audiobooks · mini-review · stuff I read

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Thomas Cromwell Trilogy #2), read by Simon Vance

17304636 (1)Summary from Goodreads:
The sequel to Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Man Booker Prize winner and New York Times best seller, Wolf Hall, delves into the heart of Tudor history with the downfall of Anne Boleyn. Though he battled for seven years to marry her, Henry is disenchanted with Anne Boleyn. She has failed to give him a son and her sharp intelligence and audacious will alienate his old friends and the noble families of England. When the discarded Katherine dies in exile from the court, Anne stands starkly exposed, the focus of gossip and malice. At a word from Henry, Thomas Cromwell is ready to bring her down. Over three terrifying weeks, Anne is ensnared in a web of conspiracy, while the demure Jane Seymour stands waiting her turn for the poisoned wedding ring. But Anne and her powerful family will not yield without a ferocious struggle. Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies follows the dramatic trial of the queen and her suitors for adultery and treason. To defeat the Boleyns, Cromwell must ally with his natural enemies, the papist aristocracy. What price will he pay for Anne’s head?

I bought Bring Up the Bodies in hardcover when it came out, but never got to it. (And it won a Booker, what is wrong with me, lol) But the third book in the trilogy is out this month so I decided to knuckle down and read it. Meaning, I put the audiobook on hold through the library Overdrive because I had such problems sorting out who was speaking in Wolf Hall (when almost all the characters are dudes, “he” doesn’t help much). The narrator of Bring Up the Bodies, Simon Vance, really helped keep the characters straight with excellent variation in voices and accents. Mantel also helped this problem by stating “he, Cromwell” or “he, Henry” which gave a very formal sense of history to the story as well. It felt like a more zippy book since the plot place over a much shorter timeline – approximately a year versus what seemed like 40 years of Cromwell’s life in Wolf Hall.

Not sure when I’ll read The Mirror and the Light but I’ll get there.

Dear FTC: I borrowed the audiobook from the library overdrive, but I also bought it in hardcover.

stuff I read

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

46263943Summary from Goodreads:
Named one of the most anticipated books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, Harper’s Bazaar, BuzzFeed, and more.

A novel of startling intimacy, violence, and mercy among friends in a Midwestern university town, from an electric new voice.

Almost everything about Wallace is at odds with the Midwestern university town where he is working uneasily toward a biochem degree. An introverted young man from Alabama, black and queer, he has left behind his family without escaping the long shadows of his childhood. For reasons of self-preservation, Wallace has enforced a wary distance even within his own circle of friends—some dating each other, some dating women, some feigning straightness. But over the course of a late-summer weekend, a series of confrontations with colleagues, and an unexpected encounter with an ostensibly straight, white classmate, conspire to fracture his defenses while exposing long-hidden currents of hostility and desire within their community.

Real Life is a novel of profound and lacerating power, a story that asks if it’s ever really possible to overcome our private wounds, and at what cost.

About four or five (six? what is time?) years ago, someone RT’d a reaction gif of Pride and Prejudice (from the miniseries) into my Twitter feed. It was clever and spot on, from a guy named Brandon who was a biochem grad student. He had a whole string of gifs from a live-Tweet of the miniseries so I hit the follow button. I have never regretted it as Brandon shared more and more of his writing, beautiful short stories and personal essays, and his quietly sarcastic humor with us on Twitter and in various literary publications. After he moved to my town for the MFA program in writing, our paths crossed often on campus and at literary events. And I’m absolutely floored by Brandon’s debut novel Real Life. (I’m not surprised, since he’s so damn talented and has a heck of a work ethic, but the book is still a stunner.)

Real Life is a campus novel about a character who is always on the periphery of campus novels – a gay, black, and broke young man named Wallace in a prestigious biochemistry program at a very (very) white Midwestern university. This is not funny like Lucky Jim or navel-gaze-y like The Marriage Plot or Stoner. This is about one weekend in Wallace’s career in graduate school. Three days. One choice (accepting an invitation to hang at the lake with friends after his summer project goes wrong and he just doesn’t have the spoons to restart it that evening) that is the first domino in a chain of many to fall and lead him to the ultimate decision: should he stay in his graduate program and endure all manners of microaggressions and macroaggressions and continue to work doggedly toward his PhD or should he leave and take a chance on the unknown? Underlying all of Wallace’s actions is the knowledge that his estranged father died several weeks ago; no matter how much Wallace might try to keep the past buried safely in the past it bubbles up to confront him.

