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Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall — book review

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

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi — book review

718ueoaymll_custom-1871d31e9581dd75468c9026b282ff89ad688693-s800-c85.jpgThe Death of Vivek Oji is an enthralling novel. Akwaeke Emezi’s lyrical prose is by turns evocative, sensual, and heart-wrenching. With empathy and understanding Emezi writes about characters who are grappling with grief and otherness, as well as with their gender identity and sexuality.

“Did it feel like terror? More like horror, actually. Terrible sounded like it had a bit of acceptance in it, like an unthinkable thing had happened but you’d found space in your brain to acknowledge it, perhaps even begin to accept it. Then again, horrible sounded the same way. The words had departed from their origins. They were diluted, denatured.”

The first line of The Death of Vivek Oji informs us of Vivek Oji’s death. When Chika and Kavita discover the body of their only child outside of their home, their lives are shattered. While Chika retreats inside himself, Kavita is desperate to find out what happened to Vivek. She urges Vivek’s friends to speak out, but they seem unwilling to discuss Vivek with her. While the narrative mostly focuses on Osita—who is Vivek’s cousin—and Kavita’s perspectives, we are also given glimpses into the lives and minds of Vivek’s friends.
While The Death of Vivek Oji follows a formula that isn’t entirely original (a novel that revolves around the death of story’s central character is dead) Emezi’s use of a non-linear narrative and the skilful way in which they inhabit different perspectives (switching between first and third povs) makes this novel stand out.

Nigeria is the backdrop to Vivek’s story and Emezi vividly renders its traditions, its idiosyncrasies, its contemporary culture (90s). Emezi’s narratives is centred on those who feel, or are made to feel, different. Kavita belongs to the Nigerwives, foreign women married to Nigerian men. As this group of women help each other to navigate their married lives, their children come to form a deep bond.
Emezi recounts Vivek’s childhood through Osita’s perspective. When one of Vivek’s blackouts causes Osita to feel greatly embarrassed, the two become estranged. Over the next few years Osita hears of Vivek only through his parent.
Vivek becomes increasingly disinterred with the rest of the world, hides at home, stops going to university, and Kavita, understandably, is worried. She tries to understand her child but seems unable to accept who Vivek is.
Thankfully, Vivek finds solace in the daughters of the Nigerwives. Osita too re-enters Vivek’s life, and the two become closer than ever.

While I found both the sections set in the past and in the present to be deeply affecting, I particularly loved to read of Vivek’s relationship with the Nigerwives’ daughters. Reading about Osita and Kavita’s lives after Vivek’s death was truly heart-wrenching as Emezi truly captures the depths of their grief.
I did find myself wishing to read more from Vivek’s perspective. It seemed that Vivek’s story was being told by people who did not have a clear image of Vivek. There was also a section focused on a character of no importance to Vivek’s story (like, seriously, what was the point in him? it felt really out of place). The mystery surrounding Vivek’s death was unnecessarily prolonged.
But these are minor grievances. I loved the way Emezi articulated the feelings, thoughts, and impressions of their characters with grace and clarity. Emezi’s novel is a real stunner, and if you enjoy books that explore complex familial relationship, such as Mira T. Lee’s Everything Here Is Beautiful, chances are you will love The Death of Vivek Oji.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Just Like You by Nick Hornby — book review

