Review: Shelf Life by Lidia Franchini

43862291Verdict: Dark, brilliant, creepy, way too many dream sequences.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary fiction

Published by Random House UK, Transworld Publishers, August 29th 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

Ruth is thirty years old. She works as a nurse in a care home and her fiancé has just broken up with her. The only thing she has left of him is their shopping list for the upcoming week.

And so she uses that list to tell her story. Starting with six eggs, and working through spaghetti and strawberries, and apples and tea bags, Ruth discovers that her identity has been crafted from the people she serves; her patients, her friends, and, most of all, her partner of ten years. Without him, she needs to find out – with conditioner and single cream and a lot of sugar – who she is when she stands alone.

I don’t know if I have read a book lately with a blurb this accurate that nonetheless completely failed to give an indication what the book will be like. On the surface it’s correct; yes Ruth has just been left by her boyfriend of ten years and has to navigate her life and yes the story is told by way of the shopping list he left behind – but it also something else entirely. Told in varies formats (stream-of-consciousness in the present, a series of text messages in the past, mixing more straight forward narrations with vague ones) and from different perspectives (mainly Ruth’s perspective in first person, but also parts narrated from Neil’s perspectives, parts in second person, parts in first person plural), this book is a portrait of a woman who was very much broken before she met the awful man and became more so during the course of a fairly horrible relationship.

When the book worked, it really worked for me – but there were just so many parts I could not properly get on board with, starting with the endless accounts of weird dreams Ruth and Neil had. I am unsure I grasped what the narrative purpose of those were and I found them relentlessly boring and confusing. While I appreciated the mixed-media approach, I didn’t love reading text messages that just never ended.

I really liked the framing of the story and I thought Franchini did something very clever: in the first chapter, when Neil breaks up with Ruth I couldn’t help but think that was the right choice because she seemed fairly awful. And then Franchini goes back and recontextualizes the scene in a way that made my heart hurt. Neil is, for all intents and purposes, really really awful. He is not only a cheater but also a stalker, he made Ruth into the person he wanted her to be and then punishes her for it, and his thoughts on women are unkind and horrifying (at some point he says this about his girlfriend of ten years: “The fact of her aging makes me uneasy.”). While I found his characterization believable and him endlessly fascinating, spending time in his head was very much not fun. Ruth on the other hand was just the kind of difficult to root for woman I adore in my fiction. Overall, I found this book impeccably structured and impressively constructed  – but often difficult to stick with due to its deliberate darkness.

Content warning: stalking, grooming, eating disorders, disordered eating, cheating, emotional abuse, bullying, assault, sexual harrassment

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of Netgalley and Transworld Publishers in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Doggerland by Ben Smith

42363317Verdict: Bleak, but beautiful.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Literary Fiction, Speculative Fiction

Published by HarperCollins UK/ 4th Estate, April 4th 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

Doggerland is brilliantly inventive, beautifully-crafted and superbly gripping debut novel about loneliness and hope, nature and survival – set on an off-shore windfarm in the not-so-distant future.
‘His father’s breath had been loud in the small room. It had smelled smoky, or maybe more like dust. ‘I’ll get out,’ he’d said. ‘I’ll come back for you, ok?’ The boy remembered that; had always remembered it. And, for a time, he’d believed it too.’
In the North Sea, far from what remains of the coastline, a wind farm stretches for thousands of acres.
The Boy, who is no longer really a boy, and the Old Man, whose age is unguessable, are charged with its maintenance. They carry out their never-ending work as the waves roll, dragging strange shoals of flotsam through the turbine fields. Land is only a memory.
So too is the Boy’s father, who worked on the turbines before him, and disappeared.
The boy has been sent by the Company to take his place, but the question of where he went and why is one for which the Old Man will give no answer.
As the Old Man dredges the sea for lost things, the Boy sifts for the truth of his missing father. Until one day, from the limitless water, a plan for escape emerges…
Doggerland is a haunting and beautifully compelling story of loneliness and hope, nature and survival.

