Wrap Up: May – August

There’s nothing like being mentally ill and having chronic pain in your arms, wrists and hands to make both reading books and writing reviews extremely difficult. But this is the world we’re living in, so we must make do! Here are the books that I read from May to August. A mere eight books. Seven novels and one non-fiction.

The Mermaid of Black Conch – Monique Roffey
One day when out on his fishing boat, David meets a mermaid who is drawn to his singing. Shortly after this, there is a fishing contest and two American men catch her with the plan of selling her to make their fortune. David knows he must rescue her and so we follow the aftermath of this event. The story is told from three different perspectives: David’s journal entries from his later life; a first-person narration by the mermaid, Aycayia, written in non-rhyming verse; and a third-person narration of the main plot. The book is an interesting exploration of female sexuality and the different ways in which women are punished for it, as well as the damaging effects of colonialism. It is also a love story. Some writers would fail in their attempts to combine these themes, but Roffey accomplishes it without ever sacrificing the story. Highly enjoyable.
3 stars

Now Is the Hour – Tom Spanbauer
Dear broken Mother, here, let me hold myself in such a way that you will see me, and if you see me, if I can make you smile, the trouble will leave your eyes and your eyes will go soft and be gold.
This was a re-read for me and I still adore it. Rigby John is standing on the side of the road with a flower behind his ear, headed for San Francisco. Now Is The Hour tells the story of how he got here. Brought up in a strictly Christian family, Rigby John has to learn how to accept himself, his sexuality, and learn how to move on from the bigoted community in which he was raised. It’s not going to appeal to everybody, and the writing is often crass or explicit, but it’s a book that means the world to me. Spanbauer can cut through it all and expose the emotional core of his characters with ease.
4 stars

Detransition, Baby – Torrey Peters
Detransition, Baby is a book that has had its fair share of media attention and hype, which always leaves me nervous. What if I don’t enjoy it? What if my hopes have been raised too high? Thankfully, this is a book deserving of its reputation. Torrey Peters tells the story of three women who come together when one of them becomes pregnant. Peters explores motherhood, gender, sexuality, and relationships. At times, the book veered a little too much into soapbox territory and it felt like Torrey was sacrificing the story in order to make a speech, but overall it was wonderful. None of the main characters are wholly likeable; Reese in particular is a woman who I wanted to shake at times. But all of them felt fleshed out and real. Their imperfections both believable and well thought out.
4 stars

The Pisces – Melissa Broder
Yes, I was late to the party on this one. You all know the story, I’m sure. Our protagonist, Lucy, has a bit of a breakdown and heads to LA to house-sit for her sister. There, she meets a merman. Screwed up relationships and merman sex ensue. I was utterly taken by the first half of this book. Lucy narrates this tale and she is awful. She is judgemental and selfish and completely incapable of making a positive choice. I loved it. However, by the last quarter of the book I tired of it a little. It got repetitive and I found myself being exasperated. Perhaps if it was a little shorter I would have enjoyed it more. However, Broder’s grim honesty and dark humour are delightful and it reminded me how much I enjoyed her essay collection, So Sad Today. I’m glad to have finally read it, but it left me conflicted.
3 stars

Open Water – Caleb Azumah Nelson
Open Water is a perfectly formed little book. At less than 200 pages it still manages to pack a punch. Azumah Nelson made the brave decision to write in the second-person and manages to pull it off, which is no mean feat. In his debut novel, we experience the fragility of new love and the intimacy that comes with it. But this is not just a book about a relationship. It is about being young and black and British and in love. We see the devastating effects that racism has on their love and on their lives. The crowning glory of this book is its captivating writing. I drank up Azumah Nelson’s prose with joy.
4 stars

Green Grass, Running Water – Thomas King
I read The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King a few years ago and it was outstanding. His writing was as lovely to read as the content of that book, so I knew I wanted to try some of his fiction. Green Grass, Running Water is a novel that I didn’t fully understand, but it never once bored me. It explores the intersections of traditional Native American society, mythology, colonialism, and the encroaching modern world. It’s highly referential and although there are notes at the back, I simply do not have the knowledge to grasp most of the references or all the mythological and religious themes. But it was a book I didn’t want to put down at any point. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
3 stars