Set against the backdrop of the 2016 referendum (Brexit) Just Like You follows two very different individuals who happen to fall in love. Recently divorced Lucy, a forty-one year old white schoolteacher, is look71dpLD1kOUL.jpging to date again so she hires a babysitter for her two sons. The babysitter, Joseph, happens to be a twenty-one year old black man who works part time at a the butcher counter and aspires to be a DJ. In spite of how little in common Lucy and Joseph have, the two become romantically involved. Nick Hornby tackles many different issues: politics (particularly on Brexit), class, race, interracial dating, racial profiling, divorce, drug addiction, and alcoholism.
Throughout the course of their relationship Lucy and Joseph attempt to bridge the gap between their generations and to overcome their drastically different interests and backgrounds. Their friends and relatives are not very approving of their relationship, and their age gap raises a few eyebrows.
While I did enjoy reading the early stages of Lucy and Joseph’s relationship (a lot of which occurs via texting), once they begin sort-of-dating, Hornby seems to gloss over their more positive interactions, focusing instead on scenes in which tensions arise between the two. While their seemingly silly misunderstandings were realistic, in the way they often escalated to actual arguments, they didn’t give a full-picture of their relationship. Their earlier chemistry seems to fizzle out all too quickly, so that we are left with two people who don’t really act like they really like or even love each other. Towards the end in particular I wish that Hornby had articulated Lucy and Joseph’s feelings for each other (it seemed that ‘for reasons’ they wanted to make things work).
I also wish that Joseph hadn’t been painted as being so clueless and disinterested in politics and literature. He has no real passion for music, so his dj aspirations seemed little other than a diversion.
The story too could have been more developed as it comes across as rather directionless. Lucy and Joseph have very few meaningful connections, so that many interactions—in which either of them is sick of talking to whoever they are talking to—felt repetitive. They have awkward dinners and get-togethers, they meet up with ‘friends’ they don’t particularly care for…
And while I understand that Hornby wanted to play the devil’s advocate when he introduces us to ‘likeable’ characters who turn out to be xenophobic Brexiteers…well, the wound is still fresh, and I have 0 sympathy for these characters.
While I appreciated that Hornby wanted the everyday moments that make up a relationship, I found myself wanting a bit more passion or romance between Lucy and Joseph. Most pages however seemed to focus on the more negative aspects of their relationship….and by the end I was just ready to be done with the 2016 referendum. The first time around was hard enough, do I hate myself so much that I want to experience it again? Not really.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Eighth Detective by Alex Pavesi — book review

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

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

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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How It All Blew Up by Arvin Ahmadi — book review

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DISCLAIMER: having just come across a 5-star review that says negative reviews should not remark on how this book doesn’t really explore Amir’s faith and/or heritage I felt the need to better articulate my thoughts about this book:
1) I’m not saying this book doesn’t have great Muslim rep because I found it unbelievable that a Muslim mc wouldn’t be thinking about his faith/heritage 24/7 or because the mc is a non-practicing Muslim
2) I do think that this book could have delved deeper into Amir’s relationship to his faith/heritage. Throughout the course of this novel Amir states that being gay is incompatible with being Muslim…and that’s it. He merely reiterates ‘Muslims don’t like gay people’…that strikes me (I am being entirely subjective) as somewhat simplistic.
3) the novel opens with his family being detained at an airport. The author states that he wanted to ‘subvert’ this type of situation but I am not sure he succeeded. Scenes from this ‘interrogation’ are interspersed throughout the novel, and it felt extremely gimmicky and insensitive (treating a serious situation in a very superficial and unconvincing way).
4) I’m not a Muslim so I recommend you read reviews from Muslim users.If you are thinking of reading this book I suggest you check out more positive reviews.

What I can comment on however is Ahmadi’s depiction of Italy and Italians (yes, I’m Italian)…which truly irritated me.
Maybe non-Italian readers will be able to overlook the stereotypes in this novel…personally I’m tired of books that portray Italy as a quirky land of Vespas and pasta. Fun fact: Italians don’t just eat pizza and pasta (I know, mind-blowing). Also, why do we always get this quaint image of Italian women hanging their laundry?
The Italian characters left much to be desired. There is this Italian couple (the only two Italian guys who actually make more than two or three appearances), possibly in their late twenties, and they are not monogamous. Cool for them, right? Except that they are actually deeply unhappy and they (view spoiler) Then we have a cute Italian guy from Puglia who plays a rather irrelevant role (I guess he’s there so we can have a kiss scene in the Sistine Chapel?).
Another Italian character is a guy who works at a bar/restaurant and speaks in a “It’s-a Me, Mario” accent (his supposed all-caps texts to his daughter? Ridiculous).