This book is possibly a definite contender for the bleakest book I have read in years. Set in the future on a slowly breaking down wind farm maintained as much as possible by the Old Man and the Boy whose names remain a mystery for most of the book. To say that not much is happening would be unfair (there is actually a lot of action here) but everything crumbles in slow motion and there is not much either person can do against it. The comparisons to The Road are spot-on; this future is bleak and narrow in the way th world can be seen by the protagonists. The atmosphere is equally distressing and overwhelming while the language remains a sharp edge that can dazzle the reader.

That this book was written by an author who also writes poetry, is impossible to overlook – the sentences are beautiful and unusual and by far my favourite thing about this book. The way Ben Smith’s prose flows reminded me of the ocean – something that has to be intentional given that the North Sea is as much of a protagonist as the three other people in this novel.

But I don’t particularly like The Road and I feel a lot of the same feelings towards that book as I do towards this book: I can see how it is very well done, impressive even, but for me the bleakness became overwhelming and I had to force myself to keep reading. But this has everything to do with the kind of reader I am and nothing to do with this book. It is a book I can see many people loving and I hope many people will pick it up – because it is so very well done and so interestingly told.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and HarperCollins UK/ 4th Estate in exchange for an honest review.

Review: New Suns ed. by Nisi Shawl

40680117Verdict: Disappointing

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, Speculative Fiction

Published by Rebellion Publishing, March 18, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

Anthology of contemporary stories by emerging and seasoned writers of many races

“There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns,” proclaimed Octavia E. Butler.

New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color showcases emerging and seasoned writers of many races telling stories filled with shocking delights, powerful visions of the familiar made strange.  Between this book’s covers burn tales of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and their indefinable overlappings.   These are authors aware of our many possible pasts and futures, authors freed of stereotypes and clichéd expectations, ready to dazzle you with their daring genius

Unexploited brilliance shines forth from every page. 

I have read quite a few anthologies published by this publishing house and while short story anthologies are nearly always a mixed bag, I have always found some brilliant authors to follow. This book though did not work for me. I found most of the short stories disappointing and I did not finish reading all of them. I think I would have liked this more if there had been some kind of theme here. While I appreciate the idea of publishing short stories by authors of colour, I do think more cohesion would have improved my reading experience.

There were nonetheless a few stories that stood out for me and I feel the need to highlight them. I really enjoyed Rebecca Roanhorse’ take on the Deer Woman (“Harvest”) and thought the story was both poignant and impeccably structured. She is fast becoming one of most exciting SFF authors out there (I still have not read her Hugo winning short story but will have to remedy this as soon as possible). I found Chinelo Onwualu’s short story “The Fine Print” impressive in its interesting exploration of family and the ties that bind us. As always, the short story by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (“Give Me Your Black Wings Oh Sister”) was by far my favourite. I really do like the way here prose flows and her imagination sparkles and will definitely have to pick up some of her novels this year.

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

Mini-Review: Be With Me Always by Randon Billings Noble

40168047Verdict: Readable, interesting, nothing completely incredible.

My rating: 3,5 out of 5 stars

Genre: Creative Non-Fiction

Published by University of Nebraska Press, March 1st, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

“Be with me always–take any form–drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you!” Thus does Heathcliff beg his dead Cathy in Wuthering Heights. He wants to be haunted–he insists on it. Randon Billings Noble does too. Instead of exorcising the ghosts of her past, she hopes for their cold hands to knock at the window and to linger. Be with Me Always is a collection of essays that explore hauntedness by considering how the ghosts of our pasts cling to us.

In a way, all good essays are about the things that haunt us until we have somehow embraced or understood them. Here, Noble considers the ways she has been haunted–by a near-death experience, the gaze of a nude model, thoughts of widowhood, Anne Boleyn’s violent death, a book she can’t stop reading, a past lover who shadows her thoughts–in essays both pleasant and bitter, traditional and lyrical, and persistently evocative and unforgettable.

