With brooding Gothic influences seeping in and clouding around, the highlights of this unusual story for me were the fantastic writing and the intriguing storytelling.
The strange story that jumpstarts this tale is of a woman in black, Melmoth, who appears at the corner of your eye, following, and reveals herself at your darkest, lowest moment and asks you to take her hand. Her appearance winds through all stories as the book fractures from one narrative to the next, and it seems that once you know about her, you start seeing her. (Don’t look now, but what was that, just beyond the edge of the doorway?) The themes of her vicious loneliness, witnessing, and the burdens we bear—whether self-inflicted or otherwise—are ones that resonated deeply for me and felt timely.
This is a narrative where each door you open leads to another new narrative—a houseful of narratives made up of letters, diary entries, and memories, each of the writers baring their soul, telling the worst thing they ever did, and there—always—is Melmoth lurking in the corners. Who is she? What is she? What will she do? Does she even exist?
Though the main narrative is Helen’s story, it also sets out the testimony of these other poor souls—each one as captivating as the last—leaving behind Helen as the tortured witness, Helen to be haunted by their visages, their actions, their loneliness mixing with her own, their eternal unrest binding them to her and her constant ascetic need for atonement for her own sins.
This is the type of book that leaves a lot of room for contemplating. With the repeated entreaty of the narrator directing the reader to “Look!” throughout the novel, it seems to be asking—is it enough just to look, just to be a witness, just to read the accounts of these horrors? And if it’s not, what action should be taken? What could be enough to right the world, or at the very least one’s own conscience?
I appreciated the depth of the humanity in this book. It deals with very human topics within the specter of the Gothic and supernatural. The book manages to balance on the edge of the fantastic, leaving me wondering about Melmoth the whole way through without sliding into gaudy theatrics.
Still, the book felt a little unfinished to me. Each story wasn’t the full experience, a total view of that character, their wins, their losses, their virtues, their failings. They only showed snapshots; it would take a whole novel of each to get a complete picture. And with so much room focusing on these other stories, there wasn’t as much development with the characters in Helen’s storyline as I would have liked.
Still, this is an atmospheric and wonderfully written tale, perfect for a cold winter’s night.
My thanks to William Morrow/Custom House for my copy of this book to read and review.
A new Murakami is nothing short of a gift. I’ll never understand quite what’s going on in that man’s mind, but I’m glad he gives us a chance every once in a while to peek behind the curtain. That said, I am not a fan of this newest venture.
Plotwise, I can’t say this book worked for me. It felt strongly derivative of his early Wind-up Bird Chronicle, but Killing Commendatore is a deeply watered down, white-bread substitution for that master work of genius. I won’t even go into all the ways these books are similar here, but it is pretty striking. If you’re considering reading a Murakami for the first time, put this one down and go get a copy of that. You can thank me later.
The plot winds around and around this pit behind the rented house where the unnamed narrator is staying without ever really hitting on the importance of the pit itself. I mean, I GET IT: it’s a metaphor for rebirth—he doesn’t even try to hide that one, just wait for it. I almost laughed out loud. But what does it mean? For the character? For the plot? In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter.
Similarly, the narrative winds around and around a painting found tucked away in the attic of this house. There is all this historical background that we learn about the painting and the person who painted it, but all that strangely doesn’t seem that important. Rather it is just the image on the painting itself that is important. But I still couldn’t figure out the purpose. Or its connection to our narrator.
Yes, it’s about the journey. It’s an interruption in the narrator’s life and all of his neuroses, fears, and obstructions are getting out in the open before he can get back to normal life. But what if the journey that’s undertaken isn’t a journey at all? What if it’s metaphorical? What if it’s just a history lesson that doesn’t have any real attachment to the forward progression of the plot? What if it’s just pages and pages of nothing going nowhere only to lead back to the beginning? Is that the point? For it to go on and on and mean nothing at all in the end? Sweet Jesus, I hope not.
