Recommendations: Books told (at least in parts) from a you-perspective

I realized a few months ago, that I often discuss the narrative style in my reviews – and that I have distinct preferences when it comes to it. One thing I adore above most other things is a well-done second person singular narration. When this (difficult) voice is done well, I am very likely to have found a new favourite book. This is, however, not something I encounter very often in literature, so I wanted to recommend the books I have read in this style and hope to get recommendations in return (mostly this if I am being honest).

36396289Everything Under by Daisy Johnson

My favourite of last year’s Booker longlist (I didn’t read super many of the books to be fair), I adored pretty much everything about this book. Johnson’s writing is incredible and especially the parts written in second person broke my heart and made me want to read everything she ever writes. This is a myth retelling that maybe works best if you don’t know what myth it retells, although knowing did not stop me from loving it. It is dark and twisted and absolutely stunningly written. My full review is here.

39689872._sx318_A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride

This book is what prompted this post. I thought everything about this book was incredible (even if I didn’t always enjoy my reading experience because it is endlessly bleak and triggering) – but what made my heart hurt the most was the fact that the narrative is addressed to her brother. I adore sibling relationships in books and one this central and tragic was bound to work for me. If you can stomach the subject matter, this is absolutely worth reading (you don’t have to take only my word for it – so far everybody I buddy read this with gave it 4 stars or more). My full review is here.

19161852The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

It wouldn’t be a recommendation post if I didn’t manage to fit at least one books written by Jemisin in. She just is my all-time favourite author. I thought this book and the whole trilogy in fact in an absolute masterpiece. It will be difficult to ever top my reading experience. The second person narration is pitch perfect and Jemisin manages to skillfully pull the rug under me more times than I thought possible. Once everything slots into place it becomes obvious just how damn well this series is constructed. My review is here.

13611052The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I vividly remember my reading experience for this one. I found the atmosphere beyond all-encompassing and the imagination behind this incredible. I am unsure whether I wouldlove it as much now as I did when I read it more than seven years ago, but it has stuck with me. The first chapter already indicated how much I would adore it and the second person narration is a big part of the appeal.

 

Do you like second person narration? What is your favourite book featuring it? I need more!

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Recommendations: Books with “unlikable” female characters

I adore books with difficult female characters – unlikability really works for me when it is done interestingly. I also think that judging a book as lacking because a character is unlikable is a boring critique. I am the first to admit that I need to find characters compelling but compellingness can come from characters being really awful. Weirdly enough, I am way more interested in difficult women than in difficult men – although thinking about it, maybe it’s not so weird after all.

153480Medea by Christa Wolf

One of my absolute favourite books of all time, I adore Wolf’s interpretation of Medea. While she is not as difficult as she is in the original myth, her problems are very much of her own making. She is unapologetically herself and frustratingly so. Wolf tells this story from different perspectives but anchors it in a pitch-perfect characterization of this infamous woman. (in case anybody is looking for more books to read during WiT-month, this one would be a brilliant one to add!)

36136386Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

I adore Frances – but she has been called unlikable by numerous reviewers. She is pretentious and incapable of talking about her feelings, she pursues a married man and lies to her best friend. But she is also clever and hurting and I just felt for her. I don’t think I have to tell anybody here how much I loved this book. (review)

35958295Almost Love by Louise O’Neill

This book gutted me, not least of all because Sarah, the main character, painfully reminded me of myself when I was in my early twenties. Told in two time lines, the Sarah from the present is an awful friend and a pretty terrible partner. But it is past-Sarah, the one who is in a toxic relationship that I related to, too much maybe. My review got a lot more personal than they usually are.

19161852The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin

One of my all-time favourite books, one I practically adore every thing of, is made even more brilliant by how difficult Jemisin lets her main character, Essun, be. She is abrasive and single-minded, she feels no need to smooth her edges, and I loved her for it. The series is, amongst other things, a rumination on motherhood and growing up. Essun is horrible towards her daughter in a way that she thinks is necessary – and the inevitable conclusion to the trilogy broke my heart and made me a life long fan. (review)

37590570The Pisces by Melissa Broder

This book. I have not been able to stop thinking about it since reading an early copy last year. I adore everything about this – but most of all Lucy. She is pretty horrible a lot of the time but I also couldn’t help but root for her. It helps that she is super funny in her meanness and really lost underneath her swagger. I also loved reading Broder’s memoir So Sad Today (review) which gave me a whole different appreciation for Lucy, who definitely, at least in parts, is based on Broder herself. Another reason why dismissing the main character simply as “unlikable” doesn’t work here. (review)

36332136The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

I only recently finished this but I want to keep shouting from the rooftops how brilliant I thought this was. Told from different perspectives, I personally most adored Willa’s third person narration. Willa is prickly and awful and so very very brilliantly drawn. Her mask of the perfect suburban wife crumbles pretty quickly but her layers are revealed in a perfectly measured speed. (review)

What are your thoughts on unlikability? Do you have any recommendations for me?

