Piranesi by Susanna Clarke Published by Bloomsbury Publishing on September 15, 2020 my rating: 4 stars Goodreads avg: 4.26 (as of 2022-09-15) Spoiler-free review Goodreads
There is a thing that I know but always forget: Winter is hard.
What a bizarre little book. This is difficult to review without giving anything away, but I’ll give it a shot. I went into this pretty cold, knowing only that it was somewhat related to mythology and fairly fantastic. I honestly think that was best, it took me a bit to settle into the narrative style but witnessing the story unravel while trying to figure out what was going on was very satisfying. Piranesi is an oddly satisfying character to follow, I appreciated his emphasis on logic and his understanding of the world around him. Although his naivety could have been frustrating, I found it more sad than anything else and I found him very sympathetic. Clarke did an excellent job with this and I’m glad it was the Women’s Prize winner of 2021.
The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani transl. by Sam Taylor Published by Penguin Books on January 9, 2018 (originally 2016) my rating: 4 stars Goodreads avg: 3.39 (as of 2022-09-08) Spoiler-free review Goodreads
Already the rumor is spreading. Something terrible has happened to the children.
I picked this up after listening to a re-run of an interview with the author on the podcast Literary Friction. I was a little anxious seeing the average rating (apparently the last month or so has been me accidentally reading plenty of lowly-rated books), but decided to give it a go anyway. I’m glad I did. This is a book following Louise, a French nanny who seems perfect in every way. But the book begins with the death of the two children Louise has been nannying. This is a retrospective, more literary than thriller, giving us the greater context for this tragedy.
I could have easily read this in one sitting. I found the story and its characters utterly compelling, even if none of them were particularly likeable. Louise is outwardly perfect in every way, going above and beyond, but privately she is drowning in the debts of her late husband and is completely estranged from her daughter. I liked how we were exposed to voices from Louise’s past as we follow her in the very recent past throughout her career with these two children. The tone of this book was immaculate, with creeping dread building steadily as the family and the nanny become increasingly more codependent in their relationships.
This will be a particularly horrific read for parents and I caution you to make sure you’re prepared if you have or want kids. But Slimani is an excellent writer who is able to pack so much into such a slim novel and I will absolutely be recommending this.
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters Published by One World on January 12, 2021 my rating: 5 stars Goodreads avg: 4.00 (as of 2022-08-31) Spoiler-free review Goodreads
[…] her life as a woman arrived with pain; pain that had to be endured, withstood, pain that was the same as being alive, and so was without end.
This was really incredible. Torrey Peters is an incredible writer and I was constantly awed by how clever this was. ‘A whipsmart debut’ indeed. Reese is a trans woman living in New York who is figuring out herself and how to get what she wants in life. Ames is her ex-girlfriend, now detransitioned but not quite a cis man, trying to live a ‘normal’ life. Ames has gotten his current partner, his boss, pregnant and is frantically trying to decide what to do.
Before I knew this was authored by a trans women, the inclusion of detransition concerns me. I mean, we’re surrounded with right-wing rhetoric about how allowing trans children to be themselves will lead to all these horrible things, and how soo many people detransition. But Peters is trans and I felt that she handled this topic gracefully, emphasizing how so many trans folks are forced to detransition because it is so difficult to live in such a transphobic world.
While I am not a trans woman, as a member of the queer community I did find a lot of comfort and familiarity in this book. I’m also polyamorous and seeing the development of this triad warmed my heart — even if they have far to go when it comes to communication. But this book deals with a lot of dark topics, things that I don’t think could have been left out of a story like this. There is an interesting commentary about various forms of colonization and oppression; Ames’ partner Katrina is a cis woman but is biracial. Reese is used to viewing all cis women as privileged, but has to confront the fact that not all cis women are cis white women.
I also appreciated that Peters didn’t pause the story to introduce concepts of Gender 101; she used in-group language without explanation in a way that I found immersive and important. I appreciate when authors do this for any kind of culture — sprinkling in definitions often feels forced or pulls a reader out of the story. We all have access to Google and are able to look up anything we don’t understand from prior knowledge or context alone.
