BOOK REVIEWS

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Readers, I am disappointed.

Plain Bad Heroines was one of my most anticipated 2020 releases…maybe I should have ‘hyped’ it so much. This is certainly an ambitious novel, one that is a few hundred pages too long. There were elements that I liked, but these were ultimately outweighed by my frustration toward the tone of the narrative, the dual storylines, and the characters.
Plain Bad Heroines begins at Brookhants School in 1902 when two students, Clara and ‘Flo’, who happen to be lovers are swallowed by “a fog of wasps”. Another death soon rocks the school, and all of the girls shared a fascination for Mary MacLane’s work (The Story of Mary Maclane & I Await the Devil’s Coming). The narrator, who playfully reminds us of their presence with plenty of direct addresses, footnotes, and asides. We do not know the identity of the narrator, but they posses an almost omniscient knowledge of the events they are recounting.
In the present three young women—all in their twenties—work on a film adaptation on a book called ‘The Happenings at Brookhants’. The book was written by one of these girls, Merritt (a character whom I lowkey hated) who happens to know Elaine Brookhants. Then we have Harper Harper, an up and coming actress/influencer whose personality revolves around her celebrity status, who will play Flo, and Audrey Wells (I actually had to check out her name as I could not remember it on top of my head…that’s how memorable she was) the daughter of a ‘scream queen’ who so far has an acted in B movies and ads.
The section set in the present doesn’t involve these three girls bonding or finding more about what happened at Brookhants. We are never told very much about Merritt’s book, so we don’t know how much they know about the whole affair. This timeline is also not all that concerned with filmmaking. What this storyline cares about is famous people: how they are followed by journalists or fans, how their lives revolve around instagram, how little privacy they have, and of their self-fashioning ways. The three girls do not really along. Their meeting, which happens quite a good chunk into this slow burner of a novel, reads like something that belongs in the realms ofGossip Girl or Scream Queens. And here I was hoping for an actual horror or at least something in realms of American Horror Story (the first seasons of course).
Our not-as-half-as-amusing-as-they-think-they-are narrator never really delves into these characters. It mostly describes what they are saying or doing. It focuses more on their ‘role’ (Harper=celebrity, Audrey=daughter of an 80s horror actress, Merritt=not like other girls writer). Their personalities are…kind of not there. Merritt is the only one with a semblance of one, and it ain’t a good one. The narrative tries really hard to establish Merritt’s ‘prickly’ personality (in a few occasion Merritt says or asks something generic and we are told “Merrit said like Merritt would” or “Merrit asked like Merritt would”). She’s petty, cruel, and domineering. She’s given a Sad Backstory™, so Readers are meant to let her behaviour slide. Except that this Reader could and would not. She seems blissfully unaware of her own privilege (she’s in her early twenties and has published a book, her mother teaches at a university and she has access to the library there, they are adapting her book and want her to be part of the process). She’s also not ‘plain’ looking. Her hair is pink because she’s Not Like Other Girls™ (a random character tells her she has “great fucking hair”) and she is also called hot by Harper. Yet, throughout the course of the book, Merritt acts like a fifteen-year-old girl who is spending too much time on Tumblr. Her pettiness is unwarranted and uncalled for, her jealousy is also over the top (she’s only just met Harper and she already jealous at the possibility of Audrey working alongside her…yet she knows that Harper is already in an open relationship).
Harper is also not plain. She’s famous, beloved, and uber cool. She has short hair, tattoos, smokes, and rides a bike. And of course, she also has a Sad Backstory™. The story mentions some family-related drama, but this a thread that is never truly resolved. Her motivations, desires, fears…who knows? I sure don’t. Maybe she likes Merritt? Maybe not?
While Audrey may not be plain looking, her personality is definitely plain. She doesn’t seem to possess any discernible traits.
Anyway, these three ‘work’ together (there are actually very few scenes that take place while they are working on the film sadly) and weird things start happening (we have wasps, weird weather, and a general heebie jeebies atmosphere).