The most compelling parts of the narrative for me were the descriptions of painting and the portraits, especially as the main character thought about the creative process and what it meant to be a creative person. I could see the parallels to writing or dancing or playing an instrument or another creative act in this, and it felt as though Murakami was digging deep into the reason we crave creativity and where it comes from. I wish there had been more interior exploration of that.
On a character level, I found it lacking. The main character, an unnamed artist going through a divorce, is standard Murakami fare, but I found him and his lackadaisical sleeping around, record listening, and careful meal-preparing more than a little bland and lifeless. And none of it is new. It’s all just rehashing what we’ve seen from Murakami before.
The characters in the book in general tend toward misogyny and the objectification of women, which is off-putting in general, but especially when it isn’t a specific part of the plot that is purposeful, discussed, or resolved. The one female character we get to spend any real time with is a precocious young girl who is so weirdly and overly obsessed with her (lack of) breasts that they might as well be her only feature. How sad. There are other, certainly more natural, ways to go about showing the coming-of-age period for a young girl that wouldn’t involve constant conversations about breast size with a strange man three times her age. It just felt gross and like a total waste and a complete missed opportunity for an interesting development of a character, and a female character at that.
Am I just not getting it? Looking back at the description from the publisher, this book is supposed to be an homage to The Great Gatsby. Does someone want to explain THAT to me? I am not digging deep enough I guess. It’s really bumming me out that I just don’t get this book. Am I looking too hard at the plot of a book that is supposed to be idea-based? With capital “I” Ideas holding it up at all four corners rather than silly conventions like narrative structure, character, and dialogue? Perhaps. But being a fan of Murakami’s work in general, I think it’s fair for me to think this book is a failure, even if it is supposed to be about Ideas instead of a story.
The Ideas themselves felt unfinished, underdeveloped, and left floating and untethered by the end of the book. What was it all for? The surrealism/magical realism, the history lesson, the father/child conundrums, the painting, and the pit.
Maybe I need to spend more time with it. But for me, an underdeveloped plot and boring characters can’t be saved by a bit of surrealism and Ideas. Especially when we’re dealing with 700 pages.
My thanks to the publisher for my copy of this book to read and review.
For fans of the modern stylings of Haruki Murakami, Etgar Keret, Carmen Maria Machado, Karen Russell, and Kelly Link, comes another uniquely brilliant voice in short fiction, and one we are lucky to have.
Most of the stories here center around themes of gender and power dynamics, as well as the problems, loneliness, and loss of true feelings and intimacy that can go along with being in relationships.
Motoya has a strangely specific ability to find a very realistic situation, like a married couple losing touch with each other, and turning it on its head, introducing a completely absurd component that shifts the story into the realm of heightened realism, or even all the way to magical realism.
I loved every story.
There is something really special about the way Motoya focuses on the women in her stories. Mostly, her protagonists are women who are stuck in some type of situation—unhappy in their marriage, with their life, with who they are becoming, with how the past is affecting them. They very clearly see how the problems are rooted deep in the threads of their daily lives, but it is shaking the issues that prove difficult.
How do you get back to a relationship with you husband when he doesn’t notice that you’ve become a bodybuilder, insane muscles rippling over your body? How do you stay independent and keep your life separate from your life as a couple when you notice that day by day your face is beginning to look more and more like your husband’s? What about if as a boyfriend, you only wanted to spice up your relationship and instead your girlfriend challenges you to a duel?
These are the types of stories where you just have to let the weird wash over you. I love becoming immersed in these other worlds where at any moment, the strangest things might happen—people can fly away using umbrellas, turn into flowers, cry blood.
My favorite three stories in the collection for me were: “The Lonesome Bodybuilder,” “An Exotic Marriage,” and “The Women,” though I really loved them all. I would adore to read a novel from Motoya!
My huge thanks to Soft Skull Press for sending me this one to read and review, and I also want to thank them for their continued commitment as a company to publishing unique and brilliant voices.
This was my 100th book of 2018, and it couldn't have been a better choice. In fact, it might be my favorite book of 2018 so far.
Some books just really hit you in your heart.
This book, it was more like the heart, gut, throat, chest—a full body knockout.
