Book Review: Bunny

Bunny is a genre-bending novel about an MFA student, Samantha, who feels very much like an outsider to the rest of her fiction-writing cohort. The other girls in the cohort are cliquey, rich, and cutesy, and they refer to each other as “Bunny” – all of which repulses Samantha. But when the Bunnies invite Samantha to their “Smut Salon,” Samantha finds herself inexplicably drawn to their precious world. Behind the Bunnies’ charm, however, there is a sinister darkness; and as Samantha becomes increasingly involved with the Bunnies, she begins to lose herself.

The book: Bunny by Mona Awad
Genre: Contemporary fiction/satire/horror
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The best description of Bunny that I can give is Heathers meets Alice in Wonderland meets Frankenstein meets Stephen King. It’s a very disorienting story that takes several unexpected twists and turns, with some revelations that completely reframe the entire narrative. Because the novel is intentionally disorienting, a lot of things are up to interpretation – I finished Bunny a few days ago and am still bouncing between different potential interpretations of certain scenes. This type of novel won’t be for everyone, but I personally enjoyed it.

A major reason why Bunny worked so much for me is because the writing is hilariously self-aware. My favorite example of this is a scene where one of the Bunnies criticizes her fellow classmate’s story for being too vague, exclaiming: Um, what the fuck is this please? This makes no sense. This is coy and this is willfully obscure and no one but [the author] will ever get this…TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED. TELL ME WHAT THE FUCK THIS MEANS.” This could be said of Bunny itself, and I love that Awad acknowledged that. Awad also gently makes fun of the self-importance of graduate students, the weird dynamics of female friend groups, and the way that millennials give ridiculously exaggerated compliments. I felt so seen and so hilariously called out.

I also enjoyed Bunny‘s genre-bending nature. Awad takes on horror, satire, humor, psychological explorations, and more – and she does it all with skill and self-awareness. There are moments where the prose borders on pretentious, but I thought the hints of pretentiousness were perfect for a story narrated by a grad student in a prestigious MFA program.

Bunny was infinitely weirder than I had expected, but I really enjoyed it. If you’re okay with “WTF-just-happened” stories, I highly recommend this book. And I recommend going in with as few expectations as possible, to really let the story take you on its wild ride.

Book Review: Hamnet

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is a historical fiction novel centered around the life of William Shakespeare’s family. Told largely from the perspective of William’s wife, Agnes, the novel covers Agnes and William’s romance, the birth of their three children, their long-distance relationship, and the grief of the Shakespeare family after the death of their son Hamnet.

The book: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Hamnet was an enjoyable read for me, but I definitely went into the novel with the wrong expectations. For some reason, I was under the impression that the book focused entirely on the death of William and Agnes’ son Hamnet, and how their grief inspired William Shakespeare to write the play Hamlet. In actuality, Hamnet is a book in two parts. The first part alternates between chapters telling William and Agnes’ love story, and chapters focusing on the days leading up to Hamnet’s death. The second part of the book, which is written as one long chapter, shows the family in their grief after Hamnet has passed. This format would have worked so much better for me if I hadn’t expected the entire novel to focus on the grieving of Hamnet’s death, but because I did have that expectation, I found myself getting pretty impatient with the first part of the book.

Although Hamnet wasn’t what I expected, I still found it compelling. Maggie O’Farrell does an excellent job of making the reader feel connected to 16th-century England by drawing upon relatable emotions and experiences, like the stigma and shame of being a social outcast, and the overwhelming burden of grief. And with the novel’s release in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the passages depicting societal anxiety surrounding the Plague were eerily familiar. But at the same time, O’Farrell juxtaposes those relatable elements against historical details that unquestionably place the novel in the 16th century. Children die frequently, mothers die frequently, cruel parenting methods are common, and medical knowledge is so limited. That balance between timeless human experiences and very specific historical details was the most striking part of the novel for me.