The storyline set in the past had much more potential. Sadly, it doesn’t focus on Clara or Flo (their lives prior to their peculiar deaths of course) or Brookhants but rather it follows the headmistress of the school who lives in a house nicknamed ‘Spite Manor’. She lives with her lover, who also teaches at Brookhants. This timeline was definitely more Gothic, and there were scenes that struck me as quite atmospheric and well-executed. Sadly however the relationship between the two women was a let down, as it never struck me as the complex love story I was hoping for. Creepy things begin to happen, and they begin to grow apart. The deaths of three of their pupils forces them to question whether the ‘supernatural’ is to be blamed.

I was hoping for a Gothic love story, with some horror undertones. What we actually get is a work that is extremely meta. Some may find the narrator to be amusing, I mostly didn’t. The mystery is the most disappointing aspect of the whole book. It was very anticlimactic, as we simply get a chapter in which our narrator explains things to us. Flo, Clara, and the other girl are unimportant, they function as the Dead Girl trope. We don’t learn anything more about them after the 20% mark or so nor do we learn more about the book Merritt has written about them.
The storyline set in the present never reaches its apotheosis. Nothing major happens, there is no overlapping between the two timelines.
While I loved to see so many queer women, the relationships they have with one another are…a let down. Mean Girls ahoy. We have Merritt who says things like “Significant eye roll” or scenes in which characters take selfies, duplies, even quadruplies (uuuugh). More attention is paid to their hair and clothes than their actual personalities. Harper and Merritt begin flirting as soon as they meet, and later on, when there are more scenes of them together, they mostly bicker. They are sort of physically attracted to each other, but there is no real connection between them (I craved longing, passion, LOVE).
The creepy elements…aren’t all that creepy? If you have spheksophobia you might find this book scary…I mean, wasps do not inspire any real fear in me (I don’t like them, they strike me as kind of mean, in fact, I love CalebCity’s sketch on them). Mary’s writing is extremely camp and I just found it silly. While I could see why the girls back in the 1900s could be enthralled by it…I had a harder time believing that Merritt or Harper could find it as compelling.

Perhaps I approached this book with the wrong expectations (I saw Sarah Waters’ name on the cover so…) but Plain Bad Heroines was not the Gothic novel I was hoping it to be. The ‘past’ timeline was far from being a satisfying historical tale of paranormal suspense (I was hoping for something on the lines of Picnic at Hanging Rock meets A Great and Terrible Beauty). On the plus side: at least it was hella sapphic. I also liked the illustrations by Sara Lautman (I wish there had been more) and the chapter names could be kind funny.

Anyway, just because I didn’t think that this book was the bees knees (or perhaps I should say wasps knees) doesn’t mean that you won’t love it as it may as well be your cup of tea.

MY RATING: 2 ½ stars out of 5 stars

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Graceful Burdens by Roxane Gay

Graceful Burdens is a competitively written short story that is very much concerned with reproductive justice. This story presents us with a world in which some women do not meet the necessary ‘requirements’ to be mothers and therefore are not allowed to reproduce. Some ‘unfit mothers’ borrow babies from a ‘baby library’, others are grateful not to have to reproduce. Of course, there are also those who have no choice but to reproduce. The reality Roxane Gay writes of is sadly not wholly unimaginable (I come from a country that makes it nearly impossible to have an abortion, and where an anti-choice group buried the foetuses of women who miscarried or had abortions without their knowledge/consent ).
The thing is Gay doesn’t do anything expectational prose, plot or world-building wise. There are many other novels that explore similar concepts (to name a few: The Handmaid’s Tale, Red Clocks, The Farm) with much more depth.

MY RATING: 2 ½ out of 5 stars

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My Education by Susan Choi

“Love bestows such a dangerous sense of entitlement.”

