Guys! After almost 3 straight months of being behind on my reading I have finally caught up. In fact, as of today I am 2 books ahead. And it’s all thanks to the Bailey’s longlist. Last year I went through 3 different prize longlists and read as much of them as I could (or as much as I had access to), and I found it to be a really fun and motivating experience. So when the Bailey’s longlist came out on International Women’s Day, I decided it’d be my first prize of the year. But the Man Booker International was slated for a mere week after, so I had to really hop to it! And so I have. By the end of March I should have 11 out of the 16 read, though admittedly I did read two of them (D0 Not Say We Have Nothing and Hag-Seed) last year.
Fever Dream, by Samantha Schweblin. Finished March 1st. Fever Dream is the absolute perfect name for this novella. It feels like you are in this surreal other world where nothing quite makes sense or fits together. If you read I’m Thinking Of Ending Things (or saw Get Out), the vibe is similar. Fever Dream feels like a funhouse mirror version of reality.
There is not much I can say about the plot without spoiling anything, and I think it’s best to go into this knowing as little as possible. It starts out with a woman (Amanda) in a hospital bed trying to figure out how she got there. She tells her story to a very creepy child (David) who is not her son. Why is she in the hospital? What happened to her daughter? And why is David asking her about worms?
The story is told in a very immersive fashion. The narration is very stream-of-consciousness with no quotation marks for dialogue. There are also no chapter breaks of any sort–it’s only 150 pages, which really sets it up as a one-sitting read. I think if you read this, it HAS to be done in one sitting to get the full effect. It’s a very immersive story but stepping away from it would really lose the flow and mood.
Amanda is obviously an unreliable narrator, because she is quite ill and can barely recall what happened to her. Her story is bizarre but cohesive, so the reader is left wondering how much of it is true and how much is a literal fever dream. There are elements of magical realism here, but you can never quite be sure if they happened or are just part of her imagination. Is it a coping mechanism? Or is her version of reality the truth? It’s a really thought-provoking read and exactly the type of bizarre and dark story I love. A favorite of the year so far.
Wizard & Glass, by Stephen King. Finished March 1st. Each of the books in this series are so drastically different. The first was a bizarre apocalyptic fantasy, the second managed to be both stranger but more understandable, and the third combined the elements of the first two in a perfect way while adding in a hero’s journey element. Wizard & Glass goes in the opposite direction: over 80% of it is a flashback into Roland’s past.
I know this is a divisive entry in the series: people either love it or hate it. Personally, I loved it! While the tone is very different (it’s a fairytale-like fantasy Western), I was riveted by Roland’s tale. Stephen King is, above all else, a storyteller, and that truly shines here. There are so many insights both into Roland’s character and into the plot in general. This may be hard to believe if you haven’t read the series, but this is the book where we finally learn what’s even up with the Dark Tower! It’s a driving plot force in the first three, yes, but there’s zero explanation about it until now.
History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund. Finished March 3rd. Another slow family drama tinged with tragedy. That seems to be my go-to this winter, though I honestly have no idea why. I mean, I picked this book up because it had Wolves in the title and I saw a bunch of my Goodreads friends adding it. I had no idea what it was about when I opened it up. I thought “oh, wolves, I like wolves!” Please note that there are no actual wolves in this book. Well, there is a dead stuffed one, so there are no living wolves.
History of Wolves is about Linda, a teenage girl in a small town with a screwy family dynamic. She grew up on a commune and now lives alone in a run-down shack with her parents. Neither of them seems particularly invested in her: her mother, in particular, treats her like a little adult. Linda has basically no idea how to act around other humans and is kind of ostracized at school. One year, a rich family moves across the lake and she ends up babysitting their kid.
There are two major plots here. The first, about the kid she is babysitting, is fantastic. We know from the first page that Paul (the young boy) dies at some point, so there is a definite sense of mystery. The reveal is slow, almost painfully so, and while this is certainly not a thriller it really ramps up the tension. Paul is a charming and precocious little kid, and it’s painful to spend so much time getting to know him when you know what is going to happen.
