BOOK REVIEWS

The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell

MILD-SPOILERS

At first I thought that The Shape of Darkness was going to be a spoof of Gothic novels. The dialogues were corny, the two main characters are exceedingly frail, and the ‘murder mystery’ storyline struck me as somewhat theatrical (or perhaps I should say more suited to a film than a book). But I was willing to read on, thinking that these exaggerations were intentional and that Laura Purcell was lampooning Victorian ghost stories…but the more I read the more the narrative seemed to try to impress upon me that it was telling a ‘serious’ story. Having now finished this novel I can safely say that it was very clichéd and unimaginative, the setting of Bath is barely rendered, the two main characters sound like the same person, and the big ‘twist’ was extremely predictable (I mean, I can think of two films—one in 1999 and one in 2001—that have a similar reveal). Also, The Shape of Darkness is yet another book that proves my least likely person is the culprit theory.
Anyhow, Agnes seems to believe that she is being targeted after the very first death. Which is…okay. The plot must go on I guess.

Anyway, the story starts with Agnes a silhouette artist. She has yet to fully recover from an illness that struck her a few years prior the start of the novel. She lives in a nondescript house with her orphaned nephew and her elderly mother. Her past is ‘mysterious’ and she’s clearly suffered more than on heartbreak. Her only friend happens to be a doctor who was married to her now deceased evil sister. Her few customers start turning up dead and Agnes worries that someone is after her.
Pearl is a medium who also happens to have an evil sister who forces to host seances. Pearl believes in the ghosts and there are scenes that seem to point to ‘otherworldly’ presences. Pearl is also, like Agnes, kind of sickly. The two characters in fact sound very much like the same person. They lack interiority and are mostly defined by how ‘frail’ and vulnerable they are. For quite awhile I thought that they were more or less the same age but I was surprised to discover that Pearl was 11 and Agnes in her 40s (yet they both sound like teenagers).

Agnes and Pearl end up ‘finding’ one another and Agnes convinces Pearl to help her contact her now deceased customers. We have two or three scenes in which Agnes is actually doing her job and we see Pearl doing two seances at the very beginning but after the 40% mark the narrative no longer focuses on these things.

The story takes a quite a few leaps in logic, there are a few too many convenient coincidences, the plot is dull, the characters uninspired. Although the story is set in Bath there are only a couple descriptions—a few sentences really—describing the city’s architecture. Agnes shows a surprising lack of awareness towards her norms of her time and there were a few inconsistencies. For example, a couple of pages after we are told that Agnes’ hands are swollen (possibly due to a combination of arthritis and chilblains) she does a silhouette for a customer. This requires her to use her fingers and I guarantee you that if her hands had truly been as the ‘swollen lumps’ we were told they were, she would not be able to move them very much, let alone being able to doe painstakingly controlled movements with her fingers. Instead we don’t even get a mention of her hands and fingers during this scene (we could have been told how difficult and painful it was to be using her hands when they were so swollen).

The story tries to be somewhat serious or creepy and yes, descriptions of Pearl’s father—who’s phossy jaw is rotting away—were not pleasant. But the narrative’s ‘supernatural’ undertones and ‘murder mystery’ storyline were bland and galaxies away from being remotely scary (or even atmospheric).

Here are a few examples of why I did not like the author’s writing: ‘But it cannot be, not after all of these years’, ‘her heart flutters its wings inside her chest’, the idea fills her with a sweet glow, ‘in her face are those simmering, witchy eyes’, ‘her slender trunk’ (this to describe a woman’s figure), ‘frightened whispers of her own conscience’.

Towards the end the story becomes so dramatic as to be frankly risible. There were a few scenes that were meant to inspire suspense or whatnot but they way they go down would have suited more a B movie.
If you liked it, fair enough, but I for one am glad I did not have to pay for my copy (the ‘perks’ of being on NetGalley).

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Emma Bovary has become the epitome of desperate housewife, the archetypal unfaithful wife, the ultimate daydreamer whose fantasies lead to a premature self-destruction.

“She wished she could stop living, or sleep all the time.”

Madame Bovary follows the ‘provincial ways’ of the petite bourgeoisie. Charles Bovary is a so-so doctor, married to an older woman, and is ordinary in every which way. Similarly to Prince Myshkin his naïveté and kind-heartedness are perceived by those around him as weaknesses or signs of stupidity. He falls in love with Emma, the daughter of one of his patients, and lucky for him his wife just ups and dies (as she is hanging the wash she exclaims “Oh, my God!” sighs, loses consciousness and dies: “She was dead! How astonishing it was!”). Charles makes the most of this tragedy and asks Emma’s father for her hand in marriage. After an incredibly ornate wedding the two settle into married life. Or Charles does. He is exuberant, he adores Emma, lavishing her with affection. Emma, on the other hand, finds her husband suffocating and grows increasingly resentful towards him. She craves the “passion” and “intoxication” promised to her in her favourite books (in this she reminds me of Catherine from Northanger Abbey who obsesses over Gothic books, so much so that she ends up viewing the world through Gothic-tinted glasses).

