Review by Tess Tabak
You know how sometimes, you can tell a book is written by someone fresh out of an MFA program? The writing is promising, but the plot is not quite there yet (for a story about a young girl struggling to fit in at school, there is much over-dramatization). The descriptions are sharp, but often overblown (almost every single item named gets three adjectives or descriptors, or sometimes random bursts of alliteration – “the professor had spent the entire hour enigmatically pushing peripheral points she hadn’t studied well.” The central character is a young misunderstood girl with a flowery name (in this case, Laurelie).
I was really with The Bobcat up until the last 50 pages or so. I rolled my eyes occasionally at the MFA program trappings, but it’s a short read and the simple thread of a girl overcoming trauma by pursuing a mysterious man was compelling enough to keep me turning pages.
Unless this book is supposed to take place decades ago, a lot of the twee harkenings back to old-timey things just don’t make sense – and if it is supposed to take place decades ago, there’s really no hint besides the way the characters are acting, and the lack of cell phones or technology mentioned. For example, Laurelie is postured as morally purer than all the fancy city girls at her college who read like one dimensional ‘mean girls’ because instead of wearing designer garbs, she makes her own clothing – even though nowadays, anyone who makes their own clothing probably cares way more about their appearance than not, since it’s much more difficult to make than to just buy something cheap at Old Navy or a thrift store.
Review by E. Kirshe
Intimate, and colorfully written, Besotted by Melissa Duclos was an absorbing read. Told from the perspective of Sasha, a member of the Shanghai expatriate community, this novel is focused on her relationship with Liz, a young woman Sasha pulls to Shanghai and maneuvers into dating her.
“‘What made you want to bring me here?’
‘You signed the letter Besottedly.’ That wasn’t really it, or that wasn’t all of it, but it was all I could give her.
Liz shrugged. ‘It means drunk.’
I shook my head. ‘It means in love.’’”
Besotted is an unpretentious story that stays grounded in its relationship woes and isolated expat community. It often reads like a slice of life even among the lyrical language and sometimes sinister machinations of our narrator. Sasha’s ability to love Liz so wholly comes from her inability to look inward at herself no matter how eloquently she can talk about her own issues (to herself and not to the therapist she seems to need).
Review by E. Kirshe
The Sisters Grimm is a new fantasy novel by Menna Van Praag. The entirety is told through the point of view narration of five protagonists, the four sisters; Goldie, Liyana, Scarlet and Bea, and Leo, a sort of spiritual brother to them, who must also kill one of them.
I’ll start with a few positives so the reader can make their own decisions. The characters are diverse, that’s nice. They all come from different ethnic and class backgrounds, Liyana’s relationship with her girlfriend was cute. The otherworld (spirit world? Hell?) of Everwhere was nicely described. There’s a lot of nice language.
Now for the downsides.
Translated by Pablo Strauss
Review by E. Kirshe
The Country Will Bring Us No Peace is a strange and eerie book about grief; not overcoming it, but being overtaken by it. Grief haunts the mean and dying streets of the country town our city-born protagonists move to, a move which they hoped would bring them past their own private tragedy, the grief of which is slowly taking them down as well.
The story switches back and forth, abruptly, between the husband and wife narrators Simon and Marie. We get an internal monologue from each of them either giving new information or sometimes their thoughts on the same event. The way it’s written with them switching between being in and out of sync was just one example of how this is a uniquely told tale.
The story gets more surreal as it goes on, as well as darker. It starts with merely stark narration. Continue reading
Review by E. Kirshe
The bestselling author of The Night Circus is back with something very different yet also familiar in The Starless Sea.
Erin Morgenstern had readers fall in love with her immersive fantasy world in her debut novel. Those looking to recreate that experience may be disappointed as The Starless Sea is styled very differently, however her knack for creating a fantastical and multidimensional world is all here.
“Far beneath the surface of the earth, upon the shores of the Starless Sea, there is a labyrinthine collection of tunnels and rooms filled with stories. The entryways that lead to this sanctuary are often hidden, sometimes on forest floors, sometimes in private homes, sometimes in plain sight. But those who seek will find.”
On the one side, we have a story about a man named Zachary Ezra Rawlins, who, upon finding a book in which he is part of the story discovers a much bigger world beneath his real one. Zachary and the people he meets are all part of an old story that will change the fate of this hidden world.
The big strength of The Starless Sea and the thing that had me eager to read all 500 pages was the way Morgenstern tells stories via any sense and medium- built, sculpted, written, carved, heard, tasted, etc. It’s this writing that had readers love The Night Circus and what makes this book worth reading. Continue reading
For years, Eoin Colfer captivated a generation with Artemis Fowl, his beloved children’s fantasy series. Now with Highfire, he’s written his very first fantasy novel for adults.
Highfire follows a similar tread to Artemis Fowl. Squib is a 15-year-old boy, just young enough to retain a childlike belief in fairies and mythical creatures so that he doesn’t totally lose it when he meets Vern.
