Thursday, 26 September 2019

Review: ‘Mother Knows Best’ by Kira Peikoff

Aah, it’s been a while since I’ve let myself indulge in a family thriller, especially one with such modern twists and turns! I was first attracted to Peikoff’s novel by the idea of triple shared parenthood, of how modern technological advance may wreak havoc with our rather gentle and fragile emotions. And Peikoff did not disappoint. Thank you to Crooked Lane Books, Meryl L. Moss Media Relations and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 10/09/2019
Publisher: Meryl L. Moss Media Relations; Crooked Lane Books
A mother's worst nightmare, a chance at redemption, and a deadly secret that haunts a family across the generations.
There's only room for one mother in this family.
Claire Abrams's dreams became a nightmare when she passed on a genetic mutation that killed her little boy. Now she wants a second chance to be a mother, and finds it in Robert Nash, a maverick fertility doctor who works under the radar with Jillian Hendricks, a cunning young scientist bent on making her mark--and seducing her boss.
Claire, Robert, and Jillian work together to create the world's first baby with three genetic parents--an unprecedented feat that could eliminate inherited disease. But when word of their illegal experiment leaks to the wrong person, Robert escapes into hiding with the now-pregnant Claire, leaving Jillian to serve out a prison sentence that destroys her future.
Ten years later, a spunky girl named Abigail begins to understand that all is not right with the reclusive man and woman she knows as her parents. But the family's problems are only beginning. Jillian, hardened by a decade of jealousy and loss, has returned--and nothing will stop her from reuniting with the man and daughter who should have been hers.
Past, present, and future converge in this mesmerizing psychological thriller from critically acclaimed author Kira Peikoff.
Modern technology is rapidly advancing. Yes, that is a very trite message but it remains true. We’re quickly finding answers to questions we didn’t dare ask before and it means that our idea of who we are, and what our relationships to each other mean, is also changing. What I really appreciated about Mother Knows Best is that the horror of the story is enver, truly, related to the science itself. There are no botched operations, suffering test objects or other clinical horrors. Instead, the thrills come from human behavior and human responses to technology and science. In that sense, Mother Knows Best follows in the footsteps of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Science is what it is. It is how we as humans respond, how we think of ourselves and what we do, that can become horrible as a consequence. Peikoff doesn’t go as far in this direction as I would’ve liked, but I think it was the right direction to steer this novel in. I do want to note that the dismissal of adoption and the hammering on about how there can only be one mother was a bit unnecessary in my eyes.

Mother Knows Best’ story is told by different narrators, all female. There is Claire, a mother desperate to have a healthy baby of her own and willing to go as far as it takes to make it happen. There is Jillian, the femme fatale of the novel. My only gripe, really, with Mother Knows Best is her characterization as the attractive and cunning ‘young scientist’ who, of course, sees seduction as the main way to achieve her goals. She is very much a trope, a character we recognize from page one, and Peikoff only very rarely shows us a deeper side to her. The final narrator is Abby, the daughter, who doesn’t know why her life is as weird as it is, but has inherited her parents’ desire for answers. Alongside these three women we have Robert Nash, our main scientist, and Ethan Abrams, our overly ethical father. It’s an interesting cast with many interlinking connections.

I hadn’t read anything by Keira Peikoff before so this was my first introduction to her. I found her crafting of the little details very interesting and she managed to make pretty complicated science sound straightforward. I’d actually have liked it if she’d gone into the nitty-gritty of it a little bit more, adding to the complexity and danger of her plot. As with many thrillers, especially ones that centre around family tragedy, the ending of Mother Knows Best is not as hard-hitting as you’d hope for. I saw another reviewer, OutlawPoet, note that while they found the book interesting it wasn’t necessarily exciting and this has stuck with me. I’m intrigued by most of Peikoff’s plot, don’t get me wrong. There are twists and turns aplenty but there is no true moment of ‘heart plummeting to your feet’ dread and the twists become rather outlandish and dramatic towards the end. It means that Mother Knows Best was a fun reading experience, but not one that left me particularly inspired.

I give this novel…
3 Universes.

Mother Knows Best is an interesting read that will fly by. It is also slightly predictable, aside from its fascinating premise. I'd definitely recommend it for those looking for something slightly different.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Happy Birthday, Agatha Christie!

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It's officially a 129 years since our world was gifted with Agatha Christie, although she was born as Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller on the 15th of September, 1890. Christie is the bestselling author in the world, proving, at least to me, once and for all that we're all obsessed with murder. Christie's novels are known for their British upper class characters, their convoluted plots that somehow make a lot of sense once explained, and their icons, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Some of my favourite family memories are when a big Agatha Christie adaptation would be on TV and we would all gather in the living room to find out who was getting killed on the Nile. It's only later on that I started reading her novels and short stories and fell in love with her writing as well. So it's with great pleasure that I present some of my favourite Agatha Christie quotes for her birthday.

Good old fun
'Use that fluff of yours you call a brain.'
- A Murder Is Announced
'I do not argue with obstinate men. I act in spite of them.'
- The Mystery of the Blue Train

'In England the cult of the moustache is lamentably neglected.'
- Dumb Witness

'No sign, so far, of anything sinister - but I live in hope.'
- Cat Among the Pigeons

'They tried to be too clever --- and that was their undoing.'
- The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Life Advice
Image result for agatha christie
'It is a curious thought, but it is only when you see people looking ridiculous that you realize just how much you love them.'
- Agatha Christie: An Autobiography
'Never do anything yourself that others can do for you.'
- The Labours of Hercules
'If you place your hear in a lion's mouth, then you cannot complain one day if he happens to bite it off.'
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
'If you've lost, you've lost.'
- Five Little Pigs

'It is not the past that matters, but the future.'
- Death on the Nile
'The truth, however ugly in itself, is always curious and beautiful to seekers after it.'
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

How to Solve a Murder
'The impossible could not have happened, therefore the impossible must be possible in spite of appearances.'
- Murder on the Orient Express
'Everything must be taken into account. If the fact will not fit the theory -- let the theory go.'
- The Mysterious Affair at Styles
'L'amour, it causes many fatalities, does it not?'
- The Mystery of the Blue Train
'Every murdered is probably somebody's old friend', mused Poirot.'
- The Mysterious Affair at Styles
'Many homicidal lunatics are very quiet, unassuming people. Delightful fellows.'
- And Then There Were None

And now, to round this post off, please enjoy Drunk History's episode on Agatha Christie's very own, cleverly engineered yet slightly sad, disappearance!