The second plot I thought was much less successful. Linda had a teacher who may or may not have been a pedophile and a classmate (Lily) who he may or may not have abused. Linda becomes obsessed with Lily and basically stalks her. I was never grabbed by this part of the book, and it really felt like it was just filling out pages. I think History of Wolves would have been more successful as a novella about Linda & Paul’s relationship, if I’m being honest. Just those sections were 5 stars for me.
There’s also a third kind-of plot, following Linda as an adult. Like the Lily storyline, I didn’t particularly care about this. I think it served to show how damaged Linda is, though it’s really unclear if it’s just because of her upbringing or because of the Paul situation. I don’t think it added anything to the narrative, and I could have done without these parts as well.
Despite these complaints, I still gave it 4 stars because of how great the Paul plot was. It’s a strong, gripping story that is told in a quiet and understated way. But really, this is more like a 3.75 star read for me.
The Sleepwalker, by Chris Bohjalian. Finished March 5th. Have you ever read a few incredibly similar books in a row without meaning to? I read History of Wolves right before this, which has a very similar mood, and before that was Swimming Lessons which has a plot so similar it’s eerie. All three involve family secrets, small towns, tragedy, and loss. All three have a young adult/teenage female protagonists (but are decidedly not YA). And The Sleepwalker & Swimming Lessons both involve a mother who goes missing and potentially walked into the water and drowned. Kind of like The Book of Speculation! But of the 3 I recently read, I think The Sleepwalker was by far the most successful.
For some reason (cough the marketing) I thought this was one of those easy breezy psychological thrillers we get so many of. But I was really surprised by how literary this is. There is a mystery at the core–the missing mother–but it’s much slower than I expected. Which is a good thing! It focuses more on family dynamics and the effects sleepwalking have not just on the person with the condition but on the people around them. I have a sleep disorder (insomnia) so I was especially intrigued by these parts.
In another similar overlap with Swimming Lessons, in between each chapter there are short diary fragments from a sleepwalker who we assume is the mother. They add a dreamy sense of unreality to the book: most of them are describing dreams and sleep in a very evocative manner. The entire story has an almost surreal feeling, even though it is very much grounded in reality. Bohjalian can certainly write: I’ve read one of his books before (Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands) and while I hated the plot I remember the language really standing out.
I didn’t realize how invested I was in this until the end. The final chapter is such a gut punch. Usually in a mystery novel, the entire plot is a vehicle to get to the reveal. Here, it’s kind of the opposite: the end is quietly delivered, and really enhances the rest of the book.
The Taming of the Queen, Philippa Gregory. Finished March 8th. Philippa Gregory’s books are the Smarties of the book world. They’re pure sugar, and while people insist that they have different flavors we all know a white Smartie and a purple Smartie taste exactly the same. Yet I come back to them again and again. Sometimes you just really want a sugar rush, you know?
Basically if you’ve read one of her books you’ve read them all. They follow women in the War of the Roses/Tudor court of varying historical importance, from actual queens to people we know basically nothing about (cough The Queen’s Fool). The voices change, the timelines change, but they all feel the same. It’s comfort food in book form, plus you can convince yourself that you are ~learning about history~ while reading them. I mean, actually, I’ve read a lot of articles about the Tudors because of Gregory’s books. So indeed, I do learn.
This particular one is about Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last wife. And one of only two that made it out of marriage with him alive! Side note: why is every damn woman in this time period named Katherine, Jane, or Mary? It’s confusing is what it is. And every guy is Henry, Will, or Thomas. Dear past England, find some new names please. Thanks. It seems like Henry was about to get rid of Katherine before his death so just think, it could have been 7 wives! Potential wife number 7 was named…. wait for it… Catherine. Just why.