The story is very rushed. Amir is blackmailed, skips his graduation day, and flies to Rome. Here he manages to get an apartment, even if he’s never been to Rome before nor does he speak Italian. Lucky for him he comes across a group of ‘friends’: some are American, some Italian, most are gay. They invite him out, make him feel more comfortable with his sexuality. He manages to make some ‘illegal’ money by writing Wiki articles, he avoids his parents’ phone calls, and he tries not think about returning to America. Although he’s eighteen, he acts like a young teen, which made some of his encounters with his new ‘friends’ a bit problematic. More disappointing still is the fact that none of these gay couples are actually happy (as most of them seem to resent their partner and/or their friends). What kind of message are the readers supposed to get? Amir has ‘fun’ sort of. He drinks out and goes to parties. But then we ‘realise’ that they are either cruel, uncaring, unforgiving, and/or liars. While a certain positive review calls my review out on this, saying that characters should be allowed to be imperfect, I think they missed the point I was trying to make. I’m all for flawed characters but they have to be somewhat realistic. The characters here don’t ‘change’ or ‘learn’ from their mistakes. They are and remain one-dimensional (we have the closeted jock, the smart younger sister, the ‘motherly’ mother, the distant father).
I had the impression that Ahmadi skipped a lot of scenes, so that we had these jumpy transitions in which ‘time passed’ and ‘stuff happened’. The ending felt anticlimactic, angsty for the sake of being angsty (of course we have to have a big fight between our ‘friends’). The interrogation scene predictably amounted to nothing.
The writing, the characterisation, the way Italy is portrayed, all leave a lot to be desired (once again: this is my personal opinion).

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier — book review

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“They could support a teenage pregnancy, but not this, not a person who drifted from one moment to the next without any idea about where she was headed.”

Sayaka Murata meets Ottessa Moshfegh in this freewheeling and darkly funny debut novel. Jean Kyoung Frazier’s deadpan wit and playful cynicism give a subversive edge to what could otherwise seem like yet another tale of millennial ennui.

Pizza Girl is uncompromising in its portrayal of love, obsession, addiction, and depression. Our narrator and protagonist is a Korean-American pizza delivery girl who lives in suburban Los Angeles. She’s eighteen years old, pregnant, and feels increasingly detached from her supportive mother and affable boyfriend. Unlike them, our narrator cannot reconcile herself with her pregnancy, and tries to avoid thinking about her future. As her alienation grows, she retreats further into herself and spends her waking hours in a perpetual state of numbing listlessness.

“Where am I going and how do I get there? What have I done and what will I continue to do? Will I ever wake up and look in the mirror and feel good about the person staring back at me?”

Her unfulfilling existence is interrupted by Jenny, a stay-at-home mother in her late thirties who orders pickled covered pizzas for her son. Our protagonist becomes enthralled by Jenny, perceiving her as both glamorous and deeply human. Pizza girl’s desire for Jenny is all-consuming, and soon our narrator, under the illusion that Jenny too feels their ‘connection’, is hurtling down a path of self-destruction. Her reckless and erratic behaviour will unsettle both the reader and her loved ones. Yet, even at her lowest Frazier’s narrator is never repelling. Her delusions, her anxieties, her world-weariness are rendered with clarity and empathy.

She feels simultaneously unseen and suffocated by the people in her life. While readers understand, to a certain extent, that her sluggish attitude and cruel words are borne out of painful frustration. Her unspoken misgivings (about who is she and what kind of future awaits her, about having a child and being a mother), her unease and guilt, her fear of resembling her now deceased alcoholic father, make her all the more desperate for a way out of her life. Unlike others Jenny seems unafraid to show her vulnerabilities, and there is a strange kinship between these two women.

“I’ll tell you what I wish someone told me when I was eighteen—it never goes away.”
“What is ‘it,’ exactly?”
“All of it, any of it, just it.”

While the world Frazier depicts seems at times incredibly pessimistic, the narrator’s unerring, wry, and compelling voice never succumbs to her bleak circumstances.
Frazier’s prose has this lively quality to it, one that makes Pizza Girl into an incredibly absorbing read. The feverish latter part of the story, in which others call into question our protagonist’s state of mind, brought to mind Caroline O’Donoghue’s novels (in particular Promising Young Women). Let it be said that things get confusing (and somewhat horrifying).

