Book Reviews, Bookworm Blogging

The Man Who Saw Everything [review]

The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing on October 15, 2019
my rating: ★★★.5
Goodreads avg:
3.72 (as of 2020-05-25)
Spoiler-free review

Goodreads IndieBound | Author Website


I was frightened of everything in the past and whatever was going to happen next.

This is a short novel that packs quite a punch. The first half feels slow, and a little strange at times, but everything is suddenly turned on its head in the second half. There is so much going on and yet it never seems like too much for the page count. A lot of the writing is very simplistic, which I think works. Had it been more complex, I think it would have been easy to get lost in. It’s hard for me to say much about this without spoilers, but I do think this was quite a worthwhile read although I was left wanting. Not a new favorite, but I can see why this has been so highly lauded and perhaps worth an eventual reread to see if that ties things together a bit better.

content warnings: domestic abuse; nazi mentions; homophobia.


My current 2020 Women’s Prize Squad Longlist rankings:

  1. The Body Lies
  2. Girl, Woman, Other
  3. My Dark Vanessa
  4. The Man Who Saw Everything
  5. Ninth House
  6. My Name is Monster
  7. Frankissstein

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Braised Pork [review]

Braised Pork: A Novel by An Yu
Published by Grove Press on April 14, 2020
my rating: ★★★ (3)
Goodreads avg: 
3.56 (as of 2020-05-13)
disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for review consideration. All of the opinions presented below are my own. Quotes have been taken from the advanced copy and are subject to change upon publication.

Spoiler-free Review

Goodreads | IndieBound | Author’s Website


She had never felt such yearning for another person’s body — it was beyond the flesh and the consciousness, it was not merely lust, neither was it love. Perhaps the best way to describe it, she thought, was like being a lone traveller in a desert, exhausted and desolate, when the most beautiful and fruitful peach tree blossomed in front of her.

I found this quick and readable but unfortunately feel like I didn’t quite “get” it. There were a lot of ideas that felt a bit half-formed; either they weren’t fully realized or I was unable to connect the dots. I did enjoy the commentary on ownership and gender roles: the main character has to come to terms with the fact that she was completely reliant upon her late husband and feels that she doesn’t actually “own” anything he left her. I also didn’t end up feeling very attached to the characters, so it was difficult to become very invested in the storyline.

content warnings: death of a loved one, attempted suicide


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Kept Animals [review]

Kept Animals by Kate Milliken
Published by Scribner on April 21, 2020
my rating: ★★★★★ (5)
Goodreads avg: 
4.07 (as of 2020-05-10)
disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for review consideration. All of the opinions presented below are my own. Quotes have been taken from the advanced copy and are subject to change upon publication.

Spoiler-free Review

Goodreads | IndieBound | Author’s Website


The thing about trauma is that even after it is over, it is still happening. It is a memory in motion, forever present.

This absolutely devastated me. Kate Milliken has been without a doubt added to my must-read list of authors. Kept Animals is a novel about so many things: grief, toxic relationships, trauma, sexuality. I feel like it’s impossible to pin my thoughts on this down. I found it compelling from the start, but the deeper into the story I got, the more impossible it was to stop reading. I felt such an incredible depth of emotion reading this, and even cried at the end. It was quiet, but there was an underlying tension throughout reminiscent of a thriller — we are, after all, trying to find out what happened on one fateful day in 1993. All I can really say is: I highly recommend this if you’re interested in a dark, depressing, queer literary novel.

content warnings: drunk driving; child death; both casual and violent homophobia; sexual assault; racism and xenophobia; parental neglect; substance abuse.


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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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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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My Dark Vanessa [review]

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Published by William Morrow on March 10, 2020
my rating: ★★★★★
Goodreads avg:
4.15 (as of 2020-04-20)
Spoiler-free review

Goodreads IndieBound | Author Website

Alternating between Vanessa’s present and her past, My Dark Vanessa juxtaposes memory and trauma with the breathless excitement of a teenage girl discovering the power her own body can wield. Thought-provoking and impossible to put down, this is a masterful portrayal of troubled adolescence and its repercussions that raises vital questions about agency, consent, complicity, and victimhood. Written with the haunting intimacy of The Girls and the creeping intensity of RoomMy Dark Vanessa is an era-defining novel that brilliantly captures and reflects the shifting cultural mores transforming our relationships and society itself.


Wow. So, I read this almost entirely in one sitting and was absolutely blown away by it. Yet another book that tackles the intricacies of abuse and how things aren’t always black & white. While as a reader it is easy to condemn Strane and even to see where Vanessa went “wrong,” the novel also delves into the impact of grooming and how it can impact one’s thought processes for life. It faces head-on the idea of agency in young women and why some people may opt to see themselves as something other than a victim. This is unbelievably compelling and unbelievably important and in lieu of a full review (that would just be me gushing), I’ll leave you with some of the lines that struck me most while reading this.