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Review: 'The Water Cure' by Sophie Mackintosh

It's rare that a book comes around I hear as much about as I have with The Water Cure. First I saw random mentions of it here or there, then the reviews came steaming in, and then the countless of lists that ranked it as a top feminist novel, a top 21st century novel, as the next The Handmaid's Tale or the next The Power. Even though I'm in Shanghai, English bookstores are rare, so you can imagine my joy when Ellie from Penguin Books UK emailed me abut the opportunity to finally read it myself! Thanks to Penguin Books UK and NetGalley for providing me with a  copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 4/25/2019
Publisher: Penguin Books UK
Grace, Lia and Sky live in an abandoned hotel, on a sun-bleached island, beside a poisoned sea. Their parents raised them there to keep them safe, to make them good. The world beyond the water is contaminated and men are the contamination. But one day three strangers wash ashore - men who stare at the sisters hungrily, helplessly. Men who bring trouble. 
'Visceral, hypnotic . . . with one of my favourite endings I've read in a long while' The Pool 
'An unsettling dark fantasy... [It] lingers long after the final page' Daily Telegraph 
'Otherworldly, brutal and poetic: a feminist fable set by the sea, a female Lord of the Flies. It felt like a book I'd been waiting to read for a long time' Emma Jane Unsworth
This review contains spoilers.

The Water Cure is many things. One thing it is, is a meditation on love. What kind of love we accept, what kind of love we give, how it hurts and how it soothes. In The Water Cure Mackintosh shows us three sisters, Grace, Lia and Sky, growing up on an isolated island with their father and mother. From the beginning something is off as the reader realizes that the oldest daughter, Grace, is pregnant and that there can only be one father. The father, named King, is both the sisters' saviour and their abuser. Their mother, left nameless throughout the novel, is both complicit in their abuse and a victim herself. The sisters cling to each other and despise each other, with a desperation that occasionally becomes violent. From the start The Water Cure subverts what you expect of a dystopian novel. Usually some effort is made by the author to establish the reality of their world, but everything about Mackintosh's world remains vague. Who is this family, why are they on this island, where is this island? It is precisely this vagueness that gives the novel its eerie tone, while also allowing it to seem almost myth-like.

 As the book progresses it becomes clearer that the older two sisters, Grace and Lia, are beginning to see the cracks in the story they have been wrapped in since infancy. So what is real and what isn't? Are the three sisters reliable narrators? Hardly, because they have been raised outside reality. They are to be the shining new woman, as King puts it, yet he has raised them to be malnourished and suspicious, hellbent on survival and utterly dependent. Most of the book's narration is done by Lia, the middle sister, who most often finds herself without a 'loved most'. One of the family's "therapies" is to draw irons, small tokens, that decide which in the family will be the focus of the love of another. Lia is often left without, leading to her being deprived of the comfort and validation that comes from knowing you're loved and valued. When men appear on the island after the disappearance of King, it is Lia whose desperation for touch and affection and acknowledgement triggers much of the end portion of the novel. The gentle precision with which Mackintosh analyses Lia's desperation for affection is heartbreaking. She wants to be seen, recognized, touched, but most important to have her existence affirmed.

One thing that touched me very deeply about The Water Cure were the different "therapies" enforced on the sisters by their parents. One I've mentioned above is the drawing of the irons to decide who you can love. Another that is brought up repeatedly shows mainly Lia being forced to harm animals or one of her sisters, thereby sparing her sisters from doing the same She is taught to show her love by hurting them, and in the privacy of her room she hurts herself equally out of remorse. Lia is fascinated by how the washed up men inhabit their own bodies, as if they've never had to be ashamed of it, had to purify it or punished it. That sense of freedom in your own body, the naturalness of it, is something most women will feel is missing from their own lives. It is just one example of how The Water Cure manages to, despite its extraordinary story, describe the ordinary desperation many women feel.

Shortly after reading The Water Cure I also read Sophie Mackintosh's short story Grace. In both we encounter female narrators who are in the midst of something extraordinary, who have to make big decisions about their lives while maybe not having all the tools to do so. Mackintosh's writing is very precise and yet lush. You can picture the life these women live and yet a dreamlike quality remains. When it comes to describing their inner emotional lives, however, Mackintosh is almost clinically sharp. There is no hiding from how torn up these women are. The Water Cure isn't as plot driven as other "feminist dystopias" such as, for example, The Handmaid's Tale. At times the novel feels more like a meditation on rather than a road map to love and liberation. It took me a very long time to figure out how to put my thoughts about this novel  into writing and even now I'm not quite sure I've achieved my goal. I'll be thinking about The Water Cure for a long time, however.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

The Water Cure reached 'hit' status incredibly quickly, which means I went into the novel with very high expectations. I found myself grasped by Mackintosh's insights and writing and look forward to her future writings with eagerness.

Friday, 6 September 2019

Analysis: Robert Frost's 'The Road Not Taken'

Image result for robert frostRobert Frost's 'The Road Not Taken' is one of the, if perhaps not the, most famous poems in the English language. It's title has become a catchphrase for those who dare, those who aspire, and those who rebel. Or at the very least those who want to all of the above. I have always wondered about this poem. So let's have another look at it, not just the imagery, but also what other messages may be hidden in the poem.

