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: The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon

29774026Verdict: Everything I wanted it to be.

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Published by Bloomsbury, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

A world divided.
A queendom without an heir.
An ancient enemy awakens.

The House of Berethnet has ruled Inys for a thousand years. Still unwed, Queen Sabran the Ninth must conceive a daughter to protect her realm from destruction—but assassins are getting closer to her door.

Ead Duryan is an outsider at court. Though she has risen to the position of lady-in-waiting, she is loyal to a hidden society of mages. Ead keeps a watchful eye on Sabran, secretly protecting her with forbidden magic.

Across the dark sea, Tané has trained all her life to be a dragonrider, but is forced to make a choice that could see her life unravel.

Meanwhile, the divided East and West refuse to parley, and forces of chaos are rising from their sleep.

This book hit me right in my sweet spot when it comes to fantasy. I usually don’t enjoy these super long fantasy tomes but this one really worked for me. This book casually grounds itself in female characters and queer relationships in a way that worked exceedingly well for me. Shannon wrote a book nearly custom-made for me (there is nearly no miscommunication! People actually talk to each other honestly! There is no sexualized violence! The good guys are allowed to be good and are allowed to grow! There are many many wonderful women! Some carry swords, some ride dragons, and some are better suited to diplomacy! And it is ok that they are different! They are not compared to each other!). I adored every second of this 26-hour long audiobook and I am so glad I decided to read it.

This is a fairly traditional high fantasy book focussing of two very different parts of this fictional world: one where dragons are worshipped and one where dragons are reviled. We follow four different characters: Tané who is training to become a dragon rider, Niclays who is an alchemist living in exile, Loth who has been thrust into a dangerous diplomatic mission, and Ead, a handmaiden to the Priory of the Orange Tree, send to protect the Queen of Inys who would have her executed if her real faith was revealed. As a background to this, draconic creatures are stirring again, indicating that the Nameless One who nearly destroyed human society one thousand years ago might be returning. As is hardly ever the case, I enjoyed every single perspective – especially Niclays really grew on me in the course of the book. He is a deeply unhappy, spiteful man filled with regret and hatred – but he is humanized by his deep love for a man he lost many years ago. He is selfish and cruel but also so very lost that I could not help but root for him in the end. Tané is very much a hero with a proper hero’s journey, but I loved her earnest wish to do what is right. Loth worked best for me when put into situations with his sister or his queen – both of whom he loves dearly and honestly. My favourite perspective however was Ead: I do love kickass women who do what is right, no matter how difficult.

My favourite part of this book were the great variety of relationships Shannon depicts: there are romantic relationships and platonic ones, childhood friends and unlikely friends, sibling love and the love between children and their parental figures (biological and otherwise), friendships between humans and fantastical beasts, grudging respect and long-lived hate – I adored this. All to often the main focus of books is romantic love – and to have this facette of human behaviour be only one part of a great kaleidoscope of relationships really worked for me. I also really loved the main romantic relationship at its core: these two women were just wonderful together (skirting spoiler territory here).

I read this book as part of Wyrd & Wonder – a month-long celebration of the fantastic hosted by imyril @ There’s Always Room for One More, Lisa @ Dear Geek Place and Jorie @ Jorie Loves a Story. You can sign up here!

Content warning: Miscarriage, infertility, death.

 

 

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: My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

38819868Verdict: Fun, fast-paced, surprisingly deep.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fiction

Published by Doubleday Books, 2018.

Find it on Goodreads.

When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in, quote, self-defence and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating the doctor where Korede works as a nurse. Korede’s long been in love with him, and isn’t prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other…

I love books about siblings; a lot. So I was probably always going to enjoy this but I am still glad that this was indeed the case. This fast-paced novel about two sisters, one of which is a serial killer and the other her (un)willing helper, is deceptively shallow – but below the frankly addicting language and the exhilerating twists and turns, this is also a commentary on the roles women are supposed to play and the limited option they have. It perceptively shows the impact of abuse and power imbalance while showing a fun way in which this power might be taken back.