Sometimes books really deserve their average rating…and this is one of those cases. As I am writing this the majority of readers have given My Education three stars, and more reviewers have given it 2 stars than 5. I know that at the end of the day ‘ratings’ are insubstantial, not reliable gauges, yadda yadda but readers who are considering picking up My Education should bear its score in mind….it’s low for a reason.
I for one can’t say whether I disliked it or not. There were many elements I did not appreciate but I could also see what the novel was trying to do. For the most part, it was a rather funny novel and there were many passages and scenes that were almost endearingly offbeat.
Susan Cho’s satire—of academia, of ‘affairs’ between a younger & naive person and an older married one, and of all sorts of people—did occasionally hit the mark, and the narrator’s caustic commentary did amused me. But, and it’s a big but, Cho’s hyperbolic and bombastic language made for a dense and ultimately not very rewarding reading experience. She has a Joycean approach to syntax, with baffling backwards-sounding sentences that go on forever and are punctuated by highfalutin words that more often than not do not fit the context they are in. Also, I couldn’t help but to unfavourably compare this novel with two others I’ve read in 2020, Pizza Girl and Luster, both of which explore dynamics similar to the ones My Education . Whereas I found those books to be highly absorbing and I enjoyed their ‘effervescent’ prose, My Education is bogged down by its author’s circumlocutory and turgid style. At times it seemed that I had to find my way through a discombobulating and never-ending warren of florid sentences, with little success. I was perplexed by Cho’s writing, especially since it did ‘sound’ like the authentic ‘voice’ of her main character. Would Regina really make such ostentatious metaphors and penetrating if convoluted observations and assessments? At times her comments seemed to originate from a perspective outside of her own one.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. While this is by no means a plot-driven narrative, it does have a storyline, however feeble, and it unfolds as follows: Regina, the type of protagonist who should have and could have remained unnamed, is a directionless graduate student who upon hearing about Professor Nicholas Brodeur’s ill repute decides to join his class and attract his attention. For reasons that are never truly disclosed to the readers Regina is attracted to Nicholas because of the allegations against him… her excitement at his sexual misconduct was certainly bewildering. Was she aroused by the idea of his illicit behaviour? Who knows! Her true feelings and motivations are lost in her pleonastic inner-monologue. Which, as I’ve mentioned above, just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of her persona. She’s naïve, childish, inward-looking (yet, her act of introspections added little to her characterisation), impulsive, and socially myopic. The author tries to emphasise her ‘youth’, and in the process she made her seem closer to a teenager than a twenty-one-year-old (time and again we are reminded of her ignorance, and lack of interest or understanding, of what being a mother entails…is she 12?). Anyway, Regina, for obscurely perverse reasons, ‘pursues’ Nicholas, who isn’t as alluring a man as she’d hoped. Cho, in fact, subverts the trope of the young ingénue student who begins an affair with an older charismatic professor as Regina’s liaison is not with Nicholas but his wife. She falls in love within a few pages, lusts after this wife, Martha, for reasons that aren’t that clear (which is the norm in this book). More perplexing still is that Martha reciprocates, to a certain degree at least, Regina’s infatuation. The sex between these two women is awfully over the top, and I don’t I’ve ever come across such bad sex scenes (this book was nominated, and should have won, for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award). Regina lusting for Martha makes for 40% of this novel. They either have petty squabbles or convoluted sex (“I would have liked a single rope to bind us together, with tightly stacked coils, so that we formed a sort of Siamese mummy”) . Readers will probably not root for them as they are unlikable or unsympathetic as each other. The male characters, however flawed and problematic, at least had discernible personalities and could even be quite amusing.

The narrative then takes us away from the 1990s and into the late 2000s where we witness how Regina’s life has come to look similar to Martha’s own one. I didn’t particularly like the message here: the three main women in this novel are all at one point or another mothers and wives. While the male characters had character arcs, Regina and Martha…I could not for the life of me understand what compelled them to act they way they did. Given that this novel popped up in ‘best campus/academia’ novels I was hoping that Regina’s studies would play more of a role in her story, but they don’t. Even when we see her as a ‘proper’ grown-up, her work and interests remain off page.
While I liked the idea of this novel, the execution was not my cup of tea. Cho’s lampooning style could be amusing, but then we would get things like: “It was deep winter now, the season when suicides rained down like apples from the limbs of the gorge-spanning bridges” or “something in her bearing, an extremely compressed capability, suggested to me that she might be a butcher, or a construction foreperson, as well as a lesbian”.
I just don’t know what to make of this book. It had the right ingredients for a funny yet cutting read but Cho’s overplays her already intentionally exaggerated style. Then we have two boring and undefined main characters, many failed attempts at subversiveness, and a repetitive and ultimately skin-deep story…and you kind of lost me. What pissed me off the most was a scene towards the end where Cho makes a character who was sexually abused have a cameo appearance where she discloses this to Regina for no real reason other than for some shock-value content. The tone in this scene was so off, it was almost gleeful…which, yikes. That’s fucked up.
When Regina tells us “Reader, I grew up”, I wanted to call out bullshit because Regina, darling, you did no such fucking thing. The ending really wants to paint her as being more mature and sensible, but it doesn’t work as we only glimpse these traits in the very last few pages. Why was Martha interested in Regina anyway? Why would anyone be in love with someone like Martha ? Search me!
Last, but not least, because of Cho’s extravagant and syntax-averse writing this 300-page novel read like a 600-page tome. Still, I did manage to finish it, and it was probably thanks to Nicholas, Dutra, and Laurence who kept me interested in the story. Also, to be fair, Cho’s commentary and her observations could be spot on…then again, more often than not, a good point would be lost in a sea of gaudy and seemingly never-ending asides.

