To say that I am incredibly disappointed by this final instalment would be pretty accurate. I enjoyed The Dark Days Club and I thought The Dark Days Pact was the perfect sequel. Goodman’s writing painstakingly depicted the Georgian era, its customs and language. Lady Helen, our main character, was both sensible and diplomatic, and she could also kick some serious ass. The slowest burn of them all, her infatuation with Lord Carlston was thrilling. Throw in some demons, action, and a lot of letters, and you get the perfect ‘Fantasy of Manners‘. Or so I thought… After reading The Dark Days Deceit I no longer feel fond of this world. This last novel left me with a bitter taste: nearly everything that I loved in previous instalments…I now sort of hate.
Positives: Goodman’s writing is still par excellence. She makes the setting come life. Each scene that takes place is described with extreme detail, and the elegant prose resonates with the historical period itself. While there are plenty of dramatic and serious occasion, the style often comes across as satirical, poking fun at traditions and beliefs of that era.
Negatives Where do I start? It might be because the previous instalment came out nearly two years ago but it took me quite some time to readjust to this world. There are plenty of characters or things that have happened that I could not remember. The terms used to refer to the ‘supernatural’ elements were easier to remember but I was not a fan of the whole ‘Grand Reclaimer’ bond between Helen and Carlston. All of a sudden they seem able to share telepathic conversions?! And other people sort of notice?! Are they just obviously staring at one another? Subtle. Why even bother with the silent conversations. Helen acted in such an irritating manner. The whole marriage plot was pointless and a real drag. Why save the world when you need to prepare your wedding? The world can wait. Worst still is that she was such a horrible friend. Carlston ‘s jealousy and short-temper made him just as likeable as Helen. Helen’s friends and the other members of the Dark Days Club seem to fade in the background, only to be (view spoiler)[ killed off (hide spoiler)] to make Helen feel as if ‘she had failed them all’. The worst thing however is the ‘twist’ which made the whole plot ridiculous.
“What we had that day was our story. We didn’t have the other bit, the future, and we had no way of knowing what that would be like. Perhaps it would change our memory of al of this, or perhaps it would draw from it, nobody knew. But I’m sure I felt the story of that hall and how we reached it would never vanish.”
Mayflies is novel about the friendship between two Glaswegian men. The first half of the novel is set in the summer of 1986 when our narrator, James, alongside four of his friends go to Manchester to watch some of their favourite bands. Andrew O’Hagan really brings this era to life, through their slang and the references they use. During the course of this freewheeling weekend they have the time of their lives, going to pubs and clubs, getting up to shenanigans, hanging out withs strangers, all the while animatedly discussing music and politics (Thatcher, the miners’ strike). James, who is the more bookish and reserved of the lot, is particularly close to Tully, who is the undeniable glue that binds their group together and a wonderful friend. While this first half of the novel is all about what if feels to be young, reckless, free, and full of life, O’Hagan’s characters, regardless of their age, are capable serious reflections, such as wondering what sort future awaits them and their country. This section is so steeped in 1980s culture that I sometimes had a hard time keeping up with their banter (I am not from the UK and I’m a 90s child so I’m sure that readers who are more familiar with this era won’t have such a hard time).
“The past was not only a foreign country, it was a whole other geology.”
The second half brings us forward to 2017 when both James and Tully are in their early 50s. Here the narrative feels far more restrained, reflecting James’ age. He has different preoccupations now, a career, a partner. Yet, he is recognisably still James. Tully too is both changed and unchanged. In spite of the distance between them (James lives in London now) the two have remained close friends. This latter section moves at a far slower pace, which should have been jarring but it wasn’t. If anything it felt very natural. Here we have more measured meditations about life and death, questions about what we owe to the ones we love, and reconciliations with the past. O’Hagan succeeds in uniting two very different moments/stages of a man’s life. An exhilarating snapshot of being young in the 80s is followed by a slower-paced and more thoughtful narrative centred around people who haven’t been young for quite some time. I have read very few—if any—novels that focus on male friendship. So often we see portrayals that show how intimate and deep female friendships are, which is wonderful but it’s refreshing to read a novel that is very much an ode to the friendship between two men. O’Hagan’s portrayal of the relationship between Tully and James was incredibly moving and nuanced.
“Loyalty came easily to Tully. Love was the politics that kept him going.”
