Mini-Reviews: Short Story Collections

Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons

43152994Published by Atlantic Books, August 6th 2020

This hyper-realistic short story collection is dark and depressing and with prose not always sharp enough to work for me. The stories are mostly about people in the middle of bad decisions; not necessarily life-threatening bad decisions but rather smaller, mundane ones. Often these decisions involve neglect, neglect of their own bodies, their living environment, or most tragically their children. In subject matter it reminded me of Lidia Yuknavitch’s writing (who makes an appearance in the acknowledgements) but writing wise it could not reach her brilliance. I did not love the way Parsons wrote about weight and sadly too many of her protagonists were unkind about either their own bodies or the bodies of others.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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

Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang

P51199867._sx318_sy475_ublished by Atlantic Books, July 2019

Really really good! These mostly realistic stories worked exceedingly well for me – especially those that were told unchronologically in a way that I have not encountered in short stories before. This way of telling a story is something I particularly enjoy, so I was very pleased when I realized what Wang was doing. Not every story did work for me but enough did that I will be reading whatever she writes next. I also cannot get over the absolutely stunning cover.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

How To Pronounce Knife by Souvankham Thammavongsa

51323315._sy475_Published by Bloomsbury Publishing, April 16th 2020

I enjoyed these stories a lot with their thoughtful explorations on families, focussing on the lives of Laos immigrants and their children. I particularly enjoyed that the parents depicted really do try to do the best for their children (especially contrasted to the horrible parents in this years crop of Women’s Prize longlisted books) even if they sometimes miss the mark or sometimes cannot be the parent they would love to be if they had more time/ money/ knowledge.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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

Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch

45280901Published by Riverhead Books, February 2020

Sadly disappointing. My expectations were mile-high: I love Yuknavitch’s writing and had been anticipating her first short story collection in years (her earlier ones are our of print and I haven’t manage to find a copy yet) but while her prose is sharp as ever, for some reasons many of these stories did not work for me. Part of that has to do with the inherent cynicism of her stories that was not tempered by the endless capacity for empathy that her other books of hers I read possessed. I left the collection feeling kind of sad.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Review: Girl by Edna O’Brien

43565316._sy475_Verdict: Seriously awful.

My rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction

Published by Faber & Faber, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

I was a girl once, but not any more.

So begins Girl, Edna O’Brien’s harrowing portrayal of the young women abducted by Boko Haram. Set in the deep countryside of northeast Nigeria, this is a brutal story of incarceration, horror, and hunger; a hair-raising escape into the manifold terrors of the forest; and a descent into the labyrinthine bureaucracy and hostility awaiting a victim who returns home with a child blighted by enemy blood. From one of the century’s greatest living authors, Girl is an unforgettable story of one victim’s astonishing survival, and her unflinching faith in the redemption of the human heart.

I hated this. There is no way around this. I thought this was pretty damn awful and the longer I sit with it, the less I understand how this book was longlisted for the Women’s Prize. I am not touching the “should O’Brien have been the person to write this particular story” controversy with a ten-foot pole except to say it would have been easier to defend that decision if the book that resulted was good in any shape or form.

O’Brien sets out to tell the story of one of the school girls abducted by Boko Haram and she does not shy away from showing just how horrific that ordeal must have been. The book is relentless in its depiction of atrocities; in fact the first third is pretty much comprised of only that. However, weirdly enough, I found the second part of the story, after the protagonist returns home, actually a lot worse. I found the way in which her mother is characterized horrifying (and here having an own voices author would have made this decision feel at lot less voyeuristic and judging).

I do not get on with books that set out to teach me something – while I love the power literature has to broaden my horizon and to let me see lives outside my own, paedagogical books irk me. If I want to learn something, I gravitate towards non fiction – and as a piece of non fiction this might have actually worked for me because then the story told would have been just that: authentically mirroring the reality. As it stands, I questioned a lot of authorial decisions O’Brien made here (why is everybody so uniquely awful? Do we really need to only see awfulness?).