In the following chapter (which happens to be my favourite one) the narrative describes Emma’s childhood and education at a convent. It is there that Emma becomes enthralled by the world of popular romances. She feels “an ardent veneration for illustrious or ill-fated women” such as Joan of Arc, Mary Stuart or the nun Héloïse. Emma is captivated by the regalia worn by the hero of a novel rather than by the hero himself. We find this same attitude towards many things in her life: “She loved the sea only for its storms, and greenery only when it grew up here and there among ruins”. Likewise, while at the convent she seems to more attracted to the trappings of religion rather than feeling a genuine devotion: she focuses on the appearance of the “white-faced” nuns, the rosaries, the copper crucifixes, “the perfumes of the altar, the coolness of the fonts, and the glow of the candles”. She does not pay attention to the Mass, gazing instead “in her book at the holy pictures with their azure edges”. Emma Rouault loves “the church for its flowers, music for the words of its songs, and literature for its power to stir the passions”.

Emma Bovary strongly resembles her maiden self. She is disappointed by her marriage, for she considers Charles to be a man who “taught her nothing, knew nothing, wished for nothing”. She thinks him dull and unambitious, the very opposite of an ideal husband. Emma is equally let down by her experience of motherhood, which is quite unlike the one she envisioned. Finally, her love affairs—with Rodolphe and Léon—seem to offer merely a pretext for her to exchange keepsakes and letters with another person. Emma goes through the motions of being in love without feeling any real love; it is the opportunity of wearing a new riding habit that causes her to embark upon her first affair. It is unsurprising then that she soon grows weary of both her lovers: “[Emma] was rediscovering in adultery all the platitudes of marriage”.

As Emma’s appetite for luxurious material goods increases, she grows more disillusioned with her life, and since the happiness those extravagant items give her is merely temporary, she is unable to fight ennui. Her mounting debt to Lheureux, the man who sells her the material goods she so desperately craves, and her failed love affairs contribute to bringing about Emma’s own demise.

Even before marrying Charles, Emma had fallen prey to ennui: soon after leaving the convent “she considered herself to be thoroughly disillusioned, with nothing more to learn, nothing more to feel”. Whereas boredom is a ‘response to the immediate’, ennui ‘belongs to those with a sense of sublime potential, those who feel themselves superior to their environment’. And indeed, Emma feels a sense of superiority to what surrounds her: her dull husband, her mother-in-law, her servants, the uncouth villagers, the “tiresome countryside, the idiotic petits bourgeois, the mediocrity of life”. Emma is adamant that she has been cast in the wrong role, that of a petit-bourgeois woman, believing that she deserves to live as a heroine in a romance does, married to Prince Charming and surrounded by beauty.

A pattern gradually emerges: time and again Emma is disappointed by her attempts to reconstruct the world portrayed in her romantic novels. At the same time, it is almost as if Emma is unconsciously not really interested in satisfying her desire or making her daydreams reality; what she seems to truly enjoy is the act of desiring itself. After all, it is only in her fantasies, and by apotheosizing her past experiences, that Emma can envision herself experiencing a form of pure sensation and heightened emotion. And perhaps it is the very act of fantasizing that enables her to feel something akin to jouissance, which in Lacanian theory is a form of ‘backhanded enjoyment’, an excessive pleasure that ‘[b]egins with a tickle and ends with blaze of petrol’. The pleasure that Emma feels by longing – by the very act of daydreaming – is similar to the ecstatic feeling experienced by her dream self. Yet, the enjoyment that she derives from yearning is accompanied by a feeling of pain since Emma is only able to long because she is missing something. Paradoxically, then, Emma can find fulfilment in the perpetuation of her non-fulfilment given that ‘every form of fulfilment necessarily brings an end to the desired state of longing, it is only the infinite deferral of satisfaction that keeps desire alive’.

There is the tendency to believe that Emma’s mania, her depression and her subsequent suicide result from her clumsy attempts at upward mobility. Flaubert makes Emma’s desires and her unhappiness quite clear to us: she wishes to live like the heroines in her beloved romances, yearns for an impossible glittery lifestyle but, try as she might, never really succeeds in replicating the feelings or experiences she has read of. Certainly, there are many instances where readers will find Emma’s dissatisfactions to be risible. But, however small-minded and solipsistic Emma Flaubert articulates her sense of entrapment and addiction to longing (for sublimity, love, completion, meaning) in such a way as to challenge easy dismissals of her desires (as being petty or superficial).