Wallace’s story is lovely, quiet, and so very, very real (Brandon always says he writes domestic realism and he isn’t wrong). Wallace is the kind of character who feels conditioned to keep an even keel and keep himself to himself, no matter how angry or happy or sad he might feel on the inside, because if he does drop the facade and express emotion he’s immediately smacked down for it. He’s picked on for his “deficiencies” – an absolutely maddening term and one I’ve heard used by faculty in the past to describe students from less-privileged (i.e. often code for “black”) backgrounds – and snidely dismissed by his adviser. His keep-your-head-down-and-work-hard ethic is thrown back at him as arrogant. Even though these events might seem like high drama, Brandon’s prose has such a calm beauty in his description. Even a description of breeding and plating nematodes has such beauty that we are hit with dismay when it’s revealed the plates are colonized by fungi, ruining the project. But it all feels so intimate, so quiet, particularly an extraordinary stream-of-consciousness chapter where Wallace narrates his childhood history to a lover (hook-up? lover? Booty-call isn’t right, either). Such a beautiful character study.

*Edit to add: at Brandon’s reading at Prairie Lights on Wednesday, he mentioned that some white reviewers see this novel as “raw” (or various similar descriptors) which…definitely not Wallace. I might concede rawness when it comes to showing the racist and homophobic micro and macroaggressions from his friends and colleagues, including one really awful scene where a fellow graduate student (and I absolutely despise this character) uses the n- and f- words before accusing him of misogyny. Brandon isn’t interested in coating their treatment of Wallace in politeness, to make white people feel better. There’s no window-dressing or walking-back to soften these characters. It feels raw because the “nice” and “who mean well” has been removed from the Nice White People Who Mean Well. They’re presented in all their ickiness.

I’m a bit worried I am not doing Real Life justice in my review. Sometimes, you finish a book and just sit in wonder. This book speaks to me on many levels and on other levels I know I have missed nuances. As a nice, white, straight, middle-aged lady, there are corners and layers in Wallace’s story that I will never uncover, no matter how hard I try because I just don’t have the experience or background to see them. To make up for this, allow me to link to three incredible reviews of Real Life, all by men who are both black and queer: Michael Arceneaux in Time, Jeremy O. Harris in The New York Times, and MJ Franklin also in the Times.

Real Life is an early contender for one of my best books of 2020 (and 2020 publishing is bananas, y’all). Please, please buy it, read it, recommend it for your library to purchase. Meanwhile, I’ll be waiting on pins and needles for Brandon’s short story collection, Filthy Animals. Real Life is available everywhere in the US today!

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss and will be buying a copy at Brandon’s reading tomorrow. Also, he’s a friend, so take that as you will.

 

Austenesque · stuff I read

Sanditon by Jane Austen and Kate Riordan: A blog tour review with Austenprose!

Riordan_Sanditon(TP)

BOOK DESCRIPTION:

In the vein of Downton Abbey, Jane Austen’s beloved but unfinished masterpiece-often considered her most modern and exciting novel-gets a spectacular second act in this tie-in to a major new limited television series.

Written only months before Austen’s death in 1817, Sanditon tells the story of the joyously impulsive, spirited and unconventional Charlotte Heywood and her spiky relationship with the humorous, charming (and slightly wild!) Sidney Parker. When a chance accident transports her from her rural hometown of Willingden to the would-be coastal resort of the eponymous title, it exposes Charlotte to the intrigues and dalliances of a seaside town on the make, and the characters whose fortunes depend on its commercial success. The twists and turns of the plot, which takes viewers from the West Indies to the rotting alleys of London, exposes the hidden agendas of each character and sees Charlotte discover herself… and ultimately find love.