It’s important that you never feel coerced. That’s the only way I’ll be able to live with myself.

“Haven’t you always felt like an outsider, a misfit?” he asks. “I’ll bet for as long as you can remember, you were called mature for your age. Weren’t you?” I think back to third grade, how it felt to bring home a report card with a teacher’s note scribbled on the bottom: Vanessa is very advanced, seems like she’s eight years old going on thirty. I’m not sure I was ever really a kid at all.

Slowly guided into the fire–why is everyone so scared to admit how good that can feel? To be groomed is to be loved and handled like a precious, delicate thing.

Because if it isn’t a love story, then what is it?


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We Need to Talk About Kevin [review]

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Published by Counterpoint on May 1, 2011 (originally 2003)
my rating: ★★★★
Goodreads avg:
4.07 (as of 2020-02-15)
Spoiler-free review

Goodreads IndieBound | Author Website

That neither nature nor nurture bears exclusive responsibility for a child’s character is self-evident. But generalizations about genes are likely to provide cold comfort if it’s your own child who just opened fire on his fellow algebra students and whose class photograph—with its unseemly grin—is shown on the evening news coast-to-coast.

If the question of who’s to blame for teenage atrocity intrigues news-watching voyeurs, it tortures our narrator, Eva Khatchadourian. Two years before the opening of the novel, her son, Kevin, murdered seven of his fellow high school students, a cafeteria worker, and the much-beloved teacher who had tried to befriend him. Because his sixteenth birthday arrived two days after the killings, he received a lenient sentence and is currently in a prison for young offenders in upstate New York.

In relating the story of Kevin’s upbringing, Eva addresses her estranged husband, Franklin, through a series of startingly direct letters. Fearing that her own shortcomings may have shaped what her son became, she confesses to a deep, long-standing ambivalence about both motherhood in general—and Kevin in particular. How much is her fault?

We Need To Talk About Kevin offers no explanations for why so many white, well-to-do adolescents—whether in Pearl, Paducah, Springfield, or Littleton—have gone nihilistically off the rails while growing up in the most prosperous country in history. Instead, Lionel Shriver tells a compelling, absorbing, and resonant story with an explosive, haunting ending. She considers motherhood, marriage, family, career—while framing these horrifying tableaus of teenage carnage as metaphors for the larger tragedy of a country where everything works, nobody starves, and anything can be bought but a sense of purpose.


Well, this was dark as hell. I think I had a general idea of what We Need to Talk About Kevin was about before going into it, but I had no idea the extent to which it would go. It’s formatted interestingly: a woman’s letters to her ex-husband exploring their past together, primarily her relationship with their son. Unfortunately this format didn’t work especially well with the writing style — it’s simply not believable to think someone would write letters like this — but ultimately did work extremely well in conveying what it was trying to convey.

I knew this about myself in advance, too: that I was just the sort of woman who had the capacity, however ghastly, to rue even so unretractable a matter as another person.

There was a lot to say about gender roles and expectations surrounding women, particularly the pressures to have children and how the experience is built up to be so much. There’s also some decent commentary on how women can be treated less like people and more like property once they become pregnant. The main character is clearly following the script she feels she should, rather than building the life she wants to. There’s also plenty of commentary on nature vs nurture that I won’t even begin to get into.

A boy is a dangerous animal.

If unlikeable characters are not your deal, you will not like this book. Eva herself is absolutely insufferable: she’s condescending and rude, and even though you root for her to a certain extent and see what she’s seeing, it’s easy to see her husband’s perspective as well. On the flip side, Franklin is a terrible husband. My internal monologue was saying “girl, dump him” the whole time I read this. He’s sexist, controlling, and completely stops seeing his wife as her own person. Please, do not even get me started on Kevin. It’s clear from the outset that he’s not a character we will like.

“You know, it is different when it’s yours. You can’t go home.” Indeed, my yearning to go home had grown recurrent, but was most intense when I was already there.

My biggest issue with this was that the first quarter or so felt dry as hell. While I understand why the slow buildup, I just kept waiting for something to happen. Once the ball gets rolling, though, this is pretty packed with underlying tension and had me waiting on the edge of my seat for what I knew was coming. There were a few moments where I actually brought my hand to my mouth in horror: not because Eva explicitly announced some terrible event, but because she hinted to it so subtly and clearly that it hit even harder. The subsequent descriptions weren’t nearly as impactful as the quiet reveals themselves.

Kevin was a shell game in which all three cups were empty.