In the first stanza our narrator is in 'a yellow wood'. To me this immediately brings to mind harvest, falling leaves, the deep breath before the winter plunge. It's a time to hibernate, to ponder over decisions. Of course this crossroads in the woods is one big metaphor, but, for me, making it an autumnal forest is a great choice. The narrator 'is sorry [they] could not travel both/and be one traveler'. There is the desire for adventure and experience, but it is the second part of the line that really hits home the messenger. One the hand it is physically impossible to travel both paths at once, but you can also not be 'one' if you choose two different things. Each path, each choice will affect you differently, and therefore no one person can do both. And so our narrator looks done one path for a long time, all the way to where 'it bent in the undergrowth'. 'Undergrowth' suggests something wild, but also something unkempt. Nature runs rife there, and nature is almost always a metaphor for the wild in mankind, our untamed natures.

However, the narrator moves on in the second stanza. They have contemplated the first road and now look at the second. It is 'just as fair' but perhaps has a 'better claim' to that title since it 'was grassy and wanted wear'. So seemingly this is a pleasant and smooth road, one that looks easier to travel by. The key, in my eyes, to the poem lies in the next line.
'Though as for that passing there / Had worn them really about the same.'
The 'that' refers back to the 'wanted wear' from the previous line. This second road may seem more appealing and greening, but 'passing there', i.e. people passing over the road, has worn it to 'really about the same' as the first road. Bear that thought in mind because it's important!

The comparison between the two roads continues in the third stanza. Both the roads 'that morning equally lay', covered in leaves that 'no step had trodden black'. Both roads are currently untraveled and haven't seen the footsteps of anyone else for a while. And so the narrator chooses the second road and 'kept the first for another day!'. This is the first and only exclamation mark in the poem. This is the buoyancy and excitement that comes from making a choice. The beginning 'Oh' shows that relief and that conviction. And yet, in the back of their mind, 'knowing how way leads on to way', the narrator 'doubted if [they] should ever come back'. Once a choice is made, it will lead you to a new, different crossroad. Life is very much a Choose Your Own Adventure story. Circling back is near impossible, starting over definitely is. And so, we will never be faces with quite the same choice again. The narrator has resigned themselves, by the final line of the stanza, to the fact that they will never travel the first road not that they have chosen the second.

Image result for yellow forest
The fourth stanza is perhaps the most famous one and the one most quoted. I had often thought of 'The Road Not Taken' as a poem that tells us our choices matter, that one decision can change everything and that hence each road taken must be contemplated. The poem seems to suggest that. And yet, ever since reading David Orr's feature on the poem in The Paris Review of Books, 'The Most Misread Poem in America', I haven't looked at it the same way. Rather than confirming us in our desire that our choices are crucial, the poem almost satirizes that desire. I feel that the fourth and final stanza shows us this.

Our narrator tells us how they 'shall be telling this with a sigh/ / somewhere ages and ages hence'. This story, of the crossroads and of the choices made, will be repeated in the far future, but the narrator shall be doing so 'with a sigh'. Gone is the excitement of making a choice, replaced now with a sense of fatigue and finality.
'Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —' 
There is a pause here, as if the narrator feels hesitant to go on. What did they do? And what will they say about what they did? (Do take a listen to Frost himself reading the poem below. Do you sense that hesitation as well when he reads this line?) The narrator 'took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference'. That is what the narrator will be telling and yet! Please refer back to the thought I suggested you hold. Both roads were, although different in appearance, equally 'worn ... about the same'. On both 'equally lay ... leaves no step had trodden black'. So what is the true difference between these roads, apart from the fact that the first disappeared into the 'undergrowth', surely seeming more wild, while the second 'was grassy' and at first glance 'wanted wear'. Did our narrator really choose 'the one less traveled by'? Or is this what we tell ourselves at the end of the road?  

The poem is not titled 'The Road Less Traveled By' but 'The Road Not Taken'. At the end of our lives, after we make choices, we don't just sit there and congratulate ourselves on all the choices we have made, do we? After every choice we make think of what might have happened had we chosen the other road. Our narrator may not be unhappy with the choice they have made, but they can't help but be curious about where 'The Road Not Taken' may have led.

Friday Friyay: Book Beginnings and Friday 56

The Edible WomanIt has been forever since I've joined in on these blog hops on Friday, but they're major fun and hence, I am back! On Fridays we go to Book Beginnings at Rose City Reader, hosted by Gilion Dumas, and Friday 56 at Freda's Voice, hosted by Freda.

This week I've chosen The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood. I was inspired to pick up Atwood's first novel when I read Terri-Jane Dow's great 'Re-Reading All of Margaret Atwood's Novels in 2019' in the Chicago Review of Books. Since I love a lot of Atwood's fiction, I decided it was time to see where it all began.
Marian is determined to be ordinary. She lays her head gently on the shoulder of her serious fiancé and quietly awaits marriage. But she didn't count on an inner rebellion that would rock her stable routine, and her digestion. Marriage a la mode, Marian discovers, is something she literally can't stomach... The Edible Woman is a funny, engaging novel about emotional cannibalism, men and women, and the desire to be consumed.
I mean, emotional cannibalism? The desire to be consumed? I'm fascinated already. So let's get started with Book Beginnings:

'I know I was all right on Friday when I got up; if anything I was feeling more stolid than usual. When I went out to the kitchen to get breakfast Ainsley was there, moping: she said she had been to a bad party the night before. She swore there had been nothing but dentistry students, which depressed her so much she had consoled herself by getting drunk. 
"You have no idea how soggy it is," she said, "having to go through twenty conversations about the insides of people's mouths. The most reaction I got out of them was when I described an abscess I once had. They positively drooled. And most men look at something besides your teeth, for god's sake."' 1%
I decided to include the first line of dialogue as it showed a little bit more personality thank just the first sentence or two. I'm kind of interested to see where the rest of this narrative is going since that first sentence rather predicts that she is not currently all right!

