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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Women’s Prize for Fiction Longlist: Reaction

The longlist is finally here! I am beyond excited and a bit baffled because of the depth excitement. I stayed up yesterday to hear the announcement the moment it went live, something I have never done for a longlist announcement.

My longlist predictions were so wrong, it’s not even funny; I only correctly predicted two books. Of the 16 books on the longlist I have read three, am currently reading one, and three I had never heard of before yesterday. This means that I have an awful lot of reading to do (according to the Goodreads page counts it’s 4023 pages). I will really try to read the longlist but I will definitely DNF the books that don’t work for me.

Without much further ado, here is the longlist in all its glory:

The Silence of the Girls Pat Barker
Remembered Yvonne Battle-Felton
My Sister, the Serial Killer Oyinkan Braithwaite
The Pisces Melissa Broder
Milkman Anna Burns
Freshwater Akwaeke Emezi
Ordinary People Diana Evans
Swan Song Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott
An American Marriage Tayari Jones
Number One Chinese Restaurant Lillian Li
Bottled Goods Sophie van Llewyn
Lost Children Archive Valeria Luiselli
Praise Song for the Butterflies Bernice L. McFadden
Circe Madeline Miller
Ghost Wall Sarah Moss
Normal People by Sally Rooney

My thoughts:

Read: I am beyond thrilled The Pisces by Melissa Broder made the list; it was by far my favourite book of last year and I want more people to read it. In case you need convincing, here is my gushing review for it. I am also happy to see Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi on the list, which I also adored (my review). I was a bit worried that Emezi wouldn’t want to be included as they are non-binary but they are pleased so I am pleased. I am keeping my fingers crossed that people will try to make an effort to use the correct pronouns though (the first glimpse on twitter makes that seem unlikely). The only other book I have read is Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, where I seem to be the only person online to not have enjoyed it all that much (my review) – but others really do, so I am glad for its inclusion.

Currently reading: I have started Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli a while ago and really enjoyed the first few pages but found the prose very wordy – I am excited to see it on the list though because that means there is at least one book I don’t need to hunt down.

Well pleased: I am super excited to get to Normal People by Sally Rooney; I finished Conversations With Friends yesterday and I am so very much in love with it that I will read everything Rooney ever publishes (I spent yesterday periodically exclaiming “What a book!”) – and Normal People sounds brilliant. I am also happy to see both Circe by Madeline Miller and The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker on the list; I adore feminist myth retellings and I have heard great things about both books. I did not think both would make it but I am glad for it. I am also really excited to have an excuse to finally take the plunge and read Milkman by Anna Burns, a book that scares me but also sounds really great. I opted for the audiobook version of this as I have heard listening to the prose makes the book more accessible. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite is another one of the books I did want to read at some point anyways and this is a welcome excuse to prioritize it.

Cautiously optimistic: I requested a review copy of Ordinary People by Diana Evans last year and didn’t get approved but it does sound like a book I could really enjoy. Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott isn’t quite a book I would have picked up on my own but I have heard great things about it. I am not good with books that deal with injustice, but again I have heard brilliant things about An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, so hopefully I will enjoyed it. I hadn’t heard of Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn but it is a short book that actually sounds like it could be my cup of tea.

Slightly pessimistic: While Number One Chinese Restaurant Lillian Li sounds interesting, I have read rather negative reviews of it – however, sometimes my taste is different to Goodreads’ average and I might enjoy this more (after all, The Pisces has a dreadfully low rating as well and that book is perfection). Remembered by Yvonne Battle-Felton could be great but it is also really outside my wheelhouse.

Really dreading: Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden does not sound like my type of book at all – and the blurb includes this: “educational, eye-opening account of the practice of ritual servitude in West Africa.” and I do not really appreciate books that are meant to be educational. I am hoping to be proved wrong.