I haven’t seen the movie so I can’t make a comparison, but this is one heavy and gripping piece of literature. I assume there’s no way the subtleties and introspective details of this novel could be translated to film, so I’m expecting a more surface-level story once I do watch the adaptation. Regardless, I definitely recommend this to those who feel they can work through the more dense literary fiction to get to the thriller within.


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Mini-Review Compilation #20

You Are Not Alone

disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley and the publisher in exchange for review consideration. All of the opinions presented below are my own.

I wish I had much to say about this, but I don’t. I’m sure this will satisfy a lot of people as an entertaining thriller. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel the plot was compelling and thought that Shay was sort of a weak, boring character. Usually thrillers have me desperate for answers, even if they’re lacking otherwise, but I didn’t have that experience here. It was readable enough for me to finish, but I think the biggest issue is that I didn’t feel a sense of urgency; I felt sure Shay would get out of this mess and instead of worrying for her, I just waited to see what would happen. The only piece I really liked was the running theme of statistics. Shay is a big and I loved the data book she kept. Clearly I’m in the minority on this though, and it is great that the somewhat large cast is almost entirely female.

Rating: ⭐⭐.5

Enduring Love

Objectively, I can see the appeal to this. It is generally well-written and there are some interesting aspects to it. Unfortunately, it totally lost me. I found myself mostly bored and not caring enough about the outcome to bother picking it up unless I had nothing else to do. I can certainly see this working for other people, but it definitely wasn’t for me.

Rating: ⭐⭐

Penance

This was, uh, strange. I struggled with it a lot and am not sure if that’s due to the writing itself or things getting lost in translation. The tone felt strangely monotone, which made it difficult for me to fully engage with the story. I also struggled to differentiate all the characters — partly because of the flat tone and partly because I felt like I was constantly having names thrown at me. I wish I had enjoyed this more because the format was interesting, as was the story itself. It will definitely stick with me, but it wasn’t something I really enjoyed reading.

Rating: ⭐⭐


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The Body Lies [review]

The Body Lies by Jo Baker
Published by Knopf on June 18, 2019
my rating: ★★★★★
Goodreads avg:
3.49 (as of 2020-01-10)
Spoiler-free Review

Goodreads IndieBound | Author Website

When a young writer accepts a job at a university in the remote English countryside, it’s meant to be a fresh start, away from the bustle of London and the scene of a violent assault she is desperate to forget. But despite the distractions of her new life and the demands of single motherhood, her nerves continue to jangle. To make matters worse, a vicious debate about violence against women inflames the tensions and mounting rivalries in her creative-writing class. When a troubled student starts turning in chapters that blur the lines between fiction and reality, the professor recognizes herself as the main character in his book–and he has written her a horrific fate. Will she be able to stop life imitating art before it’s too late? At once a breathless cat-and-mouse game and a layered interrogation of the fetishization of the female body, The Body Lies gives us an essential story for our time that will have you checking the locks on your doors.


I was first drawn to The Body Lies after reading Rachel’s incredible review of it. I’m glad to have gotten her perspective, because I can see how going into this expecting a thriller would be disappointing. This is not a fast-paced crime novel; this is a quietly terrifying piece of literary fiction. Baker presents an examination of trauma as well as the objectification of women’s bodies that I will not be forgetting anytime soon.

The atmosphere is key here. An undercurrent of tension runs throughout this novel. As a reader I nearly always was on the edge of my seat waiting for things to go south even though, strictly speaking, not much was happening. Baker is masterful at making you truly feel the main character’s anxieties without even telling you what they are. I was incredulous at how certain events impacted me; events that objectively I wouldn’t have felt anything for become absolutely heart-wrenching when placed into context.

This is in part a tongue-in-cheek commentary about how women’s bodies are typically used in thrillers. Baker turns these tropes on their head, criticizing them while also demonstrating how to utilize them effectively. The setting really works here: a creative writing class allows us to see examples firsthand in an organic manner. The excerpts of her students’ writing don’t feel forced, and they add a great deal to the story.

What I found most impactful in this book was its portrayal (and analysis) of trauma. At the outset of the book, the narrator is attacked by a man on the street. The ways this impacts her life are both large and small, and I felt Baker did an incredible job of demonstrating that. Additionally, it quickly becomes clear that those outside a traumatic incident are not necessarily able to understand, or even notice, these impacts. My heart ached reading this; I felt like Baker was able to reach deep down inside me.

I honestly cannot recommend this book highly enough. As I said before, it will do you no good to go into this expecting a true thriller with a twisty plot. But if you’re looking for something dark and quiet that explores the way we treat women, you’re in for quite the treat. I’m certain I’ll be coming back to this again and recommending it left and right. Already my favorite book of the year (although I’ll revisit this in December), The Body Lies is honestly a masterpiece.


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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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