It’s been ages since I read one of Gregory’s books, so while everything felt familiar it wasn’t too been-there-done-that. Parr is a very interesting historical figure, because she published books and was very involved in Church scholarship. And I think she is a forgotten figure, because people tend to focus on his first 3 wives and neglect the rest. I mean, she served as regent, just like Katherine of Aragon (aka best queen)! I had no idea. I also didn’t know that Henry had a woman tortured (Anne Askew) and executed in an attempt to implicate Katherine. Ahh, history.
I don’t think this is Gregory’s best, but it is interesting and Katherine is a great narrator. I am very thankful that it ended where it did (with Henry’s death) because we all know what happened after and I reallllly didn’t want to read about Elizabeth being sexually abused by her stepfather/uncle/whatever from the POV of the woman who loved him.
The Power, by Naomi Alderman. Finished March 9th. Bailey’s longlisted. I feel like in the past year I have had a consistent complaint about many books I’ve read. They are often too short. Is it a trend? Have people always tried to squeeze epic stories into 300 pages? Either way, I find it frustrating. So many books could be amazing with 100-300 more pages added. Like The Power!
This book tries to both tell a story huge in scope but also focus on the small details of life. All of a sudden, women all over the world gain an electrical power that allows them to defend themselves (or attack others) with a strength that far outweighs any physical advantage men have over them. We follow 4 initial perspectives: Allie (a young girl who kills her abusive stepfather and runs away to a nunnery), Roxy (a young girl in an organized crime family), Margot (a politician), and Tunde (the only male voice, a reporter who is chronicling the events of the book).
The main weakness of the book is the shifting narrators. I found only Tunde to be consistently interesting: the rest of them are terribly uneven. Allie & Margot are great at the start, but Allie’s story becomes repetitive and tedious while Margot’s “character development” made absolutely no sense. Roxy was my least-favorite at the start but towards the end her story really picked up. They are also very uneven in length: we’ll get 10 pages from Margot and then 40 from Roxy. So obviously we get a lot more of some stories than others.
The premise is obviously fascinating and gives Alderman a lot to work with, but I don’t think it lived up to its potential. This book has a worldwide scope, but it felt like the events in every country were treated exactly the same. Women rise up, no matter the cultural background, and there’s really no difference from say…. Iran to Russia. Maybe I’m spoiled by World War Z, but I wanted a more nuanced look at how each country would deal with the events of the book. I also had SO many questions that were never touched on. Like how would this effect cinema, literature, and television? People talk about going to the movies after women gain their power but obviously their content would change, right? Would we get female-led action movies all over the place? Would men have more submissive movie roles? And what about the transgender population–I feel like this event would see a huge spike in gender dysphoria. Of course in a 300 page book it’s asking too much, but it’s one of the many reasons I wanted this to be longer than it was.
The writing is at times wonderful and nuanced (especially in Tunde’s chapters), but at other times feels a bit… YA. The voice of a young girl does not need to feel more immature than the “grown-up” chapters, but it’s definitely the case here. Especially when you look at the searing content we get from Tunde’s point of view and compare it to the toned-down violence Allie and other young characters see. This feels like a bunch of different stories mashed together in a way that doesn’t totally mesh.
I feel like I am doing nothing but complaining, because I did enjoy The Power. I think it’s a (no pun intended) powerful look at gender dynamics, and it examines the idea that violence and patriarchy are innate to human society. Does absolute power corrupt absolutely? Are women really the “fairer sex?” But it needed more time to explore its ideas, and perhaps a bit more finesse in how it views world politics.
Little Deaths, by Emma Flint. Finished March 10th. Bailey’s longlisted. This is a book that has all the ingredients for something I’d love: it’s a literary mystery set in Queens that serves as a character study of a flawed but fascinating women. But somehow Emma Flint managed to take a great premise & opening chapter and dive bomb it right into the ground.
