Book Reviews, Bookworm Blogging

Frankissstein [review]

Frankissstein: A Love Story by Jeanette Winterson
Published by Vintage Digital on May 28, 2019
my rating: ★★
Goodreads avg:
3.71 (as of 2020-05-04)
Spoiler-free review

Goodreads IndieBound | Author Website

In Brexit Britain, a young transgender doctor called Ry is falling in love – against their better judgement – with Victor Stein, a celebrated professor leading the public debate around AI.

Meanwhile, Ron Lord, just divorced and living with Mum again, is set to make his fortune launching a new generation of sex dolls for lonely men everywhere.

Across the Atlantic, in Phoenix, Arizona, a cryonics facility houses dozens of bodies of men and women who are medically and legally dead… but waiting to return to life.

But the scene is set in 1816, when nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley writes a story about creating a non-biological life-form. ‘Beware, for I am fearless and therefore powerful.’


I am a poor specimen of a creature, except that I can think.

It is an understatement to say that I have issues with this book. I should preface this review with the caveat that while I am queer, I am also cis, so my opinions are colored by that. If you’re an ownvoices reviewer and would like me to link to your review, please let me know! Edit: Here is a great one-star review posted over at Revolution in the Pages!

I took great issue with Winterson’s portrayal of a trans person. Ry is a character completely without agency. Every single person they come into contact with in the book misgenders them and while on occasion they will make an effort to correct someone or to explain their identity, they feel like nothing more than a plot device to fuel a discussion surrounding gender rather than an actual character. At one point Ry is physically attacked, demeaned, and left alone cowering on the ground in a scene that seemed to hold little-to-no meaning in the greater plot. They were constantly fetishized and objectified by Victor, who seemed to think of them little more than a toy and a sex object. They were defined solely by their relationship to Victor and their trans identity. It seemed that Ry had no trans friends (really, no friends at all) and when Victor mentioned that he had never met a trans person before, Ry just replied that most people haven’t. If this is indeed set in the present or near future, I find that an absurd statement. Many cis people may think they have not met a trans person, but they would have no way of knowing.

It’s horrible, I said. You’re a doctor, he said. You know how useful horrible is.

Victor himself was impossible to read. I don’t think he was meant to be a likable person, but that doesn’t change the fact that I hated reading about him. Although he’s meant to be a “transhumanist” (he wishes his consciousness could be uploaded to a computer) and insists mankind will move beyond gender, race, etc., he spends all his time misgendering Ry, insists he’s not gay, and equates being a man with having a penis. As for the other characters, Ron, Claire, and Polly D all felt like one-dimensional caricatures and for half the book I thought Claire and Polly were the same person.

The formatting just didn’t work for me at all. I thought the two stories being told were completely disparate and didn’t mesh together at all. The commentary felt half-formed and I kept wanting Winterson to push a little further, or to adjust her trajectory. It just didn’t seem like she was in a position to be comparing trans people to monsters and machinery and I wish more had been said about life and death instead.

None can know the human mind. No, not if he read every thought man ever wrote. Every word written is like a child striking a flame against the darkness. When we are alone it is the darkness that remains.

Can someone also let me know whether the sex scenes were supposed to be erotic? Because they were completely devoid of passion and emotion and I literally couldn’t have cared less about them. It genuinely felt like an excuse to obsess over Ry’s genitalia more than anything else.

The only saving grace here is that there were beautiful moments of prose that I just loved. I highlighted a lot of lines while reading just because I was so struck with them. I cannot deny that Winterson has a way with words and a lot of this book was very readable. I also didn’t mind the lack of quotation marks because, for the most part, Winterson’s writing was so adept that it was clear where they should have been and who was speaking.

Even our best endeavours turn against us. A loom that can do the work of eight men should free eight men from servitude. Instead, seven skilled men are put out of work to starve with their families, and one skilled man becomes the unskilled minder of the mechanical loom. What is the point of progress if it benefits the few while the many suffer?

This is review is a lot to sum up, but I’ll just say: I think Winterson completely missed the mark here and I found this to be a painful reading experience.

content warnings: transphobia; [transphobic] sexual assault; sexism; misgendering; miscarriage; child death.