MY RATING: 2 ½ out of 5 stars

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The Low, Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado


Having only read Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir, I wasn’t sure what to except from The Low, Low Woods. The summary promised a creepy tale: we have the classic small town setting (here called Shudder-to-Think), strange creatures (deer-women, skinless men), and an old mystery.
The first issue begins with our two protagonists, El and Octavia, waking up in a movie theatre and not being able to recall the previous hours. Something happened, they know as much, but finding out the truth behind their missing memories might stir up some trouble.
While I appreciated the story’s atmosphere, I didn’t find it very unsettling. We have random monsters that seem to appear only because ‘reasons’. Our two main characters weren’t very interesting or likeable. One of them is secretly dating a popular girl, and that storyline felt very unexplored.
There were many events that had unconvincing explanations. The author seemed intent on making the story as mysterious as possible by leaving loose strands. Each issues ends in a cliffhanger that is often not directly resolved at the beginning of the following issue. And then we have the 5th issue which is basically info-dumping. There was no suspense. The two girls discover the truth behind the town’s past in a very anticlimactic way. The ‘feminist’ angle was…meh? The story doesn’t have anything interesting or insightful to say about men who abuse or control women.
The art I quite liked. I saw other reviewers criticising it for being ‘scratchy’ but I personally thought that it fitted with the story’s aesthetics. Plus, there were some very stunning pages:




While I didn’t particularly like this graphic novel’s writing (we had clichéd quasi-wisdoms such as: “Sometimes, you have to listen to someone else’s story”), its characterization nor its storyline, the art was pretty good and both main characters were queer…so I guess you win some you loose some.

MY RATING: 2 ½ out of 5 stars
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The Dark Days Deceit by Alison Goodman

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.


MY RATING: 2.5 of 5 stars


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The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

“That’s the problem with summoning demons, you see. Sooner or later somebody else raises them against you.”

Readers who enjoyed Stuart Turton’s previous novel will probably find The Devil and the Dark Water to be a far more captivating read than I did. While I personally was not enamoured by The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, I was willing to give Turton another try.
The first quarter of The Devil and the Dark Water had me intrigued. The narrative opens in Batavia (Jakarta) in 1634. Our protagonist, Arent Hayes, a former mercenary turner bodyguard, is accompanying his employer and friend, Samuel Pipps, on a voyage to Amsterdam. This trip is not for pleasure as Samuel, a famous detective, has been convicted of a ‘mysterious’ crime and is under arrest. Arent wants to prove his innocence, but not knowing the crime Samuel has been accused of obstructs his attempts to free him. Still, he’s determined to protect him and decides to go alongside him to Amsterdam. As the passengers and crew embark this ship however, they are intercepted by a leper who perishes after pronouncing an ominous threat.
Before Samuel is taken to his cell in the ship, he tasks Arent with finding out more about the leper, believing that his threat was not empty one, and that someone means harm to the ship.
There are quite a few characters, but the 3rd person narrative tends to focus on Arent, the Governor General Jan Haan, and his wife, Sara Wessel. Sara, who happens to be very forward-thinking and in possession of some fine detective skills, joins Arent, and the two try to question the less-than-friendly crew and investigate the ship in order to find out whether something is truly haunting it.
Sinister occurrences seem to confirm our characters’ fears: someone or something is set on stopping the ship from reaching its destination.

