BOOK REVIEWS

My Education by Susan Choi

“Love bestows such a dangerous sense of entitlement.”

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

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

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

MY RATING: 2 ½ out of 5 stars

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Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford

“My father wasn’t a wound or even a scar, not a black hole or a dry desert. He just wasn’t. Not for me anyway. Mom was my sun and my moon. I was her all, too, and that was us.”

In Crooked Hallelujah Kelli Jo Ford presents her readers with a nonlinear exploration of the lives of four generations of Cherokee women. Each chapter can be read as a self-contained story, focusing on a particular phase of a character’s life (childhood, teenage years, early adulthood, etc). The first chapter gives us a flavour of these women’s lives: in 1974 Justine lives with her mother, Lula, and her grandmother, Granny, in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Both Lula and Granny are ardent members of the Holiness Church. Justine, like the rest of her relatives, has to abide her church’s strict rules: she has to lead a pious life, dress modestly, conduct herself in a godly manner, say no to the sins of the flesh…the list goes on. Whereas Lula and Granny are passionate about their community, Justine finds herself growing restless. As teased by the novel’s summary, an ‘act of violence’ sets on her own journey, one that sees becoming entangled with layabouts, abusers, and alcoholics. Her daughter, Reney, finds herself following in her mother’s steps, ending up with men who are good-for-nothing. Some of the chapters focus on characters who don’t seem all that connected to the lives of Justine and Reney, and Granny, easily the most likeable character of the lot, doesn’t get enough page-time.
The nonlinearity of these stories was detrimental to my reading experience. Justine and Reney’s personalities blurred together, as they both seemed defined by the men they are with. Granny, on the other hand, had some discernible character traits that made into a far more rounded character. Lula remains an undeveloped character, someone who appears know and again as a woman who has been indoctrinated and blinded by her religious (in the first chapter alone she demonstrated some initiative). Justine has some sisters but they might as well not be there as are barely mentioned. The majority of the men were either despicable or incompetent. Then we have this odd chapter which focuses on a Forrest Gump sort of figure that felt really out-of-place (what did he have to do with Justine and Reney’s stories?).
I can’t say that I found Crooked Hallelujah to be a particularly memorable read. Rocky structure aside the characters and their storylines did not really leave a mark. We have snapshots from Justine and Reney lives, and these often emphasise how rootless they feel, or their questionable taste in men. I wish I’d gotten a stronger impression of the bond between Justine and Reney, or Reney and Granny (Reney tells us that Granny was her soulmate but the two shared very few moments together).
Still, I liked the author’s dialogues as she manages to convey different argots and dynamics. Her prose was for the most part okay, but, as I said above, her storyline seemed unfocused and repetitive and her characters were pretty thinly rendered. I can sort of see why so many other reviewers gave this one 3 stars. It isn’t necessarily bad but it just never seemed to reach its full potential. Zalika Reid-Benta in Frying Plantain not only implements a similar narrative structure but explores similar themes and dynamics (between mother/daughter, mother/grandmother, grandchild/grandmother) in a much more impactful and meaningful way, so I would probably recommend you pick that one up instead.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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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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Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: Stories by Kevin Wilson

A very Wilsonesque collection of stories: dysfunctional families, spontaneous human combustion, surreal scenarios, and plenty of eccentric characters. Each story in this collection held my attention, and while they share similarities, they also showcase Wilson’s range: from lighthearted tales (such as “Grand Stand-In” and “Tunneling to the Center of the Earth”) to more bittersweet stories (such as “Birds in the House”) and even ones that I can best describe as heartbreaking (“Mortal Kombat”).
Regardless of their tone, each story is permeated by surrealism. At times the surreal elements are overt (such as with the first story in this collection), while in other times they are more covert. Ordinary moments or exchanges are injected with a dose of the bizarre, and this weirdness was a delight to read. Wilson vividly renders his characters and their experiences (however unreal they were), and his mumblecore dialogues always rang true to life (even when the discussions veered in seemingly absurd territories).
This was a wonderful collection of short stories. They were extremely amusing and always surprising. Each story had a certain focus, and didn’t meander in other directions, seeming committed to expanding on specific feelings or ideas. My favourite ones were “Mortal Kombat” (as sad as it was), “Birds in the House”, and “The Museum of Whatnot”.
Funny, original, and tender, Tunneling to the Center of the Earth is a marvellous collection of stories, one that I would thoroughly recommend it to readers who enjoyed other works by Wilson, such as Nothing to See Here.

