“No one had ever taught me how to love. And perhaps, in that department, I was uneducable.”
Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club is heartbreakingly beautiful collection of short stories. These stories have Benjamin Alire Sáenz written all over them: Mexican-American boys and men struggling with their identity (not feeling Mexican or American enough), their sexuality, their self-worth, and who have complex relationships with their parents. There is a focus on the dynamic between fathers—of father-like figures—and sons, on family history, on trauma, on feeling lost and disconnected. I read a review criticising this collection because the stories aren’t varied enough, and I guess that they are narrated by boys and men in similar positions. They are conflicted, hurting, and confused. They have parents who are troubled (by depression, addiction, trauma). Most of the narrators also like thinking of the meaning of words and doing creative things. Yet, in spite of these similarities, these stories never blurred together. But if you do prefer collections that offer a wide-range of different styles and themes, maybe Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club won’t appeal to you. I just happen to be the ‘right’ kind of reader for these stories. Sáenz’s subtle yet striking prose always gets to me. I love Sáenz’s empathy, the tenderness he shows to his characters, the thoughtfulness he demonstrates in discussing trauma, addiction, and abuse. I also liked the Kentucky Club would pop up in each story as did discussions concerning Juárez. Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club is a moving collection that will definitely appeal to fans of Sáenz.
The Devotion of Suspect X is an unusual detective novel. By the end of the first chapter readers witness the murder that is at the centre of this novel. We know the identity and motivations of the perpetrator. What follows is a compulsive game of cat-and-mouse between ‘detective Galileo’ and Suspect X. At times this felt like a chess game, in which two highly intelligent individuals try to outmanoeuvre each other. The final chapters of this novel took me by surprise and answered some of my niggling questions regarding the actions of a certain character. Still, [SPOILERS] I’m not quite certain why he just didn’t leave the ex-husband in the river or whatever it was…why let the police find a body in the first place? The ex-wife would have been questioned but if they had no proof of the guy being dead, surely they would have soon moved to more urgent cases…especially considering that this guy wasn’t exactly a model citizen and his disappearance could have been chalked up to loansharks or something…but then we wouldn’t have a novel so…[END SPOILERS]. I think this is a novel that to best appreciated this novel one should know very little about its plot and characters before picking it up. If you like tales of suspense, police procedural, and clever mysteries, you should definitely give The Devotion of Suspect X. The only thing that kept me from giving this book a higher rating were the characters themselves. I found some of them to be a bit wooden, and I also wasn’t particularly keen on that ending.
Sabrina & Corina is a touching collection of short stories. In these 11 stories Kali Fajardo-Anstine depicts the lives and experiences of Latinas in the United States (mainly in Denver, Colorado). Their everyday realities are marked by many social injustices: poverty, racism, sexism, addiction, parental neglect, emotional and physical abuse. While Fajardo-Anstine doesn’t shy away from portraying their bleak circumstances, the stories never felt pessimistic or overwhelming depressing. As the characters are contending with grief and trauma—personal and generational—they find some solace in moments of connection, a sense of understanding or kinship, with others. The women in these stories also find comfort in taking part in or looking back to family traditions. These scenes gave the stories a rather bittersweet tone, one that perfectly complemented Fajardo-Anstine’s tender yet bold prose. Motherhood, sisterhood, and female agency are at the heart of these 11 stories. While these over-aching themes gave a sense of unity to the collection, their similarities—in tone, topics, and style—caused the less memorable stories to blur together (some of these were ‘Sisters’, ‘Julian Plaza’, and ‘Any Further West’). The stories that really stood out to me were ‘Sugar Babies’, ‘Sabrina & Corina’, and ‘Tomi’. ‘Sugar Babies’ was easily a 5 star read and my favourite in the whole collection (perhaps because Fajardo-Anstine faithfully renders the perspective of a young girl) Sabrina & Corina is a heart-rendering debut and I will be on the lookout for Fajardo-Anstine’s future work.
“When I think back on that it’s always with a sense of having lost something fragile and fleeting, something I can’t quite name.”
I loved every single page of The Great Godden. This is one of those rare novels that is simultaneously simple and mesmerising: an unmanned narrator recounts the summer in which they fell in love. Within this slim volume Meg Rosoff conjures up the feelings of summer, with mornings of idleness giving way to nights charged with possibilities.
