Review: Such A Fun Age

10 Books We Can't Wait To Get Our Hands On In 2020 ...

 

Oookay, so I’m a bit behind the times on this one. Just as it took me a while to finally read Queenie, which I also wound up loving, I was slow to dive into Such a Fun Age. Why? Because honestly, there’s enough divisiveness and racial tension in the world, and quite frankly, I usually look to reading as an escape. For the same reasons, I often pass up heavier literary fiction because my reading time is sort of a meditative thing I do for pleasure. However, these books that take me a bit to decide to actually commit to reading frequently become some of my favorites. See: anything by David Foster Wallace and Julian Barnes, The Secret History, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, etc.)
ANYWAY, let’s focus. Kiley Reid’s debut novel, Such a Fun Age is phenomenal. It does exactly what great contemporary fiction is supposed to do in that it feels effortless and easy to digest, but underneath it lies a cultural commentary which provokes further thought. I love when a book stays with me, and this one certainly has. The story here is simple, without much in the way of action, and focuses on domestic issues, with race, wealth inequality, and societal status all playing a role. It all feels completely believable, and Reid succeeds in creating tension among the characters without having to cram anything down your throat. There’s no ‘bad guy/gal’ here, nor is there a ‘good guy/gal’; instead, the characters are all flawed in their own ways, but we get the sense that each of them is trying to do their best to get by, which is generally the case in real life. So often, authors get trapped in their own story, letting their own emotions get the best of them so that they create one-dimensional characters in order to force their agenda.

Here, I think all of the characters are likable to an extent– maybe because I know so many people who are exactly like Alix and Kelley, as well as Emira and Zara. It was great to see some satirical moments in which Reid subtly calls out the woke folk for their hypocrisy and their use of ethnic friends as a way to gain cultural currency. I think this book really hit home for me, though, because I was raised by an African American nanny, and I have always consistently felt more comfortable around African American people, or a ethnically mixed group of people, than I do around a group of people who are my own race. Why? I have no idea. Maybe it brings back my childhood. Or maybe because I find African American people in particular to be more warm and welcoming of me (just speaking from my own experiences here, not generalizing). I don’t know. But whatever the case may be, I am aware that this is odd, and as I look back on my childhood, I can see how complicated the relationship can become when people are paid to essentially be a part of the family. There’s a commodification of love and care, but also there’s a question as to whether the relationship, forged only as a result of an exchange of money, is made false because of its very nature? Or is it possible that the relationship is real, regardless of the transactional element? I think this book does a great job exploring that, as Emira does truly grow close to Briar and vice versa.

Rating: 4.5/5, rounded up.

Buy Such A Fun Age on Amazon here.

Review: The Water Cure

 

Rarely do I read anything outside of my approved galleys, due to lack of time and, usually, bitterness at having requested something and been denied. But I had to get my hands on Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure, as I love all things feminine and cultish. Okay, where to even begin? Mackintosh’s debut is stunning from start to end, and I fear any review would be insufficient. It’s not necessarily the subject matter or the characters that are spectacular here, but rather the author’s expertise in construction, from the macro, to the micro level. Every word is precise, yet at the same time, they’re strung together in a fashion that straddles the borders of prose and poetry. The storytelling itself is what is special here– the author’s daring choice to move between narrators and points of view, without being jarring. In this way, the water motif that carries our characters throughout also carries the story along, flowing between perspectives.

Yet, for all of its literary beauty and daring/experimental choices, it’s still cohesive and clear enough so as not to ostracize its reader. There is nothing masturbatory or gratuitous, nor is there anything condescending to the reader. Oftentimes, I find authors to seem as though they’re being off-center for the sake of being off-center, being elusive or controversial in an effort to assert their own, smug intellect. As if the more they confuse the reader, the more they deserve merit. (And hey, I’m not entirely innocent of that elitism myself– just look at my blog name 😉 But there’s none of that with The Water Cure. And, get ready for this, there’s actually a plot. Things actually happen in this novel, despite it being literary. There are physical acts that extend further than mere perambulations, there’s suspense, there’s violence, and even a few twists. It’s truly one of the few books I could recommend to a casual beach reader with as much confidence as I could to a literary snob.

