BOOK REVIEWS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

The Less Dead by Denise Mina — book review

The Less Dead is a gripping, if bleak, piece of tartan noir. When sex workers, drug addicts, migrant workers, and otherwise marginalised groups are victims of murder, they are called the ‘less dead’. Their deaths are less important, not as ‘impactful’. Denise Mina’s novel, in a similar vein to recent releases such as Long Bright River, is less interested in its ‘serial killer’ storyline and more concerned with depicting the realities and experiences of women whose lives have been punctuated by sexual abuse, violence, and addiction.
Set in Glasgow, the novel introduces to thirty-something Margot Dunlop, a doctor still grieving the recent death of her mother. Margot is struggling to cope, with her break up from Joe, her longterm boyfriend, and with her pregnancy. She finds herself wanting to learn more about her birth mother, Susan, only to learn that she was brutally killed years before. Susan’s was one of the nine victims of a serial killer who preyed on sex workers. Since Susan’s death Nikki, Susan’s older sister, has received a string of menacing letters who could only have been written by the murderer. While Nikki seems eager to get to know her niece, a disbelieving Margot is hesitant to venture into a ‘world’ she thinks little of. When Margot also starts to receive crude letters, she’s forced to reconsider.
As Margot learns more of Susan, a young woman who refused to labelled as a victim, and her birth family, she finds herself challenging her own biases.
Mina presents her readers with a thought-provoking interrogation of class. The women she writes of, their struggles and traumas, are rendered with striking empathy. Margot, however, comes across as a far less nuanced character. Her remoteness seemed unwarranted and unexplained. She’s curt to the point of being brusque, she makes a few decision that aren’t truly delved into, making her seem out of character for the sake of the plot. Nikki, by comparison, not only felt truly real, but she’s really admirable. Margot’s relationship with her ‘problematic’ best friend and her ex detracted from the overall the story. These two characters didn’t seem all that believable.
While the third person present tense narration did add a sense of immediacy, or urgency if you will, to the novel, it did occasionally did frustrate me. There are certain conversations that don’t have quotations marks and they also became a bit gimmicky (it made sense in certain scenes, but the more this happened the less ‘meaningful’ it became). Another pet peeve of mine were the sections from the ‘culprits’ perspective. These were brief and struck me as salacious, as in ‘glimpse the thoughts of a deviant mind’ (as if this individual’s letters didn’t convey their state of mind).
Mina’s story is certainly evocative and gritty. The scenes focused on Nikki were easily my favourite. Margot’s ‘personal’ struggles, on the other hand, just didn’t grab my interest. Perhaps this is because I didn’t particularly warm to her character, whose wooden personality reminded me of the narrator of Long Bright River.
Nevertheless, I did find Mina’s examination of the way in which women such as Nikki and Susan are treated by their society to be both incisive and affecting. While Mina doesn’t shy away from portraying the stark realities and daily horrors of addiction and prostitution, she doesn’t make her characters into ‘pitiable’ stereotypes. The thriller elements give the narrative an element of suspense, and the tension between Margot and those connected to Susan did gave the story a certain ‘edge’.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

BOOK REVIEWS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

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

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

BOOK REVIEWS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie — book review

Death on the Nile is one of Agatha Christie’s most ingenuous mysteries. While Christie has definitely penned more ‘twisty’ whoddunits, the shifting dynamics between the book’s various players make for a suspenseful story.
With the exception of our wonderfully punctilious Poirot, Death on the Nile is almost entirely populated by unlikable characters (who are either blatantly racist or express misogynistic and classist sentiments). While Christie’s characters are in essence stereotypes—the self-centred socialites, the oppressive mothers, the vociferous communist, the self-effacing plain-Jane, the vengeful scorned woman—to dismiss them as ‘shallow’ or ‘caricatures’ is rather unjustified. Through her sharp-wit, Christie observes how duplicitous her characters are, regardless of their class and gender. The murder victim is initially presented as heroine of sorts: admired for her beauty, wealth, and altruism. But, here and there, we see glimpses of her flippant and selfish nature.
Throughout the course of the novel, Poirot, as per usual, demonstrates the power of his little grey cells. His denouement, however, wasn’t as satisfying as it could have been. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed how enraged the suspects became once Poirot confronts them about their lies (I mean, they had it coming).