Vern is a character straight out of Colfer’s unique sense of humor. The last dragon on Earth, Vern is a wise-cracking misanthrope who spends his days hiding in the swamps and obsessively researching human pop culture online. Picture a small scaly dragon naked except for a Flash Dance t-shirt. “Vern tolerated the swamp. It wasn’t exactly glorious, but these weren’t exactly the glory days. Once upon a time he had been Wyvern, Lord Highfire, of the Highfire Eyrie, if you could believe that melodramatic bullshit name. Now he was king of jack shit in Mudsville, Louisiana.”
It’s that time once again – ‘twas the week before Christmas, and all through the house, everyone was all like, “Crap, what last-minute gifts can I get on Amazon Prime?” Have no fear – our annual book review round up collects some of our favorite titles from 2019, as well as other standouts we’ve read this year.
Our lists focus on books that your recipient isn’t likely to already have, either because they’re obscure and lesser-known or because they just came out that recently. You can also check out our 2017 and 2018 book lists.
Review by E. Kirshe
I try to write very thoughtful reviews about very thoughtful books, and I will, but I’ll let you know right away that Catherine Chung’s The Tenth Muse was excellent. Don’t waste time here, go read it.
Filled with lovely prose, The Tenth Muse manages to remain an intimate story while going through a sweeping history- we encounter many of the major events of the twentieth century through our protagonist Katherine.
The book follows Katherine, a mathematician, from her 1950s childhood through her years of school and work as one of the only women in her field. Her quest to solve the Riemann hypothesis takes us through to the end of her career.
As with most stories relating to women fighting for their piece of the world I was often inspired and then angry. Much like the real-world women of math and science who appear throughout the book (some anecdotally, some make a cameo appearance in the story) Katherine is often punished for being both clever and ambitious. Continue reading
Review by Tess Tabak
Josh Denslow’s debut short story collection delves into the lives of young misfits. The stories are mostly narrated by young men who feel like outcasts for one reason or another. The stories are a bit uneven, but each is memorably odd. In one story, for example, a short man working as a Santa’s elf struggles with whether to do the right thing when he has a chance to mow down Santa.
In one of my favorite stories, “Mousetrap,” a man who cleans up grisly deaths for a living struggles with his own mortality. “I want to find a not scary way to tell my sister that I’m contemplating killing myself, but I don’t want her to think that it has to do with the fact that she asked me to start paying rent,” the narrator writes, quipping about his own depression. The story is a little rough around the edges but the narrator’s matter-of-factness about his depression feels real.
Some of the stories come off as a little gimmicky. In one, Denslow imagines a future society where all violence is limited to a set number of Punch Vouchers a year. It’s ostensibly a story about how inheriting a number of these vouchers from a deceased friend turns the narrator into a Cool Guy, but the story felt a bit more like a funny concept the author thought of and reverse-engineered into a narrative. In another, a boy can teleport, but only to a limited degree – it really knocks the wind out of him. He uses this limited power to spy on and harass his mother’s new boyfriend. It’s hard to put my finger on what I felt dissatisfied about with this story – Denslow’s writing is fine, and the story is reasonably engaging, but it doesn’t invoke much emotion, and it isn’t quite funny enough to work as a humor piece. It’s lightly amusing, but not exactly groundbreaking. Continue reading
Review by E. Kirshe
“A writer’s life and work are not a gift to mankind; they are a necessity,” writes Toni Morrison in the prologue of her latest book, The Source of Self-Regard. This collection of work, spanning four decades, goes on to show just how necessary Morrison is to our literary canon and how illuminating to our society.
At 88 years old Morrison has a rich life’s worth of insightful nuance, analysis, and empathy to offer on topics that range from feminism, colonialism, money, human rights, and immigration, to meditations on culture and art. Though a lot of ground is covered (and how could it not be? Morrison has been a literary beast since the 70s) this collection of previously published essays is cohesive in that it’s hers. It is divided into three parts: the first begins with a prayer for the dead of 9/11; the second with a meditation on Martin Luther King Jr.; and the last with a beautiful and personal eulogy for James Baldwin.
Considering the sheer volume of work here it is impossible to cover the whole without writing a novel-length review. I will say that some of the work here really stood out to me often because no matter when a piece is from, Morrison’s work is unquestionably relatable to our present. This is large because she observes and perfectly captures society- she has the ability to cut right to the heart of a matter. Morrison refers to how the media operated during the OJ trial as an “age of spectacle,” taking down their penchant for turning what should be straight news into entertainment, and we know those patterns haven’t changed at all in today’s media landscape.
Not only do many of Morrison’s pieces ring out truth in much the same way it’s obvious that they do because she’s doing her job as a writer. Every piece answers what the role of what the artist in society should be because she uses her work to analyze, critique, and offer answers for our world- “constructing meaning in the face of chaos,” as she writes in Peril.
Reading this collection is to spend time in the mind of someone brilliant. As Morrison said in her eulogy for Baldwin “You gave us ourselves to think about, to cherish.” After reading through everything Morrison has to offer in The Source of Self-Regard you’ll be reminded that she may as well have been talking about herself.
The Source of Self-Regard is now available from Knopf.