MY RATING: 4 ½ stars

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Luster by Raven Leilani

“I think to myself, You are a desirable woman. You are not a dozen gerbils in a skin casing.

Luster is a deliriously enthralling and boldly subversive debut novel. I was dazzled by the author’s prose, which is by turns dense and supple, by Edie’s sardonic and penetrating narration, and by the story’s caustic yet searing commentary on race, class, gender, and sexuality.

“It is that it is 8:15 a.a. and I feel happy. I am not on the L, smelling someone’s lukewarm pickles, wishing I were dead.”

Luster follows in the steps of recent releases starring perpetually alienated young women prone to bouts of ennui, numbness, morbidity, lethargy, and self-loathing. They are misanthropic, they often engage in some sort of masochistic behaviour, and a few of them inevitably spiral into self-destructiveness. In short, they are millennial Esther Greenwoods.
Luster, however, is by no means a carbon copy of these novels, and Edie’s distinctive voice sets her apart from other eternally dissatisfied protagonists. From the very first pages I found myself mesmerised by Edie’s perplexing and hyper-alert mind.

“I want to be uncomplicated and undemanding. I want no friction between his fantasy and the person I actually am. I want all that and I want none of it.”

Edie is a recently orphaned 23-year-old black woman who leads a directionless and unfulfilling existence. She’s unenthusiastic about her desk job and with no friends to speak of she tries to allay her loneliness through sex (think Fleabag). After a series of ill-advised sexual encounters, Edie lands herself in trouble and finds herself staying in the home of Eric, her latest date. Eric is a white, forty-something archivist who is in an open marriage with Rebecca. The two live in a very white neighbourhood with their adoptive daughter, Akila, who is black.

“There is the potent drug of a keen power imbalance. Of being caught in the excruciating limbo between their disinterest and expertise. Their panic at the world’s growing indifference.”

Eric, who is clearly in the midst of a mid-life crisis, isn’t a particularly attractive or charming man. Yet, Edie is desperate for intimacy. Although she’s aware of her own self-destructive behaviour, she’s unwilling or unable to form healthy relationships, romantic or not, with others. Although Rebecca is suspicious of Edie, she wants someone to help Akila, someone who can show her how to look after her hair, and seems to adjust to Edie’s presence.
Edie’s hunger for love, desire, acceptance, recognition, and self-worth dominate her narrative. Her fascination—part desire, part repulsion—with Eric and Rebecca sees her crossing quite a few lines. The couple, in their turn, treat Edie in a very hot-or-cold way or use her as if she was little more than a pawn in their marriage game.

“He wants me to be myself like a leopard might be herself in a city zoo. Inert, waiting to be fed. Not out in the wild, with tendon in her teeth.”

Edie’s voice makes Luster the crackling read it is. While Edie often entertains rather ridiculous notions, she’s quite capable of making incisive observations about privilege, race, sexism, and modern dating. Throughout the course of the novel Edie makes a lot of discomforting decisions, and more than once I found myself wanting to shake her. But I also really understood her inability to break free of the vicious cycle she’s in (which sees her seeking affirmation and self-love in the wrong places), and of feeling tired by just existing. I loved her unabashedly weird inner monologue and her wry humour (“She tells us the specials in such a way that we know our sole responsibility as patrons in her section is to just go right ahead and fuck ourselves”). Those few glimpses we get of her childhood and her relationship with her mother and father, deepen our understanding of why she is the way she is.

“I am good, but not good enough, which is worse than simply being bad. It is almost.”

Luster explores the thoughts and experiences of a messy black young woman, without judgement. Like recent shows such as Insecure, Chewing Gum and I Will Destroy You, Luster presents its audience with a narrative that challenges the myth of the ‘strong black woman’ and other existing stereotypes of black womanhood (checkout Amanda’s video on ‘the quirky/awkward black girl’ ). There are times when Edie is awkward, selfish, and angry. Her identity isn’t confined to one character trait. And that’s that.

