BOOK REVIEW: LUCKENBOOTH by JENNI FAGAN


Luckenbooth was not a perfect book, but it was a very humane one–and for that I loved it.

To start, I think Luckenbooth is a novel that is, at its heart, about how fucked up the world can be. Not in a trite or hackneyed way, but in a way that simply calls attention to that reality. The story is split into three parts, each with three point-of-view characters, all of which are inevitably tied in one way or another to the titular, larger-than-life tenement that is No. 10 Luckenbooth. Beyond that one common thread, though, the characters that Fagan gives us here are distinct and varied: we have male and female characters, old and young characters, queer characters; there are demon girls and mediums and gangsters and poets. And despite their diverse backgrounds and experiences, what Fagan is really interested in is exploring the particular ways in which they are marginalized: by their class, or gender, or sexuality, or mental illness. To put it simply, then, Luckenbooth is a novel about power and how it manifests in the lives of those who fall outside it.

“There is the Edinburgh that is presented to tourists. Then the other one, which is considered to be the real Edinburgh, to the people who live here. There are the fancy hotels and shops and motorcars and trams and places of work, then are the slums, starvation, disease, addiction, prostitution, crime, little or no infrastructure, no plumbing, no clean water, no rights . . . if the council want to go and take their homes down, they do. This is all on streets just ten minutes’ walk from the fancy city center. When will these things change? Everywhere? When? All fur coat and nae knickers. That’s a phrase the postman told me. It embodies this city.

This is not to say, though, that Luckenbooth is a completely bleak or nihilistic novel, because it’s decidedly not. I said I loved this book because it’s humane, and what I mean by that is that it refuses to let its characters’ marginalization overtake their humanity. Each and every point-of-view character in this novel is drawn so tenderly, and despite getting a relatively limited amount of time with them, you really get a feel for who these characters are–their thoughts, their feelings, their relationships, their heartbreaks. For me, this was one of the things that made this novel stand out: Fagan’s ability to so deftly give each of her characters a distinct and authentic narrative voice. Every point of view in this book evokes its corresponding character, and that is no easy feat considering how many characters (nine) we meet over the course of this novel. That being said, there were definitely POVs that I enjoyed more than others: I think Part I was easily the strongest one of the three–I especially loved Jessie and Flora’s chapters–and there were a few POVs that for me didn’t quite fit in with the others, namely William’s and Queen Bee’s; the former I found too rambly, the latter out of place with the novel’s larger narrative.

Characters aside, I’d also be remiss not to mention the role that Edinburgh as a city plays in this novel. Cliche as it is to say that “[insert city name here] is a character in the novel,” it’s trueEdinburgh really is one of the main characters of this story, and many of Luckenbooth‘s chapters conjure it up for us in vivid detail: the streets, the people, the atmosphere, the corruption.

“I have this feeling, Edinburgh will dispose of each of us once she has had her use – drank all the energy and talent and money and vitality and then she spits out the bones. Hungry city!
Subsists on human souls.”

So far, so good, but there are also some things that I didn’t love about Luckenbooth. I think the point-of-view chapters got weaker after Part I, which was so well done that it inadvertently set a high standard for the novel’s subsequent parts–a standard which, in my opinion, they just didn’t live up to (though they certainly weren’t bad). Another issue I had, which is more technical, was with the dialogue. Fagan includes very little speech tags (“he said,” “she said”) in her writing, which means that you have to really pay attention to the dialogue to keep track of who said what. The way Fagan sets up her dialogue on the page, though, made this really difficult to do. She tries to address this issue by making the characters constantly refer to each other in their speech: so, for example, Ivy and Morag will be talking and the dialogue will just be like “what are you doing, Ivy?” and then Ivy responds “Nothing, Morag,” and then a few lines later we’ll get “Ivy, why are you doing that?” and “No reason, Morag,” etc. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s one of my pet peeves when characters do this, and it becomes very glaring once you notice it. People don’t usually refer to each other by name like this during conversations, so it oftentimes made the dialogue feel stilted and jolted me out of the characters’ conversations.

The issues I had were minor, though, and certainly didn’t overtake my enjoyment of the novel. Luckenbooth is a compelling novel in its structure, characters, and themes, but more than that, it’s a really sympathetic novel, one with a lot of heart. I will definitely be watching out for whatever Jenni Fagan releases next.