“Han was a sickness of the soul, an acceptance of having a life that would be filled with sorrow and resentment and knowing that deep down, despite this acceptance, despite cold and hard facts that proved life was long and full of undeserved miseries, “hope” was still a word that carried warmth and meaning. Despite themselves, Koreans were not believers, but feelers—they pictured the light at the end of the tunnel and fantasized about how lovely that first touch of sun would feel against their skin, about all they could do in wide-open spaces.”

Frazier’s mumblecore-esque dialogues demonstrate her attentive ear for language. Speaking of language, I particularly liked pizza girl’s assessment of ready replies like ‘I’m okay’ or ‘I’m fine’.

“Fine,” a word you used when you stubbed your toe and people asked you if you were okay and you didn’t want to sound like a little bitch. When your mom gave you Cheerios after you asked for Froot Loops. Something you said to people who asked about your day and you didn’t know them well enough to give them a real answer. Never a word used when talking about anything of value.”

Pizza girl’s disconnect—from others, reality, and herself—is vibrantly rendered. Her troubled relationship with her dysfunctional father hit particularly hard as I found her conflicting thoughts towards him (and the idea of resembling him) to echo my own experiences.

Similarly to Hilary Leichter and Hiromi Kawakami Frazier’s surrealism is rooted in everyday life. Funny, moving, and unapologetic, Pizza Girl is a great debut novel. The narrator’s fuck-ups will undoubtedly make you uncomfortable, but much of her harmful behaviour stems from self-loathing and it also points to other people’s hypocritical attitudes towards those who are deemed ‘troubled’.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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A Man by Keiichirō Hirano – book review

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“It’s unbearable to have your identity summed up by one thing and one thing only and for other people to have control over what that is.”

Keiichirō Hirano has spun an intriguing psychological tale. A Man presents its readers with an in-depth and carefully paced mystery revolving around identity theft.
Hirano novel’s opening is rather metafictional as it is narrated by an unmanned novelist who after bumping into a man called Akira Kido becomes fascinated by Kido’s own obsession with another man (the narrator goes on to compare the story he’s about to tell to a painting by René Magritte entitled ‘Not to Be Reproduced’):

“With all the unique characters that make an appearance, some of you might wonder why on earth I didn’t pick one of the bit players to be the protagonist. While Kido-san will in fact obsessed with the life of a man, it is in Kido-san, viewed from behind as he chases this man, that I sensed something to be seen.”

Kido is a divorce attorney who has become detached from his wife. She, in turn, shows little interest in him or his job and is rather unsympathetic when it comes to his Zainichi background (that is ethnically Korean residents of Japan). Kido’s practical and reserved nature frustrate his wife (who often mistakes impassiveness for callousness) While Kido disapproves of his wife’s strict parenting style, she mistakes his reserved disposition as a sign of callousness. When a growingly disillusioned Kido is contacted by Rié Takemoto, a former client of his, he finds himself drawn into the life of another man. After Rié’s second husband dies in a work-related accident, she discovers that his name and past are that of another man. Throughout the course of his investigation Kido questions X’s motives. What could make someone want to conceal their true name or background? And what constitutes an identity?
As Kido comes in contact with the various individuals and families connected to X, and as his relationship with his own wife becomes further strained, he grows fond of this unknown X and starts to see the appeal of ‘starting’ over.
Although Kido’s investigation is the running thread that connects together these seemingly disparate characters and events, it sometimes seems more of a background. The narrative provides a panoramic view of the characters Kido comes into contact during the course of his investigation. While many of Kido’s thoughts are dedicated to X and issues of identity, he’s an erudite and his mind will often wonder down philosophical paths. He makes many literary allusions (he compares his stance towards other Zainichi as being similar to the way in which Levin—from Anna Karenina—views ‘peasants’). Kido’s precarious relationship to his ethnicity is one of the novel’s main motifs:

“Since he had grown up almost entirely as a “Japanese person” even before he naturalized, he was profoundly uneasy with the idea that he was either a direct victim or perpetuator of the troubles the best Korean enclaves.”

Kido passes most of his time in contemplation. He muses on the myth of Narcissus, the nature vs. nurture debate, questions his marriage, and those of other people, considers the notion of an identity and broods over his own loneliness:

“Yes, loneliness. He did not shy from this word to express the dark emotion that had been seething in his chest of late. It was a bottomless, middle-aged kind of loneliness that he never could have even conceived when he was younger, a loneliness that saturated him with bone-chilling sentimentality the moment he let down his guard.”