My Dark Vanessa – Kate Elizabeth Russell
When Vanessa was at boarding school as a teenager she had a relationship with her 40 year old teacher. Even as an adult she views it as a true love affair. However, when several women come forwards with statements about the abuse that they suffered from him whilst at school there, Vanessa is forced to reevaluate that time and relationship. Was she abused? Was it not the doomed love story that she still sees it as? This was an incredibly difficult book to read, but worth it. Vanessa is not the picture-perfect victim. She is scathing of the Me Too movement, she judges women and girls for the abuse they suffer, she refuses to see herself as having been abused or groomed. But my god you felt for her. You see how that time affected every aspect of her life, even when she can’t see it herself.
4 stars

To The River: A Journey Beneath The Surface – Olivia Laing
To The River is a genre of non-fiction that I adore, which I sum up as “person walks around British countryside and tells you about it with many a tangent on the way”. Often those books are written by men, so this was a pleasant change of pace. Olivia Laing walks along the entirety of the Ouse in Sussex – a river that is mainly famous for being the one in which Virginia Woolf drowned herself. As well as treating the reader to her evocative depictions of the countryside, she also takes diversions and tells biographical snippets of the ghosts of that area. Writers are, of course, a common theme and Laing tells both the story of the Ouse and the story of Woolf. But we also learn about naturalists, fossil hunters, and those searching for dinosaurs. The book has a melancholic feel throughout, which was fitting for both the state of the world and also myself right now. However, I think my current lack of brain power meant I did not get the most out of this book. I look forward to reading it again in the future when I think I will appreciate it more.
3 stars

Wrap Up: January – April

I don’t do monthly wrap-ups because I simply do not read enough books on a monthly basis to justify it. I also don’t review every book I read. Sometimes because I’m lazy. Sometimes because trying to come up with any words about a book I’ve just read is like getting blood from a stone and all my brain will provide me with is the sound of dial-up internet connecting.

However, I do still want to mention the books I’ve read even if I’ve not reviewed them. So I’ve decided to do a wrap-up of the books I read in the first four months of the year. Will I do another wrap up at the end of August? Perhaps. I currently plan to, but we’ll have to see what my brain composition is like in another four months’ time.

JanAprPoe

Poetry and Plays
Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad – Alice Oswald
If you love the Iliad, you should read this. Alice Oswald has transformed Homer’s epic to craft a poem that tells the tales of those who died in the Iliad. It’s exquisite. Review here.

Inside The Wave – Helen Dunmore
This collection of poetry was published just before Dunmore’s death in 2017. There is a focus on nature, life, and crossing over into death. It didn’t blow me away, but overall it was a lovely collection.

The Trojan Women – Euripides
I don’t know how I made it this far in life without reading this play, but I have finally corrected that failing. Euripides focuses on four women whose lives have been tragically affected by the events of the Trojan War: Cassandra, Andromache, Hecuba and Helen. We explore the losses that these women have suffered at the hands of men and the wars they wage. It is heart-wrenching.
I wish I could tell you which translation I read, but I can’t remember!

JanAprNonFic


Non-Fiction
Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity – Sarah Pomeroy
This was a mixed bag for me. Pomeroy explores the lives of women in ancient Greece and Rome. I enjoyed reading about the Greek stuff the most, because that’s where my interests lie. However, some of the sources used and conclusions she drew were questionable. I’m glad I finally finished it, but that’s about it.

Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age – Donna Zuckerberg
This is a book that anybody who has an interest in classics should read. Zuckerberg explores how the alt-right use ancient writers to validate and circulate their views. Whilst it is incredibly difficult to read at times, it is important to learn about how these works are used to spread harmful and bigoted views.

JanAprFic

Fiction
There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Job – Kikuko Tsumura (trans. Polly Barton)
A woman who is suffering from burnout seeks a job that fills her time but requires little brainpower: “a job that sat on the borderline between being a job and not”. We follow her as she tries out several jobs and experiences a range of unusual situations. Unfortunately, I was utterly bored whilst reading it and I abandoned it at 37%.

An Imaginary Life – David Malouf
Malouf tells a story about the exile of the Roman poet Ovid. Whilst it’s probably not for everyone, I drank up Malouf’s poetic prose with joy. Review here.

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke
Unlike most people, I simply found this book okay. Everyone else seems to rave about it though and it’s shortlisted for the Women’s Prize, so you may well love it. Review here.

Country – Michael Hughes
This book. This is how you do a re-telling of the Iliad. Hughes picks up the myth of the Trojan War and places it in the middle of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. I adored it. Review here.