I also appreciated how much the novel focuses on Agnes, as opposed to her very famous husband. William Shakespeare’s works are incredible, and he is famous for good reason – but part of what allowed him to become so successful was the invisible labor of Agnes. By centering so much of the novel around Agnes and the work she put into running her household and taking care of her family, O’Farrell demonstrates that Shakespeare probably couldn’t have become so successful without major sacrifices and support from Agnes.

Hamnet is also beautifully written, and Maggie O’Farrell is the master of showing, not telling. In this scene, for example, where young William Shakespeare defends himself against his abusive father, O’Farrell writes: “The sight of the mark seemed to enrage the father further because he lifted his arm again, for a second blow, but the son reached up. He seized his father’s arm. He pushed, with all his might, against him and found, to his surprise, that his father’s body yielded under his. He could push this man, this leviathan, this monster of his childhood, back against the wall with very little effort. He did so.” O’Farrell could have just said that William hit his father back, but instead she turns a small action into an immersive scene. With that being said, there were definitely some instances where the flowery language was too much for me, and where I thought a succinct description would have been just fine.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend Hamnet. My expectations of the novel did affect my enjoyment of it, though, so I would recommend that other readers not go into this novel expecting it to focus entirely around one specific event.

Month in Review: May 2020

Another month has passed and I can’t wrap my head around the fact that it is already JUNE. A couple great things happened this month: spring finally came to my neck of the woods in the Northeastern U.S., and I think I’m nearing the end of my job search (fingers crossed/knock on wood/hopefully I didn’t just jinx anything). It was also a pretty good month of reading! Interestingly, I didn’t give any of the six books I read the same rating, but I enjoyed most of them – especially My Dark Vanessa, which was my first 5-star read in months!

Books read:

Books in progress/June TBR:

  • Hamnet: I’m just wrapping this one up, and will have a review up soon. The novel wasn’t quite what I expected, but once I got over that I really enjoyed it.
  • Bright Sided: Barbara Enhrenreich has been on my TBR forever, and a couple people have specifically recommended Bright Sided to me, so I’m really looking forward to it.
  • Had I Known: my plan *was* to follow up Bright Sided with this more recent essay collection from Ehrenreich, but in light of recent events in the United States, I might switch this out for Another Day in the Death of America or How To Be An Antiracist.
  • Bunny: I’ve seen so many positive reviews of this novel, and it sounds very much like my type of book, so I’m super excited for this.
  • So We Can Glow: a collection of short-stories focused around the topic of obsession, with a glowing 5-star review from Roxane Gay – seems promising!
  • Freshwater: am I a million years behind on this? Yes. Does that take away from my excitement to read this novel? No.
  • The Vanishing Half: this has been on my TBR for a while, so I was very happy to see it as a BOTM offering!
  • Wolf Hall: yup, I’m finally starting this trilogy! Wish me luck!

Some blog posts that stuck with me:

May photos:

Book Review: The Bridge of Little Jeremy

12-year-old Jeremy is an aspiring artist in Paris with a genetic heart condition. Finances have always been tight for Jeremy and his mother, but when the family is unexpectedly hit with a hefty inheritance tax, Jeremy’s mother ends up in serious debt. So Jeremy does what any teenage boy in his situation would: he uses his artistic talent to earn money and save his mother from her debts.

The book: The Bridge of Little Jeremy by Indrajit Garai
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: DNF

Even though I didn’t finish this novel, I will provide my honest opinion of the first ~33% of it. My favorite thing about The Bridge of Little Jeremy was the immersive setting of Paris. Jeremy and his dog Leon spend a lot of time adventuring around Paris, and these passages are written in such a way that I felt like I was wandering alongside them. At times I felt that the descriptions of Paris were a bit superfluous – some detail could have been omitted and the passages still would have been quite immersive – but at other times these scenes took on an absorbing and surreal quality, which might not have been achieved without such vivid detail.