Karen E. Bender’s stories in this new collection are something different, something necessary for our fragile, tumultuous social and political landscape. She begins in small moments in the lives of her characters and crafts emotional, compelling stories that draw you in, until finally you realize the whole story has been about something much larger the whole time.
A woman struggling to find her way and keep herself afloat goes on three interviews, but her interviewers are all stuck in their own loops of self-misery and can’t see beyond the haze of their own problems, however large or small, and it bleeds across the interviews in an unexpected way.
A girl stuck going to Hebrew school twice a week worries about divide between her Hebrew school self and who she is with her friends at her public school, while in the background, violent crimes are perpetrated against people of her faith in other countries.
In the one genre story set in a dystopian/futuristic landscape, a woman who is lucky to have a job in the diminishing market reads complaints from and awards monetary compensation to people who dislike their jobs but are unable to leave due to restrictions from the government. She is given a promotion, but the complaints take on a darker edge and she struggles to understand the reason behind it all.
Each story is startlingly simple, full of those everyday occurrences that make life both mundane and unique. From simple interactions between strangers in an elevator or on a plane, to the longer narratives, there is a simple clarity, a pure brilliance as Bender turns a light—fiercely—on what is really going on, what really matters.
More than just casting our reflection back at us, these stories dig to the center of socio-political issues in a way that is innately human. You can't help but to feel at the very minimum the unsettling, like walking on uneven ground in the dark, that the stories bring up in your gut. There is something wrong here, I kept thinking, but how can I fix it?
Yes—how do we fix it? Are we, as a country fixable? We are good at commenting on the problems that we see, but are we ready to dig to the root of the problem, to get in there and really clean up the mess we've created?
What will it take?
Reading books like this remind me why writing and reading is so important. Fiction has a voice, and it has something to say, something we should all be listening to.
Huge, expansive and never-ending thanks to Counterpoint Press for putting an ARC of this book in my hands to read and review. It is definitely one I will be recommending to everyone. This book is out in November.
A gorgeous, unnerving, and supremely masterful novel.
". . . to plunge a viewer into a state of terror meant to take away their compass, their tools for navigating the world, and to replace it with a compass that told a different kind of truth. The trick was ensuring the viewer was so consumed by fright that they didn't even notice this exchange was being made; it was a secret transaction between their imagination and the film, and when they left the theater, those new truths would go with them, swimming like eels under the skin."
In a slim package, van den Berg delves into a wealth of topics, each one adding another layer to the narrative. The layers interact, conflict, and entangle to create something altogether spellbinding, a phantasmagoria of grief, marriage and relationships, travel, horror tropes, film, memory and the psyche, and ultimately, the search for self.
The writing is so easy to get wrapped up in, and even though it is a slim book under 200 pages, it took me almost a week to get through it because I was so invested in reading every word; sometimes I read sentences multiple times. The author writes with such precision and strength of voice that it was easy to sink into the story, while at the same time, I was constantly finding wonderful sentences that I needed to mark to revisit later.
The story doesn't go where I thought it would at all, it is a much more quiet and introspective examination of the self, the past, and how one's own life can be unrecognizable and completely familiar all at once. But it is perfect, and I very much enjoyed every minute of Clare's journey. It is in the space in between what we know and what we don't know that true exploration begins. But most people are too afraid to go there because maybe that's where the monsters live too.
"Horror films had taught her that a person could will a thing into existence, but once it was outside their consciousness, the consciousness that had been busily inventing simultaneous possibilities, it became a force unto itself, ferocious and uncontrollable."
While I can't say that this is a horror novel, perhaps it could be horror-adjacent. The references to horror movies and elements of horror analysis throughout prove that van den Berg is knowledgable about the genre, and they are more than just lip service to fans. Concepts from horror, like the final girl, play an integral part of Clare's journey, in both how she begins to see the world through a different lens and how she begins to see herself—past and present—through different eyes even as she spirals downward.
I think horror readers who are into literary fiction will quite enjoy this. It has the dreamlike propulsiveness of Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, but with more narrative flow, like Neil Gaiman's psychologically dreamlike and haunting The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
My thanks to FSG for sending me a finished copy of this book to read and review.