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

BOOK REVIEWS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

Monstress by Lysley Tenorio — book review

Monstress is an evocative collection of short stories, most of which are set in the United States and the Philippines. These stories revolve around Filipino and Filipino-American characters as they try acclimatise and make a living outside of their homeland or as they try to reconcile cultural and familial expectations with their personal desires. Lysley Tenorio vividly renders the times and places in which he sets his stories, regardless of whether they take place in 1966 in Manila or during the 1980s in L.A. While the stories are all narrated in the first-person, and many explore similar themes of identity, displacement, and human connection, Tenorio showcases great versatility by giving each of his stories a particular tone. The story that lends its title to this collection, ‘Monstress’, has this nostalgic quality, this melancholic atmosphere, that makes for a bittersweet read. Although ‘The View from Culion’ possesses a similar tone, it feels much more tragic. ‘Superassassin’, in its eeriness, seemed closer to something by Shirley Jackson.
While I appreciated the themes Tenorio explores in this novel, I did find some of the stories to be unremarkable. Stories such as ‘The Brothers’ left me wanting more (this story in particular given that the narrator seems to have a sudden ‘change of heart’ at the end).
Still, I’m eager to read Tenorio’s upcoming novel and I would recommend this novel to readers who enjoy short stories.


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

BOOK REVIEWS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

Just Like You by Nick Hornby — book review

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

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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

BOOK REVIEWS · MY WRITING · REVIEWS

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata — book review

81OXLXEKxxL-1080x675.jpg

“The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.”

Convenience Store Woman delights in its own absurdity. In spite of its slender size and its deceptively deadpan style, Sayaka Murata’s novel is surprisingly subversive.
Keiko Furukura’s clipped yet enthusiastic narration manages to both amuse and bewilder. In the very first pages she recounts a childhood episode in which she asks her mother whether they could grill and eat a dead bird. Yet, in spite of these macabre instances, Keiko’s narration has this effervescent energy, this ceaseless optimism, enlivens the more depressing, ambivalent, or unsettling moments.

Keiko is a thirty-six-year old who has been working part-time at the same convenience store for the past eighteen years. While her peers are married and/or have ‘proper’ careers, Keiko is quite content to remain at her convenience store. While other employees have moved on to other jobs, Keiko has no desire to change (herself and her job). She appeases her school acquaintances and colleagues by mimicking their language and behaviours, but she does so not because she actually wants to fit in or due to peer pressure but because she doesn’t want others to question her or the lifestyle she leads (for example that she has never been, nor does she wish to be, in a relationship).
We follow Keiko as she performs the ordinary tasks that make up a shift at the convenience store: welcoming customers, filling shelves, store cleanliness, serving customers at the till…while I personally hate doing these kind of things (and I work as a customer assistant) Keiko seems to genuinely like and be actually good at her job. That she is happy to be a ‘cog’ in the capitalist machine is certainly disquieting but readers will have a hard time envisioning a future in which Keiko is content not to be a convenience store worker (since being a store worker seems an integral part of her identity).

Through Keiko’s unique mind ordinary moments and conversations are tinged with surreality. Although she’s unerringly logical, a lot of her thoughts are frankly bizarre or plain outlandish. Even her most sober observations (on Japanese social and gender norms, notions of normalcy) are injected with a dose of peculiarity.
Through Keiko’s uninhibited narration, Murata emphasises the absurdities of our modern age (particularly about work culture, social conformism, the expectations society places on single women in their 30s, alienation).
Playful, funny, thought-provoking, and occasionally disturbing, Convenience Store Woman is a deeply engrossing novel and Keiko’s slightly off-kilter reality is bound to appeal to readers who enjoyed Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, Hilary Leichter’s Temporary, books by Hiromi Kawakami, or the recently released Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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

BOOK REVIEWS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

The Necessary Hunger by Nina Revoyr — book review

529493.jpgThe Necessary Hunger, Nina Revoyr’s debut novel first published in 1997, had the potential of being a great YA book. In many ways this novel was ahead of its times. Set in Inglewood, L. A., in the late 1980s The Necessary Hunger is narrated by seventeen-year-old Nancy Takahiro, a Japanese-American all-star high school basketball player. Nancy, who is a lesbian, falls hard for Raina Webber, an African-American all-star guard from a competing school. Raina, who is also a lesbian, is in a relationship with an older girl.
When Raina’s mother and Nancy’s father get together, things get a bit complicated. Nancy, who isn’t used to sharing her home with anyone other than her father, has to get used to the presence of two other people. Her massive crush on Raina further complicates matters.

There were aspects of this novel that I really liked such as Revoyr’s approach to sexuality and race. There are quite a few gay characters, and their sexuality is never made into a big deal. While stories about coming out and/or exploring your sexuality are certainly important, it was refreshing to read a storyline that casually revolves around gay teens. Nancy’s sexuality is never made into an ‘issue’.
The novel also has a great sense of time and place. Revoyr’s Inglewood is vividly rendered. From the graffitis decorating some of the more run down buildings, to the ever-present threat of danger (government neglect results in gang violence, drive-bys, carjackings, burglaries). Acquaintances of Nancy drop out school, get into drugs, go to prison. Life isn’t easy. A sense of solidarity unites Inglewood’s various residents and both Nancy and her father navigate Inglewood with ease. When Raina and her mother move into their house tension arise. Inglewood informs Revoyr’s discussions about class hierarchies and social / race relations (particularly interracial relationships).

