MixedThe Chicago Review of BooksIn Lucy Corin’s The Swank Hotel, there are moments of pure clarity. In its explorations of corporate America, of familial loss and grief, and of 2008 recession-era life, the novel shines. But in its interstitial space, darting from one narrator to another in the tangled web of love, relationships, and confusion, the novel puzzles. This is not a book to read in an afternoon, but one to chew and digest over time. And when given this space, we still may not understand ... On corporate life, Corin nails the crafted persona such an environment craves, showing us that there is an inherent madness in our day to day lives ... It is in these moments that the novel comes together, but in its inclusion of the surreal, things fly off the rails. Strange dreams permeate the minds of Em, Frank, and other characters. A sewn-up mouth jars the reader, but what it adds up to remains to be seen. Sexuality and horror, in the form of extended pornography scenes and pages of dead baby jokes achieve a tone of aversion, but read as accessories to the main throughlines ... While some digressions, such as the My Strange Addiction episode summary on urine drinking, contribute to the characters’ struggles with madness, others feel like dangling threads without resolution. The structure of the work veers from novel to collection of isolated vignettes, reminiscent of Corin’s earlier work One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses. But in this work the vignettes are abandoned and return to the main story and its central players, leaving the reader wondering what their ultimate significance really was ... The novel is far from comfortable, its ideas and prose are densely packed. Corin’s skill as a prose stylist cannot be discounted, she demonstrates over and over a deep understanding of her characters and literary ideas. But how these ideas come through on the page is wholly uneven. The novel begs for rumination in between periods of confusion. Such is the nature of madness.
RaveChicago Review of BooksShruti Swamy’s The Archer is a searing portrait of the woman artist—how these identities, too, are in opposition—and, in this work, she brings to life new ideas of fulfillment ... The novel itself is a character study, a real-time tale of self-actualization, and revels in the specific and minute. Even India she brings down to its smallest circles—a single village, an engineering college, a rich man’s house. In this specificity, the writing shines, aiming not to make broad, sweeping statements but to fill in the colors of our artist’s life. Vidya forms few close bonds throughout the book, but each one is exquisite ... As a whole, the novel infuriates, exhilarates, and challenges our ideas of art and artistry. It immerses us in a microcosm of a setting and in an introspective sole protagonist. It does justice to an age-old myth and recontextualizes its lessons ... Swamy has defined herself as a bold new voice in not only South Asian diaspora literature, but modern literature as a whole.
PositiveThe Chicago Review of BooksWe are anchored in the here and now, yet the stories do not read as grasping for relevance, or as dated. Rather, Sayrafiezadeh captures one of the most essential feelings of the modern-day United States, apathy, and holds us to that feeling. The result is an at-times subtle, at-times on the nose, depiction of deterioration and uncertainty in a changing nation ... This slim collection brings us just seven stories, but most are long enough to flesh out entire ideas and realized narratives. Some of these narratives prove simpler than others ... The apathy has its shortcomings as Sayrafiezadeh delves into some of the more shocking subject matter of the collection. For instance, the story Fairground is a retrospective telling of a public hanging. What the story ultimately becomes is the exploration of a family in disarray, a failure to bond with a new step-parent, and a difficult mother-child relationship. While the descriptive writing remains strong throughout, it’s easy to want stronger emotional moments to pair with a public hanging. Instead, the tone stays consistent and the collection marches along, rendering everything in a tonal lull ... By closing his collection with an embrace of realism, Sayrafiezadeh leaves us with the understanding that in every iteration, we’ve been reading about America all along. Its doldrums, flaws, shortcomings, and the myriad of characters that grow and thrive within its borders.