Overall I am mostly pleased (The Pisces!!!) but also sad for a few notable exclusions. I was really hoping for both My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh and Motherhood by Sheila Heti because I really, really want to read these books. I was also hoping for Women Talking by Miriam Toews because it sounds intriguing but I don’t know whether I’ll get to it without the added push. I also thought there would be more overlap with the Man Booker longlist and would have really liked The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh and Everything Under by Daisy Johnson to get a shout out because I really liked both books and think the authors are awesome.

What are your thoughts? Are you still planning on reading the longlist?

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019: Predictions

I am attempting to read the longlist of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction which is actually the only prize I can see myself even trying to do this for. I am no good at following TBRs and my reading has been heavily slanted towards Fantasy and Non-Fiction these last few months but I do hope to at least give it a good whirl. It is basically going to be a big buddy read with Rachel (whose prediction post you should definitely check out) and I am so looking forward to this.

I have spent altogether too much time on this list already (I started a draft post basically the minute the eligibility period started last year) and then spent the last three weeks narrowing down the list to 16 books. I have no idea if my predictions have any basis in reality or even if all these books are indeed eligible but still, the process has been fun. These are not all books that I hope will make the longlist but those are some that I think have a good chance of making it (some of these books do not sound like my type of book at all, so maybe I am hoping to be wrong).

The first batch are the big names, those that have been nominated for other prizes and/ or have received a fair amount of hype:

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh (I read and loved this and do think its ambiguity would make a lovely addition to the list)

Everything Under by Daisy Johnson (this was my favourite of the books longlisted for the Man Booker and I adored what Johnson did with perspective here).

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (while it does not quite sound like my type of book, it intrigues me enough that I would not be disappointed if it made the list – and it has been mostly positively reviewed)

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker (another of the many feminist myth retellings, I opted for this instead of the more popular Circe – it seems to be closer to the mythological heart of its story)

Motherhood by Sheila Heti (I just really want to read this.)

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh (Moshfegh is an author I am super intrigued by and this novels seems to be her best book yet – and I love books with unapologetically difficult main characters)

Normal People by Sally Rooney (if this doesn’t make the list, then I don’t even know. I am currently reading her debut novel and adoring it without measure and I would love to have an excuse to read this next)

Women Talking by Miriam Toews (everything I hear about this book sounds like it would make the perfect candidate for the long list – plus, I have been so on the fence about it that it would be nice to be convinced one way or the other)

And the second batch are the rest of the books I can see making this list for no reason at all except for a vague feeling of them doing so.

The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell (a multigenerational family drama set in Zambia would make a good counterweight to my more conventionally Western first predictions)

The Binding by Bridget Collins (I do think that at least one of the longer historical fiction books will make the list and this one sounds like something I might actually enjoy)

Orchid and the Wasp by Caoilinn Hughes (this is on here purely based on gut instinct)

Permission by Saskia Vogel (I am beyond intrigued by the blurb and it is short enough to pack a proper punch in the way I adore)

The Pact We Made by Layla AlAmmar (another book based in myth, this sounds timely and important and might be absolutely stunning – it isn’t completely in my wheelhouse but I am intrigued)

The Fourth Shore by Virginia Baily (this is historical fiction set in fascist Italy – and this is the only reason it made my list but it’s also the one I would dread reading the most – I am not too keen on either historical fiction or WWII)

So Lucky by Nicola Griffith (semi-autobiographical novel dealing with disability and grief? This sounds like it could be a punch to the gut in the best possible way)

Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li (everything about this sounds brilliant)

I cannot begin to tell you how excited I am for the longlist – and for this wonderful time in the online book community when suddenly many people are reading the same books.

What are your predictions for the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist? And which books do you hope to see on there? Are you planning on following the prize at all? Let’s chat!

Thoughts: On romance

For a long time I have been telling myself and everybody else that I am not that interested in romance in books. Turns out, that is not quite true. I am not a fan of romance in books where it is the obligatory B-plot; I very much love books where a well-done romance is the A-plot (and preferably the B-plot is kickass-women kicking ass) or where the B-plot romance is done exceedingly well (looking at you, Ilona Andrews). I am apparently a hopeless romantic at heart and I have been loving reading romantic genre fiction so very much these last few months.