There are so many things that made me love this book. Flaubert’s prose (or Lydia Davis’ impeccable), his attention to the minute details that constitute provincial life, his irony, his absurd characters….the list goes on.
Flaubert excels at depicting the contradictory nature of people, the fleeting moments of irritation, boredom, hate, passion…there are many scenes which seem to ridicule his characters’ worries, but he never directly pokes fun at his characters (his readers will do that for him). And while a certain sardonic humor prevails there are also episodes that will certainly elicit our sympathies.
Although this novel is often labelled as a romance or a tragedy, Madame Bovary reads like an anti-romance. We have characters such Emma and Léon, idealists, self-proclaimed romantics, who are trapped in a realist narrative. Yet, Flaubert is also making fun of realism. There are so many descriptions of what the characters are wearing, of the smells or objects, houses, streets, you name it. Then juxtaposing these lavish or picturesque descriptions we have scenes detailing Charles’ operating on the stable boy’s club foot, and these scenes make for some nausea-inducing reading material.
Nevertheless this remains a beautifully crafted novel. Flaubert’s acuity, his striking prose, his vibrant characters, make for an unforgettable read. One should not approach this novel hoping for something in the realms of Anna Karenina. Although one could describe Emma as the ‘heroine’ of this novel, she possesses mostly qualities that will make readers hate her. There were many instances in which I disliked her (just read of the way she treats her servants or her daughter or even Charles). But Flaubert is a deft writer, and Emma cannot be simply be labelled as ‘unlikable’. In many ways she reminds of the alienated women who star in recent fiction such as the narrator in My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Emma is like them bored, self-destructive, prone to bouts of depression, and finds pleasure only in daydreams.
The first time I picked up this novel I struggled to make it past the first chapter. I then ended up listening to the audiobook (narrated by Juliet Stevenson who gives an impeccable performance) and, just like that, I was transfixed. This second time around I read it myself (I own a very stylish penguin classics edition) and I was once again enthralled by Flaubert narrative. I was particularly intrigued by the seamless way in which he shifts perspectives. This time I was also able to truly savour Flaubert’s prose as I already knew how the storyline would unfold. Next time I may try reading the Italian translation and maybe who knows, one day I will be able to read the original French (okay, that’s quite unlikely but you never know…). Anyway, I could probably go on and on about this novel. I would not recommend it to those who have a low tolerance for irony and kind of detestable characters.

MY RATING: 5 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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Cardiff, by the Sea: Four Novellas of Suspense by Joyce Carol Oates

As I highly rate Joyce Carol Oates I was quite looking forward to Cardiff, by the Sea, a collection of four novellas ‘of suspense’. While I have only read a few of Oates’ works Patricide, a novella of hers, is a favourite of mine. The novellas collected in Cardiff, by the Sea have more in common with Oates’ The Pursuit as they are not only just as depressing but they are also written in a similar ‘stop and start’ type of prose. We have staccato sentences that often elide their subjects (such as “Chewing, trying to swallow but can’t.” or “Seeing the apprehension in the child’s face.”). While this style worked in the first novella, the longest in the collection, it felt a bit repetitive and overall less convincing in the following ones. In the first one we follow a deeply traumatised young woman and because of this the prose perfectly conveyed her ‘disturbed’ psyche. There were scenes where Oates’ choppy prose worked well, especially in terms of visuals and pacing: “Mia felt a stab of excitement. Following the flashlight beam. Shining light on ugly gouged tire tracks. Broken and shredded trees.”. As I’ve said however I do wish that this collection could have showcased Oates’ impressive stylistic range.
These novellas also share many other similarities outside of the way the are written. They feature women who are traumatised, abused, sexually assaulted, and/or gaslighted/manipulated. All of the male characters in these novellas are awful human being. They are pedophiles, rapists, murders, opportunists….the lists goes on. The women in these stories lack agency. There are one or two incidents that suggest otherwise but throughout the course of their narratives they are very much confined to the role of victims.