RaveChicago Review of BooksIt is not unusual for a memoir to describe the decline and aftermath of a loved one, and what it means to move on ... Michelle Zauner’s take is exquisitely detailed and wonderfully layered, both episodic in its individual essays and continuous in its exploration of grief. Its depictions of motherhood and daughterhood stand alone ... The essays lose their episodic nature and weave together as a cohesive memoir. Themes mentioned earlier are picked up and carried on ... It’s a natural impulse to reminisce and block out sour memories when remembering someone lost. Creating a new picture from the pieces we have. Zauner, however, shows us all the pieces. We see how her mother’s legacy lives in its fragmented way, in photographs, family members, and recipes ... I came to Crying in H Mart expecting to cry (which I did), but what I did not expect was the amount of self-reflection it would cause. Zauner eschews broad platitudes and makes her work relatable, both on a cultural and personal level. She does not overexplain her Korean heritage, doesn’t provide a footnote for every morsel of food ... In this book, Zauner brings us all in so close that we’re left with no other option but to examine our own lives just as closely.
PositiveThe Chicago Review of Books... the beauty of Red Island House is that it is now, spanning a time from the early nineties to present day. Colonialism and its legacies are alive and well, though our understanding of it may be more complex ... the beauty of Red Island House is that it is now, spanning a time from the early nineties to present day. Colonialism and its legacies are alive and well, though our understanding of it may be more complex ... At times the novel changes course, becoming what feels like a set of short stories telling the tale of other island residents...While these journeys are engaging, they take us away from Shay’s narrative and can feel meandering at times ... Nevertheless, Naratrany is a captivating setting, made more so by Andrea Lee’s choice in narration. Rather than a conventional third person narration focused on Shay, Lee takes a few steps back and tells Shay’s story like a fable for the ages ... a difficult work to characterize: part novel, part collection, part epic. Lee shows us a new setting, its natural beauty and stark class divisions, and its rich culture and settler exploitation. By centering Shay she shows us the nuance of privilege and culpability. She takes care to focus on the voices of foreigners, stating in a detailed author’s note her deep affection for Malagasy literature and the need for own voices narratives. More than anything, Andrea Lee shows us that the conversation on colonialism is far from over, and far from one-dimensional. To acknowledge its presence is to acknowledge how many of us, in one way or another, have a small part to play.
María José Ferrada, tr. Elizabeth Bryer
RaveChicago Review of BooksIn How to Order the Universe, readers are thrown into a child’s perspective as she eschews traditional learning in order to make a living with her father on the road. A world of tools and hardware catalogs lends itself to new relationships, unearthed secrets, and a coming-of-age story no one quite expected. This sparse, quiet novel is itself a collection of parts. Not quite a novel, far from a collection of stories, more disparate vignettes than anything else. At times, these feel incomplete. Parts without their fittings ... In short, this is a book of a child learning her own mortality, learning her larger place in the world, creating her own constructs and having them fall apart with experience and tragedy. We see this in a literal sense, as M envisions an omnipotence she calls \'The Great Carpenter,\' and soon curses and loses track of this being. In this change we now have the fittings we need to understand this unconventional little story. Here we learn to read between the lines.
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksWith a tightly controlled narrative voice and careful use of flashbacks, Doshi presents the result of unpacked generational trauma. Uncertainty, instability, chaos ... The prose is calculated and focused on mundane details and introspection. There is little to no sentimentality and an undercurrent of paranoia which makes for at times a deeply uncomfortable read. Even in the most melodramatic moments, there is a coldness and detachment ... What Doshi presents is no simple mother-daughter conflict. It is a voyeuristic journey into alternative living and religious fervor. It is the emptiness of middle-class existence and perfunctory friendships. It is a marriage void of true intimacy, motherhood brought about for the wrong reasons. It is all of these things and more. This is a layered, descriptive, at times distasteful novel that brings us face to face with our own darker impulses and deep-seated traumas. Antara, though a victim in many ways, abuses others, which can make readers struggle to understand her. Doshi’s novel is a warning of what can arise when the past is not unearthed, not shared, and healing hasn’t begun. This is a book worthy of respect and admiration, and deserving of its place on the Booker Prize shortlist. It can be hard to love a book when the characters are stingy with love and affection and forthcoming with long-held loathing. But as a contained, haunting narrative, the book excels ... Despite the shock and visceral disgust I felt in reaction to some of the book’s twists and turns, I would be lying if I said the misery in this book, particularly experienced by its characters, did not give me a small, twisted pleasure.
