Two things happened this month that simultaneously increased and decreased my reading productivity. On one hand, I was asked to dogsit, which meant I had access to an absolutely perfect little porch where I could sit with my tea — both at morning and at night — and fly through pages as I was enveloped by lovely sights and smells and sounds. ‘Twas heavenly and desperately made me want a lovely little English cottage that’s surrounded by lilac bushes. But on the other hand, BTS released a game for the phone, “BTS Island: In the SEOM,” and I spent way too much time this month trying to beat the levels. I’m not normally a big game person, but the premise here is that the members of BTS got stuck on an island and the only way to get them home is to progress through the game. And I absolutely adore BTS, so I can’t leave them stranded! They have a concert in Busan in October they need to prepare for! Plus, if you forget about the game for too long, you get notified that a member — it’s usually Jimin — is waiting patiently for you to return. And I’m simply not a strong enough person to handle disappointing Jimin. (If you are, I don’t trust you.)
There weren’t quite as many omg-this-book-is-perfect reads as there were last month, but I enjoyed my overall haul nonetheless. I reread “Persuasion” because it had been a while since I last picked it up, and it was as perfect as I remembered. It’s always amazing to me that Jane Austen pioneered a lot of the tropes we see today in romance books: enemies to lovers (“Pride and Prejudice”), friends to lovers (“Emma”), and second-chance romance (“Persuasion”). She never wrote a one-bed trope, and I simply can’t figure out why… 🙂 I then tried to watch the Netflix adaptation of the book, and I could only watch about 10 seconds at a time because any more and I think I might have puked. When the trailer was released, someone on Twitter said Dakota Johnson, who plays my love Anne Elliot, has the face of someone who knows what the internet is, and I can’t stop thinking about that. Plus, the vibes of the adaption were off; “Persuasion” is melancholy, not quirky. Part of what sparked me to reread Austen was reading “The Murder of Mr. Wickham,” which is basically just clever fan fiction; the plot is good, but the characters felt like Claudia Gray’s (somewhat off) interpretation of Austen’s creations.
I read a few pandemic-related novels this month, which was a little hard given that we’re still in the middle of one ourselves. “Joan is Okay” was COVID-related and handled the subject wonderfully, while “Station Eleven,” which was written in 2014, was kinda of freaky to read knowing what was to come after Emily St. John Mandel wrote it. “The Books of Jacob” and “Lapvona” both feature plagues of their own, but they’re more about plagues in the past — the former took place in the 18th century, while the latter happened in a vaguely medieval setting.
My ARCs this month were a little disappointing, though I’m pleased to say I’ve finally achieved that 80-percent-return-rate mark! Time to go request a whole bunch of books and blow that to shreds! “Any Other Family” is quite well written but left me feeling a little uncomfortable because of the way adoption has been in the news lately, while “When in Rome” and “The Stars Between Us” simply weren’t good. I shall endeavor to be more discerning when requesting books in the future.
The book I read in July that will probably stay with me the longest was “The Dead Romantics,” mostly because of the way it handled the topic of grief. I’ve, unfortunately, experienced a lot of loss in my life, so I was a blubbering mess the entire time I was reading it. I also probably related to the main character a little too much — I’m also an older sibling and have ghostwritten a book. I was actually surprised I liked “The Dead Romantics” so much, given that my notes at the start of the book were quite snarky. (I was annoyed at the not-like-other-girls vibes and found the plot a little clichéd.) I read the book through my Libby account, and I loved it so much I bought a copy for my bookshelves.
So, all in all, not a bad month. Anyway, here are my full thoughts on this month’s books, which were originally all posted on my Goodreads account.
- Persuasion (5)
- The Dead Romantics (4.5)
- Station Eleven (4.25)
- Joan is Okay (4)
- X (4)
- Fruit of the Drunken Tree (4)
- Freshwater (4)
- The Books of Jacob (4)
- Horse (3.5)
- The Murder of Mr. Wickham (3.5)
- Any Other Family (3)
- Lapvona (3)
- Hurricane Girl (3)
- When in Rome (2)
- The Stars Between Us (2)
“Lapvona” by Otessa Moshfegh — 3/5
I didn’t particularly enjoy reading this book — but I couldn’t put it down. It’s gluttonous and vile and cruel, but Ottessa Moshfegh is such a talented author that it’s impossible to escape this disquieting world of her creation, no matter how much I may have wanted to.