Luster charts Edie’s sobering yet mischievous, kind-of-sexy, kind-of-weird, sad but funny search for everything and nothing. She both wants and doesn’t want to form meaningful connections with others, she both wants and doesn’t want to be alone, she wants to be used by others, she wants love. Her art is perhaps one of the few pillars in her life. She describes her paintings, the colours she uses, and the artists she likes (Artemisia Gentileschi’s ‘Judith Slaying Holofernes’ gets a mention) in a very vivid manner.
I liked the bond that Edie forms with Akila, one that isn’t uncomplicated but feels like one of the few genuine relationships that appear in this novel (although there were times I liked Rebecca, her intentions towards Edie were ultimately questionable). This is the kind of novel that thrives off uncomfortable truths, awkward interactions, and surreal conversations (that scene at the clown academy was gold). Edie is exhausted by the deluge of microaggressions thrown her way. She tries to be what others want her to be, which is why so many people use her. Even with Eric and Rebecca, Edie is fully aware of being a guest, that she can stay as long as her being there is convenient to them.

To be perfectly honest I find these ‘young women afflicted by the malaise of modernity’ type of novels to be very hit-or-miss (Exciting Times was a definite miss for me). Jean Kyoung Frazier’s Pizza Girl (a hit in my books), shares quite a lot in common with Luster. Both books centred on self-sabotaging young women who become increasingly obsessed with someone who is married (this someone leads a seemingly happy white suburban life), although in Pizza Girl our narrator is far more interested in the wife than the husband. Chances are that if you liked the deadpan humour in Pizza Girl you will like Luster. If you are the type of reader who prefers conventionally nice or quirky characters, maybe Luster won’t be the read for you. Lucky for me, I can sympathise and care for characters who make terrible choices or do horrible things (see Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much, Rachel Lyon’s Self-Portrait with Boy).
Anyway, I’m rambling. I loved Luster, I loved Edie, and I loved Leilani’s prose and her punctuation (that scene that just goes on and on…wow). There were a few references or words that I’m not sure I entirely understood, and I have a feeling this is due to my not being American/native-English speaker.
Huge thanks to NetGalley for providing me with an arc. I will definitely be purchasing my own copy once it’s available in the UK. Leilani, please, keep writing.

My rating: 4 ½ stars

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Bad Love by Maame Blue — book review

Bad Love is a compelling debut novel that is part modern love story, part coming of age. The novel’s narrator and protagonist recounts her first relationship, one that blurred the line between ‘good’ love and ‘bad’ love.
Ekuah, a British-Ghanaian university student in London, meets Dee on a night out with her friends. From this very first encounter, Ekuah feels a pull towards him. Dee is attractive, ambitious, and possesses an air of mystery. While Ekuah is inexperienced in love, she is not wholly naïve. Dee’s casual attitude towards their relationship soon begins to test their bond. They exchange bitter words, give each other the silent treatment, they make up, only to fight and make up again. Dee clearly prioritises his music and career over Ekuah, yet he also seem happy to have Ekuah to himself. After eighteen months together, Dee ghosts Ekuah: he doesn’t reply to her texts or calls, nor does he show himself when Ekuah looks for him at his place.
Ekuah is devastated. After graduating Ekuah meets Jay. The two find themselves growing closer thanks to their community-oriented work, and together they organise poetry events. Ekuah, smarting from Dee’s ‘disappearance’, is the uncertain one in this relationship. Her feelings are further complicated by Dee’s ‘reappearance’ into her life and by her parents’ crumbling relationship.
While Blue brilliantly renders all of the places Ekuah visits (such as Venice and Accra), when writing about London, the setting truly comes alive. Ekuah’s voice will undoubtedly hold her readers’ attention. I deeply emphasised with her, even if she wasn’t necessarily always ‘good’ or ‘kind’, especially where her mother was concerned. Yet, Ekuah’s vulnerabilities are rendered with clarity, and I felt on her behalf. Through Ekuah’s story, Blue presents her readers with a realistic portrait of love, one that definitely doesn’t view love through rose-tinted glasses.
While not much happens in terms of plot, Ekuah’s evolving relationships—with Dee, Jay, her parents—had me captivated. Blue’s scintillating prose, her realistic examination of the many faces of love, her nuanced and realistic characters, make for a truly heart-rendering read.
The ending is perhaps the only aspect of Bad Love that I found slightly unsatisfied. And a teensy part of me wishes that the Mafia had been left out of Ekuah’s lightening trip to Italy.
Still, I thoroughly recommend this read, especially to those who prefer realistic love stories.

