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First Love

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From “one of Britain’s most original young writers” (The Observer), a blistering account of a marriage in crisis and a portrait of a woman caught between withdrawal and self-assertion, depression and rage.

Neve, the novel’s acutely intelligent narrator, is beset by financial anxiety and isolation, but can’t quite manage to extricate herself from her volatile partner, Edwyn. Told with emotional remove and bracing clarity, First Love is an account of the relationship between two catastrophically ill-suited people walking a precarious line between relative calm and explosive confrontation.

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

Publication Date: 2017 by Granta Books

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My Thoughts:

First Love is a vicious, cerebral little book and apparently exactly what I needed to kick-start my recent reading slump. Reading Riley’s novel feels a bit voyeuristic at times and her use of dialogue really does a fantastic job of playing out the tension as the reader witnesses the day-to-day of Neve and Edwyn’s dysfunctional relationship.

Finding out what you already know. Repeatingly. That’s not sane, is it? And while he might have said that ‘this was how he was’, for me it continued to be frightening, panic-making, to hear the low, pleading sounds I’d start making, whenever he was sharp with me. This wasn’t how I spoke. (Except it was.) This wasn’t me, this crawling, cautious creature. (Except it was.) I defaulted to it very easily. And he let me. Why? I wonder now how much he even noticed, hopped up as he was. No, I don’t believe he did notice. This was the lesson, I think. That none of this was personal.

Despite the entire novel being told from Neve’s point of view, she doesn’t paint a picture of herself being a victim and this makes the novel feel even more threatening since it’s unclear how much she plays a role in their unhealthy dynamic or if she is just unclear herself how much she is to “blame” for Edwyn’s horrible treatment of her. It was gut-wrenching to read through these dialogues and see how easy it can be to become stuck in the continual cycle of an abusive relationship. She may love Edwyn but the reader is never certain of Neve’s recognition that her love for him doesn’t make his treatment of her acceptable or normal.

This is a stunner of a book and I can’t wait to get my hands on the rest of Gwendoline Riley’s work!

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Chronicle of a Last Summer

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Cairo, 1984. A blisteringly hot summer. A young girl in a sprawling family house. Her days pass quietly: listening to a mother’s phone conversations, looking at the Nile from a bedroom window, watching the three state-sanctioned TV stations with the volume off, daydreaming about other lives. Underlying this claustrophobic routine is mystery and loss. Relatives mutter darkly about the newly-appointed President Mubarak. Everyone talks with melancholy about the past. People disappear overnight. Her own father has left, too—why, or to where, no one will say.

We meet her across three decades, from youth to adulthood: As a six-year old absorbing the world around her, filled with questions she can’t ask; as a college student and aspiring filmmaker pre-occupied with love, language, and the repression that surrounds her; and then later, in the turbulent aftermath of Mubarak’s overthrow, as a writer exploring her own past. Reunited with her father, she wonders about the silences that have marked and shaped her life.

At once a mapping of a city in transformation and a story about the shifting realities and fates of a single Egyptian family, Yasmine El Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer traces the fine line between survival and complicity, exploring the conscience of a generation raised in silence.

Chronicle of a Last Summer by Yasmine El Rashidi

Publication Date: June 13, 2017 by Tim Duggan Books

Goodreads


My Thoughts:

For such a small book, Chronicle of a Last Summer is a slow, difficult read. I felt like this pace was mostly due to El Rashidi’s prose because although the content itself is heavy, the author’s writing style forces the reader to slow down. As someone who reads very quickly, this is not a book I could see reading during a commute or while in public since it demands your full attention.

That is not to say that El Rashidi’s novel is difficult to grasp, unless the reader does not have much knowledge on Egypt’s political history. I was grateful for my own culture/history coursework and personal interest in international affairs since it helped to clarify some of the topics that the author discusses in an intimate way that doesn’t lend to much clarification.

The book is broken into three different sections: 1984, 1998, and 2014. I struggled the most with the first section (1984) since the narrative flow felt very fragmented as it was told from the POV of the narrator at a very young age. I’ve never done well with novels told from a young perspective and Chronicle of a Last Summer was no exception. I was glad I powered through though since I felt most connected to the narrator during the section on 1998. I also found this portion to be the most powerful since it is during a time where our young narrator is beginning to find a voice and a purpose during such a turbulent time in her city.

While I enjoyed the book as a whole, I still didn’t feel entirely connected to the story. I think ultimately that El Rashidi’s prose, while beautiful, was not a good fit for me. I prefer coming-of-age stories to feel a bit more personal and I found something lacking in my connection with the narrator.