After being blown away by Eileen and less than impressed by the collection Homesick for Another World, I wasn't sure what to expect from this next novel by Moshfegh.
In mid-2000 in NYC, the twenty-four-year-old narrator of this book opts of of society. It doesn't seem political or even some form of social protest, she's just tired. Or maybe bored. So she decides to quit life and do the one thing she likes full time: sleep. With the aid of a veritable drugstore of pharmaceuticals from a suspect and truly irresponsible psychiatrist, she plans to sleep through as much of the next year of her life as possible.
I think there is a year in our recent past that we all could say we would have preferred to sleep through, so I see what Moshfegh is getting at.
Where she really excels as a writer is in the intense character study. Her characters are often shallow and self-centered, but I have a hard time holding that against them, because really, we all are (at the very least inside our own heads). She creates these flawed people who, sometimes brilliantly, see who they are fully, though sometimes they view the world around them with skewed perception or half-blindness.
The narrator in My Year has followed a specific path in her life, seemingly set out for her by her birth to rich parents and her blond-haired pretty-girl good looks, and she's finding out that it doesn't bring her any joy. It feels empty because it is. And she isn't going anywhere new fast.
She (ahead of her time in 2000, as this felt very millennial to me) is fairly aimless, not knowing what she wants to do with her life. She is lackadaisical about the opportunities she's been given, spiteful about the people she spends time with, and oblivious to anything going on outside of her head and personal existence.
What will a year of hibernation do? For her, it doesn't seem to be a meditative experience, like monks seeking enlightenment. She describes how she is able to retreat from the world in relative comfort because of her fairly lucky financial situation—which has nothing to do with success on her own part. She isn't in there contemplating solving world hunger. Mostly, she is introspective, thinking about her past, her family and the experiences that brought her to where she is today.
But in the end, this is a very irreverent, driven, insightful, and darkly comedic story about one girl finding a new way to life. Yes, she is blindly believing that by ignoring all her problems she will somehow be reborn, able to handle existence again. Maybe that's true and maybe it isn't. But I think it's more about the journey, making the choice to begin again.
My thanks to Penguin Press for sending me an advance copy of this book to read and review.
If there was ever a book to make you crave food, this is it.
I wanted good, delicious Chinese food every time I cracked this book open. You can basically smell it while you read—the hot, sizzling spices, fried rice, heaping plates of beef and eggplant with garlic sauce (my favorite), and bowls brimming with wonton soup—SO GOOD.
I didn’t quite know what to expect diving into this (besides hunger pangs) but I was pleasantly surprised by an inventive and humanistic tale similar in style to Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere or Jade Chang’s The Wangs vs. the World.
I loved each of the characters and their struggles. Each chapter continues the story from a different characters’ perspective, so the reader gets a bird’s-eye view of the whole story—the good, the bad, the incendiary, and the ugly. From the brothers who co-own the Beijing Duck House that was their father’s dream and masterpiece and the less-than-ideal business decisions one of them has been making, to the servers who have been working at the restaurant for just about ever, to the newer generation and their own struggles.
I loved the entanglements of all the characters, how the book reminisced about the past and how where we come from influences who we are, whether we decide to fight it or let it be a part of our story. Li has a true talent for the craft of characters, from dialogue to being able to switch back and forth between all their perspectives and making them feel like distinct people.
There are many different types of relationships handled very deftly here: brothers, sons and mothers, unlikely lovers, young lovers, business partners, coworkers, spouses, teens and their parents—the list goes on. This web is tangled even further as many characters play multiple roles. The book uses the setting of the restaurant and the hierarchy within the restaurant as a metaphor for the rest of the world—who you are when you are at work is not necessarily who you are when your shift ends. But what happens when all of that comes crumbling down?
Identity is a tricky thing. It is tied to our perception of ourselves but also how other people see us. Where we come from, what we do, who we spend time with—all these things shape who we are. But it is not always easy to craft or change this, even if we desperately want something else. This book is a lot about identity, the finding and shifting of it, through food, the past, and those around us.