My rating: 3 ½ stars of 5 stars

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THE SILENT PATIENT: BOOK REVIEW


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The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
★★✰✰✰ 1.5 of 5 stars  (rounded up because this is a debut so…)

“Please don’t let’s get dramatic.”

    

I’ve been a bit hesitant about writing this review since the majority of readers really enjoyed this debut. However, since Goodreads allows us to express and respect our different opinions I don’t see any harm in being honest. I didn’t hate The Silent Patient but I did find this novel both ridiculous and incompetent.

Just because The Silent Patient has a “twist” that doesn’t mean it should be labelled as being a psychological thriller. There is no suspense, no mystery, no tension, none whatsoever, zilch! The psychology in this one is…well, the depiction of psychiatrist and psychotherapists is at best, laughable, at worst, ignorant.
The book hinges completely on its “twist”, a twist that (view spoiler)
This book seems to me yet another weak attempt of jumping on the domestic thriller bandwagon.

In short: Calling this a novel seems somewhat misleading. This reads more like a incredibly unbelievable script.

LONG RANT REVIEW AHEAD:

The Silent Patient is a really flawed piece of work. I will try to tackle what I personally thought were the major problems this book had (for me, personally):

THE WRITING (idiotic dialogues + inane monologues + ham-handed metamorphoses + a complete lack of a sense of place)

✖ I like Agatha Christie and she has what I would call a ‘dry’ style of writing. Her mysteries are heavy on dialogue. The many conversations that her characters have are witty, amusing and or entertaining. The descriptions she provides perfectly render the characters’ mannerisms and surroundings. Michaelides’ writing mostly consisted in a series of dialogues between two characters and it reads like a script. It would work if what they spoke like actual people rather than this:

~“Perhaps I’m imagining it. But I’m sensing something… Keep an eye on it. Any aggression or competitiveness interferes with the work. You two need to work with each other, not against each other.
~“But remember, with greater feeling comes greater danger.

The dialogues/monologues came across as being incredibly silly and they make the characters sound like children.
✖ These characters do not sound British. They talk like Americans (or what Americans sound like in a CSI episode). There are no British cultural references and or British expressions. This book could be set anywhere.
✖ There were plenty of dramatic and over-the-top statements and or phrases that really ruined potentially significant scenes and or somber moments of contemplation:

~“Her silence was like a mirror—reflecting yourself back at you.”
~“Now I saw the truth. [She] hadn’t saved me—she wasn’t capable of saving anyone. She was no heroines to be admired—just a frightened, fucked-up girl, a cheating liar. This whole mythology of us that I had built up […] now collapsed in seconds—like a house of cards in a gust of wind.”
~“How was this possible? Had she been acting the whole time? Had she ever loved me?”;
~“Why did she do it? How could she?”

Jeez. Talk about melodramatic angst.


✖ Theo’s narrative was filled with painfully overdone monologues that have little purpose since they don’t make Theo into a realistic and nuanced character and most of the time they do not even further the plot. Alicia’s narrative (that is, her diary) makes no sense but more on that when I tackle her character. It’s safe to say that, given that her diary entries included things such as “It took me a moment to speak. I was so taken aback I didn’t know what to say” and “I feel joyous. I feel full of hope”, I had a hard time ‘immersing’ myself or ‘buying’ into her narrative.
Since this book is a ‘domestic thriller’ both Theo and Alicia don’t have sex they ‘fuck’. Because writing ‘we fucked’ makes the story gritty and ‘dark’ [insert laughter here].
The Greek ‘connection’. Done properly, I usually love it when contemporary books draw parallels from Greek myths and or classics. Done properly. Comparing people to Greek statues and having your main characters referring to themselves as being a ‘Greek hero/heroine’ is the opposite of subtle:

~“She was a statue; a Greek goddess come to life in my hands.” ~“He looked like a Greek statue” ~“the actress playing Alcestis looked like a Greek statue” ~“my fate was already decided—like in a Greek tragedy” ~“Casting herself as a tragic heroine”.

