Category Archives: Book Review

Review: Jane Steele by Lyndsay Faye

25938397Title: Jane Steele

Author: Lyndsay Faye

Rating: 5 stars

Believe it or not, this wretched, never-ending election cycle is giving me the blues. Compounded with shit storms on twitter, base misogyny on full display everywhere you turn, and the slog that is my personal life, and you can color me exhausted by everything 2016 has been. So I’ve found myself recently turning to books I would term revenge fantasies. Books where women take power that is denied them by society, books where women turn society’s expectations on their head and punish the men who do them wrong.

Jane Steele started out as that, for me. Young Jane goes through a tide of almost unbelievable misery in the first quarter of the book, and it  was immensely satisfying when…well, I’ll try not to spoil it too much, but there’s a moment with a letter opener that made me sit up and cheer. I don’t like to think of myself as a violent or vengeful person, but sometimes, with fiction, the catharsis is real.

But Jane Steele is so much more than that. It’s marketed as a murderous retelling of Jane Eyre (the tagline: Reader, I murdered him.), and it is that, sort of. Actually, though, it uses the story of Jane Eyre more as scaffolding for the twisty, pulpy adventures of our titular heroine, Jane Steele. In some ways, it actually reminded me of being an English major undergrad, as Steele approaches her favorite book  from an analytical, critical point of view, referring back to it strengthen points in the narrative of her own life.

So, here’s the basic plot. Orphaned young, Jane is at the mercy of her spiteful aunt and her horrible cousin, Edward. Her escape, of sorts, is to Lowan Bridge* school, a truly horrific place run by an unrepentant sexual predator. (This is where that letter opener comes in.)  Jane escapes to London with her best friend, has a series of highs and lows there, and eventually learns that her terrible aunt is dead and her old home, Highgate House, has been occupied by one Charles Thornfield, who is conveniently in search of an unconventional governess. Determined to get back what’s hers by any means necessary, Jane takes on a new name, never expecting to fall in love with Thornfield, his precocious charge, or his best friend Sardar Singh and a household full of Sikh soldiers.

Part of what I loved about Jane Steele was the representation. It’s queer. It’s intersectional. Most of Thornfield’s household, including he himself, are Sikhs. Charles was born in Punjab and grew up alongside the people who have given up everything to travel to England to help him protect his ward. They take on the guise of silent servants to blend in better with the English countryside, but they are fully realized characters who act and speak and have agency as opposed to mysterious brown devils. (I’m looking at you, The Moonstone.) I can hardly count myself an expert on Sikhism, but a good deal of the novel hinges around it, and treats the religion seriously, and so I actually learned a lot about something I knew nothing of before encountering this book.

That said, plot-wise, there are some patently ridiculous things. Hidden jewels. Dogged police inspectors. Dramatic falls from horseback. The reason these elements work is that they are so obviously intentional, a conversation Faye has with the pulp adventures of the nineteenth century. Plus, there is the romance. I was willing to stomach pretty much any silly plot detail for the sake of Charles Thornfield, who was a truly magnificent hero.

Jane Steele is a modern heroine set in place centuries past, but one that still resembles our world in ways few people probably care to admit. I read her tale at the perfect moment for me, a time when I really needed the catharsis she could provide. I can’t wait to see what other tricks Lyndsay Faye, a new-to-me author, has up her sleeves.

*Lowan Bridge is also based on the very real Cowan Bridge school, where two of the Bronte sisters died.

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Review: Holy Sh*t by Melissa Mohr

16225525Title: Holy Shit: a Brief History of Swearing

Author: Melissa Mohr

Rating: 5 stars

I’ve been trying to read more nonfiction this year. I really love books about language, and I really, really fucking love swearing. [Whenever I publish a story, my mother always has a comment about the bad words.]

Combine these things and you get Holy Shit,  a book that checked all of my boxes and then some.

In Holy Shit Mohr traces the development of the individual words we class obscenities themselves, but she also puts swearing into context throughout history. There was the medieval era, where obscenity very much was an outgrowth of oath swearing, and where the most shocking things you could ever say were religious in nature–the “holy.” There was the Victorian era, where the rise of privacy and civility gave bodily and sexual functions auras of shame–the “shit.” And a variety of degrees beyond and between.

Most interesting to me was the opening section on obscenity in Ancient Rome. I found it fascinating to see how an entirely foreign cultural mindset could be described through what words people did–or did not–find shocking. But really, this book is full of fascinating information, and all kinds of little tidbits that I never knew I needed to know.