Lullaby – Leïla Slimani (trans. Sam Taylor)
As everyone agrees, the first line of this book is incredible: The baby is dead. It only took a few seconds. Unfortunately, the rest of the novel didn’t quite live up to it. It is an interesting exploration of motherhood, race and class; it just felt like it was missing something. Whether that was down to the translation or not I can’t say, but it left me wanting.

Marlena – Julie Buntin
Set during that precarious time in life when you are on the cusp of adulthood, Buntin has written a tale about loss, addiction, friendship, family, and neglect. Review here.

Bone White – Ronald Malfi
This book had an interesting enough concept and setting, but there was no urgency or fear in the writing. It lacked all the things that I wanted from a horror novel. Review here.

The Dumb House – John Burnside
Disturbing and upsetting and utterly brilliant. I had such a good time reading this, it was wonderfully messed up. Review here.

The Dumb House – John Burnside

I remember when this book was making the rounds on BookTube several years ago; it’s been on my to-read list ever since. Being proficient at procrastination means that it took me until 2021 to actually read it, but we got here in the end and I’m delighted to report that it was worth the wait.

When Luke is a child his mother tells him the myth of Akbar the Great who, hypothesising that children learn speech through hearing, raises children in an isolated mansion attended to only by mutes. The children never learn to speak in Akbar’s experiment, but the story captivates Luke. Over time he researches other experiments about the origins of language, but it is Akbar’s “dumb house” that he cannot get out of his mind. The logical conclusion to this, of course, is that he must re-enact this experiment for his own investigations into language and how it interacts with the human soul.

Luke is an alarmingly calm narrator, which adds to the creeping unease that seeps from the pages. In a style reminiscent of Humbert Humbert in Lolita, he performs horrifying acts which he recounts with a cool, collected composure. Every move is justified and he has a complete inability to recognise himself as committing acts that he would otherwise see as wrong. It made my skin crawl.

The book is cyclical in its form and so we know that the tale ends with him killing the children in his experiment. Knowing that you are heading for a tragic conclusion makes the journey that gets you there all the more disturbing. There is no hope of escape from the sinister plot that Luke is enacting. Some scenes towards the end of the novel also add a sense of retroactive horror, as you more fully understand events that took place at the beginning of the book.

The Dumb House lived up to my high expectations and I had the best time with it. The beautiful prose was a stark contrast to the story and made the reading experience all the more enjoyable. It’s been a while since I’ve had this type of fun with a book. That might sound odd, considering the book is clearly not a happy read, but I get so much joy out of reading about sick and twisted characters. It gave me that same giddy feeling I get when watching a good horror film. Gloriously unsettling.

Bone White – Ronald Malfi

I don’t know what my preferred genre of fiction is, but I do know when looking at a book if it’s something I’d usually pass by. Modern horror novels fall into that category. However, sometimes it’s nice to branch out and try something new, so when a friend recommended Bone White by Ronald Malfi I decided to give it a go.

When Paul Gallo hears the news report about the arrest of a mass murderer in a remote town in Alaska, he travels there immediately. It was from this town that his twin brother Danny went missing one year ago. When he gets to Dread’s Hand though, instead of finally uncovering the truth of what happened to Danny, he finds only suspicious locals, a town that wants him to leave, and tales of the devil lurking in the woods.

Bone White starts out reading like a simple crime book, but as Paul starts to uncover the secrets of this town the ghostly elements weave their way in. Unfortunately, I didn’t find it creepy at all. There was no urgency in the writing, no creeping unease to make my skin crawl. This may be an issue with me as a reader (other than a couple of pages in The Shining, I have never felt scared whilst reading a book), but it does rather feel like a pointless endeavour when a book’s main purpose is not being accomplished. I knew that I wouldn’t feel terrified when reading it, but I would have liked to have felt apprehensive at least some of the time.

Simply put, this book was not for me. I didn’t dislike reading it, but I could have put it down at any point and not cared one way or the other if I finished it. Perhaps if there had been other elements to draw me in then I would have fared better. But there was little character development, no interesting relationships to explore, and the prose was just fine. If you enjoy horror novels, you may well like this book (there are certainly many glowing reviews over on Goodreads), but it hasn’t convinced me to read more from this author.

If you know of any books out there that are genuinely scary, please do let me know. I love horror films and easily scare whilst watching them, so I’d love to experience that in a book!

