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)
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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.

 

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)

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.

Review: Mother Winter by Sophia Shalmiyev

40539185Verdict: I don’t even know.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: Memoir, Creative Non-Fiction

Published by Simon & Schuster, February 12th 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

An arresting memoir equal parts refugee-coming-of-age story, feminist manifesto, and meditation on motherhood, displacement, gender politics, and art that follows award-winning writer Sophia Shalmiyev’s flight from the Soviet Union, where she was forced to abandon her estranged mother, and her subsequent quest to find her.

Born to a Russian mother and an Azerbaijani father, Shalmiyev was raised in the stark oppressiveness of 1980s Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). An imbalance of power and the prevalence of antisemitism in her homeland led her father to steal Shalmiyev away, emigrating to America, abandoning her estranged mother, Elena. At age eleven, Shalmiyev found herself on a plane headed west, motherless and terrified of the new world unfolding before her.

Now a mother herself, in Mother Winter Shalmiyev depicts in urgent vignettes her emotional journeys as an immigrant, an artist, and a woman raised without her mother. She tells of her early days in St. Petersburg, a land unkind to women, wayward or otherwise; her tumultuous pit-stop in Italy as a refugee on her way to America; the life she built for herself in the Pacific Northwest, raising two children of her own; and ultimately, her cathartic voyage back to Russia as an adult, where she searched endlessly for the alcoholic mother she never knew. Braided into her physical journey is a metaphorical exploration of the many surrogate mothers Shalmiyev sought out in place of her own—whether in books, art, lovers, or other lost souls banded together by their misfortunes.

By all accounts, I should have loved this book as it ticks all my boxes; I generally enjoy memoirs written by women and those that focus a mother-daughter relationship particularly, I love memoirs that are told mostly unchronologically and academically, hell, I adored the first sentences (“Russian sentences begin backwards. When I learned English well enough to love it, I realized my inner tongue was running in the wrong direction.”) but somehow this did not translate into me getting on with the book.

Sophia Shalmiyev tells of her relationship with her mother, or rather of her relationship of the hole that her mother left in her life. Drawing on literature and theory and many things in between she attempts to paint a picture of that fundamental loss in her life. Born in Soviet era Leningrad to an abusive father and alcoholic mother, Sophia struggles with the sense of loss incurred by her father kicking out her mother and then later emigrating to the US without her.

I did find her language clumsy but not in a way that improved my reading experience (which odd sentence structure sometimes can do for me as it makes me read slowly and carefully); now, I am not a native speaker so this might very well be a fault with me rather than with the book. For a book this abstract and intensely introspective, I would have liked the language to be sharper and more precise though (something that Maggie Nelson – whose work this has been compared to – does without a fail). There was also an abundance of metaphors here that did not work for me at all and usually took me out of the reading flow (for example: “The decade is a bronze disease patina – the green paste – on a doorbell that rings when you show up, and you do not show up very often.”). In the end, while I am not usually somebody who judges books on a sentence to sentence basis, I seem to have done so with this book, which lost me early with its vagueness in prose and never recaptured my interest.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Simon & Schuster in exchange for an honest review.

 

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

38391059Verdict: Still in love.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy, Re-Telling

Published by Ebury Publishing, January 10 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

One girl can make a difference…

Moscow has burned nearly to the ground, leaving its people searching for answers – and someone to hold accountable. Vasya finds herself on her own, amid a rabid mob that calls for her death, blaming her witchery for their misfortune.

Then a vengeful demon returns, renewed and stronger than ever, determined to spread chaos in his wake and never be chained again. Enlisting the hateful priest Konstantin as his servant, turmoil plagues the Muscovites and the magical creatures alike, and all find their fates resting on the shoulders of Vasya.

With an uncertain destiny ahead of her, Vasya learns surprising truths of her past as she desperately tries to save Russia, Morozko, and the magical world she treasures. But she may not be able to save them all…

I adored this beyond measure.