I also do not get on with books that set out to tell a horrifying story just to tell a horrifying story – and this felt like this. While reading it, I actually wondered if O’Brien had decided that trying to write a good book, sentence or style wise, would detract from the horror she was depicting. This is a pretty petty way to say that I was baffled by how bad the prose was. While I do kind of see why she chose to switch between tenses (it does add to the feeling of a fractured state of mind her protagonist has), overall I found this choice clumsy and the writing lacking. And in the end, this was what stuck with me: how can a book be this badly written and nominated for a major award? Even aside from the narrative problems I had with this and the question of authorship, this was just not well written.

Content warning: Rape, stoning, involuntary pregnancy, horrifying birthing scene, humiliation and pretty much everything you can imagine.

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

  1. Actress by Anne Enright (review)
  2. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (review)
  3. Weather by Jenny Offill (review)
  4. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (review)
  5. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson (review)
  6. Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie (review)
  7. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (review)
  8. Girl by Edna O’Brien

Not planning on reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Review: Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson

43697186Verdict: Well written but forgettable.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction

Published by W&N, 2020

Find it on Goodreads.

An unexpected teenage pregnancy pulls together two families from different social classes, and exposes the private hopes, disappointments, and longings that can bind or divide us from each other.

Moving forward and backward in time, Jacqueline Woodson’s taut and powerful new novel uncovers the role that history and community have played in the experiences, decisions, and relationships of these families, and in the life of the new child.

As the book opens in 2001, it is the evening of sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming of age ceremony in her grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone. Watched lovingly by her relatives and friends, making her entrance to the music of Prince, she wears a special custom-made dress. But the event is not without poignancy. Sixteen years earlier, that very dress was measured and sewn for a different wearer: Melody’s mother, for her own ceremony—a celebration that ultimately never took place.

Unfurling the history of Melody’s parents and grandparents to show how they all arrived at this moment, Woodson considers not just their ambitions and successes but also the costs, the tolls they’ve paid for striving to overcome expectations and escape the pull of history. As it explores sexual desire and identity, ambition, gentrification, education, class and status, and the life-altering facts of parenthood, Red at the Bone most strikingly looks at the ways in which young people must so often make long-lasting decisions about their lives—even before they have begun to figure out who they are and what they want to be.

While I can see that this is objectively a well-written book and I did really enjoy the structure, I also had trouble remembering what happened even in the chapter before and I cannot imagine this sticking with me. This review is taking me forever to write because I just do not know what to say.

Told in vignettes (something I love!), going forward and backwards in time telling the story of one particular family, this book mostly was a joy to read. Woodson’s prose is wonderful and the way in which she constructs her characters really worked for me. What I especially appreciated was the warmth with which she writes about these characters while still allowing them to be flawed. On a longlist including very many books that have a very cynical worldview and that are populated by horrible people doing horrible things for no reason, this really worked for me.

But the characters did not stick with me at all and I never got emotionally invested in their trajectory. While this does not take away from how good this book is, it did mean that it took me a lot longer than it should have to finish this very short book. I also thought the first half was a lot more successful than the second half and I could have done without the “remembering my own birth”-scene, which is just something I am very rarely on board with.

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

  1. Actress by Anne Enright (review)
  2. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (review)
  3. Weather by Jenny Offill (review)
  4. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (review)
  5. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson
  6. Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie (review)
  7. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (review)

Not planning on reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Review: Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie

43305429Verdict: Unfocussed.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction

Published by HarperCollins UK, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

On an ordinary Saturday morning in 1996, the residents of Nightingale Point wake up to their normal lives and worries.

Mary has a secret life that no one knows about, not even Malachi and Tristan, the brothers she vowed to look after.

Malachi had to grow up too quickly. Between looking after Tristan and nursing a broken heart, he feels older than his 21 years.

