, derivative storylines.

Find it on Goodreads.

In a nutshell:
Unpleasant characters in situations of their own making feeling sorry for themselves while screwing others over.

I do not think there was a single main character in these stories that was not seriously unpleasant, self-important, arrogant, and whiny. While this might not be a problem for other readers, I have recently come to accept that I do like my characters to have some redeeming qualities. This is especially true for short stories where you only have a limited amount of time with the characters. For the stories to resonate, I have to have some understanding for the characters. These did not feel real in the sense that I sure hope that people are more well-rounded than this (call me hopelessly optimistic if you will).

I also found the stories’ plots left a lot to be desired; the premises felt derivative and not inventive enough to distract from the characters I found unpleasant. Here I enjoyed the more speculative stories more than the realistic ones. This is especially true for the last three stories: these did not work for me and I finally gave up and skim-read the rest.

I have been reading a lot of short fiction this last year; it is a genre I have found a whole new appreciation for. When short stories are done well, they pack an unbelievable punch – but on the other side, if the stories do not work for me, they absolutely do not work for me. This time, I struggled. A whole lot.

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I received an arc of this book curtesy of NetGalley and Bloomsbury Publishing in exchange for an honest review. Thanks for that!