So much of this book seems to be gratuitously grotesque; there doesn’t seem to be much of a point to so many of the heinous happenings. Moshfegh creates shocking situations just to be shocking. It’s not hard to be shocking; it’s just hard to do shocking well. And in this book, the shocking aspects feel trite and pointless. (Well, “pointless” beyond making you want to gag.) I wanted more, partially because there are definitely interesting themes and allusions here. This book is set in the Middle Ages (albeit in a hazy, bare bones setting) during a time of drought, plague, and famine. So it’s easy to call this book a kind of pandemic novel (that’s also when it was written), because it highlights the diversity of experiences between the rich with their abundance and the poor without resources. The lord of Lapvona diverts water from the mountains to his estate, leaving the rest of the people in town to rot and turn to drastic measures to stay alive. Sound familiar? There are also interesting musings on the destructive role of religion in society and in regards to morality, but none of what Moshfegh raises is particularly inspired or explored.
This was my first time reading one of Moshfegh’s books, and, while I’m still processing all my thoughts on it, it won’t be the last time I pick something up that has her name on the cover. I really enjoyed Moshfegh’s sharp writing and her clever lines. That writing is what kept me turning the pages even as my stomach was churning. I’ve read that this is her first novel written in third person, and it’s handled well, as the omniscience adds a sense of condescension toward all the characters and happenings. In “Lapvona,” the setting leaves a lot to be desired, but her interesting (and, yes, awful) characters almost make up for that. You have:
–two devout sadomasochists — the shepherd father who abuses his son but is gentle with his lambs; and his handicapped son, who has both major mommy and daddy issues
–the gluttonous lord of Lapvona, who can’t gain weight because there’s a massive void inside of him that he tries to fill by forcing everyone around him to entertain him with insane performances
–an ancient, witchy wet nurse with a horse’s eyes who knows what herbs to use to treat which malady because the birds tell her so
–a corrupt priest who can’t even remember the story of Christ’s birth and who acts on behalf of the lord (of Lapvona), not the Lord
–and a whole host of perverted and immoral other characters.
All those characters present interesting ideas — is suffering a virtue? is humanity innately terrible? — and create an intriguing satire on leaders (political and religious) who pretend to care about people but who are really just greedy monsters who only care about themselves. But everything they stand for is too surface-level. Moshfegh has written an interesting book questioning the roles of religion and suffering in every day life, but that’s nothing new. And it’s been done better.
“Joan is Okay” by Weike Wang — 4/5
Despite the somewhat heavy subject matter in this book, Weike Wang made this read feel like a breath of fresh air. It’s wry and sparse, sure, but it’s also warm and witty. The writing is taut, and there’s a nice cadence to the book, with an occasional zinger of a line that I enjoyed. The subject matter here is important, and the way Wang writes it is potent. I found myself immersed in the story — the lack of quotes almost makes this book feel like Joan’s stream of consciousness. And Joan… What can I say about a character who describes herself as a cog in the machine — which she likes. She’s funny (almost accidentally), and she’s interesting. No one else seems to understand Joan, but Joan understands herself, and it’s quite nice to read about an unconventional character who has full courage of her convictions. She likes working as much as she can. She has no interest in other people. She has no interest in starting a family. And she has no interest in changing who she is to appease other people and fit the mold they try to create for her. I sometimes wish there was a bit more tension in the book; while I was reading, it didn’t feel like the book was building to something. But Joan’s musings and ruminations on everyday concepts — life and love and family — are beautiful and make this a thoroughly charming read.
“Freshwater” by Akwaeke Emezi — 4/5
I spent four hours today in the auto repair shop — and I didn’t even mind because I had this book to keep me company.
Akwaeke Emezi became one of my must-read authors after I read (and loved) “The Death of Vivek Oji,” so I knew I’d have to embark on a journey to read everything they’ve ever written. “Freshwater,” their debut novel, didn’t disappoint. It’s a layered story full of pain and lamentations, and it’s a wonderfully written interrogation of a person’s true, root self. Ada is a Nigerian woman who has ogbanje (malevolent, Igbo trickster spirits) inside her, so she has a foot permanently on the other side. These spirits (or gods) who aren’t supposed to be awake inside Ada and find themselves accidentally trapped cause a fracturing in Ada and create a struggle against her different selves. This internal battle — based, in part, on some of Emezi’s own reality — is a wonderfully interesting look at mental health and psychology. Western culture has it’s own mentions of split personalities and depression and other mental health crises (caused by things such as dysphoria, trauma, and PTSD), and, because this is told in a kind of Nigerian mythology, the story is more interesting — and more powerful.