At first the story held my attention, and I did find the novel to be rather atmospheric. Turton has clearly done extensive research in the way ship’s operated (from its hierarchy to the mentality of those willing to lead such a life) giving plenty of specific details relating to its various parts and or levels. Now, sadly, I can’t say the same for the narrative’s historical accuracy. The characters spoke in a very modern way, with the occasional ‘mayhap’ to give some authenticity. While sometimes adding modern elements to historical films or books can work (such as with The Favourite), here it just took me out. Having Sara remind herself and be reminded by others, such as her maid, that she is a ‘noble-woman’ seemed odd. While I understand that Turton did so because he wanted to explain to his readers that because of her class Sara could and couldn’t do certain things (or should be addressed in a certain way by those belonging to a lower class) or , but surely he knows that his audience would be already aware of this? The interactions between the characters also struck me as modern, and it seemed weird that every woman on the ship was so ahead of her times (Sara’s daughter is a genius). Arent struck me as the typical ‘giant’ with a heart of gold, who may have done some bad things in his past, but has now turned a new leaf. Samuel plays a very minor role, and while it made sense given his imprisonment, as things escalate on the ship, I would have expected for Arent to seek his counsel more often.
The middle of his novel drags. Arent and Sara investigate by asking the same boring questions to the same people, they explore the ship some more, and that’s kind of that. The Governor, who is compared to a hawk and happens to have very sharp nails, acts like a Bad Guy, which is not a spoiler since within a few lines of being introduced to him we know that he beats his wife.
Arent and Sara were similarly ‘good’. Unlike most other people on the boat they do not approve of the United East Indian Company. Given their respective backgrounds their humanitarian awareness seemed a tad odd.
Also, the whole romantic subplot….puh-lease.
There were quite a few moments that were meant to ‘unnerve’ the reader but I personally found them comical.
When characters made a certain discovery or realised something (“It can’t be…” he said out loud, as the answers arrived in a dizzying rush. “It can’t be…”) we had these ‘cliff-hangers’ as the narrative would jump to another character and by the time we returned to that other character I no longer cared to learn of their discovery. The writing in general wasn’t to my taste : “she had so much life, it was bursting through the seams of her” / “he was coming apart at the seams” / “her daughter’s [eyes] glittered with life. Her husband’s were empty, like two dark holes his soul had long run out”.
Toward the ending things take a chaotic turn. There are a few twists, most of which I’d predicted (not bragging, I have merely read enough mystery novels to know how certain stories will unfold). The novel’s main twist was painfully clichéd and made very little sense (it was obsolete).
Long, boring, unconvincing, and with a vague ‘historicalness’ that is miles away from the likes of Sarah Dunant or Eleanor Catton.

MY RATING: 2 ½ stars

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Seven Years of Darkness by You-Jeong Jeong

Well, that was kind of ridiculous…
The title and summary of this novel gave me the impression that the story would be very much focused on Sowon, the son of mass murder, who seven years after his father’s crimes receives a mysterious package that forces him to confront his past. And in some ways, we are given that. Sadly, the narrative is less concerned with Sowon piecing together these past events than with simply retelling everything that happened in one go. The majority of this novel details the event that occurred seven years prior, without any insights from the present, but in a blow-by-blow type of account. See, the package Sowon receives contains a manuscript. The manuscript, penned by Sowon’s guardian, recounts what happened at Seryong Lake, giving us the perspective of most of the people involved. Sowon’s guardian, Ahn Sungwhan, had until that morning been sharing his living spaces with him. All of a sudden, he disappears, and Sowon receives this manuscript.
The story in the manuscript primarily follows Sungwhan, who was working as a security guard at Seryong Lake, a ‘first-tier’ reservoir located in a remote village; Dr. Oh Yongje, who owns the arboretum on the reservoir; and Sowon’s father, Hyonsu, a former baseball player who has just been hired as the new head of security at Seryong Dam (making him Sungwhan’s boss).
A tragic night leads to the lives of these men to become inexorably entwined. The inciting incident happens early on, and what follows are pages and pages of a kind of ‘cat and mouse’ game. The ‘baddie’ is revealed early on, and he seems to posses only vices. He’s a mastermind and brilliant gas-lighter who missed out on a career as a detective. The two others characters are far more hapless, and their attempts to escape the baddie’s clutches inevitably fail.
The novel jumps back to ‘seven years later’ briefly in the middle, and only for a few pages, and at the very end. The rest of the narrative treats these past events as if they are just occurring, so no new insights or even foreshadowing is offered. Two of the men are seemingly unsympathetic, prone to anger and brutish, even druknkunly, behaviour. The other one seems to become loyal to one of them for no reason whatsoever. The wives of Hyonsu and Yongje are portrayed as somewhat hysterical. Hyonsu’s wife in particular is made into a huge ‘nag’, and her character is restricted to that role.
The two children, Sowon, who was 11 at the time, and Yongje’s daughter are very much secondary to the mind-games between the adults. Yongje’s daughter dies early on and we never learn anything substantial about her, although the author does attempt to create a connection between her and Sowon.
The whole thing was cheesy. The characters were caricatures, the plot was surprisingly boring (just these three men try to outsmart each other), and I’m not sure why the novel was titled what it was. ‘Present’ Sowon doesn’t have to investigate anything, he simply reads this manuscript.
That Sungwhan was able to narrate the events from Yongje’s perspective wasn’t very convincing.
As thrillers go, this left me feeling kind of flat. Maybe readers who don’t expect there to be more of a conversation between past and present may find this to be a gripping read…