 

 

 

Best Books of 2019 (at the halfway point)

I wasn’t going to do a post like this because I thought my reading year hadn’t been that great – turns out, I actually read quite a few books I loved and really felt like sharing those. I gave seven books 5 stars so far or 10% of my reading – which is pretty normal for me but still surprised me because my reading year has been feeling distinctly mediocre for some reason. I could only narrow it down to six books for this list though (I would have prefered a list of five but just could not do it). Below are the books in order of when I read them (I couldn’t rank them just yet but will do so when my end of the year wrap ups come around).

36332136The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

I adored this. Everything about this retelling of Beowolf set in suburbia really worked for me. Maria Dahvana Headley has a wonderful way with words, the rhythm of her language enthralled me, her flawed and kind of awful female characters excited me, but it is her play with different perspectives (mixing first person with third person and complimenting this with a chorus-like first person plural) that made this an instant favourite for me. I am nothing if not predictable. (Review)

36136386Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

I am sorry if I have become a Sally Rooney fan blog. But she really is just that brilliant.

I don’t think I need to talk about this book anymore. I have been shouting its praise from the rooftops for months and I recently finished my reread of it. Everything about this works for me. (Review)

38470229The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

This was my favourite of the Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlisted books – and I was just so very pleased to have finally loved a book (I was a bit of the grinch of our Women’s Prize group chat and I love loving books much more than snarking about them). Parker’s retelling of the Illiad from Briseis’ perspective broke my heart and excited me. I found Briseis’ endlessly fascinating and loved how Barker constructed a character that was allowed to be flawed and surprising while remaining true to the heart of the myth. Her take on Achilles also really worked for me. (Review)

29774026The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

I loved Shannon’s female centric take on a classic epic fantasy novel. I am usually of the opinion that no book needs to be longer than 400 pages but I was hooked for all 800 pages of this. Shannon carefully puts her pieces into place and builds towards a wonderful whole; her characters are wonderful: all are flawed, some are better humans than others, all are compelling. In books with many perspectives there are usually a few that don’t work as well for me but here I wanted to spend time with every single one on them and needed to know what happens next. (Review)

37920490Storm of Locusts (The Sixth World #2) by Rebecca Roanhorse

The first book in the series reignited my love for urban fantasy – and the sequel was even more incredible. I just love Roanhorse’s worldbuilding, and her prickly main character, and her language, and her imagination, and basically everything about this. I did the thing again, where I read the book as soon as it came out and now I have to wait for who knows how long until I can read the next book in the series. (Review)

38391059The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy #3) by Katherine Arden

I love this series with all my heart – and I have a particular soft spot for it because it is the first series where I got all books as review copies while they were coming out. Katherine Arden has a very particular style of sentence structure that just makes me happy; it is recognizably hers while mirroring traditional fairy tales in the best possible way. I cannot wait for her next adult series – I will be reading whatever she decides to do next.

What was your favourite of the year so far?

Review: The Mere Wife by Maria Dahvana Headley

36332136Verdict: Breathtakingly beautiful.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction, Retelling, Fantasy(ish)

Published by Macmillan Audio, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Two mothers—a suburban housewife and a battle-hardened veteran—struggle to protect those they love in this modern retelling of Beowulf

From the perspective of those who live in Herot Hall, the suburb is a paradise. Picket fences divide buildings—high and gabled—and the community is entirely self-sustaining. Each house has its own fireplace, each fireplace is fitted with a container of lighter fluid, and outside—in lawns and on playgrounds—wildflowers seed themselves in neat rows. But for those who live surreptitiously along Herot Hall’s periphery, the subdivision is a fortress guarded by an intense network of gates, surveillance cameras, and motion-activated lights.