My current 2020 Women’s Prize Squad Longlist rankings:

  1. The Body Lies
  2. Girl, Woman, Other
  3. My Dark Vanessa
  4. Ninth House
  5. Frankissstein

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Book Reviews, Bookworm Blogging

Girl, Woman, Other [review]

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo
Published by Black Cat/Grove Atlantic on November 5, 2019
my rating: ★★★★
Goodreads avg:
4.43 (as of 2020-04-28)
Spoiler-free review

Goodreads IndieBound | Author Website

The twelve central characters of this multi-voiced novel lead vastly different lives: Amma is a newly acclaimed playwright whose work often explores her Black lesbian identity; her old friend Shirley is a teacher, jaded after decades of work in London’s funding-deprived schools; Carole, one of Shirley’s former students, is a successful investment banker; Carole’s mother Bummi works as a cleaner and worries about her daughter’s lack of rootedness despite her obvious achievements. From a nonbinary social media influencer to a 93-year-old woman living on a farm in Northern England, these unforgettable characters also intersect in shared aspects of their identities, from age to race to sexuality to class.

Sparklingly witty and filled with emotion, centering voices we often see othered, and written in an innovative fast-moving form that borrows technique from poetry, Girl, Woman, Other is a polyphonic and richly textured social novel that shows a side of Britain we rarely see, one that reminds us of all that connects us to our neighbors, even in times when we are encouraged to be split apart.


this was a really lovely exploration of black individuals in the UK. 11 of the characters followed are women and one is a non-binary person who uses they/them pronouns. it was really refreshing to read about such a variety of people; many of these characters are queer, and some are even non-monogamous. the term polyamory is also explicitly used! it was really lovely to see these kinds of relationships normalized.

Amma experienced commitment to one person as imprisonment, she hadn’t left home for a life of freedom and adventure to end up chained to another person’s desires

this is essentially a series of overlapping short stories, each focused on an individual character. these characters are all interconnected, in ways that become increasingly clear as the book moves forward. there was one real WOW moment at the end that got me right in the gut. i was impressed at how well Evaristo layered these stories and built such a rich, real story.

she wishes her mother was alive to enjoy her new life she me now, Mama, see me now

my only complaint is really that the breadth of characters makes it difficult to follow. by the time a character was mentioned again, i would sometimes forget them or important information about them. i also found the first half of the book a little difficult to connect with. it was highly readable, but not extraordinary compelling. luckily, that changed in the second half, which i read in one day, unable to put the book down.

sadly, there wasn’t a sapphic bone in her body

i think this is a really important book and i’m glad it’s gotten so much recognition! i’ll definitely be recommending it to others. additionally, feel free to link me any ownvoices reviews to share, as i may be queer and polyamorous, but i am also white and american and can only review through that lens.


My current 2020 Women’s Prize Squad Longlist rankings:

  1. The Body Lies
  2. Girl, Woman, Other
  3. My Dark Vanessa

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A Crime in the Neighborhood [review]

A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne
Published by Algonquin Books on January 6, 1997
my rating: ★★
Goodreads avg:
3.43 (as of 2020-01-08)
Spoiler-free Review

Goodreads | IndieBound | Author Website

An auspicious debut novel by a young writer who will remind readers of Anne Lamott and Anne Tyler “A Crime in the Neighborhood” centers on a headline event — the molestation and murder of a twelve-year-old boy in a Washington, D.C., suburb. At the time of the murder, 1973, Marsha was nine years old and as an adult she still remembers that summer as a time when murder and her own family’s upheaval were intertwined. Everyone, it seemed to Marsha at the time, was committing crimes. Her father deserted his family to take up with her mother’s younger sister. Her teenage brother and sister were smoking and shoplifting, and her mother was “flirting” with Mr. Green, the new next-door neighbor. Even the president of the United States seemed to be a crook. But it is Marsha’s own suspicions about who committed this crime that has the town up in arms and reveals what happens when fear runs wild.


I’m sure there are readers who adore this book. I’m sure there are brilliant messages one can glean from the words written here. Unfortunately, that was all wasted on me. This book and I just did not get along. There’s nothing especially heinous about the writing or the plot; I just felt like I was being dragged through it. Part of this is my fault: I was expecting something closer to a thriller while the crime aspect of this novel is very much downplayed. This is absolutely more slice-of-life literary fiction with a dash of mystery to it.