And now for the Friday 56:

'"That's ridiculous!" Len said. "Nobody wants to get pregnant. Nobody would deliberately do a thing like that!"Marian smiled; he was being simple-minded, which she found sweet, in a sticky sort of way. She felt as though she should take him upon her knees and say, "Now Leonard, it's high time I told you about the Facts of Life."' 56%
Now I still have absolutely no idea what's happening but these two sentences made me laugh out loud. I can't wait to find out the context for them.

Have you read The Edible Woman? And if you're a Margaret Atwood fan as well, which is your favourite of her novels?

Thursday, 5 September 2019

My Forays into Short Stories

I didn't mean to make the title of this post rhyme, but I guess in certain accents it would! But that's besides the point. I wanted to dedicate this post today to two of my favourite literary things: short stories and translated literature. My ultimate wish would be to be able to read every book in its original language, but since I've been struggling with Mandarin for 3 years now, it is probably best to stick with translations for now.

I have adored the short story genre for quite a while, but it is only in the past few years that I have really come to appreciate the complexity of a good short story. I have been expanding my short story-horizons and I thought I'd share some of the short story collections I have enjoyed recently. Most of these will be translations from the original language.

Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales - Yoko Ogawa, trans. from Japanese by Stephen Snyder

Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales
Yoko Ogawa was only recently brought to my attention when I kept seeing her latest novel, The Memory Police, recommended pretty much everywhere! Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales is a fascinating collection of eleven stories that all interconnect, one way or another. Reading it felt like a meditation on how grief and anger spread their way across people's lives, affecting their smallest actions and the lives of those around them.

An aspiring writer moves into a new apartment and discovers that her landlady has murdered her husband. Elsewhere, an accomplished surgeon is approached by a cabaret singer, whose beautiful appearance belies the grotesque condition of her heart. And while the surgeon’s jealous lover vows to kill him, a violent envy also stirs in the soul of a lonely craftsman. Desire meets with impulse and erupts, attracting the attention of the surgeon’s neighbor---who is drawn to a decaying residence that is now home to instruments of human torture. Murderers and mourners, mothers and children, lovers and innocent bystanders---their fates converge in an ominous and darkly beautiful web.
Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge is a master class in the macabre that will haunt you to the last page.
The Sadness of Beautiful Things: StoriesThe Sadness of Beautiful Things - Simon Van Booy

I'm not quite sure how I stumbled upon Van Booy's stories, but I was deeply touched by the sentiment in each of the stories in The Sadness of Beautiful Things. In each of them you'll find the unexpected kindness of strangers, but also the deep weight of grief and sadness. Especially the last story in this collection, about a father and husband worrying about the end of the world, was heartbreaking.

Over the past decade, Simon Van Booy has been listening to people's stories. With these personal accounts as a starting point, he has crafted a powerful collection of short fiction that takes readers into the innermost lives of everyday people. From a family saved from ruin by a mysterious benefactor, to a downtrodden boxer who shows unexpected kindness to a mugger, these masterfully written tales reveal not only the precarious balance maintained between grief and happiness in our lives, but also how the echoes of personal tragedy can shape us for the better.

Mouthful of Birds - Samantha Schweblin, trans. from Spanish by Megan McDowell

Mouthful of BirdsI picked up the recommendation for Mouthful of Birds from the Guardian's series 'Books that made me', the Tommy Orange installment. He Chose Schweblin's collection as the book that made him cry and after reading it I absolutely understood why. He called it 'strange and beautiful', which is exactly what these stories are. The title story is both eerily creepy and heartwarming, which is a masterful combination to achieve.

A powerful, eerily unsettling story collection from a major international literary star.
Unearthly and unexpected, the stories in Mouthful of Birds burrow their way into your psyche and don't let go. Samanta Schweblin haunts and mesmerizes in this extraordinary, masterful collection.
Schweblin's stories have the feel of a sleepless night, where every shadow and bump in the dark take on huge implications, leaving your pulse racing, and the line between the real and the strange blur.
The Well of Trapped Words by Sema Kaygusuz, trans. from Turkish by Maureen Freely

Image result for the well of trapped words coverI had the enormous fortune to attend Sema Kaygusuz' talk at the Shanghai LitFest last March, which is where I picked up my copy The Well of Trapped Words. I was even more honoured that she wrote me a recommendation list of philosophers and poets on the back page. Her stories look at Turkey's history, relationships between men and women, as well as the relation between women and their bodies. They are lyrical and beautiful. Many have stayed with me since reading them.
A sixty year-old man marries a teenage bride, then mysteriously begins to starve himself to death... ...A disenfranchised Kurdish girl finally fulfulls her dream to dine out at the mall - where all is not as it seems... ...A local strongman is robbed and beaten by a gang. In hospital, he strives to prevent his secret insecurity being exposed; that inside his huge shoes he has tiny feet.
Bringing together the best of Sema Kagusuz’s short fiction for the first time, this debut English-language publication has themes of identity, race (and particularly the plight of ethnic minorities), family secrets, and what happens when private lives are opened in the public sphere. Outspoken and controversial, and yet with a deft lyrical touch that grasps the reader's emotions as well as their intellect, The Well of Trapped Words shows a writer at the peak of her powers.
There Once Lived A Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, trans. from Russian by Keith Gessen & Anna Summers

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy TalesI found mention of this collection in a list of female Russian authors and I was immediately intrigued by the title. I mean... what?! The stories in this collection are heartbreaking and, indeed, scary fairy tales. They are all fantastical and macabre, but they all speak to a very true and deep humanity.

