BOOK REVIEWS

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

Engaging and insightful If I Had Your Face is a solid debut novel from a promising writer.
If I Had Your Face follows four young women trying to navigate everyday life in contemporary Seoul. They live in the same building but to begin with are not exactly friends. We have Ara, a mute hair stylist who is infatuated with a member of a popular Kpop boy band, Kyuri, who has undergone numerous plastic surgeries and works at a ‘room salon’ where she entertains wealthy men, Miho, an artist who studied in NY and whose boyfriend comes from an influential family, and Wonna, who lives with her husband and is pregnant.
Part of me wishes that the novel could have been structured differently, so that instead of switching between these characters their stories could have been presented as a series of interlinked novellas. This would have probably prevented their voices from blurring together, which they sometimes did. Miho and Wonna’s chapters were a lot weaker in terms of ‘distinctive’ voice. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Cha’s breezy prose. It is very readable and vividly rendered the characters’
circumstances/environments.
I liked the balance Cha maintained between drama and realism. Cha’s commentary on South Korean society is both sharp and zingy. Through the Ara, Miho, Wonna, and Kyuri’s stories Cha shows the ways in which their choices, desires, sense of selves, are shaped by gender inequity, class, and oppressive beauty standards. Their parents are either dead or unable to help them financially so they rely on their income…beauty too is a currency and we see the advantages of being seen as beautiful entails.
Another aspect that I appreciated about this novel was that its characters are not paragons of virtue. They can be selfish, oblivious, not always willing to consider the weight of their actions or words, judgemental, flippant, and cruel. I did find myself far more interested in Ara and Kyuri than Miho and Wonna. This may be because the latter two had chapters that were heavy on ‘backstories’ (as opposed to focusing on the ‘now’). Miho’s personality seemed that of the artist (always with her head in the clouds, viewing the world through artistic lenses, too occupied by her art to remember to eat or take care of herself) while Wonna’s chapters did not seem to fit with the rest. Her chapters examine her marriage and her anxiety over her pregnancy (understandably since she had several miscarriages), which would have suited another kind of book. The other characters’ chapters did not have such narrow focus. Also, I just found myself growing fonder of Ara and Kyuri. Their storylines were gripping in a way that Miho and Wonna’s weren’t. The stakes were higher in Ara and Kyuri and their eventual friendship was rather sweet.
Cha’s If I Had Your Face is certainly a vibrant read. If you want to read more about modern South Korean society or of the trails and errors, ups and downs of life as a millennial you should definitely give If I Had Your Face a try.

ps: I have a bone to pick with whoever wrote the blurb for this novel. The blurb for the viking edition not only reveals too much but it is also kind of misleading (Ara’s obsession with a K-pop star “drives her to violent extremes”…? When? If this is referring to that one scene…that had very little to do with Ara’s crush on that K-pop star).


my rating: ★★★½

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Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

“Your eyes meet in the silence. The gaze requires no words at all. It is an honest meeting.”

Open Water is an exceedingly lyrical debut. The story, narrated through a second-person perspective (ie ‘you’) is centred on the relationship between two Black British artists (he is a photographer, she is a dancer). Although their relationship is portrayed through a linear timeline, the narrative lingers only on some key scenes/periods between this will-they-won’t-they couple. From their first meeting the photographer (‘you’) is struck by the dancer who at time is going out with a friend of his. The two become friends but their closeness is complicated by their more than platonic feeling for each other.
Caleb Azumah Nelson renders with poignancy their bond. I loved the way he articulates his main character’s vulnerabilities and the role that language itself plays in his narrative. To articulate one’s feelings, desires, and fears is no easy feat. Language, as the author reminds us time and again, fails us. There is an emphasis on this, that is on the difficulty of articulating your thoughts or truths. ‘You’ seems in a perpetual struggle with himself. He’s in love with the dancer but there are things that keep him from expressing himself to her. The narrative also touches upon on the idea of being ‘seen but not seen’. The photographer, a young Black man in London, has experienced time and again the scrutiny of the white gaze. It is because he is viewed as a danger and a threat that he remains in fact unseen. So, when the dancer sees him, as in truly sees him, he feels understood like never before. But it is this bond that complicates their love story.

At times the story resembled a series of snapshots or impressions: these had a moody often cinematic-feel to them that resulted in some great atmosphere (I can definitely see this being adapted to the screen). Nelson’s prose brims with lyricism. With staccato-like sentences he captures those ephemeral feelings which are often so hard to express or pin down. His poetic writing style lends beautifully to the themes he goes on to explore (young love, masculinity and vulnerability, race, creativity).
What didn’t quite work for me was the 2nd pov. I’m just not the biggest fan of this perspective. I also had a hard time familiarising myself with our main characters. Their personalities felt almost lost in the midst of the author’s lyrical language.
Open Water nonetheless struck me as a confident and deeply felt debut.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Pretty as a Picture by Elizabeth Little

Action, cut, action, cut, action, cut, action, cut. These aren’t commands, not for me. They’re more like everyday punctuation. A capital letter. A period. An indication that I should pay attention to what’s going on in the middle.”