For me, the biggest strength was the way Braithwaite’s language flows. It is breathtakingly easy to read and the rhythm she achieves is wonderful – it makes absolute sense that the author is a spoken-word artist. I rarely notice language but here I was just in awe. Her sentences flow very nicely and make for a compulsive reading experience in the best possible way.

I enjoyed the sibling relationship at the core a whole lot; it read true to life (or rather as true to life as a dark comedy about a serial killer can ever be). Korede is alternately frustrated with her sister Ayoola and fiercely protective of her. I could really empathize with this feeling. This book also made me take a look at what I would do for my own siblings – and I have to be honest, Korede’s actions do not seem farfetched to me at all.

This is definitely a fun addition to the shortlist of this year’s Women’s Prize and while it is not my favourite of the books I have read of the longlist so far, it is heaps and bounds better than many books on the list and I am glad to see in advance. I would not mind if it won the prize as well – because I do think it is cleverly done in a way that makes it seem effortless, which is really difficult to pull off.

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 (review)
  4. Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
  5. My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
  6. Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (review)
  7. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (review)
  8. Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn (review)
  9. Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (review)
  10. Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li (review)
  11. Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden (review)

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2019: Shortlist reaction

Yesterday at midnight UK time, the shortlist for this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced – and I am glad I did not stay up until then because then I would be disappointed and tired today as opposed to just disappointed. I am obviously still making my way through the longlist but I do have thoughts. Even if I haven’t loved many of the books that were longlisted (as of writing this I have finished 10 books on the list and am in the middle of two others), I did think the overall list was exciting and varied. The shortlist? Not so much.

But first things first, here is the shortlist:

  • The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
  • My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
  • Milkman by Anna Burns (review)
  • Ordinary People by Diana Evans
  • An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (review)
  • Circe by Madeline Miller

Of these six, I have only read two so far (Milkman and An American Marriage), but I am more than halfway through My Sister, the Serial Killer. Even if I didn’t always love Milkman, I can absolutely see its brilliance and the inclusion on the shortlist makes sense. I struggled more with An American Marriage and would not have been sad to not see it advance further. My Sister, the Serial Killer I am really enjoying but not as much as some other books on the longlist. The three other books on the shortlist are all books I am really looking forward to reading, so there is that. I did not think both feminist myth retellings (Circe and The Silence of the Girls) would make it but I am intrigued enough by both of them to be ok with the fact. I am also a bit baffled that both Ordinary People and An American Marriage made the list; these books seem to be similar in theme and I would have wished a totally different book had made it.

I find the shortlist strangely underwhelming; maybe because there are two obvious pairs and another book that is enjoyable but not blowing me away. I cannot believe my three five star reads did not make the list at all. The book I am missing most on the shortlist is Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi (review), which I found brilliant and original and just in a whole different league than most other books. My heart obviously beats for The Pisces (review), but I never genuinely thought it would make the shortlist. It is still the winner of my heart. But even so, I do wish it had made the list because at least this one was polarizing and it does something very interesting with its subject matter. While I adored Normal People (review), I think it is Conversations With Friends (review) that should have seen Sally Rooney nominated as it is the stronger book. But if I cannot have this, I would have at least liked to see her get shortlisted.

As of the moment, I am weirdly enough most excited to see Milkman on the list. It is such an obvious masterpiece that I cannot begrudge it all the praise it gets. It has also grown on me a lot since finishing it, enough that I might still change my rating.

I will now spend the next few weeks finishing up the longlist, I am so close I can almost imagine myself getting to the end. The only good thing about this list might be that three  and a half of the six books I haven’t read are on it, which makes picking them up a lot easier. Plus, I think I might finally give myself permission to DNF Lost Children Archive – a book that I just very much dread having to pick up again.

What are your thoughts? Are you as baffled as I am? Did your favourite make the list?

 

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)

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?