Sadly, readers merely ‘overhear’ these more interesting conversations. Nancy is a snoop, and she will often sneakily listen to other people’s conversations. For all her navel-gazing Nancy’s character lacked interiority. She’s defined by her love for basketball and her obsessive feelings for Raina. Although other characters aren’t distinctly three-dimensional, they at least had a semblance of personality. Nancy was a not very profound bore. The narrative tries to emphasise that she’s looking back to these events, by making her reflect on ‘what-ifs’ or the significance of a certain moment, but this technique added little to the narrative.
While I knew that this would be a novel about basketball, I wasn’t expecting pages and pages of basketball games. Perhaps if I had been more interested in the characters or if I had felt that these game had some sort of stake…but readers know from the beginning that unlike her teammates Nancy will have plenty of college offers. Raina is often reduced to the role of ‘object of desire’. Nancy’s feelings for Raina never struck me as genuine. It seemed a classic case of ‘physical attraction + jealousy/awe’.
At times the writing seemed quite dated (for example Nancy uses the word ‘schizophrenic’ to describe her room’s decor).
Nothing remarkable happens. Nancy is often a mere observer in the novel’s more compelling moments. A lot of the narrative is dedicate to Nancy’s ‘yearning’ for Raina….and the ending was incredibly underwhelming. What was all that for?
All in all The Necessary Hunger strikes me as a rather mediocre piece of fiction. It had the potential to be a really thought-provoking read but it just felt flat to me. There were also so many cheesy lines that were probably meant to be taken seriously.

My rating: 2 ½ of 5 stars

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

BOOK REVIEWS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson — book review

50160619._SX0_SY0_.jpg

“Maybe things don’t need to be exactly as I’ve imagined them. Like maybe in this universe I’ve suddenly found myself in, things could be different. I could be different.”

You Should See Me in a Crown is an incredibly thoughtful and wholesome YA book. Liz’s first person narration won my heart within the very first pages. Leah Johnson’s simple yet engaging prose perfectly conveyed Liz’s perspective. Liz is in many respects a regular ‘awkward’ teen who is a dedicate student and friend, a good older sister and a responsible niece. But Liz has to contend with a lot more challenges, from her mother’s death to her family’s financial troubles. She’s also black, queer, and has anxiety, and is often made to feel like an outlier at her high school (which is mostly attended by rich white kids). Understandably, she’s eager to leave her small-town to attend the exclusive Pennington College School of Music.

“Music is something I understand—the notes are a thing that I can always bend to my will.”

Readers quickly get how and why music is everything for Liz. To attend Pennington she has to win their music scholarship…but she doesn’t. Not wanting her grandparents to sell their house, Liz’s brother convinces her to compete for the title of prom queen as their high school endows the king&queen with large checks. Although there is nothing Liz hates more than being in the spotlight, she finds herself campaigning for prom queen.

“This whole race is set up to mimic some twisted fairy tale. The queen is supposed to be the best among us: the smartest, the most beautiful, the worthiest. But the people who win are rarely the people who deserve it. Like with any monarchy, they’re just the closest to the top. You don’t earn queen; you inherit it.”

Winning other students’ votes isn’t easy, especially when she’s competing with the most popular girls in her school. In the stressful weeks to follow Liz reconnects with an old friend (some great male/female solidarity here) while her relationship to her controlling best friend becomes frayed. Also, she falls for the cute new girl in her school, Mack.

“I don’t believe in fairy tales and love at first sight and all that, but for just a second, I think this girl and those eyes and the way her freckles dot the entire expanse of her face are cute enough to make a believer out of me.”

While on paper the story might not scream originality, Johnson’s novel is far from predictable or superficial. Girls that may initially strike us as little more than the queen bee’s cronies, straight out of Mean Girls, may not be as passive or stupid as they might first appear. Liz herself finds herself gaining self-assurance.
As much as I liked following Liz’s campaign and witnessing her character growth, the thing I most loved about this book was its romance. Although the relationship between Liz and Mack doesn’t take the centerstage, it does underline much of the narrative. Their cute and tentative flirting had me grinning like an idiot. Their romance was equal parts sweet and heart-melting.
As a non-American I was horribly fascinated by Liz’s school’s ‘prom-culture’. It seems so bizarre to me…but thanks to Liz’s narrative I could see why prom is regarded by many as ‘the event’ of their school years. The dialogues are heavy on cultural references, some of them niche, some of them downright funny, all spot-on.
The only thing I could have done without is the ‘food-fight’. I really don’t get the ‘appeal’ of these scenes…(such a huge waste of food!).
If you like YA fiction that combine romance with coming of age (set against a background of music a la Night Music), touch on contemporary social issues, and present a more realistic view of high school, you should definitely check this one out (not going to lie, Liz&Mach’s scenes alone are worth the read).