Pretty as a Picture tells a slow-burn type of suspenseful story, one that I would definitely recommend to movie aficionados as this novel shines a light on the realities of the film industry: from the demanding, if not downright tyrannical, directors and agents to the power dynamics and hierarchies that are at play in a film crew. This behind-the-scenes setting is perhaps the most interesting and dazzling aspect of this book.

Although there are certain elements within the narrative that would not be out of place in a thriller, Pretty as a Picture is above all a character-driver story. Marissa, our protagonist and narrator, makes this novel. While she may initially strike readers as yet another introverted ‘not like other people’ character—who is later on reassured by others about her looks and personality—Marissa not only experience things differently but others are aware of this and often make the point of commenting on it. Her poor social skills, her ‘ticks’, her struggle to read or understand other people’s tone of voice or body language, her dislike of physical contact….these all contribute to making small everyday things—such any type of social interaction—much harder for her.
Films help her navigate the world. When she doesn’t know what to do or say she turns to the films she’s watched. Sometimes she simply draws strength from the characters of her favourite movies, while on other occasions someone, something, or someplace might remind her of a certain film.

When her best friend, and former creative partner, moves out of their apartment and with her douche-y boyfriend, Marissa finds herself in need of an editing gig. Her agent pushes into accepting an offer for a film based on a true murder case. Marissa is told that the previous editor suddenly left so the director, Tony Rees, is desperate for someone to replace him. Marissa is taken to a remote island where she unearths more than one mystery: from the dismissal of various members of staff to the growing tension between the people working on the film…something is afoot. Marissa, alongside some new acquaintances, plays detective in order to find just what is going on this set.

The murder aspect of the story kicks starts around the half-way mark. Before then we are introduced to the story’s many characters and we get a chance to truly get to know Marissa. The slow yet atmospheric start gives way to an increasingly urgent storyline. There are some twists that are somewhat predictable but I still enjoyed seeing the way in which things unfolded.
Marissa is a distinctive narrator. Her interactions with others could be either funny, awkward, or tense, and I appreciated the way in which Elizabeth Little depicted her. We read about her vulnerabilities, her strengths, and her quirks.
The chemistry between Marissa and Isaiah adds a nice touch to the story.

Interspersed throughout Marissa’s narrative are snippets from her a true-crime podcast, ‘Dead Ringer’, run by two teenage girls who, like Marissa, are sleuths of sorts. These sections give us glimpses of what is to come, without ever revealing too much.
Filled with cinematic references Pretty as a Picture offers a sharp commentary about the film industry, the dead-girl trope, the way in which true-crime glamorises death, as well as insight into someone who is labelled as ‘different’ by their society.
Overall, Pretty as a Picture was a thoroughly entertaining novel and I would definitely recommend this to those who enjoyed The Lost Night, books by Riley Sager, or Still Lives.

my rating: ★★★½

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The Office of Historical Corrections by Danielle Evans

The Office of Historical Corrections is a striking collection of short stories, easily the best one to be published this year. Unlike many other collections—which tend to have a few forgettable or ‘weaker’ stories—The Office of Historical Corrections has only hits. There isn’t one story that bored me or wasn’t as good as the rest. This is truly a standout collection. If you happen to be a fan of authors such as Curtis Sittenfeld, Edwidge Danticat, and Brit Bennett you should definitely give The Office of Historical Corrections a shot.

This collection contains 6 short stories and 1 novella. Although each one of these has its own distinctive narrative, they do examine similar themes but they do so through different, and at times opposing, perspectives. With nuance and precision Evans navigates the realities of contemporary America, focusing in particular on the experiences of black people in a country that considers white to be the ‘norm’.
There are so many things to love about this collection. Evans’ prose is superb. Her writing is incisive, evocative, and perfectly renders her characters and the diverse situations they are in without ever being overly descriptive or purply. While short stories and novellas are usually plot-driven, Evans’ narratives spouse a razor-sharp commentary—on race, modern culture, class—with compelling character-studies.

