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Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall — book review

Boyfriend Material reads less like fiction than fanfiction. No one acts their age, we have50225678.jpg an exceedingly angsty protagonist, a plethora of silly side characters who express themselves using a Tumblresque sort of lingo, unlikely interactions, and a lot tropes.
The novel’s sitcom-like structure was predictable and often unfunny. Luc O’Donnell’s friends, colleagues, and acquaintances had very one-dimensional roles: we have the straight friend who is always having a crisis at work (one more ludicrous than the other), the lesbian friend who is short and angry, the gay couple that share the same first and last name (and are both referred as James Royce-Royce) and have opposing personalities, a few ridiculously posh characters (who had no clue of anything related to contemporary culture or social norms), the fanciful French mother (who is very much the British idea of a French person), the estranged rock star father…
Luc was so self-centred and monotonous that I soon grew tired of him. He has a few genuinely funny lines (when he’s told not to give up he replies: “But I like giving up. It’s my single biggest talent”) but these are far too few in-between. The narrative tries to make us sympathise with him because he’s been sold-out by his ex-boyfriend and because his dad had 0 interest in acting like a father…and yeah, those things aren’t great but they don’t make his self-pitying narcissism any less annoying. Most of the conversations he has with other people, Oliver in particular, revolve around what he has experienced, what he feels, wants, and fears. I just wish he hadn’t been so focused on himself as it made him rather unlikable.
The other characters are really unbelievable and behave unconvincingly. They did not act or speak like actual human beings.
The running gags were just unfunny: most characters treat Oliver’s vegetarianism as if it was an obscure dietary lifestyle they could never wrap their heads around, Luc’s posh colleagues doesn’t understand his jokes, while Welsh characters accuse Luc of being racist against Welsh people (this annoyed me because they kept throwing around the word ‘racism’ when it had nothing to with racism. Luc not knowing about Welsh history or culture is not racism).
The romance never grabbed me as Oliver was such a stilted character as to be difficult to believe in. Luc often acted like a child with Oliver which made their romance a bit…cringe-y.
Sadly, this novel just didn’t work for me. It felt superficial, silly, and juvenile.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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The Eighth Detective by Alex Pavesi — book review

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The Eighth Detective is not quite the “thrilling, wildly inventive nesting doll of a mystery” it’d be promised to be. I approached this novel hoping for something in the realms of Anthony Horowitz. Sadly, The Eighth Detective seems closer to The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, in that both novels are hellbent on ‘confusing’ the reader with ‘shocking’ reveals. Similarly to Horowitz’s Magpie Murders, The Eighth Detective introduces to a the work of fictions writer of detective fiction. In Alex Pavesi’s novel the writer of a collection of short stories (all whodunnits) has relocated to an unmanned island. He’s approached by an editor interested in re-publishing this collection. She decides for theatrical reasons to read his own stories to him, all of these stories build on a paper he wrote “examining the mathematical structure of murder mysteries” called ‘The Permutations of Detective Fiction’ (very a la Ronald Knox). The editor notices discrepancies in his stories (continuity errors, incongruous descriptions etc.).

The novel is ¾ made up by these short stories…and dare I say, or write, that they are at best mediocre?
After reading the opening story (one in which a character called Henry may have murdered a character called Bunny…was this a nod to the The Secret History), I hoped that the following ones could offer a bit more variety in terms of structure, style, and atmosphere…sadly, they are very same-y.
Most of them seem like Agatha Christie rip-offs (the most ostentatious of which is acknowledged by the fictions author as a ‘homage’ to his favourite crime novel). Each short story is followed by sections titled ‘Conversations’ in which the editor grills the author about his stories. The author seems to have little recollection of the intentional discrepancies he peppered into his stories, but the editor is unyielding and tries to learn more about his private life (which made certain later reveals less ‘shocking’). Each time she finishes reading a short story the final line appears twice (once at end of the short story and once at the beginning of the following ‘Conversation’). This did not help in making the novel feel less repetitive.
The writing style doesn’t seem to vary so that the short stories and the ‘Conversations’ seem to have been written by the same person (which they have, but it kind of ruins the illusion of the stories having been written by a character). The characters were mere names on a page, their personalities inexistent or irrelevant.
The Eighth Detective will offer little to readers who are fans of detective fiction and/or whodunnits. The short stories were populated by boorish caricatures, relied on predictable twists, and failed to amuse or surprise.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson — book review