Tristan wishes Malachi would stop pining for Pamela. No wonder he’s falling in with the wrong crowd, without Malachi to keep him straight.

Elvis is trying hard to remember to the instructions his care worker gave him, but sometimes he gets confused and forgets things.

Pamela wants to run back to Malachi but her overprotective father has locked her in and there’s no way out.

It’s a day like any other, until something extraordinary happens. When the sun sets, Nightingale Point is irrevocably changed and somehow, through the darkness, the residents must find a way back to lightness, and back to each other.

Following six different perspectives around the events of a semi-fictional tragedy, I could not properly make sense of the why of this story – why did the author need this particular tragedy to tell the story? Why is the tone so glib when the events are so tragic? Is this supposed to be a story about a community or about a tragedy?

My thoughts on this are complicated: while I thought there were chapters and scenes that really worked, there were also vast stretches that I could not get interested in. Therefore, a list of things that worked for me and a list of things that didn’t:

What I liked:

  • Mary’s perspective. I really appreciated Mary’s voice and her particular dilemma. I thought her character was interesting and flawed in a really believable way. I enjoyed the different parental relationships she had with both her biological children and with Tristan and Malachi.
  • The wonderfully layered sibling relationship between Malachi and Tristan.

What I didn’t like:

  • The structure was possibly the part of the book that I found least successful. It took pages upon pages to finally reach the point of the plane impact and afterward the book felt very different than before. The book gets better in the direct aftermath of the tragedy but by then I had already spent hours listening to character exposition. After that the book jumps ahead in a way that made it feel like much of the plot and the character development happened off-screen.
  • Everything about the way in which Pamela’s story was handled. I found it both predictable and horrifying, which is my least favourite combination.
  • Tristan’s perspective: while I thought his character was interesting, his voice never felt authentic to me – to be fair, I do not know that many 15-year-old boys, but still it felt stereotypical rather than authentic. And I really could not deal with his rap verses, especially during scenes when a lot of things were happening.
  • I am not sure I liked the way in which Elvis’ sections were handled but I do admit that I cannot completely put my fingers on the why of that. I disliked the choice to have him refer to other characters by harsh descriptions (“the bad Black boy” for example), and by the clumsy way in which commentary on race and gender was integrated in his sections.
  • The scope was too broad for me, dealing with everything imaginable (racism and sexism, abuse, ableism, tragedy and familial relationships, cheating and abandonment) while never really giving any of those things any room to properly breathe.

Overall, the worst part was that after each momentary glimpse of brilliance, the next scene would again be clumsy and ill-thought-out, making me sad for the book this could have been if it had been more focussed; its inclusion on the Women’s Prize longlist baffles me.

Content warning: depictions of racism, sexism, and ableism; abuse; abandonment; cheating; death of loved ones; bullying; PTSD; drug abuse

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

  1. Actress by Anne Enright (review)
  2. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (review)
  3. Weather by Jenny Offill (review)
  4. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (review)
  5. Nightingale Point by Luan Goldie
  6. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett (review)

Not planning on reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Review: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

44318414Verdict: Very much not my type of book.

My rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction

Published by Bloomsbury, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

“Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was? I asked my sister. We were sitting in her car, parked in front of the Dutch House in the broad daylight of early summer.”

At the end of the Second World War, Cyril Conroy combines luck and a single canny investment to begin an enormous real estate empire, propelling his family from poverty to enormous wealth. His first order of business is to buy the Dutch House, a lavish estate in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia. Meant as a surprise for his wife, the house sets in motion the undoing of everyone he loves.

The story is told by Cyril’s son, Danny, as he and his older sister, the brilliantly acerbic and self-assured Maeve, are exiled from the house where they grew up by their stepmother. the two wealthy siblings are thrown back escaped from and find that all they have to count on is one another. It is this unshakable bond their lives and thwarts their futures.