Marlena – Julie Buntin

Following her parents’ divorce, fifteen-year-old Cat is moved to a small town in Michigan with her mother and older brother. Previously a hard-working student and well-behaved teenager, she decides to use this relocation to reinvent herself. Cat soon becomes close friends with Marlena, her beautiful and troubled next-door-neighbour, and begins to shape her life around her. The book alternates between Cat as a teenager in Michigan and as an adult in New York, as we begin to understand the events that led to Marlena’s untimely death, a year after the two first met.
 
Buntin expertly captures that uniquely teenage experience of moulding yourself into the person that you think will be loved by your peers. Cat has been unmoored at a pivotal moment of her life and she forms a new persona with urgency. She latches onto Marlena with such believable intensity, failing to fully recognise the extent of Marlena’s issues and trauma. I loved how Buntin encapsulated how friendships between teenage girls can have such depth of feeling that they are almost romantic in their nature. Reading this book takes you back to those strong teenage emotions of love and hatred, envy and admiration. In Marlena, these passions are caught up in a haze of drugs, alcohol, loss, neglect and poverty, right as our characters are on the cusp of adulthood. The tragedy that you know is coming feels inevitable to all but our fifteen-year-old narrator.
 
This is a wonderfully crafted book about addiction and loss and how much we can (or cannot) change the lives of those around us. It explores how people’s lives can be shaped forever by people they knew for only a brief time, and how you can remain haunted by the events of your past, no matter how much you try to bury them. The anxieties of teenage life and friendship are depicted with such craft that I felt myself a teenager again. I was mesmerised.

Memorial – Alice Oswald

MemorialLydia, I hear you say, not everything is about the Iliad. An interesting point, but consider this: the Iliad is the most important tale of all time and, perhaps, the only thing in this world that really matters.

I first read Alice Oswald’s Memorial in 2018 and after reading Country it called to me again. The concept of this poem is best summed up by its full title: Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad. Oswald has cut to the heart of one of the most important aspects of the Iliad: the stories and lives behind the characters we meet whose lives are cut short by the brutality of war. It is not quite a re-telling, not quite a translation, but a wonderful combination of the two – and so much more.

The book starts with a list of every named character who is killed in Homer’s Iliad. Seven and a half pages of death. Oswald then constructs a memorial to these characters, as she leans into the Homeric and writes about the lives that they led before they died on the battlefield. Extended metaphors of the natural world are interspersed, helping the reader to visualise the ways that these people had their lives ripped from them, how they spent their final moments, how the world moved around them.

Like the shine of a sea swell
Lifting and flattening silently
When the water makes way for the wind
And dreams of its storms
Huge waves hang in a hush
Uncertain which way to fall
Until a breeze breaks them

Oswald’s writing is gut-wrenching and this poem will forever be one of my favourite interpretations of the Iliad. Though the poem is focused on death, the tales of these characters’ families, their loved ones, their childhoods, ensures that the richness of life shines through its pages. This makes the scale of the trauma that beats throughout the Iliad, and this poem, all the more affective. Oswald captures the complexities of life and death and grief and memory in this fitting tribute to a classic epic.

Grief is black it is made of earth
It gets into the cracks in the eyes
It lodges its lump in the throat
When a man sees his brother on the ground
He goes mad he comes running out of nowhere
Lashing without looking and that was how COON died

Country – Michael Hughes

In Country, Michael Hughes transports the story of the Iliad and places it in Ireland in 1996 to tell a story about the Troubles. Simply put, it’s genius.

Despite its different setting to Homer’s tale, it is an incredibly literal re-telling. At one point I was actually concerned that Hughes was going to attempt to do the catalogue of ships, but thankfully he spared us that. Sorry, Homer, but Book 2 of the Iliad will always be a struggle. As well as keeping some of the names close to their originals (Achilles/Achill, Patroclus/Pat, Helen/Nellie, Hector/Henry) there were other delightful nods to the myth. The pub where the IRA congregate is called The Ships, the SAS base is called Illiam. Those little references brought a smile to my face.

The narration of this novel stands out as one of its strongest features. Hughes plays into the oral tradition and as I was reading I felt like our nameless narrator was telling me the tale in person. This aspect meant that it felt similar to how it feels to read the Iliad, albeit with a different tone. From the first page, you can tell that this re-telling is going to work:

Fury. Pure fury. The blood was up. Lost the head completely.
[…]
What was the start of it? The whole wrecking match, that sent so many strong souls roaring down to hell, dogs chewing up the guts ground into the road, birds pecking at the splattered bits of their brains. The way London wanted it to go. The way it always is.
Here’s what. Pig and Achill fell out. The OC and the trigger man. Bad, bad news.