The scenarios and issues Evans explores are certainly topical. In ‘Boys Go to Jupiter’ a white college student, Claire, is labelled racist after her sort-of-boyfriend posts a photo of her wearing a Confederate bikini. Rather than apologising or even acknowledging what this flag truly symbolises Claire decides to make matters worse for herself by ridiculing a black student’s outrage at her bikini and by claiming that the flag is part of her heritage. As this controversy unfolds we learn of her childhood, of how she became close with two siblings who were for a time neighbours of hers, of her mother’s illness and eventual death, and of the part she played in her friend’s death. This story is very much about denial, culpability, and grief. It also brought to mind ‘White Women LOL’ by Sittenfeld and Rebecca Makkai’s ‘Painted Ocean, Painted Ship’.
The titular novella instead follows two black women who have never been on easy terms. This is partly due to their different economic backgrounds and partly due to their different temperaments. Having lost touch after college they both end up working at the Institute for Public History where they are tasked with correcting historical inaccuracies/mistakes. Often their corrections raise awareness about America’s colonial and racist past in order to challenge white historical narratives. Given all discussions about decolonising the curriculum and about historical statues and monuments this novella definitely touches on some relevant topics. The revisions made by the Institute for Public History are often not well met and they are targeted by white ‘preservationists’. As our narrator unearths the true story behind a black shopkeeper’s death back in 1937 she unwillingly joins ‘forces’ with Genevieve, her longtime not-quite-friend. The two women have very different approaches and their search for the truth behind this man’s death soon sparks the anger of the white ‘preservationists’.
All of these stories are worth a read. My personal favourites where ‘Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain’, ‘Alcatraz’, ‘Why Won’t Women Just Say What They Want’ (which had some serious Kevin Wilson vibes), and ‘Anything Could Disappear’ (this almost had me in tears).

There are so many things to love about this collection: Evans’ focus on women and the thorny relationships they can have with one another, the wry humour that underlines these stories, Evans’ ability to capture diverse and nuanced emotions. The list goes on.

Evans’ stories are thought-provoking and populated by memorable and fully fleshed out characters. Although she exerts an admirable control over her language, her writing is arresting. Evans does not waste words and she truly packs a punch in this ‘infamous’ medium (short stories are often seen in terms of their limitations) .
Throughout this collection Evans’ touches themes of injustice, forgiveness, history (a character’s personal history as well as a nation’s history), freedom and identity, grief, loss, fear, failed relationships and human connection.
This is a fantastic collection and you should definitely give it a try.

my rating: ★★★★½

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The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

“There is no time in our lives when we are so conspicuously without mercy as in adolescence.”

I don’t think I would ever picked up this ‘obscure’ and forgotten novel if it hadn’t been for the ‘crime fiction’ module I took during my second year of uni. Thanks to that module, which was in every other respect a huge waste of time (lecturer on Tom Ripley: “he does bad things because he wants more stuff”…truly illuminating), I was able to ‘discover’ Barbara Vine’s work.
Since then I’ve read a few other novels by Vine (which happens to Ruth Rendell’s nom de plume) and while I can safely say that she is an excellent writer, The House of Stairs remains my favourite of hers. Perhaps it is because of its sapphic undertones, or maybe I’m just a sucker for unrequited love stories.

“It felt like a passion, it felt like being in love, it was being in love, it was the kind of thing you delude yourself that, if all goes well, will last a lifetime. Things, of course, didn’t go well. When do they?”

The House of Stairs tells a dizzying tale of tale of psychological suspense. Like other novels by Vine it employ two timelines and explores the haunting effects of the past on the present. ‘The present’ features characters whose lives have been altered by an often unspecified accident and or crime. The second timeline, narrated from the retrospective, focuses on their past, and in particular on the events leading to that ‘one big event’. Vine does not limit herself to recounting past occurrences, instead she allows her characters to re-examine their own actions, as well as attempting to understand the motivations behind those of others. The past and present flow into each other, and throughout her narratives Vine traces both a crime’s roots and its subsequent ramifications.
Set in London The House of Stairs London opens in 1980s when Elizabeth—protagonist and narrator—glimpses Bell, a woman who has been recently released from prison. Seeing Bell is the catalyst that makes Elizabeth recount her story (transporting us to the late 60s and early 70s) but even if she knows the identity of Bell’s victim she does not share the details of this fateful event with the readers, preferring instead to play her cards close to her chest. This dual storyline creates an apparent juxtaposition of past and present. We can hazard guesses through brief glimpses of her present, her ambiguous remarks, such as ‘Bell’s motive for asking those questions was outside the bounds of my imagings’ and ‘[A]s they wished me to do, I was seeing everything inside-out’, and through her carefully paced recounting of those events.
By re-living that particular time of her life, Elizabeth—alongside the reader—acquires a better understanding of the circumstances that lead Bell to commit murder. Her narration is a far from passive relay of what happened for Elizabeth in the present seems actively involved in this scrutiny of past events.

“It is interesting how such reputations are built. They come about through confusing the two kinds of truth telling: the declaration of opinion and principle and the recounting of history.”

One of Vine’s motifs is in fact to include a house which is the locus of her story, functioning as a Gothic element within her storylines. In this novel the house (nicknamed—you guessed it—’the house of stairs’) is purchased by Cosette—a relation of Elizabeth’s—soon after the death of her husband, and becomes home to a group of bohemians, hippies, and outsiders of sorts. The house become an experimental ground: it is an escape from traditional social norms, a possibility for Cosette to make her own makeshift family.
The house creates an almost disquieting atmosphere: those who live there are exploiting Cosette, and tensions gradually emerge between its tenants. The house can be a place of secrecy—doors shut, people do not leave their rooms, stairs creak—and of jealousy, for Elizabeth comes to view the other guests as depriving her of Cosette’s affection.