“The actors assembled, the summer begins.”
During the summer holidays a family is staying in their house by the sea. Here they reconnect with the young couple—soon to be wed—who live close by. Their dynamics change with the arrival of the Godden siblings, the sons of an American actress. The narrator, alongside their gorgeous sister, falls for Kit Godden, who is as beautiful as he is charismatic. Kit’s sullen younger brother, Hugo, is largely ignored by the narrator’s family. As the young couple’s wedding approaches, allegiances shift, and more than one person will be left heartbroken.
Although at its core this is a love story, one should not approach this novel expecting a romance. The love Rosoff depicts is deeply ambivalent. The narrator, alongside others, is blinded by their feelings. Rosoff’s writes of a summer that is heady with change, love, and yearning. This is a deeply atmospheric read, one that captivated me from the opening page. The narrator’s voice lured me in, and I found myself absorbed by their observations about the people around them. I just really loved reading this novel and I already want to re-read.
“You were never out of the Life completely. You were always looking over your shoulder. You always kept a gun within reach.”
Blacktop Wasteland is a thrilling, adrenaline-fueled read that gives a fresh new take on the One Last Job™ premise. S.A. Cosby’s pitch-perfect debut novel is brutal, twisty, and hella gritty. Blacktop Wasteland will have you at edge-of-your-seat from its very first chapter—in which our ‘hero’ takes part in a drag race—until the novel’s finish line. Although Cosby’s noir narrative is reminiscent of Walter Mosley and Dennis Lehane, his dynamic voice brings something new to the crime fiction scene. Set in a small-town in rural Virginia, Blacktop Wasteland follows Beauregard Montagerom, nicknamed Bug, a family man who works as a mechanic at his own garage. Beauregard’s attempt to live an honest life is hindered by money troubles: business is bad and unforeseen expenses keep cropping up. Going against his wife’s wishes, Beauregard agrees to one last job. The heist, however, doesn’t go quite as planned…and things rapidly go south. Blacktop Wasteland has a lot to offer: an action-packed storyline, charged dialogues, and compelling yet morally grey—if not downright corrupt—characters. This is one gripping novel. While things do get violent and messy, Cosby manages to vividly render Beauregard’s complicated family dynamics, as well as the motivations of those connected to the heist. The way the story unfolds took me by surprise, and in the latter half of the novel, my jaw may have hit the floor once or twice. Alongside some pretty epic moments—Beauregard, for all his faults, is one smooth guy—the story manages to pack quite a few emotional punches. Cosby doesn’t shy away from portraying the stark realities of crime, poverty, and racism. Cosby’s descriptions were terrific, especially where cars were concerned (“the car shivered like a wolf shaking its pelt” , “the motor went from a roar to the war cry of a god”). They could also be startlingly humorous (such as “explanations were like assholes. Everyone has one and they are all full of shit”). Reading Blacktop Wasteland felt like being taken on an exhilarating ride. This novel is smart, dark, funny, and—as previously mentioned—seriously gritty.
The Revolution of Birdie Randolph is a wholesome and thoughtful YA coming-of-age. Within the first chapter I was invested in Dove and her story. There was something so tender about her sensible yet sensitive narration that made me immediately care for her. The Revolution of Birdie Randolph follows sixteen-year-old Dove, also knows as Birdie, who is devoted to her studies, used to obey her parents’ strict rules…that is until she starts seeing Booker. Knowing that her parents would disapprove of Booker’s ‘troubled’ past, Birdie decides to keep their relationship secret. When Carlene, Birdie’s estranged aunt, moves ‘temporarily’ in with Birdie and her parents after her latest stint in rehab…things get complicated. In spite of Carlene’s fraught relationship with Birdie’s mother, Birdie finds herself really connecting to her aunt. Unlike her parents, Carlene is open-minded and easy to talk to. As Birdie starts to really fall for Booker she begins to test her parents’ rules, landing herself in a bit of trouble There were some very genuine discussions about addiction, sex, coming out, and sexuality. The kids in this book are under all sorts of pressure: to succeed, to live up to their parents expectations, to prove themselves to a society that is quick to write them off. We are shown the positive and negative effects that this ‘pressure’ has: when Birdie sole focus becomes her studies, she has no time to switch off, to experience normal teen life (socialising with friends, doing something for fun, going to parties). The dialogue is engaging, the story has a great sense of place, and the characters are believably nuanced. While there is a revelation later in the narrative that might strike readers as slightly predictable, Birdie’s reaction to this ‘knowledge’ is what counts. I really enjoyed reading this. It is a quick, but by no means superficial, read. The Revolution of Birdie Randolph is a sweet and affecting novel that I would thoroughly recommend to lovers of contemporary YA.