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

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In this brilliant, heartbreaking book, Matthew Desmond takes us into the poorest neighborhoods of Milwaukee to tell the story of eight families on the edge. Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the $20 a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a gentle nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on rent, and all have fallen behind.

The fates of these families are in the hands of two landlords: Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher turned inner-city entrepreneur, and Tobin Charney, who runs one of the worst trailer parks in Milwaukee. They loathe some of their tenants and are fond of others, but as Sherrena puts it, “Love don’t pay the bills.” She moves to evict Arleen and her boys a few days before Christmas.

Even in the most desolate areas of American cities, evictions used to be rare. But today, most poor renting families are spending more than half of their income on housing, and eviction has become ordinary, especially for single mothers. In vivid, intimate prose, Desmond provides a ground-level view of one of the most urgent issues facing America today. As we see families forced into shelters, squalid apartments, or more dangerous neighborhoods, we bear witness to the human cost of America’s vast inequality—and to people’s determination and intelligence in the face of hardship.

Based on years of embedded fieldwork and painstakingly gathered data, this masterful book transforms our understanding of extreme poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving a devastating, uniquely American problem. Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond

Publication Date: February 28, 2017 by Broadway Books

Goodreads


My Thoughts:

I will admit that I was hesitant to pick up this book after seeing that the author was a white, male who teaches at Harvard. I clearly have my own biases to work through, but I was worried that a book about poverty and the role race and gender play in the housing system was not something I wanted to read through the viewpoint of someone like Desmond. I am happy to say I was wrong about my own assumptions as Desmond proved to not only be an amazing writer, but his work as a sociologist is stunning in bringing to light a topic that hasn’t been given enough coverage in this country.

Evicted is a difficult read. Desmond brings to light all the horrific details of what it’s really like to struggle to maintain housing in an American city where eviction is unbelievably commonplace for those living in extreme poverty and helps to explain why so many people find it too difficult to ever “move up” economically-speaking. While some of the statistics or factual arguments Desmond makes are not necessarily new to many readers (myself included), the sociologist approach of sharing the information through the personal narratives of real people makes these issues much more “real” and easier to understand.

People like Larraine lived with so many compounded limitations that it was difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self-control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty. The distance between grinding poverty and even stable poverty could be so vast that those at the bottom had little hope of climbing out even if they pinched every penny. So they chose not to. Instead, they tried to survive in color, to season the suffering with pleasure. They would get a little high or have a drink or do a bit of gambling or acquire a television. They might buy lobster on food stamps.

Desmond sheds light on what it means to live in poverty and easily squashes some of the typical, irrational arguments I’ve often heard from people who see living in poverty as a “choice”. He also shows the similarities and differences that can arise depending on a person’s race and gender – all within the same city. I can’t imagine a person reading this book and not being affected because while it it clear that Desmond wanted to maintain a personal distance when sharing people’s experiences, I found myself most impacted by the people he wrote about as it made the factual information that much more upsetting.

While Evicted may be a challenging book to read, it is also an extremely important one as it humanizes an issue in our country that people either often overlook or don’t have an opinion on as it doesn’t directly affect them. In his epilogue, Desmond also shares ways that we as Americans could vastly improve the housing crisis in our country if we only chose to focus more on helping the poor rather than the rich.

Most federal housing subsidies benefit families with six-figure incomes. If we are going to spend the bulk of our public dollars on the affluent – at least when it comes to housing – we should own up to that decision and stop repeating the politicians’ canard about one of the richest countries on the planet being unable to afford doing more. If poverty persists in America, it is not for lack of resources.

Although it might be easy to walk away from this book with a sense of despair, Desmond makes it very clear in his epilogue that the poverty and housing issues in this country are not impossible to overcome – if we only could work towards making it a priority in our government. This is a book every American should read.

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.

 

Eat Only When You’re Hungry

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In Lindsay Hunter’s achingly funny, fiercely honest second novel, Eat Only When You’re Hungry, we meet Greg—an overweight fifty-eight-year-old and the father of Greg Junior, GJ, who has been missing for three weeks. GJ’s been an addict his whole adult life, disappearing for days at a time, but for some reason this absence feels different, and Greg has convinced himself that he’s the only one who can find his son. So he rents an RV and drives from his home in West Virginia to the outskirts of Orlando, Florida, the last place GJ was seen. As we travel down the streets of the bizarroland that is Florida, the urgency to find GJ slowly recedes into the background, and the truths about Greg’s mistakes—as a father, a husband, a man—are uncovered.