There were so many fascinating explorations of misogyny and transmisogyny and I’m excited to come back to this someday to pick up on more than can be processed via a first read. I feel like each page could spawn dozens of essays. Peters brought a remarkable book into this world and I’m looking forward to picking up her next one.
The Odyssey by Lara Williams Published by Zando on April 21, 2022 my rating: 4 stars Goodreads avg: 3.26 (as of 2022-08-18) Spoiler-free review Goodreads
disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for review consideration. Quotes have been taken from the advanced copy and may differ from the final publication.
I was already feeling kind of slumpy when I picked this up and when I saw the average Goodreads rating (an abysmal 3.26), I was nervous. I thought this would edge me further into my reading slump and that I’d have another DNF on my hands. Instead, I found myself pulled straight in to Ingrid’s story. A crewmember on an immense cruise ship, Ingrid is a strange person having strange experiences. It’s hard to say more without getting into spoilers, but I found this to be a delightfully messy and confusing book. There both is and isn’t much in the way of plot and the characters themselves are odd and difficult to connect with. I can see why this isn’t for everyone, but I felt like Lara Williams did a great job here and I’m glad I finally got around to picking this up.
Fault Lines by Emily Itami Published by Custom House on September 7, 2021 my rating: 3.5 stars Goodreads avg: 3.75 (as of 2022-06-16) Spoiler-free review Goodreads
I went into this completely cold and found myself a bit bored by it at first. Mizuki is a Japanese housewife who has spent time in America and dreams of more than domesticity. She begins an affair with a stranger, as she feels neglected by her husband and bored with her life. This sounds like the start of plenty of literary novels, but I found her relationship with Kiyoshi lovely and refreshing. I also liked that instead of causing her to drift further from her family, her relationship with Kyoshi allows her to settle more fully into her role as wife and mother when she is home. I was even quite emotional at the ending, although I knew it couldn’t have ended any other way. I’m glad to have read this and am looking forward to seeing if Itami puts out any more books. Thanks to Fatma for the rec!
Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier Published by Doubleday on June 9, 2020 my rating: 4 stars Goodreads avg: 3.37 (as of 2022-06-03) Spoiler-free review Goodreads
I truly had no idea what to expect from this, but a pregnant 18-year-old obsessing over a middle aged woman wasn’t it. The titular Pizza Girl is a delivery driver who is dealing with grief, the looming future of motherhood, and a deepening divide between herself and her family, which consists of only her boyfriend and her own mother. This book has humorous moments and its fair share of vulgarity, but it’s a deep look into coming of age while in the throes of depression. I was frantic and heartbroken by the end of this, more closely invested in Pizza Girl than I thought I would become. I’m glad I was recommended this for the 12 in 12 Challenge, as I honestly think I wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise.
The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa, transl. by Stephen Snyder Published by Pantheon in August 13, 2019 (originally 1994) my rating: 3 stars Goodreads avg: 3.75 (as of 2022-05-25) Spoiler-free review Goodreads
I wish I had gotten along with this more, but it was a little flatter than I expected. It was reminiscent to me of 1984 in some ways, although I wouldn’t draw a tight comparison between the two. I thought the titular Memory Police would play a more pivotal role in this, but it felt like they only existed to add stakes to the story. I just felt a lot of “why?” reading this. I could draw connections to colonialism and the erasure of cultures, or the oppression of afab bodies, but it didn’t feel like a fully formed commentary was there. I was largely bored by this and although some aspects were compelling, I felt let down.
Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith Published by Random House in July 6, 2021 my rating: 3 stars Goodreads avg: 3.87 (as of 2022-05-23) Spoiler-free review Goodreads
I’m still not sure whether I read this book or whether it was all a fever dream that I imagined. Build Your House Around My Body spans decades and follows an ever-changing cast of characters through a dark, fantastical story. The ‘main’ character, Winnie, is a Vietnamese-American woman attempting to find herself in Vietnam while slipping deeper and deeper into a depressive spiral.
While I appreciated this story overall, I found myself swinging between bored, confused, and intrigued. Sadly, too much of my time was spent waiting to get to the end of the story rather than appreciating the journey itself. This novel is often difficult to follow, although I was impressed by the way Kupersmith was able to connect the characters to each other. There were many instances where I found myself highlighting lines that would have meant little-to-nothing in another book, but that gave me an ‘aha!’ moment in seeing another connection.
