Book Review: A LOVING, FAITHFUL ANIMAL by Josephine Rowe

Josephine Rowe is already a lauded author in Australia, but A Loving, Faithful Animal marks her U.S. debut–and it’s an auspicious one. The novel chronicles one family’s cycle of trauma against the backdrop of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, which is already an interesting story; Rowe’s prose, at once precise and dreamy, elevates this arc into fiction so potent and powerful that I want sing its praises from the rooftops, pressing copies into the hands of everyone I know.

You can read my full review below.


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A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

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  • publisher: Catapult (catapult.co)
  • publication date: September 12, 2017
  • isbn: 978-1-9367-8757-9
  • length: 176 pages

That was the summer a sperm whale drifted sick into the bay, washed up dead at Mount Martha, and there were many terrible jokes about fertility. It was the summer that all the best cartoons went off the air, swapped for Gulf War broadcasts in infrared snippets, and your mother started saying things like I used to be pretty, you know? Christ, I used to be brave. But you thought brave was not crying when the neighbor girl dug her sharp red fingernails into your arm, until the skin broke and bled, and she cried out herself in disgust. You were still dumb enough to think that was winning.

A Loving, Faithful Animal, page 3

The concept of World Englishes is usually applied to colonized (and neo-colonized) countries and cultures whose variations on English are often considered “broken” and less-than. There’s a growing understanding that these Englishes are no less valid and rich than “standard” British and U.S. English–but World English speakers still find the long arm of U.S. and U.K. cultural dominance difficult to shake.

I define all this because although Australian English is usually considered “standard,” I was struck by how much A Loving, Faithful Animal feels like a work of World English: a working-class, trauma-laden, bitter and acerbic portrait of an Australia that’s impossibly far-flung from its easygoing cultural stereotype.

The Burroughs family is damaged: by domestic abuse, by poverty, by a Vietnam War that Australians wished to be involved in even less than Americans did, and by an intense and painful love for one another that none of them know how to safely express.

Ru quietly seethes, Lani is a rebel on a razor’s edge, and their parents, Evelyn and Jack, are locked in a terrible cycle of abuse. When Jack, a Vietnam War veteran, disappears for what seems to be the last time, Jack’s brother, Les, waits for Evelyn in the wings. The beloved family dog–the eponymous loving, faithful animal–was recently torn to shreds by a wildcat.

Two big questions hang over all of this–Would Jack be an abuser if his draft number had never come up? Would this family still struggle this much? –which Rowe smartly doesn’t answer. Instead, she tells what are effectively linked short stories from the perspective of each family member, all distinct in style but anchored by a single point in time that serves as a dark star at the center of the chaos: New Year’s Eve, 1990.

Rowe’s grasp of language is superhuman, and the act of reading her prose feels rather like watching Mirai Nagasu land that triple axel at the Olympics: jaw dropped in stupefied awe, not quite understanding but certainly feeling. I had to keep my smartphone handy while reading to interpret the Australian slang and cultural references, and this added to the dream-like feeling, as if I were using an interpretation book. (I read the American edition, but Catapult seems not to have made any changes from the Australian one, which is an excellent thing.)

The Burroughs’s dusty, devastated home, full of holes punched in drywall and with redback spiders crawling all over the garage, is nowhere near my world. But in this book, Rowe seems to have pulled up a chair for me, asking if I’d like a glass of water or anything to eat. For a few precious hours, it felt like my home. And though it wasn’t exactly a pleasant place to be, it was still a magical one.

When I’m reading good fiction, I feel infinite, able to explore lives and Englishes far from my own. Josephine Rowe writes prodigiously good fiction–and I hope that A Loving, Faithful Animal is only the start of what U.S. readers will see from her. 5/5 stars.


My copy of A Loving, Faithful Animal came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 2.9.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

This week I am in Deadline Hell, which means–of course–that I am really excited about two novels that I hope will help me procrastinate take my mind off things! Let’s go!


9780374279660Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw

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source: my local library

why I’m excited: I’ve flirted with this book ever since I first spotted it on the New Releases shelf, but its cover, which I find frankly creepy and embarrassing, always put me off. Still, the premise is intriguing–a drug-addicted, girlfriend-experience sex worker becomes slowly unhinged and is maybe a terrorist–and it’s short. (I love short books!) I’m hoping Ultraluminous will fill the stylish, pulpy hole in my heart left by Atomic Blonde, one of my favorite movies of 2017.