MixedThe Chicago Review of BooksThe prose of this novel is sparse and somewhat conversational, reflecting Lucien’s age and the bleakness of a Minnesota winter. We’re thrown into lengthy descriptions of dated technology and Christian meditation, but as someone unacquainted with either, I found the verbiage easy to navigate. The Land reads quickly, for a time ... The Land spreads itself thin with atmosphere, with paranoia, with characters that float in and out, with mysterious ravens that spill their carnage in the snow. But the plot propels itself, compelling readers to the end. And the discomfort lives on. 1999 was twenty-one years ago, but the threat of white supremacy unfortunately remains.
PositiveChicago Review of BooksThe Finisher is distinct in my mind due to its integration of technology, its multiple perspectives, and its banter between characters ... As a mystery itself, it’s quite compelling and demands to be read in a single, long sitting. Where it falters, though, is in some of its literary elements. Lovesey’s characters sometimes serve as plot elements rather than full-fledged people. One character, simply known as Jones, provides a vaguely deus ex machina role in the overall story. Narratives are picked up and set aside at whim and, at times, information is withheld a little too long to be seen as believable. Some plot threads feel unresolved, especially given the amount of time we’re given with the characters in question. Perhaps the greatest detractor here, however, is dialogue. Much of the novel is spent in banter, all pleasingly British and perhaps compelling to Lovesey’s longtime fans. As a new reader, I found it distracting. We’re held in meandering conversations for pages on end ... Despite the flaws in The Finisher, I came away impressed by the storytelling, the relative pace of the plot, and of the frequent twists and turns that made this a compelling read.
PositiveThe Chicago Review of Books... clear, satisfying, and fruitful ... much to admire ... Close relationships between characters throb with passion, even when given little time to develop ... The novel is at its best in its quiet moments, when Djola and Awa’s narratives intertwine, and long-held emotions and confessions are brought to the forefront. In a war-torn landscape, with hardly a moment to breathe, these quiet moments are a place of refuge ... Where I, as a new fantasy reader, fell short was in understanding the details of the world as a whole. Many times I read a language or societal role, never quite internalized its significance, and found it come back over and over again and reminding me of my lack of understanding ... Hairston’s worldbuilding is complex, frequently layered, and to look for a simplistic, clean-cut magic system is to search fruitlessly ... While we’re frequently reminded of Xhalan Xhala, spell of all spells, its true significance and origins remain murky and difficult to interpret. Part of the overall confusion I attribute to my own lack of experience in new worlds. Yet I am left to wonder if the novel being so grand in scope could have focused more time in developing the characters and their relationships to one another. More moments of levity, to break from the tension. More frequent reminders of when all is lost, what these characters are ultimately living for. More moments of humanity ... at its core, Master of Poisons is a novel of folklore, of corruption, of both reclaiming tradition and starting anew, and honoring myriad voices in society (the powerful and marginalized). One can delight in the multifaceted worldbuilding, the many languages and threads of folklore, and the blending of the real world and the spirit world. For new fantasy readers, the novel is ultimately grounded in all too familiar themes, those of acceptance, survival, and justice. Themes we, especially those most marginalized in our communities, can recognize at once.
PositiveThe Chicago Review of Books... breathes new life into these ideas with an entirely new cultural context, sharp humor, and several intriguing female leads ... Mukhopadhyay’s take on Gothic romance tropes is surprisingly fresh, in part due to its humor ... As a novella, The Aunt Who Wouldn’t Die is succinct and colorful, barely discernible as a translation when it comes to pure prose. If anything, it cries out for more development. Here I acknowledge my own tastes as a reader, and my desire to see point of view characters balanced evenly. While Somlata’s narrative is well-developed and takes its time, Boshon’s narrative is somewhat limited. I found myself wanting more from her character, her intellectual pursuits, her reflections on how she was raised. Additionally, a longer length could’ve allowed for a more fleshed-out setting, sensory imagery, and other subtleties. But overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this short, engaging story ... Nothing short of enjoyable.