Set over the course of five decades, ‘The Dutch House’ is a dark fairy tale about two smart people who cannot overcome their past. Despite every outward sign of success, Danny and Maeve are only truly comfortable when they’re together. Throughout their lives , they return to the well-worn story of what they’ve lost with humor and rage. But when at last they’re forced to confront the people who left them behind, the relationship between an indulged brother and his ever-protective sister is finally tested.

“The Dutch House” is the story of a paradise lost, a tour de force that digs deeply into questions of inheritance, love, and forgiveness, of how we want to see ourselves and of who we really are. Filled with suspense, you may listen to it quickly to find out what happens, but what happens to Danny and Maeve will stay
with you for a very long time.

I knew fairly early into this book that I was not the right reader for it. That I finished it has more to do with the format in which I consumed it (the audiobook is narrated by Tom Hanks) than with any hope I had that it would get better. To be fair, there were parts in the middle that worked better for me – but overall, this is just not my type of book at all. It has been described as a modern fairy tale and that is true only in the worst sense: the story is neither magical nor lyrical but the characters are all as flat as the characters in Grimm’s fairy tales – they are Patchett’s puppet’s moving the story along, not always in ways which made sense to me.

To illustrate why I am not the right reader, here a few things I dislike in books, in no particular order: family sagas (check), historical fiction (check), evil step parents (check), flat characters (check), undeveloped female characters (check), incredibly detailed narration (check), people being treated unfairly (check), women hating women for no good reason (check), horrible parents (check and check). The structure could have worked for me as it jumps back and forth in time, which is something I often enjoy, but the storyline mostly just bored me. The rambling nature of the narrative worked best for me when there were the smallest emotional stakes: when Danny talks about his education or his real estate dabbling. Whenever the stakes were higher, I became increasingly frustrated. Part of that has to do with Danny being an omnipotent narrator while still being only in his own head, part has to do with how one-note these characters all were. For other people, this book has worked brilliantly (and I can kind of see why if I squint and look at this sideways), for me this was a frustrating slog following a character I found boring and self-involved.

Content warning: Death of a loved one, heart attack, abandonement, Alzheimer’s Disease

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

  1. Actress by Anne Enright (review)
  2. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (review)
  3. Weather by Jenny Offill (review)
  4. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (review)
  5. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Not planning on reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Review: Actress by Anne Enright

45993330Verdict: Incredible.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published by Jonathan Cape, 2020

Find it on Goodreads.

Katherine O’Dell is an Irish theater legend. As her daughter Norah retraces her mother’s celebrated career and bohemian life, she delves into long-kept secrets, both her mother’s and her own.

Katherine began her career on Ireland’s bus-and-truck circuit before making it to London’s West End, Broadway, and finally Hollywood. Every moment of her life is a star turn, with young Norah standing in the wings. But the mother-daughter romance cannot survive Katherine’s past or the world’s damage. With age, alcohol, and dimming stardom, her grip on reality grows fitful and, fueled by a proud and long-simmering rage, she commits a bizarre crime.

Her mother’s protector, Norah understands the destructive love that binds an actress to her audience, but also the strength that an actress takes from her art. Once the victim of a haunting crime herself, Norah eventually becomes a writer, wife, and mother, finding her way to her own hard-won joy. Actress is finally a book about the freedom we find in our work and in the love we make and keep.

I did not expect to love this as much as I did.  I often struggle with historical fiction and I have tried to read Enright before but found her endlessly bleak – this book is the opposite of that. I found it clever and funny and absolutely incredibly well-written. The latter was probably to be expected – there is a reason Enright is one of the Great Writers of our time. I listened to the audiobook which she reads herself and this was such a genius thing to do – her narration is pitchperfect and works exceedingly well for the stream-of-consciousness feel of the book.

This book is, at its core, about a mother and daughter relationship, but it is also so much more: it is an impeccably structured love letter to human connection, it is a reckoning with sexism, it is a warm and kind and still wildly biting commentary on the arts and literature and I loved it so very much. (As is sometimes the case when I feel like a book is custom-made for me, this is more gush than review, please do bear with me.)