9780143128045.jpegLife Among the Savages is a collection of comic essays by Shirley Jackson originally published in women’s magazines. Rather than a memoir Life Among the Savages reads as a series of episodes focusing on Jackson’s chaotic family life: children squabbling, disagreements with other parents, daily chores, and family dinners. Jackson renders the cacophony of her family, tinging everyday activities or conversations with a does of absurdity. Her children’s back and forth are as entertaining as they are bewildering:

“That shirt’s no good,” Laurie said.
“It is so,” Jannie said.
“It is not,” Laurie said.
“It is so,” Jannie said.
“It is not,” Laurie said.
“Children,” I called, my voice a little louder than it usually is at only nine in the morning. “Please stop squabbling and get dressed.”
“Laurie started it,” Jannie called back.
“Jannie started it,” Laurie called.”

Jackson very much focuses on the lightest aspects of her life, painting herself as a busy mother of three, and focusing her attention to her children’s antics as opposed to herself. It was lovely to read the way in which she could be amused by their nonsense or misdeeds (Jannie’s imaginary daughters were a joy to read of). There were also plenty of elements that brought to mind her fictional work or in some way made me wonder whether they somehow influenced her writing: the broken step, the creepy taxi driver, the nosy locals, Laurie’s ‘schoolmate’ Charles (whose name enters the family lexicon, “With the third week of kindergarten Charles was an institution in our family; Jannie was being a Charles when she cried all afternoon; Laurie did a Charles when he filled his wagon full of mud and pulled it through the kitchen; even my husband, when he caught his elbow in the telephone cord and pulled telephone, ashtray, and a bowl of flowers off the table, said, after the first minute, “Looks like Charles.”). I was delighted by the way in which Jackson would write about her house.

Life Among the Savages will definitely appeal to those who enjoy Jackson’s particular brand of humour.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars

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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald — book review

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“It is invariably saddening to look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has its entertaining moments. The narrative seems intent on evoking a certain atmosphere. The people populating this novel meet up over drinks or dinner, where they divert themselves in idle gossip and caustically discuss current state of affairs. In spite of their facetious pretences they eagerly attend Gatsby’s opulent parties, indulging in the various decadences offered by their host, all the while talking maliciously behind his back. Fitzgerald paints an unforgiving portrait of the upper crust; they are hollow, duplicitous, and self-absorbed. In spite of Gatsby’s various attempts it is made quite clear that the ‘old’ money will never accept the new money.
The narrator of the novel is unremarkable and rather unforgettable. This may be because Fitzgerald wanted to show the drama that is at the heart of this novel from an outsider’s point of view. Yet, Nick only witnesses a fraction Gatsby and because of this I never had a clear sense of Gatsby himself. Nick doesn’t seem to like him or hate him. The other characters seem caricatures of sorts and their actions never struck me as particularly believable (which is a shame since I did find Fitzgerald’s dialogues to ring true to life).
While I appreciate the mood Fitzgerald was trying to create, and I was amused by his flair for bombastic descriptions, I wasn’t particular interested in his characters and their various disagreements. Most of all…I was disappointed by Gatsby. The novel may be named after him but he never seems to come into focus, so that he remained a blurry impression of a character.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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An Ocean Without a Shore by Scott Spencer — book review

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“I have learned one of the lessons of loneliness, one of its shocking side effects: when you are in a state of longing, desire goes on and on, like an ocean without a shore.”

An Ocean Without a Shore surprised me. In the very first page our narrator, Kip Woods, informs us that he’s awaiting his ‘sentence’. Occasionally addressing his listeners/readers directly (‘Your Honor’ and ‘the Court’) he recounts the events that led to his present circumstances.
Set in late nineties, An Ocean Without a Shore follows Kip, a gay man in his forties who works at a small investment firm and has been in love with his best friend since their college days. Thaddeus Kaufman, married with children, owns a property he can’t afford and as a persona non grata in Hollywood is struggling to succeed as a scriptwriter. When Thaddeus’ latest writing effort bear no fruit, he finds himself in need of a bailout, so he gives Kip a call. Lucky for him, Kip is always read, and more than willing, to help.

“I realize this all sounds rather abject. But it’s not really love unless there is something abject in it. Don’t you think?”