This is a book with heart—a true feast for the heart. It has moments of comedy and absurdity, but then vulnerability, loss, and heartache where the reader sees what it means to be part of a community that is so tight it is more like a family. And as it is with families—they know nothing about each other’s inner lives and constantly get on each other’s nerves. I ate this book up—Li is a huge talent and I can’t wait to see what comes from her next.
I have not made my love for Wolas’s debut novel, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, a secret. It is a brilliant literary work that deserves its comparisons to pillars like Irving, McCullers, Capote, Didion. But it also stands alone and shines with a unique voice—so unlike anything I’ve read before not only in story, but in character, strength of the vision that is created on the page, and sheer enormity of the tangible world and people that come alive. It deserves to be read and savored. It is the type of book that gets into the deepest nooks and farthest niches of your heart and forces the beating, reminds you why you are alive, or maybe why you need to start living.
Yeah, it’s that good.
So I did not enter into The Family Tabor lightly. I had high expectations.
While Joan focuses on one specific character and her struggles, Tabor offers multiple perspectives, switching the narrative view every chapter to a different character of the well-to-do Tabor family.
They have all gathered to celebrate the patriarch, Henry Tabor, who is being named Man of the Decade. But though the family is close, not everything is as perfect as it appears and just a tiny tear at the seams of the façade offers a peek behind the curtain of the past and present struggles different members of the family are all privately facing.
The book has many, many strengths, the first of which would be its beautiful use of language. Wolas has a true talent with words and she does not squander it. This is the type of book you can barely get through a page without wanting to read some sentence over and over, or noticing a carefully constructed or unique phrase, or a detailed description you want to mark with a sticky note.
The characters are also deftly wrought, as to me, both their internal dialogue and their interactions with others throughout the plot ring very true. This novel is very much about the divide between public and private—what we share with the world and what we hide away from it. As the reader, we get to see both sides and I loved that.
This book is also very much about family power dynamics: the expectations of family, living up to your parents or your siblings even if the disparity is only in your mind, and trying to hide any flaws and not be too vulnerable or naked in front of them. Though the Tabors seem open and warm with each other, they are very guarded and keep their secrets to themselves, licking their wounds in private.
A thoughtful and meditative book concerned with the human experience and the way our past can dictate our future if we let it, The Family Tabor is not one you’ll want to zoom through. It is a delicate dessert you'll want to taste every flavor of and truly enjoy. The story is quiet and introspective, but not without drama and high stakes.
The past can dictate the future, but we can also learn from it and change ourselves in the present to create a better future. I don't think that's a new lesson or such a revelatory one, but the deft way Wolas peels back the layers illuminates how what we inherit from our parents and their parents and so on does not need to define us, though it will always be within us, coursing just beneath the surface. After all, blood is thicker than water, as they say.
Anyone with a true love of literature and a longing for the great classics who understood that language and the creation of compelling characters were the cornerstone of good storytelling will fall in love with Wolas’s work.
I am a lifelong fan and will always look forward to reading her new releases and rereading my favorites too.
My thanks to Flatiron Books for providing me with an advance copy of this book.
The highly anticipated novel follows a young mother and exotic dancer who lives in San Francisco and Los Angeles and has been convicted of a horrible crime. She tells her story, the narrative entangling with some of the people she encounters, detailing life at prison, her life before, and how she got to where she is.
If you like Orange is the New Black, this is the book for you. I know that comparison will probably be all over the place, but this book really has a lot of the elements that I love about that show. Witty interesting characters shown to have layers and be real people behind all their banter, interesting prison insights, backstory, and even better, it doesn’t have Piper. (I’m sorry, but she’s so annoying!)
Instead, you’ll fall for the tough, smart Romy Hall, who doesn’t have a glamorous life, but does what she needs to get by. She doesn’t hold prejudices or punches and tells her story like it is without trying to make it pretty. I like her.
The main thrust of the plot following Romy was what I was most interested in and I loved her voice. I wanted to spend more time with this character! It took me a while to really get into the style of the short paragraphs and the back and forth of how she revealed her story, telling a small piece of it and then going off on a tangent about something entirely different before circling back, but though it dragged sometimes, I mostly liked it. It is a bit difficult to read in loonngg stretches.