In Eat Only When You’re Hungry, Hunter elicits complex sympathy for her characters, asking the reader to take a closer look at the way we think about addiction—why we demonize the junkie but turn a blind eye to drinking a little too much or eating too much—and the fallout of failing ourselves.

Eat Only When You’re Hungry by Lindsay Hunter

Publication Date: August 8, 2017 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Goodreads

Beer Pairing: Two Roads Honeyspot


My Thoughts:

So that’s what radishes tasted like. Now he knew. They rotted at the bottom of the crisper drawer, they and the lettuce heads and the carrots in their peels. Deb pulled them out a month later, floating in their bags in what looked like lake water, scrubbed the crisper in the sink so it was clean and empty and ready for more bacon.

He guessed that’s what sobriety felt like to GJ: a lurid, hopeful salad that he could not even pretend to choke down.

For such a small book, Eat Only When You’re Hungry packs a serious emotional punch. Hunter’s characters are all broken in their own way and yet there lingered a sense of hope throughout the novel as I found myself desperately hoping that they would each find what they needed to grab a hold of their lives and their broken relationships with one another.

There’s something a bit voyeuristic about reading along with Greg’s narrative and that definitely helped the reader to both understand and empathize with Greg, despite many of his flaws, in particular as a father to GJ. Eat Only When You’re Hungry felt honest because of this brutality and is ultimately what I loved most about Hunter’s writing style.

The Child

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As an old house is demolished in a gentrifying section of London, a workman discovers a tiny skeleton, buried for years. For journalist Kate Waters, it s a story that deserves attention. She cobbles together a piece for her newspaper, but at a loss for answers, she can only pose a question: Who is the Building Site Baby?

As Kate investigates, she unearths connections to a crime that rocked the city decades earlier: A newborn baby was stolen from the maternity ward in a local hospital and was never found. Her heartbroken parents were left devastated by the loss.

But there is more to the story, and Kate is drawn house by house into the pasts of the people who once lived in this neighborhood that has given up its greatest mystery. And she soon finds herself the keeper of unexpected secrets that erupt in the lives of three women and torn between what she can and cannot tell.

The Child by Fiona Barton

Publication Date: June 27, 2017 by Berkley Books

Goodreads

Beer Pairing: Harpoon Citra Sea IPA


My Thoughts:

I’m a bit conflicted about my feelings regarding this book. Perhaps this is partly because of my expectations going into it (I absolutely LOVED Barton’s debut novel, The Widow). Much like The Widow, I enjoyed Barton’s writing style and her complicated, female characters. I think what was different about The Child is that while the chapters transitioned quickly between different points of view, the book as a whole moved at a much slower pace.

While I appreciate Barton’s storytelling and ability to slowly reveal all the hidden layers beneath what “seems” to be a simple crime investigation, I enjoy her characterization the most. All of the women in The Child are complicated individuals and Barton is skillful in both character development and deception – even when I thought I understood a character’s motives, Barton manages to instill enough doubt to make the reader question what is really true.

Dangerous to think you know too much, sometimes, because who really knows someone else? You can scratch the skin, but you never get to the meat of someone else. Into their bones.

While not as fast-paced as her first novel, The Child is a smart, suspenseful crime thriller and I’m excited to see what Fiona Barton writes next!

Lucky You

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Three women, early twenties, find themselves aimlessly adrift in Erika Carter’s fierce and darkly funny debut novel, Lucky You. Ellie, Chloe and Rachel are friends (sort of); waitresses at the same tired bar in the Arkansas college town they’ve stuck around in too long. Each is becoming unmoored in her own way: Ellie obliterates all feeling with alcohol and self-destructive acts of sexual promiscuity; Chloe pulls out patches of her hair and struggles to keep incipient mental illness at bay; changeable Rachel has fallen under the sway of a messianic boyfriend with whom she’s agreed to live off-grid for a year in order to return to “health” and asks Ellie and Chloe to join them in “The Project”. In a remote, rural house in the Ozarks, nearly undone by boredom and the brewing tension between them, each tries to solve the conundrum of being alive.

Lucky You by Erika Carter

Publication Date: March 14, 2017 by Counterpoint Press

Goodreads


My Thoughts:

Sometimes a book doesn’t need a plot with a clear trajectory, likable characters, or a neat ending. In fact, I tend to prefer the opposite of all of those things as long as the writing style suits me. Luckily for me (HA, pun intended) Carter’s debut novel fits the bill.

