Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney

37539457Verdict: Rooney is a genius.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction

Published by Faber & Faber, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Connell and Marianne grow up in the same small town in rural Ireland. The similarities end there; they are from very different worlds. When they both earn places at Trinity College in Dublin, a connection that has grown between them lasts long into the following years.

This is an exquisite love story about how a person can change another person’s life – a simple yet profound realisation that unfolds beautifully over the course of the novel. It tells us how difficult it is to talk about how we feel and it tells us – blazingly – about cycles of domination, legitimacy and privilege. Alternating menace with overwhelming tenderness, Sally Rooney’s second novel breathes fiction with new life.

I am such a fan of Sally Rooney’s writing and I cannot imagine this changing, ever. The way she constructs her characters is something extraordinary and I am so very glad this book is on the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I needed a brilliant book after some of other nominated books just did not work for me at all. I really hope she’ll make the shortlist.

Told in alternating viewpoints and skipping forward in time, this book chronicles Connell’s and Marianne’s friendship/relationship from their final year in school until shortly after their undergraduate degree. It is both fast-paced and intimate in a way that nearly perfectly catered to my reading preferences. For me the intimacy of her story worked exceedingly well; she narrows her gaze into those two characters in a way that made them near unbearably real for me. Rooney’s prose is readable and without frills but still expertly done to keep me engaged but for me, Rooney’s biggest strength are her characters; they are fully realized and flawed people who I cannot help but root for. Even more so than in her debut novel, she expertly broke my heart. I felt for these two people who keep on missing each other, who just for the life of them cannot communicate effectively, and who still cannot be without each other.

While I think that Conversations With Friends is the stronger of her two novels, both of them are ridiculously well-done and I am glad Rooney gets all the praise she deserves. She is such an exciting voice and I just cannot wait to see what she does next.

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. Normal People by Sally Rooney
  4. Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
  5. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  6. Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn (review)
  7. Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (review)
  8. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (review)
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Review: Conversation With Friends by Sally Rooney

36136386Verdict: This book is everything.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction

Published by Faber & Faber, 2017

Find it on Goodreads.

Frances is twenty-one years old, cool-headed, and darkly observant. A college student and aspiring writer, she devotes herself to a life of the mind–and to the beautiful and endlessly self-possessed Bobbi, her best friend and comrade-in-arms. Lovers at school, the two young women now perform spoken-word poetry together in Dublin, where a journalist named Melissa spots their potential. Drawn into Melissa’s orbit, Frances is reluctantly impressed by the older woman’s sophisticated home and tall, handsome husband. Private property, Frances believes, is a cultural evil–and Nick, a bored actor who never quite lived up to his potential, looks like patriarchy made flesh. But however amusing their flirtation seems at first, it gives way to a strange intimacy neither of them expect. As Frances tries to keep her life in check, her relationships increasingly resist her control: with Nick, with her difficult and unhappy father, and finally even with Bobbi. Desperate to reconcile herself to the desires and vulnerabilities of her body, Frances’s intellectual certainties begin to yield to something new: a painful and disorienting way of living from moment to moment.

I have spent the last days periodically exclaiming “God, what a book” (or more correctly, because I do speak German in my real life, “Gott, was ein Buch!” or “Dieses Buch!”). I am feeling vaguely guilty for having given other books five stars because this book is just so much more than most of those. I am in no way objective in my absolute adoration and I don’t think I can adequately articulate how very brilliant I thought this was, so stick with me while I squeal and talk in superlatives.

I dragged my feet reading this book because the reviews are all over the place and it could have been so obnoxious (and some people think it is!): I mean, a book focussing on four fairly privileged young people making themselves miserable? A book where a thirty-something married man starts an affair with a 20-year-old college student? But this book hit me in all the right places. Rooney expertly weaves her tale, her characterization is sharp enough to cut, and her protagonist is a flawed piece of brilliance. Frances grounds this story in a way that worked exceedingly well for me and I found her, while infuriating, insanely relatable and incredibly true to life. Other reviewers have characterized her as unlikable – but I could not disagree more. She behaves stupidly, sure, but she is also lost and sad and sharply book smart while lacking emotional intelligence and I found her so very compelling. She is both the more active part of the relationship while also letting things just happen without taking action. She is incapable of communicating effectively while still being observant.