There is much to be admired in the novel. Scott Spencer high-register prose is striking. I was dazzled by Kip’s vocabulary, his expressive descriptions, and his long moments of introspections. Spencer beautifully renders Kip’s many feelings and thoughts, hinting at his underlining loneliness, vibrantly rendering his desire for Thaddeus. There is yearning, resentment, and sorrow. Kip is a private and remote person who has never fully reconciled himself with sexuality. What weighs on him the most are his unspoken feelings for Thaddeus. While some, such as Thaddeus’ wonderful uncle Morris, know just how deeply Kip feels for Thaddeus, Kip fears exposure. Ignoring his friends warnings, and and going against his own better judgement, Kip time and again comes to Thaddeus’ aid. Over the years, and in spite of their geographical locations, Kip thinks only of Thaddeus. Even when he realises that Thaddeus has grown into a deeply flawed man, he’s unable to ‘start living’ his own life.
Throughout the course of the novel there are many scenes featuring characters who make only small appearances. Yet, even if they appear for only a scene, readers are giving a clear impression of who they are. The people in this novel have their history, one that has clearly shaped who they are. The people surrounding Thaddeus are particularly toxic, they have fraught relationships with each other, and Kip almost seems at the periphery of this drama.
A sense of unease pervades Kip’s narration. We know that something is bound to happen, we can see how skewed his relationship with Thaddeus is, and of course, as Kip remind us, we know that he stands accused of a crime.
The setting and atmosphere within the novel have a deeply nostalgic quality. Spencer further enriches his narrative by adding a plethora of literary references and by having characters discuss politics and social issues relevant at the time. Kip’s philosophical meanderings are engrossing. While the questions he poses himself do not have easy answers, they do give us a glimpse into the most vulnerable parts of himself. In spite of his self-awareness her pursues a path of unhappiness, landing himself in a prison of his own making.
An Ocean Without a Shore is not a happy novel nor is it populated by happy people. There are few moments of respite for Kip, as he has, by the time the book has started, dedicated his life to a person that is not available (nor is he deserving of Kip). Yet, even if readers will despair at Kip for his undying devotion to Thaddeus, and for his inability to move on with his life, we will often feel as he does (unreciprocated love is a painful and all too common thing.
Kip’s reticent and slightly ambivalent narration brought to mind Charlotte Brontë’s Lucy Snowe (from Villette), while the complex relationship between him and Thaddeus reminded me of the Teddy Wayne’s Apartment. Certain scenes wouldn’t have been out of place in an Ann Patchett novel (although Spencer’s novel is far more cynical, e.g. “You could almost despise them, but really in the larger scheme of things they were just irrelevant. As most of us are.”).
Readers who prefer fast paced narratives may want to steer clear of this novel. But if you are looking for a heartbreaking character study, look no further. Spencer charges seemingly ordinary moments and exchanges with tension, forcing us to question his characters’ intentions and the outcome of their relationships. Kip’s vibrantly humorous descriptions and his sardonic asides provide a welcome reprieve.
An Ocean Without a Shore is a spellbinding and elegantly written novel that touches upon many themes, such as loneliness, love, family, memory, and money. Kip’s narration, which could be subtle and oblique one moment before becoming openly emotional or heartbreakingly poignant, spoke to me (perhaps because I share some of his weakness).
However saddening Kip’s story was An Ocean Without a Shore remains a thing of beauty.

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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Some of my favourite quotes/passages (I more or less underlined the entire novel so I struggled to pick only a few):

“Lives are shaped by words and deeds, but what we don’t say might be just as powerful as what we do. Our silence works like a lathe, giving us our final form.”

“The walls of my room were painted white and I kept them bare, not wanting any images or posters or sayings or symbols to somehow define me in the eyes of others. The floors were bare, too. At one point I’d had a five-by-seven Persian carpet I’d bought from a thrift shop, but soon after brining it home I rolled it up and stored it. I thought it said something about me, thought I wasn’t sure what.”

“I have revisited and redone and reimagined that night countless times in my solitude. I have behaved in these imagined encounters in ways that my inexperience and shyness and fear would not permit at the time. In my imagination, I have ravished him. In my altered memories, I have made promises even a saint could not keep.”

“Just because something you desire might not be easy, or convenient, or even possible, that doesn’t stop you from wanting it.”

“Sometimes all that niceness is a way of making sure nobody quite sees you.”