The literary event of Halloween: a book of otherworldly power from Russia's preeminent contemporary fiction writer
Vanishings and apparitions, nightmares and twists of fate, mysterious ailments and supernatural interventions haunt these stories by the Russian master Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, heir to the spellbinding tradition of Gogol and Poe. Blending the miraculous with the macabre, and leavened by a mischievous gallows humor, these bewitching tales are like nothing being written in Russia-or anywhere else in the world-today. 

and finally I have to end on the collection below:

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

This is really the collection that kickstarted my new obsession with short stories this year. I reread it earlier for my book club at work and realized just how transgressive and inventive Machado's stories really are. Her Body and other Parties was a groundbreaking story collection for me. The way Machado played with form and language, while putting to paper some incredibly harsh truths, is just beautiful. Do yourself a favour and read it, if you haven't yet! (She has also just written a brilliant blog post for the Paris Review of Books about Beth March!)

Her Body and Other PartiesIn Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado blithely demolishes the arbitrary borders between psychological realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. While her work has earned her comparisons to Karen Russell and Kelly Link, she has a voice that is all her own. In this electric and provocative debut, Machado bends genre to shape startling narratives that map the realities of women's lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.
A wife refuses her husband's entreaties to remove the green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague slowly consumes humanity. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery within the seams of the store's prom dresses. One woman's surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted houseguest. And in the bravura novella Especially Heinous, Machado reimagines every episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show we naively assumed had shown it all, generating a phantasmagoric police procedural full of doppelgangers, ghosts, and girls with bells for eyes.
Earthy and otherworldly, antic and sexy, queer and caustic, comic and deadly serious, Her Body and Other Parties swings from horrific violence to the most exquisite sentiment. In their explosive originality, these stories enlarge the possibilities of contemporary fiction.

Do you have any suggestions or recommendations for short story collections? Or have you read any of the above? Do share your thoughts below!

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

The Booker Prize 2019 Short List

Yesterday the Short List for the 2019 Booker Prize was released and it features some very well known authors and some highly anticipated novels. I myself am very happy to see this many women on the list (4 out of 5!) as well as a quite diverse range of authors. Let's go through them!

Margaret Atwood's The Testaments

The Testaments (The Handmaid's Tale, #2)Of course this book is highly anticipated, as it is the sequel to her iconic The Handmaid's Tale which has found new relevance in the past few years both because of its Hulu TV adaptation and because of the advances made by the political Conservatives in the US to curtail women's rights. This novel is being kept tightly under wraps until its publication on the 10th of September, but The Guardian has a sneak peek!

In this brilliant sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, acclaimed author Margaret Atwood answers the questions that have tantalized readers for decades.
When the van door slammed on Offred's future at the end of The Handmaid's Tale, readers had no way of telling what lay ahead for her—freedom, prison or death. 
With The Testaments, the wait is over. 
Margaret Atwood's sequel picks up the story fifteen years after Offred stepped into the unknown, with the explosive testaments of three female narrators from Gilead. 
"Dear Readers: Everything you've ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we've been living in." —Margaret Atwood
Lucy Ellman's Ducks, Newsburyport

Ducks, NewburyportDucks, Newsburyport has been on my list for a while now. It sounds like it captures perfectly what is going on in many of our minds these days. News, especially bad news, is coming at us from all angles as we continue to neurotically try and maintain some semblance of normality. I do feel like Ellman's novel might be a lot to handle, especially since it's a 1000 pages, so I'm saving this one for when I have a few days.

LATTICING one cherry pie after another, an Ohio housewife tries to bridge the gaps between reality and the torrent of meaningless info that is the United States of America. She worries about her children, her dead parents, African elephants, the bedroom rituals of “happy couples”, Weapons of Mass Destruction, and how to hatch an abandoned wood pigeon egg. Is there some trick to surviving survivalists? School shootings? Medical debts? Franks ’n’ beans?
A scorching indictment of America’s barbarity, past and present, and a lament for the way we are sleepwalking into environmental disaster, Ducks, Newburyport is a heresy, a wonder—and a revolution in the novel.
It's also very, very funny.
Bernardine Evaristo's Girl, Woman, Other
Girl, Woman, Other

While the previous two novels are set in America, both dystopian and frighteningly real, Girl, Woman, Other is set solidly in modern Britain. I hadn't heard much about Evaristo's novel before it was put on the long list, and now short list, for the Booker Prize, but I'm definitely curious to read its 'new kind of history'!

Teeming with life and crackling with energy - a love song to modern Britain and black womanhood
Girl, Woman, Other follows the lives and struggles of twelve very different characters. Mostly women, black and British, they tell the stories of their families, friends and lovers, across the country and through the years.
Joyfully polyphonic and vibrantly contemporary, this is a gloriously new kind of history, a novel of our times: celebratory, ever-dynamic and utterly irresistible. 
Chigozie Obioma's An Orchestra of Minorities

I first heard about this novel when I finished Circe and was looking for other Greek Mythology adaptations. What attracted me to An Orchestra of Minorities was the sense that it truly took to the spirit of The Odyssey, namely the wandering of the lost, the desperate search for a home that feels further and further away. I can't wait to dig into this one!