If you’re intimidated by the idea of a “language book” (some of them can be really difficult to read and obscure), don’t be in this case. Holy Shit is an easy, fun read–as long as you’re okay seeing a lot of uncensored obscenity. (If anything in this review has offended you, then you definitely don’t want to pick up this book. It deals with many, many words, even some that I won’t commit to print.) It’s a fascinating cultural history, and one I particularly enjoyed.

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Review: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

1057912Title: The Moonstone

Author: Wilkie Collins

Rating: 3 stars

This book is part of my personal collection. 

I must confess at the outset that I think I’ve been confusing The Moonstone with The Woman in White for years. They don’t seem to have much in common other than their author, but I went into The Moonstone completely expecting a spooky ghost story. Turns out it was a detective story! Brain, what are you doing?

Anyway. Once we step aside from the mistaken identity, it’s time to look at The Moonstone on its own merits. This is the ninth book I’ve read for this years TBR Pile challenge (which I am now incredibly behind on.) It’s the oldest, and the longest. It had plenty of high points, but ultimately was far too long and far too racist for me to recommend it highly.

I’ve wanted to read Collins for about ten years now. He’s one of those authors that I’ve seen referenced often, but not had any experience with. The Moonstone, referred to by many as the first detective novel, features many different narratives all relating to the theft of an Indian relic after it is presented to a young English girl for her birthday.

I was not expecting this to be satire, so that was a pleasant surprise. The sections written by the oblivious servant Betteredge–who continually turns to Robinson Crusoe as a prophet–and Miss. Clack–the tedious evangelist–often had me laughing out loud. They were just so sharp, even though they were written for a Victorian audience there was still a lot of humor to be found in them.

The other narratives were a bit more prosaic. And here is where the length started to drag me down. I’m not sure if The Moonstone was serialized or not–it certainly feels like it. No character says something in one line if he can take three pages to say it. There is an overabundance of filler and repetition in these pages. People do really simple things in really complicated ways, and then write twenty page letters about it. The solution to the mystery, also, was entirely ridiculous. I won’t get too far into it, but it involves opium, a number of misunderstandings about how science experiments actually work, and brownface.

120

Using brownface as plot twist…yeah. The idea that someone wouldn’t recognize their own relative because of a little dark skin paint and a fake beard…again…yeah. I don’t even know how to properly analyze that whole turn of the novel, because it was so absurd and offensive.

There are three “Hindoo” characters that pop in and out of this narrative menacingly (and silently–lots of white people presume to speak for them, but we never hear their own voices), leading to a lot of really racist claptrap. Perhaps that should be expected of 1868, but just because something is expected doesn’t mean it is excusable.The diamond is stolen by a white man and passed along through is rich family, and all these white people are so incensed that the people it was stolen from might want it back. I have to say, I was rooting for the Indians the whole time, even though they were written with about as much depth as a piece of onionskin paper. I would love to see The Moonstone deconstructed in a post-colonialist point of view.

There were things I enjoyed about The Moonstone, but there was a lot that was unsatisfying about it, too.

Now, to start chipping away at book number ten for this challenge…

 

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Review: Slade House by David Mitchell

24499258Title: Slade House

Author: David Mitchell

Rating: 4 stars

I received this book from Netgalley in exchange for a fair review. 

A dark alley that seems to come and go at will. A mysterious garden door that only certain people can open. A pair of seriously creepy twins, and a series of disappearances that take place on the last Sunday of October, every nine years…

Slade House, David Mitchell’s follow-up/companion to The Bone Clocks, is a taut, twisty book that gave me genuine chills. It’s short enough to read in a single sitting, and builds on some of the mythology created in Bone Clocks.

Essentially, Slade House is built of five stories that don’t quite standalone. The first is “The Right Sort“–the story Mitchell published last year on Twitter. That story features Nathan, an apparently autistic boy who falls victim to a soul-sucking horror. The other stories center on a divorced cop, an overweight and emotionally unstable teen, and, nine years later, her sister, searching for answers. Finally one of the viewpoint characters from The Bone Clocks shows up, to close out the story.

You don’t absolutely need to have read The Bone Clocks to enjoy Slade House, at least for the first four parts, but the final chapter is fairly dependent on knowledge of that book. That chapter is also, for me, the weakest, though it leads to the evil twins getting their inevitable due. I enjoyed the mounting tension and creepiness of the first four stories, but, perhaps because the character featured in the last story was my least favorite viewpoint Bone Clocks character, I didn’t feel as satisfied by the resolution as I should have.