“You don’t add up a person’s qualities like something on a balance sheet. We don’t know why we love the people we love, not if we really love them. That’s the whole purpose of love, to take us out of the rational, binary, up or down, in or out, black or white, good or bad, profit or loss, to take us out of all those everyday things into something sacred.”

“My privacy was paramount, thought it made me unheroic. Not everyone can be a hero; if everyone was heroic, then heroism would be nothing but doing what was expected and we would have no actual heroes. You understand?”

“Here’s something else about us torchbearers. We are possessive of the one we love and we are determined to maintain our hold on the idea of them. Our idea of them is really all we have. When you think about someone more or less constantly, you begin to believe—though you would never say so, not even to yourself—that they belong to you.”

“One moment my brain was full of chatter, hyperbole, justifications, and theories of human behavior, a few of them road tested, others shaky to say the least, and the next moment I just went dark, a plunge so precipitous it was like a dress rehearsal for sudden death.”

“I felt desire as a kind of wretchedness.”

“I feel overwhelmed, weirdly diminished. Somewhere along the way, Thaddeus had learned to turn his outgoing nature into a form of aggression, weaponizing the sweetness. Do we all of us become steadily shittier as we grow older?”

“Ah, there it was! As if I haven’t had enough. The Magna Carta of self-pity.”

“Hey, heterosexuals, seriously: Get a fucking grip!”

“He was standing three feet away from me. Thirty-six inches. I was unraveling. Passion—untapped, untried, untested, and above all unsullied by compromise or even reality—surged through me.”

“E. M. Forster wrote that given the choice of betraying a friend or betraying his country, he hoped he’d have the guts to betray his country. Understandably, he left out the part about betraying yourself.”

“I was loosing track of who I was, and with the next breath the whole concept of knowing who you are seemed dubious.”

“For this I had thrown away half of my life? For this? For him? For Thaddeus Kaufman? Short answer: yes, if it pleases the Court. Further elucidation, Your Honor: I’d do it all again. ”

“You’d think obsession would simply wither and die, but you’d be wrong. Hopeless love thrives in silence and darkness.”

“I was used to calling myself names. Self-loathing barely fazed; I had self-loathing for breakfast.”

“Yet here came a sharp stinging moment of remembrance, a gasp of memory, crushing and quotidian, devastating in its apparent lack of significance and demanding attention by its mere presence.”

“The heart, malnourished, fearful of dying of starvation, seizes whatever it can, knowing how to live on coincidence and trivialities, gathering and gobbling all the little morsels of meaning, and making a meal of them.”

“I glanced at my watch, feeling that horribly familiar panic—all the time that was being wasted, utterly wasted, the hours, the months, and finally the years.”

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The Touchstone by Edith Wharton — review

Having read a few works by Edith Wharton, I’ve become familiar with her beautifully articulated style. Still, I was nonetheless impressed by just how accomplished The Touchstone is considering that it is Wharton’s first published novella.
The story revolves around Stephen Glennard, a New York lawyer, who doesn’t have enough money to marry his sweetheart, Alexa Trent. It just so happens that Glennard comes across an advertisement seeking information relating to a figure from his past, the famous and recently deceased novelist Margaret Aubyn. Because Margaret was once in love with Glennard, and the two kept a correspondence, he’s accumulated hundreds of her letters. Although Glennard is fully aware that to sell these private letters would be to betrayal to Margaret, he worries that Alexa won’t wait for him much longer. After editing his name out of the letters and with the help of an acquaintance of his, who happens to be a rich collector, Glennard sells them. The money from the publisher, and from Glennard’s own subsequent investments, enables him to marry Alexa.
This being a work by Wharton however we know that marriage does not equal happiness. Guilt, shame, and endless waves of remorse mar Glennard’s days. Unable to reconcile himself with his actions, knowing that his wife, and the rest of his social circle, would condemn him for the sale, Glennard finds uneasy solace in his memory of Margaret.
Through her elegantly precise prose Wharton renders all the nuances of Glennard’s disillusionment—with himself, his wife, his marriage—as well as evincing his inner turmoil. Wharton complements this character study with a piercing social commentary (focusing on the customs and niceties of the so called ‘polite’ society’). I particularly appreciated the narrative’s engagement with notions of privacy. Why should an author’s private life be made ‘public’? Can one retain a degree of privacy or autonomy over one’s life if they are considered ‘public’ figures? Glennard’s story seems a cautionary tale. He infringes Margaret’s privacy, exposing her personal letters—which were written for the audience of one—to the world. When he comes across people, mostly women, discussing Margaret’s letters, he’s sickened, as much by them as by himself.
Wharton is a master of the trade and The Touchstone is as sophisticated as her later and more celebrated works. In spite of its historical setting The Touchstone is also a strikingly relevant novella (a public figure’s right to privacy vs. the public’s interest) one that explores the ethical and moral repercussions of Glennard’s violation of Margaret privacy and trust.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Little Family by Ishmael Beah – book review