Continue reading

The Last Animal – Abby Geni

The Last AnimalMy first introduction to Abby Geni was The Lightkeepers, a book that I enjoyed mainly because of the atmosphere that Geni created with her writing. When I was reading it I knew that her voice would lend itself to short stories, so I was delighted that she had already written a collection. The stories in The Last Animal all deal with grief in some form, whether that be losing a loved one, a relationship, one’s health, one’s family. Grief seeps through the pages and the characters often turn to nature to understand or to heal. This theme was also a main feature of The Lightkeepers, but it felt more polished in these stories. The form lends itself to intimacy and small moments, making the impact of the emotions far greater.

Like most collections, there were some stories that stood out and some that appealed less to me. My particular favourites were Terror Birds and Captivity. The former is set on an ostrich farm where a young boy discovers that his father is having an affair. His attempts to save his parents’ marriage and his family have devastating consequences. The latter focuses on Mara, an aquarium worker who has moved back in with her mother after a break-up. Their relationship is fraught with tension, and living in close proximity forces them to confront the disappearance of Mara’s brother seven years ago. Their different approaches to grief collide in a tragic and very real way.

Sadly the title story of this collection was one of my least favourites. A shame considering it was the story that the collection ended on. Whether this is because by the end of the book my brain was tired of the overarching themes of loss and love, or because it simply was not as enticing, I don’t quite know.

Overall though, I enjoyed it immensely. The descriptions and explorations of the natural world were beautiful and Geni’s understanding of the complex ways that loss affects us is insightful. I hope she publishes another collection because it is where her writing shines.

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke

PiranesiIf I was to sum up Piranesi in one word it would be: fine.

This first half of this novel is taken up with building the world in which our narrator exists. He lives in a world that is comprised only of rooms, corridors and statues. The world is immersed in a body of water, with waves crashing through the halls and floods being a regular occurrence. Piranesi knows that there is one other person who lives in the world with him and they meet twice a week to discuss The Other’s scientific research. This universe is beautifully constructed and I didn’t mind that about 50% of this (quite short) book was taken up by exploring the world and beginning to understand it.

This book is not exactly plot-driven, but is instead a slow meander through the creation that Clarke has built. As my main desire when reading this book was for something that did not require much brain power, this was well-suited to my state of mind at that time. It was a gentle exploration of a different universe and a nice break.

One aspect that troubled me was a character whom we meet later in the novel. This character felt like he fitted the stereotype of the “older, predatory gay man” just a little too well. I don’t object to gay characters who are cruel or who do terrible things or who have questionable motives, but there were some scenes that struck me the wrong way. His sexuality was occasionally linked to his actions in a way that left me uncomfortable, even if I could not quite put my finger on why. This was not by any means pervasive though, so did not greatly affect my reading experience.

Was I captivated by this novel? No. Did it have a great impact on me? No. Was it a short read that was quietly enjoyable and intriguing? Yes. And sometimes that’s all I need.

An Arrow’s Flight – Mark Merlis

An Arrow's FlightSometimes a book comes into your life that knocks you sideways and reminds you why you read in the first place. An Arrow’s Flight by Mark Merlis is one of those books. Rachel posted about it on Twitter and I knew I had to read it. A Trojan War re-telling where Pyrrhus is a go-go dancer and Odysseus is a lawyer? Sign me up.

What I could never have predicted is the searing journey that this novel would take me on.

An Arrow’s Flight is ostensibly a re-telling of Sophocle’s Philoctetes. So when we meet Pyrrhus as a go-go dancer and sex worker in the city, we think we know where the tale will go. Whilst the setting is one that is new to the reader, once you have gained your footing in this unusual world, you are prepared for the upcoming plot: Odysseus will arrive, persuade Phyrrus to fight in the Trojan War, and, with the magical bow of Philoctetes, the Greeks will win. That’s the story. A tale as old as time.

Mark Merlis has a different plan for you.

Instead we read about gay identity, fate, and the destructive expectations of families. The tapestry that Merlis weaves highlights the pressures that Greek heroes were forced to confront and draws a parallel with the pressure to be straight and the fear of being queer in a heterosexual world: Continue reading