Review: Putney – Sofka Zinovieff

40022793Verdict: Stressful, blood boiling, very very good but also frustrating.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing (UK & NZ), July 12th, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

It is the 1970s and Ralph, an up-and-coming composer, is visiting Edmund Greenslay at his riverside home in Putney to discuss a collaboration. Through the house’s colourful rooms and unruly garden flits nine-year-old Daphne – dark, teasing, slippery as mercury, more sprite than boy or girl. From the moment their worlds collide, Ralph is consumed by an obsession to make Daphne his.

But Ralph is twenty-five and Daphne is only a child, and even in the bohemian abandon of 1970s London their fast-burgeoning relationship must be kept a secret. It is not until years later that Daphne is forced to confront
the truth of her own childhood – and an act of violence that has lain hidden for decades.

This book made me mad, it made me anxious, it stressed me out with no end – and I could not stop reading it (I mean, except for frequent breaks to calm down). My Kindle died halfway through this book and I finished it on my laptop, which should give you an indication of how much I needed to get to the end.

This is story of Ralph and Daphne’s developing ‘relationship’, only that Ralph is 25 and Daphne is nine when they meet. Told in flashbacks from three different perspectives, Ralph’s, Daphne’s, and her best friend Jane’s, this story spans nearly 40 years. The book is unflinching it its portrayal; the characters are fully formed and human, which makes reading it all the more gruelling (for me at least).  Ralph is despicable, but (of course) doesn’t see himself that way and reading about his justifications for his actions made me sick to my stomach. His characterisation is extremely well done and shows the brilliance of this book. Daphne is equally compelling and you feel sorry for her while wanting to shake her. I personally would have loved to spend more time with her because I found her inner workings the most fascinating. Jane’s perspective did not always quite work for me but I can see how it was needed to give a bit of an outside perspective on the immorality of the ‘relationship’.

Overall, the characters are what makes this book shine but there were other strengths as well. I admire Sofka Zinovieff’s willingness to tell this story and found it provoking but needed. This novel deals with memory and its unreliability in a truly excellent way. She also deftly handles other topics such as mental health, classism, and female friendship. The framing of this story was very successful to me as somebody who loves stories jumping between different time periods in somebody’s life.

I did feel the need to take a shower after this book, because even though the sex is never gratuitously described, spending this much time in a creep’s head made my skin crawl. I am also not the biggest fan of some of the narrative decisions towards the end and thus was glad to have finished it. I am also very glad to have read it though.

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

 

Review: Florida by Lauren Groff

36098092Verdict: Meticulously structured, deeply depressing, brilliant sense of place.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Published by Random House UK, Cornerstone, June 5th 2018

Genre: General Fiction, Short Stories

Find it on Goodreads.

Lauren Groff is a writer of rare gifts, and Florida – her first new book since her ‘clear the ground triumph’ Fates and Furies (Washington Post) – is an electrifying, expanding read.

Over a decade ago, Groff moved to her adopted home state of Florida. The stories in this collection span characters, towns, decades, even centuries, but Florida – its landscape, climate, history and state of mind – becomes their gravitational centre. Storms, snakes and sinkholes lurk at the edge of everyday life, but the greater threats and mysteries are of a human, emotional and psychological nature.

Groff’s evocative storytelling and knife-sharp intelligence first transport the reader, then jolt us alert with a crackle of wit, a wave of sadness, a flash of cruelty, as she writes about loneliness, rage, family and the passage of time. With shocking accuracy and effect, Groff pinpoints the moments and decisions and connections behind human pleasure and pain, hope and despair, love and fury – the moments that make us alive. Vigorous, startling, precise and moving, Florida is a magnificent achievement.

Any book called “Florida” needs to be infused by a thorough sense of place and Lauren Groff does just that. I have been a fan since LOVING Fates and Furies a few years back and have been meaning to pick up more of her books and this very strong collection of short stories has cemented her place in my heart.

While not every story is set in Florida, Groff’s protagonists all have a connection to that place, a connection they sometimes strain against and sometimes welcome. Her protagonists are women, depressed and difficult and wonderfully flawed women, often mothers with a difficult and believable relationship to motherhood. I loved the way these women are allowed to be difficult while Groff shines an unflinching spotlight on them and their flaws and the way they are suffocating in their own skin. I adore that theycan be unpleasant while ultimately staying sympathetic. I do wish this unpleasantness did not always also show itself in a disdain for their own and other bodies. Once I noticed that I could not unsee it. I would have liked there to be more variety in their deepest flaws because as it is the fixation on (often overweight) bodies feels unkind and unnecessary.

Lauren Groff is in perfect command of her language; her sentences are sharp in the way that I like them to be in realistic short fiction (comparisons to Roxane Gay came to mind here and that is obviously one of the highest compliments I can give a short story writer). The stories are meticulously structured and surprising while her perfect tone is recognizable in all of them.