My rating: 2 ½ stars

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Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Adib Khorram

Darius the Great Is Not Okay is an okay YA coming of age, one that focuses on Darius’ relationship with himself (which isn’t great given his poor self-esteem), with his father, and with his first real friend.


Readers expecting this novel to have LGBT+ themes or a romance subplot read may have to readjust their expectations as Darius’ grandmothers (on his father side) are barely mentioned and there is no romance whatsoever. Which is itself kind of refreshing, given how many YA books end up neglecting familial and platonic relationships in favour of romantic ones.
The writing is simple and readable, at times it struck me as a bit too juvenile but I’m fairly sure that younger teens will find Adib Khorram’s style to be entertaining. I did find Darius’ narration to be a bit repetitive. He has these catchphrases that he repeats throughout the novel (“Soulless Minions of Orthdoxy” appears x, “That’s normal./Right?” appears x, and calling his dad “Stephen Kellner/the Übermensch”) and I could have done with fewer of them (especially as I didn’t find them particularly funny).
The first few chapter of this book give us an idea of who Darius is and how he’s treated by his peers. He has depression, he’s kind of awkward, he has no close friends, he isn’t particularly good at anything, and his only passions seem to be tea, Star Trek, and Tolkien. His bully is the embodiment of bully in that being a jerk is his only character trait, which is fine, as seeing him in action makes Darius into a more sympathetic character. In this first section, which is set in America, we learn of how Darius doesn’t feel American or Persian ‘enough’. He believes that his father is disappointed and ashamed by him, and he wishes he could speak Farsi in order to talk on skype to Mamou and Babou (his mother’s parents). While his sister learnt Farsi at a young age, he never did (why he didn’t try later in life…we don’t know).
Because of Babou’s deteriorating health (he has a terminal brain tumour), Darius, alongside his family, travel to Iran. Here Darius meets Sohrab, and the two seem to immediately hit it off (which wasn’t entirely convincing but whatever). Darius interactions with Babou aren’t great and remind him of how he feels with his dad (who he refers to as Stephen Kellner 80% of the time…which was so annoying and childish. I call my father by his first name but I don’t go for the whole ‘name and surname’). The plot unfolds in a predictable way. Darius learns more about Iran and Persian customs, he seemed surprised to learn that it isn’t as ‘antiquated’ as he was led to believe living in the West, yet there were far to few scenes about Darius+family taking day trips to nearby areas or exploring Yazd.
We get instead a lot of scenes featuring Darius and his dad being awkward together, or a few scenes in which Darius and Sohrab play “soccer/non-American football” (he keeps calling it that even once we established that he is indeed playing “soccer/non-American football”).
As previously mentioned, I wasn’t enamoured by Khorram’s prose. His dialogues were painfully simple (and gave the idea that the characters don’t have a lot of interesting things to say) and his word-choice for certain descriptions left me wanting (Darius voice ‘squeaks’ one too many times for my liking, couldn’t it tremble? Falter? Or something else?).
There is a predictable and avoidable disagreement in the novel’s final act, one that is thankfully resolved quite swiftly.
While this was an okay read, I wonder why Khorram went out of his way to include scenes in which Darius feels embarrassed or humiliated. There were at least two instances when Darius could have avoided feeling embarrassed by simply not disclosing certain details but he does (when his bike wheels are stolen the bully left some rubber balls on his bike, Darius calls his dad asking him to pick him up and instead of just saying that someone stole his wheels, he tells him about the balls—all the while he is mortified by having to say the word ‘balls’ to his father, when he could have just thrown the balls away—which he actually does only after his phone call to his dad him. At the airport someone thinks that his pimple is a bindi, and Darius could have just said ‘it isn’t’ but no, he tells this security person that it’s just a gigantic pimple).
While I didn’t find Darius or his story to be very poignant or realistic, this may be because I’m not exactly this book’s intended audience.