…and I thought that vampires were passé. The Fell of Dark is a fun take that on vampires and ‘the chosen one’ trope. Usually, I’m a nitpicking reader but with The Fell of Dark I was happy to suspend my disbelief. Is this novel perfect? Definitely not. Is it entertaining? Hell yes! Our narrator and protagonist, sixteen-year-old August Pfeiffer, lives in Fulton Heights, Illinois. This small town happens to be a nexus for mystical and supernatural energies which is why it attracts so many vampires. August, the only ‘out’ gay boy in his school, isn’t particularly fond of his hometown (mostly due to its vampire populace). In spite of the vampires prowling his town at night, his biggest concern is algebra…until he receives a cryptic and ominous message from a distractingly cute-looking vampire (who happens to have an English accent). Things became increasingly bizarre as August finds himself at the centre of a feud between different vampire sects, an order of mortal knights, and a coven. This is a very plot-driven book and August can’t seem to catch a break. For ‘reasons’ however he’s the chosen ones, and the whole world depends on him. August’s narration is the strongest aspect of this book. He’s a rather awkward and perpetually horny teen who also happens to be an incredibly funny narrator (laugh-out-loud kind of fun). This novel’s plotline is kind of basic but Caleb Roehrig makes it work. There is a certain self-awareness that makes up for the derivativeness of some of the storyline’s components (for example, the fact that no one seems to be telling August the truth because almost a running gag). Those expecting this to be a love story of sorts will probably be disappointed as this novel has more of a lust/attraction-subplot than a romantic one. With the exception of August, the characters are somewhat one-dimensional (also, it seemed that every single character was connected with one of these cult-ish groups). Still, the role they come to play in August’s story did hold my attention. The world in this novel isn’t all that detailed. A few characters occasionally give some exposition about vampires and their history, but that’s about it. This is an absorbing book. It has a lot of silly moments but I never found these to be ridiculous or unfunny. If you are a fan of Buffy or Carry On you will probably enjoy it as much as I did.
ps: I spent my day off work listening to the audiobook edition (which lasted about 12 hours) which…yeah. That was a new record for me. But once I started listening to it I couldn’t stop (Michael Crouch is an amazing narrator).
“I wondered if all daughters fought with their mothers this way when they grew up.”
Frying Plantain presents its readers with a vibrant coming-of-age. Through the course of twelve chapters Zalika Reid-Benta captures a girl’s transition from childhood to adolescence into young adulthood. But this is far from a conventional Bildungsroman as within each chapter Reid-Benta hones in on a particular moment of her protagonist’s life, playing with perspective and style. Kara Davis, a second-generation Canadian, feels divided between her Canadian nationality and her Jamaican heritage. Kara lives in Toronto with her hardworking single mother. Everyone Kara knows seems to find fault with her: her relatives, her mother in particular, scold her for her “impertinence”, while her peers often tease her for being too “soft” or a goody two shoes. In most chapters Kara learns a lesson of sorts. In the opening chapter Kara, who has just returned from a trip to Jamaica, begins to tell a rather tall tale about a pig head to impress her classmates and her neighbourhood’s children (who aren’t as gullible as the white kids). As her story becomes increasingly fantastical, she lands herself in a spot of trouble. In the following chapter, which takes place a few years later, Kara becomes the victim of a cruel prank by her ‘friends’. Another chapter revolves around a somewhat tense Christmas dinner at her grandparents house. While the chapters can be read as a series self-contained narratives, read as a whole Frying Plantain provides its reader with a detailed and nuanced story of growing up. The fraught mother-daughter bond between Kara and her mother is present at each stage of Kara’s life. This pressure to succeed, to excel, drives Kara and her mother apart. Kara’s mother too has a troubled relationship with her mother. While the tension between these women often results in disagreements and fights, Reid-Benta conveys the love and affection that underlines their ‘difficult’ relationships (mothers wanting their daughters to achieve what they themselves couldn’t). Reid-Benta vividly renders family tensions, the gap between generations, the self-divide created by Kara’s Canadian nationality and her Black identity. The realism of Reid-Benta dialogues was utterly captivating. During the first chapters I was struck by Reid-Benta’s ability to so accurately portray a child’s mind. The last few chapters did loose me somewhat as I was more interested in Kara’s early experiences. Nevertheless this is a great debut novel and I look forward to reading whatever Reid-Benta will write next.