Although I may have missed quite a few cultural references and I definitely didn’t get a lot of the Glaswegian/80s, thanks to the musical education I received from my parents I mostly managed to keep up with this novel’s music front. I really appreciated James’ literary references, which later in life make their way into his conversations with Tully. I also liked the way James would observe the character traits of those around—both as a young man and later in life—as well as his pondering about childhood, adulthood, generational differences, life in general. His thoughtful narration was truly compelling. Mayflies is an affecting and realistic novel that presents its readers with a vibrant examination of friendship and identity, one that I would thoroughly recommend to others.
Treasure is a short story story that explores the darker side of Instagram fame. Treasure is an aspiring influencer who is quite willing to present a glamorised version of her life to her follower. She likes the attention, the compliments, and the devotion of her fans. User @Sho4Sure has become particularly obsessed by Treasure and one small oversight on her part will have dangerous consequences for both of them. Treasure is a story that is bursting with irreverent dark humour that touches upon machismo, opulence, fame, obsession, and class. Whereas My Sister, the Serial Killer took me by surprise, Treasure seemed a bit more formulaic. Still, Treasure is quick and entertaining read that cemented my belief that Oyinkan Braithwaite is an author to watch.
Ann Petry is a terrific writer. The precise way in which she articulates the thoughts and various state of minds of her characters brought to my mind the writing of Nella Larsen and Edith Wharton. But whereas I could stand the cynicism and tragic finales of Wharton’s novels (in which usually horrible things happen to privileged, and often horrible, individuals) I had a hard time stomaching the ending in The Street.
Set in 1940s The Street follows Lutie Johnson, a single black mother, who moves on 116th Street in Harlem. Lutie is a resilient woman who has come to believe that through hard-work and self-sacrifice she can attain a level of happiness and prosperity. She also happens to be beautiful: white and black men treat like a sexual object, white women regard her with open contempt, and other black women tend to be jealous or suspicious of her. Lutie’s daily existence is punctuated by racism, sexism, and classism. Witnessing the violence, desperation, and death around her reinforces her desire to escape her neighbourhood and the growingly inappropriate behaviour of her building’s super, an unstable man named Jones.
Through flashbacks we learn more of the characters’ history, such as the dissolution of Lutie’s marriage and Jones’ time in the navy. Scenes take their time to unfold as the narrative is focused less on action and more on character interiority. Petry allows her readers to view the world through their eyes and at times this can be quite jarring. Jones’ disturbed thoughts are troubling indeed and his growing obsession with Lutie is guaranteed to make readers as uncomfortable as reading from Humbert Humbert’s perspective. Petry demonstrates how gifted a writer she is by outlining his skewed worldview and disordered thinking, so much so that I was afraid of being inside his head. Petry also gives two other women in Lutie’s building a voice: there is the watchful—and formidable—Mrs. Hedges who runs a brothel and Min, a seemingly docile woman who lives with—and is abused by—Jones. There are also portions of the narrative centred around Boots, yet another man who wants Lutie for himself. Petry once again showcases her skill by making us sympathise, however briefly, with a character such as Boots (who happens to be a rather reprehensible human being). Throughout the course of the narrative Lutie tries to overcome obstacles and hardships. Her dignity and strength made her into an admirable character. As a single black mother Lutie is subjected to a myriad of injustices, and as her preoccupation with money—and leaving ‘the street’—grows, she unwittingly pushes her son towards Jones.
Petry brings to life—more for worse than better—the city in which her characters move in. She renders the cacophony on the streets as well as the atmosphere within closed spaces (like the charged and suffocating atmosphere in Jones’ apartment). I really liked the rhythm of Petry prose, created in part thanks to the repetition of certain specific words, phrases, and ideas. While I loved how perceptive Petry was in registering the nuances of her characters’ different moods and thoughts, I was exhausted by how relentlessly depressing her story was (throughout the narrative women are slapped around, threatened with physical assault, intimidated, or are treated as if belonging to a lesser species). Given Petry’s disenchanted portrayal of the American dream, I wasn’t expecting a rosy finale. Still, I was quite bitter about the way she ends things. While I understand that it is a realistic ending, I didn’t find the Bub/Jones situation to be all that credible.
Readers who prefer fast-paced or plot-driven novel may want to skip this one but those who are interested in a meticulous character study should definitely consider picking this long-overlooked classic up. While I’m not necessarily ‘happy’ to have read this book (I’m not a sadist), Petry’s adroit social commentary and captivating prose are worth reading.
“One of the perks of being born neither in America or the Philippines. The only history he needed to know was his own.”