‘Cardiff, by the Sea’: 4 stars
As I’ve said the best story in this collection is the very first one: ‘Cardiff, by the Sea’. This novella was creepy and atmospheric. We follow Clare a woman who receives a call informing her that her grandmother has died…except that Clare has never met or know of her having been raised by adoptive parents. When she visits her newfound ‘blood relatives’ in Cardiff she becomes increasingly obsessed with the death of her birth parents. She stays with her two great-aunts, who very much reminded me of April Spink and Miriam Forcible from Coraline (except they are far more sinister). They are perpetually arguing and interrupting one another. Perhaps their creepiness is due to Clare’s susceptible state of mind, perhaps not. Clare’s uncle also lives with them and soon enough Clare becomes convinced that he played some sort of role in her family’s demise.
This story is pure Gothic. Unease reigns supreme. Clare’s fragmented and unreliable memories contribute to this unsettling atmosphere. Oates’ prose her works really well as it reflects Clare’s psyche. Her trauma and shock definitely give her an alienated view of things. If you enjoy Shirley Jackson’s work or macabre stories such as the ones penned by Mariana Enríquez chances are you will appreciate this novella which is equal parts suspenseful and disturbing.

‘Miao Dao’: 3 stars
This story had potential. I mean: cats killing pervy men? I’m sold. We follow Mia who has just turned thirteen. Her father recently separated from her mother and she now rarely sees him. Her male classmates begin to harass her and her female peers are not all that supportive (if anything they perceive as either a loser or a potential ‘threat’). As Mia is ‘shamed’ for body she begins to feel deeply alienated. Mia finds momentary solace when she is among a group of feral cats that has taken residence in her neighbourhood.
When her mother gets together with a seemingly ‘good’ guy things take a turn for the worse. Mia ends up taking in a kitten, whom she names Miao Dao, and weird things start happening.
This story was kind of miserable. Even more so that ‘Cardiff, by the Sea’ as it focuses on sexual abuse. It also reminded me of my own adolescent, a period of my life I never wish to relive again. The ‘leering’, the comments, the physical harassment. The way all of these make the victim feel ashamed and embarrassed (as she perceives herself guilty since it is her body that is making these boys and men act this way). So, given all the horrible things that happen to Mia, I was hoping for the story to present us with a satisfying revenge storyline…and it kind of doesn’t. The ‘cat’ element was definitely underused, and I think that the story would have benefitted from venturing more into the paranormal. Still, the ending does kind of make up for some of my initial frustration towards this story.

‘Phantomwise: 1972’ : 2 ½ stars
This seemed a rehash of the previous two stories. We have a nondescript young woman—who similarly to Clare and Mia is mostly defined by the fact that she is being ill-treated/abused as opposed to having a discernible personality. The story follows a student who becomes involved with a professor (yes, this is that kind of story). As things sour between the two of them, the young woman becomes close to an older man who likes to talk about Lewis Carroll and his ‘Alice’. This isn’t a gripping or even suspenseful tale. Oates doesn’t really subvert this tired female student/male professor dynamic, if anything she goes full on misery porn. Misery and more misery. Women are helpless and men are predators. Great stuff.

‘The Surviving Child’ : 2 ½ stars
This last novella seemed a mix between Rebecca and Verity. We follow the new wife of a man whose previous wife not only committed suicide but she killed their daughter too. She spared the son and the new wife wonders what could have driven her to do so. The prose is once again full of Yoda-like sentences which didn’t really add anything to my reading experience. Kind of predictable but not as miserable as the previous novella.

With the exception of the titular novella I didn’t particularly care for stories in this collection. Oates can certainly write but her style here could have been more varied. Her female characters are passive, even pathetic at times, and I found myself wanting these stories to be more subversive.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

“A smart Teek survives the storm, but a wise Teek avoids storms altogether.”

It took me awhile to warm up to Black Sun and during its first half I worried that I would find myself once again in the ‘unpopular’ opinion camp. As I’d read and liked Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning I was hoping that I would find Black Sun to be at least an entertaining read…but within the first 40% I found myself tempted to DNF it but I’m glad i persevered. Overall I think this is a really good start to the Between Earth and Sky series. I do have some ‘reservations’, but these are minor criticisms, and on the whole I would definitely recommend it to fans of N.K. Jemisin and Guy Gavriel Kay.