“There is no time in our lives when we are so conspicuously without mercy as in adolescence.”
I don’t think I would ever picked up this ‘obscure’ and forgotten novel if it hadn’t been for the ‘crime fiction’ module I took during my second year of uni. Thanks to that module, which was in every other respect a huge waste of time (lecturer on Tom Ripley: “he does bad things because he wants more stuff”…truly illuminating), I was able to ‘discover’ Barbara Vine’s work. Since then I’ve read a few other novels by Vine (which happens to Ruth Rendell’s nom de plume) and while I can safely say that she is an excellent writer, The House of Stairs remains my favourite of hers. Perhaps it is because of its sapphic undertones, or maybe I’m just a sucker for unrequited love stories.
“It felt like a passion, it felt like being in love, it was being in love, it was the kind of thing you delude yourself that, if all goes well, will last a lifetime. Things, of course, didn’t go well. When do they?”
The House of Stairs tells a dizzying tale of tale of psychological suspense. Like other novels by Vine it employ two timelines and explores the haunting effects of the past on the present. ‘The present’ features characters whose lives have been altered by an often unspecified accident and or crime. The second timeline, narrated from the retrospective, focuses on their past, and in particular on the events leading to that ‘one big event’. Vine does not limit herself to recounting past occurrences, instead she allows her characters to re-examine their own actions, as well as attempting to understand the motivations behind those of others. The past and present flow into each other, and throughout her narratives Vine traces both a crime’s roots and its subsequent ramifications. Set in London The House of Stairs London opens in 1980s when Elizabeth—protagonist and narrator—glimpses Bell, a woman who has been recently released from prison. Seeing Bell is the catalyst that makes Elizabeth recount her story (transporting us to the late 60s and early 70s) but even if she knows the identity of Bell’s victim she does not share the details of this fateful event with the readers, preferring instead to play her cards close to her chest. This dual storyline creates an apparent juxtaposition of past and present. We can hazard guesses through brief glimpses of her present, her ambiguous remarks, such as ‘Bell’s motive for asking those questions was outside the bounds of my imagings’ and ‘[A]s they wished me to do, I was seeing everything inside-out’, and through her carefully paced recounting of those events. By re-living that particular time of her life, Elizabeth—alongside the reader—acquires a better understanding of the circumstances that lead Bell to commit murder. Her narration is a far from passive relay of what happened for Elizabeth in the present seems actively involved in this scrutiny of past events.
“It is interesting how such reputations are built. They come about through confusing the two kinds of truth telling: the declaration of opinion and principle and the recounting of history.”
One of Vine’s motifs is in fact to include a house which is the locus of her story, functioning as a Gothic element within her storylines. In this novel the house (nicknamed—you guessed it—’the house of stairs’) is purchased by Cosette—a relation of Elizabeth’s—soon after the death of her husband, and becomes home to a group of bohemians, hippies, and outsiders of sorts. The house become an experimental ground: it is an escape from traditional social norms, a possibility for Cosette to make her own makeshift family. The house creates an almost disquieting atmosphere: those who live there are exploiting Cosette, and tensions gradually emerge between its tenants. The house can be a place of secrecy—doors shut, people do not leave their rooms, stairs creak—and of jealousy, for Elizabeth comes to view the other guests as depriving her of Cosette’s affection.