A few weeks ago I read Lysley Tenorio’s collection of short stories, which had some real gems such as ‘Monstress’, and I was looking forward to reading his first novel. The Son of Good Fortune follows nineteen-year old Excel who is forced to move back in his mother’s apartment after his girlfriend tells him that she needs a break. Excel finds himself falling into the same life he’d left behind, working at The Pie Who Loved Me, and trying to save money. His relationship with his mother, Maxima, is tense. He lied about his motives for moving out and avoided contacting her while he was with Sab in Hello City (a community of artists and hippies).
On Excel’s tenth birthday Maxima told him that they were ‘tago ng tago’ (TNT) a Tagalog phrase meaning ‘hiding and hiding’ that is used for undocumented Filipinos. Since then Excel has tried to keep his head down. Being undocumented means that he has very few job prospects and his forced to work at a dodgy pizzeria for a bullying and tyrannical boss who frequently threatens his staff with deportation. Maxima instead makes money online, manipulating gullible men who are seeking Filipino women (who of course have to be beautiful, Christian, and simultaneously pious and sexy).
Tenorio renders the anxiety of being TNT (not being able to go to the hospital, worrying that at any moment you might be found out). While Maxima grew up in the Philippines, and still has strong ties to it, its culture, and its language, Excel’s unusual birth place lands him in a limbo of sorts, not ‘quite’ American or Filipino, a citizen of nowhere.
I liked Tenorio’s compassionate yet humorous account of Excel and Maxima’s lives. He depicts the everyday reality of being undocumented in America, of having to constantly ‘hide’, of being unable to define your identity, of not feeling safe and of feeling like you don’t belong. Maxima easily stole the show. She was an explosive character. She’s acted in some somewhat dated Filipino action films, she’s a pro at martial arts (she even has a signature move called the ‘Maximattack’), and she clearly loves and wants to protect Excel. She’s not be perfect, and Tenorio isn’t afraid to question her actions, especially the way she exploits men online. And yet, I was rooting for the succeed since Maxima is just trying to survive. We get to know her mentor, Joker, only through flashbacks, which is a pity since he seemed like a really interesting—if eccentric—character. Excel was far less compelling that his mother. While we are shown that he’s unsure of who he is or where he belongs, I never really had a grasp of his character. While I could understand his passivity in certain situations, I found myself wishing he had more of a personality. Sab, his girlfriend, appears in very few scenes. After their one meeting they seem to be an item, but their relationship seemed closer to that between a brother and sister than boyfriend and girlfriend. In the chapters set in Hello City she seems to play a minor role, as most scenes focus on the Excel’s odd-jobs with an artist called Red. She’s little other than a ‘I’m not like other girls’ girl (she wears DocMartens and has blue stripes in her hair). While I did appreciate the empathy Tenorio demonstrated in exploring themes of identity, displacement, immigration, family history, and human connection, I was left wanting more out of his main character. If this had been Maxima’s story, I would have undoubtedly loved it.
Empire of Wild is one of those novels that doesn’t live up to its intriguing premise. There were a few moments that I actually enjoyed, but these were far too few in between. We have a half-baked storyline, some painfully cartoonish villains, a thinly rendered main character, and an unsatisfying conclusion.
Empire of Wild follows Joan who has recently returned to her Métis community in northern Ontario. After a heated argument with her husband, over the land Joan has inherited from her father, he walks out of their home in a huff…and he doesn’t come back. A year later Joan is still desperately trying to make sense of Victor’s disappearance, hoping to glimpse his face every time she goes outside. Although her family initially helped her look for Victor, they have now moved on and urge her to do the same. When Joan walks into a revival tent for laughs, she doesn’t expect to see her husband. Except the man, a reverend, doesn’t know who she is, and calls himself Eugene Wolff. Ajean, an older woman from Joan’s community, believes that the Rogarou, a wolf-like creature, may have something to do with what happened to Victor. Joan, convinced that Eugene is Victor, decides to ‘take’ him back, and the person behind the revival isn’t too happy about it.