This novel’s biggest strengths is its world-building which is inspired by the pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas. The Meridian is a land that is home to many different clans, all of which have their own distinctive customs. Many resent the Watchers, “whose duty it was to keep the calendar and wrestle order from chaos” and who maintain “the Balance between what is above us and what is below”, which isn’t surprising given when we learn of the Night of Knives. The Watchers, an order composed of priests such as the Sun Priest and the Priest of Succor, reside in the “celestial tower” which is located in Tova. The sprawling action of the novel takes us all over Meridian. From the city of Tova, Meridian’s religious heart (where we learn of the conflict between the Watchers and the cultists as well as the disparities between Sky made clans and Dry Earthers), to the merchant city of Cuecola. We also accompany characters on their voyage across the treacherous Crescent Sea and gain insights into the matriarchal Teek people. Although part of me wishes that the novel had focused on two particular characters, I understand that the multiple perspectives allow us to explore different quarters and cultures of the Meridian. While certain settings could have been described more fully, we always given detailed descriptions of what the characters are wearing (from their clothes and hair styles to their accoutrements), which made them all the more vivid. Also, these descriptions often lead to insights into a particular clan/culture: “She came from a culture that lived on islands and in the water. Clothes were for protection from the elements and occasionally to show status, bug generally, Teek weren’t big on covering up for any supposed moral reasons. Cuecolans and, frankly, all the mainlanders were much too uptight about nudity.”
Although each city/district/clan has its own set of established norms, the Meridian has many LGBTQ+ people (and with the exception of Cuecola seems an accepting place). We have queer main and side characters and a third gender which are referred to as bayeki and use xe/xir pronouns. I loved the casualness of Roanhorse’s representation (casual but never insensitive or superficial).
This world also has some fab lore and magic. There are those who can read the skies, the Teek who can Sing to the water ie calm the seas (they call the water Al-Teek, their mother), and those who can converse and command crows. And we also have gigantic crows that can be ridden. How cool is that?
Unlike many other high fantasy books there is no info-dumping here. If anything Roanhorse keeps her cards close to her chest. We sometimes learn of certain things via conversations, such as when a character from X place has gone to Y place and is questioning a particular aspect of that society/city/culture. These dialogues didn’t feel contrived, and they provided us with a fuller picture of the Meridian.
I can’t wait to explore this world more in the next instalment.

Now…on the things that sort of worked and sort of didn’t (for me of course, these ‘criticisms’ are entirely subjective and I encourage readers to read reviews that express opposing takes/views). We have three main storylines: Xiala, a captain and a Teek who after accepting a job offer from a merchant lord finds herself transporting important cargo to the city of Tova; the cargo happens to be Serapio who was blinded by his own mother as part of a ritual and is now part of an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it prophecy prophesy; Narampa, the Sun Priest, who is a Dry Earther and as such is held in contempt by other Watchers. Although we are given the perspectives of individuals who are on opposing sides, I never felt very sympathetic towards Narampa, so for awhile I found myself rooting for the anti-Watchers…until that ending of course.
While most readers will correctly predict that at one point or another the lives of the paths of these characters will cross, they each of their own storyline. The first half of this novel is very much of slow-burn. While there is plenty of action and drama, I didn’t find the plot all that gripping (the chapters focusing on Serapio’s childhood were strongly reminiscent of Damaya’s chapters in The Fifth Season). Much of Narampa’s storyline irked me as it was kind of predictable (we have the cunning mean girl who tries to sabotage her). It is suggested that Narampa wants to change the ways of the Watchers but this isn’t explored all that well. There is too much time spent on her relationship to Iktan, the Priestof Knives who now protects Narampa. They were former lovers, and Narampa is suddenly interested again merely because she assumes that Iktan is seeing someone else (which is somewhat realistic but their former relationship remains vastly uncharted so that I never could picture them together or even believe that Narampa still had feelings for Iktan). Part of me thinks that we weren’t meant to like Narampa all that much, but I do wish she could have been made more sympathetic. After the 80% I did start to dislike her less so at least her character arc isn’t a flat one. Flashbacks into her childhood would have probably made her seem like a less uptight and supercilious.
Xiala and Serapio at first reminded me a bit too much of the two main characters in Trail of Lightning. Their personalities too seem to revolve around their unique abilities. But once their voyage across the Crescent Sea gets interesting we get to see a more rounded picture of their personalities as well as insights into their pasts, fears, and desires. Dismissing Xiala as a loud-mouth or the typical spitfire heroine would be to ignore her more vulnerable side. Her powers were cool, and I loved learning about the ways of the Teek or their relationship to Al-Teek. Serapio did walk to close to the “monster/villain/antihero” line. Readers seem to love type of character in spite of his actions. Usually his traumatic past gives him a free pass. Thankfully, Roanhorse subverts this trope. Serapio, like Xiala, has many vulnerable moments. Although he does question the path he has taken, we see that there are quite a few people responsible for his having embarked upon it.
While I could get past their instantaneous kinship, given their status as outsiders, I wish that their feelings had remained platonic…or that at least that their romance could have been explored in the next instalment. I wasn’t a big fan of their romance. While I did enjoy their dynamic, their attraction and romantic feelings for each other made their relationship a bit more basic. And, dare I say that my sapphic heart was sad to read another fantasy book with a het central romance? While Xiala is queer and attracted to women, she has never felt anything like what she feels for Serapio (insert eye roll). And I definitely did no enjoy reading this line: “I’ve been on a ship for the past two weeks with a celibate. Offer now, and who knows what happens? I’ve only got so much self-control”. This line would not be okay if uttered by a male character…so why is it okay if Xiala says it? Serapio is younger and inexperienced, so why can Xiala make a ‘I will jump your bones/I can’t help myself’ joke?
Still, I did overall enjoy their bond and scenes together. Hopefully their romance will be more convincing to me in the follow up book.
We also get a fourth character. He is introduced around the 40% mark…and his chapter are unnecessary. We never learn more of what kind of person he is, but rather his chapters are very oriented. He has very few chapters and with the exception of the last one these could be cut out of the novel without any major changes to the overall narrative.