Rooney also manages something incredible here: she made me feel for the thirty-year-old man sleeping with a much younger woman and lying to his wife. Nick could have been a walking cliché, but Rooney made him so much more well-rounded while never flinching away from the fact that he behaves atrociously. Every single one of the four main characters felt real in a way that fictional characters so rarely do, precisely because Rooney lets them be contradictory and, yes, sometimes unpleasant. But for me this unpleasantness never overshadowed the sympathy I felt for all of them.

I cannot see this book not topping my best of the year list, which on the one hand is great, on the other hand it is only March and I have a whole lot Women’s Prize reading ahead of me. I will read everything Rooney had ever written or will ever write, starting with Normal People when it’ll arrive this weekend.

Recommendations: Adult Fantasy

I have seen a discussion floating around Twitter about that period between being a teenager and being an adult and the difficulty some people face in finding books that speak to them. I have talked about memoirs in this context before as I find that they are a brilliant way of finding books that talk about exactly these experiences. Rachel has also written a brilliant post recommending adult books for young adults, which you should absolutely check out. But today I want to recommend some Adult Fantasy – because there are so many great books in that section that people maybe ignore. I personally have been struggling with YA fantasy because the focus on love stories is just not something I am super interested in, and have been mostly reading adult fantasy.

I also have thoughts about whose books get classified as YA. Hint: Not those written by men. Coming-of-age stories are a staple in adult fantasy, be it Lord of the Rings or The Name of the Wind. But nobody calls these books YA. But when a young woman writes fantasy suddenly people insist on calling it YA. Case in point: R. F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, which is decidedly NOT YA and super gruesome in parts. The author received some weird backlash when she insisted that her book really, really, really is not YA and should be treated as such. So I would politely ask everybody to think about their assumptions when it comes to placing books in the YA section in their heads.

Urban Fantasy:

The Rivers of London Series by Ben Aaronovitch

9317452I love this series with all my heart. The main character is in his mid-twenties and working as a police man when he stumbles upon the supernatural underbelly of contemporary London. The books are hilarious and self-aware, the cast of characters is diverse and wonderfully drawn, and reading these books just makes me happy. The seventh book is due to come out this month and I cannot wait to hold it in my hands.

The Kate Daniels Series by Ilona Andrews

7940930I went through a ridiculous binge of these books earlier this year and only have the last book in the series left to read. Kate is a wonderful protagonist who I am always rooting for. She is in her early twenties when the series begins and working as a private investigator, trying to just live her life and not get emotionally involved with anybody. I have rarely been as invested in a relationship as I am in hers and Curran (even if he is a bit of an ass sometimes) and love the strong emphasis on friendship these books have at their core. I have also recently read another series by Ilona Andrews which I also whole-heartedly recommend.

High Fantasy:

The Broken Earth trilogy by N. K. Jemisin

19161852I adore this. I don’t even have all that many words to describe how utterly perfect I think this series is. N. K. Jemisin might be my all-time favourite author and I am dragging my feet to read the last of her series that I haven’t read yet because then I would have to wait for new books to appear. The first book is told from three perspectives following three women of different ages and their struggles. It grapples with growing up and family and racism and the end of the world. The themes of family at the core of this series really broke my heart.

The Divine Cities trilogy by Robert Jackson Bennett

25452717The protagonists of this series are on the older end – and I absolutely loved this. They still are looking for their place in the world and they try to be good people (and sometimes fail at this).The characters rebel against their families’ expectations in a way that I found highly relatable. Bennett’s language is assured, his characterization on point, and his world-building intricate.

Standalones:

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

27313170Sitting just at the edge between fantasy and science fiction, this is basically a coming-of-age story, focussing on the friendship between a witch and a scientist. There are strong themes of family and friendship, on doing the right thing as opposed to the easy thing, and of identity and self. The characters in this book are different and wonderful. Anders’ imagination is dazzling and I cannot wait for her new book coming out in January 2019.

Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore

33571217Milo is an old soul, literally – he has lived 9995 lives so far and has yet to achieve perfection. In fact he isn’t even sure he wants to achieve perfection as he is in love with Death (or rather a Death – Suzie). This has to change when he is informed that every soul has in fact only 10000 lives to get it right or it will be erased. This a book, at its core, about finding your place in the world and about being the best person you can be. And I can think of few things more relevant to me.