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“Almost everything in this country is on its way to losing itself.”

Little Family is a deeply felt novel. Set in an unnamed African country, the narrative revolves around five young people whose makeshift home is a derelict airplane.
Ishmael Beah’s paints a sobering landscape: government corruption, extreme social divide, the malignant vestiges of colonialism, colourism, military/police brutality. The ‘little family’ at the heart of his novel do their best to survive, pouring their different skills and strengths into clever swindles. Beah’s illuminating prose gracefully renders their day to day activities.
The first half of the novel follows each member of the family without delving into their pasts. I really loved these early chapters. In spite of the dangers they face, the members of this family are brave beyond belief. Beah clearly has a wonderful ear for the rhythm of children’s conversations: there is silliness and the kind of banter that teeters between playful and not-so-playful. Unlike the adults in his novel Beah never dismisses the voices of his young characters. Although they are painfully aware of being “the ones society had no use for”, and that each day may bring a new form of dehumanization, they unanimously wish for change (for safety, for their poverty to end, for their country to rid itself of corruption and the inequalities brought by colonialism).
Elimane and Khoudi, the older members of this little family, are not only incredibly self-aware (of their role in their society, of their country’s fraught history, of the different degrees of inequality within their community) but often encourage others to question established norms. As we follow them during their daily routines we gain an impression of the dynamics within this family. It was Namsa, the youngest one in the family, who stood out to me in this first half of the novel. She approaches her family’s excursion with a sense of buoyant adventure, and although she worries that she won’t be able to keep up with the others, she’s just as, if not more, quick-witted.
While outside of their home the group often has to keep apart from each other, as not to draw suspicion, the depth of their bond, their mutual ease and trust, is clear.
The tempo in the latter half of the novel is far less absorbing. The story focuses almost exclusively on Khoudi and her ‘awakening’. What follows is rather predictable: she learns the power of her own body, becomes intrigued and eventually entangled with a group of privileged young people, and distances herself from the ‘self’ she is within the ‘little family’. While I can appreciate a ‘coming of age’ tale or a story that charts a quest for one’s identity, I did find Khoudi’s journey to be clichéd and clearly written by a man. There are a few scenes that seem straight out of a boy’s fantasy of a girl who is on the cusps of womanhood (discovering her beauty and sexual desire, becoming close to another beautiful young woman…and of course, although each one of them is interest/infatuated with a man, when they are alone together they kiss…but it means nothing). The tonal shift too, left me wanting. The little family is sidelined in favour of a love story, one that was particularly uninspired (if anything the whole star-crossed lovers thing made Khoudi’s early characterisation somewhat redundant). The ending was abrupt and unsatisfying.
As much as I loved the first half, Khoudi’s half was bland. I also felt annoyed that the characters we grown to know in the early chapters are more or less abandoned by the narrative in favour of a romance.
Still, the author treats his characters and the issues they face with empathy so I would probably recommend this one to those readers who don’t mind when novels change the direction of their story.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner — book review

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“It’s almost religious, that belief, that faith that a piece of silk or denim or cotton jersey could disguise your flaws and amplify your assets and make you both invisible and seen, just another normal woman in the world; a woman who deserves to get what she wants.”

Beach read meets mystery in Jennifer Weiner Big Summer. Daphne Berg is a plus-sized ‘influencer’ (I have a hard time using this word unironically) who after years of being subjected to all sorts of body-shaming (from strangers on the internet to her own friends and relatives) has finally started to become more confident in her body. While in many ways she loves her ‘community’, since it encourages her and others to love themselves and their bodies, the influencer lifestyle isn’t all its cracked up to be.

“The trick of the Internet, I had learned, was not being unapologetically yourself or completely unfiltered; it was mastering the trick of appearing that way.”