An Orchestra of MinoritiesA heart-breaking and mythic story about a Nigerian poultry farmer who sacrifices everything to win the woman he loves, by Man Booker Finalist and author of The Fishermen, Chigozie Obioma.
A contemporary twist on the Odyssey, An Orchestra of Minorities is narrated by the chi, or spirit of a young poultry farmer named Chinonso. His life is set off course when he sees a woman who is about to jump off a bridge. Horrified by her recklessness, he hurls two of his prized chickens off the bridge. The woman, Ndali, is stopped in her tracks.
Chinonso and Ndali fall in love but she is from an educated and wealthy family. When her family objects to the union on the grounds that he is not her social equal, he sells most of his possessions to attend college in Cyprus. But when he arrives in Cyprus, he discovers that he has been utterly duped by the young Nigerian who has made the arrangements for him. Penniless, homeless, we watch as he gets further and further away from his dream and from home. 
An Orchestra of Minorities is a heart-wrenching epic about destiny and determination.
Salman Rushdie's Quichotte

I have had my ups and down with Rushdie, the down being when I had to study him at university, and the up being when I was bwled over by his previous novel, The Golden House. Since my last reading experience with him had been good, I added Quichotte to my reading list pretty quickly. I have the feeling that similarly to The Golden House, Quichotte will be an evisceration of the American Dream.
In a tour-de-force that is both an homage to an immortal work of literature and a modern masterpiece about the quest for love and family, Booker Prize-winning, internationally bestselling author Salman Rushdie has created a dazzling Don Quixote for the modern age.
Inspired by the Cervantes classic, Sam DuChamp, mediocre writer of spy thrillers, creates Quichotte, a courtly, addled salesman obsessed with television, who falls in impossible love with a TV star. Together with his (imaginary) son Sancho, Quichotte sets off on a picaresque quest across America to prove worthy of her hand, gallantly braving the tragicomic perils of an age where “Anything-Can-Happen”. Meanwhile his creator, in a midlife crisis, has equally urgent challenges of his own.
Just as Cervantes wrote Don Quixote to satirise the culture of his time, Rushdie takes the reader on a wild ride through a country on the verge of moral and spiritual collapse. And with the kind of storytelling magic that is the hallmark of his work, the fully realised lives of DuChamp and Quichotte intertwine in a profoundly human quest for love and a wickedly entertaining portrait of an age in which fact is so often indiscernible from fiction.

So, which one of these have you read so far? And do you have your heart set on any particular winner?

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Review: 'The Truants' by Kate Weinberg

A mysterious hearse driving through a forest while the title promises truancy? Sign me up! That was pretty much my first thought when I saw The Truants and I was absolutely drawn in by the blurb as well. This sounded like the modern version of The Secret History I had been looking for.  Unfortunately, I might have set my expectations for Weinberg's novel too high. Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 08/08/2019
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
People disappear when they most want to be seen. 
Jess Walker, middle child of a middle class family, has perfected the art of vanishing in plain sight. But when she arrives at a concrete university campus under flat, grey, East Anglian skies, her world flares with colour. 
Drawn into a tightly-knit group of rule breakers – led by their maverick teacher, Lorna Clay – Jess begins to experiment with a new version of herself. But the dynamic between the friends begins to darken as they share secrets, lovers and finally a tragedy. Soon Jess is thrown up against the question she fears most: what is the true cost of an extraordinary life?
Who doesn't love a story of a tight friendship group that gets bound up too tightly in itself? It is why The Secret History was such a success. We all long back, secretly, to those days in which friendships were forged instantly and strongly, where the smallest anthill was an insurmountable obstacle, but where almost everything was also quickly forgiven. It is a fascinating moment in all of our lives where we have a huge amount of freedom while still having a relative safety net as well. So we all get a bit dumb during those years. Exactly because it is such a fertile ground for novelists, it also becomes quite a tricky time period and subject matter. It has to be handled with care if one wants to avoid over-blowing it.

Something consistently irked me about our main character, Jess Walker. Although many things happen in the novel, she felt consistently passive to me. She hopes for things to happen, and when they do she happily goes along with it, until the inevitable consequences arrive and she then meekly accepts those to. Things happen to her, but each of her reactions feels coached or caused by someone else. Hardly ever did I truly feel like she was making choices herself, leaving me to wonder about the blurb's last lines.
'What is the true cost of an extraordinary life?'
I think this is the question The Truants wants to ask, yet it doesn't seem to have made it's mind up about what an extraordinary life is or who is supposed to be living it. Outrageous lives? Sure! Irresponsible lives?  Absolutely! But extraordinary? I don't know. There should be an element of inspiration there and instead each of the characters felt incredibly sleazy. Sure, it was fascinating and fun to read. But I don't think I liked it.

Kate Weinberg captures the intoxication of that first year at university perfectly. Suddenly there is this newfound freedom you didn't even know you craved and Weinberg lets her characters experience those heights. However, they are driven to rather extreme heights. What worked in The Secret History, the boozing, the trips, the murder, it all works because of the remove Tartt puts in place between her reader and her plot. Her characters aren't people you recognize among your friends; they're also not people you're supposed to like very much. Alongside Donna Tartt, Agatha Christie is also a major influence on this novel. Weinberg's 'maverick teacher', Lorna Clay teaches a course on her and this brings in the mystery element. Again, much of Christie's plot work because of our slight remove from the people it depicts: the wealthy and landed. The Truants feels too grounded in our modern reality, which means that the excesses of the book feel outlandish. The plot twists always felt just one step too far for me. Again, I can't say I didn't enjoy reading The Truants but there were just too many moments where I felt like scratching my head.

I give this novel...

2 Universes.

The Truants is an engaging read that however doesn't entirely satisfy. It's all there, the drama and mystery and suspense, and yet it didn't really work for me. I'd recommend this novel to those looking for a dramatic university novel with some mystery and suspense added to the mix.