9781616201340An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

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source: my local library

why I’m excited: This book and I have had a whirlwind affair: last week, I first learned of it when I read this Atlanta Journal-Constitution article about the conversation that inspired it; in the past few days, I’ve read rave review after rave review; yesterday, I resolved to buy this book; today, I encountered a “Lucky Day” copy at my local library (3 week loan with no option for renewals, effectively allowing you to skip the hold line), and subsequently walked out of the branch feeling like I’d won the lottery. The novel, about a marriage shattered by a wrongful incarceration, sounds incredible in every way, and I’m damn near sure I’ll love it–so you can expect I’ll still buy a copy at some point. I’m just happy I get to have a head start on loving it.


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? What are you excited to read this week? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!

Book Review: THE ANSWERS by Catherine Lacey

The Answers’ premise is about as difficult to explain as the novel’s many layers are to digest: a broke New York 30-something, Mary, gets a job acting as an on-call “Emotional Girlfriend” to a vain, selfish actor and auteur. But in Catherine Lacey’s hands, this “Girlfriend Experiment” feels no stranger than reality TV or even more ordinary experiences of falling in love. Love or hate The Answers, you’ll almost certainly find it unforgettable (and not just because of its eye-catching cover).

You can read my full review below.


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The Answers by Catherine Lacey

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  • publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (an imprint of Macmillan)
  • publication date: June 6, 2017
  • isbn: 978-0-3741-0026-1
  • length: 304 pages

I wondered what could have happened between them that would make her need him this badly, but I suppose you can never tell what is happening between people. It’s as private as eye contact, no room for more than two.

The Answers, page 272

Few books have reminded me how subjective reading is as potently as The Answers did. As I turned the pages of Lacey’s novel, I kept thinking about why, for example, I gave five stars to There Your Heart Lies by Mary Gordon–a book that’s undoubtedly lovely but also forgettable–but only four stars to Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, a book I think of constantly and even purchased as a Christmas gift for my partner.

Oh, the things that keep a book blogger up at night.

The answer is because I’m flawed, of course, but also because I’ve noticed that I demand more from books I love than from books I merely like and admire. I loved The Answers unconditionally–but I also wanted to demand more from it.

In The Answers, 30-year-old Mary is isolated and lonely, crushed by travel debt, and seriously ill with chronic pain and numbness that doctors can’t explain. Her best friend Chandra recommends new-agey PAKing treatments, and to Mary’s shock, they begin to cure her–but they’re also desperately expensive, so she replies to a cryptic job ad, and is quickly hired as the “Emotional Girlfriend” in a vanity project-cum-scientific experiment run by actor Kurt Sky. Mary caters to Kurt’s every emotional need for pay, along with teams of other women who cater to his other needs, like the “Mundanity Girlfriend,” “Anger Girlfriend,” and the, er, “Intimacy Team.”

Unsurprisingly, the “Girlfriend Experiment” doesn’t go well.

I tweeted up a storm about this book’s thriller-like atmosphere–it feels intensely like a David Fincher movie, complete with me imagining Rooney Mara as its heroine–though it’s not a thriller at all. Rather, it’s a deep dive into the meanings of vanity, celebrity, isolation, the queasy power of falling in love, and–profoundly–sexism.

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Rooney Mara chews out Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network (2010).

We eventually learn that Mary was an only child raised off the grid by deeply Christian parents. She’s ignorant of and ambivalent towards pop culture: she’s never seen a movie, doesn’t listen to music, and doesn’t read the news, making her the perfect sponge for all of superstar Kurt Sky’s emotional diatribes, since she has absolutely no idea who he is.

Kurt fetishizes Mary’s emotional availability to an absurd degree, ignoring the fact that he’s literally paying her to act that way, and Mary, for her part, finds herself falling in a sort of love with Kurt regardless. The whole experiment is a an extreme allegory for how sexism, money, and power complicate all sorts of relationships between men and women, but it never feels heavy-handed.