I’ll be honest here: I requested this solely because of the cover. I am a huge fan of anatomical hearts on covers and something about this cover and the title just spoke to me. Thankfully, this was absolutely worth reading.

The essays in this collection are for the most part wonderfully constructed. The author uses literature and other works of art to draw comparisons to her own life. This is something I particularly enjoy when it is well done and I thought it worked really well here.

The essay that worked best for me is the title essay – drawing on themes of Wuthering Height, a book I personally really appreciate, Noble carefully presents her own thoughts. I appreciated the way she mixes the personal with the literary to form a cohesive whole.

I have to admit that I did not find this collection spectacular and I am not sure it will particularly stick with me, but I will definitely check out whatever the author does next.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and University of Nebraska Press in exchange for an honest review.

 

Review: Almost Love by Louise O’Neill

35958295Verdict: Harrowing.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: General Fiction

Published by Quercus Books/ riverrun, March 7th 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

When Sarah falls for Matthew, she falls hard.

So it doesn’t matter that he’s twenty years older. That he sees her only in secret. That, slowly but surely, she’s sacrificing everything else in her life to be with him.

Sarah’s friends are worried. Her father can’t understand how she could allow herself to be used like this. And she’s on the verge of losing her job.

But Sarah can’t help it. She is addicted to being desired by Matthew.

And love is supposed to hurt.

Isn’t it?

This book broke me, quite literally. I have rarely had such a visceral reaction to a book as I had this time and I am quite unsure how to talk about it. For this very reason, I feel the need to start this review with a disclaimer: I saw so much of myself in the main character and her experiences and behaviours that I cannot be objective about the literary merit of this book but I can say with absolutely certainty that the emotional core of this book was intense.

Told in two timelines, then and now, this book traces Sarah’s twenties. The past is told in first-person and tells of her increasingly destructive relationship to Matthew Brennan, a man many years her senior who treats her abysmally. The present is told in third person, Sarah is in a new relationship but still as ever self-hating and increasingly horrible to everybody around her. We closely follow Sarah, who is in no way an easy person to spend time with, and are always privy to her self-destructive thoughts and tendencies in a way that I found highly effective and extremely claustrophobic. Sarah is, for lack of a better term, a mess. For me the past narrative work better; the intimate first person narration made it a difficult but rewarding experience; present day did not quite hold my interest at all times but managed to show just how broken Sarah is in a way that made my heart hurt.

Louise O’Neill shines an unflinching light on why a person might stay in a toxic situation way longer than they would have ever thought beforehand. Matthew is a horribly disinterested in Sarah as a person except for brief interludes when he wants sex. The sex scenes are uncomfortable to no end, Matthew showing less than zero interest in making the experience pleasurable for Sarah who does not feel like she can tell him to stop. He belittles her and makes her feel bad for being the person she is. These scenes hit me incredibly hard: In my second and third year of uni, I dated this gorgeous, brilliant, funny Norwegian with the most beautiful accent when he spoke German with me – and who never let me forget that I am not the kind of person he wants to spend the rest of his life with (too feminist, too vegetarian, too not blond enough, too abrasive, too not feminine enough and so on) or maybe I never let him forget that he was not the person I wanted to grow old with (this might very well be true as well, relationships are rarely as one-sided as I would like to make this one seem). O’Neill captures the particular heartbreak that comes from a relationship like this incredibly well. While this made for a very difficult reading experience for me, it also impressed me to no end. I am so very glad to have read this.

I received an DRC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Quercus Books in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Outcast Hours ed. by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

40680026Verdict: Some brilliant stories but also many that did not work for me.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Short Stories, Anthology

Published by Rebellion, February 22nd, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

Bold new anthology from the acclaimed editors of The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories

We live our lives in the daylight. Our stories take place under the sun: bright, clear, unafraid.

This is not a book of those stories.