“People like us. And that feels sort of good in a way that surprises me. She’s right. High school is complicated, and the lines of demarcation that The Breakfast Club said divided us aren’t quite so clean-cut. The athletes are also the smart kids; the theater kids are also the presidents of the student council. But there’s still those outliers. The people who are everywhere but fit nowhere. People who are involved but not envied—present but imperfect—so the scrutiny pushes them out of the race.”

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

Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson — book review

9780143128045.jpegLife Among the Savages is a collection of comic essays by Shirley Jackson originally published in women’s magazines. Rather than a memoir Life Among the Savages reads as a series of episodes focusing on Jackson’s chaotic family life: children squabbling, disagreements with other parents, daily chores, and family dinners. Jackson renders the cacophony of her family, tinging everyday activities or conversations with a does of absurdity. Her children’s back and forth are as entertaining as they are bewildering:

“That shirt’s no good,” Laurie said.
“It is so,” Jannie said.
“It is not,” Laurie said.
“It is so,” Jannie said.
“It is not,” Laurie said.
“Children,” I called, my voice a little louder than it usually is at only nine in the morning. “Please stop squabbling and get dressed.”
“Laurie started it,” Jannie called back.
“Jannie started it,” Laurie called.”

Jackson very much focuses on the lightest aspects of her life, painting herself as a busy mother of three, and focusing her attention to her children’s antics as opposed to herself. It was lovely to read the way in which she could be amused by their nonsense or misdeeds (Jannie’s imaginary daughters were a joy to read of). There were also plenty of elements that brought to mind her fictional work or in some way made me wonder whether they somehow influenced her writing: the broken step, the creepy taxi driver, the nosy locals, Laurie’s ‘schoolmate’ Charles (whose name enters the family lexicon, “With the third week of kindergarten Charles was an institution in our family; Jannie was being a Charles when she cried all afternoon; Laurie did a Charles when he filled his wagon full of mud and pulled it through the kitchen; even my husband, when he caught his elbow in the telephone cord and pulled telephone, ashtray, and a bowl of flowers off the table, said, after the first minute, “Looks like Charles.”). I was delighted by the way in which Jackson would write about her house.

Life Among the Savages will definitely appeal to those who enjoy Jackson’s particular brand of humour.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars

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

BOOK REVIEWS · BOOKS · ON BOOKS · REVIEWS

Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner — book review

52755548

“It’s almost religious, that belief, that faith that a piece of silk or denim or cotton jersey could disguise your flaws and amplify your assets and make you both invisible and seen, just another normal woman in the world; a woman who deserves to get what she wants.”

Beach read meets mystery in Jennifer Weiner Big Summer. Daphne Berg is a plus-sized ‘influencer’ (I have a hard time using this word unironically) who after years of being subjected to all sorts of body-shaming (from strangers on the internet to her own friends and relatives) has finally started to become more confident in her body. While in many ways she loves her ‘community’, since it encourages her and others to love themselves and their bodies, the influencer lifestyle isn’t all its cracked up to be.

“The trick of the Internet, I had learned, was not being unapologetically yourself or completely unfiltered; it was mastering the trick of appearing that way.”

The first of the novel focuses in particular on Daphne’s relationship with her body over the years by giving us some snapshots from her childhood (her grandmother is monstrous towards her). There are many painful moments in which readers become intimate with Daphne’s most innermost thoughts and fears. We’re also introduced to her former best friend. Drue is conventionally beautiful and comes from an incredibly wealthy family. Their friendship is not an easy one as Drue toys around with Daphne’s feelings, treating her as her closest confidant one moment and pretending she doesn’t exist the next. Unsurprisingly, after a particularly cruel night, Daphne finally calls out Drue on her behaviour and cuts ties with her.
Years later, when Daphne’s is a successful influencer, Drue shows up again in her life and asks her (begs her really) to be her bridesmaid. In Cape Cod, the wedding location, the novel shifts gears. (view spoiler)
While I appreciated the complexities of Daphne and Drue friendship, and the way in which Drue wasn’t painted in an entirely negative way, as well as the novel’s early discussions around body positivity, I just did not care for the mystery (which was predictable at every turn). The love interest was a very dull character indeed (did we really need him in the story?).

While for the most part I enjoyed Weiner’s prose I did find the constant descriptions of her characters’ physical appearance to be tiring. Even characters who make small cameos are described within an inch of their life (their eyes, teeth, skin, legs, arms, stomachs). While I could accept that Daphne has an eye for other people’s clothes (due to her job), the detailed, and often exaggerated, accounts of random people’s appearances added little to the story.
Still Big Summer is far more thoughtful than other ‘light’ reads.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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