Monday, 2 September 2019

Review: ‘Fu Ping’ by Wang Anyi, trans. Howard Goldblatt

Literature is a unique way of giving you an insight into other people's lives. The advice to 'write what you know' may seem trite at this point, but I have always loved the opportunity it has given me to get to understand the world better this way.  Thanks to Columbia University Press and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 8/27/2019
Publisher: Columbia University Press
A novel of Shanghai’s lower classes from the Man Booker International Prize-nominated author
Nainai has lived in Shanghai for many years, and the time has come to find a wife for her adopted grandson. But when the bride she has chosen arrives from the countryside, it soon becomes clear that the orphaned girl has ideas of her own. Her name is Fu Ping, and the more she explores the residential lanes and courtyards behind Shanghai’s busy shopping streets, the less she wants to return to the country as a dutiful wife. As Fu Ping wavers over her future, she learns the city through the stories of the nannies, handymen, and garbage collectors whose labor is bringing life and bustle back to postwar Shanghai.
Fu Ping is a keenly observed portrait of the lives of lower-class women in Shanghai in the early years of the People’s Republic of China. Wang Anyi, one of contemporary China’s most acclaimed authors, explores the daily lives of migrants from rural areas and other people on the margins of urban life. In shifting perspectives rich in detail and psychological insight, she sketches their aspirations, their fears, and the subtle ties that bind them together. In Howard Goldblatt’s masterful translation, Fu Ping reveals Wang Anyi’s precise renderings of history, class, and the human heart.
Wang Anyi grew up in Shanghai and began her career as a writer in 1978 after being sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution. Her books in English include The Song of Everlasting Sorrow (Columbia, 2008), a finalist for the Man Booker International Prize. She is a professor of Chinese literature at Fudan University. 
Howard Goldblatt, a Guggenheim Fellow, is an internationally renowned translator of Chinese fiction, including the novels of Mo Yan, the 2012 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
As some of you may know, I’ve lived in Shanghai for almost 3 years now. It’s a fascinating city, full of contradictions and surprises, and it’s where I found my cat. It’s also a city that can escape definition, because what do you say of a place filled by 23 million people from all over China and all over the world? I’ve found myself in the past few months looking for books about or set in Shanghai and Fu Ping was one of the first. In this calm and wonderful story, Wang Anyi depicts Shanghai in a way that still feels true, even if the story is set a while back. Here is a city full of people moving quickly from the old to the new, with an older generations not always understanding what drives a younger generation.

Fu Ping is a meandering novel. Technically it is about a young girl, Fu Ping, who is brought to visit Nainai in Shanghai, so the latter can test whether she'd be a suitable bride for her adopted grandson. But Fu Ping does not just focus on Fu Ping or Nainai. Instead it becomes a larger exploration of the lives of working class women in Shanghai in the '60s. In a way, Fu Ping feels more like an assorted group of character sketches. This is what felt truest to me, the asides on each of the people Fu Ping meets while visiting Nainai. Most of these characters are women and many are from outside Shanghai, having traveled to the city to work there as housekeepers and nannies. They send money home to support families in the smaller villages outside the city, but their lives are now very far removed from these villages. We don't get to see everything about these women, which means they remain somehow incomplete, but this almost adds to the feeling that you're moving through the city itself slowly and steadily. You only get the faintest of glimpses at the full lives being lived.

Wang Anyi creates a vivid portrait of a vibrant city, as well as complicated portraits of complicaed people. Fu Ping, for example, is not your everyday main character. She is incredibly passive, recalcitrant and stoic. She is thrust into an environment she has no power in. Anyi doesn't show us much of Fu ping's internal life, but does follow her as she moves through Shanghai. Although it is not directly stated, Anyi hints at how this quiet attitude is Fu Ping's way of observing and learning, while it is also the end result of never truly having a voice. At times it can seem as if Fu Ping is more of a historical record, capturing what live was like in Shanghai during the mid-20th century, without infusing a true plot. And yet I felt very gripped, emotionally, by the story of Fu Ping and the lives of those around her. Howard Goldblatt does a wonderful job at translating and capturing the details of Anyi's narrative. Not everyone will appreciate the translation choice of adding line numbers, but it didn't distract me.

I give this novel...

4 Universes.

Fu Ping is a very unusual yet very fascinating read.  For anyone interested in gathering a glimpse of what Shanghai was and is like, Fu Ping is an excellent starting point.

Review: 'The Blacksmith Queen' (The Scarred Earth Saga #1) by G.A. Aiken

So there I was, expecting the usual (and great) YA fantasy novel about a young girl who is to become queen, maybe with a handsome prince and an epic battle and definitely with some magic. Boy was I wrong. And I couldn't be happier about it. The Blacksmith Queen consistently surprised me and had me in stitches. Thanks to Kensington Books and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 8/27/2019
Publisher: Kensington Books
When a prophesy brings war to the Land of the Black Hills, Keeley Smythe must join forces with a clan of mountain warriors who are really centaurs in a thrilling new fantasy romance series from New York Times bestselling author G.A. Aiken.  
The Old King Is Dead With the demise of the Old King, there’s a prophesy that a queen will ascend to the throne of the Black Hills. Bad news for the king’s sons, who are prepared to defend their birthright against all comers. But for blacksmith Keeley Smythe, war is great for business. Until it looks like the chosen queen will be Beatrix, her younger sister. Now it’s all Keeley can do to protect her family from the enraged royals.  Luckily, Keeley doesn’t have to fight alone. Because thundering to her aid comes a clan of kilt-wearing mountain warriors called the Amichai. Not the most socially adept group, but soldiers have never bothered Keeley, and rough, gruff Caid, actually seems to respect her. A good thing because the fierce warrior will be by her side for a much longer ride than any prophesy ever envisioned …
Where to start with this one? As said above, I went into The Blacksmith Queen expecting a rather traditional Fantasy in the sense that it would take itself quite seriously, perhaps. And yet I found a book of riotously fun read. The setup of The Blacksmith Queen is rather traditional. The King is dead! Long live the King! Only question is... who is the new king to be? The Old King had many sons, most of whom die in the first chapter. Yet for once the sons are useless, since the Witches have prophesied that a Queen shall come to the throne. And so begins a wild goose chase for the queen which drags Keeley and her family into a whirlwind of experiences. The Blacksmith Queen feels partly like a roadtrip novel, in the way that The Hobbit does as well. A group of people are thrown together by fate and now have a common goal. The Blacksmith Queen just updates this formula to be a lot more modern.