There is something comforting about a well-done romance – and I need comforting at the moment. I love the feeling of trusting an author to both write an exciting story and to not break my heart while doing it. Thus I find predictability (when it comes to the eventual outcome and not the way there) a definite plus right now. When romance is done well the authors show an incredible insight into the human condition – and I find it highly frustrating that this is not more well-respected. A well-done romance is such a difficult thing to achieve! Other people have talked about how this dismissal of romance is a gendered thing and I don’t feel like getting angry at the world today, so I won’t write about this. I have just realized how much I am enjoying the genre at the moment – and I am liking this a lot.

But there are some tropes that set my teeth on edge and while I am a lot more forgiving of possessive behaviour in books than I am in real life (as is everybody I guess), I am still unsure how to choose books to read because so very often the male love interest is godawful and I would want to spend zero time with them. I am not a fan of books with huge power imbalance (on the emotional level especially) and I am thus hugely not a fan of big age differences, especially in realistic fiction or when the main female character is under 25. For me, YA romance really does not work at all for a number of reasons – especially when the romance feels like it is only included because that seems like the thing to do. I also get a bit grumpy when a book is too angsty and teenagers tend to be rather angsty and I’d rather not read about that. I want to read about adults falling in love and saving the world.

Here are two series I have loved and swooned about recently to give an indication what works for me:

The Kate Daniels’ series by Ilona Andrews: These books are definitely Urban Fantasy and as such the romantic subplot is not the main focus. The world-building and the overarching story is ridiculously well-done, but what kept me reading way past my bed time were the relationships Kate develops, not only romantic ones but also platonic ones. Kate is a wonderfully realized main character, with flaws but also seriously kickass and who is before every thing else a good person – and her relationship with Curran really, really worked for me. It was slow-burn enough to nearly kill me and then after a bit of angst, solid enough to keep me engaged. God, I love this series.

The Psy-Changeling series by Nalini Singh: I am still reading this, but after racing through the first 11 (!) books in a bit over a month, I needed to take a breather. Unlike the Kate Daniels’ series, these books each follow different main characters, which has the advantage of instant satisfaction but also lessened the squeal. The relationships here are all different and follow different tropes (some of which I like less than others), but what works for me exceedingly well is that any possessiveness the male characters might feel is always tempered by them being ridiculously in love with the women and not wanting to change them – this fundamental acceptance of who the women are at their core is a lovely thing to read.

Please do recommend books to me! The genre is a minefield and I want to only read books that make me happy! I recently bought Darkfever by Karen Marie Mooning because it was only a Euro but that book set my teeth on edge within a couple of pages and I called it quits after 30 pages or so. Which is why I need help.

Review: Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

18369376Verdict: Absolutely wonderful.

My rating: 4,5 out of 5 stars.

Published by Hachette, 2010.

Genre: Biography

Find it on Goodreads.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer brings to life the most intriguing woman in the history of the world: Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt.

Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnets, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator.

Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first when both were teenagers. She poisoned the second. Ultimately she dispensed with an ambitious sister as well; incest and assassination were family specialties. Cleopatra appears to have had sex with only two men. They happen, however, to have been Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, among the most prominent Romans of the day. Both were married to other women. Cleopatra had a child with Caesar and–after his murder–three more with his protégé. Already she was the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean; the relationship with Antony confirmed her status as the most influential woman of the age. The two would together attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled their ends. Cleopatra has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since.

Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Shakespeare and Shaw put words in her mouth. Michelangelo, Tiepolo, and Elizabeth Taylor put a face to her name. Along the way, Cleopatra’s supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order. Rich in detail, epic in scope, Schiff ‘s is a luminous, deeply original reconstruction of a dazzling life.