I realize this review doesn’t say much about the actual content of the book, as much as it does the quality, but I’m hoping my enthusiasm will encourage you to read it yourself. Like I said, trying to boil it down to its essential elements would be a disservice. And as a note, you may be tempted to suck it down in one sitting, but temper yourself. Let yourself sip it slowly, savor it. Let the words wash over you. And if you’ve read it, please comment your thoughts– do you agree with me? Disagree? Let’s chat.

Review: 5/5 stars.  (My first five star review of the year, and it’s only January 13th. I’m not sure I had any 5-stars in 2018. Hopefully this bodes well for the rest of 2019– and doesn’t mean that everything is downhill from here.)

Buy The Water Cure on Amazon here. 

Review: A Well-Behaved Woman

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Did you like Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald? If so, you’re going to love Therese Anne Fowler’s newest historical novel, A Well-Behaved Woman, which offers all of the same historical glitz and glamour, and a strong female protagonist.

Fowler’s heroine is an underdog in high society, a progressive woman from the start, though it is perhaps unintentional at first. Having been born to a family with little wealth, and not being able to rely solely on her looks, Alva Smith used her cleverness to maneuver her way into one of the richest families in the world. Unlike her playboy husband, who is mostly useless and spent his time galavanting around the world, Alva sought meaning in her life, pursuing a life that was deemed inappropriate and positively un-feminine by society.  Instead of accepting her role as a housewife, she boldly pursued her passions of architecture and social equality, including being a champion specifically for African Americans. She later goes on to be accused of being an “architect of society’s downfall” for her decision to *gasp* procure a divorce from her husband.

Stories of women’s insubordination and refusal to quietly comply with the “rules” of patriarchal society are always timely, evergreen, but no more so than today.  That being said, one of the greatest things about this book is that Fowler allows the feminist angle to emerge organically. Towards the end, it gets a bit heavy-handed, but it’s justified as it reflects the protagonist’s true turn towards the women’s suffrage movement. Throughout most of the novel, we’re invited into an otherwise-exclusive world, but its pitfalls– especially for women– are apparent throughout. Though the environment is glamorous, the unfortunate treatment of women, minorities, and the poor are on full display. In such a seemingly romantic era, all the more so given the grandiose homes and affairs, it’s striking how little love exists. Love, Money, or Titles: ladies, take your pick. While men of status were permitted to sink ships, sleep with whoever they pleased, and generally do as they pleased, a single misstep by one of their wives or daughters could result in a permanent fall from grace. Fowler points out the horrific hypocrisy, as it applied to Alva, that “Society loved her when she was advancing its causes, then castigated her when she was advancing her own. Yet, were not the two ever entwined?”

One of my favorite moments of the book is at the end, when Alva is standing with her husband, her former maid, Mary, and Mary’s husband, the latter two of whom are African American:

“Will you look at us? Four people of exceptional quality and intellect, three of whom began life as the property of wealthy white men. Not to say that our situations were equal. I just mean to demonstrate that all sorts of societal wrongs can be improved.”

How interesting is that observation? As a creative who subscribes to the notion that stories say more about the time in which they are created than they do about the time in which they are set, I think this quote is most emblematic of the connections between societal issues then and now.

 

Rating: 4/5 stars

Buy A Well-Behaved Woman on Amazon here.

Review: You Think It, I’ll Say It

I’ve been off the grid for the past 10 days or so, as it was my birthday AND I was reading some older stuff. Namely, Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife. Boy was that one tough for me. Ten days to read a book? Not my style. I wrote a full review on Goodreads, but given that it came out so long ago, I’m going to review Sittenfeld’s newest effort, You Think It, I’ll Say It, instead.

 

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Short stories are tough for me– I don’t always connect with characters, so when I do find myself drawn to a protagonist or a world painted by an author, I want to remain there for more than 20, 30, 40 pages. Of course, it works rather well when I don’t connect, as I know I’ll be able to move on fairly quickly, but that doesn’t make me any more fond of short story collections.