Elizabeth, plagued by the possibility of having inherited a family disease, finds comfort in Bell, a beautiful and alluring woman. Elizabeth comes to idolize Bell (comparisons to the portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi abound), and finds herself increasingly obsessed by her. Bell’s arrival into the house, however, will have violent consequences. As Elizabeth is examining this time in her life, she, once again, finds herself falling under Bell’s spell.
“I found her exciting in a disturbing way, a soul-shacking way, without knowing in the least what I wanted of her.”
Like many other Vine novels The House of Stairs is a deeply intertextual work. Henry James, in particular, plays a significant role in Elizabeth’s narration. Guilt, culpability, love, obsession, desire, greed, past tragedies, and family legacies are recurring themes in Elizabeth’s story. Vine, however, doesn’t offer an easy answer as she problematises notions of normalcy and evil. There are many reasons why I love this novel so much: Vine’s elegantly discerning prose, her examination of class and gender roles in the 1960s-70s, the way she renders Elizabeth’s yearning for Bell…while I can see that some readers my age may find this novel to be a bit outdated, I would definitely recommend it to those who enjoy reading authors such as Donna Tartt, Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Magda Szabó.
Felix Ever After is a refreshing, relevant, validating and super-inclusive YA novel. This also happens to be one of the few YA books (the only other one I can think of is Camp by Lev A.C. Rosen) that focuses exclusively on queer teens (there a few straight parents in the background). Kacen Callender’s portrayal of adolescence is strikingly realistic: there is a lot of angst, pressure to succeed, confusion about your identity and your place in the world, jealousy towards other people your age, one or two crushes…and things are kind of messy. As a Black, trans, and queer teen Felix understandably feels like the odd are stacked against him. He’s seventeen and hopes that signing up to his school’s summer program will increase his chances of getting into Brown University. Although he loves art, lately he’s been feeling a bit stuck, and he’s hasn’t been working on his portfolio. His feelings of anxiety and guilty over this really resonated with my own experiences. His relationship with his father is strained and his mother is no longer in touch with either of them, and Felix feels like it’s all too much. Because of this Felix spends a lot of his time at his best friend’s house, who unlike him comes from an incredibly wealthy family. Felix and Ezra are incredibly close, and they both are on the summer program. Alongside them are a lot of other queer students, some of whom act like they are woke when in actuality they are incredibly transphobic and bigoted. Things take a turn for the worst when someone exhibits photo of Felix pre-transition, captioning these photos with his deadname (kudos to Callender for never actually using Felix’s deadname on the page). Felix is crushed. Thinking that he knows who is behind this awful act, and the offensive messages he’s been receiving, he wants to get back at them. Felix, however, finds himself growing fond of this person…which kind of complicates his plan.
To begin with Felix got on my nerves. While I wholeheartedly felt on his behalf, he acts in a pretty self-centred way. He thinks that because every other student has it ‘easier’ than he does, they can’t complain about anything. When Ezra, Felix’s incredibly supportive best friend, tries to voice his own fears and anxieties, Felix is totally dismissive of them. His whole cat-fishing too was kind of cringe. I’m no longer a fan of these kind of deceptions although I understand the appeal of getting revenge (when I was fourteen I actually helped my best friend briefly catfish his bully…something I’m not very proud of, but alas, the youth). I also thought that Felix wasn’t really trying to connect to his father. While I get that Felix is totally right to feel frustrated by his father’s remarks and deadnaming, I did think that he never gave him a chance to explain himself or really apologise. Thankfully, Callender does an amazing job in terms of Felix’s characterisation. Over the course of the novel, Felix begins to reassess his past behaviour. During the summer he does a lot of growing up, and while certain scenes were quite painful, Felix’s humour and his friendships often uplifted the mood of the narrative. Callender depicts believable teens who are as capable of getting high or drunk as they are of discussing morality, art, and the pros and cons of labels. I also appreciated the way in which Callender allows their main character to question and explore his gender identity. Plus, it was so nice to read so many scenes set in LGBTQ+ spaces (such as the LGBT Center Felix attends or Pride). Felix Ever After is a coming of age that is guaranteed to give you ‘the feels’. We have a nuanced protagonist, a super cute romance subplot, drama, and a story that touches upon serious issues with tact and understanding. I will definitely be checking out Callender’s future work!