Ruth, the “protagonist,” is accused of murdering her children after they go missing. We know from the first chapter that she goes to jail, even though she seems totally innocent of the crime. Instead, it is essentially her personality that is put on trial: she drinks, she sleeps around, so obviously she must be a terrible woman who killed her children! This is based on a true case, and sadly this thing happens too often (though not just to women–look at Scott Peterson).
So all good so far, right? But then we meet our other protagonist, a reporter named Pete. Pete is… the worst. He’s so dull and he becomes utterly obsessed with Ruth in a way that’s just really trite and played out. Pete has WAY more POV chapters than Ruth, and the book really puts the focus on him. And I didn’t care about him at all. I don’t want 2 pages of his sexual fantasies about Ruth, I want to know if she murdered her damn children. I think Flint did this so we could have a “behind the scenes” perspective and get case details, but why not you know… have an actual detective who doesn’t suck at his job be the POV character? Or, better yet, go with 3rd person omniscient and flit between a lot of people.
I felt this way about the entire book. “Wow, this would be really great if it was just different!” I was basically dying for it to be over. Ruth starts out promising, but we get so little insight into her actions. And let’s face it, she is a shitty person. Though maybe that’s the point, she’s an awful human but that doesn’t make her a murdered. However, I was already well aware of this and didn’t need to be beaten over the head with it. We needed either 1) a more sympathetic Ruth or 2) more scenes in her head to make this a true character study (and thus actually interesting). Having such an unlikable character as the lead can certainly work, but we just didn’t get any depth here.
The Lonely Hearts Hotel, by Heather O’Neill. Finished March 10th. Bailey’s longlisted. This is one of those books I never would have read if it wasn’t on a prize longlist. So thank you, Bailey’s, for introducing this wonderful work of fiction into my life. I think the marketing is SO misleading: this is nothing like The Night Circus. Sure, it’s a magical read, but there is no actual magical realism (why is it tagged that everywhere?). And the cover makes it look rather chic-lit-y. It’s none of these things. In fact, this is an incredibly dark book. It deals with heavy topics (rape, sexual abuse, drugs, prostitution, etc) and doesn’t gloss over trauma. This is not some airy novel where a terrible event happens and the characters are fine 10 pages later. This is a book where the characters cry themselves to sleep 10 years later because they can’t get past their trauma.
Our story follows Rose and Pierrot, two orphans in 1920′s Montreal. The thing that stands out the most is definitely the language: every page of The Lonely Hearts Hotel feels surreal and dreamy. Paragraphs are packed with descriptions and metaphors, ranging from gorgeous to utterly strange. Some of them come off as quite childish, but are followed by moving speeches or brutally true observations about life. It’s an odd combination, with dark subject matter but fantastical prose. The combination works splendidly though, mostly because it mirrors the mental state of Rose & Pierrot. They both retain a childish view of the world and a sense of wonder well into adulthood, and it really feels like the writing is how they would describe the world.
To my surprise, they actually spend a good chunk of the book separated. It isn’t until over 50% of the way in that they finally come back together, and oddly (because this is definitely a love story) I actually enjoyed the sections of their separation better. Their relationship is wonderful, but the odd mirroring of their lives when they are apart was so deftly done. Once they get back together, it becomes a bit more predictable (for a time, at least–the end section is definitely unexpected and wonderfully so). I was actually rooting more for them when they weren’t together, if that makes sense? It added a sense of conflict to even the most mundane scenes. We’d have Pierrot hanging in a club, but the reader knew that Rose had been there only the night before. My heart just ached for them.
If you want to be absolutely swept away in a story, this is the book for you.
The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry. Finished March 12th. Bailey’s longlisted. Ah, The Essex Serpent. I loved and hated this book, which is unfortunate because I came into it with insanely high expectations. A lot of people whose opinion I respect rated it one of their faves of 2016, and then it got longlisted for Bailey’s. So I really did expect it to be a 5-star all-time-great for me.