MixedThe Chicago Review of Books... unfurls into a book of fairy tales, stories woven together by a few recurring characters and a pervasive prose style ... Swarup’s prose is both the novel’s highlight and what holds it back. On the plus side, there is no sensory detail or wisp of an idea that goes unexplored. Fully fleshed out are the movements of water, passage of time, presence of the mountains, and transfer of one life to another ... However, while this prose is spellbinding in small doses, it results in fatigue ... The narrative can feel weighed down by heavy, detailed prose, as well as deep introspection by each and every character. Additionally, the novel has few moments of levity, and can go many pages without dialogue. The dialogues featured are often philosophical musings on the movements of the world. The characters sometimes laugh, but we don’t often feel laughter. Moments of happiness are few and ephemeral, with the characters’ moods constantly changing like the planet itself ... In short, this is a novel I recommend in small, incremental pieces. To read it all at once may feel like a weight on your shoulders.
PositiveThe Chicago Review of BooksWoven through the plain, direct prose of Beijing life and Jia Jia’s innermost thoughts are scenes in a ‘world of water’. Jia Jia finds herself submerged in darkness, the fish-man her only company, and each experience leaves her more puzzled than the last. These journeys, while beautifully written and evocative, are not what resonate with readers of Braised Pork. Rather, it is how this simple image of a mysterious fish-man forges relationships old and new, and how it bolsters Jia Jia’s sense of self ... what An Yu importantly brings to life is not only Jia Jia’s interior but, also, her societal context ... Aspects of the novel, at times, feel disjointed. Things are neither told in the order we expect nor do we get, many times, explanations for the questions we have. Jia Jia can be frustrating as a protagonist too, her life of privilege often making her blind to the cares and concerns of others ... Certain plot threads aren’t as neatly woven as we’d hope, though this may or may not be a detractor depending on your perspective. Characters come and go, as if mirroring Jia Jia’s blase attitudes. But the culmination of the novel, which I cannot spoil for you today, is all too rewarding. And even if we ourselves will never experience the world of water, much of Jia Jia’s journey will ring true. We all battle restrictions in one way or another, some of which the world places on us; but the most difficult ones remain those we place on ourselves.
PositiveThe Chicago Review of BooksGiddings takes the distrust of her community and amplifies it, creating something wholly new and modern ... Giddings maintains a tight hold on us for much of the book. Her plainspoken yet detailed prose draws us close to Lena, allowing us to get to know Lena’s independent spirit and sharp observations ... Prose like this keeps us tightly wound, hanging on Gidding’s every word and Lena’s every move. We feel a paranoia unique to the digital age, censored searches and blocked websites, constantly being heard and watched. And eventually, when things spiral out of control and Giddings lets us go, we’re left reeling. Dizzy. We pick up some pieces but not all of them.
PositiveThe Chicago Review of Books... not a comforting book ... Doshi narrows our distance from Grace with a potent voice, present tense, crisp prose, and a limited cast of characters. Grace grapples with a number of internal conflicts, such as loneliness, aging, family relationships, lust, and womanhood. She jumps from one to the next without pause, and the result is a tightly constructed narrative in which her conflicts become our own. She is not likable, but understandable, almost painfully so. I read this book in a constant state of argument, recognizing a kinship with Grace while repudiating many of her choices ... challenges the maudlin perception of disability in popular media, sparing no detail in Grace’s struggles to care for her sister ... it speaks to the strength of the story itself that this setting does not overwhelm the novel and its characters. Rather, the story of Grace and Lucia could have taken place anywhere. Nowhere have the questions surrounding their lives been fully answered anyway ... speaks to those conflicts relatable to young, modern women of any country.