I also liked the main character, Jeremy. He is kind and compassionate toward people and animals alike, he is confident and charismatic, and he doesn’t let his financial and medical struggles dampen his amazement for life. The fact that Jeremy retains his childlike curiosity in spite of his struggles made him a very realistic child narrator for me (and in this way he reminded me of Jai from Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line).

My main issue with this novel was that I just couldn’t get into the writing. There was a lot of focus on the mundane details of Jeremy’s day-to-day life, which worked well at times, but fell flat at others. Based on the first ~33% of this book, I think it could have been considerably shorter. Interestingly, I noticed on Goodreads that the paperback format of this book (which is the format that I read) has a lower rating than either of the Kindle editions – perhaps the intricately detailed writing lends itself better to scrolling on a Kindle? If I ever get an eBook reader, I will try The Bridge of Little Jeremy again and see if the different format improves my experience.

While I enjoyed the immersive setting and compassionate main character, I couldn’t get into The Bridge of Little Jeremy and ultimately decided to stop reading about one-third of the way through. Although this book didn’t work for me, there are plenty of positive reviews of it on Goodreads, so do still check it out if you’re interested! And maybe go for an eBook edition, since that format has higher reviews than the paperback format.

Thank you to Estelle Leboucher for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: My Dark Vanessa

In the year 2000, 15-year-old Vanessa Wye has an affair with her 42-year-old English teacher, Jacob Strane, at a prestigious boarding school in Maine. In 2017, Strane is accused of sexual abuse by another student, who reaches out to Vanessa in hopes of uncovering the scale of Strane’s abuse. But Vanessa doesn’t believe she was ever abused – she views her relationship with Strane as a love story, and still keeps in contact with him seventeen years after their affair. As abuse allegations surface on social media and make news headlines, Vanessa is forced to revisit her teenage years and reconsider the relationship from a new perspective.

The book: My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

My Dark Vanessa is deeply disturbing and uncomfortable, yet so captivating. The chapters alternate between Vanessa’s high school and college years in the early 2000’s, and her adult life in 2017 when the abuse allegations against Strane come out. The alternating timelines work really well here, because they show not only how Strane manipulated Vanessa as a high-schooler, but also how that manipulation has shaped Vanessa’s entire self-concept and still affects her seventeen years later.

The character development in this novel was incredibly nuanced: Vanessa is complicated, frustrating, heartbreaking and painfully believable. Through Vanessa’s character, author Kate Elizabeth Russell effectively shows the complex effects of surviving covert abuse, and how particularly insidious abusers can manipulate their victims into believing they are willing participants in an abusive relationship. Russell also shows glimpses of how abuse survivors unwittingly perpetuate the cycle of abuse: because Vanessa doesn’t believe herself to be a victim of abuse, she does not empathize with other women who identify as victims, and even blames other women for letting themselves get involved with predators. In real life, I would find somebody like Vanessa incredibly frustrating, but getting to know her character in this novel, I felt so much heartbreak and tenderness for this woman who was groomed to perceive the world in a truly flawed way.

Something else that stood out to me in My Dark Vanessa was the dynamic between Vanessa and her parents. While I certainly wouldn’t consider Vanessa’s parents to be abusive, they do neglect Vanessa and fail to support her emotionally, which makes her melancholy and lonely even before Strane begins his affair with her. It is no coincidence that Strane singles out the loneliest student, one who might be used to having her needs neglected. Abusers specifically target people that they think will make easy victims, and Russell does a great job illustrating this.

I adored My Dark Vanessa, and would recommend it with the caveat that the scenes between Strane and Vanessa can be pretty difficult to stomach. This novel was such an enthralling read, and I loved the way it portrayed the healing process in a realistically complex yet compassionate way.

Book Review: How We Disappeared

Alternating between timelines in 1942 and 2000, How We Disappeared follows Wang-Di, who is taken from her Singaporean village during WWII and forced into sexual slavery as a “comfort woman” for Japanese soldiers. Nearly 60 years later, while Wang-Di is still reckoning with her trauma from the war, 12-year-old Kevin overhears a shocking confession from his grandmother’s deathbed, leading him to uncover secrets about what she lived through during WWII.