What are your favourite adult fantasy novels that might be interesting to people trying to find their way into the genre?

Thoughts: Authors whose next work I am eagerly anticipating

I follow very few authors religiously. Even if I adore a book by an author, I am not always all that great at picking up other books the author has written. That said, there are a few authors whose next work I am eagerly anticipating. (My inspiration for this post was a similar post done by Zuky, whose blog you should definitely check out if you aren’t following her already)

13922215Katherine Arden

I adored the first two books in her Winternight trilogy and cannot wait for the last book in the series. I am just a huge fan of her writing style and the wonderful sense of place she invokes. That I am a sucker for stories set in the north of Russia certainly didn’t hurt.

Megan Stielstra

Her essay collection The Wrong Way to Save Your Life was one of my favourite books of last year. I have since read and adored her first essay collection and cannot wait to see what she does next. I also own her short story collection but am kind of too scared to pick that up and not have any of her books left to read.

Amber Sparks

She has written one of my all-time favourite short story collections and another one that was similarly great. I follow her on twitter and everything she posts about the collection she is working on sounds absolutely brilliant.

8446300Scott Hawkins

The Library at Mount Char was just so very brilliant and different and just SO much my cup of tea that I have been waiting for a new book by the author ever since. I am starting to give up on that hope because there have not been any news for ages now. That would be such a shame though!

3192838Melissa Broder

I know that I am probably already boring you all with how much of a Melissa Broder fan I am – but there is just somethin so very brilliant about her writing. Having now read both her memoir and her debut novel, I can confidently say that I will be reading everything she writes next.

What are some of the authors whose next work you are eagerly anticipating?

 

Review: Foundryside (The Founders #1) by Robert Jackson Bennett

9781786487865 (4)Verdict: Slow to start, brilliant second half.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Genre: Fantasy

Published by Jo Fletcher Books, August 23rd 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

The city of Tevanne runs on scrivings, industrialised magical inscriptions that make inanimate objects sentient; they power everything, from walls to wheels to weapons. Scrivings have brought enormous progress and enormous wealth – but only to the four merchant Houses who control them. Everyone else is a servant or slave, or they eke a precarious living in the hellhole called the Commons.

There’s not much in the way of work for an escaped slave like Sancia Grado, but she has an unnatural talent that makes her one of the best thieves in the city. When she’s offered a lucrative job to steal an ancient artefact from a heavily guarded warehouse, Sancia agrees, dreaming of leaving the Commons – but instead, she finds herself the target of a murderous conspiracy. Someone powerful in Tevanne wants the artefact, and Sancia dead – and whoever it is already wields power beyond imagining.

Sancia will need every ally, and every ounce of wits at her disposal, if she is to survive – because if her enemy gets the artefact and unlocks its secrets, thousands will die, and, even worse, it will allow ancient evils back into the world and turn their city into a devastated battleground.

I am such a huge fan of Robert Jackson Bennett’s style of fantasy, I practically jumped when I realized he has a new series starting this year. This book featured prominently on my most anticipated releases list and I am happy to report that I enjoyed it a whole lot, for the most part. I have spent the better part of two weeks trying to come up with a way to review this book. I am such a huge fan of Bennett’s work and his ideas and there is in fact a lot to adore here, but I also need to be honest. It took me more than half of this book to really find my groove. It’s not like the first have is bad but my expectations were so very high. And if I didn’t have this much trust in his imagination I might have given up. I am glad I persevered because the pay off really is worth it.

What Bennett does best is creating these really unique worlds that feel lived in and plausible and very very well thought out. Here he gives us a spin on industrialized (and monopolized) magic with just the right amount of mysticism to be exciting and new. He does set up his world a little too well though in the beginning, the info-dump did start to grate and I am not sure I need to be reminded of the magic system’s rules as often as I was here (this is something that bores me in a lot of very descriptive high fantasy though, so you probably should take my opinion with a grain of salt). When everything came together though, I was very glad for him to have taken his time establishing the world because those last 50 pages? They were pure perfection. I cannot wait where this goes next.

Another thing I appreciate about Bennett’s writing is the way his female character feel properly realized and wonderfully easy to root for. I wanted Sancia to be happy so bad and I love how authentic she felt. I like that she her behaviour always made sense in relation to what we as readers know of her. Gregor on the other hand did feel for too long like a cartoon character but again, the pay off here was really worth it in the end. Bennett has really interesting things to say about agency and fate and I am so here for this.