It took me a little to find a rhythm in this book, but it picked up once the narration moved from the choral “we” of the spirits into an individual spirit and Ada’s voices. One of the spirits, Ashugara, is given her own chapters, and her voice is condescending to humanity, and she talks about life with a brutal hunger — for blood, sex, alcohol, violence, and pain. Ashugara is contrasted with Ada and, to some extent, another of the named ogbanje, St. Vincent, and the three lock wills to cause a shifting of self. From there, the story slithers like a snake, which makes sense as Ada is the daughter of the goddess of fertility, Ala, whose corporeal form is a python. Jesus appears in Ada’s soul, too, creating a fascinating contrast between God and the gods. This is a passive tale told in bursts and spurts and isn’t always linear, so it’s not always the easiest to follow. And it can feel a little claustrophobic as so much happens in conversations in Ada’s internal “marble palace,” but it’s worth sticking with the story. Ultimately, Ada’s story becomes a powerful one of seeing and naming and understanding your demons — and of living with them.
Emezi’s voice is electric, and they write about their own experience with ogbanje in a way that reclaims their own narrative through Ada, this character of their creation. Their writing is masterful with the way they weave a story and hypnotize you through their words and patterns and cadences. I shouldn’t have to be back at the auto shop for a while (fingers crossed, at least), but if I do, I know exactly which author to bring with me to make such a horrible trip a delight.
“Any Other Family” by Eleanor Brown — 3/5
I’d have liked this book a lot more a year ago, before the Supreme Court had overturned Roe v. Wade and before adoption was, for me, synonymous with couples holding signs saying we’ll adopt your baby (while looking like the last people on Earth you’d trust with a child). And before I’d learned more about the trauma adoptees can face and about the horrors of the foster care system in this country. Because this book is a lovely story with an interesting take on adoption, but I just couldn’t read it without all that background floating around in my mind, as much as I tried to ignore it.
Eleanor Brown is a wonderful storyteller, and in this highly readable book she’s created compelling characters who face interesting struggles — and she’s done so at a nice, tidy pace. The book focuses on the three adoptive mothers — Tabitha, Ginger, and Elizabeth — who are a little stereotypical but are distinct from each other and present different views of the adoption system in this country and on the idea of what makes up a family. (The men and the children definitely take a backseat to these three, for better or worse.) The family is tied to together by the fact that they’ve all adopted children from the same birth mother, who keeps hooking up with the same birth father, so all the children are biological siblings. And the families want to make sure the children know their siblings and extended families (and the birth mother, because this is an open adoption and she’s part of their lives).
The group dynamics and personalities come to a head as the families spend two weeks together in a mountain lodge. And their frustrations with themselves and each other boil to the surface when they get news that their children’s birth mother is — shocker! — pregnant again. (The birth mother, Brianna, isn’t a particularly well-done character and seems to perpetuate some harmful stereotypes about women who choose to put their children up for adoption. But I do appreciate that there were small mentions about a woman’s choice.) All three women have different reasons for not wanting to adopt this child into their family, but all are nervous about what including another family into this pod of theirs could do to the group dynamic. The three women often frustrated me, but I found them (scarily, at times) relatable and was interested in reading about their struggles and viewpoints.
Brown shows the heartbreaking side of adoption by including letters from potential adoptive parents for this new child. I’d never really thought about the process of choosing a family for a child, but I liked the way Brown laid it all out. As a character remarks in the book, pregnant people don’t choose a family in the same way — they just get pregnant. And some people, who absolutely deserve to have families, aren’t going to be chosen as adoptive parents in this harrowing and über competitive process. That’s reality, but it sucks. And it’s not always fair when you’re literally deciding who gets to be a parent and who doesn’t get to have kids.
This family might be unconventional, but they’re held together with a wonderful bond and a deep love of their children. Plus, in a sense, they are the truest kind of family: They all drive each other bonkers.