We have Diomedes who comes from “a long line of Greek shepherds” (and tells Theo that “every Greek knows his tragedies”). And finally we have Alicia’s painting which is entitled Alcestis. Both the painting and Euripides play had potential. They would have been enough. We didn’t need the constant reminder that The Silent Patient wants to be a ‘tragic play’. Like many other things in this book, the blatant symbolism managed to ruin a potentially good analogy.
✖ The story is set supposedly in the UK. But really, there is 0 sense of place. Who cares about giving your characters a backdrop? Why bother rendering a neighbourhood or an area of London? Who gives a fork about what a room or place looks like? Let’s remember: this story could be set anywhere (or nowhere given how realistic it is).

✖ You could say that the focus on dialogues and flat scenery are reminiscent of a play…which is fine but it doesn’t come across as such. This book just reminds me of a ‘B-movie’ script. There is no tragedy, no pathos , no wit. A 2nd grade play is closer to a ‘classic’ play than this book is.
There is this attempt to make the two ‘main’ women ethereal which did provides a few laughs:

~“Her white dress glowed ghostlike in the torchlight” ~ “I remember so much white everywhere: […] the white of her eyes, her teeth, her skin. I’d never known that skin could be so luminous, so translucent ; ivory white with occasional blue veins visible just beneath the surface, like threads of color in white marble. She was a statue.” ~ “strands of long red hair falling across bony shoulders, blue veins beneath the translucent skin”.

THE CHARACTERS
✖ Theo. Our wannabe (view spoiler). Within a few pages we know that he is obsessed with Alicia (which makes him incredibly unprofessional) and he for the most part he is just soooo dull and whiny. He moans about his childhood, (view spoiler), and his attempt(s) to self-fashion himself as some sort of tragic hero fail epically. After (view spoiler)
His dramatic monologues, constant whinging, and complete lack of awareness (I’ve said it before this man is thick) reminded me a bit of Derek Zoolander:


Alicia…she is beautiful. She loves having sex with her husband and painting. That’s about it. We are told that she was ‘charming’…but how can she have gained this reputation since she has 0 friends and her only real relationship is the one she has with Gabriel (her partner or whatever). Jean-Felix is the owner of a gallery but they don’t spend time together or are on friendly terms. Who is she charming to? She is a complete recluse! She lives in London and is good enough painter and yet…she has managed to make 0 connections. Her diary entries make her sound at best guileless and at worst like a demented child. Her character is just an object. She is there to look beautiful and tragic. She has a few basic reactions (she just “looks up” or “looks down”) or she does the good ol’ ‘banshee’ act, flinging herself in a sudden ‘rage’ towards Theo or another patient. Wow. Such a deep and complex portrait of a (view spoiler).

The cast of characters consists in cardboard cutouts. Going back to Christie, sometimes exaggerated character can be entertaining. Especially if they are a parodying a certain type of person (the writer, the artist, the gossipy old lady and so forth). Here we have mere ‘sketches’ of people.
We have Christian, who doesn’t like Theo because he is a massive bellend bully: “Christian glared at me.” “Christian looked irritated.” “Christian rolled his eyes at me.” “Christian laughed that annoying laugh of his.
We have Professor Diomedes who is Greek and is “an unorthodox man’that’s it folks. That’s his character. Also, (view spoiler) Yuri is another pointless and unbelievable addition to the story. He is the head psychiatric nurse and comes from Latvia so he obviously has to be weird about women. Makes perfect sense. Then we have Stephanie who has very little page time or importance Theo having never even know of her existence knows immediately, before she even speaks, that she is Caribbean). We also have the “jolly Caribbean dinner ladies” (who, surprise surprise, are only mentioned once).

We have a few ‘ugly’ characters who are either ‘mad’ and or violent (Elif, a ‘massive’ Turkish woman, who spends her time shouting or grunting because she is a patient and that’s how ‘ugly’ and mentally ill people behave. Lydia, Alicia’s mean aunt. She is grotesquely ‘fat’ and has lots of cats. She basically just glares, scorns, and spits at people). Paul, Alicia’s cousin, still lives with his mother so he looks like ‘virgin’ and in spite his size he seems ‘stunted’. Kathy and Gabriel are the antithesis of credible (actors and fashion photographers manage to be self-engrossed and 1 dimensional). We have Gabriel’s brother…who is the typical chip-on-my-shoulder character (he has acne, he is balding, he is just a ‘lawyer’, boohoo). Jean-Felix owns a gallery so he is the embodiment of some sort of art-vampire.