AUTHOR BIO:

Kate Riordan is a writer and journalist from England. Her first job was as an editorial assistant at the Guardian newspaper, followed by a stint as deputy editor for the lifestyle section of London bible, Time Out magazine. There she had assignments that saw her racing reindeers in Lapland, going undercover in London’s premier department store and gleaning writing tips (none-too subtly) during interviews with some of her favorite authors. After becoming a freelancer, she left London behind and moved to the beautiful Cotswolds in order to write her first novel.

When Jane Austen died, she left behind six completed novels (four published) and fragments of several more, including the beginning of Sanditon, a novel about a young woman visiting an up-and-coming resort town. Only about sixty pages exist, several of them more in the vein of “plot-bunny problems for Future Jane to solve later,” definitely not enough to determine Austen’s intention for the resolution of the plot but just enough to establish her cast of characters: Miss Charlotte Heywood, the many Parkers, Lady Denham and her household, and Miss Lambe.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century and Sanditon has been adapted as an eight-part television series airing in the US on PBS January 12 – February 23, 2020. Screenwriter Andrew Davies – responsible for Colin Firth’s wet-shirt scene in Pride and Prejudice (at the very least) – took on the task of fleshing out Austen’s world of seaside resorts and invalids and creating a plot where not had existed. And it is a very pretty adaptation, with lovely costumes and beautiful British actors (oh, hello, Theo James). It is a very sexy adaptation, too, which is to be expected in a Davies adaptation and it, uh, goes rather beyond wet shirts. There’s a gorgeous companion book in the vein of the Downton Abbey tie-ins that looks behind the scenes of the show (this show is totally Regency era catnip for Downton Abbey fans). I haven’t watched more than the first few episodes of the show because I finished the novelization by Kate Riordan.

And I didn’t like the ending.

Now. I had also prepped for this release by re-reading Austen’s original fragment (I have multiple editions of her fragments and juvenilia but the Penguin Classics edition that includes The Watsons and Lady Susan is the most readable, in my opinion). So I had Austen’s sentence structure and style fresh in my mind when I started Kate Riordan’s adaptation of Andrew Davies script. The two styles do not mesh well in my mind. Modern prose is very prescriptive, telling you what characters are touching and doing as if describing a movie scene to the reader. In addition, this adaptation and novelization is rather…earthy. Austen would have known all about sex and what people get up to when alone (she was a Georgian, not a Victorian, and spent more than enough of her time helping her sisters-in-law during their confinements) but she certainly wouldn’t have put it on the page, even as a fade-to-black scene. So it was a bit jarring.

Then there’s the ending. I’m not going to totally spoil it, but quit reading now if you want to finish out either the show or the novel without a whiff of spoilage. So. If one is a show runner, who wants to keep Sanditon going for more than one season, you go for this ending. Look at the mileage Downton Abbey got for three seasons with the will-they-won’t-they antagonism of Mary and Matthew. If one is a reader who reads Austen extensively, owns multiple editions of her novels, and regularly imbibes Regency romance novels? This ending is so unsatisfying. I sincerely hope the show gets second season pickup because I can’t believe this is where Austen would have left her characters. (Well, to be honest, she wouldn’t have put some of them in some of these situations in the first place, in my opinion.)

Verdict? Enjoy the TV show but don’t re-read Austen’s original right before reading the novelization.

I’m participating in a blog tour organized by Lauren Ann of Austenprose! Visit her site to read Laurel Ann’s review of Sanditon and find a list of other bloggers featuring Sanditon on their pages. Thanks Laurel Ann for the review opportunity!

Dear FTC: I received finished copies of Sanditon and The World of Sanditon from the publisher for participating in the blog tour.

mini-review · stuff I read

Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano

50621280._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
After losing everything, a young boy discovers there are still reasons for hope in this luminous, life-affirming novel, perfect for fans of Celeste Ng and Ann Patchett.

In the face of tragedy, what does it take to find joy?