Special thanks to NetGalley, Penguin Group Putnam, and Eleanor Brown for proving me with an e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
“X” by Davey Davis — 4/5
Two pages into this, I sent my sister a text: “Heaven help me, what have I gotten myself into with this book?” I think that’s just about the only normal reaction when there are mentions of Abu Ghraib and waterboarding while in a sex dungeon — a Lynndie England fetish. The main character is game for this type of play because “How bad could a waterboarding really be if you get up and walk away afterward?” They’re not strangled with an American flag, like they thought they might be, and they enjoy the feeling of pushing against their restraints and of the water burning behind their eyes. According to the character whose fetish this is, “it’s not political, just sexy.”
The main character, Lee, is a sadist searching for X, a woman they met at a punk collective and had a sadomasochistic one-night stand with. (This is new for Lee, because they’re usually the one inflicting the pain.) X is about to be “exported” by the fascist U.S. government in this not-too-unrealistic (but heightened) political climate and surveillance state that’s trying to remove undesirables from the country. Lee is on the heels of a break-up with Petra, a masochist, and is processing this loss and what they expect to be their own looming exportation as they walk around late at night in a crime-laden city while listening to a true crime podcast — and Lee feels like the dangerous one. As they note, “In a world of certain death, what could I possibly have to fear?”
Lee is a fascinating and enjoyable narrator, because their dark urges are set off by their dark humor, and that makes this an oddly fun read. They’ve recently been banned from the monthly play party, “again, for the same stupid reason (drinking blood),” and are approaching the looming “doomsday clock” with that same wry spirit. They fantasize about killing someone, or about being killed. They wonder if someone “has a nice scream” and says “if a girl faked an orgasm with me, that would be one thing; if she faked a scream, it might break my heart.” Lee knew they were in love with Petra “the moment I started to plan how I’d style her for her funeral viewing. I know that wanting to see your lover dead and beautiful isn’t normal, but it’s always felt normal to me.” It’s a lot — but in the best kind of way.
Davis’ writing is almost brusque, and they do a wonderful job of getting the reader caught up in the throes of this search for X. There are no chapters and are just occasional breaks, so the book has this frenetic energy and sense of disorientation, because you never exactly know where you are in the timeline of Lee’s story. The book vacillates between past (their relationship with their mom, their budding sadist tendencies, past relationships) and the present-ish search for X (jumping between the people who can help Lee find her and the incident with her) in a way that’s mostly well done but was occasionally too confusing. Davis just kind of thrusts you into this weird world and leaves you to make sense of it yourself.
When my sister asked me what this book was about, I didn’t know exactly how to explain. But I did tell her that I liked it a lot, and I warned her that, if she reads it, to prepare to have some really, really, really weird dreams.
“The Dead Romantics” by Ashley Poston — 4.5/5
Before writing this review, I spent 20 minutes googling whether I could sue Ashlee Poston for infliction of emotional distress, because my notes for this book look like this:
“And now I’m crying.”
“And now I’m crying — again.”
“Great, more tears.”
“This isn’t even sad. Why am I crying?”
“Good thing I already took off all my makeup.”
“I’m going to have such a bad headache tomorrow.”
“Oh, my dog is trying to cuddle with me to cheer me up. That’s nice.”
“WHY AM I STILL CRYING??”
I had massively high expectations for this book, and, at first, I didn’t think it would meet them. I didn’t love Florence at the start and wanted a book about a side character (Rose) instead. I found the premise — a romance author thinks romance is dead after a particularly bad breakup — cliched. I didn’t want to read yet another book about a tiny woman and her huge love interest. (Oh, and the woman doesn’t know she’s beautiful.) Some of the pop culture references felt overdone, and the whole book felt very twee. And yet.
This book sucked me in and delivered an emotional sucker punch. The unpacking of grief is spectacularly done, carefully walking the line between emotional and lively. As much as I cried, I laughed equally. And it’s this idea of finding the bright spots in sadness that hit me so hard; this idea that death is unbearably sad, but the memories you have of that person mean that there really aren’t endings, that things are just different. This book is set in a mortuary with a protagonist who can see dead people and where murders of crows abound, but it’s quirky and vibrant and adorable. The dialogue is snappy, and the emotional connections between characters are lovely. Did I predict the twist? Yep. Did it bother me? Not in the slightest. Poston has written a book about loss — full of hope.