If this was nothing more than a standalone haunted house story, without all of the mythology and terminology from Mitchell’s shared universe thrown in the pot, I think it would have been a little more successful. It’s still really good though. What Mitchell is best at is voices, and he’s able to create fully round characters with fascinatingly diverse voices in relatively short spaces here. This is a slight book but not a frivolous one. And it was a great spooky read for a rainy autumn night.

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Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

2195464Title: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Author: Haruki Murakami

Rating: 4 stars

I picked up What I Talk About When I Talk About Running because of a vague goal to tackle Murakami’s nonfiction, as I already enjoy his fiction. I was not expecting it to be so personally inspiring, or the fact that would talk about writing almost as much as running.

This is a short volume (I read it in a few sittings over two days–although I was also sick, and had nothing else to do.)  Murakami talks about how he took up long distance running at age 33, how he runs a marathon every year, and about his training regimen and his experiences with specific races and triathlons.

I’ve been thinking about taking up running almost since my surgery. The reason being that after surgery my breathing vastly improved–I had literally no idea that I was living with impeded breath until suddenly I could breathe. It’s a big lifestyle change for me, and I basically have no stamina, but this book totally inspired me to start trying. If Murakami could do it at 33, surely I can at least try at 30.

But as I mentioned, there is as much writing advice in this book as there is talk of running. Murakami is a prolific novelist with a very distinct style. He talks here about how the discipline of running every day mirrors the discipline of his writing. There are a ton of interesting little tidbits and asides that I found quite interesting and surprising.

There are things in this book to appeal for a lot of different types of readers. Murakami is one of modern literature’s most interesting minds, and this slim memoir is an inspiring piece.

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Review: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

24388326Title: The Heart Goes Last

Author: Margaret Atwood

Rating: 2.5 stars

I received this book from Netgalley in exchange for a fair review.

When I saw a new Margaret Atwood book up on Netgalley, I pounced on it. I haven’t read all of Atwood’s work, but what I have read I love, and I was really excited to get to read this. Unfortunately, to me The Heart Goes Last ended up feeling kind of flimsy and flat, especially in comparison with Atwood’s other great works.

In a dystopian near-future, young married couple Stan and Charmaine find themselves living in their car, out of work, evading gangs of rapists and thieves. They sign up for the Consilience project, which initially seems to answer all of their problems. In exchange for spending every other month in a prison, they are given a house and jobs in a sort of gated community (Modeled on the 50s where everything was pure and innocent, naturally). Of course this all goes south relatively quickly, and their marriage vows are put to the test in the process.

The best aspect of this short novel was it’s dark humor. It was a little bit on the nauseating side for me (it includes such oddities as people having sex with chickens and teddy bears), but it was funny. The voices of the story were well realized. The problem was that I didn’t like any of the characters. Sometimes that’s ok–an advantage, even–but here I feel like you really need to connect with the characters or else the whole thing feels like a pointless farce.

Charmaine is a scatter-brained idiot. A funny one, but after a while it got tiring laughing at her. Stan is a gross asshole. These are your “heroes”, and everyone else is either flat as cardboard or exaggerated to unreal proportions.

I also didn’t enjoy the dystopian element much. It felt needlessly convoluted and complex. It got to a point where it felt like Atwood was moving characters around just for the sake of it. The plot did not serve the characters, the characters were not changed meaningfully by the plot.

Perhaps if I was married I would approach this book differently. Perhaps it says profound or witty things about the institution of marriage. I suspect not, but I’m willing to concede the possibility.

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Review: The Grammar of God by Aviya Kushner

13087024Title: The Grammar of God: A Journey into the Words and Worlds of the Bible

Author: Aviya Kushner

Rating: 4 stars

I received this book from NetGalley in exchange for a fair review. 

The Grammar of God is an unexpected little book, a look at the language of the Bible through a lens I’m not used to considering: translation. It was surprising and beautiful, though weighted more towards memoir and philosophy than instruction or theory.

Author Aviya Kushner grew up in a Hebrew-speaking household, and as an adult studying the Old Testament in English, she realized that essential tenets of her faith were challenged or changed by the act of translation. Everything from gendered language to word tenses affected the meaning, taking a book she was intimately familiar with to new places.

The book is broken up into short segments, addressing everything from Sarah’s laughter to what, really, makes up the ten commandments. (It was really interesting for me to learn that Kushner and, apparently, many Jewish rabbis and scholars, approach the commandments as something more fluid and changeable than Christian fundamentalists who want to set them in stone on courthouse lawns.)