My rating: 2 ½ of 5 stars
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The Necessary Hunger by Nina Revoyr — book review

529493.jpgThe Necessary Hunger, Nina Revoyr’s debut novel first published in 1997, had the potential of being a great YA book. In many ways this novel was ahead of its times. Set in Inglewood, L. A., in the late 1980s The Necessary Hunger is narrated by seventeen-year-old Nancy Takahiro, a Japanese-American all-star high school basketball player. Nancy, who is a lesbian, falls hard for Raina Webber, an African-American all-star guard from a competing school. Raina, who is also a lesbian, is in a relationship with an older girl.
When Raina’s mother and Nancy’s father get together, things get a bit complicated. Nancy, who isn’t used to sharing her home with anyone other than her father, has to get used to the presence of two other people. Her massive crush on Raina further complicates matters.

There were aspects of this novel that I really liked such as Revoyr’s approach to sexuality and race. There are quite a few gay characters, and their sexuality is never made into a big deal. While stories about coming out and/or exploring your sexuality are certainly important, it was refreshing to read a storyline that casually revolves around gay teens. Nancy’s sexuality is never made into an ‘issue’.
The novel also has a great sense of time and place. Revoyr’s Inglewood is vividly rendered. From the graffitis decorating some of the more run down buildings, to the ever-present threat of danger (government neglect results in gang violence, drive-bys, carjackings, burglaries). Acquaintances of Nancy drop out school, get into drugs, go to prison. Life isn’t easy. A sense of solidarity unites Inglewood’s various residents and both Nancy and her father navigate Inglewood with ease. When Raina and her mother move into their house tension arise. Inglewood informs Revoyr’s discussions about class hierarchies and social / race relations (particularly interracial relationships).

Sadly, readers merely ‘overhear’ these more interesting conversations. Nancy is a snoop, and she will often sneakily listen to other people’s conversations. For all her navel-gazing Nancy’s character lacked interiority. She’s defined by her love for basketball and her obsessive feelings for Raina. Although other characters aren’t distinctly three-dimensional, they at least had a semblance of personality. Nancy was a not very profound bore. The narrative tries to emphasise that she’s looking back to these events, by making her reflect on ‘what-ifs’ or the significance of a certain moment, but this technique added little to the narrative.
While I knew that this would be a novel about basketball, I wasn’t expecting pages and pages of basketball games. Perhaps if I had been more interested in the characters or if I had felt that these game had some sort of stake…but readers know from the beginning that unlike her teammates Nancy will have plenty of college offers. Raina is often reduced to the role of ‘object of desire’. Nancy’s feelings for Raina never struck me as genuine. It seemed a classic case of ‘physical attraction + jealousy/awe’.
At times the writing seemed quite dated (for example Nancy uses the word ‘schizophrenic’ to describe her room’s decor).
Nothing remarkable happens. Nancy is often a mere observer in the novel’s more compelling moments. A lot of the narrative is dedicate to Nancy’s ‘yearning’ for Raina….and the ending was incredibly underwhelming. What was all that for?
All in all The Necessary Hunger strikes me as a rather mediocre piece of fiction. It had the potential to be a really thought-provoking read but it just felt flat to me. There were also so many cheesy lines that were probably meant to be taken seriously.

