BOOK REVIEWS

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Readers, I am disappointed.

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 2 ½ stars out of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

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

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

The Last Place You Look by Kristen Lepionka

This mystery is character-driven and engaging from the very start. Roxane’s grit charmed me from the get go. She is a bit of a mess, grieving the recent loss of her father – a cop – and given that their relationship wasn’t the easiest, she isn’t really coping well. When she is contacted by Brad’s sister she finds herself drawn to the girl’s small town, and Roxane soon begins to wonder wherever the case is bigger than she’d imagined. We follow both Roxane’s investigations and her private life. Her character is the true force of the story, her imperfect methods and headstrong personality make the novel truly captivating. There is a focus on her actions that makes the story feel fast-paced rather than rushed. The dialogues, various scenarios and characters all feel incredibly believable and realistic. I hope we will have more of Roxane!

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

“The great tragic love story of Percy and me is neither great nor truly a love story, and is tragic only for its single-sidedness. It is also not an epic monolith that has plagued me since boyhood, as might be expected. Rather, it is simply the tale of how two people can be important to each other their whole lives, and then, one morning, quite without meaning to, one of them wakes to find that importance has been magnified into a sudden and intense desire to put his tongue in the other’s mouth.”

A sweet and fluffy read that follows Monty – the son of an earl – and his misadventures through Europe. Monty, our protagonist, is the force of this novel. His voice is incredibly funny and, often, too honest: even when he acts like a prat, it was hard not to like him. He is just so engaging and fleshed out that by the end of the third chapter I already felt as if I knew him. His escapades in Europe are, for the most part, pure entertainment: highwaymen, pirates, angry dukes, alchemical compounds…this book has them all.
Percy and Felicity make for some more sensible company, although that doesn’t make them any less likeable. Despite the highly hilarious scenarios our main characters finds themselves in, most of the time because of something Monty has done or said, Lee still manages to address more serious issues: Monty doesn’t realize his own privilege, causing him and Percy to argue, given that Percy’s epilepsy and skin colour cause him to be ill-treated, while Felicity, being a female, is unable to pursue the medical studies that fascinate her so.
Monty’s character growth and adventures make a winsome combination. The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is an absorbing read that is both cute and bittersweet. Go read this!

My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS

If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

“Actors are by nature volatile–alchemic creatures composed of incendiary elements, emotion and ego and envy. Heat them up stir them together, and sometimes you get gold. Sometimes disaster.”

An enjoyable debut novel that delivers plenty of Shakespearean ‘nuggets’.
To label this story a mystery is a mistake. It isn’t. It is quite obvious what has happened, however, that doesn’t make the book any less entertaining.
We follow Oliver during a particular stressful period of his life the months leading up to his arrest. His relationship with his close friends becomes particularly tense: jealousies and misunderstanding abound in his life. Rio’s captures the anxieties of a young and ambitious group of people who make the mistake of believing to be the only ones struggling with their situation causing them slowly to drift from one another. I wish some things could have been developed a bit more, especially when concerning Oliver’s relationship with a certain character. Nevertheless, If We Were Villains has plenty of vivid characters and is written in a swift and occasionally eloquent writing style. I definitely recommend this to fans of Shakespeare or of the theatre.

My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads

BOOK REVIEWS · BOOKS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

Luna & Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald

LUNA

A review by The Guardian of Luna perfectly captures the novel’s content by calling it a ‘cut-throat soap opera in space’ in which ‘Mafia-style mining families’ clash with one another. 

Ian McDonald’s has written a vicious and intense story populated by an array of brutally fierce families that compete against each other to exploit lunar resources. 

Luna focuses on the Corta family, originally from Brazil, who are ruled by a dying matriarch Adriana Corta. Adriana is forced to choose one of her children as new head of the family: eldest Rafa who is both charming and volatile; Luca, the cunning second son; Ariel, the only daughter, who is a lawyer in the moon’s court; Carlinhos, who works directly on the family’s mining operations and Wagner, the youngest and family outcast. While initially the large cast of characters is rather overwhelming, as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that each and every single character serves a purpose. 

McDonald throws the reader into his complex – and often brutal – ‘world’. He does not resort to any overt world-building preferring to offer explanations only if needed within the context of the scene. Which would usually result in a convulse and confusing setting. Except it doesn’t. McDonald is able to push these ‘formalities’ aside: we immediately see his world for what it is. As a review on Tor remarks Luna’s setting ‘so brilliantly built and deftly embellished that buying into it isn’t ever an issue’.

And similarly to its inhabitants, it is a rather bloodthirsty place. It is made clear by the very first chapter that life on the moon is not easy: a person has to pay for every single breath they take. Add to that McDonald’s decision to have no criminal law but only contracts law, which makes every aspect of the moon’s inhabitants lives negotiable, makes for a very intriguing setting.

The Corta family – which purposely pays tribute to the Corleone’s from The Godfather – is made by mostly blunt and authoritative people: family disputes and jealousies are interspersed throughout the story. Each has a personal agenda and yet – from the very beginning – we know that they consider ‘family’ to be their number one priority. 

It is perhaps largely because of having such strong personalities that makes Luna’s characters so endearing. Wherever they are being proud, melodramatic or charming, they are undoubtedly passionate people, which is why it is so easy to like and root for them.

These morally questionable characters are as vivid as their background. Spectacular fighting scenes, steamy love affairs and a lot of backstabbing made Luna a pageturner. 

Luna is an incredible visual novel. The story and its characters, even the writing itself, are – in more ways than one – incredibly graphic. As once again The Guardian accurately notes that Luna is ‘as gripping as it is colourful, and as colourful as it is nasty’. 

The direct prose, the razor-sharp dialogue, the edge-of-the-seat plot combine together into an exceptionally rich and unique experience.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

WOLF MOON

In 4 entire pages a character talks about cakes. Just about cakes.
Bonkers? Yes.
Did I love every moment of it? Absolutely 100% y-e-s.

A great follow up – and hopefully not an epilogue – to Luna: New Moon. It includes a huge cast of characters and it feels even more action-packed than its predecessor. ‘Stuff’ just keeps happening to all of the characters. Betrayals, scheming, blood feuds: Wolf Blood has it all.
McDonald toys around with the society he has created, playing with their moral codes and ideologies. He makes a lot of interesting point which give this novel a lot of hidden depth. He writes of violence, sex, power and freedom.
In Wolf Moon, war endangers all of the characters. Basically: nobody is safe. McDonald keeps us turning pages in order to see wherever our favourites make it out alive. I especially loved Robson, who amongst his deadly ambitious family, was just plain adorable.
With non-stop action, sharp dialogues and graphic scenes, Wolf Moon is a tour de force.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Read more reviews on my blog / / / View all my reviews on Goodreads