The first of the novel focuses in particular on Daphne’s relationship with her body over the years by giving us some snapshots from her childhood (her grandmother is monstrous towards her). There are many painful moments in which readers become intimate with Daphne’s most innermost thoughts and fears. We’re also introduced to her former best friend. Drue is conventionally beautiful and comes from an incredibly wealthy family. Their friendship is not an easy one as Drue toys around with Daphne’s feelings, treating her as her closest confidant one moment and pretending she doesn’t exist the next. Unsurprisingly, after a particularly cruel night, Daphne finally calls out Drue on her behaviour and cuts ties with her.
Years later, when Daphne’s is a successful influencer, Drue shows up again in her life and asks her (begs her really) to be her bridesmaid. In Cape Cod, the wedding location, the novel shifts gears. (view spoiler)
While I appreciated the complexities of Daphne and Drue friendship, and the way in which Drue wasn’t painted in an entirely negative way, as well as the novel’s early discussions around body positivity, I just did not care for the mystery (which was predictable at every turn). The love interest was a very dull character indeed (did we really need him in the story?).

While for the most part I enjoyed Weiner’s prose I did find the constant descriptions of her characters’ physical appearance to be tiring. Even characters who make small cameos are described within an inch of their life (their eyes, teeth, skin, legs, arms, stomachs). While I could accept that Daphne has an eye for other people’s clothes (due to her job), the detailed, and often exaggerated, accounts of random people’s appearances added little to the story.
Still Big Summer is far more thoughtful than other ‘light’ reads.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Date Me, Bryson Keller by Kevin van Whye — book review

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“But what does normal even mean? Who decided that? And why are gay teens still forced to keep secrets and live double lives?”

It seems I’m not an Ice Queen after all…this book melted my heart.
Date Me, Bryson Keller is an incredibly sweet and thoughtful YA romance that can be easily read in one sitting. Before I move onto my actual review however I wanted to address some of the bad rep this book has been getting. Some reviewers (who haven’t even read it) are insinuating that this book is a rip off of Seven Days a BL manga. The two works do share the same premise and Kevin van Whye acknowledges this in his author’s note. In fact he says that a number of stories influenced him:
“I owe a great debt to all of them, including the Norwegian web series Skam (particularly season 3), To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (as well as the film adaptation, Love, Simon), the manga Seven Days: Monday-Sunday by author Venio Tachibana and illustrator Rihito Takarai, and the ’90s romcom She’s All That. Date Me, Bryson Keller is my #ownvoices take on these prior works.”
YA romances are not renown for their originality so I’m not sure why some are crying ‘outrage’ without even having read Kevin van Whye’s book. His novel reworks the ‘popular guy dates different people each week’ premise of Seven Days. These two works have very different characters, settings, and themes (also, most BL and GL mangas do not realistically portray the struggles of those who are part of the LGBTQ+ community).

Anyway, moving onto my actual review: Date Me, Bryson Keller is a delightful and surprisingly heart-rendering read. Kai Sheridan narration is compelling and I deeply felt for him. In spite of his awkwardness he’s capable of admirable self-respect. Due to a dare the most popular boy his private school has to date someone new every Monday. The first person to ask him gets to date him for a week. Although Kai wants to keep his head down, and is not ready to tell his friends and family that he’s gay, he finds himself asking Bryson out. To Kai’s surprise Bryson agrees. Over the course of the week the two secretly fake date. They meet up in the morning, go out for breakfast together, study together, and quite quickly they get to know each other. As Kai’s feelings towards Bryson intensify he begins to question whether they are reciprocated.
To begin with this struck me an impossibly cute and lighthearted story. Bryson is an actual Cinnamon Roll™ and it was so refreshing to see his relationship with Kai develop without any unnecessary angst. I also really appreciated Kai’s character arc. Things do eventually take a turn for the worst, and Kai has to deal with a lot. Through Kai’s story Kevin van Whye dispels this myth that homophobia’ no longer exists or that if it does it never originates from young people. Kevin van Whye maintains a wonderful balance between love story and coming of age, and alleviates the more heart-rendering parts of his novel with humour. The interactions between Kai and Bryson had me smiling like an idiot.
I will definitely be reading this again and I’m looking forward to Kevin van Whye’s next novel.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Serritella — book review


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“It’s supposed to be a time when you’re about to embark on your adult life, but for many young people, that springboard looks more like a precipice.”