My rating: 2 ½ of 5 stars

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The Chestnut Man by Søren Sveistrup — review

In spite of its promising beginning The Chestnut Man implements far too many cliches for my liking (a few of which are listed on CrimeReads).41154336.jpg
This book centres on a series of gruesome killings in Copenhagen. On each crime scene the killer leaves behind a chestnut doll.
Although the writing is detached it does pay attention to the visual aspect of its scenes, pointing out something in the environment where the characters are, and emphasising some of their gestures and or habits. In this it had an almost cinematic feeling to it, and perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising given that the novel’s author is also a screenwriter (of the successful The Killing, and the not quite as well received The Snowman).
While I initially thought the novel unsentimental tone worked in its favour, making most scenes much more chilling, but I soon noticed that it wasn’t as impartial as it seemed. Even when the narrative follows other characters, it clearly favours its two ‘protagonists’. The narrative’s voice seemed to treat characters other than Hess and Thulin with dislike, or it addressed them by their nationality (the narrative calls Hess’ former colleague François the Frenchman…even after we already have been informed that yes, François is French), vices, or the role they play in the story. For example, when the narratives follows the two ‘bad’ detectives that work against our two main leads, it is quick to present them as stupid, since it has to emphasise that they are CORRUPT and STUPID.
While the chapters’ shortness occasionally did create a sense of suspense, they often seemed to end on rather silly note, and it seemed that the author was make even the most boring or ordinary scenes abruptly end witha sort of ‘cliff-hanger’.
Here are a lists of the clichés that I could have personally done without :

The Brooding Male Lead With A Past
In spite of his intelligence, this temperamental guy often behaves in a way that makes his superiors see him as insubordinate. Yet, he is the only who notices the chestnut men, and he is the main drive behind the investigation’s process.
I really disliked Hesse. I thought he was arrogant and difficult for no reason (yes, he has been ‘relocated’, but would he really act like such a sulk? ). He made no attempt to form a work-relationship with his colleagues, so I’m not sure why I should feel bad that they regard him with hostility (very tit for tat if you ask me).

The Hot Female Detective Who Is Good At Her Job But Not The Greatest Mother
She takes no shit from her male colleagues, who often try it on with her. While I’m sure that there are cases where male detectives try to sexually harass their female colleagues, I’m getting kind of tired of reading of the same scenes, especially if they are included just to make her seem more ‘badass’. Allegedly Thulin is smart, but her expertise lies in certain computer programs (she wants to join the department for cyber crime) so she is surprisingly useless for most of the investigation. In addition to her supposedly intelligence, she also has a banger of a body. I get that being strong or fit is an advantage in her line of work but it’s one thing to have a muscular body, it’s another to have the perfect body (much is made of “her slender waist and shapely backside”). When questioning a doctor she ‘uses’ her looks and acts “coquettishly” to trip this guy up. Couldn’t she have been able to question him effectively without having to rely on her physical appearance ? What about her brains? Not enough?
And because the story has to stress that she is not like other women, in that she is focused on her career, she also has to have an active sexual life. And no, she doesn’t do ‘romance’. Nor does she have time for her child (which is perfectly reasonable given the type of job that she does, yet she is made to seem like a careless mother). Anyway, she is too busy and badass for any of that sentimental stuff.

Corruption Ahoy
We have these two detectives who are clearly there just to make our leads look good. They are racist, sexist, stupid, amoral, and incompetent. Yep. Because they are jealous of our main leads they try to make their life harder. The narrative makes it clear that these are BAD detectives. In fact, most of the police personnel seems unfit to work.

The Detective’s ‘Crazy Wall’
You know the wall that appears in shows like The Wire and True Detective. It’s full of strings, scribbles, articles, and all of that sort of stuff. Well Hess happens to have one of his own, and the narrative reveals this in such a dramatic way, as if it’s a huge reveal or something when it is anything but.

Consulting a Convicted Killer
This whole interaction was laughable and full of poorly veiled allusions.

The Twist
Knowing the killer’s identity doesn’t always detract from my overall reading experience. Here however I found the killer’s character and motivations too be rather overdone.

This was a very bland thriller. I disliked both the narrative’s judg-y tone and its shallow characters. The plot went on and on, but I wasn’t all that interested.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2.5 stars

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