Carter’s three main characters (Ellie, Chloe, and Rachel) are not necessarily likable, but they’re far from despicable. All three are damaged in their own way and despite attempts to escape their bad habits, it’s clear that they can’t outrun themselves. While the book splits its time between all three women, Ellie is focused on a little more heavily which is what made it easier to relate to her struggle the most. While not suffering from any of the same surface-level issues that these three have, I could easily relate to their feelings of restlessness and that constant itch for contentment that always seems slightly out of reach.

Once Chloe had told her that every seven years the body is made of entirely new material. It made Rachel look into her hands, the network of pink lines in her palms, the blue veins in her wrists, and wonder Who am I really?

I particularly loved the middle section of the book and Carter’s descriptions of their time spent at the house in the Ozark mountains. As their year together progresses, the hidden feelings of tension bubble to the surface when it’s clear that it will take more than just a change of scenery for Chloe, Ellie, and Rachel to deal with their problems. These specific chapters really did a lot to strengthen the internal narratives and characterization of the three women.

While the ending is in many ways open-ended, it is far from despondent and while it’s obvious that all three women are still far from making drastic changes to their lives, there’s a sense of hope in Ellie’s narrative that they still have plenty of time to figure their shit out and that they aren’t doomed to repeating an endless cycle of mistakes.

The Snowman

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Internationally acclaimed crime writer Jo Nesbø’s antihero police investigator, Harry Hole, is back: in a bone-chilling thriller that will take Hole to the brink of insanity.

Oslo in November. The first snow of the season has fallen. A boy named Jonas wakes in the night to find his mother gone. Out his window, in the cold moonlight, he sees the snowman that inexplicably appeared in the yard earlier in the day. Around its neck is his mother’s pink scarf.

Hole suspects a link between a menacing letter he’s received and the disappearance of Jonas’s mother—and of perhaps a dozen other women, all of whom went missing on the day of a first snowfall. As his investigation deepens, something else emerges: he is becoming a pawn in an increasingly terrifying game whose rules are devised—and constantly revised—by the killer.

The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

Publication Date: May 10, 2011 by Vintage Books

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My Thoughts:

I can now honestly say I don’t really understand the hype surrounding Nesbo’s work. Having previously read Midnight Sun and Blood on Snow, I was used to the simplistic writing style and classic crime noir storyline of Nesbo’s books, but The Snowman was not only a bit laughable in plot, but blatantly misogynistic as well.

This was my first full novel from the Harry Hole series. I picked up the first book, The Bat, a few months ago, but ultimately gave up after not gaining interest in the first 100 pages or so. I’ve seen a lot of recommendations for those new to the series to start with The Snowman and after seeing that the movie adaptation was being released in October, I thought it was a good time to give Nesbo another chance.

Initially, The Snowman starts out strong. It’s written very much as a police procedural type of crime thriller and Harry Hole is the typical lone-wolf, alcoholic, brooding detective stereotype that seems to be popular in this type of crime fiction. Despite my misgivings with the stereotypical narrator, I was happy with the pace of the plot for the first third of the novel and felt invested enough to see how things would play out.

Unfortunately, the pacing slows down DRAMATICALLY for the second half of the book and the amount of red herrings that begin to be thrown at the reader becomes much too excessive and just plain frustrating. Like many other readers, I figured out the murderer much too soon and I was disappointed with the reasonings and lack of depth behind his decision to become “the snowman”.

I’m not unfamiliar with the typical police procedural, male-dominated crime thrillers out there, and there are many that I actually really enjoyed. What really concerned me with The Snowman was the blatant sexism and lack of any real female characters (all seem to either die, need saving, or suffer from a nervous breakdown). Women are used in Nesbo’s books as pawns in the plot and while it’s nothing new for a book to focus on an angry man murdering women because he hates them, there is SUCH a lack of attempt to make any of the women in this book more than just flighty and promiscuous side characters and that was ultimately the most disturbing part of the book for me.

Also, the sex scenes were excessive (and not often necessary to the story) and so dominated by the male gaze that they were laughable. Why is it that all women (even the ones that could be smart, well-developed characters all on their own) throw themselves at the men in this book? I was baffled by many of these interactions and didn’t understand what was to be gained from them at all.

I would recommend picking up any of Tana French’s novels instead for those interested in police procedural thrillers. For anyone who doesn’t mind a little bit of fantasy thrown in with their serial killers, Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters or The Shining Girls are also fantastic.