For Willa, the wife of Roger Herot (heir of Herot Hall), life moves at a charmingly slow pace. She flits between mommy groups, playdates, cocktail hour, and dinner parties, always with her son, Dylan, in tow. Meanwhile, in a cave in the mountains just beyond the limits of Herot Hall lives Gren, short for Grendel, as well as his mother, Dana, a former soldier who gave birth as if by chance. Dana didn’t want Gren, didn’t plan Gren, and doesn’t know how she got Gren, but when she returned from war, there he was. When Gren, unaware of the borders erected to keep him at bay, ventures into Herot Hall and runs off with Dylan, Dana’s and Willa’s worlds collide.

A retelling of Beowulf set in the suburbs, Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife turns the epic on its head, recasting the classic tale of monstrosity and loss from the perspective of those presumed to be on the attack.

This was absolutely breathtaking. Again I am finding myself in the situation that a book is so very custom-made for me that my review will definitely not be objective in the least. There was very little chance of me not loving this – and I knew this after the first chapter. Maria Dahvana Headley had me hooked. This was incredible, so as usual in such cases, this will be a review filled with superlatives.

Maria Dahvana Headley loosely retells Beowolf but in the best possible way: setting it in today’s suburbia against the backdrop of an unnamed war abroad; I found it worked brilliantly but as I haven’t read Beowolf (although I did read the wikipedia summary in preparation for this book) I cannot speak to its success as a retelling. The fantastical elements are rendered in a way which makes in unclear what is real and what isn’t. I found the reading experience disorienting and claustrophobic (I mean this as an absolute positive).

The book mainly focuses on two women: Dana, a traumatized ex-soldier living off the grid with her son Gren, and Willa who is aiming to be the perfect suburban wife to her plastic surgeon husband and her son Dylan. These two women are one of the high points of this altogether impressive book. They are both flawed but compelling in the best possible way. They rage against the unfairness of their lives while simultaneously inflicting unfairness onto their sons. Willa especially was just my favourite kind of character: she is awful but has her reasons, she is believable while still being interesting, and her voice was impeccably done.

The way in which the Maria Dahvana Headley plays with voices and perspectives was another part that worked as if it had been written with me in mind. She mixes first person (for Dana) with close third person (for Willa) and passages rendered in a we-perspective (the mothers), always making careful use of repetition and imagery. Her sentences are breathtaking and the way her language flows just made my heart hurt while never sacrificing the emotional core of her work. I might have found a new favourite author.

Content warning: PTSD, war, loss of limbs and eyes, death (of children and spouses), animal hunting, miscarriage, abortion; (I am more unsure than usual if I mentioned everything, so if you have a specific trigger, please let me know so I can tell you)

This was the first book I read for my five star predictions.

Review: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

38470229Verdict: Incredible.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction, myth retelling

Published by Penguin Audio, 2018.

Find it on Goodreads.

The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman: Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman watches and waits for the war’s outcome: Briseis. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms until Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army.

When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and coolly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position to observe the two men driving the Greek forces in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate, not only of Briseis’s people, but also of the ancient world at large.

Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war–the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead–all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker’s latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives–and it is nothing short of magnificent.

I am in love. Nearly everything about this book worked for me. While I do think that parts of that are due to the fact that it hits a lot of sweet spots of mine, I also think it really is an incredible achievement. I adore the story of the Trojan War though – so this was probably always going to work for me.

Pat Barker sets out to give a voice to Briseis, whose importance in the Trojan War cannot be overstated but who remains mostly voiceless in the Iliad. Briseis narrates the vast majority of the book and I found her voice compelling and incredibly well realized. The audiobook narrator (Kristin Atherton) was pitch-perfect in a way that wonderfully added to my listening experience.

Perhaps my favourite part of this book I adore for many reasons is Barker’s treatment of agency here. Agency and fate are at the heart of the original myth and I think this is really where her retelling shines. Obviously, Briseis’ agency is taken away and it is the thing she suffers most from. So much that the rapes and the humiliation and all the other horrible things happening to her seem to not even register for her (which I find very interesting as a narrative choice!). But even Achilles has very little agency in the grand scheme of things (an idea that Barker very heavily leans into and that I found very interesting). And when he does have choices he consistently does the wrong thing – until his agency is taken away again.