And yes, I did somehow cry again while writing this review.
“Hurricane Girl” by Marcy Dermansky — 3/5
I’ve always liked contrasts, and this book very much is one. It’s weird, but the writing is straightforward. The main character, Allison, is a mess, but the book is clean and structured. And all of that combines to make a propulsive book with a kind of manic energy to it. I didn’t feel much of an emotional tie to Allison — I’ve never been very good reading about passive characters — so I never found myself caring much about what happened to her and felt removed from her actions. And yet I kept turning pages, because it’s an interesting story, and I liked Marcy Dermansky’s unique voice.
“Fruit of the Drunken Tree” by Ingrid Rojas Contreras — 4/5
When I was seven years old and playing with Barbies, I made the dolls doctors and astronauts and mommies and lawyers. When the seven-year-old in this book plays with Barbies, she makes them guerrillas and their victims — complete with gnawed-off limbs. One “lost her arms and legs running from the guerrillas. She had run a million miles for a thousand days until her feet grated off against the road, and then she ran with her hands, but her hands rubbed off, too.” Another Barbie “had been the boss of the guerrillas in Putumayo, but her men revolted against her and chopped her up and left her for dead in a jungle.”
It’s a brilliant choice by Ingrid Rojas Contreras to have this chilling story of Colombian violence primarily told by someone so young, because it’s arresting to see the horrors of this war and its impact on someone who doesn’t quite understand what’s happening. The girl, Chula, is confused and overwhelmed by all the death and violence, and the use of her as the narrator creates its own kind of horror. Her everyday life is permeated with gunshots and car bombs and assassinations. The family’s telenovela-watching is interrupted with news about Pablo Escobar’s escape. Chula and her sister can’t go to school because of a nearby car bomb. Trips to the mall are peppered with metal detectors and security guards. Chula’s childlike way of looking forces the reader to confront devastatingly direct questions — Yes, what IS the difference among all these warring factions? Why IS the government killing innocent civilians and passing them off as guerrillas? — and creates this contrast between the joy of being a child and the fear of living in a world where violence and death are the norm. A lot of the story is based on Contreras’ childhood, which makes this all the more arresting.
The other narrator in the book is Petrona, Chula’s family’s young maid, who hails from a nearby invasión (similar to a slum). She represents the other side of the coin — whereas Chula’s family is well-off, Petrona’s family is struggling. She’s 13 at the start of the book, and she’s the main breadwinner for a large family after the death of her father. Her younger siblings are seduced by the paramilitary and drugs. She finds herself in deep in this world and represents the idea that, sometimes, you have to make bad choices because your only option is a worse one. I wish we’d had more of Petrona’s voice in the book, just because she has a grittier take on the conflict in Colombia. ; she doesn’t narrate as many chapters as Chula does, and Petrona’s chapters are almost always significantly shorter and less detailed. Their chapters don’t always line up chronologically, either, which threw me out of the story every once in a while. Chula and Petrona’s relationship is crucial to the story (Chula has a kind of childlike adoration and hero-worship of Petrona), and the bond never quite felt fully realized. But the dichotomy between the two was a powerful one.
This book has a vibrant setting, and Contreras’ writing is lush and provocative. She’s created a compelling narrative with well-rounded characters, and she’s littered the book with specific — and often heartbreaking — details that make the story more personal and real.
If Contreras ever has kids who like to play with Barbies, I hope they don’t have to be victims of a war.
“When in Rome” by Sarah Adams — 2/5
I picked up this book because I needed something fluffy and comforting after a slew of heavier, denser, depressing reads — and this one somehow ended up being the most depressing of all. The writing in these pages made me immensely sad; the editor in me actually started to cry.
Everything was overwritten to the point of exhausting me. There are seven sentences about Amelia’s, the main female character, history of migraines. Six sentences about why someone would let someone else borrow their truck. If you have to use “anyway” to get yourself back on track and “again” keeps coming up as you note you’ve already mentioned that, your writing needs some serious slashing. Sentences are allowed to stand on their own — they don’t need four or five sentences immediately following to explain what you meant. There are paragraphs and paragraphs dedicated every chapter to a character’s appearance — and it makes everything come across super unnaturally.