These are the stories of people who live at night; under neon and starlight, and never the light of day.

These are the stories of poets and police; writers and waiters; gamers and goddesses; tourists and traders; the hidden and the forbidden; the lonely and the lovers.

These are their lives. These are their stories. And this is their time:

The Outcast Hours.

I adored the first anthology by the editor duo so much that I did not hesitate for a single second before requesting this one and immediately starting to read it. Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin do have a great way of building anthologies and even though I did not love this one as much, I will still be on the lookout for more work by these two.

These stories all take place at night, in the liminal spaces that entails, and span a wide array of genres. For me, the first half of the anthology was by far the stronger one with some absolutely stunning stories that make me excited to check these authors out. The second half and the micro-stories by China Miéville who are interspersed throughout did not work for me, however. Here I found myself skim-reading and often not caring at all.

The anthology starts very strong with a quiet horror story by Sam Beckbessinger, Lauren Beukes, and Dale Halvorsen: The Book Will Find You. I adored this story about grief and anger and supernatural beings, and the brilliant way it climaxes. I have been eyeing Lauren Beukes’ books for ages and really need to check her stuff out. I found Will Hill’s It Was A Different Time incredibly angering and wonderfully constructed. My personal favourites of the bunch were Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Sleep Walker and Frances Hardinge’s Blind Eye, both authors whose work I have wanted to read for ages. I should really get on with it.

I appreciate how varied this anthology was and how widely different in tone and style the stories were allowed to be. For me that is always a positive in an anthology because it gives me the opportunity to read outside my comfort zone without having to spend hours reading things I am not enjoying that much.

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

Review: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

40908694Verdict: Fablesque and moving.

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Genre: Speculative, Literary Fiction

Published by Simon & Schuster UK/ Scribner, February 7th, 2019

Find it on Goodreads.

The eagerly awaited new novel from the author of The Age of Miracles.

Imagine a world where sleep could trap you, for days, for weeks, months… A world where you could even die of sleep rather than in your sleep.

Karen Thompson Walker’s second novel is the stunning story of a Californian town’s epidemic of perpetual sleep.

I love literary fiction with a speculative twist (I don’t think anybody is surprised to hear that) and I heard absolutely amazing things about this book before starting it. The book does a wonderful way of depicting a potential world-ending plague without the bells and whistles of post-apocalyptic fiction. Set in a fictional college town in California where one after the other people start falling asleep and not waking up again, this book has a fairy-talesque mood that I just adored.

For me the book worked best in the overarching moments, when the narrative flits between different people and never comes close enough to add humanity to them. I found the prose in those sections stunning and the distance created worked really well for me. Here it read more like a parable than a classical science fiction book and I just loved this a whole lot. I adored how the authors opened up the closed narrative to give glimpses of the outside world and her depiction of the greater world’s reaction to the unknown illness was believable.

Karen Thompson Walker emphasizes the relationship between parents and their children, which I obviously enjoyed, but my favourite relationship was that between two sisters who were left alone after their doomsday-prepper father succumbs to the illness. Sibling relationships are a particular weakness of mine and those two sisters felt very real. I do think that the book was not always successful when changing gear from the birds-eye perspective to a more closely observed narrative style, but I enjoyed the reading experience immensely nonetheless.

I received an ARC of this book courtesy of NetGalley and Simon & Schuster UK (Scribner) 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: City of Broken Magic (Chronicles of Amicae #1) by Mirah Bolender

Verdict: Very slow, interesting worldbuilding, weak characters.

My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Published by Tor Books, November 20th, 2018

Find it on Goodreads.

Five hundred years ago, magi created a weapon they couldn’t control. An infestation that ate magic—and anything else it came into contact with. Enemies and allies were equally filling.

Only an elite team of non-magical humans, known as sweepers, can defuse and dispose of infestations before they spread. Most die before they finish training.

Laura, a new team member, has stayed alive longer than most. Now, she’s the last—and only—sweeper standing between the city and a massive infestation.