Hirano’s Japan is vividly rendered. From its recent history to its social norms, Hirano’s novel provides plenty of insights into contemporary Japan. There are extensive discussions on Japan’s penal and legal system (given Kido’s line of work there is a lot on divorce and custody laws).
As much as I liked novel (identity concealment makes for a fascinating subject) I was deeply disappointed by the abrupt way it ended. After spending so much time with Kido, I felt cheated by those final chapters. Kido is seemingly discarded, and readers are left wondering what exactly he will do after he makes an important discovery.
Still, I would probably recommend this one, especially to those who are interested in learning about contemporary Japan or for those who prefer more thought-provoking and philosophical mysteries.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Magnificent Sons by Justin Myers — book review

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“Don’t get me wrong, labels can be destructive and restrictive, but they also hep you define yourself.”

The Magnificent Sons follows two brothers, Jake and Trick D’Arcy, with opposing personalities, one is a rather private person while the other one is a social butterfly and YouTuber. Their age-gap, Jake is 29 while Trick has just turned 17, doesn’t make their relationship easier. They are rather inflexible, and seem unwilling to stray from their generation’s values, beliefs, and worldview. Jake believes that Trick is spoiled and mollycoddled, while Trick thinks Jake is an awkward and boring loser.
After Trick comes out as gay, their parents couldn’t be more supportive, while a jealous Jake makes an intensive comment, souring their already fraught relationship. Jake himself is struggling to reconcile himself with his sexuality. Although he has a girlfriend he sort of cares for, he’s no longer willing—or able—to ‘hide’ his bisexuality. When he comes out as bi however, his parents aren’t impressed. They are confused and unsure of what ‘bisexuality’ means. Trick, the supposedly woke younger brother, offers him no support, and makes fun of him behind his back (his disparaging comments reminded me of Little Britain’s ‘the only gay in the village’ sketch ). As Jake navigates his ‘new’ life, he’s confronted with how his coming out has affected the way his family, friends, and colleagues see him.
I wish the story could have been entirely focused on Jake and Trick. The third-person narrative however would move from character to character, often within the same scene. These different perspectives added little to the overall story, and didn’t really add any depth to the secondary characters. If anything this ‘shifting’ between perspectives interrupted the flow of the narrative. Also, if more time had been spent on Jake and Trick, perhaps they would have been a bit more layered.
There are so many superfluous characters: friends of friends, colleagues of friends…and they are all very forgettable. Jake is perhaps the most fleshed out character in the novel, and even he would have benefitted from more a more developed personality. Still, as he’s called out, or calls himself out, for his past/existing preconceptions (about being with other men, the LGBTQ+ community, masculinity), he does seem to have a character arc. He’s flawed but capable of challenging his lazy-thinking or biases.
Yet, while Jake realises why he has behaved badly towards his girlfriend, Trick, and his friends, most of the other characters aren’t called out on their biphobia or their biphobic comments. Trick in particular really irritated me. He act like an entitled 14-year-old, whose obnoxiousness verges on the solipsistic. His ‘grudge’ against Jake was so childish. More often than not, Jake is just existing and Trick thinks things like: “[he] wished life were a photo so he could crop Jake out of it”. Much of his narcissistic or cruel behaviour is chalked up to his ‘young age’…but I low-key hated this guy. He was portrayed as a stereotype of the generation Z (or whatever it’s called).
While I appreciated the realistic romantic/sexual relationship in this book, part of me would have liked to have seen some ’emotional’ depth to them (Jake and his girlfriend for example…I felt nil between them). Platonic relationships too could have been a bit less stilted.
While the characters don’t respond well to Jake’s bisexuality, I did enjoy Myers’ portrayal of Jake’s sexuality. Many of his doubts or desires resonated with me, and I particularly liked it when Jake describes the differences between his attraction to men and to women.
Still, I wish that Jake hadn’t been so often painted as the bad guy. It seemed like the author would often go out of his way to embarrass him or make him say/do the wrong thing. The secondary characters blurred together, and I frequently forgot who was friend with who. Trick was an incredibly annoying character, who in spite of his privileged background, wants others to ‘feel’ for him.
All in all, I have quite a few reservations about this novel.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Adventures of Isabel: An Epitome Apartments Mystery by Candas Jane Dorsey — book review

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“I spend my days staring at the wall and fantasising about disembowelling my cat as an offering to whatever bitch goddess has been organising my life lately. I am so depressed that if I could motivate myself to it I’d commit suicide, but it’s too proactive for me.”