Elizabeth, plagued by the possibility of having inherited a family disease, finds comfort in Bell, a beautiful and alluring woman. Elizabeth comes to idolize Bell (comparisons to the portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi abound), and finds herself increasingly obsessed by her. Bell’s arrival into the house, however, will have violent consequences.
As Elizabeth is examining this time in her life, she, once again, finds herself falling under Bell’s spell.

“I found her exciting in a disturbing way, a soul-shacking way, without knowing in the least what I wanted of her.”

Like many other Vine novels The House of Stairs is a deeply intertextual work. Henry James, in particular, plays a significant role in Elizabeth’s narration.
Guilt, culpability, love, obsession, desire, greed, past tragedies, and family legacies are recurring themes in Elizabeth’s story. Vine, however, doesn’t offer an easy answer as she problematises notions of normalcy and evil.
There are many reasons why I love this novel so much: Vine’s elegantly discerning prose, her examination of class and gender roles in the 1960s-70s, the way she renders Elizabeth’s yearning for Bell…while I can see that some readers my age may find this novel to be a bit outdated, I would definitely recommend it to those who enjoy reading authors such as Donna Tartt, Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Magda Szabó.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

Felix Ever After is a refreshing, relevant, validating and super-inclusive YA novel. This also happens to be one of the few YA books (the only other one I can think of is Camp by Lev A.C. Rosen) that focuses exclusively on queer teens (there a few straight parents in the background). Kacen Callender’s portrayal of adolescence is strikingly realistic: there is a lot of angst, pressure to succeed, confusion about your identity and your place in the world, jealousy towards other people your age, one or two crushes…and things are kind of messy.
As a Black, trans, and queer teen Felix understandably feels like the odd are stacked against him. He’s seventeen and hopes that signing up to his school’s summer program will increase his chances of getting into Brown University. Although he loves art, lately he’s been feeling a bit stuck, and he’s hasn’t been working on his portfolio. His feelings of anxiety and guilty over this really resonated with my own experiences. His relationship with his father is strained and his mother is no longer in touch with either of them, and Felix feels like it’s all too much.
Because of this Felix spends a lot of his time at his best friend’s house, who unlike him comes from an incredibly wealthy family. Felix and Ezra are incredibly close, and they both are on the summer program. Alongside them are a lot of other queer students, some of whom act like they are woke when in actuality they are incredibly transphobic and bigoted.
Things take a turn for the worst when someone exhibits photo of Felix pre-transition, captioning these photos with his deadname (kudos to Callender for never actually using Felix’s deadname on the page). Felix is crushed. Thinking that he knows who is behind this awful act, and the offensive messages he’s been receiving, he wants to get back at them.
Felix, however, finds himself growing fond of this person…which kind of complicates his plan.

To begin with Felix got on my nerves. While I wholeheartedly felt on his behalf, he acts in a pretty self-centred way. He thinks that because every other student has it ‘easier’ than he does, they can’t complain about anything. When Ezra, Felix’s incredibly supportive best friend, tries to voice his own fears and anxieties, Felix is totally dismissive of them. His whole cat-fishing too was kind of cringe. I’m no longer a fan of these kind of deceptions although I understand the appeal of getting revenge (when I was fourteen I actually helped my best friend briefly catfish his bully…something I’m not very proud of, but alas, the youth). I also thought that Felix wasn’t really trying to connect to his father. While I get that Felix is totally right to feel frustrated by his father’s remarks and deadnaming, I did think that he never gave him a chance to explain himself or really apologise.
Thankfully, Callender does an amazing job in terms of Felix’s characterisation. Over the course of the novel, Felix begins to reassess his past behaviour. During the summer he does a lot of growing up, and while certain scenes were quite painful, Felix’s humour and his friendships often uplifted the mood of the narrative.
Callender depicts believable teens who are as capable of getting high or drunk as they are of discussing morality, art, and the pros and cons of labels. I also appreciated the way in which Callender allows their main character to question and explore his gender identity.
Plus, it was so nice to read so many scenes set in LGBTQ+ spaces (such as the LGBT Center Felix attends or Pride).
Felix Ever After is a coming of age that is guaranteed to give you ‘the feels’. We have a nuanced protagonist, a super cute romance subplot, drama, and a story that touches upon serious issues with tact and understanding. I will definitely be checking out Callender’s future work!

My rating: 3 ¾ stars (rounded up to 4)

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A Beautiful Crime by Christopher Bollen — book review

40535984.jpgA Beautiful Crime is a tantalisingly suspenseful part thriller part romance, one that brilliantly captures the landscape, aesthetics, and politics of Venice.

“The love of the city had killed its people. Quite simply, Venice had been visited to death.”

The opening of the novel has a terrific hook. We know that someone at some point is going to die. But who? And how?

“When you see an opportunity, take it. You can brood over the ethics later.”

Vaguely reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley but starring two much more sympathetic, and empathetic, protagonists, A Beautiful Crime follows a tense cat-and-mouse game in which readers are never sure who is deceiving who.