In spite of my initial sentiments towards this novel Roanhorse’s writing is absorbing. There are many discussions, surrounding violence and justice for example (“justice came through the actions of humans holding wrongdoers to account, not through some vague divine retribution and certainly not through violence”), that can be applied to our own world. Xiala, Serapio, and even Narampa face stigma for who they are (“People like us are always hated until they need us—isn’t that always the way?”). Roanhorse gives different perspectives on the same or similar incidents/issues, presenting us with a nuanced view of things. She also wrote some wickedly cool lines and descriptions such as “He screamed, euphoric, and the world trembled at his coming” / “a false god is just as deadly as a true one” / “the world shuddered, as if it recognized him and feared what it saw”.
If you want to read an action-driven epic set in a non-Western inspired world and that is brimming with amazing visuals and concepts look no further. In spite of my criticisms towards the first half of the novel and the romance I did enjoy it and I would actually read it a second time (perhaps when the sequel is about to come out).

MY RATING: 3 ¾ stars (rounded up) out of 5 stars

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A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark

This is the third novella I’ve read by P. Djèlí Clark and once again I find myself loving his building but not his story or characters. This novella is set in an alternate 1912 Cairo where djinns and angels are the norm. world happens to be the home to djinns Egypt, . In an alternate Cairo infused with the otherworldly, the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities investigate disturbances between the mortal and the (possibly) divine. What starts off as an odd suicide case for Our protagonist is Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the classic ‘spunky’ female lead who is has to ‘forge’ her way in an all-male environment, whose latest case involves the apparent suicide of a djinn. Alongside Senior Agent Hamed al-Nasr, the classic ‘set in his ways/not so concerned by his job’ male counterpart to this type of female lead, Fatima questions and is confronted by otherworldly and potentially world-destroying beings.

The setting is the most unique and strongest aspect of this novella. The storyline is fast-paced and was too action focused. I would have preferred a slower narrative, one that would have allowed for more interiority from the characters. Still, this was an overall quick and relatively entertaining read and I probably would recommend it just the world-building alone (I mean, we have clockworks angels!).


MY RATING: 3 of 5 stars

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The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

“Loving a country besides the one you lived in was a recipe for disaster.”

The Star Side of Bird Hill is an enjoyable coming-of-age novel about two sisters, Dionne and Phaedra, who are sent off by their mother to spend their summer with their grandmother, Hyacinth, in a small town in Barbados. The girls’ aren’t too happy to leave Brooklyn, even if their homelife hasn’t been great given that their mother, who is suffering from depression and no longer works, can’t look after them (or herself for the matter). In Bird Hill they are forced to acclimatise to a different culture, and are often treated as foreign by their grandmother’s community. Although Phaedra, who is 10, misses her mum, she soon grows attached to Hyacinth, especially once she learns how vital a role she plays in the community. Fifteen-year-old Dionne on the other hand, repeatedly clashes with Hyacinth and her rules. Even if she resents her mother, for having sent her away and for forcing her to take care of both her and Phaedra, she’s clearly hurting.
As the summer goes by the two sisters adapt to life in Bird Hill. Phaedra, who is made fun of by other young girls for being a bit of a tomboy, finds fulfilment in learning more of her family’s history and of her grandmother’s job as a midwife. Dionne takes far longer to adjust to Bird Hill and their grandmother’s presence. She flaunts her rules and seems intent on being as difficult as possible. After certain events happen, she too begins to reconcile herself with her life in Bird Hill and Hyacinth.
Throughout the course of the novel we are given flashbacks into the girls’ childhood as well as the start and end of their mother’s relationship with their father.

“You practice being one kind of thing too long, and soon enough that’s who you become.”