I really liked the scenes with Ajean. I liked her no-nonsense attitude and her knowledge of Métis lore. Sadly, she only plays a minor role in the story, and the narrative mostly switches between Joan, Victor, and the two ‘bad’ guys. Joan’s nephew had the potential of being a likeable character (he feels left out from his immediate family and has a quirky obsession with Johnny Cash) but there were things he said or did that didn’t really ring true (and made him sound like an older man or a possessive lover). Although the book summary makes it sound as if he really helps Joan in her ‘quest’ to take Victor back, he mainly looks up stuff on the internet for her (and he does this quite later on in the narrative…which is weird given that Joan should have wanted this type of information way earlier in the story). Joan’s family are also largely overlooked, which is a pity as it would have been nice to read about Joan’s relationship with her mother and siblings. They have two meals together, and that’s about it. Their first meal actually gave us an impression of their dynamics and disagreements (when discussing their job prospects), but this scene was far too fleeting, and I wish the story had remained more focused on Joan’s family. There were chapters focused on Victor, and these were very short and intentionally confusing (he is the woods). In a way these chapters weren’t actually about him. He’s so out of it that we don’t really gleam anything about what kind of person he is. I think that the story would have benefited from some flashbacks, that way we could have seen Victor and Joan together. But we don’t. And because of that I didn’t really care for their relationship. Joan misses him, sure. Often, however, she seemed to miss having sex with him—which, fair enough—more than him. After seeing him once at the revival, during this ‘first’ meeting she’s somewhat drunk, she is absolutely certain that this reverend is Victor. She doesn’t wait for proof but immediately plans to win him back by seducing him. Like, really? She doesn’t seem worried about the fact that he could have been brainwashed or possessed, or that he has amnesia. Nah. After this confusing encounter she knows that this man is her husband (I mean, I wish she could have at least considered the twin brother theory) and rather than doing some extensive research, she’s all ‘I’m going to wear my best panties’. Which, yeah. Great plan. For reasons unbeknown to me, the narrative also follows the two baddies. Rather than making them more believable, these sections consolidated my not so positive view of them. They were painfully clichéd. The ‘evil’ son of German immigrants who possesses only vices (he’s either having, just about to, or finished having sex). The woman is a psychopath who is jealous, petty, and cruel. I didn’t particularly like the ‘slut-shaming’ tone the narrative had when focused on this character. Speaking of ‘shaming’, most of the time both overweight and underweight characters are described with a certain acerbic or mocking tone. The three young-ish women who have most page time (Joan, Ivy, and Cecile) are particularly disparaging towards each other’s bodies. And part of me really wanted to shake them for it. Given the circumstances they are in, would Joan really have the time to whinge about Joan’s thigh-gap? I think this book could have been far more interesting and thought-provoking. I wish Dimaline could have explored more in-depth the effects that colonialism, capitalism, religious institutions, the Canadian government have on a community like Joan’s. But she merely scratches the surface by mentioning that indigenous people are being manipulated/forced into giving their lands away. And for the most part the narrative seemed to imply that only cartoonishly bad men are responsible for this. Joan was an underwhelming character. I only really rooted for her in one scene, where she punches someone who 100% deserved to be punched. Other than that…I found her quite superficial and unlikeable. The novel is also really obsessed with Joan’s ‘panties’…1) I hate that word 2) why mention them so many times? The dramatic confrontation at the end was predictable and didn’t really make sense (what’s new?!).
Sadly, this really didn’t work for me. A good premise is let down by an uneventful storyline, one-dimensional characters, and an occasionally cringey prose. If there is a sequel, I will be steering clear of it. Then again it was refreshing to read a story centred around Métis community that has a supernatural twist. So, even if I didn’t particularly care for this novel, I wouldn’t discourage other readers from picking this one up.
“We all lived in an unwalled city, that was it. I saw lines scored across the map of Ireland; carved all over the globe. Train tracks, roads, shipping channels, a web of human traffic that connected all all nations into one great suffer body.”