One summer morning, twelve-year-old Edward Adler, his beloved older brother, his parents, and 183 other passengers board a flight in Newark headed for Los Angeles. Among them is a Wall Street wunderkind, a young woman coming to terms with an unexpected pregnancy, an injured vet returning from Afghanistan, a septuagenarian business tycoon, and a free-spirited woman running away from her controlling husband. And then, tragically, the plane crashes. Edward is the sole survivor.

Edward’s story captures the attention of the nation, but he struggles to find a place for himself in a world without his family. He continues to feel that a piece of him has been left in the sky, forever tied to the plane and all of his fellow passengers. But then he makes an unexpected discovery–one that will lead him to the answers of some of life’s most profound questions: When you’ve lost everything, how do find yourself? How do you discover your purpose? What does it mean not just to survive, but to truly live?

Dear Edward is at once a transcendent coming-of-age story, a multidimensional portrait of an unforgettable cast of characters, and a breathtaking illustration of all the ways a broken heart learns to love again.

Dear Edward is a very moving and well-crafted novel about the trauma of loss. Napolitano balanced the alternating storylines – the narrative of the flight itself and Edward’s life after the crash – very well. It’s one of those few novels where the two storylines are fighting one another. We know that the end of the “flight narrative” will end in a crash, there will be few surprises so it serves to fill out Edward’s narrative moving forward. The descriptions of how grief feels, how one carries around trauma like that are spot on. I’d never read Napolitano’s books before but this one makes me think about picking up the others some day.

I think this might be a hard book to read for someone who has experienced a sudden loss like Edward’s or has PTSD but Napolitano doesn’t use the story of the crash as spectacle. There are no gory descriptions and only 3-4 pages of description of the crash itself near the end.

Dear FTC: I read a galley of this book provided to the book club leader (me) at my store.

stuff I read

Cleanness by Garth Greenwell

45892271Summary from Goodreads:
In the highly anticipated follow-up to his beloved debut, What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell deepens his exploration of foreignness, obligation, and desire

Sofia, Bulgaria, a landlocked city in southern Europe, stirs with hope and impending upheaval. Soviet buildings crumble, wind scatters sand from the far south, and political protesters flood the streets with song.

In this atmosphere of disquiet, an American teacher navigates a life transformed by the discovery and loss of love. As he prepares to leave the place he’s come to call home, he grapples with the intimate encounters that have marked his years abroad, each bearing uncanny reminders of his past. A queer student’s confession recalls his own first love, a stranger’s seduction devolves into paternal sadism, and a romance with another foreigner opens, and heals, old wounds. Each echo reveals startling insights about what it means to seek connection: with those we love, with the places we inhabit, and with our own fugitive selves.

Cleanness revisits and expands the world of Garth Greenwell’s beloved debut, What Belongs to You, declared “an instant classic” by The New York Times Book Review. In exacting, elegant prose, he transcribes the strange dialects of desire, cementing his stature as one of our most vital living writers.

A quick up-front disclaimer: I know Garth socially, and through Twitter, and absolutely love to hear him discuss books and have conversations with other writers. His first book, What Belongs to You, is incredible.

Cleanness is comprised of a series of vignettes narrated by the narrator from What Belongs to You, an unnamed, gay American teacher in Sofia, Bulgaria. He is lonely, aching in the aftermath of a breakup with his long-distance boyfriend, and trying to find connection in a city he will soon leave. The longing for true companionship as an openly gay man is palpable.  At times, it seems the city itself, Sophia, is the narrator’s only real friend. In the third vignette (“Decent People”) the narrator joins in a protest march and even in this large crowd, even when he finds friends and one of his students, he still remains apart but his narration about the path of the march reveals a hidden depth of affection for his adopted city.