By then she was already referring to my father in the past tense. “Larry used to like that show,” she might say if we were all in the living room trying to watch television. He would look up and lightly shudder.

Another thing I struggled with was just not enjoying the narrator. I found Marsha to be quite bland. As a child, she wanders around, watches people, and eavesdrops on conversations. The little agency she has is used negatively, and brought me to actively dislike her. While this book is about adult Marsha looking back on her childhood, I felt this perspective didn’t add much. The analyses she provide did not help me to better understand what I was reading.

She stumbled a little, reaching out toward the screen. The notebook fell open at her feet, just behind the heel of her left sandal. One of the pages had got bent in the throwing, and for some reason, this bent page shocked me; it seemed as grievous an offense as what I had just done to my mother.

I’m truly not sure how much of my dislike is purely personal preference, so I would not turn anyone away from reading this, as long as they understand that this more an exploration of suburban life and less a true mystery. This was a buddy read and I hope that the rest of the group has a better experience with it, because I think there is promise here that I was just unable to unearth myself.


Here I will later be sharing reviews from the rest of the buddy read group as they are posted!

★★
Emily


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Book Reviews, Bookworm Blogging

Mini-Review Compilation #18

Dead Astronauts

I don’t know if this book and I were ever going to get along. I’m a huge Jeff VanderMeer fan, but didn’t initially realize this was set in the Borne universe. Borne wasn’t bad, but I just didn’t end up loving it. From what I read, the connections seem pretty loose — same universe, different characters. There is just so MUCH going on here that at 27% in I had no idea what I was reading. The prose was gorgeous, but I struggled to follow the plot. This book is going to make you work, and I cautiously recommend it to those who are up for the challenge.

Rating: DNF

In the House in the Dark of the Woods

I honestly have no idea what this book was trying to accomplish. It starts off as a lighthearted fairytale of sorts and turns into…? It alternated between dry and confusing, sometimes both. There was one point where I thought I genuinely liked it and thought it had a great ending — until I realized I had only hit the 75% mark and had to muddle through to the true ending. This had the potential to say so much about abuse and trauma, which I thought was its purpose for a while, but it ended up being a bit of a meandering mess that I genuinely regret spending my time on.

Rating: ⭐⭐

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces

I can definitely appreciate the points this book hit, but it just didn’t vibe with me very well! It’s a relatively quick read and I certainly recommend picking it up if you’re interested in it, though. As a YA book, it touches on a lot of important issues from abortion to drug addiction to teen pregnancy. One of my issues was that I felt like it was trying to touch on too many things and thus lacked a bit in focus. I’d also look up trigger warnings for this beforehand, as there are a lot of potentially upsetting topics at hand. My final criticism is that it read more like a MG book than a YA book as far as voice goes. I kept surprising myself when Gabi would say something about graduating from high school or applying to college because I honestly kept thinking she was 13.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐


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Mini-Review Compilation #17

The Abyss Surrounds Us

This was a fun book! Sapphic pirates and sea monsters galore. I had a fun time with it overall and really appreciated that the power discrepancy in the romance was explicitly acknowledged. There were some bits that could have used some more fleshing out or revision (stuff like, “she suddenly stopped paying attention to me” followed a page later by “she was spending more time with me to make up for not paying attention to me” with no reasoning or resolution?) but it is a debut novel. I’m hoping to get to the sequel soon!

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Buddhism without Beliefs

This was not a complete waste of time, but was close to it. The book detaches buddhism from religion and formats it not as a belief system, but a certain way of living. At first, I was really impressed with the ideas presented and felt I was getting a lot out of it. According to Dealing with “anguish” seems to be hinged on creating a perspective in which all is temporary: our “cravings” have not always existed, thus they will not always exist. It is turning our feelings into things we can watch ebb and flow rather than something that will overtake us entirely. Action is repeatedly emphasized as the key to dharma practice.

The formatting of the book seems to be without logical flow; it felt more like a general rambling than something coherently laid out. The chapters themselves confused me, as I felt like the author was talking himself around ideas and as soon as he began to approach what I thought was the point, the chapter would end unceremoniously. It was frustrating, since it started out explaining so many interesting ideas only to turn into something unstructured and unhelpful. It seems this may have made a better essay than an entire book. Also, the author is weirdly obsessed with someone they call S, who they refer to as their enemy and who apparently riles them up often. It was strangely distracting.