I really am not that great at predicting which books I will adore. I was so sure I would love this because at the surface it does so many things I appreciate in books; but I also found its pace fairly slow and, more importantly, some of the narrative decisions when it came to the characters unfortunate.

Set in a partly industrialized fantasy setting (something I happen to really enjoy), this story follows Laura, newly employed Sweeper working for what is basically a bomb-squad but for monsters (awesome, right?). The world and the premise are brilliant – but the way this story is told might have worked better in a different medium – I would love this as a video game for example. Laura and her boss have to banish different monsters, always trying to find new ways to do so. These scenes, while exhilerating in the beginning, did start to feel a bit stale fairly soon. When the newest team member arrives, the story lost steam for me even more. I found Laura’s reaction to him deeply troubling in its lack of empathy and also not quite fitting for her character who before has not displayed this much selfishness.

I did really love the world but did not always appreciate the world building itself. There were many super interesting ideas floating around but they never felt organically integrated into the story. Ultimately the world building happened mostly through info-dumping and slowed down the pacing even more.

While I in theory appreciate the commentary on women’s roles in this society, I found its discussion in the text fairly obvious and not all that original. Laura is quick to assume everybody’s reaction to her is down to them being sexist and while that may well be the case the reader was never shown the way sexism is integral to the society but is rather told so. One major problem I had in this context was that while we were told that women were only allowed certain jobs, we were shown many women in powerful positions without anybody reacting to that at all, indicating that this is in fact normal for the society. This made Laura seem particularly thin-skinned and her reaction often overblown.

I received an arc courtesy of NetGalley and Tor Books in exchange for an honest review.

TBR: ARCs on my shelves part V (2018)

I have not talked about the ARCs I added to my virtual shelves in three months and while I did not request as many ARCs as I have done in the past, I have acquired a few and want to talk about them.

Still to be read:

38633526Vita Nostra by Sergey & Marina Dyachenko

Publication Date: November 1st, 2018

Publisher: HarperVoyager

Blurb (from Goodreads): The definitive English language translation of the internationally bestselling Ukrainian novel—a brilliant dark fantasy with “the potential to be a modern classic” (Lev Grossman), combining psychological suspense, enchantment, and terror that makes us consider human existence in a fresh and provocative way.

Our life is brief . . .

While vacationing at the beach with her mother, Sasha Samokhina meets the mysterious Farit Kozhennikov under the most peculiar circumstances. The teenage girl is powerless to refuse when this strange and unusual man with an air of the sinister directs her to perform a task with potentially scandalous consequences. He rewards her effort with a strange golden coin.

As the days progress, Sasha carries out other acts for which she receives more coins from Kozhennikov. As summer ends, her domineering mentor directs her to move to a remote village and use her gold to enter the Institute of Special Technologies. Though she does not want to go to this unknown town or school, she also feels it’s the only place she should be. Against her mother’s wishes, Sasha leaves behind all that is familiar and begins her education.

As she quickly discovers, the institute’s “special technologies” are unlike anything she has ever encountered. The books are impossible to read, the lessons obscure to the point of maddening, and the work refuses memorization. Using terror and coercion to keep the students in line, the school does not punish them for their transgressions and failures; instead, their families pay a terrible price. Yet despite her fear, Sasha undergoes changes that defy the dictates of matter and time; experiences which are nothing she has ever dreamed of . . . and suddenly all she could ever want.

A complex blend of adventure, magic, science, and philosophy that probes the mysteries of existence, filtered through a distinct Russian sensibility, this astonishing work of speculative fiction—brilliantly translated by Julia Meitov Hersey—is reminiscent of modern classics such as Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, Max Barry’s Lexicon, and Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, but will transport them to a place far beyond those fantastical worlds.

Why I requested it: I love Russian literature and this one sounded right up my alley. And then my slump hit. Continue reading “TBR: ARCs on my shelves part V (2018)”