While the storyline is somewhat conventional of this ‘coming-of-age’ genre, the author injects vitality into her story thanks to the character of Hyacinth and the vividly rendered setting of Bird Hill. Hyacinth was a force of nature (and funny too: “Oh Lord, please deliver me from these Yankee children”). I loved her no-nonsense attitude and the many wisdoms she imparts on her granddaughters. Phaedra too was a likeable character (who likes reading Jamaica Kincaid, always a plus in my books), who had a clear personality from the get-go. Dionne, in comparison, was a far weaker character. She’s very much the epitome of rebellious and angsty teenager who spends most of her time disrespecting her elders and thinking about sex. Which is fair enough, but because Hyacinth and Phaedra weren’t relegated to their ‘grandmother’ or ‘young child’ role, Dionne’s poor characterisation—which hinges on her being a teenager—stood out.
The writing was heavy on the ‘telling’ and light on the ‘showing’. Conversations are summarised rather than being ‘played’ on the page, and because the third-person narrative switches from character-to-charcater the same events or information would be repeated over the course of a few pages. The flashbacks could have been better integrated within the narrative, as they often broke the flow of the story, and gave us chunks of backstory that could have been portioned out more uniformly.
Still, I liked reading about Bird Hill, Hyacinth, and Phaedra. And even if the story touches on topics such as mental illnesses, it did so without delving too deep in them, so that it maintained an overall lighthearted, if bittersweet, tone.
I would probably recommend it to readers who enjoyed Frying Plantain or other novel that focus on family relationships between women (mother/daughters, granddaughters/grandmothers).

MY RATING 3 / 5 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

“They could only stitch themselves back together if they did something irreversible.”

Heavenly Creatures by way of Patricia Highsmith, plus a sprinkle of Like Minds, and with the kind of teenage morbidity one could find in Hangsaman or Stoker.

Adroit and gripping, These Violent Delights is a superlative debut novel. Being the self-proclaimed connoisseur of academia fiction, I was drawn by the comparisons to The Secret History and I was amazed to discover that unlike other releases (not naming any names) These Violent Delights definitely had some TSH vibes. But whereas most academia books focus on a ‘clique’, Micah Nemerever’s novel is very much centred on the obsessive relationship between two seventeen-year olds.
If you’ve read or watched anything that revolves around a toxic relationship, you know what to expect from These Violent Delights. The prologue itself reveals to us that all will not be well for these two boys, and that at some point will embark on a path of no return.

“He couldn’t remember ever being the person he’d decided to become.”

The narrative takes us back to their first meeting. Paul, our protagonist, is a university freshman in Pittsburgh during the early 1970s. His father has recently committed suicide and his mother has yet to recover. Paul suffers from an almost debilitating insecurity, and shows a propensity for virulent self-recriminations. His inward-looking nature brings him no joy, as his mind is often consumed by his many ‘shortcomings’, and those of others. He feels misunderstood by his working-class family, and without his father, his grandfather, a man whose good-natured attempts to connect with Paul inevitably miss the mark, has become his closest male figure. His family fails to accept that Paul isn’t the type to ‘loosen’ up with his peers or have ‘fun’ with some girl.
When a discussion on experimental ethics in class gets Paul hot under the collar, Julian Fromme comes to his defence. On the surface Julian is the antithesis of Paul: he comes from wealth, he’s self-assured, easy-going, and charismatic. Yet, Paul is enthralled by him, especially when he realises that Julian carries within him a darkness not unlike his own. Their mutual understanding and their interest in one another results in instantaneous connection. They can have erudite talks, challenging each other’s stance on subjects related to ethics and morals, and revel in the superiority they feel towards their classmates. Within hours of their meeting their bond has solidified, becoming something impenetrable to outsiders. It soon becomes apparent that neither of them is in control in their relationship, and things are further complicated when their platonic friendship gives way to a more sexual one.
Their symbiotic bond is of concern to others (to be queer—in both senses—is no walk in the park, especially in the 70s), and attempts are made to separate the two. But Paul and Julian are determined to stay together, and more than once they tell each other that the idea of life without the other would be unbearable.

“[H]e wasn’t afraid anymore. After a lifetime of yearning and trying not to yearn, he imagined the relief of surrendering.”

Even if we suspect that Paul and Julian’s intoxicating liaison will have internecine consequences, we are desperate for a moment of reprieve. But Nemerever’s narrative does not let up, not once. Readers will read with increasing anxiety as Paul and Julian embark on an ‘irreversible’ path, alienating those around them. Dread and anguish became my constant companions while I was reading this novel and I’m glad that I choose to read this when I was off work (I devoured this novel in less than 24h) since These Violent Delights is a riveting edge-of-your-seat kind of read.
A sense of unease pervades this story as even the early stages of Paul and Julian’s relationship are fraught. Julian is almost secretive when it comes to his family, and disapproves of the contempt Paul harbours towards his own mother. Their love for each other often veers into dislike, if not hatred, and they are quite capable of being extremely cruel to each other. Even so we can see why they have become so entangled together, and why they oppose anyone who threatens to separate them. But as they enable one other, their teenage angst morphs into a more perturbing sort of behaviour. Time and again we are left wondering who, if anyone, is in control.