Note that these quotes are taken from an ARC, but:
Our main male character (Noah) has green eyes, but they’re also: “startling, sharp, and almost unnatural in their intensity. They’re nearly the exact color as the stripes on a wintergreen peppermint candy”; and “woodsy eyes”; and he has “green mouthwash the same color as his eyes”; and “startling green eyes”; and “woodsy eyes” again; and “startling green eyes” again; and “evergreen eyes”; and “emerald eyes”; and “startling woodsy eyes. I’m drowning in a lush evergreen forest”; and he has “long thick eyelashes framing bright green eyes — it should be illegal. Right up there with crystal meth”; and “those eyes, the same bright green as the trees lining the lake”; and we’re back to “evergreen eyes”; and “greenest green as intense as an avalanche.”
Quick: What color are his eyes?
This felt like an 11-year-old writing a fan fiction about their favorite pop star. (Actually, that might be unfair to an 11-year-old.) And that means Noah isn’t a man written by a woman — he’s a man written by a girl. Because only a girl would find these playground antics (he’s mean to you because he likes you!!) appealing. And only a child would think this is what attraction is like. Katy Adams tried to lay it on thick that they’re attracted to each other, maybe because if she didn’t say that their attraction is intense, the reader would never be able to figure it out on their own.
Maybe that connection is missing because this book is almost aggressively wholesome. She’s in the shower — and he’s thinking about how nice her singing is. She’s in PJ bottoms and a camisole, and he yells at her to ask where her PJ top is (and then he wraps her up in a blanket to cover her up). One of the older women in town says it’s not right for him to be sharing his house with a woman who is tempting him. I think the characters said the sexiest thing to ever happen to them was a hug they shared. A hug. And guys, it’s important to note that she’s super inexperienced in bed. One of the characters even has a swear jar — where the money gets donated to charity, because of course it does.
The characters themselves are never able to make up for the unnatural writing and the missing chemistry. He’s supposedly a grump but comes off more as an asshole, and she’s a naive pop princess who melts at the smallest sign of kindness and is desperate for crumbs of affection. Katy Adams writes both characters almost identically in their POV chapters. They’ve got good bones, and their romance has potential, but they’re overloaded with physical descriptions and with about two or three characteristics that Adams wanted to note that they have that Noah and Amelia never got to breath on their own, and their relationship felt manufactured. Oh, and a super rushed ending doesn’t help.
This is supposedly based on the (wonderful) Audrey Hepburn movie “Roman Holiday,” and as someone who has watched that movie approximately 802 times, I’m confident in saying that’s an affront.
Special thanks to NetGalley, Random House/Ballantine, and Katy Adams for proving me with an e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
“Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel — 4.25/5
I often think we’d be a lot better off if the people in charge of running the world read science fiction. Because this book, published in 2014 about a deadly pandemic — “The Georgia Flu” — that sweeps the globe, decimates the population, and sends everyone and everything into disarray, feels like it could’ve given the WHO and the CDC a manual on what to do (and not do) when COVID-19 arrived in 2020, six years later.
It was definitely eerie reading about a fictional pandemic during an actual pandemic — but I didn’t find it jarring, because Emily St. John Mandel keeps her narrative nicely compact. The setting here is a small area in the Great Lakes region as a traveling symphony/Shakespeare troupe heads from town to town. The book isn’t a large, gripping tale of the aftermath of a pandemic, it’s a quieter, smaller tale of a small group of people who are still trying to bring some beauty and art to this new, devastated world. There isn’t a whole lot of action within these pages, but that allows for a lot of contemplation on the fate of society — and for Mandel’s lyrical writing to shine. It’s a compelling book almost because of the lack of high-octane happenings; the novel feels more intimate and heavier. And she does well to pose little mysteries that will keep you turning the pages. There are plenty of flashbacks and interwoven storylines, which I found to be nicely layered and revealed in near-perfect timing and which helped the novel build nicely. I sometimes wish Mandel had leaned into the apocalyptic setting a little harder — What happened to Kirsten during her lost years? Why can’t society rebuild? — just because the setting feels secondary to the characterization. But I can understand the reasoning, because this isn’t a book about the end of the world. It’s a book about those who survived it.
So what other science fiction books should we send President Biden and Dr. Fauci?
“The Stars Between Us” by Cristin Terrill — 2/5
In general, I like to root for a book’s main character, not want to throw them off a spaceship.