Nick is a twenty-five year old from Ohio whose move to New York didn’t exactly result in a clearer idea of who he is or what he wants to do. His older boyfriend doesn’t seem to understand Nick’s restlessness. When Nick meets Clay, who is just two years older than him and from New York, sparks fly.
In spite of their different backgrounds, they fall hard and fast for each other. Clay, rumoured to have murdered his best friend after having tricked him into making him his heir, needs a lot of money and fast. Together they decide that the easiest way to get so much money is to con someone who has more money than sense. It just so happens that the person Clay hates most in the world fits the bill.
In order for their plan to succeed they go to Venice since it is where Richard Forsyth West, aka their mark, is currently staying.

Christopher Bollen maintains a taut tension throughout the course of his narrative. Readers, alongside Nick and Clay, will fear that some hitch might reveal and ruin their plans. What may appear as simple conversations will have you sitting on the edge of your seat. And while we know that objectively what Nick and Clay are doing is wrong, we are still rooting for them to succeed.
Time and time again, in both New York and Venice, Nick and Clay wrestle with their morals as well as their greed, desire, love, and any personal vendettas they may or may not harbour.

Bollen’s writing style presents us with some breathtaking and insightful descriptions of Venice. As a former resident of the comune of Venice I am perhaps a bit too critical when I read novels that feature this city. So, I’m happy to say, or write, that Bollen’s depiction of this city is truly true to life. He really does render its beauty and incongruities, providing an interesting commentary on Venice and its inhabitants, of its fatal dependency on tourism, and of the way it is perceived by the rest of the world.
Although both Nick and Clay view Venice through the eyes of an outsider, the Venetians we encounter along the way, from Daniela to Battista, give us an insight of the ‘real’ Venice.

“What would Venice be like without any Venetians living in it? There were only fifty-three thousand of these rare humans left, and the number was shrinking by a thousand each year.”

Venice is much more than the glamorous backdrop to Nick and Clay con as in many ways it plays a central role in the story. It is a city or romance and of ruin. It fills Nick and Clay with equal parts awe and melancholy. The dizzying spell it casts on those who live there is clear. There were moments in which Bollen’s portrayal of Venice brought to mind Thomas Mann’s in Death in Venice. In both of these works Venice appears as a labyrinthine and suggestive city one that might very well bring the worst out of people.

“Nick was hallucinating. Hew was mistaking marble ballrooms and gilt facades and velvet-upholstered gondolas for real life. People went mad in Venice because it lacked the reality check of poverty and ugliness and ordinary struggles. ”

Alongside this high-stakes con we read of Nick and Clay’s relationship. Part of me wanted to see more of them together but in order for their plan to succeed it is vital they are not seen together, so it made sense that they didn’t get share many scenes. Their feelings for one another add a moving note to the story.
Both the secondary characters and the ones who had only small cameos were nuanced and fully fleshed out. At times it was difficult to discern whether someone’s intentions were good or bad which made the story all the more compelling.

“These monsters, Nick thought, and at the same exact moment, These wonderful people.”

Bollen does a terrific job in rendering the ‘artsy’ community of Venice and of giving us an amusing impression of the ‘inglese italianato’ (or perhaps in this case the Americano italianato/the Italianised American) those types of art and cultural enthusiasts who like to play at being intellectual.

I also appreciated the novel’s engagement with issues such as racism (Clay is black), class, and privilege. Wealth, youth, and beauty also make their way into Bollen’s narrative. Both Nick and Clay have to confront their own desire for wealth and of what they would be willing to do for their own safety.

I only spotted two mistakes in Bollon’s Italian which is so refreshing! Usually books set in Italy by non-Italian writers are not only riddled with clichés but with easily avoided mistakes (such as papa instead of papà). Bollon not only captures Venice but he also mentions the Venice-Mestre dynamic.

Bollon’s engaging prose offers plenty of amusing descriptions (“the silent brag of an attractive companion”), easily renders a beautiful landscape, and provides thoughtful character studies.

A Beautiful Crime is an exhilarating novel that will have you flipping pages like there’s no tomorrow. In spite of its dark moments and of the unease the pervades most of its scenes, Bollen’s narrative maintains a beautiful momentum. Through striking depictions of love, friendship, and, of course, Venice A Beautiful Crime is a thrilling read.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

Some of my favourite quotes

“He believed in friendliness the same way he believed in his youth: he thought both could save him. His youth and friendliness were master keys to all future rooms.”

“The world promised Nick nothing at that age but showed him glimpses of its finest possibilities.”

“For him, walking around as a gay man in his hometown was tantamount to being out on bail: he was free to go about his business, but everyone treated him with a heightened suspicion, as if unsure whether he had committed a crime.”

“Nick saw it as a chance to be delivered from the purgatory of mid-twenties aimlessness.”

“In the stronghold of dry, hot days, visitors clotted the streets like human glue, and cruise ships barged into San Marco’s Basin with horns that blasted louder than any church bells.”