The central three vignettes of the book present the arc of the narrator’s long-distance relationship with a Portuguese man, “Loving R.” These stories are tender, beginning with the exuberance of finding a person who is so right for your heart and ending with the bittersweet realization that age and distance might be insurmountable odds. Greenwell has bookended this section with two incredible chapters of the narrator seeking sexual release in D/s encounters found through dating apps. In the first encounter, “Gospodar,” the narrator is the submissive, seeking release through willing humiliation, to be nothing, until the scene turns terrifying; in the second, “The Little Saint,” the narrator is the dominant in the scene with a younger sub who invites the narrator to use him as needed. Both of these scenes are breathtaking in the beauty of their sentences and the honesty of the narrator’s desire. By placing them either side of the “Loving R.” section, they underscore the different types of connection we seek as humans, without judgement for desire or kink. But in looking back on those chapters, we also feel the narrator’s loss of R. very acutely. At times I thought of Jane Eyre, Rochester’s idea of the cord, tying him to Jane somewhere under his ribs, and were it to break he would bleed inwardly. The narrator of Cleanness bleeds inwardly and, as a gay man in a country that is unwelcoming to those who fall outside of the cis/het binary, he bleeds silently or, at times, with shame (the final story, “An Evening Out,” is incredible).

“But then there’s no fathoming pleasure, the forms it takes or their sources, nothing we can imagine is beyond it; however far beyond the pale of our own desires, for someone it is the intensest desire, the key to the latch of the self, or the promised key, a key that perhaps never turns.” (~p 38, I don’t have a finished copy to check the page number)

Cleanness is beautiful, emotionally naked, raw, frank, tender, and explicit. A book to sit beside Edinburgh and How We Fight For Our Lives. Even though Cleanness is a sequel of-sorts, you don’t have to have read What Belongs to You to read Cleanness but I highly recommend that you do because it puts several of the narrator’s experiences into perspective.

A content warning for brief sexual violence on the page (neither long nor gratuitous, perhaps two pages at most).

Cleanness is out today, January 14!

Dear FTC: Thank you so much FSG for the review copy.

Edited to add: Please read Colm Toibin’s review of Cleanness in the New York Times Book Review. I could never do Cleanness the justice it deserves.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

50234293._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
Be careful who you let in.

Soon after her twenty-fifth birthday, Libby Jones returns home from work to find the letter she’s been waiting for her entire life. She rips it open with one driving thought: I am finally going to know who I am.

She soon learns not only the identity of her birth parents, but also that she is the sole inheritor of their abandoned mansion on the banks of the Thames in London’s fashionable Chelsea neighborhood, worth millions. Everything in Libby’s life is about to change. But what she can’t possibly know is that others have been waiting for this day as well—and she is on a collision course to meet them.

Twenty-five years ago, police were called to 16 Cheyne Walk with reports of a baby crying. When they arrived, they found a healthy ten-month-old happily cooing in her crib in the bedroom. Downstairs in the kitchen lay three dead bodies, all dressed in black, next to a hastily scrawled note. And the four other children reported to live at Cheyne Walk were gone.

In The Family Upstairs, the master of “bone-chilling suspense” (People) brings us the can’t-look-away story of three entangled families living in a house with the darkest of secrets.

The Family Upstairs is fine. But it does some things that annoy me.
1) rotating narrators, two in 3rd person present and ONE in 1st person present who was clearly set up as the “unreliable” character and telegraphing a lot of what this character did in the 3rd person timelines.
2) too much foreshadowing; we know stuff is going to get bad/nuts because it’s a domestic thriller so ending almost every 1st person chapter with some sort of cliff-hanger or foreshadowing statement caused me to guess every, single plot twist about two chapters before it happened (I am Dido, I have read all the Agatha Christies).

It’s plotty and reads quickly. This was my first introduction to Lisa Jewell and it will probably be my last for some time.

Content warning: domestic abuse both in reference and on the page; reference to abuse of a cat; use of abortifacients (with a bonus combo of slipping it into someone’s food/drink)

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley from the publisher via Edelweiss since I’m the book club leader at my store.

mini-review · stuff I read

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

32075861._SY475_Summary from Goodreads:
Sarah Perry’s award-winning novel, set at the end of the nineteenth century and inspired by true events.