This is the third novel I’ve read by Emma Donoghue and I’m afraid to say that it just didn’t quite work for me. Maybe I shouldn’t have approached The Pull of the Stars with such high expectations. Or maybe these kind of historical novels are just not my ‘thing’ (I was similarly underwhelmed by A Long Petal of the Sea and The Night Watchman). Given the current pandemic The Pull of the Stars, set in a maternity ward in Dublin during the 1918 influenza and the close of WWI, makes for an eerily pertinent read. This is a meticulously researched novel, from the blow by blow descriptions of medical procedures to the grimly evocative depiction of the environment in which our narrator, a nurse, works. Although the novel is set over the course of three days, Donoghue renders all too vividly the stark circumstances of the various women under Julia’s care. We witness the physical and emotional toll that result from too many pregnancies, the stigma attached to unmarried mothers and the mistreatment of their children, and the extreme abuse that ‘fallen women’ experienced in the Magdalene laundries. The lives of these women and children are shaped by injustices—such as sexual/physical abuse, poverty, illness, being forced into labour, being separated from your child—and Donoghue is unflinching in revealing just how horrific their realities are. In spite of this, I just couldn’t help but to find the bluntness of her prose to be detrimental to my reading experience. While her unvarnished style does suit both the setting and the subject matter, it also distanced me, especially from Julia. She felt like a barely delineated character, often seeming to exist in order to explain things or provide ‘modern’ readers with context (especially one of her later discussions about the ‘homes’ and Magdalene laundries with Birdie). She was a very undefined character, a generic take on a good ‘nurse’. Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a far more interesting figure, sadly plays only a minor role in the story. Birdie was okay, although at times I had a hard time believing in her. The romance sprung from nowhere and didn’t really convince me either (and this is coming from someone who sees everything through sapphic-tinted glasses). If anything the ‘love’ story seemed to exist only to add an unnecessary layer of drama, unnecessary especially considering that the novel was quite tragic without it. The ending, more suited to a historical melodrama, was painfully clichéd. The thin plot too did little to engage me. Although the lives and stories of the women in the ward were both compelling and distressing, I just didn’t particularly care for Julia’s narrative. Perhaps if this had been a work of nonfiction, I would have appreciated it more. I don’t consider myself squeamish but The Pull of the Stars was almost relentless in the way it detailed EVERYTHING. Maybe readers who watch One Born Every Minute will be able to cope with it but I just could have done without it. Another thing I could have done without is the lack of quotations mark. When will this trend stop?
Although The Pull of the Stars wasn’t my cup of tea, I’m sure that plenty of other readers will find this more riveting than I did.
Because last year I read, and really enjoyed, Lev A.C. Rosen’s Jack of Hearts, I decided to give Camp a go, even if I was worried that the whole premise of ‘pretending to be different to make someone fall in love with you’ would be cring-y. Within a few pages however I was rooting for Randy Kapplehoff’s and his rather theatrical ‘plan’.
First off: I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with some many queer character. Gay, non-binary, ace, transgender, demisexual…this is a wonderfully inclusive novel. Hurray!
While Camp follows a somewhat clichéd plot—not-so-popular-theatre kid has a glow-up and tries to make the hot guy fall for him—the setting (summer camp), characters, and the humour make this novel worth a read. While I definitely felt the chemistry between Randy (Del) and Hudson (their flirting was on point), I simply adored Randy’s friendships. George and Ashleigh makes such an impact on Randy’s story. And although they are there to help him, advise him, and occasionally make fun of him, they are also given their own arcs.
While there are quite a few silly moments here and there, for the most part I found Camp to be hilarious. Rosen portrays the highs and lows of being a teenager. He really allows his characters to act like teens: they make mistakes, they are awkward, they are unsure of who they and who they want to be. Rosen also manages to include thought-provoking discussions about toxic masculinity and gender conformities.
Rosen also manages to make minor characters, such as Mark, stand out. They all have distinctive personalities and different ways of expressing their identity. Rosen’s depiction of sex is so refreshingly frank (it would be nice if YA books stopped treating sex as taboo).
The only thing I didn’t particularly like were the stars/galaxy metaphors (Randy feels ‘filled with stars’ one too many times). Camp is a funny read perfect for the summer. Randy’s absorbing narration made me all the more invested in his story.
The title of this novel is somewhat misleading. While yes, there is plenty of love to be found within these pages, it is almost obscured by the many harrowing scenes that make up most of the novel.
McFadden’s writing is both direct and expressive which made her story all the more vivid. The narrative follows Campbell and Donovan from the childhood to their adulthood. Although we know from the prologue that these two characters will at some point meet and fall in love, most of the novel (say 60%) is focused on their ‘history’. In chronicling their lives McFadden also brings into the picture the lives of their families and friends. The novel presents us with two complex and layered families as well as with a community that is divided by love and hate. There is cheating, jealousies, prejudices, and an array of other things that make their way into these relationships.
While I was absorbed by these characters much of what happens to them is horrifying and not easy to read. Pedophilia and rape mark the lives of many of the characters, and we see just how traumatising their past experiences are and the effect they have in shaping the rest of their lives. While there were many moving and touching moments these were almost obscured by the brutalities that occur throughout the narrative.
I wish that we had seen more of the relationship between Campbell and Donovan. The last section of the novel seemed hurried, especially when compared to the rest of the story. The ending was somewhat unsatisfying and left me wanting more out of the whole thing.