I would recommend this with the caveat that if you don’t like sweeping storylines that take their time to intersect and become clear, this is probably not the book for you. It does have a lot of interesting commentary on colonialism and bodily autonomy, but I struggled to untangle this from the story itself.
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Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata transl. by Ginny Tapley Takemori Published by Grove Press in August 2019 (originally 2016) my rating: 3.5 stars Goodreads avg: 3.72 (as of 2022-05-18) Spoiler-free review
This short novel (or is it technically a novella? I never know) is a pleasantly written examination of societal expectations. It’s set in Japan so while expectations are a little bit different than what I’m used to seeing in my area of the US, I think this is a book everyone can relate to in some way. Keiko has been working at the same convenience store for 18 years and at 36 has friends and family who are concerned about her apparent lack of ambition regarding both her career and romance. Our narrator, on the other hand, is happy with her life. She understands the flow of the convenience store, is able to predict its needs the way one might do with a lover or a child. She doesn’t see the need to expand her horizon, and doesn’t understand why others may be so concerned with it.
This really felt like the perfect length to me; we had plenty of time to understand Keiko’s life, routine, and mindset before the obligatory conflict and subsequent disaster set in. I liked the humor in this and found it easy to get through. It did make me think a lot about how we judge people for not hitting certain ‘milestones’ whether it’s what they want or not. I loved how she was so happy with herself and her life and didn’t understand why that wasn’t good enough for others.
I thought this was great at doing what it was meant to do, but it was just missing something for me, which is why my rating is a little lower. I did enjoy it overall, though, and will be recommending it! Additionally, it is not explicitly stated but I found it heavily implied that Keiko is autistic and aroace. She faces a lot of critique and discrimination for this, so I would make sure you’re in the right headspace to read this if that’s something that could be difficult for you to read!
I liked how complex and easy to root for these characters were, even as they waded through gray areas of morality and made mistake after mistake. Olga is a wedding planner for the elite and her brother Prieto is a congressman. Both of them are of Puerto Rican descent, born and raised in Brooklyn. This novel explores their personal lives as well as the impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on Puerto Rico itself.
Olga and Prieto are both middle aged and still dealing with being abandoned (and subsequently emotionally abused) by their mother, although in different ways. Prieto has hidden himself behind a mask that is beginning to crack and Olga has avoided any kind of emotional connections. Prieto begins to question the way he’s been doing things, while Olga meets the odd-yet-endearing Matteo.
This is an interesting examination of familial trauma, race, and gentrification that works in a lot of ways but ultimately tried to hit too many topics. One of my biggest issues was that the ending felt far too neat for me, like González needed to tie everything up in a bow. I felt like we went from realistic literary fiction to a run-of-the-mill romance novel in the 11th hour; it just didn’t fit the tone of everything that preceded it.
Overall, I did enjoy this though, it just ended up knocked down a few pegs for me. Everything from here on is spoiler territory, as there are some aspects of the ending that rubbed me the wrong way. Content warning for discussion of rape ahead. The first is that the ‘third act breakup’ is preceded by Olga being raped and having a complete mental breakdown. It honestly felt like the assault was just a tool to get to this conflict, and could have been replaced by anything else. When she finally tells Matteo, he’s like ‘wow that sucks and it’s not your fault, but you can’t ignore me when you’re upset.’ Like?? Maybe cut her a little more slack dude, she was literally just raped.
Secondly, one of the unrealistic aspects of the ending is that Matteo just happens to be rich so he can say, ‘oh don’t worry about getting a job, we can just be together and money doesn’t matter!’ How is he rich? He’s a landlord. It’s okay, though! He’s a good landlord! He’s fighting gentrification! By being a landlord! Especially coming right after the ‘sorry you were raped but don’t ignore me’ conversation, this just left a bad taste in my mouth. Matteo is supposed to be a good guy, we’re supposed to be happy. I wasn’t.
Like I said above, this is still a good book. I still recommend it. I just couldn’t love it and have trouble looking past its faults.