Unfortunately, the story’s early beginning and late end did leave a lot to be desired. Mary is inscrutable, something that’s made worse, not better, by parts I and III’s first-person perspective. (Part II, told in third-person omniscient, is by far the novel’s strongest section.) Some questions also don’t get the answers (ha!) that I was looking for, or don’t get answered at all; I think that Mary’s best friend Chandra, in particular, gets short shrift.

I couldn’t help it, though–by 50 pages in, I was enough in love with The Answers’ bonkers, brilliant premise and Lacey’s lyrical, profound style to forgive it just about anything. The idea of the Girlfriend Experiment might be extreme–but so is sexism; so is falling in love. 4/5 stars.


My copy of The Answers came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Short Story Roundup, 2.7.18

Short Story Roundup

Short Story Roundup is a feature where I gather the best short stories I’ve read this week and share them with you every Wednesday. The stories might have been published yesterday or 100 years ago, but as long as I’ve read and loved them in a given week, you’ll find them here.

This week I’m featuring two novel excerpts–one about post-apocalyptic dogs and one about running into a high school sweetheart after a near-death experience–so read on.


Anna” by Niccolò Ammaniti (translated by Jonathan Hunt)

  • genre: science fiction (post-apocalyptic)
  • publication: Guernica
  • publication date: February 5, 2018
  • why I loved it: This story, an excerpt from Ammaniti’s novel of the same name (translated from the original Italian), is a tense account of a conflict between a young Sicilian girl scavenging for food and a mangy dog covered in ash. Like many novel excerpts, it feels a bit unresolved, but Ammaniti’s world is immediately compelling. Why are all the grown-ups gone? What was the fire? What came before? All those questions will play in the back of your mind, but most of all, you’ll be gripped by the action.

The Afterlives” by Thomas Pierce

  • genre: literary/realistic fiction
  • publication: Literary Hub
  • publication date: January 12, 2018
  • why I loved it: This story is also an excerpt, from a novel by Thomas Pierce about an atheistic man who suffers a heart attack, only to confront the frightening possibility that there might not be an afterlife, after all. The excerpt documents the moment when he runs into his high school sweetheart after the attack, and it’s very tender and funny, propelled along by the gentle believability of its characters, even as they experience unbelievable events.

What short fiction have you read and enjoyed lately? For the writers out there: Has any of your work appeared online or in print this week? Tell me all about it in the comments!

Friday Bookbag, 2.2.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

I’ve been extremely sick this week (hence why I skipped Short Story Roundup and haven’t been reviewing anything), and I plan to rest up read all weekend to make up for it–here’s hoping I can catch up on books from Friday Bookbags past as well as the two new titles I picked up this week.


9780062476050It Devours! : A Welcome to Night Vale Novel by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

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why I’m excited: I technically picked this one up for my partner, since she’s a Welcome to Night Vale superfan and also stuck-at-home-sick this weekend, but I think I’m going to steal it when she’s done! It Devours! is a stand-alone “mystery about faith and science…and the terrifying, toothy power of the Smiling God” according to its inside flap, which sounds pretty great to me, even if I’m not caught up on the podcast.

9780062444424Heart Spring Mountain by Robin MacArthur

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why I’m excited: Heart Spring Mountain is a novel about family secrets, an estranged mother and daughter, and rural Vermont, which sounds like a good combo to me. I’m a nature lover who spent years living in the stark landscape of rural northern Minnesota–which is part of why Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves spoke to me so deeply–and I hope that Heart Spring Mountain will hit some of the same beats.

And some extra goodies…

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Since I’m planning to take it easy this weekend, I also took advantage of my library’s DVD section and picked up Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (I want to re-watch all of the Star Wars movies this year, even the terrible ones!) and the first season of The L Word, which I’ve never seen. (If only all queer girls could get care packages full of these pop culture touchstones upon coming out, but I guess I’ll figure it out on my own.)


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? Have any burning opinions on Star Wars or The L Word? Let me know in the comments!

Book Review: THE LAST TO SEE ME by M Dressler

M Dressler puts a fresh, supernatural spin on California history in The Last to See Me, which imagines how the vengeful ghost of an early 20th century servant might react to a 21st century town hostile to the “dirty” spirits of its past. The novel is rich with historical detail, but it’s also compulsively readable, making its plot holes and unanswered questions feel eminently forgivable.

You can read my full review below.


