I’m hopelessly behind with reviews and I’m fairly sure I won’t have much free time between now and the end of the year… so, catching up with what I liked (or didn’t) about four recent reads.
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner 4/5
“The thing is you keep existing whether you have a plan to do so or not, until you don’t exist, and then your plans are meaningless.”
Gritty, brutal, coolly detached, distinctive. I became fully immersed in this story and everything about it seemed authentic and likely (which is obviously a ridiculous thing to say given that I have no actual experience in a US women’s prison. And I haven’t watched Orange is the New Black).
Violent detail is delivered alongside the mundane; secondary characters and their back-stories are just as interesting as the main character; small scuffles play out against long held grudges and mounting tension – all of these elements add up to a very powerful and memorable story. Highly recommended.
Eggshells by Caitriona Lally 3.5/5
It’s impossible to review Eggshells without mentioning Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – both books feature slightly odd, thirty-something women, and both books examine how people manage trauma (it should be noted that Eggshells was published a few years before Oliphant). But while Honeyman’s story moves continuously toward a darker place, Lally’s does the opposite and the heroine, Vivian, finds happiness in unexpected ways, mostly thanks to her advertisement for a friend called Penelope (because “…when I know her well enough, I’ll ask her why she doesn’t rhyme with antelope.’)
In her advertisement, Vivian states that ‘Pennies need not apply.’
I chose the plural ‘Pennies’ instead of ‘Pennys’, because the ‘nys’ looks like a misspelt boy band, and the ‘ies’ is like a lipsmack of strawberries and cream.
Some readers will find the quirky elements in this story completely over-the-top but pay attention to the early clues about Vivian’s pain and it’s hard to feel anything other than great empathy.
Eggshells is an incredibly imaginative book. There’s some thrilling elements such as Vivian’s odd lists (List of Old Disease Names That Sound More Like The Thing Than Their Modern Names: Dropsy, Yellow Jack, Scrofula, Consumption) and penchant for making up words (Pilver: To quietly steal from one’s wealthy hostess. Bunth: A collective noun for a group of flags) – as well as Lally’s interesting syntax.
Her world is full of children and doings and action verbs, but I’m uncomfortable with verbs; they expect too much.
The Confession by Jessie Burton 3.5/5
I enjoy stories told over two distinct periods of time, with each plot line getting closer and closer before meeting for the big reveal. Granted, these story structures can sometimes feel contrived but when done well, they’ll have you reading late into the night. Burton does it admirably in The Confession and although it was perhaps 100 pages too long, it’s an extremely satisfying read.
Burton is highly skilled at creating a sense of place (this is what I recall most about her previous novels), and The Confession is no exception – from the movie-glitterati in LA to cosy cafes in London, it’s studded with charming detail. If you’re after something engrossing but not taxing, this will fit the bill.
A Small Madness by Dianne Touchell 2/5
Had I realised this was a YA/ coming-of-age story, I probably would have bypassed it – I was a good way in when that occurred to me! While it is refreshing to read a frank account of teenage pregnancy (and Touchell doesn’t hold back on the themes of judgement and shame), there were parts of the story that simply weren’t realistic, notably the teens’ lack of knowledge about sex and birth control.
There’s some great writing in A Small Madness but there’s also some awkward dialogue – the overall result is uneven and I think I should have left it for a more appreciative YA audience.