“Wheelie suitcases had become the unofficial soundtrack of Venice, a city that had triumphed for millennia on the very absence of wheels.”

“It was a secondhand high to watch a first-timer take in the city.”

“Another person’s idea of normalcy was always a foreign country, just as your borders on that dominion were constantly expanding or shrinking, ejecting proud, long-standing residents while taking in exciting new émigrés that would have been denied entry the year before.”

“In the hush of early evening, Venice changed from past to present. ”

“Nick preferred to think of people as messy whirlpools of wants and desires, as unpredictable bundles of urges even when the appropriate bait was placed in front of them. ”

“Nothing else could touch him, large or small, because he’d filled his quota on pain. But the loss of a parent doesn’t immunize a person from betrayal any more than surviving a shark bite protects its victim from a car crash.”

“Nick found himself impressed by his own bullshit. It was undeniably top-quality bullshit. It sounded so erudite and convincing, even to the one who was spewing it.”

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Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg — book review

Untitled drawing (3).jpg

“Time after time my mother traded privacy, square footage, countertops, and a decent bathroom for darkroom space.”

While the way in which Feast Your Eyes is framed makes for an undoubtedly interesting technique (telling the story of a fictional photographer Lillian Preston through the catalogue notes for an exhibition of her work at the Museum of Modern Art) Myla Goldberg’s execution left me wanting more (out of her story, her characters, and her style).

The novel’s catalogue structure, however innovating, is limiting: although we have Lillian’s diary entries and letters, for the most part it is her daughter Samantha who tries to describe Lillian’s photos. Her suppositions and observations were monotonous and left me wanting more.
I can’t help but compare this novel to two of favourites of mine, and Self-Portrait with Boy and
generation Loss, both of which also happen to be centred around female photographers. Whereas those two novels gave a clear impression of what the protagonists’ photos looked like and their significance to them, in Feast Your Eyes we get a few lines from Samantha summarising her mother’s photos. Only the photo entitled ‘Mommy is sick’ gets a more detailed description.

Lillian herself remains a puzzle. Although we get to read her letters and diaries, as well as the testimonies of her roommates/sort of friends, her character never really came together. In fact, I would go as far as to say that what we do get is a rather disjointed portrait. T
o begin with Lillian’s was made to seem as this rebel, a pioneer, a feminist, the type of person who wanted to speak out against the oppressive social norms and injustices occurring in her society. As the story progresses however I realised that she was a half-formed & mostly self-absorbed individual who was too interested in her own notions of what is ‘art’ than of helping out her friends (for example I hated the patronising way she would correct one her friends, telling her that she wasn’t a weaver but an artist).
Maybe if Lillian spoke more about her own photos or creative process I could have felt something more towards her…but her passion for photography comes across only when other characters comment on the time Lillian spent developing her photos. We are told that photography was everything for Lillian but it is her daughter Samantha who tries to imbue her photographs with some sort of meaning…and because of that I wasn’t able to buy into this image of Lillian as this passionate photographer.
The various characters speak of Lillian as if she was some sort of philanthropist or activist…but she acts anything but. Heck, she doesn’t even help her closest friend when she’s in need. Speaking of Lillian’s friends…these women sounded far too similar to one another. I understand that they would utilise the same language given that they are around the same age but they also happen to have exactly the same tone. Their names were as forgettable as their personalities and it seemed that they were mere accessories to Lillian’s story.
The mother-daughter relationship that is at the centre of Feast Your Eyes is fairly nuanced. However, given that I wasn’t invested in Lillian or Samantha’s lives, I can’t say that I felt very moved by it. And some of their arguments/misunderstanding struck me as unnecessarily clichéd.

Lastly…I questioned whether catalogue notes from an exhibition would really be as long-winded as the ones for Lillian’s show. These accounts have less to do with Lillian photos than New York in the 1950s-1960s. This focus on this particular time and place did result in a very detailed and vivid setting, so I can’t say that I didn’t find their descriptions about the various neighbourhoods etc. fascinating.

Most of Lillian’s diary entries and letters, as well as Samantha’s notes, have this cheesy obsession with the ‘body’ (“My arms and legs are like so much lunch meat wrapped around drinking straws and covered in waxed paper”), a penchant for unpleasant metaphors and imagery (“ the final word flew out like a broken tooth”), and for transcendental or purely abstract statements and declarations (“I’m reduced to a mote of pure awareness”) which seemed mere navel-gazing.

Although Lillian’s story deals with many different themes and subjects (abortion, ambition, motherhood, being a female artist and a single mother in in the 1950s, the degrading and inhumane conditions in the “Women’s House of Detention”) it does so at a swift pace. Because of this it seemed that many things were left unexplored.