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The Last to See Me by M Dressler

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  • publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
  • publication date: September 5, 2017
  • isbn: 978-1-5107-2067-7
  • length: 272 pages

Ever notice how historical fiction lovers–myself included–are usually obsessed with narratives about royalty and the upper class? There are endless novels of Tudor intrigue, Victorian stiff upper lips, and Gilded Age gaudiness, but little about the lives of ordinary people–you know, how most of us would have actually lived.

It’s good, then, that The Last to See Me tackles this gap: Emma Rose Finnis is an unlucky Irish-American girl trapped in an unpleasant, hard-scrapping life as a scullery maid in Benito, a coastal California timber town. The Lambry family are timber magnates who may as well be local royalty, and when Quint Lambry sets his eyes on orphaned nobody Emma, Mrs. Lambry decides to intervene, paying Emma handsomely to leave town and work as a maid for an isolated lighthouse keeper’s family.

But Emma and Quint continue their affair in secret, hurtling towards a shattering tragedy that gets Emma killed. After death, Emma becomes a vengeful ghost who haunts the town–and the Lambry family–for a century, and when a wealthy Silicon Valley couple seeks to buy the Lambry ancestral home, Emma’s violent reaction forces the real estate agent to call in a ghost hunter to purge her.

Dressler’s world is fascinating, though I hesitate to call it complex, since its mechanics are mostly left to the imagination. Modern-day Benito, California, seems to exist in a California that’s exactly the same as our own in every way except that people accept the presence of ghosts–and the need for the “cleaners” who purge them–without question.

It’s an interesting idea, and one I wish had been further developed, but since the story is told from Emma’s old-fashioned and unreliable perspective, there are quite a few puzzle pieces missing from the table. Sometimes characters feel shoehorned in to fulfill a plot necessity, and there’s also a subplot about a character who may or may not be a ghost that left me scratching my head.

Still, it’s hard to be bitter, since Dressler’s writing is excellent in so many other ways. The Last to See Me balances detail and suspense as skillfully as I’ve ever seen it done: Dressler has done her research, and it shows, but she also doesn’t bore the reader with irrelevant facts and old-timey speak. In fact, I found this book impossible to put down, finishing it in two sittings, even though I was initially skeptical that I’d enjoy it.

That the book got its hooks in me so quickly–literally from the first page–is especially amazing considering how slowly the story moves; it’s not like Emma is in a rush to tell all, considering she’s been undead for a hundred years already.

But Dressler draws tension from the moral ambiguity of ghost “cleaning,” an act that Emma is understandably frightened of, seeing as it will destroy her spirit forever. Philip Pratt, the ghost cleaner, insists in that ghosts are evil and takes pride in dispelling them, angering Emma…and the angrier Emma gets, the more she lashes out at the living humans around her, causing you to suspect that Pratt, though arrogant, might be right after all.

The Last to See Me is a tremendously enjoyable book about one of the heaviest topics of all: death, and life afterwards. How lucky we are that Dressler handles it with nuance, empathy, and skill. 4/5 stars.


My copy of The Last to See Me came from my local library and I was in no way compensated for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 1.26.18

friday bookbag

Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or otherwise acquired during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.


9781939419965The Annie Year by Stephanie Wilbur Ash

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why I’m excited: The Annie Year is a dark comedy that falls a bit outside my regular tastes–it’s about a small-town CPA who becomes entangled in meth labs and a scandalous affair–but the author is local, it was a Minnesota Book Awards finalist, and I’m excited overall for a book that promises to be humorous, even if it touches on dark topics. I’ve lived in a small town deep in meth country, and I’ve been involved in community theatre–the novel takes its title from a production of Annie that’s going on as its protagonist’s life falls apart–so I’m sure there will be plenty here for me to relate to.

9780544912588Salt Houses by Hala Alyan

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why I’m excited: I loved Hala Alyan’s short story, “No Good,” so I leapt at the chance to read her debut novel when I saw it on my local library’s shelves. Salt Houses is the story of a family repeatedly uprooted by Middle East conflicts, beginning with the Six-Day War of 1967; I’m already in love with Alyan’s prose and I’m looking forward to immersing myself in this complicated novel of family, place, and displacement.


See books here that you’ve already read or that are on your to-read list? What are you excited to read this week? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!