Thanks so much for Simon & Schuster for providing me with an e-ARC of this via Edelweiss!


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BOOK REVIEW: A MARVELLOUS LIGHT by FREYA MARSKE


A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske

When I first heard about A Marvellous Light, it sounded like it was pretty much written for me: tropey! romantic! historical! magical! And reader, it did not disappoint.

Gotta say, I love this new trend of bringing fanfiction sensibilities into traditionally published fiction, because at its heart, fanfiction really embodies everything I love reading about: there’s the romance, yes, but also the dialogue, the focus on relationships and relationship dynamics, the exploration of tropes. And ultimately I think that’s why A Marvellous Light worked so well for me. For one, it was just a genuinely fun book: there’s sentient houses and magical games and libraries, and the characters are given the space to explore all those things without everything necessarily having to be about Moving the Plot Forward. It’s a well-paced and well-written book, too, deftly balancing plot with character development, and giving us some really moving and poignant character moments as well as some more high stakes, action-packed ones. Of course, this book doesn’t work without its delightful duo: Edwin and Robin. They had such a lovely dynamic, and not to get too emo or anything, but there’s just something so heartwarming about watching two people get to know about and care for each other. The tenderness! The yearning! The tentativeness that develops into something more sturdy, more steady! It really is all about the Mortifying Ordeal Of Being Known.

All in all, this was a confidently and assuredly written debut, and I’m so excited to see where Edwin and Robin’s story goes next (the second book is going to be set on the Titanic ?!!!?!?!).

Thanks so much to Tor for providing me with an e-ARC of this via Netgalley!


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BOOK REVIEW: THE RIGHT TO SEX by AMIA SRINIVASAN


The Right to Sex: Feminism in the Twenty-First Century: Srinivasan, Amia:  9780374248529: Books - Amazon.ca

The Right to Sex is a sharp, incisive book: it cuts to the heart of the matter. Its essays take apart feminist issues the same way you would take apart a device to try to understand it: you get rid of the outer casing, pry it open, and take in the many interconnected, minute pieces that make it work. And Srinivasan is so good at this–at zeroing in on the linchpin of the issues she is discussing, getting at their most fundamental or central aspects. The topics that these essays cover, too, are not straightforward or clear-cut: there is, of course, the question of whether anyone has a “right to sex,” but there are also questions around pornography, teacher-student relationships, sex work, and consent. None of these topics are new to feminism, and indeed Srinivasan is not really interested in putting forth some kind of “new” argument about any of them. What she is interested in, however, is trying to grapple with the ambivalence that lies at the heart of all these topics–and it is this emphasis on ambivalence that I think truly distinguishes this book as a collection of critical essays.

“The question​, then, is how to dwell in the ambivalent place where we acknowledge that no one is obligated to desire anyone else, that no one has a right to be desired, but also that who is desired and who isn’t is a political question, a question usually answered by more general patterns of domination and exclusion.”

Ambivalence, in The Right to Sex, is not about finding complication that is not there, but rather about the messiness that is inherent to any kind of intersectional approach to feminism. This isn’t an easy approach to take with regards to issues like consent or pornography, either; fundamentally, it means highlighting the many ways in which a feminism that is a straightforward project of uniting “all women” is bound to fail. All of this is to say, Srinivasan may take apart these issues and their structural underpinnings as you would take apart a device, but she isn’t interested in putting that “device” back together into a neat, discrete thing, so to speak. The exposed device is precisely the point: to open this thing, look at how it works, mess around with the things that make it work, and then leave it to its messiness. Srinivasan unravels the complications, yes, but she doesn’t offer easy answers.

For me, The Right to Sex works as a book not just because it is compelling in its ideas, but also because it is remarkably lucid in its delivery of those ideas. Srinivasan renders complexity in a sparse, direct style that is still able to preserve the heft of that complexity, and that is all the more impressive for how accessible it is. What I always ask myself when I read a book like this is: did I come away learning something new after reading it, or did it make me think about something differently? And in the case of The Right to Sex, the answer is: absolutely.

Thanks so much to FSG for providing me with an audiobook of this via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review!


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