Most of my feelings are pretty positive. The story is cleverly done, because the ‘Essex Serpent’ doesn’t serve as a driving plot force but it does function as a way to reveal things about the characters. A small town in Essex is convinced that they are being tormented by a great beast, and everyone reacts differently. Some are afraid, some are annoyed, some are horrified, some are amazed, some are enraptured. It’s an event that really illuminates the intricacies of the cast in an amazingly creative way. It’s a perfect example of how ‘show don’t tell’ should function.
Speaking of the cast, it is (for the most part) fantastic. It’s not an insanely long book but it has a large cast and many interweaving plots that I think are handled masterfully. The characters complement each other, and even when the plots don’t directly overlap it’s clear that they serve an important purpose for the narrative.
So what were my issues? Well, I hated Cora. Yes, the main character, the ~complex and interesting~ woman that we are so obviously supposed to love. I did not love her. I found her immature, childish, pretentious, and selfish. Her relationship with her son (who as a side note is most definitely autistic and very well done) was just painful to read. And while I think some of her later actions are supposed to go along with the ~free spirit living against the gender norm doing what she loves~ bohemian vibe there was a point where I wanted to shove her off a cliff. She does something truly unforgivable, something totally against the morals she is supposed to have, and the reader is supposed to be all “aww how romantic!” Don’t get me wrong: I do not need my protagonist to be likeable. I love characters that are complex and objectively ‘bad people.’ But Cora is framed as being a really good and likeable person in the narrative and I hate being told how to feel when I read.
The Essex Serpent also relies on one of my least-favorite tropes, and I knocked it to 3.5 stars just for this. Almost every single male-female friendship in the book ends up being romantic on at least one end. It plays into the idea that men and women are “never just friends” and there is always sexual tension. The only male characters who don’t engage in this behavior are either old, uneducated, or fat and thus “off the market”/”undesirable” (which is another problem all together, let me tell you). Married men are not exempt from this (unless, of course, you are married AND fat because then you’re obviously sexless right? Eyeroll). Let’s take Martha, Cora’s companion, for example. She has 4 male friends who she regularly interacts with. One of them is the previously mentioned married fat guy. Of the others, 2 are in love with her and she sleeps with the 3rd. If an eligible man and an eligible woman in this book start talking, you can bet love is on the horizon. It’s trite and annoying and I really resent it.
So yeah, two huge negatives but many more positives. The writing is beautiful, the setting is moody and atmospheric, the plot is great, (most of) the characters are great… but it’s really hard for me to get over my issues and say it was a book I loved.
The Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremaine. Finished March 13th. Bailey’s longlisted. This was 1/3rd of an amazing novel. It is, for reasons I cannot fathom, split into 3 very distinct sections. The first is amazing: it is a slow, quiet tale of two boys forming an unlikely friendship in the wake of WWII. Gustav comes from poverty, and Anton is Jewish and very wealthy. They meet in kindergarten and form an instant friendship. While ’6 year old boys hang out together’ might not sound like the most compelling plot, it’s really fantastic. Their friendship is complex and interesting, their lives are dark but hopeful, and the overall mood is so wonderfully melancholy.
I was so absorbed by this section that I practically got whiplash when we got 30% of the way in and suddenly we’re following Gustav’s parents. His mother, Emilie, is kind of a horrible person. This reveal is done in an interesting way in the childhood section: the first line of the book is about how much he loves her, and slowly he realizes that his childish ideal of the perfect mother is all wrong. But here we’re kind of beat over the head with “look at how bad she is!” She’s stupid, she’s lazy, she’s ignorant, she’s spoiled, she’s a brat. She blames other people for her own problems. She’s a terrible mother. I did like Gustav’ father (well, more ‘felt pity for’ than ‘liked’) but this section was a drag because I honestly didn’t care about their past and I feel like this was a poor delivery of the story. Why not have Gustav-as-a-kid discover a store of letters and deliver the tale that way? Would have been more compelling.