The book is told from Norah’s perspective as a winding inner monologue about her mother – famous theatre and movie actress Katherine O’Dell, told in parts to the narrator’s husband, in parts to a PhD student interested in “finding the woman behind the myth”. Enright makes the narrative style seem effortless but it is so impeccably done that I was swept along and got hit in the feelings at just the right moments. The prose and the structure are the obvious draw here – but I also loved the way in which the characters, especially Katherine and her daughter Norah are drawn. I found them real and believable and wonderfully flawed. The other characters are not always quite as sharp, but in a way this works for a narrator whose very identity is influenced so very much by her relationship to her mother.

While there were some plot developments that I did not completely loved, the overall reading experience was just too wonderful. Norah is such a brilliantly flawed character and spending time in her head was a delight for me.

Content warning: Rape, mental illness, death of a loved one

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

  1. Actress by Anne Enright
  2. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (review)
  3. Weather by Jenny Offill (review)
  4. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (review)

Not planning on reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Review: Weather by Jenny Offill

37506228Verdict: My kind of catnip.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published by Knopf, 2020

Find it on Goodreads.

Lizzie Benson slid into her job as a librarian without a traditional degree. But this gives her a vantage point from which to practice her other calling: she is a fake shrink. For years she has tended to her God-haunted mother and her recovering addict brother. They have both stabilized for the moment, but Lizzie has little chance to spend her new free time with husband and son before her old mentor, Sylvia Liller, makes a proposal. She’s become famous for her prescient podcast, Hell and High Water, and wants to hire Lizzie to answer the mail she receives: from left-wingers worried about climate change and right-wingers worried about the decline of western civilization. As Lizzie dives into this polarized world, she begins to wonder what it means to keep tending your own garden once you’ve seen the flames beyond its walls. When her brother becomes a father and Sylvia a recluse, Lizzie is forced to address the limits of her own experience–but still she tries to save everyone, using everything she’s learned about empathy and despair, conscience and collusion, from her years of wandering the library stacks . . . And all the while the voices of the city keep floating in–funny, disturbing, and increasingly mad.

This is a very specific kind of navel-gazy book that works really well for me but might prove frustrating or even kind of empty for other readers. This is the kind of novel Sarah Manguso would write and I loved it.

The blurb makes this sound like a plot heavy book but it is very much the opposite. Offill has edited her book down to sparse scenes, short musings, and witty sentences. Much of the action happens off-page and only the ramifications are felt. I thought the easily readable prose actually hides how very thought-provoking this book is, and the brief scenes hide the emotional leg work she does with them. I found the sibling relationship at the heart of the novel impeccably drawn and highly emotional. People have talked about the anxiety-inducing spiral with regards to climate change the narrator is involved in, but I actually found the commentary on post partum depression a lot more difficult to read, for obvious reasons I guess. I thought the narrator’s voice imparted so much warmth towards her brother that I felt her helplessness in this situation acutely.

Content warning: Climate change, (emotional) cheating, post partum depression

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

  1. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (review)
  2. Weather by Jenny Offill
  3. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes (review)

Not planning on reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Review: A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

42595255._sy475_Verdict: Competent enough.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Myth Retelling

Published by Mantle Books, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

In A Thousand Ships, broadcaster and classicist Natalie Haynes retells the story of the Trojan War from an all-female perspective.

This was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of all of them…

In the middle of the night, Creusa wakes to find her beloved Troy engulfed in flames. Ten seemingly endless years of brutal conflict between the Greeks and the Trojans are over, and the Greeks are victorious. Over the next few hours, the only life she has ever known will turn to ash . . .