Despite all of this, Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It was an enjoyable read. I thoroughly enjoyed the various women and their situations, as they felt just common enough to be relatable, yet offered a unique perspective or twist. I often found myself thinking that I could see myself on various sides.

My favorite story was Bad Latch, in which the middle-class, pregnant narrator feels competitive with (and lacking next to) another expectant mother in her prenatal yoga class. Though I’ve not yet been pregnant, this scenario of feeling less-than, particularly when it comes to mothering, is so easy so imagine, especially in the way Sittenfeld paints it. But the magic isn’t just that we can put ourselves in the narrator’s shoes, it’s that we can just as easily empathize with Gretchen, the ostensibly “perfect” mommy, who plans to give birth naturally.

I also found Off the Record to be especially accessible and relevant to today’s culture. Again, both sides here are easy to grasp and the multitude of feelings, the depth Sittenfeld creates within a short span, is impeccable. I think the overall takeaway from this collection, for me, is reinforcing that saying “comparison is the death of joy” (commonly attributed to Mark Twain, but I no longer trust the internet as a source). Many of the stories deal with tiny jealousies that become insidious, and all the more so because they’re often imagined rather than based in any reality.

 

Rating: 3.5/5

Buy You Think It, I’ll Say It on Amazon here

Review: Spindrift

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Hmm… Where to begin? As with many an avid reader, there’s a special kind of nostalgia I get when returning to books or authors I’ve read as a child. V.C. Andrews was one of those authors I read in that in-between space, when I had already exhausted such fare as A Wrinkle in Time, and was looking for something edgier, but wasn’t quite ready to make the leap to adult or literary fiction. Having already established my affinity for all things macabre or off-center, I was drawn to the gothic tales woven in My Sweet Audrina and Flowers in the Attic, and even more satisfying was the fact that I was the only child in 5th or 6th grade reading such disturbing material, which I happily recounted to my soft-stomached schoolmates.

Given this backstory, I was excited when given the opportunity to read an advance copy of the newest offering by Andrews, Spindrift, about a group of young women who attend an elite academy, only to have one go missing. Gothic mystery fiction, female protagonist(s), academia, and one of my favorite childhood authors– what could be better?

Turns out, A LOT.

This book is not well written. It’s messily-plotted, the characters are superficial, with little to no depth, and there’s hardly a phrase worth re-reading, so clunky and utilitarian is the language. There’s nothing of the sexy gothic mystery, that stomach-churning feeling I so vividly recall from my previous experiences reading V.C. Andrews. And don’t even get me started on the inherent (and accidental) irony of calling this series “The Burden of Brilliance”. You might expect, given that title, the book would be oh-so-clever. And you’d be sorely disappointed. I didn’t even want to bother writing a review, such was my dismay. And then I had a realization:

Hadn’t V.C. Andrews died before I was even born? How was she creating more work? 

Turns out, she wasn’t. 

This book isn’t written by V.C. Andrews at all– which is perhaps the most interesting part of the whole story here. Andrews herself died in 1986. Thirty-two years ago. So now you’re thinking “okay, that’s not weird at all. There are plenty of books posthumously published, plenty of tertiary pieces that remained hidden in a desk drawer, and perhaps this was just one of her lesser works, only recently discovered”. But no, that’s not what’s going on here.

This is a case of ghostwriting, with an emphasis on the ghost part.

Turns out, an author called Andrew Neiderman has been ghostwriting for V.C. Andrews, cashing in on her likeness for years, both on paper and on screen. Neiderman is best known for writing The Devil’s Advocate, which went on to be a widely popular film, though it’s widely regarded as being one of the few films that is better than its original material. I can’t help but feel a bit disgusted by this trickery, not only because it’s a little gross that a publisher would conspire to pass off work that is not Andrews’ herself, but because the writer they chose pales in comparison to Andrews. I have so many questions: when there are so many talented authors out there, why choose someone so subpar?

And more importantly, WHY THE EFF would you choose an older, male writer to ghostwrite for a woman who is known for writing feminine stories, from the perspective of young women, for an audience of young women? 

Gross.

Rating: 1/5

If, against my recommendation, you’d still like to purchase this book, do so at your own risk here.