Overall, while the idea behind Feast Your Eyes is undoubtedly creative, I’m unsure of the way in which Myla Goldberg handled this structure.
Perhaps a bit of more variety (such as including interviews, articles, actual photos etc.) would have given Lillian biography’s (her childhood, career, and relationships) more depth and nuance.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James — book review

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“A large fortune means freedom, and I’m afraid of that. It’s such a fine thing, and one should make such a good use of it. If one shouldn’t one would be ashamed. And one must keep thinking; it’s a constant effort. I’m not sure it’s not a greater happiness to be powerless.”

The Portrait of a Lady focuses on a young American woman, Isabel Archer, who comes into a large inheritance. Even before Isabel becomes financially independent she was unwilling to fulfil the responsibilities and obligations her gender thrusts on her. To restrict herself to the role of wife would not only be oppressive but it could hinder her journey of self-discovery. It is because Isabel craves to experience the world—free of wifely and motherly constraints and duties—that she declines some rather promising marriage proposals.
Ralph Touchett, Isabel’s newly acquainted not-quite-American cousin, perceives in Isabel a latent potential for greatness. Believing that his cousin is meant to “rise above the ground”, Ralph decides to provide Isabel with the means to do so: a lot of money. It just so happens that Ralph’s father, Mr. Touchett, possess a vast fortune. Ralph convinces his sick father to bestow on Isabel a large part of his estate. During their conversation Mr. Touchett asks his son the following question:
“Tell me this first. Doesn’t it occur to you that a young lady with sixty thousand pounds may fall a victim to the fortune-hunters?”
As with Chekhov’s Gun, the fact that ‘fortune-hunters’ are mentioned pretty much insures their appearance. The story that follows sees Isabel predictably falling into the path of two wannabe Machiavellian American expats.
Set against a European backdrop, the narrative contrasts the values and customs of the New World against the ones of the Old. This juxtaposition of New vs. Old, America vs. England, English-speaking countries vs. the rest of Europe, serves as a backdrop to the exploration of themes such as personal freedom, duty, ambition, wealth, art, self-sacrifice, and morality.

“She lost herself in a maze of visions; the fine things to be done by a rich, independent, generous girl who took a large human view of occasions and obligations were sublime in the mass. Her fortune therefore became to her mind a part of her better self; it gave her importance, gave her even, to her own imagination, a certain ideal beauty. What it did for her in the imagination of others is another affair.”

The first ‘volume’ of this novel introduces us to the various players of the story. The narrative, which occasionally slips into a first-person point of view, presents Isabel Archer as its central figure, often affectionately referring to her as “our heroine”. This switch between perspectives and seeming self-awareness, brought to mind Middlemarch. Contrary to popular belief, James’ writing is far from stale. While it would not be wholly inaccurate to describe his prose as being the antithesis of concise, the fact that he seems to lose himself in long-winded observations and digressions does not mean a lack of clarity on his part. In fact, his narrative has a really nice flow to it. His refined use of the English language gives his prose an almost polished quality.
While James’ narrative is not as effervescent as the one of Edith Wharton in
The Age of Innocence (which also happens to have an Archer as its protagonist), he is nevertheless able to inject his portrayal of this upper society with a subtly oppressive, and very Whartonesque atmosphere.
Money and class do not necessarily provide his characters with happiness or love…if anything they seem to make them all the more miserable. In spite of her attempts to carve her own path Isabel is still a woman, one whose financial independence does not result in actual personal freedom.
I really enjoyed the character dynamics that were explored in this novel’s first volume. The characters were nuanced and compelling and it was interesting to hear their views on America, England, and Europe. Given their contrasting beliefs, they are all eager to influence Isabel one way or another. Isabel’s resolve, admiringly enough, does not waver. Even if she unsure what she is ambitious for, she remains firm in her desire not to marry, opting instead to travel and to gain some life experiences.

The second volume of this novel was tepid at best. Our heroine is pushed to the sidelines, with the narrative focusing instead on Gilbert Osmond, his “attractive yet so virginal” daughter Pansy, and her self-pitying suitor, Edward Rosier. These three characters were annoying and uninteresting. Gilbert was presented as some sort of clever manipulator but he struck me as a half-unfinished caricature of the fastidious and cold husband (Casaubon’s less convincing descendant).
Isabel’s sudden character change was almost jarring, especially if we consider until that point James had taken his sweet time exploring her sense of self and her various ideas. Worst still, Ralph and Isabel suddenly became martyrs of sorts. Isabel in particular spends the remaining narrative doing Mea culpa…which struck me as quite out of character.
Gilbert and Madame Merle are presented as this morally-devious duo, the typical fox and cat who try—and often succeed in—tricking our hapless and helpless protagonist. Which…fair enough. I have been known to enjoy villainous duos (such as Count Fosco and Sir Percival Glyde in
The Woman in White)…Gilbert and Madame Merle however seemed to lack purpose. Their characters do not seem to be as important or as profound as they are made to be. Later on other characters (who have no reason to defend them or forgive Gilbert and Madame Merle) make it seem as if these two have their own valid feelings, of tortured variety, so it would be unfair for us to judge or dislike them or their actions.
I was so irritated by the story’s direction and by Isabel’s character regression that I was unable to enjoy the remainder of this novel.
My interest was sparked only when the characters discussed their cultural differences. As an Italian I always find it vaguely amusing to read of the weirdly incongruent way Italy is portrayed by non-Italians during the 19th century. James’ clearly appreciated Italy’s history and its landscapes, but throughout his narrative a distaste for Italy’s ‘present’ state (Italians are regarded as lazy and somewhat primitive). I also appreciated the way in which James’ depiction of masculinity and femininity challenges and questions established norms (such as the qualities that the ‘ideal’ man and woman should posses). However cynic, his depictions of love and marriage could be deeply perceptive.