Briseis is a wonderfully realized character: I adore that Barker allows our first glimpse of her to be an ambivalent one, she has unkind thoughts and seems fairly self-involved while also trying to be a good person and loving her brothers. I find that a lot more interesting than perfect characters. Still, overall Briseis shows kindness and strength in the way she deals with her experience and her relationships to the other women in the Greek camp are beautifully done. Briseis’ part is told in first person and as such we follow her intimately in a way that Achilles’ third person narration does not achieve (a brilliant narrative decision). I appreciated this choice a lot: in a way Achilles is the one who remains voiceless and whose more humanizing behaviour is forgotten and only his awfulness is remembered (in this fictional universe where the Iliad is a historical text).

In short, I loved this. A lot. I find it a super interesting text in the way it deals with feminist issues in a way that more closely mirrors traditional myths and I adore that Barker lets the main characters behave in way that is maybe more unconventional for the modern reader but that makes perfect sense in the (pseudo-) historical context.

Content warning: rape, death, mutilation, physical abuse, slavery

 

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. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
  4. Normal People by Sally Rooney (review)
  5. Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
  6. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (review)
  7. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  8. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (review)
  9. Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn (review)
  10. Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli (DNF)
  11. Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (review)
  12. Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li (review)
  13. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (review)

Review: Storm of Locusts (The Sixth World #2) by Rebecca Roanhorse

37920490Verdict: Damn.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Post-Apocalyptic/ Fantasy.

Published by Saga Press, April 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

It’s been four weeks since the bloody showdown at Black Mesa, and Maggie Hoskie, Diné monster hunter, is trying to make the best of things. Only her latest bounty hunt has gone sideways, she’s lost her only friend, Kai Arviso, and she’s somehow found herself responsible for a girl with a strange clan power.

Then the Goodacre twins show up at Maggie’s door with the news that Kai and the youngest Goodacre, Caleb, have fallen in with a mysterious cult, led by a figure out of Navajo legend called the White Locust. The Goodacres are convinced that Kai’s a true believer, but Maggie suspects there’s more to Kai’s new faith than meets the eye. She vows to track down the White Locust, then rescue Kai and make things right between them.

Her search leads her beyond the Walls of Dinétah and straight into the horrors of the Big Water world outside. With the aid of a motley collection of allies, Maggie must battle body harvesters, newborn casino gods and, ultimately, the White Locust himself. But the cult leader is nothing like she suspected, and Kai might not need rescuing after all. When the full scope of the White Locust’s plans are revealed, Maggie’s burgeoning trust in her friends, and herself, will be pushed to the breaking point, and not everyone will survive.

Rebecca Roanhorse does not pull any punches. From the very first page I was hooked again and her story keeps its relentless pace until the very end while still spending enough time with the characters for them to develop and for the scenes to hit the emotional notes they are supposed to hit. This was, quite simply, incredible. Now, I know I am far from an impartial judge, given that the first book in the series reignited my love for Urban Fantasy, but believe me when I tell you, that this second book was even better than the first and seriously impressive.

Picking back up a few weeks after the events of the first book, this book delivers on all the promise Roanhorse’s world showed. I adore the matter-of-factness of a world not based on the usual fantasy fair but thoroughly different. Roanhorse trusts her (non-Native) readers to figure out stuff on their own in a way that I found refreshing – and I am sure for Native readers this book delivers on a whole different level. The worldbuilding is as intricate and immersive as before and this time around I thought the characters were equally interesting. I loved the addition of Ben who brings out a side of Maggie we hadn’t seen before in a way that made her more well-rounded while not changing anything about what we knew of her (something that I find particularly intriguing in books). I loved the way in which Rissa and Maggie dealt with their complicated relationship and I loved the themes of found family (obviously). Kai is not my favourite but even he got some really brilliant scenes.

I thought that Roanhorse impressively plays with themes of agency and destiny in a way that makes me very excited to see where this story goes next. I am a big fan of stories that ruminate on the role of human action in worlds dominated by gods – and Roanhorse gives the reader just enough of a glimpse of what is yet to come that I am beyond thrilled by the direction she chose to take her story.

I always find reviews of five-star books difficult without falling back onto superlatives, but I really loved this in a way I haven’t loved very many books this year. If you like fantasy at all, I urge you to check out this series.

I read this as part of Wyrd and Wonder, a month long fantasy readalong I am trying to participate in. You can find the sign-up post here where you can find all necessary information.