Then the third section, where Anton and Gustav are suddenly 40 years in the future. Yes, you read that right, we spend all this time getting involved in only a few months of their lives and then skip 30+ years ahead. A lot of character development obviously went on in those years and we miss all of it, so their actions seem a bit manic and disjointed in this section. Most of my reactions were ‘Anton is doing what now’ instead of the obvious sympathy card Tremaine was going for. Because the last 40 pages or so are very A Little Life (except, you know, without all the character development or emotional investment). Yes, this is yet another book where my final thoughts are “why was it so short.”
So there was potential here, but I don’t think it followed through. It felt like a really great cup of coffee that you have a few sips of and then accidentally leave out on a table. You feel obliged to finish it because the first sips were so good, but now it’s cold and unappetizing and you just want to make a new one.
The Lesser Bohemians, by Eimear McBride. Finished March 14th. Bailey’s longlisted. My thoughts on this seem to be the opposite of most reviews: I absolutely adored the writing style, but hated the plot and main character. Eily, our protagonist, is just… not interesting. Young girl goes to college, discovers drugs & sex & alcohol, gets into trouble, is tortured and troubled and makes infinitely terrible decisions. Very been-there-done-that. I didn’t feel anything for Eily: she wasn’t sympathetic to me, but I didn’t even dislike her. She was just so bland. No personality to speak of. I can’t tell you a single thing about her other than “she made really bad decisions and sure was drunk a lot.” And I spent 300+ pages in her head.
Her lover, Stephen, is where I was hooked. There are two long sections narrated by him, and I found them both riveting. Which is odd, because what I loved about Eily’s sections was the disjointed, fragmented writing, and Stephen’s sections are much smoother and less stream of consciousness. But that style would not have fit his story at all, so it was a smart decision to alter the narrative style. And, in another clever move, Eily’s narration becomes smoother the more time she spends around Stephen.
Looking back on this, I think more of the positives (writing, Stephen’s backstory) than the negatives (which for me was… everything else). I think perhaps I’ve rated it a bit harshly, and might up it a bit if I still feel so positively in a few weeks.
The Sport of Kings, by C. E. Morgan. Finished March 15th. Bailey’s longlisted. This is one of the two Bailey’s books that was already on my TBR list. To be honest, I can’t remember why I added it. It really doesn’t seem like a book I’d enjoy, since the cover and synopsis makes it seem like a book that focuses really heavily on horse racing… which is not exactly a huge interest of mine. But, as almost every reviewer has pointed out, the marketing is very misleading.
This is not a book about horses, or even a book about horse racing. It is an epic family saga spanning 4 generations of a Southern dynasty. It is divided into a few sections, and each focuses on a different family member or employee, though the last few have quite a bit of overlap.
The themes here are what you would expect: family, loyalty, wealth, privileged, race relations, family secrets. And while these are well-trod topics, C. E. Morgan handles them so deftly and with a lot of finesse. The writing is absolutely gorgeous, though if you dislike description-heavy storytelling this is probably not the book for you. There are a lot of asides describing the countryside, house, and of course the horses.
There are moments of violence and abuse here that would be incredibly rough reads if not for the beauty of the language. Everything feels so smooth and effortless, and while this is a long read it’s quite fast and easy to get through. The characters are also quite unlikable, even the ones you feel a lot of sympathy for. They make consistently but realistically bad decisions, and there is a sense that the family dynamic is a self-perpetuating cycle. Yet there is growth and change happening to these people, even if they have to be dragged into modernity kicking and screaming. I think this is not a book for everyone: it’s not very plot driven, no one is likeable, and the topics it covers are dark and heavy. But if you like dense literary fiction or family sagas, I highly recommend this!
Reading Challenge Goals
Books Read: 39/200
Goal Books: 36
Impulse Reads: 3