The devastating consequences of the fall of Troy stretch from Mount Olympus to Mount Ida, from the citadel of Troy to the distant Greek islands, and across oceans and sky in between. These are the stories of the women embroiled in that legendary war and its terrible aftermath, as well as the feud and the fatal decisions that started it all…

Powerfully told from an all-female perspective, A Thousand Ships gives voices to the women, girls and goddesses who, for so long, have been silent.

I am, in many ways, the perfect reader for this book: I have been interested in and reading books about the Trojan War for around 20 years, and thus have an emotional connection to these women already and general knowledge about what happened when in this sprawling story. But this also means that when Haynes makes character decisions I do not agree with, I super do not agree with them. My favourite book of all time is Kassandra – which should give you an indication how seriously I adore her. Also, as a side note, my favourite book from last year’s shortlist was The Silence of the Girls (which this book has been compared to without a break – something I will try to avoid in the interest of being fair to this book).

Haynes sets out to retell the story of the Trojan War from the perspectives of the women. She does so unchronologically – something I obviously enjoyed. She tells both from the perspectives of women close to the heart of the original myth and from those more at the periphery. For me personally, the perspectives by women who were allowed to be angry worked the best, while I thought some were less successful in their pettiness. The best parts, hands down were those narrated from the perspectives of goddesses. Haynes lets these creatures be exactly as otherworldly and still relatable as the orginal Greek myths describe them; especially Eris was just wonderfully rendered. I admit that those stories that I had the least fondness for, worked best for me – so maybe I was not the perfect reader after all.

My biggest problem, by far, was Haynes’ treatment of Helen though. I admit that I have a fondness for Helen, so this coloured my reaction, but I just did not enjoy the constant Helen-bashing the other characters indulged in – I found this detracted from what the author set out to do (based on her author’s note at the end). More than one character kept referring to her as “that whore” and this seems – I don’t know – petty and unneccessary at best, super lacking in nuance for sure, sexist at worst. Especially when Calliope (who for me at least reads like a direct author stand-in) admits to being interested in all the women’s stories, except for Helen’s, “who bores her”. I am trying to not blame the book for the marketing it received, but I am unsure whether marketing this as a feminist retelling did it any favours, at least for me.

I wavered between three and four stars for this, but in the end, my pre-existing fondness for the story and the wonderful way she handled the goddesses won out. This is not a book without its flaws but I am glad the longlist finally gave me the push I needed to read this book. I can also only recommend the audiobook, which the author narrates herself, something I always enjoy.

Content warning: It is a myth retelling, so many; the book is however not graphic in its descriptions. Rape (off page mostly), murder, death of loved ones, maiming, slavery.

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

  1. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo (review)
  2. A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes

Not planning on reading: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

 

Review: The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold

41910151._sy475_Verdict: Great world, mediocre writing.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Published by Orbit, February 6th 2020

Find it on Goodreads.

I’m Fetch Phillips, just like it says on the window. There are a few things you should know before you hire me:
1. Sobriety costs extra.
2. My services are confidential – the cops can never make me talk.
3. I don’t work for humans.

It’s nothing personal – I’m human myself. But after what happened, Humans don’t need my help. Not like every other creature who had the magic ripped out of them when the Coda came…
I just want one real case. One chance to do something good.
Because it’s my fault the magic is never coming back.

The Last Smile in Sunder City is a brilliantly voiced fantasy for fans of Ben Aaronovitch, Rotherweird or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, and the debut novel from actor Luke Arnold – known for his lead role in Black Sails!

I should have loved this. The world Luke Arnold created here (post-magic, well-thought-out, imaginative) is absolutely brilliant. I adore stories that deal with the fall-out of an event that fundamentally alters the laws of the physical world (see N. K. Jemisin’s books and Robert Jackson Bennett’s The Divine Cities trilogy for excellent examples) and this book does this incredibly – on a world-building level. I got the impression that Arnold’s imagination is endless and the way in which he thought out how this sudden disappearence of magic would influence different magical races worked really well for me. I also really like mysteries set in an urban fantasy kind of epic fantasy world. Sunder City is a brilliantly done fantasy city, with flavours of a darker Ankh-Morpork. But there were two big kinds of problems I had with this book – one that I think is a problem with the book itself and one which I have to admit has more to do with my own reading tastes.