In this book, the main character, Vika, is plucked from her poverty-ridden life and given a chance at being an heiress on a different planet. But as soon as she has money, she becomes selfish and spoiled and all the things she previously hated. She worked as a beleaguered bartender on her home planet, but she treats the help on her new planet terribly. She leaves her family on the run-down planet to go play dress-up on the fancy one, while her family continues to struggle to eke by. When someone suggests she send some of her allowance home to help cover the wages her family is no longer getting from her income, she recoils. She literally asks herself why she should send them money, because she says she’s been given that money to make her time on this new planet more fun, not to subsidize her family. She’s a spoiled brat. She thinks she was too good for her previous life and says this new life as an heiress in pretty dresses with fancy cocktails and vapid people is where she belongs. But this new life still gives her plenty of time to complain — which feels like all she ever really does. I couldn’t stand Vika, and that colored my opinion of everything else within these pages.
That wasn’t my only issue with the book, though. The dialogue never felt natural (not much does, if I’m being honest), the “romance” has no chemistry and comes out of nowhere, and the plot points never really deliver much of a punch. It is, however, an accessible read. And the direct setting (the houses and whatnot) are nicely realized, even as the overall setting (the planetary structure, the planets themselves, etc.) remain a mystery to the reader (and maybe to the author). I think part of my frustration with this book is that it has a lot of potential to be really, really good. I mean, if things had been cleaned up, a rags-to-riches story set in space with a mystery of who is killing heirs to a massive fortune sounds like an absolute blast.
Instead, Vika just made me want to blast my brains out — or hers.
Special thanks to NetGalley and Wednesday Books for proving me with an e-ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review.
“The Books of Jacob” by Olga Tokarczuk — 4/5
This is a very, very good book — if you can finish it. It’s tremendous and comprehensive, but it’s very, very long, and the subject matter is very, very hard. Sometimes I thought I was too dumb for this book. (Complicated theology isn’t exactly my strong suit.) Other times, I was wrapped up in this narrative, amazed at how brilliantly Olga Tokarczuk weaves together different faiths and characters and countries. It’s a big book, but she makes it feel intimate with the way she writes the people in these pages and with how carefully plotted every detail is. Somehow, this expansive novel is meticulous. And I was never bored. The characters are all vivid, no matter how many times they appear, and the setting is incredible. Her female characters — with the way she puts them at the helm of a narrative that, historically, has often forgotten them — are nuanced and carry this story.
This is a book about Jacob Frank, but it’s told by the people around him. So with Tokarczuk’s deft hand — and Jennifer Croft’s absolutely incredible translation — we, too, get wrapped up in the world of this magnetic maybe-charlatan while also seeing right through him.
I’m very glad I read this book, because it’s spectacularly done. But, if I’m being honest, I’m even more glad that I’m now done with it.
“Horse” by Geraldine Brooks — 3.5/5
My very first email address was email@example.com. One of my most prized possessions is a Breyer horse my sister gave me for Christmas that was painted to look like my old horse, Tango, who I jumped 5-foot fences with. I have scars and aches from nasty (and rather spectacular) falls, and I’m not sure my back will ever recover from getting launched over triple oxers or trying to sit Tango’s trot. My mom’s parents were from Kentucky and hosted yearly Derby parties — with the requisite mint juleps and red roses. Oh, and I’m a big Geraldine Brooks fan.
In short: I’m pretty sure this book was written just for me.
This is a book about a horse, but it’s also about a horse race, and it’s even more about race. And I… mostly liked how it was done. The writing is immaculate, and Brooks weaves storylines together with ease. Yes, you sometimes have to suspend disbelief at how serendipitously things happen, but that’s nothing all that new in fiction. She provides an immense amount of details that never feel in your face, and she immerses you in this world of her creation without you really ever realizing. The pacing of the book is smooth, and her textured descriptions of people, places, and things are exceptional. I don’t think the book is quite balanced, though, as the part of the book that takes place in the past is easily superior to the part that takes place in the present. The bond between Jarrett and Lexington is emotional and profound, while the present with Theo and Jess is a little clunky and feels forced. While I liked how the present and the past are tied together, I wish more pages had been allocated to the heart of the story — Jarrett and Lexington. If this had been a book just about Jarrett and Lexington, I think this would’ve been an easy five-star read.