The book: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The prose in this novel is absolutely lovely. Lee tells her story in three distinct sections: young Wang Di when she is captured during WWII, old Wang Di trying to overcome the trauma that still haunts her in the year 2000, and Kevin investigating his grandmother’s history in 2000. All three sections are beautifully and convincingly written, with the historical scenes set during WWII especially immersive. There are some passages where Kevin uses language that seems too advanced for his age, but he sees the world in a very curious and childlike way, so he was still believable as a 12-year-old to me.

How We Disappeared isn’t just well-written; it is also written with immense compassion. The horrific details of Wang Di’s sexual slavery are never told more graphically than they need to be, so the book never enters trauma-porn territory. Lee does describe the horrors that the comfort women endured (rape, violence, near-starvation, and unsanitary living conditions, to name a few), but she spends just as much time focusing on the psychological effects and aftermath of sexual slavery. What broke my heart the most wasn’t the violence that the comfort women endured (although it was certainly harrowing), but the stigma and shame that followed them for the rest of their lives after the war.

I also enjoyed the way the various timelines eventually weaved together. Before the connection between Wang Di and Kevin’s stories became clear, the transitions between the two sometimes felt a bit disjointed, but I felt that the slightly discontinuous storytelling was worth it for the way the two stories eventually connected. Also – minor spoiler here, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to read it! – I’m not sure how realistic it was for Kevin to figure out the connection between his story and Wang Di’s, but it was such a satisfying conclusion to the novel that I was happy to suspend my disbelief.

All in all, I really enjoyed How We Disappeared. Almost all of my WWII education was focused on Europe and the Holocaust, so it was very eye-opening to read this well-researched and beautifully written story about the Japanese occupation of Singapore. The novel was challenging and heartbreaking at times, but it was absolutely worth the read. I highly recommend this book!

Book Review: Beach Read

I recently hit a reading slump after reading back-to-back-to-back literary fiction novels, and Beach Read seemed like the perfect book to pull me out of it. At the center of the novel is January Andrews, a romance novelist who writes happy endings because she genuinely believes in them. But after a tumultuous year including the death of her father and a break-up with the man she thought she would marry, January hits a writing slump. She spends the summer at her late father’s beach house in North Bear Shores, Michigan, only to find out that her neighbor is her college-rival – the acclaimed literary fiction writer Augustus Everett. The two strike a bet in which January must write a somber literary fiction novel, while Augustus will write a romance novel with a happy ending. But maybe the real romance will be the one they find with each other?

The book: Beach Read by Emily Henry
Genre: Romance
My rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

An important thing to understand about this novel is that, although it features two writers who are both writing outside their genres-of-expertise, it is much more heavily focused on their relationship than anything else. The book touches on some interesting themes – like how female writers aren’t taken as seriously as men, even if they’re more accomplished; or why people get hooked on romance novels – but it doesn’t focus on these themes for long. This initially disappointed me, because I had hoped to see more glimpses of January’s literary-fiction-writing process and more excerpts of the novel she ultimately writes. Once I came to terms with the fact that this book was almost exclusively focused on its characters, though, I really enjoyed it for what it was.

It’s also important to know that while this book appears to be a light, fun summer read, it gets somewhat heavy at times. This is because author Emily Henry deeply examines the events that shaped the protagonists’ perceptions of the world. I personally liked this, and thought that the exploration of the characters’ backstories made them more realistic. Without this exploration, Augustus would have just been the stereotypical brooding, difficult-to-know commitment-phobe, and January would have been that person who masks their pain with unrelenting and inflexible positivity. Both characters do come across as the aforementioned stereotypes at times, but the psychological explorations allow the reader to see the characters in a more nuanced and realistic light.

WARNING: the next paragraph contains potential spoilers!!!