The writing is very spare and poetic; very reminiscent, in fact, of Kushner’s oft-mentioned mentor, Marilynne Robinson. I was a bit worried going in that the book would be very dense and academic, more suited for serious Biblical scholars than a lay reader. But I found it very accessible, a memoir told through religious text rather than a deep, line-by-line reading of the Old Testament. It brought up a lot of interesting subjects I’d never really thought about before.

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Review: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

12875258Title: Tell the Wolves I’m Home

Author: Carol Rifka Brunt

Rating: 5 stars

Tell the Wolves I’m Home is, to date, the only book I ever bought on the strength of a single book review. (It’s this one, if you’re curious.)  I bought it, but then it got pushed further and further down my TBR. And then I got sick. And that, I think, almost made me put this book on the shelf indefinitely. Because after six weeks in the hospital and months of feeling weak and pushed to my limits, I did not want to read about anyone sick or dying.

Eventually I decided to add it to my TBR Pile Challenge (this is book number eight!) It’s a newer book, but it felt like it had been sitting on my shelf for years, and I felt guilty ignoring such a beautiful book, even if I wasn’t ready for it.

This. Book. Is. Incredible.

I have read some amazing books in 2015. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is probably going to top them all. You should all go read it immediately. It is so, so very good.

It’s 1986, and June Elbus is a weird kid who feels stuck in her brilliant, beautiful older sister’s shadow. She’s average and unremarkable, and the only person who makes her feel special is her uncle, Finn. When Finn dies of AIDS, June embarks on an unconventional friendship with his lover, Toby, and learns things about Finn, her mother, and her sister that change how she views them.

The language of this book is gorgeous. I wanted to wrap myself up in the words and just never leave. And the characters were some of the most fully human people I think I’ve ever read. Everything about June felt like me. Like she was literally me, transposed to a teenager in the 1980s. I haven’t had my heart hurt so much by a character in such a long time, and it was brilliant and beautiful as much as it was painful.

This is a book about death and grief. There’s no sentimental, easy endings. But it’s not a morbid book, or even a particularly depressing one. It’s about growing up, and seeing your parents as human beings, and learning how to communicate and how to love. I am so glad that I finally read it.

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Review: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

10964Title: Outlander

Author: Diana Gabaldon

Rating: 3 stars

Outlander, the seventh book I have read for the TBR pile challenge, almost broke me. It was by turns fascinating and frustrating, at least three hundred pages too long, sometimes a slog to get through and sometimes impossible to put down. I have such mixed feelings about this book, I’m not even quite sure where to start.

So how about a summary? In 1945, former combat nurse Claire Randall is on a second honeymoon with her husband, Frank, when she’s whisked through a portal of standing stones and ends up in 1743, where she finds herself in the crosshairs of a number of dangers, her only protection provided by a young Scottish laird, Jamie Fraser.

I recently watched the first half of the Starz Outlander series and found myself entranced by it. It was gorgeously shot, I loved the characters and the costumes and the music, and I was inspired to pick up the book. But now, knowing what I’m in for in the second half, I’m not sure I want to continue with the TV series. I definitely am not continuing on with the book series, for the very basic reason that I don’t have enough time in the world for all those pages.

My main issue, I think, is the narration. I found it impossible to like Claire, and I think that was primarily because of the use of first person. I didn’t have problems with her at all in the show. But first of all, in the book she is completely, utterly perfect. The woman travels two hundred years back in time and barely blinks. Almost immediately she’s able to pick up on proper etiquette, attire, and speech. Problems generated by her foreknowledge don’t appear for over four hundred pages, and when they finally do they are spurred by outside factors. Claire has copious medical knowledge, she has totally bonkers sex skillz, she can kill a wolf with her bare hands. You know. As you do.

So she’s perfect, and she’s kind of boring (even the bare-handed wolf killing was boring. Really!). She’s prone to really strange extremes of logic–deciding on one course, and then immediately and drastically reversing this. And for a first-person narrator she’s really extremely reluctant to undertake any sort of self-examination. It took hundreds of pages for her to say anything at all about the husband she left behind, and how that made her feel.

I really think the first person was totally, completely wrong for this book. So much of the plot relies on Claire conveniently hanging around doorways eavesdropping on conversations, and then misunderstanding what she hears. Which was frustrating.

My other big, big problem was the violence and rape.