First for the more “objective” criticism I had: I found the writing clumsy. This showed itself mostly in a pacing that was, frankly, abysmal. The story moved in fits and bursts to suddenly coming to an absolute standstill, with the backstory and the world-building integrated in heavy, heavy info-dumps. While it did not bother me as much as it could have if the word hadn’t been as fascinating, it led to the book feeling much longer than it actually was. The writing is also clumsy on a sentence-by-sentence level and filled with odd descriptions that took me out of my reading flow (examples: “My boots sucked up mud like hungry dogs in a pit of peanut-butter…”, “Thick smoke tunneled through my nose like an escaped prisoner…” or my personal favourite “The future of […] looked darker than a blackbird’s shadow at midnight”).

But ultimately my main issue with this book came down to the main character: Fetch Philipps is everything that annoys me with male protagonists in noir type stories. He is a guilt-ridden, alcoholic, direction-less, and unpleasant private investigator who is not snarky or intelligent enough to be interesting. He is also weirdly indistinct as a main character – he reads super young in the flashbacks and middle aged in present time, he reacts more to what is going on than being a more active player, his motivations are deeply selfish until they suddenly aren’t, and his narration never became a distinct voice for me (and additionally, I found it fairly male gaze-y). I admit that this has a lot more to do with my own reading tastes but he really did rub me the wrong way. He is also, and this is a petty issue, disgusting – there were a few scenes where he behaves in a weirdly disgusting way in order to intimidate (?) people (like when he downs the drink the bartender he is questioning spit in or when he drinks from an open bottle although other people informed him there were flies swimming in there).

Content warning: trauma, loss of a loved one, alcoholism, substance abuse

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

 

 

Review: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

41081373._sy475_Verdict: Really quite brilliant.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published by Hamish Hamilton, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

Teeming with life and crackling with energy — a love song to modern Britain and black womanhood

Girl, Woman, Other follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years.

Joyfully polyphonic and vibrantly contemporary, this is a gloriously new kind of history, a novel of our times: celebratory, ever-dynamic and utterly irresistible.

I am late to the party with this one – and I am so glad I can finally rave with the rest of the world. I thought this book was all kinds of wonderful. Told in four trios of what some have called short stories (though I would not necessarily agree with that assessment), Evaristo has written a snapshot of Britain in a way that I have not read before. She focusses on the interlinked lives of eleven black women and one black non-binary person in a way that worked exceedingly well for me. The book is much more a character study of these brilliantly drawn people than it is plot-driven, but I loved spending time with all of these women.

The first trio of stories remained my favourite until the end, particularly the very first story focussing Amma – I found her endlessly fascinating and her relationships to her daughter (second story) and best friend (third story) painfully realistic. Painfully realistic is in general how I would describe this book – it is in parts hard to read but it does remain a thread of hope without being sentimental. Most of that is down to how flawed and real Evaristo lets her characters be. She does not shy away from depicting these women behaving atrociously, often without realising. I do have to admit that the really flawed parental relationships became harder to stomach for me as time went on.

The language is another big draw here. I listened to the audiobook which gave the book a more non-fictiony type of feeling – but the way Evaristo’s language just flows is impressive nonetheless. Looking at quotes it seems like the language looks a lot more experimental when seen written on a page – I will have to reread this book eventually in print to see how different the experience is.

I loved this book a whole lot – everything about it just ticked a lot of my boxes. I was sad to be done with it and to not be able to spend time with this incredible cast of women. If this does not make the Women’s Prize longlist, I will be very sad.

Content warning: miscarriage, still birth, child death, sexism, homophobia, racism, spousal abuse, rape, gang rape, forced adoption, post-partum depression