As for the romance between January and Augustus, I really liked it! Their initial flirtation is all-at-once sharp, funny, and charming. As the two spend more time together, they both open up and grow emotionally, owning up to personal shortcomings and unfair assumptions they made about one another. The only aspect of the romance that I took issue with was Augustus’ repeated profession that he has “wanted” January for years. This word didn’t sit well with me, because it makes it sound as though Augustus is only interested in pursuing January as some sort of sexual conquest. This turns out not to be the case, but that phrasing still felt more predatory than sexy to me.

Okay, we are past the spoilers now.

I found it interesting how the book moved between deep emotional development and the characters’ cute and flirty romance, with both protagonists using snarky humor as a means of flirtation and a coping mechanism for their internal issues. As someone who frequently uses humor to diffuse tension and negative emotions, the shifts between flirty fun and seriousness felt natural to me. However, I can also see how those transitions might seem jarring or inappropriate to other readers.

Overall, I really enjoyed Beach Read! I thought that January and Augustus made a great couple, and I liked how they both developed emotionally over the course of the novel. I also appreciated how the book balanced humor and flirtation with serious emotional development. My main criticism is that I would have liked to see more commentary on what it was like for January to write a literary fiction novel, and more excerpts of the novel she ended up writing. Still, Beach Read was a fun and endearing romance!

Side note: for a book called Beach Read, the characters spend VERY little time at the beach.

Book Review: Where The Crawdads Sing

Both a coming-of-age narrative and murder mystery, Where The Crawdads Sing follows “Marsh Girl” Kya Clark from early childhood, when she is abandoned by her family and left to survive alone in the marshes on the North Carolina coast, to early adulthood, when she becomes a suspect in a murder case. The two timelines alternate throughout the book until Kya’s coming-of-age trajectory eventually catches up to the murder trial.

The book: Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Genre: Historical fiction/mystery/coming-of-age
My rating: 3 stars out of 5

The gorgeously immersive setting of the marshes on the North Carolina coast immediately drew me into this book, but the first 100-or-so pages moved very slowly, plot-wise. Some of that slowness seemed necessary to portray Kya’s self-reliance and loneliness. The mundane details of her fishing, cooking, and doing handiwork in her shack demonstrate how hard she worked to survive alone. The long, slow-moving passages where Kya observes wildlife and ruminates in nature allow the reader to really feel the slowness and loneliness of Kya’s day-to-day life. But that being said, the novel still could have been around 60-70 pages shorter.

It’s also worth noting that Owens phonetically spells out the characters’ Southern dialects. I found this jarring and uncomfortable at first, but quickly got used to it and even found that it further immersed me in the Southern setting. I don’t think that the phonetic spelling of dialects in this book was problematic, since Owens was born and raised in southern Georgia and speaks with a Southern dialect herself.

Where this book really shined for me was in its tender portrayal of societal and environmental issues. Through Kya’s story, Owens demonstrates how hard it is to get an education in certain parts of the United States, how individuals from poor communities can end up in perpetual cycles of disadvantage, and how being “othered” by society has detrimental effects on a developing child. While showing all of this, Owens also compassionately rejects stereotypes: she never judges Kya’s mom or siblings for abandoning their family, she demonstrates that Kya is quite intelligent and resourceful despite lacking a formal education, and she even portrays Kya’s abusive father with considerable nuance (not so much so that it excuses his abuse – just enough to show that he is complicated).

I also enjoyed the way Where The Crawdads Sing spans multiple genres. The book is described as a coming-of-age narrative and murder mystery, but being set in North Carolina in the 1950’s and 60’s before the Civil Rights Movement, it is also very much a historical fiction novel. The book also crosses into romance at times, and into courtroom drama toward the end. And as mentioned before, there is beautifully vivid nature writing throughout. However, some genres were explored more successfully than others. I found the legal/courtroom drama scenes to be the most engaging and evocative, and the romance to be a bit trite.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend Where The Crawdads Sing. It’s not a perfect novel, but I appreciated its immersive setting, its themes of accepting others and rejecting stereotypes, and the page-turning courtroom scenes toward the end.