Keeley is undeniably the main character and she is brilliant. She is a blacksmith, incredibly strong and utterly devoted to her family. She is everything a main character should be and Aiken manages to make her feel real. Her confidence in her own skill is elemental to her character and it was something I found very inspiring. Many Fantasy novels start out with the main character doubting their skills, their position, and those around them. Keeley has an unwavering faith in both herself and her companions. She also has a love for nature's creatures and society's outsiders. Alongside her are her sisters and cousin, as well as warriors she all but adopts into her family. I loved reading about the family dynamics in The Blacksmith Queen, especially between Keeley and her sisters and cousin. There was something very true in their relationships, which veers wildly between utter devotion and utter outrage. Each of these women also has a strong faith in their strengths and themselves, which really shouldn't be as heart-warming and inspiring as it was. Keeley and her friends make for a very mixed fellowship that is full of interesting female characters, fascinating landscapes and innovative twists on familiar tropes.

I had never read anything by G.A. Aiken before, which means I was utterly unprepared for the fun I was in for. The Blacksmith Queen is a very modern Fantasy novel, with the dialogue the best example of it. It is fun and lighthearted, it feels natural and it brings the reader all the closer to Aiken's characters. However, this frankness also allows for more serious matters to be discussed in an open and honest way. At the heart of Aiken's novel is friendship and understanding for others, no matter how cliche it might sound. Aiken's story rests on the shoulders of her characters, but it also indulges in some lovely world-building. We visit a whole variety of beings in The Blacksmith Queen and each gets their own distinct flavor. At times the world-building kind of halts the plot, yet I felt that it added to the atmosphere. I can't wait for the next Scarred Earth Saga novel to bring me back to these characters.

I give this novel..

4 Universes!

The Blacksmith Queen is a funny and heartwarming read, full of fascinating characters and hilarious moments. I found myself utterly distracted by this novel and laughing out loud in public. I'd recommend this to anyone looking for a fun and modern Fantasy read.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Review: 'The Art of Taxidermy' by Sharon Kernot

I was first drawn in by the title, The Art of Taxidermy. The first thing I could think of was those horrible taxidermy horrors that fail to capture the animal's natural expression and thereby somehow elevate the sadness of their death. So yes, I understood there's an art to it, but I was fascinate to see how Sharon Kernot's verse novel would tackle such a difficult topic. Thanks to Text Publishing and NetGalley for giving me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 8/23/2019
Publisher: Text Publishing

A heartbreaking verse novel about love and death, grief and beauty, and the very individual ways we make sense of it all. 
Lottie, the daughter of German migrants, develops a fascination for death after losing her mother at a young age. When Lottie begins collecting dead animals, her aunt tries to redirect her energies into more 'feminine' activities. But her father encourages her interest, recognizing a scientist's curiosity.

 The Art of Taxidermy is a novel about grief and growing up with the shadow of it. Lottie has lot her mother and has now begun collecting and "fixing" dead things. Her aunt is horrified, since taxidermy or an interest in dead things is nowhere near appropriate for a young girl in the 1960s. Her father, however, might see that there is more to her interest than just grief. Kernot shows us Lottie's growing interest while also slowly developing the world around her. Lottie makes a Aboriginal friend through whose presence both Lottie and the reader are confronted with a very different but equally traumatic loss of identity. Kernot also adds another layer of loss and grief by delving slightly into Lottie's family history as Germans, especially into her father and grandfather's stay in a detention camp during the second World War. Kernot shows us that loss and grief are all around us and it makes for a very raw reading experience at times. 
The structure of The Art of Taxidermy is a very interesting one. Although the story is told in a linear fashion, it is fragmented, with only the most important moments brought to the forefront. The moment she discovered a dead mouse, the moment her collection is discovered, moments of love, moments of sadness. They all come together to form an incomplete yet recognizable picture of a young girl growing up in a world that is no longer kind. It felt very reminiscent to me of how memory works. Although it being a verse novel was one of my major draws to Kernot's The Art of Taxidermy, I had completely forgotten that by the time I started reading it. I was surprised initially, then remembered, and finally found myself engrossed by Kernot's style. By restraining herself, Kernot is able to put a lot of power into a few words.  Bringing these two things together, Keronot is able to introduce something akin to plot twists and surprises, while maintaining the poetry of her writing and the calmness of tone. 

Sharon Kernot's writing is beautiful. The Art of Taxidermy is full of vivid descriptions, of the vastness of the Australian landscape as well as the minute beauty of a mouse skeleton. At times the descriptions may be quite morbid, but by not hiding the blood, guts and gore, Kernot packs a much more powerful punch. Although The Art of Taxidermy could seem sensationalist, involving taxidermy and young grieving girls, it is actually a very meditative novel, which is aided by the fact that it is a verse novel. Kernot takes her time with Lottie but spares words. Acts are repeated, stubbornly, with everyone involved expecting a different outcome each time. For some readers this may be off-putting, but the way the story circled back to Lottie's grief or coping mechanism made sense to me. In the end The Art of Taxidermy was a quick read for me but an interesting one. I found myself thinking of how we look at grief, at loss, how crippled families can be by it, and how we can, maybe, move on from it.

I give this verse novel...
4 Universes.

I greatly enjoyed the poetic calm of The Art of Taxidermy. Kernot doesn't shy away from the horror of death (or taxidermy), but delivers a heartfelt story about a young girl doing the best she can. I'd recommend this verse novel to lovers of poetry and those interested in grief and loss.