But overall, I thought the narrative was a little scattered. The way it would jump between different characters narration was sometimes jarring and it took me a sentence or a paragraph to figure out who was talking and what part of the story they were telling. It felt like an unnecessary way to transition. Some of the characters felt a little extraneous and over-written to me, like I wasn’t sure why we were hearing from them at all (Ted Kaczynski?) and as their narratives were not all wound up within the book, those areas could have been trimmed.
The book also felt a little unfinished to me, like there is more that could have been gleaned from the themes of self-imposed isolation (what with all the Thoreau/Kaczynski/woodsy scenes) and the institutional isolation that Romy and the other inmates experience. I don’t know exactly what the book was trying to say about that. Perhaps it is there and I just didn’t get it!
But the book is also interested in injustice, gender in prison, and poverty and other socioeconomic factors that really do affect how the system runs. Too much is being taken on by the book and the narrative doesn’t cover any of it fully.
For me, the disjointed narrative and scattered style—jumping between first and third person, the difficulty in discerning who was speaking (or why they had a voice in the narrative at all), and other reasons really disconnected me from the text. I felt that it lacked the raw emotionality that should have (and could have) been conveyed by a book about such important topics as the realities and injustices of the justice system.
Not quite what I expected, but still a very interesting story by a talented and compelling writer.
My thanks to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of this book to read and review.
“Am I, this trembling, hallucinating ball of sinew, really any stranger of a creature, any more improbable of an object, than a ghost?”
If you are looking for something a bit different to read, something literary, but with a compelling narrative and totally innovative plot, this is it.
The main story revolves around Nick and Hannah, a couple who are not quite sure if their relationship will make it. To try something new and escape the city, Hannah takes a job as the live-in director of the Wright Historic House, a museum in the middle of nowhere dedicated to a nineteenth-century philosopher who barely anyone has heard of.
There is something about the house, a creaky old maze, enticing and creepy at turns, that draws Hannah deeper and deeper inside Edmund Wright’s research. Nick, the narrator of the story, doesn’t realize that something is wrong with her until she is missing one morning. And then he is left retracing her steps to see what happened, what he missed, and if she can be found.
I loved this one. It will almost certainly be in my top ten for the year. (A huge thanks to Belletrist, without whom I wouldn’t have read this one!)
This is not your typical ghost story or haunted house novel—but that is one of the reasons why I loved it. “Haunted house” might be my favorite narrative to read—there is just so much you can do with that idea! I have read a bunch of them and am always looking for new ones . . . (suggestions please!) And this one tried something really new to great effect. I loved every minute of it.
I spent a lot (and I mean A LOT) of time thinking about and trying to wrap my head around ghosts and the idea of haunting as it is presented in this book. First of all, it takes the story a long time to get to these elements—in fact, it is definitely more about the people, the living people and their own psychology than any ghosts.
But in any case, how they haunt, if they even do haunt, and what a haunting might be (something your own mind creates the space for? Something enacted upon you?)—I don’t want to get into it too far since that is part of the mystery that the book threads along, but it presents a very unique concept of ghosts and what a haunted house is.
I wouldn’t say that this is a scary book by any means. It is quiet, introspective, and lyrically haunting. There is a lot of character development and such beautiful writing, but a very ephemeral nature. It touches on depression, stress, and the potential of the psyche through the lens of a relationship—how much do you really know about your partner?
Nick, as he narrates, is really telling Hannah’s story, but there is this gauzy veil around her; we don’t really know what she was thinking or feeling, only his interpretation of it. I enjoyed seeing how his thoughts grew and changed across the book.
I found the plot to be compelling—I didn’t see what was coming and the mix of an intriguing plot, a good psychological mind puzzle, and great writing that I could linger on was a perfect combination for me. I like a book I can think about, puzzle through, one with characters that feel real and complex, and one with enough buildup to let me imagine that there is more to the world of the story than we know.
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.