Rating: ⭐⭐

The Widow of Pale Harbor

After enjoying The Witch of Willow Hall, I was quite excited for this one. Unfortunately, it just didn’t live up to expectations. I had difficulty connecting with the characters and was completely unmotivated to finish. I finally decided to put it down in favor of reading something I’d feel more excited about.

Rating: DNF


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Lilli de Jong [review]

Lilli de Jong by Janet Benton
Published by Nan A. Talese on May 6, 2017
my rating: ★★★
Goodreads avg:
3.99 (as of 2019-10-08)
Spoiler-free Review

Goodreads | IndieBound | Author Website

Pregnant, abandoned by her lover, and banished from her Quaker home and teaching position, Lilli de Jong enters a charity for wronged women to deliver her child. She is stunned at how much her infant needs her and at how quickly their bond overpowers her heart. Mothers in her position have no sensible alternative to giving up their children, but Lilli can’t bear such an outcome. Determined to chart a path toward an independent life, Lilli braves moral condemnation and financial ruin in a quest to keep herself and her baby alive.

Confiding their story to her diary as it unfolds, Lilli takes readers from an impoverished charity to a wealthy family’s home to the perilous streets of a burgeoning American city. Lilli de Jong is at once a historical saga, an intimate romance, and a lasting testament to the work of mothers. “So little is permissible for a woman,” writes Lilli, yet on her back every human climbs to adulthood.”


Lilli de Jong is the story of a young quaker girl who finds herself pregnant in a society where an unwed mother is a scourge and disgrace. I enjoyed the book at the start; not knowing much about quakers, I was intrigued to hear more about Lilli’s life. I also enjoyed the journal format, with Lilli speaking directly to the reader as if we were her diary. Which, in the narrative, we are.

How is it that shame affixes itself to the violated, and not to the violator?

Lilli is forced to seek shelter in a home for single pregnant women, and is lucky enough to be boarded and fed as she waits to birth her child. While the norm is to adopt one’s baby out and to continue life as though the pregnancy had never happened, Lilli stands her ground and decides that she wants to keep her baby. As expected, this leads to many difficulties.

So little is permissible for a woman—yet on her back every human climbs to adulthood.

I found it intriguing for quite a while, but over time the hurdles Lilli faced became tiresome. I’m sure the events were realistic to an extent, but it was difficult to suspend my belief when the worst seemed to happen at all times. As soon as things began turning around for Lilli, something even worse would happen. At first this was surprising and kept me on my toes, but I felt the author took it just too far. I was also quite frustrated at how Lilli behaved some of the time, she seemed to change her mind on a whim and had no idea how to make decisions that would actually benefit her. It’s likely because she was quite young, but still, it became irritating to read through. I will say that I had no issue with the writing itself. Benton knows how to create an atmosphere that will draw the reader in, and how to create interesting side characters to support her lead.

Did she go to the grave with painful secrets? Must every woman? Will I?

It was clear that Benton wanted to shed some light on the hardships women faced during this time period. As she mentions in the afterword, these girls’ stories went untold — I’m actually excited to read some of the books she used for her research. She also clearly wanted to show the deep bond a mother feels toward their child. In that respect, this may be more impactful to readers who enjoy reading about motherhood. Parts of it may be difficult if you do have a child — without spoilers, I’ll just say she and her daughter are put into some dangerous situations — but I think that would make it easier to relate to.

This knowledge is not a curse. Separation from the garden’s innocence is not a sin. It is a beginning.

Overall, while the book was well-written, I struggled with the seemingly endless tragedies the title character faced and got less out of this than I was hoping to.


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The Silence of the Girls [review]

The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
Published by Doubleday Books on September 4, 2018
my rating: ★★.5
Goodreads avg:
3.88 (as of 2019-05-22)
Spoiler-free Review

Goodreads | IndieBound | Author’s Website

The ancient city of Troy has withstood a decade under siege of the powerful Greek army, which continues to wage bloody war over a stolen woman—Helen. In the Greek camp, another woman—Briseis—watches and waits for the war’s outcome. She was queen of one of Troy’s neighboring kingdoms, until Achilles, Greece’s greatest warrior, sacked her city and murdered her husband and brothers. Briseis becomes Achilles’s concubine, a prize of battle, and must adjust quickly in order to survive a radically different life, as one of the many conquered women who serve the Greek army. 