“The real offence, as she ultimately perceived, was her having a mind of her own at all. Her mind was to be his—attached to his own like a small garden-plot to a deer-park. He would rake the soil gently and water the flowers; he would weed the beds and gather an occasional nosegay. It would be a pretty piece of property for a proprietor already far-reaching.”

Having now read one of James’ novels, I’m not at all surprised that his work has gained him a reputation for wordiness and digression. Yet, his logorrhoea aside, I’m puzzled by the dislike his work seem to entice, especially in other writers (Mark Twain, Jonathan Franzen, Virginia Woolf, Arnold Bennett, Jorge Luis Borges…you can read some of their comments here:
Writers on Henry James).
One of my favourite ‘harsh’ comments was made by Lawrence Durrell: “Would you rather read Henry James or be crushed to death by a great weight?”. Although many of these writers/readers make rather exaggeratedly disparaging observation about James and his writing, some of them hit the nail on the head. Oscar Wilde, for instance, wrote that: “Mr. Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty, and wastes upon mean motives and imperceptible ‘points of view’ his neat literary style, his felicitous phrases, his swift and caustic satire.”
I, for one, was not annoyed or deterred by Henry James’ prolixity. However, as noted by Wilde, I do think that James occasionally overworked certain passages and that his story/characters never seem to reach their full potential. And while I am not entirely sure why Vladimir Nabokov called Henry James a “pale porpoise” (alliteration?), I do agree with him when he says that James’ writing has “charm . . . but that’s about all”.

Why did I read a book that was authored by someone who has gained such an unappealing reputation? Curiously enough, part of me wanted to ‘read for myself’ whether James’ style was as frustrating as some made it out to be. What finally convinced me however was that his name kept popping up in the introductions to Edith Wharton’s novels. Having now read a novel by James’ I find myself wondering why his name needs to feature in so many reviews and articles discussing Wharton’s works…yes, he could certainly write well, and they do explore similar themes, but his work is far less insightful, engaging, and memorable than Wharton’s.
Sadly the clarity and nuances demonstrated by James’ narrative in the first half of The Portrait of a Lady are then obscured by a predictable storyline. With the exception of busybody Henrietta Stackpole (easily my favourite character), the characters become shadows of their former selves (I could not see why Isabel fell for Gilbert) and I no longer felt invested in their stories.
Given that this novel is considered one of James’ best, I’m unsure whether to try reading more of his work…perhaps I will give his novella The Turn of the Screw a try.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson — book review

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“I understand that art is a necessary component of a civilized society, but you cannot just go around shooting people. That’s going to be a problem.”

Having recently read and loved Nothing to See Here I wanted to check out Kevin Wilson’s earlier work. While The Family Fang has the same whimsical tone as his latest novel, its story has a broader scope and feels slightly more impersonal (perhaps this is due to the third person point of view).
Nevertheless the opening chapters of this novel are highly entertaining. Throughout the narrative there are sections from Annie and Buster’s childhood recounting the way in which their parents would rope them into being part of their ‘performances’ (which usually aimed to cause as much havoc as possible). Unsurprisingly, as adults Annie and Buster have little to do with their parents. Annie is an actress whose career is about to hit a rough spot, while Buster is a writer whose last novel wasn’t very well received. After a series of unfortunate yet oddly funny, events the two Fang siblings find themselves back into their parents’ home.
Although I liked the satire on contemporary art, as well as art criticism, I didn’t find Caleb and Camille to be all that interesting. They remain rather one-sided and did not strike me as being as compelling as they were made to be. Their over-the-top self-belief and art talk could be amusing but it didn’t render their personalities. Even when the narrative was focused on them, their motivations and behaviour remained off page. Although Annie and Buster were far more engaging, I still found their character arcs to be rather erratic.
Although for the most part he eccentric cast of characters did keep me interested in the story, I would have preferred a more focused and less meandering storyline. The pacing too seemed to be slightly off kilter.

Funnily enough some of my favourite scenes in this novel were the ones revolved around a film Annie’s working on (a film in which a woman looks after children who catch fire? Sounds familiar…).
While I appreciated Wilson’s motifs, imagery, and themes (once again we have questionable parents who do a questionable job raising their children), and I enjoyed the overall humour and eccentricity of his narrative, I did not feel particularly involved by his story nor his characters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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