Now, excuse me while I buy everything else she has ever written.

I received an arc of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Random House UK, Cornerstone in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Pisces by Melissa Broder

37590570Verdict: Brilliant. Uncomfortable. Vulgar. Funny. Heartbreaking.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Date read: April 4th, 2018

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing, May 3rd 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Lucy has been writing her dissertation about Sappho for thirteen years when she and Jamie break up. After she hits rock bottom in Phoenix, her Los Angeles-based sister insists Lucy housesit for the summer—her only tasks caring for a beloved diabetic dog and trying to learn to care for herself. Annika’s home is a gorgeous glass cube atop Venice Beach, but Lucy can find no peace from her misery and anxiety—not in her love addiction group therapy meetings, not in frequent Tinder meetups, not in Dominic the foxhound’s easy affection, not in ruminating on the ancient Greeks. Yet everything changes when Lucy becomes entranced by an eerily attractive swimmer one night while sitting alone on the beach rocks.

Whip-smart, neurotically funny, sexy, and above all, fearless, The Pisces is built on a premise both sirenic and incredibly real—what happens when you think love will save you but are afraid it might also kill you.

This is not a book for everyone, but it was very much a book for me. I was hooked from the very first page and could not stop thinking about this book in the breaks between reading it (I went on a 4-day hike in-between and would constantly mull over this book while walking). The book starts when Lucy has apparently already hit rock bottom: her boyfriend has left her, her thesis supervisors give her a deadline to finally finish writing the thesis on Sappho she has been working on for years (and in which she does not believe anymore), and she spirals out of control leading to her assaulting her ex and as a result being forced into therapy. Her (much older) sister offers her a job house- and dog-sitting so that maybe she can find her footing again while also attending group therapy. But Lucy is not done spiralling just yet.

Melissa Broder hit a nerve with me here: her descriptions of academia and the slog of a PhD felt on point. Lucy’s thoughts are close to thoughts I have had in the depth of trying to write a thesis – if I started to doubt my dissertation’s main thesis, I am sure I would feel as lost as Lucy does when she realizes she does not believe in her work any more. This coupled with her depression and dependency issues made for a very believable character.

The biggest strength of this very strong book is therefore Lucy. She is unpleasant, deeply so, mean and self-centered while staying believable as a person and ultimately being somebody I could not help but root for, even when she makes one ridiculous decision after the other. She manages to always find the most destructive course of action for any given situation. Her addiction to love (while being emotionally unavailable) is painful to watch, exactly because it is so believable. Her reaction to men is even more unbearable to watch and Melissa Broder captures the awkwardness and heartbreak of bad one-night-stands so very vividly that it made me cringe (and I mean that as a compliment).

I adored this. While I thought the first half was near perfect (funny and sad and poignant and so very very relatable and beyond everything just brilliant), I did think the second half suffered from Broder’s infatuation with her own metaphor. It is a great metaphor, for sure, but not so much that it could sustain the brilliance of the beginning. Still, god, what a book.

First sentence: “I was no longer lonely but I was.”

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

 

 

Review: Happiness by Aminatta Forna

37807353Verdict: Uneven.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Date read: March 28th, 2018

Published by Bloomsbury, April 4th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

London. A fox makes its way across Waterloo Bridge. The distraction causes two pedestrians to collide–Jean, an American studying the habits of urban foxes, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist there to deliver a keynote speech. From this chance encounter, Aminatta Forna’s unerring powers of observation show how in the midst of the rush of a great city lie numerous moments of connection.

Attila has arrived in London with two tasks: to deliver a keynote speech on trauma, as he has done many times before; and to contact the daughter of friends, his “niece” who hasn’t called home in a while. Ama has been swept up in an immigration crackdown, and now her young son Tano is missing.

When, by chance, Attila runs into Jean again, she mobilizes the network of rubbish men she uses as volunteer fox spotters. Security guards, hotel doormen, traffic wardens–mainly West African immigrants who work the myriad streets of London–come together to help. As the search for Tano continues, a deepening friendship between Attila and Jean unfolds.

Meanwhile a consulting case causes Attila to question the impact of his own ideas on trauma, the values of the society he finds himself in, and a grief of his own. In this delicate tale of love and loss, of cruelty and kindness, Forna asks us to consider the interconnectedness of lives, our co-existence with one another and all living creatures, and the true nature of happiness.

I was sure I would adore this book – and I enjoyed plenty of it, but parts left me bored and slightly confused. This is a story of chance and coincidence, of strangers meeting and lives slowly changing – and I loved that aspect of it. But it is also a book about animals in urban places – and that I was not so keen on.