The subtitle of this novel is quite apt: ‘A Postmodern Mystery’. The Adventures of Isabel is to detective/mystery fiction what Picasso is to Turner. Candas Jane Dorsey has written an absorbing and extremely metafictional (the narrator frequently ‘breaks’ the fourth wall) mystery that feels very much of ‘the now’. The novel’s unmanned narrator, single, ambisexual, in her late thirties, a downsized social worker, is down on her luck. Her life takes an interesting turn when Maddy, the granddaughter of one her closest friends, is found murdered. Because of Maddy’s line of work, Hep (aka her grandmother) believes that the police won’t be solve her case.

“Hep then named an hourly rate which made even my overinflated self-indulgent subconscious blink, and between the emotional blackmail of being reminded how much I owed Denis, the memory of my empty cupboard, evocations of the pitiful dead kid, and greed, I was persuaded—provisionally, with confirmation to be given once I sobered up—to give up my career as a call girl and become a detective.”

Our protagonist begrudgingly takes on the role of ‘detective’, using her knowledge of the city’s underbelly she uses a police connection and her extensive social network to solve Maddy’s murderer. Her investigation is anything but straightforward, and often falls into the absurd a la Alice in Wonderland. The novel is less interested in the plot than it is with ‘style’. The spotlight remains on the protagonist’s meta narration. Dorsey’s tongue-in-cheek portrayal of a ‘contemporary’ society is delightfully humorous.
The cast of characters are as entertaining as our narrator, and often their conversations spiral into the nonsensical. I particularly liked the narrator’s relationship with her religious cousin and Jian (who is beyond cool). There are some running gags (Bunnywit’s ‘original’ name, the fish sticks) that make the narrator’s reality feel familiar.
As much as I loved the narrator’s metafictional asides, or her ramblings on other characters’ word-choices, it did seem that the ‘murder story’ was lost in all this postmodern cacophony. Amidst the characters’ digressing discussions and our mc’s various monologues, I often lost sight of the actual investigation. Still, I liked Dorsey’s original approach to this genre, and I really ‘clicked’ with her protagonist. Without loosing the lighthearted tone of her narrative, Dorsey manages to directly address issues such as gender, sexuality, and race.
The novel’s strength is in its energetic narrative and in the protagonist’s dark humour. I will quite happily read another novel about this main character as I would like to learn more of her backstory.

My rating: 3.25 of 5 stars

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Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings — book review

46184288._SY475_While Kathleen Jennings is an undeniably wonderful illustrator, I’m afraid that I wasn’t particularly impressed by her novella. What first struck me as somewhat discordant in Flyaway was the prose itself. At times the writing was clunky and there were passages that seemed as if they were trying to echo someone else’s style. The way Flyaway started was also incredibly reminiscent of my favourite novel by Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. While in Jackson’s novel the ambiguity felt almost ‘natural’, Flyway seems to be blaring its own mysteriousness. Our narrator, Bettina (I had to check her name, that’s how ‘unforgettable’ she is) has this excessively creepy monologue which consists in her repeating to herself her mother’s ladylike beliefs/rules. Bettina cannot remember why her father disappeared. She isn’t concerned by her hazy memories until she receives a letter that for plot reasons convinces her to embark on a road-trip with her former best friends. Quite a few people have disappeared in their small town, and these three decide to figure out what’s going on. Interspersed in this already short story are chapters about minor characters who are connected to the town and its mystery.
The characters were mere names and lacked personality. Bettina’s narration isn’t nearly as ambivalent as it believes, the various stories were both boring and predictable, and I simply could not get into the flow of Jennings dissonant writing style.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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