THE NONSENSICAL PLOT
✖ Nothing much happens. It’s quite clear that the words that exist before the ‘twist’ serve as filler. Theo moans about this and that. That’s about 70% of the novel.
✖ There are a series of stupid things happening for no apparent reason. (view spoiler)
✖ The Grove is not a forensic unit. I am sure that Theo should be doing a bit of paperwork to cover his 1 to 1s with Alicia. And everything that (view spoiler)
✖ The ‘big twist’ (view spoiler)

IN CONCLUSION

The Silent Patient might not be the worst novel I’ve read but—in my humble opinion— it’s a badly written, poorly developed book. Worse still, The Silent Patient comes across as being ‘soulless’.
A ‘twist’ needs—demands—a story. I want to read characters who vaguely resemble or talk like real people. If you want to play with stereotypes (a la Christie) don’t make your characters take themselves so seriously. A parody of a certain ‘personality’ should at least be funny and or amusing. Adding a strong setting and a coherent storyline wouldn’t do any harm either. The Silent Patient is a messy, flat, painfully dull, ‘Hollywood-type’ of book.

Pre-review:
I’m not sure what’s up with these hyped so-called thrillers but…

If you liked Verity, An Anonymous Girl, The Last Time I Lied or the unintentionally hilarious Jane Doe…chances are you will like The Silent Patient.

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Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

How can I have ‘enjoyed’ or ‘liked’ this novel?
Well…I did find myself flinching away from it a few times…

Well, what can be said about Lolita that hasn’t been said? Who hasn’t heard of it? The influence this work has had on modern culture is astounding: just think that the meaning of the name Lolita has changed because of this novel. The reputation this novel has gained however doesn’t really do it justice. It is almost viewed as a perverse work of fiction. And in some ways, it is that. Humbert Humbert is sick. His fantasies, his romanticising his own inclination and actions, well…there can be no doubt that Humber is indeed a perverse individual. Yet, the novel is so much more than this. Humbert’s role as a narrator makes us question ourselves. How can someone so monstrous be amusing? How can he be anything other than a pedophile?
Vladimir Nabokov achieves wonders in this novel. I ‘might have been disgusted and repulsed, but I was also completely taken by Nabokov’s style. The way he plays with different languages (English, Russian, French), the incredible attention he pays to someone’s intonation, the cadence of certain words or the rhythm created by others. I was so in awe of the way in which Nabokov’s works with words that I almost didn’t take in the horrific things that make up the majority of Humbert’s narrative.
I do understand why some readers might be read this and feel nothing but disgust, but, lets remember that Nabokov is not Humbert. Nor is he condemning Humbert. What Nabokov seemed to be doing was to create a narrative that reflects Humbert’s distorted mind. Nabokov is clever, so very clever. The self-aware and dynamic narrative is filled by vivid imagery: sounds, colours, smells, textures…Nabokov offers all.
My only ‘con’ is that the storyline lost a bit of its drive towards the end of the novel. Lolita is an uneasy read that will – no doubt – make you feel uncomfortable. However, the subject itself shouldn’t hide the Nabokov’s prolific style.

My rating: 3.5 stars

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Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon

Self-Portrait with Boy is an intensely powerful debut novel, one that tells an all-encompassing and all-consuming story.