When Agamemnon, the brutal political leader of the Greek forces, demands Briseis for himself, she finds herself caught between the two most powerful of the Greeks. Achilles refuses to fight in protest, and the Greeks begin to lose ground to their Trojan opponents. Keenly observant and coolly unflinching about the daily horrors of war, Briseis finds herself in an unprecedented position, able to observe the two men driving the Greek army in what will become their final confrontation, deciding the fate not only of Briseis’s people but also of the ancient world at large.

Briseis is just one among thousands of women living behind the scenes in this war—the slaves and prostitutes, the nurses, the women who lay out the dead—all of them erased by history. With breathtaking historical detail and luminous prose, Pat Barker brings the teeming world of the Greek camp to vivid life. She offers nuanced, complex portraits of characters and stories familiar from mythology, which, seen from Briseis’s perspective, are rife with newfound revelations. Barker’s latest builds on her decades-long study of war and its impact on individual lives—and it is nothing short of magnificent.


I didn’t feel like anything that might have a name.

I had quite high hopes for The Silence of the Girls, which unfortunately just weren’t met. The best way to describe my reading experience is resounding apathy. Feeling apathetic whilst reading about a woman taken into slavery during war seems wrong, but here we are. I’d attribute this to a few things: the fact that I hadn’t read The Iliad before, the standoffish way I felt the story was narrated, and the fact that the POVs were not limited to Briseis, or even only to women.

I mentioned my lukewarm reading experience to Rachel, who noted that she wasn’t sure how much this book would hold for someone who wasn’t very familiar with The Iliad. While I knew bits and pieces of the story, my knowledge was really limited to its portrayal in The Song of Achilles as well as whatever I had picked up through osmosis throughout my life. As such, this was less of a retelling for me and more, well, a telling. On its own, I’m not sure the story stands as well as it would if I had more of a background with its greater context.

So we spent the nights curled up like spiders at the centre of our webs. Only we weren’t the spiders; we were the flies.

Briseis herself is quite terse throughout her narration. While she slips into emotional points, I found myself feeling untouched for most of the book. I’m certain others may disagree with me here, and I definitely think that this is quite a subjective opinion on my part. And I understand how this can be demonstrative of what she’s gone through — trauma can make or break us, and it’s clear that the Trojan women must put up walls in order to make it through the war without breaking entirely. I just wish I could’ve seen this in a way that didn’t make me feel distant from her as well.

Lastly, I was really drawn to this story as giving a voice to women traditionally silenced. So much of the focus of history is on the heroism of men and very little is on the women who they have been supported by, or who they trod on. And yet more than once the point of view is handed to Achilles, the very man who is actively oppressing Briseis. Whatever reason this may have been for, I didn’t feel that it enhanced the story for me. Quite the opposite, the first time it happened I felt jerked out of whatever immersion I was experiencing and had to reread a bit to ensure it was really happening. Each time thereafter it felt out of place and I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like had the book kept its focus on Briseis, or at least stuck to the perspectives of the women.

Now he can see what he’s been trying to do: to bargain with grief. Behind all this frenetic activity there’s been the hope that if he keeps his promises there’ll be no more pain. But he’s beginning to understand that grief doesn’t strike bargains.

Criticisms aside, I can see why others enjoyed this. I can certainly see why it was included on the Women’s Prize shortlist. I wish that my experience with it had been better, but alas. While it wasn’t quite my cup of tea, I do recommend trying it out if it seems to interest you. Particularly if you have more of a history with Greek mythology than I do! Hopefully my next pick off the Women’s Prize list treats me a bit better.


More Women’s Prize 2019 Longlist reviews:
The Pisces
Ghost Wall
Ordinary People
Circe
Lost Children Archive
Praise Song for the Butterflies
An American Marriage
My Sister, the Serial Killer
Normal People
Freshwater
The Silence of the Girls

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