“All they were—all they had ever been—was a pair of sunflowers who each believed the other was the sun.”

My summary of this novel won’t do it justice as I fear I’m making it sound like any other ‘dark’ tale of obsessive friendships (in this case a romantic one but still). It is Nemerever’s writing that elevates his story from ‘interesting’ to exhilarating (and downright distressing). He evokes the claustrophobic and oppressive nature of Paul and Julian’s bond, making us feel as if we too are caught in their all-consuming relationship. Nemerever’s also acutely renders Paul’s discomforts, the intensity of his love for Julian, of his self-loathing, and of his conflicting desires (to be known, to be unknowable). He wants his family to understand him, but in those instances when they prove that they may understand him more than he thinks, he does not hear them out.

“All I want to do is make you happy, and you’re the unhappiest person I’ve ever met.”

Similarly to The Secret History, the narrative is very much examining the way we can fail to truly see the people closest to us. Paul’s low self-esteem makes him constantly doubt everyone around, Julian included. He perceives slights where there are none, and even seems to find a sort of twisted pleasure (or as Lacan would have it, jouissance) in second-guessing Julian’s feelings towards him or in assuming the worst of others. He projects a preconceived image of Julian onto him (someone who is cruel and deceitful, someone who, unlike Paul himself, can easily adapt or pretend to be normal), and this prevents him from seeing him as he truly is.
The love Paul feels for Julian is almost fanatical, doomed to be destructive. This is the type of relationship that would not be out of place in a Magda Szabó (The Door), Joyce Carol Oates (Solstice) or a Barbara Vine novel (The House of Stairs, No Night is Too Long, A Fatal Inversion) or as the subject of a song by Placebo (I’m thinking of ‘Without You I’m Nothing’).

“They were wild and delirious and invincible, and it was strange that no one else could see it.”

Nemerever’s writing style is exquisite and mature. I was struck by the confidence of his prose (it does read like a debut novel). Not one word is wasted, every sentence demands your attention (which is difficult when the story has you flipping pages like no tomorrow). Nemerever brings to life every scene and character he writes of, capturing, for example, with painful precision the crushing disquiet Paul feels (24/7), his loneliness (exacerbated by his queerness and intelligence) and his deep-seated insecurity. Nemerever doesn’t always explicitly states what Paul is feeling, or thinking, and the ambiguity this creates reminded me very much of Shirley Jackson, in particular of Hangsaman (a scene towards the end was particularly reminiscent of that novel). Readers will have to fill the gaps or try to read the subtext of certain scenes or exchanges between P and J.

Not only did this book leave me with a huge book-hangover but it also left me emotionally exhausted (when I tried picking up other books my mind kept going back to Paul and Julian). Paul is one of the most miserable characters I’ve ever read of. And while he is no angel, I found myself, alongside his family, wanting to help him. But I could also understand him as he strongly reminded of my own teenage experiences, and of how ‘wretched’ and alone I felt (woe is me), as well as the fierce, and at times detrimental, friendships I formed during those vulnerable years.
In spite of what Paul and Julian do, I cared deeply for them. I wanted to ‘shake’ them, but I also desperately wanted them to be happy.
I’m sure I could blather on some more, but I will try and stop myself here. Reading These Violent Delights is akin to watching a slow-motion video of a car accident or some other disaster. You know what will happen but you cannot tear your eyes away. Read this at your own peril!

MY RATING: 5 / 5 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Maggie Stiefvater is a marvellous storyteller. The Raven Boys is a fantastic novel: we have an intriguing storyline, Welsh mythology, magic and curses, and a cast of unforgettable characters. Rather than presenting her readers with ‘heroes and heroines’, paragons of beauty and virtue, Stiefvater’s characters, regardless of their role, are nuanced and messy. The raven boys and Blue can be insecure about themselves, each other, and their future. Their friendship is an intense one, but things are never easy between them. Stiefvater never reveals too much about her characters, so that they always retain a certain ambiguity, an enticing air of mystery. Stiefvater style carries a wonderful rhythm. I love the way she plays around with repetition and the way she describes her characters or how animated her scenes are (there are so many secret looks shared between the raven boys).
The Raven Boys is an incredibly atmospheric book that will always have a special place in my heart. Words cannot express how much I love this series.

MY RATING: ★★★★★ 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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