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: Trick Mirror – Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino

44282599._sy475_Verdict: Sharp, rambling, wonderful.

My rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Essay collection

Published by Fourth Estate, August 6th 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

We are living in the era of the self, in an era of malleable truth and widespread personal and political delusion. In these nine interlinked essays, Jia Tolentino, the New Yorker’s brightest young talent, explores her own coming of age in this warped and confusing landscape.

From the rise of the internet to her own appearance on an early reality TV show; from her experiences of ecstasy – both religious and chemical – to her uneasy engagement with our culture’s endless drive towards ‘self-optimisation’; from the phenomenon of the successful American scammer to her generation’s obsession with extravagant weddings, Jia Tolentino writes with style, humour and a fierce clarity about these strangest of times.

Following in the footsteps of American luminaries such as Susan Sontag, Joan Didion and Rebecca Solnit, yet with a voice and vision all her own, Jia Tolentino writes with a rare gift for elucidating nuance and complexity, coupled with a disarming warmth. This debut collection of her essays announces her exactly the sort of voice we need to hear from right now – and for many years to come.

This is an incredibly strong essay collection, brought down by a first essay that did not work for me and made picking this back up difficult for me. But once I finished that first essay, Jia Tolentino gives the reader an incredibly well-structured and presented collection. I know why this was one of my most anticipated reads for this year.

Jia Tolentino writes about many different things but always through a lense of feminism and internet culture – something I particularly adore as a feminist who is very much online. Her essays have a rambling quality that worked exceedingly well for me because I could trust her to pull her different strands of argument back together by the end of each essay. She combines the personal with the political, always underpinning her arguments with quotes and statistics in a highly effective way. This is the type of essay collection I adore.

My absolute favourite essay of this collection is about ecstacy – both the drug and the concept in religion. Tolentino reflects on her own religious upbringing, her relationship to drugs, her discovery of Houston’s hip hop scene, and her experience with god in a way that should not work for me (I am not particularly interested in any of these topics on their own) but that was just incredible. If you are only going to read one essay from this collection, make sure it is this one.

Content warning: discussions of rape culture and rape, bigotry, misogyny, racism.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Fourth Estate 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

Romance Mini Reviews: Let’s be Friends with Benefits

That it took me so long to read three books with this particular trope should tell you that it isn’t my favourite. I am not the biggest fan of miscommunication being the main drive for the angst in a romance novel and this trope mostly seems to rely on it. When it is done right it can be super lovely though and these three books I really enjoyed. Also, for the record, I do believe FwB situations can work.

38324363._sy475_Getaway Girl (Girl #1) by Tessa Bailey

Published 2018

It is no secret that I have been enjoying Bailey’s books a whole lot recently – and this one was no exception. Her writing is just so wonderful that I cannot get enough of it. Elijah has been left on the altar and finds solace in an unlikely friendship with his ex-fiancé’s estranged cousin, Addison. They first become friends and then friends with benefits in a way that felt organic. I love how nice they are to each other. This is one of the more angsty books by Bailey but the ending was absolutely worth it. In typical Tessa Bailey fashion, there is a lot of dirty talking but this time Addison gives at least as good as Elijah – and I loved it. I love when women know what they want and mostly just go for it. Addison was absolutely wonderful anyways.

4 out of 5 stars

Content warning: infidelity (in the past)

44663284._sy475_Relationship Material by Jenya Keefe

Published by Riptide Publishing, August 5th 2019

It’s not always possible to meet in the middle.

Registered nurse Evan Doyle doesn’t consider himself fit for more than occasional hookups. He has a good life, but the emotional aftermath of a horrific crime makes him feel too damaged to date. So when his sister’s hot bestie, Malcolm Umbertini, comes on to him, he turns him down flat. Mal is Relationship Material: the kind who thinks in the long term. What would Evan do with a man like that?

As a prosecuting attorney, Mal’s learned how to read people, and he knows there’s more to Evan than meets the eye. Mal has faced his own hardships since his family kicked him out as a teen, and he respects Evan’s courage and emotional resilience. More than that, he wants Evan—in his bed and in his life. But can he weather another rejection?

Both wary, they agree to a no-strings fling. Mal knows that Evan wants things to stay casual, but he’s falling in love a little more with each encounter. With health, happiness, and bruised hearts on the line, Mal and Evan must risk everything for love.