Ghosts of Harvard is a patchwork of a novel. While the summary seems to promise more of thriller/academia type of book (I personally would not recommend this to those who enjoy campus novels or dark academia), what we do get is a mishmash of genres and storylines: to start with we have a moving family drama that examines the realities of caring for someone with a mental illness, then we head into the supernatural combined with the type of amateur investigation that is all the rage in domestic thrillers (someone you know has done something bad), before culminating in a melodramatic final act.

Francesca Serritella strikingly renders the setting of Harvard. Sadly however her protagonist’s investigation into her brother’s time there takes the centre-stage, so that Cadence’s studies and interactions with other students receive limited attention only. Nevertheless Serritella certainly knows Harvard, and she demonstrates her knowledge of its history, architecture, and traditions in a very compelling and evocative way.
After her brother’s suicide Cadence is obviously overwhelmed. Eric was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia while studying at Harvard so Cadence does feel to a certain extent haunted. Hoping that being at Harvard will somehow bring her closer to her brother, she soon begins to suspect that her brother was hiding something. As she becomes obsessed with her brother’s past, she begins to hear ‘voices’. What follows is a story that has the trappings of most domestic thrillers, the only difference being the academic backdrop.

The third person narration distances us from Cadence, so that much of her personality remains unseen. We know of her troubled relationship with her mother but we never truly delve into Cadence’s sense of self. She makes many nonsensical decisions for ‘plot’ reasons, and I can’t say that she ever did or said anything remotely remarkable or moving. Perhaps I would have sympathised more with her if she had at any point had an introspective moment. She briefly questions herself only when she’s worried that the voices she’s hearing are a figment of her imagination or a sign that she too may suffer from schizophrenia. She forms superficial friendships with her roommates and a guy who shares one of her classes, but for the most part she only comes into contact with individuals who are directly connected to her brother and his secret. Speaking of Eric’s friends, it was weird that Cadence only speaks to his best friend once. Although Cadence grows close to one of her brother’s peers, I never believed that she cared for the ‘living’ people she encounters at Harvard. She becomes somewhat chummy with the three ghosts who keep talking to her in her head, and who unsurprisingly help her in her investigation.
Throughout the course of Cadence’s ‘investigation’ we get snippets from her past that focus on her family life and her bond with Eric. These were easily my favourite parts of the novel. These scenes, although painful, possessed a genuine quality that made them much more poignant that the ones that take place at Harvard.

“Simple narratives were easier to tell, to teach, to understand, to remember. The lie endures for generations, while the truth dies with its victims. But what were the consequences?”

Serritella’s writing was absorbing and I generally enjoyed her reflections on family, mental health, grief, and Harvard’s history.
While part of me was happy that the novel didn’t drag on the ‘are the voice real or not’, ultimately I wasn’t all that taken by the novel’s execution: it veers into exaggerated territories that are punctuated by flashy twists. What could have been a compassionate exploration of grief and of loving someone who suffers from a mental illness is weighed down by unnecessary thriller-esque melodrama. The supernatural element would have been a lot more ‘haunting’ if it hadn’t been so cheesily predictable. While I appreciated the novel’s commentary on academia/educational institutions, and the nuanced portrayal of Eric’s mental illness as well as the realistic depiction of the stigma and discrimination against mental health, I was underwhelmed by the storyline and finale.

Specific plot points/scenes that were unconvincing/clichéd:

➜ The prologue. I’m tired of these prologues that ‘tease’ a possible death that is to come. The novel’s first chapters were compelling enough that they did not require such a gimmicky opening.

➜ Cadence’s first interaction with her roommate was jarring: “I’m Ranjoo, do you hate me already?”
“Only for those abs.” Who says that? Maybe if we had a better grasp of Cadence’s personality I could have believed that she would say something alongs these lines.

(view spoiler)

➜ Nikos. (view spoiler)

➜ The ghosts. (view spoiler)

➜ Prokop. (view spoiler)

➜ Eric. (view spoiler)

➜ The chapters would often end on these would be cliffhangers.(view spoiler)

➜ Lee. (view spoiler)

➜ The epilogue (view spoiler)

All in all I can’t say that I disliked Ghosts of Harvard but there were many elements within the narrative that lessened my overall reading experience and opinion of the book.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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