Moving between Essex and London, myth and modernity, Cora Seaborne’s spirited search for the Essex Serpent encourages all around her to test their allegiance to faith or reason in an age of rapid scientific advancement. At the same time, the novel explores the boundaries of love and friendship and the allegiances that we have to one another. The depth of feeling that the inhabitants of Aldwinter share are matched by their city counterparts as they strive to find the courage to express and understand their deepest desires, and strongest fears.

The Essex Serpent is a book that I had a galley for, didn’t get to it, bought it when it came out, didn’t read it, ran across the audiobook on the library Overdrive site, gave it two tries to get through it, and finally polished off the last 50 pages by aforementioned hardcover.

On premise, and a lot of the individual writing, the story in The Essex Serpent ought to be so far up my wheelhouse its not funny.

Victorian? Check. Mysterious monster? Check. Ladies being awesome? Check. Absolutely gorgeous cover? Check, check, and check.

But it just wouldn’t READ. It plods along back and forth from London to Aldwinter, letters sent and letters received. I found it very hard to care about the motivations of the characters and I could definitely have done without the surgeon plot line. Eliminating him would have taken out at least one of the dudes who seem placed in this book solely to want into Cora Seabourne’s knickers 🙄

Dear FTC: You saw it above.

stuff I read

All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg

43261190Summary from Goodreads:
“If I know why he is the way he is then maybe I can learn why I am the way I am,” says Alex Tuchman, strong-headed lawyer, loving mother, and daughter of Victor Tuchman—a power-hungry real estate developer and, by all accounts, a bad man. Now that Victor is on his deathbed, Alex feels she can finally unearth the secrets of who he is and what he did over the course of his life and career. She travels to New Orleans to be with her family, but mostly to interrogate her tightlipped mother, Barbra.

As Barbra fends of Alex’s unrelenting questions, she reflects on her tumultuous life with Victor. Meanwhile Gary, Alex’s brother, is incommunicado, trying to get his movie career off the ground in Los Angeles. And Gary’s wife, Twyla, is having a nervous breakdown, buying up all the lipstick in drug stores around New Orleans and bursting into crying fits. Dysfunction is at its peak. As each family member grapples with Victor’s history, they must figure out a way to move forward—with one another, for themselves, and for the sake of their children.

All This Could Be Yours is a timely, piercing exploration of what it means to be caught in the web of a toxic man who abused his power; it shows how those webs can tangle a family for generations and what it takes to—maybe, hopefully—break free.

All This Could Be Yours is composed of the most dysfunctional of dysfunctional people. Victor (the father) is terrible and even though he is comatose in his hospital bed he is everywhere in this narrative, Barbra (the mother) is emotionally withdrawn and obsessed with her appearance, Alex (the daughter) is angry at her mother and can be vindictive, Greg (the son) deals with the situation by refusing to show up, and Twyla (the daughter-in-law), as it turns out, is having a breakdown because of something she has done. Now, there is nuance to each of these stories, of course – except Victor, there is no nuance to a guy who is the Jewish version of a Mafia property developer and who idolizes The Sopranos. The trick is that Jami Attenberg is such a good writer she can take a book that is stocked with particularly unlikeable characters and make the story compelling. I kept on reading because a) I wanted know if Victor was going to get it in the end and b) to see if the other characters straighten themselves out (maybe? I think by the end of the book most of them have managed to shake Victor’s grip). The granddaughters, Sadie and Avery, are excellent and I wished they had made more appearances in the book.

This is also an excellent book to read if you like fiction where the setting feels like a character. New Orleans as a location plays a huge part in the story as several characters wander around the city, or escape it. The weather, specifically the humidity and heat of the Mississippi River delta, plays into this.

The only thing I really didn’t like was that it was a bit hard to follow as the narrative shifted from present to past and between characters. There was a long chapter in Barbra’s point-of-view that gave us a long chunk of backstory but it jumped around as she power-walked around the nursing unit.

I do have to give a trigger warning for domestic violence on the page. I also have to note that one character (and two others to a lesser degree) has internalized fatphobia and feminine beauty standards to an extreme and so there are a number of comments about women’s appearances that feel quite a bit squicky.

All This Could Be Yours published on October 22.

Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.