Side note: based on the Goodreads rating (4.5), most readers really connected with this book, so perhaps I’m being too harsh or just didn’t connect with the writing as much as others did.

Unimportant fun fact: the author, Delia Owens, and I went to the same universities (although not at the same time, and not in the same order).

Month in Review: April 2020

Woman Shrugging on Samsung

Woohoo, we have all survived another month! I don’t have much to say about April, other than that I spent it almost entirely indoors and all the days kind of bled into each other and I shirked a lot of responsibilities. Now onto the bookish things!!

Books read:

Books in progress/May reading goals:

I’m currently reading Where The Crawdads Sing. It’s a little slow, but I like the immersive setting. I also plan to read My Dark Vanessa and Beach Read; I’ve heard great things about both books, so I’m really excited to get to them. And I got a copy of The Bridge of Little Jeremy, so I hope to get to that this month as well.

I also plan to read a couple more titles from the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist: How We Disappeared (which didn’t advance to the shortlist but seems to be a fan favorite), and Hamnet (also a fan favorite).

And I am tentatively planning to start Mrs. Jack – a biography of the American art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner – as a buddy read with a friend. I’m a little nervous about this one, because I struggle with biographies and because art history and famous wealthy people are not exactly “my things.” But I will try to reserve judgment until I start reading it!

Some of the posts I enjoyed this month:

CAT PHOTOS!!!

Book Review: Hex

Written as a series of journal entries to her ex-mentor Dr. Kallas, Hex examines botanist Nell Barber in the months after she is expelled from her PhD program and breaks up with her boyfriend of two years. Nell devotes herself to her research on the detoxification of poisonous plants (which she conducts in her bare-bones apartment) and to Dr. Kallas.

The book: Hex by Rebecca Dinerstein Knight
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

My favorite things about this book were the prose and the protagonist’s voice. I loved the run-on sentences, and the narrator’s realistically distracted thought process. It was also just fascinating to be inside Nell’s head; she has such a sharp, insightful, and funny world view. While I normally don’t prefer books to be written in the second person, I thought that it worked here. Nell is so obsessed with and devoted to her mentor, Dr. Kallas, that the idea of her writing a confessional journal to her was totally believable.

In general, I found Nell to be a sympathetic character. She makes decisions that no perfectly-functioning adult would make, but that are understandable given how lost she feels after being expelled from her PhD program and breaking up with her boyfriend. The way she clings onto her research and ex-mentor makes complete sense for someone whose sense of self came from working exceptionally hard and serving her advisor. With that said, it was clear that Nell was lost and lonely even before starting her PhD program. I think that Nell’s character would have been even more interesting if the underlying reasons for her unfocused nature had been explored more deeply.

Something else that I liked about this book was that it focused on a science grad student. Prior to Hex I had never read a novel focused on a female grad student in the sciences, and it was nice to see that representation! Some of Nell’s snarky comments about her (former) academic department had me laughing out loud because they rang so true to me. For example: The goal of the party was that it should seem, pretty much immediately afterward, that there had never been any party. I also related to Nell’s assessment that she had worked pathologically and unsustainably hard at her research before losing steam; this was really common in the department where I used to work, and I suspect that most people who have gone through demanding graduate programs can relate.

The main reason why this wasn’t a 5-star read for me was because some of the characters’ relationships weren’t very believable. Nell, her best friend, her best friend’s boyfriend, her ex-boyfriend, her ex-advisor, and her ex-advisor’s husband quickly became enmeshed in a way that felt unrealistic and unsettling to me. There was one romance in particular, toward the end of the novel, that developed from seemingly out of nowhere; it felt like a convenient but not particularly compelling way to wrap up the arcs of both characters involved.

If you like stories with lost and slightly unlikable characters, I definitely recommend Hex. The writing is gorgeous and funny without being dense, and getting a glimpse into the narrator’s foggy mind was a uniquely fascinating experience.