I am a huge fan of this trilogy, have been ever since reading the very first chapter of the first book. I was both super excited and a bit apprehensive before reading this book – but I didn’t have to worry because Katherine Arden absolutely sticks the landing here. This book is both a great conclusion to this brilliant series as well as a great book in its own right.

What Arden does better than most authors I read is building an atmosphere so immersive I become lost in her (impeccably researched) world. I found reading this book a very rewarding experience and I am definitely a life-long fan. Drawing on Russian fairy tales and real world figures to build a world uniquely her own, Arden tells a story of a girl and her choices. Whatever happens in this book is always filtered through Vasya’s lenses and her destiny and I am in love with this. Vasya is a difficult character but someone I could not help root for. I wanted her to find her place and be happy. She is allowed to be prickly and nurturing, she can be rash and caring, and altogether wonderfully rounded. Her relationship to the Winter King just worked for me in this book (I was not fully on board in the book before) and I really liked the overwhelming tenderness between those two.

I adore how the world becomes more complicated as Vasya grows and the scope increases. Things that seemed very black and white to her in the first book become more ambivalent, people grow while staying true to their characterization, and overall the world becomes ever more believable.

Arden has a very distinct and very beautiful writing style that hints at her influences while being very much her own thing and from the very first chapter I was glad to be back in her capable hands. There is a rhythm to her writing that I find very beautiful and this coupled with a story that wraps up strong makes this a strong contender for my favourite book of this year (I just know it’ll make the list).

Other books in the series:
The Bear and the Nightingale: 5 out of 5 stars
The Girl in the Tower: 4 out of 5 stars

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

Review: Lies Sleeping (Rivers of London #7) by Ben Aaronovitch

36534574Verdict: Great, as always

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Published by Gollancz, November 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

The seventh book of the bestselling Rivers of London urban fantasy series returns to the adventures of Peter Grant, detective and apprentice wizard, as he solves magical crimes in the city of London.

Martin Chorley, aka the Faceless Man, wanted for multiple counts of murder, fraud, and crimes against humanity, has been unmasked and is on the run. Peter Grant, Detective Constable and apprentice wizard, now plays a key role in an unprecedented joint operation to bring Chorley to justice.

But even as the unwieldy might of the Metropolitan Police bears down on its foe, Peter uncovers clues that Chorley, far from being finished, is executing the final stages of a long term plan. A plan that has its roots in London’s two thousand bloody years of history, and could literally bring the city to its knees.

To save his beloved city Peter’s going to need help from his former best friend and colleague–Lesley May–who brutally betrayed him and everything he thought she believed in. And, far worse, he might even have to come to terms with the malevolent supernatural killer and agent of chaos known as Mr Punch….

This is one of my all-time favourite series – and this installment was eagerly awaited and did not disappoint, as usual. There is just something charming and compulsive about this series that makes me very happy.

I won’t write about the plot so much, because doing so invariably would spoil the books that came before (and what twists and turns there were) except to say that I found the way the story went and how some parts wrapped up highly satisfying. I know that there is a novella coming out in a few months (I am so glad!) but except for that I do not know where the story will go next – but wherever it is, I am sure I will be reading it.

The best part, as always, is Peter’s wonderful narration, this time aided by the absolutely brilliant Kobna Holdbrook-Smith who narrates the audiobook to perfection. I felt a bit spoiled, having pre-ordered the paperback and then buying the audiobook but it was definitely worth it. Peter’s tone and his sense of humour are as brilliant as ever – but what I appreciate most is that he is a genuinely good person, always striving to be better. This is something I am always looking forward to in my reading, especially in a genre saturated by anti-heroes, and something I needed at the end of the long year that was 2018.

There were some genuinely heartbreaking and heartwarming scenes in this book (the dancing! It made me teary eyed) and the ending was so very wonderful – I cannot wait for my partner to read this book so that I can squeal at him.

If you like Urban Fantasy and haven’t checked this out, I highly recommend you do – I love Ben Aaronovitch’s mix of police procedural and highly inventive fantasy, his characters are wonderfully drawn and realistically diverse (it is set in present-day London after all), and his storylines (especially the overarching ones) are exciting and well-thought-out.