Aminatta Forna tells her story slowly and considerately. I had the impression that every word, every sentence was placed very thoughtfully and carefully. While I can appreciate her craft, I also found it lifeless. Her prose was just not quite sharp enough for me to excuse the rambling nature of her narrative. While it is certainly accomplished, for me something was lacking. And I cannot quite put my fingers on what exactly the missing ingredient was – but as it is  found the overall book less compelling than its many parts.

Part of that has to do with the fact that I found her two protagonists, Attila the psychologist and Jean the biologist, more compelling when they weren’t interacting with each other. I thought Jean’s struggle as a researcher who is missing her son was compelling and interesting (and very close to my heart); Attila’s restlessness and his interesting profession as somebody working with trauma was another highpoint for me – but for some reason I did not find them believable together and I thought their interactions did not ring true to what their characters were on their own (this might very well have been on purpose, I know, showing that they bring out the best in each other but it didn’t really work for me).

There were definite glimpses of brilliance here though. Jean’s interactions with her extended network of rubbish men and security and everybody else walking the streets were wonderful and lovely and absolutely felt true. Her conversations with her son were painful to read but poignant. Attila’s love for his wife was wonderfully drawn and the juxtaposition with his restlessness was incredibly well done. But this brilliance was not quite enough for me to off-set the pages and pages of musings on coyotes and foxes and their changing habitats;a topic that I am very much not interested in at all and that Forna did not manage to make interesting.

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

 

Review: Everything here is beautiful – Mira T. Lee

34262106My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Date read: October 21, 2017

Published by PENGUIN GROUP Viking, 16 January 2018

Verdict: It broke my heart.

Find it on Goodreads.

Two sisters: Miranda, the older, responsible one, always her younger sister’s protector; Lucia, the vibrant, headstrong, unconventional one, whose impulses are huge and, often, life changing. When their mother dies and Lucia starts to hear voices, it’s Miranda who must fight for the help her sister needs — even as Lucia refuses to be defined by any doctor’s diagnosis.

Determined, impetuous, she plows ahead, marrying a big-hearted Israeli only to leave him, suddenly, to have a baby with a young Latino immigrant. She will move with her new family to Ecuador, but the bitter constant remains: she cannot escape her own mental illness. Lucia lives life on a grand scale, until inevitably, she crashes to earth. And then Miranda must decide, again, whether or not to step in — but this time, Lucia may not want to be saved. The bonds of sisterly devotion stretch across oceans, but what does it take to break them?

Told from alternating perspectives, Everything Here Is Beautiful is, at its core, a heart-wrenching family drama about relationships and tough choices — how much we’re willing to sacrifice for the ones we love, and when it’s time to let go and save ourselves.

This book broke my heart. In a million pieces.

At its heart, this novel is about the bond between two sisters (I love that!): Miranda, the older, more responsible one, and Lucia, the younger one who everybody loves. After their mother’s death, Lucia starts to hear voices and spinning out of control, leaving her husband Yonah to have a child with a younger man, Manuel/ Manny, being in and out of hospital, seemingly to get better to then just spiral out of control again. Mira T. Lee tells a complex story, dealing not only with mental illness, but also talking about experiences with immigration (Miranda and Lucia are Chinese-American, Yonah is from Israel and Manny is a illegal immigrant from Ecuador), about finding a home in the world, about finding a way to be happy. If there was one criticism of this book it would be that sometimes the author took on too much and the scope becomes too broad (the story spans different cities in the US, Ecuador, Switzerland, and China…).

What impressed me most was how complex the characters and their interactions were; even when they were at odds with each other, each stayed sympathetic to this reader. The story is told very effectively from alternating viewpoints; each time recontextualizing what happened before and adding even more depth to the story. It takes about a third of the book before the narrative shifts for the first time to Lucia’s viewpoint; everything we see from her point of view is coloured by what we saw before.

Mira T. Lee shows the difficulties of loving a person with mental illnesses, but also how difficult it is to be that person. There is a point in this story where every time Lucia does something Manny cannot understand, he blames her illness, never thinking that maybe he is not innocent in how their relationship evolves (cheating on her when she just had their baby, not understanding why she wants to work when they move to his family in Ecuador, and so on and so forth). Miranda does the same to a lesser extent: in her desire to protect her kid sister she loses sight of the fact that Lucia is still a grown-up who is allowed to make decisions her older sister would not make. She also hopes that just by making sure her sister takes her pills that the situation will be under control, simplifying the complex situation to a dangerous extent.

There are no easy answers in this book, nobody is wholly innocent in how events unfold (except for Lucia’s and Manny’s daughter, obviously), but the characters stay sympathetic throughout, they were believable in their growth and their failures, and absolutely worth spending time with.

First sentences: “A summer day in New Jersey.  A house with a yard. The younger one, four, likes to fold her body over the seat of her swing, observe the world from upside down.”

I received an arc of this book curtesy of NetGalley and PENGUIN GROUP Viking in exchange for an honest review.