I received this arc courtesy of NetGalley and Quercus Publishing/ Jo Fletcher Books in exchange for an honest review.

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Review: Delicate Edible Birds by Lauren Groff

10153529Verdict: Stunning.

My rating: 4,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, Fiction

Published by Windmill Books, 2009

Find it on Goodreads.

Lauren Groff’s critically acclaimed “The Monsters of Templeton” was shortlisted for the Orange Broadband Award for New Writers 2008, and critics hailed her as an enormous talent and a writer to watch. In “Delicate Edible Birds”, she fulfils that promise. “Delicate Edible Birds” includes nine stories of vastly different styles and structures. “L. De Bard and Aliette” recreates the tale of Abelard and Heloise in New York during the 1918 flu epidemic; “Lucky Chow Fun” returns to Templeton, the setting of Groff’s debut novel, for a contemporary account of what happens to outsiders in a small, insular town; the title story of “Delicate Edible Birds” is a harrowing, powerfully moving drama about a group of war correspondents, a lone woman among them, who fall prey to a frightening man in the French countryside while fleeing the Nazis. With a dazzling array of voices and settings, “Delicate Edible Birds” will cement Lauren Groff’s reputation as one of the foremost talents of her generation.

I love Lauren Groff. And I am trying to be better about reading other books authors I love have written, so I am currently making my way through her back catalogue and I am seriously happy about it. I think I liked this short story collection even more than her new one (which I reviewed earlier this year) and I enjoyed that one immensely. But this collection here just blew me away.

I am in awe of Lauren Groff’s command of language – every single sentence ist perfectly done while not making the writing sound clinical but rather organic and captivating. I also really like the way she structures her stories – they never felt like they were working towards a punchline but rather their endings were perfectly done. Some stories I would have loved to spend more time with but I mean that as a compliment.

I do have the same problem with these short stories that I had with Groff’s second collection: I am not too keen on her descriptions of overweight bodies; and the fixation on weight did not always work for me. I cannot quite put my finger on why I think she does this, but I do wish she stopped focussing on weight so much. But for me it never crossed the line into problematic territory and as such is not enough to ruin my enjoyment of these brilliant short stories.

My favourite of the bunch is the last story “Delicate Edible Birds” – I loved it so much I considered giving the collection 5 stars because it ended on such a high note. Set during the Second World War (which I usually am not too keen on), this story is told from different perspectives of a group of journalists fleeing Paris on the eve of its occupation. It was harrowing and wonderful and absolutely beautifully written. Bern, the female main character, was so absolutely brilliant, I wish there was a whole book about her.

Review: Ayiti by Roxane Gay

36739756Verdict: I was always going to love it. I mean, it’s Roxane Gay.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, General Fiction

Published by Grove Atlantic, June 12th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

In Ayiti, a married couple seeking boat passage to America prepares to leave their homeland. A young woman procures a voodoo love potion to ensnare a childhood classmate. A mother takes a foreign soldier into her home as a boarder, and into her bed. And a woman conceives a daughter on the bank of a river while fleeing a horrific massacre, a daughter who later moves to America for a new life but is perpetually haunted by the mysterious scent of blood.

Surprising absolutely no-one, I loved this. I am a huge Roxane Gay fan and I love her short fiction nearly as much as her non-fiction. This collection of short stories showcasts Gay’s tremendous talent and her brilliant voice. While this cannot quite reach the highs of her second collection (very few things do), I still adored this.

Gay’s stories center around pain. There is no way around that. These stories are grim and dark and very depressing. But she also, always, adds some hope, some light, and does so expertly and brilliantly.

There was not a single story in this collection that I didn’t like, which is very rare for me when it comes to short story collections. I do admit to finding the collection overwhelming in parts because of the grim subject matter and had to take frequent breaks after particularly grueling stories – but never for long because Roxane Gay has a very distinct, very brilliant voice and I cannot imagine a world where I won’t read every single thing she produces. Her observations are sharp and her thoughts on identity and pain and family and loyalty and living are important and necessary and so very very brilliant (I cannot help but speak in superlatives; after all Roxane Gay is one of my very favourite authors).

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