Now, I’ve read plenty of books with violence and rape. A Song of Ice and Fire springs to mind. But again, I think the big problem for me was having this presented in first person. When I was watching the show, though things hadn’t quite reached the extent that they do in the second half of the book, I didn’t have much issue with the violence or rape. But in the book I found myself completely dreading what would come next. I also was not at all cool with how beating children and wives was presented as excusable, even looked on with nostalgic fondness. Yes, I am aware that in the past (and present) people beat their wives. No, you can not have the hero of your book beat his wife and then expect me to look at him and swoon about how charming he is, no matter how much you try to explain it away. I was expecting Jamie to be this completely romantic figure, and instead for more than half of the book he gave me serious skeevies. He repeatedly calls his own sister a whore, and even this is chalked up to “Scottish stubbornness.” Fuck that noise.

So, what did I like? Well, the whole conceit of the double-historical novel was fascinating to me. I liked learning about a time and place that I knew little about. I liked most of the characters most of the time–outside of Claire (oops). And the writing wasn’t bad, just overly long and in the wrong POV.

I think what I enjoyed most about this book was the possibilities-the roads it could have gone down. Where it was lacking for me was in the execution. I’m tempted to do a wikisearch about the series just to get the rundown of the plot without having to slog through eight massive books, or whatever it is. Because I am interested to see where it might go.

I’m glad that I read Outlander because I like to have reference points in pop culture even when I don’t have the entire experience, but once was definitely enough.

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Review: Gretel and the Dark by Eliza Granville

20893402Title: Gretel and the Dark

Author: Eliza Granville

Rating: 4 stars

Gretel and the Dark is a maddening book. It is so tense and original and dark…until it is not. The writing is superb, the characters deft and unsettling, but ultimately I found myself very frustrated with the experience of reading it.

In 1899 in Vienna, a mysterious woman ends up at the home of Dr. Josef Breuer. She claims to be a machine sent to kill a “monster.” Captivated, Josef and his servant Benjamin try to unravel “Lillie’s” secrets, putting them all in danger.

In the 1940s in Ravensbruck, a girl named Krysta navigates an increasingly threatening world by retreating into the fairy tales her old nurse used to spin for her. Initially a spoiled, wild, motherless child, Krysta eventually finds herself an inmate of the “zoo,” where everything changes for her.

These two disparate stories connect in an interesting way. When I first started to figure out what Granville was doing, I got a little shiver down my spine. But it ended up being the biggest failure of an otherwise extraordinary book. Perhaps it all comes down to reader expectations. I wanted a full-on sci-fi concept novel. I wanted a satisfying but impossible moment where Lillie dispatches the “monster” (I’m not going to tell you who he is, but think for a minute and you should be able to figure it out.) Instead I got….metaphor and stories. Gorgeous metaphor and beautiful stories, but it felt to me like this was a book that didn’t go far enough, just didn’t get weird enough when it comes down to it. And then came the last five pages, a final nail in the coffin.

The ending is not bad. It’s just not…right. I won’t get too deep into it, except to say that Krysta, the disturbed and damaged girl whose unusual voice was such a treat throughout her sections, changes dramatically without any actual development in the last five pages, and things are wrapped up very sentimentally and neat.

Authors, I implore you. Give me ambiguity. Leave me unsatisfied because you refused to answer a question, not because you wrapped things up with a tidy bow that lays your narrative flat. If I could cut the last section out of this book, leave it forever open-ended and the weird element entirely unanswerable, I think this would have been a beyond-five-star book for me.

Because it was insanely, ridiculously well written. Granville weaves together a number of fairy tales, digging at their unsettling and disturbing roots. The Pied Piper is here, but so are Hansel and Gretel, and Sleeping Beauty, and the Little Match Girl, and the Frog Prince, and probably plenty of others I could not unpick. This is a slow book, a language-lover’s book, on the sentence level up there as one of the best books I’ve read this year. It is a shame that it fails to stick the landing, but if you are a fairy-tale person, or one for skewed, dark historical fantasy, or just a lover of words, I think you find something to enjoy.

A necessary trigger warning: though the author refers to it exclusively through allusion and metaphor, this book does include the rape of a child. It’s highly unsettling but important.

And one final note. I didn’t know much about the plot or setting when I picked up Gretel and the Dark, but it ended up being the second book I have read this month featuring Ravensbruck Concentration Camp. It’s one of those weird coincidences, but I can tell you this much. My brain does not ever want to go there ever, ever again.

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