This was incredible. The depth in which Stacy Schiff took her book is incredible, both in scope as well as in narrative prowess. She takes a story that has been told countless times and meticulously shows how that picture we all have of Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic queen, has been influenced and changed over the centuries and what might be the truth underneath all the propaganda. And she does it with wry wit and a wonderful sense of pacing.

I obviously knew the bare bones of the story going in (Cleopatra smuggling herself into Caesar’s camp, having a child with him, Caesar being killed [Et tu, Brute?], her having children with Marc Antony, Civil War between Marc Antony and Octavian, her death by snake venom) but Stacy Schiff showed me how large the holes in my knowledge are in fact. I am in absolute awe of this achievement in research and in story telling. Sometimes the details got a little bit overwhelming but overall Schiff manages to comprise this crucial part of history into a narrative that left me engaged until the very end.

What struck me most while listening to this book was how very different the Romans were – my history teachers always emphasized the Roman Empire as the birth place of Europe as we know it but Schiff shows exactly how different Roman culture if from my own. The actions some of these men took make literally no sense from a modern viewpoint – and Schiff makes no attempt to give them other reasonings except for the ones written down by the actors themselves. Marc Antony in particular often acts in a way that seems highly illogical but obviously makes sense in the cultural framework. I have a lot to think about now, about the way in which I view the world mostly.

I also take away from this book a whole new appreciation of Cleopatra – she is my hero; she was clever and shrewed and witty and apparently so charismatic that men promised her the world. I just wish we had more things she had written herself because even though this is her story it is also always framed by the men in her life – and many of them did not appreciate her in the slightest.

I read the first seven books in Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series in three weeks, so here they are ranked instead of reviewed.

If you follow me on Twitter you know that I am currently having a bit of a PhD melt-down. I have calmed down a bit and made around a million to do lists and now feel like I can actually write a blog post. I am ridiculously stressed about my thesis and whenever I am that way, I escape into reading (mostly predictable books that don’t stress me out further) – which is why I read the first seven books in the Psy-Changeling since the beginning of the year and have not been writing reviews for any. In general, blogging will probably be something I will have to scale back on because I want to finish my PhD this year and I won’t have the mental capacities to write about all the books I read for fun. Continue reading “I read the first seven books in Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series in three weeks, so here they are ranked instead of reviewed.”

Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

33160963Verdict: Lovely and heartbreaking.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction

Published by Simon and Schuster UK, May 28th 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Reclusive Hollywood icon Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant to write her story, no one is more astounded than Monique herself.

Determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career, Monique listens in fascination. From making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the ‘80s – and, of course, the seven husbands along the way – Evelyn unspools a tale of ruthless ambition, unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love. But as Evelyn’s story near its conclusion, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways.

I feel like I was the last person on earth who hadn’t read this book and I am so glad I finally did. That said, it took me a while to finish this because there was a bit in the middle that dragged for me – however, man, does Taylor Jenkins Reid ever pull it back together after the 50% mark. From that point onwards, I was so very invested.

On the surface, this is the story of Evelyn Hugo’s seven marriages as told to Monique, a rather inexperienced journalist getting the chance of her lifetime to write a memoir to one of Hollywood’s greatest stars. But more than that, this book is the portrait of woman who honestly and gracefully bares her all to the world here. And I adored Evelyn so very much. She is by far my favourite part of this book; she is ruthless and ambitious but unflinchingly honest in her own portrayal. I could not help but root for her as she made her way in the minefield that is Hollywood. Whenever the storyline strayed from her, I was eager to get back to her and get to know her better. Monique on the other hand did not always work for me as the person through whose lens we are getting the story.

Told in effortless prose that compelled me to keep reading, Taylor Jenkins Reid tells her story without unnecessary flourish in a way that let her main character shine and her side characters dazzle. I adored Harry beyond measure and thought Celia was wonderfully flawed but incredibly compelling. The ending ripped my heart out but I am so glad to have finally read this.

I received a drc courtesy of NetGalley and Simon and Schuster UK in exchange for an honest review.