A small digression: lured by the summary, I was keen to get my hands on Self-Portrait with Boy, however, once I found out that Lyon avoids using quotation marks…I became hesitant. For some silly reason, I just cannot stand reading books that do not follow traditional formatting. Still, I wanted to read this…and then I had an ‘idea’…what if I were to listen to the Audiobook instead? Turns out that was one of the best choices I’ve ever made. Narrated by Julia Whelan it took me just a day and a half to finish listening to it. I’m now actually tempted to buy a physical copy…

Lu is a young photographer stuck working in an organic grocery store and perennially short on money. When a photograph she has taken reveals to have captured a boy falling to his own death she is torn between what could finally start her career and the consequences of showcasing such a tragically private photo. Lu views this photo as her masterpiece and is determined to show it to the world. Things are even more complicated since she befriends the boy’s mother Kate. Lu’s ambitions collide with her desires: she strives for her ‘shocking’ photo to be recognised but she also wishes for a relation of sorts with Kate.
Lu’s story contains plenty of conflict: art, morality, love, ambition, selfishness. Lu scrutinises her own actions, the choices she makes in regards of the photo as well as the everyday choices she makes everyday: there is her father’s failing sight, the quick deterioration of the building in which she lives, her various jobs and her different relationships. All of this is set against a vividly rendered backdrop, one that buzzes with vitality: there are many scenes that swiftly incorporate many things at once, Lyon makes everything her focus, bringing to life Lu’s bustling city.
Lyon didn’t shy away from including the more disturbing aspect of Lu’s life. There is a particularly graphic scene including a rat nest…which was pretty intense (and possibly traumatising).
Nevertheless I was unable to skip a single moment. I found each page to deliver a both freighting and amusing realism: the characters’ conversations, Lu’s own thoughts, they are all strikingly real. Lyon perfectly captures the life of a group of diverse artists. Lyon’s narrator is a real tour de force: she is horrible and selfish but she also possesses a beautiful mind. Lu’s observations truly transpire her artistic inclinations: she talks of the light, always looks at her surroundings, relishes the small details of certain encounters.
Self-Portrait with Boy is a gut-wrenching portrait of a young artist’s struggle for recognition. It is also a story of a young woman’s day to day life: odd encounters, funny moments, tedious jobs. It is a troubling read, one that tests and pushes our own limits and understandings of ethics and morals. Lyon’s prose is effortlessly expressive and her swift style brims with creativity.
ps: be warned, this is a novel that will leave you feeling raw.

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The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

First things first: I read both Tithe and Valiant, when I was about twelve or so, and I absolutely loved them. They influenced my later readings, for I had found myself desperately in want of more dark fairy tales.
To say that I was looking forward to The Cruel Prince would be an understatement. I was ecstatic when I discovered that Holly Black was writing more about the faerie world of her previous novels, so I impatiently awaited the release of this novel. I’m happy to say (or write) that the gorgeous cover and intriguing synopsis fulfilled – and surpassed – my high expectations.

One of the main characteristics of this novel is that it is extremely sensual. There are the more apparent lush scenes, but also there are many observations and remarks referring to Jude’s sensory faculties: there is an emphasis on smell, taste and touch. Because of this the faerie world is extremely vivid and clear cut. There is an almost tangible physicality to Jude’s surroundings, one that, more often than not, borders on being both dangerous and sexual. Holly Black is able to write of a scarily convincing world, by playing with established tropes but also by forging her own lore. Her fairy world is so satisfying. Her fairies are tantalizing: they play clever tricks, employ artful magic and live in alluring castles.

The narrator Jude, despite being a ‘mere‘ human, can hold her own ground against her immortal companions. Too many times we find a simply ‘likeable’ heroine, who is not nearly as complex or developed as her male counterpart or other secondary characters. Jude, instead, is one of – if not the – most absorbing characters of the story. She is nuanced and flawed, possessing an admirable resilience and an understable thirst for power. She is an unconventional heroine, and I loved her in spite – and because – of that. She confides in us, and while she isn’t always truthful, I felt connected to her. And while this novel may be called ‘The Cruel Prince’ Prince Cardan is not the main focus of the story, Jude plays the vital role in her own story. Still, Cardan was incredibly fascinating, and he too cannot be neatly fitted into the ‘antihero’ category. Holly doesn’t make condone his cruelty or his behaviour, and yet, she is able to give him other attributes that make him as complicated as Jude. There is an array of fully fleshed out side characters: there are many characters who make an impact on Jude and her story, her sisters, her ‘father’, her ‘Court’…
The story is at once fast paced and not. Many things happen but Holly Black never rushes the plot. There are almost leisurely passages in which we can glimpse the faerie world and its customs, and I was more than happy to see certain familiar faces…
A beautifully written captivating fairy tale, one that is satisfyingly eerie and intricate.

My Rating: 5 stars

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