Now, here’s where I had more of a problem: the aspect of race in the book. A lot of the book takes place during the lead-up to the Civil War, and some of the descriptions of slavery and slave owners made me cringe. At times, it felt like the men who owned Jarrett were the prototypical “good” slave owners. And then there were times where Jarrett expressed gratefulness for his experience as a slave. Slavery was slavery. There were no good slave owners. And there were no good jobs when you were a slave. In the present, Theo is a different kind of Black man, and it feels a little like he’s just been added to make a point about race in the 21st century. He’s not allowed to be all that developed as a character. He can’t just be a Black man, he has to be a BLACK!!! man. I feel like Theo, as described in the book, wouldn’t love to see himself written by a white woman in the way that Brooks does within these pages. And both Theo and Jarrett have to be the prototypical Black man — intelligent, mild-mannered, kind in the face of racism, etc. — while the white characters in the book get to be sloppy and messy and complicated. I think Brooks tried to show the lingering history of racism today — slavery and its remnants in the constant policing of Black bodies — but she instead feeds into the idea that Black individuals have to suffer, and it felt gratuitous to me. It also doesn’t help that events toward the end of the book feel sort of like they were just there to propel the white woman’s story forward. I dunno. But something just didn’t quite feel right, and that’s a bummer, because the rest of the book was strong.
Growing up, I had a Breyer horse model of Seabiscuit (my sister had one of War Admiral), and it sounds like what we really needed were ones of Lexington. Maybe with the attention he’s getting after the publication of this book, that’ll be a possibility for kids in the future.
“The Murder of Mr. Wickham” by Claudia Gray — 3.5/5
I can’t tell you how many times while reading “Pride & Prejudice” I fantasized about killing Mr. George Wickham. I will read any and all adaptations that feature this man dying just to see him get his comeuppance.
This is a charming and lively read, with just enough of a dash of mystery to keep things engaging. Although, if you’re hoping for a faithful Austen adaption, look elsewhere. For better or worse, this reads a lot like a fanfic. These aren’t Jane Austen’s characters; they’re Claudia Gray’s characters with Jane Austen’s names slapped on them. Most of the characters have been boiled down to one or two adjectives or descriptions from the books — Marianne is sensible, Lizzie has fine eyes, etc. (I also got the sense that, at some point, Gray had an absolutely miserable experience reading “Mansfield Park,” because she does Franny and Edmund quite dirty.) There’s just an overall sense that Gray is playing house with someone else’s characters. It’s not especially surprising, then, that the strongest characters in the book are of Gray’s own creation: Jonathan Darcy and Juliet Tilney (daughter of Henry Tilney and Catherine Morland from “Northanger Abbey”). Gray’s Darcy and Tilney are dynamic and interesting, and the book is at its best when it’s following them. In most other cases, there are just too many narrators, which dilutes the plot.
While I liked that all the characters came into the story with complications and side plots, the fact that all the couples’ issues boiled down to my least favorite things — LACK OF COMMUNICATION!!! — was a bit of a bore. I don’t need all the couples to be happy and sunshine-and-rainbows-y, but to have them all be unhappy for, essentially, the same reason felt lazy to me. Just, like, oh, I don’t know, talk to each other? Maybe say how you’re feeling? Communicate!!
That being said, I read this book without wanting to put it down. It does lag in the middle, but the book gets off to such a strong start and has the promise of a mystery solved so I didn’t mind too much. The setting is fun and rings true to Austen’s novels, and Gray manages to encompass some of her source material’s humor and patterns. I don’t think this is all that strong of a murder mystery, just because Gray focuses more on the characters and their side issues than on providing clues for the readers, but, somehow, I still found this to have a more-than-satisfying ending that made perfect sense.
So, no, this isn’t a perfect book. But it made me remember how much I loved Austen’s characters, and it was worth the time I spent reading it. Plus, it’s well worth it just for the fact that I can read the scene with Wickham’s death over and over and over and over again, whenever I remember what he did to poor Georgiana.
“Persuasion” by Jane Austen — 5/5
Bury me with a copy of this book. Jane Austen achieved perfection with it. 10/10. No notes. And it somehow gets better with every subsequent reread. Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth are absolutely everything to me. His letter? If a man wrote that to me, I would be a puddle in the middle of the floor. Ugh, I love this book.