This book is a lot darker than the blurb makes it sound (see my content warning) but I thought it was still very much worth the read. Evan is deeply traumatized by a truly horrific crime (and living under witness protection) and does not feel up to relationships, especially not with somebody who he considers so very much relationship material. Mal on the other hand falls hard for Evan and is willing to take whatever he is willing to offer him. I thought they were lovely together. I love how open and honest they are with each other about boundaries and how accepting of each others’ trauma.

4 out of 5 stars

Content warning: Rape (in the past), assault (in the past), drug abuse (in the past), PTSD, forced prostitution of a minor (in the past), panic attacks, suicide (in the past), self-harm (in the past)

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

40793943._sy475_Three-Way Split by Elia Winters (2019 RITA Award winner)

Published by Entangled, 2018

I have never read a book with a polyamorous love story at the center and when this book won this year’s RITA Award, I figured this was my time to do so. And I am very glad I did. This was absolutely lovely with its focus on informed and enthusiastic consent, with people who actually communicate about what they want (most of the time at least), and a triad I could believe (who amongst us hasn’t wished a love triangle resolved by the involved parties deciding to all date each other). Ben and Michael (owners of a pub) have been roommates and friends with benefits for years when they both start sleeping with Hannah (owner of a sex shop) who has been flirting but not acting on it with Michael for a year. This book is definitely on the explicit end of the romance to erotica spectrum but it worked for me because the relationships felt believable.

4 out of 5 stars

Content warning: biphobia (always challenged), Ben’s ex-wife reacted badly to him coming out.

 

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: Awayland by Ramona Ausubel

40778923Verdict: Strong start, disappointing second half.

My rating: 3 out of 5 star

Genre: Fabulist short stories

Published by Riverhead, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

An inventive story collection that spans the globe as it explores love, childhood, and parenthood with an electric mix of humor and emotion.

Acclaimed for the grace, wit, and magic of her novels, Ramona Ausubel introduces us to a geography both fantastic and familiar in eleven new stories, some of them previously published in The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Elegantly structured, these stories span the globe and beyond, from small-town America and sunny Caribbean islands to the Arctic Ocean and the very gates of Heaven itself. And though some of the stories are steeped in mythology, they remain grounded in universal experiences: loss of identity, leaving home, parenthood, joy, and longing.

Crisscrossing the pages of Awayland are travelers and expats, shadows and ghosts. A girl watches as her homesick mother slowly dissolves into literal mist. The mayor of a small Midwestern town offers a strange prize, for stranger reasons, to the parents of any baby born on Lenin’s birthday. A chef bound for Mars begins an even more treacherous journey much closer to home. And a lonely heart searches for love online–never mind that he’s a Cyclops.

With her signature tenderness, Ramona Ausubel applies a mapmaker’s eye to landscapes both real and imagined, all the while providing a keen guide to the wild, uncharted terrain of the human heart.

I have been super in the mood for short stories and decided to start with a collection I was sure I would enjoy. Ramona Ausubel’s first collection was one of my favourite books of last year – there is just something about her brand of dark and twisted but whimsy and fantastical short stories that really works for me. And for the first three stories, I was in love and sure this would be another 5 star collection – but I didn’t love many of the stories that came after.

When Ausubel’s stories work for me, they are exactly in my sweet spot for short stories: dark and mean and filled with allusions to mythology; stories that deal with motherhood and being a daughter; they are challenging without being inaccessible; lyrical without being overly wordy. My absolute favourite story of this collection was “Fresh Water from the Sea” – both an exploration of the distinct feeling of returning to a country one has emigrated from and an exploration of the complicated relationship between a mother and one of her daughters influenced by this emigration. On the other hand, when they don’t work for me I find them vague and the weirdness off-putting; I also start to stumble over her sentence structure that I loved in other stories. In the story “Club Zeus” all the things I loved about the very first story of the collection (“You Can Find Love Now” about a cyclops setting up a profile on a dating app) – whimsical but dark allusions to mythology – really rubbed me the wrong way. I could just not get on board with the story at all.

Content warning: suicide, death, incest, pedophilia, in one story a woman has this idea of getting a doctor to surgically attach her hand to her husband’s arm and vice versa