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

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Crossings by Alex Landragin

Alex Landragin has written an ambitious tale, one that begins with the following line: “I didn’t write this book. I stole it.”
This prologue, written by a bookbinder, tells us of how this manuscript has come to be in his hands. The manuscript in question comprises three seemingly separate books: ‘The Education of a Monster’ written and narrated by Charles Baudelaire, ‘City of Ghosts’ which consists in diary entries from Walter Benjamin, and ‘Tales of the Albatross’ which follows Alula, who lives on Oaeetee, a remote island in the Pacific.

Crossings can be read in the conventional way or the Baroness way (which gives page particular page numbers one has to jump to at the end of a chapter). I read it the Baroness way, and I believe I made the ‘right’ choice. The Baroness sequence, unlike the traditional one, intertwines chapters from each section (Alula’s, Charles’, Benjamin’s), making the connection between these three narratives much more clear.
To give more information on the plot (or maybe, I should say, many plots) would risk giving the novel away. I will try to be as vague as possible: the novel will take readers across time and space, combing genres and playing with tone and style.

As much as I enjoyed the labyrinthine and story-within-story structure of this novel, I was ultimately disappointed by its characters and the ‘star-crossed lovers’ theme that unifies these seemingly disparate narratives. Alula, someone I wanted to root for, commits a particularly heinous act, one that she quickly absolves herself of, reassuring herself that she did what she did ‘for the greater good’.
The personality of the two supposed main characters never truly came across. While it made sort of sense, given the conditions they are in, I wanted some more interiority on their part. Additionally, Alula sounded very much like a Western woman. This could be excused away, given the direction that her story takes her in, but her voice still lacked authenticity.
While the author renders in minute detail aspects of the time he writes of, I wonder why he brought two real-life figures into the folds of his story. After all, Baudelaire’s work isn’t exestively discussed, nor does it actually play a significant role in the story (a Baudelaire society appears now and again but it seemed more a prop than anything else). It seemed that by making Baudelaire and Benjamin into his protagonists the author was trying to spruce up his otherwise boring narrators.
The villain, who comes out with things ‘we are not so different you and I’, was painfully clichéd and not at all intimidating.
This novel will definitely appeal to fans of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or even Stuart Turton’s The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. A novel that reads like a puzzle, one that combines different styles and genres.
While I did enjoy the adventure-aspect of this novel, and its structure is certainly impressive, I can’t say that it left an impression on me.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

“You have as many lives as you have possibilities. There are lives where you make different choices. And those choices lead to different outcomes. If you had done just one thing differently, you would have a different life story. And they all exist in the Midnight Library. They are all as real as this life.”

Matt Haig presents his readers with a touching and ultimately life-affirming tale of second chances. The Midnight Library follows Nora, a lonely thirty-five-year-old woman from Bedford, who has just hit rock bottom. She’s single, her only maybe-friend lives in Australia, her brother seems to hate her or at least he makes a point of avoiding her, and she has just been fired from String Theory, the music shop she worked for the past twelve years. Nora is tired of being sad and miserable, of being eaten up regrets. She’s exhausted of living.
What awaits Nora is the Midnight Library, a place that sits “between life and death” and where “the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices”. Each book presents Nora with another version of her life. What if she had kept training as a swimmer? What if she had married her ex? What if she’d stayed in her brother’s band? What if she’d kept on studying?
The possibilities are infinite and Nora finds herself wanting to experiences them all. As she jumps from book to book Nora soon realises that there isn’t such a thing as the perfect life. Even in the life in which she has pursued swimming her relationship with her father isn’t great. By living all these different lives, Nora’s no longer feels guilty for not doing what others expected or pressured her to do. Happiness is a tricky thing, and it cannot be achieved by simply acquiescing to others desires.
Haig’s imbues Nora’s story with plenty of humour. Although the story touches on mental health (depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, panic attacks, addiction) the narrative maintains an underlining note of hope. Haig showcases great empathy, never condemning anyone as being responsible for another person’s unhappiness.
Although the novel isn’t too sentimental it did feel a bit too uplifting (I know, I am a grinch). Perhaps I wanted to story to delve in darker territories but Nora’s story is rather innocuous. Still, this was a heart-warming book, and the ‘what if’ scenarios could be very entertaining as I was never bored. Haig as a penchant for dialogues and discussing mental health related issues with both clarity and sensitivity. I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by Carey Mulligan, who does an exceptional job (I just really loved her narration).

My rating: 3 ½ stars of 5 stars

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The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Eighth Detective by Alex Pavesi — book review

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

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

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey — book review

25746685.jpgWays to Disappear tries hard to evoke the absurd and surreal atmosphere that is often associated with Latin American magical realism, the end result makes for a rather dismal homage. The lack of quotations marks and the inclusion of word definitions hardly make Ways to Disappear innovative. A nondescript American translator flies to Brazil after Beatriz Yagoda, a ‘brilliant’ writer, disappears having been last spotted climbing into a tree. The translator’s relationship to Beatriz is opaque at best. Their relationship was clearly no ordinary author/translator relationship but I never got an impression that Emma (aka the American) was concerned for Beatriz. She wants a reason to leave her unmemorable fiancée. In Brazil ruffles the feathers of Beatriz’s daughter (who quite rightfully wonders why Emma has inserted herself in her mother’s life) and predictably ends up entangled with the author’s ‘sexy’ son (his one defining quality is that he is ‘smooth’, a ‘lover’….which is kind of stereotypical). The plot goes nowhere, the characters fight amongst themselves, and make skin-deep realisations.
The only redeeming quality of this novel is its short length. Other than that…it offers little (if anything): the characters are unfunny caricatures, Brazil is simplistically painted as being hot and corrupt, and the story, if we can call it such, was a combination of meaningless and slapdash.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz — book review

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“Can you tell me what happened on the night of the murder? I asked and even as I uttered the words I felt slightly ridiculous. They sounded so old-fashioned, so clichéd. If I’d seen them in a novel, I’d have edited them out.”

Anthony Horowitz has written yet another labyrinthine whodunnit that pays homage to Golden Age Detective fiction. In Moonflower Murders readers will be reunited with Susan Ryeland, a former editor who now runs a small hotel in Crete with her partner Andreas. Running a hotel is exhausting and Susan, nostalgic about her old life, years for a break. It just so happens that she’s approached by a couple, the Trehearnes, own a five-star hotel, Branlow Hall, in Suffolk. Eight years previously a guest was brutally murdered in his room. Susan just so happens to have edited a book that was inspired by this murder (Alan Conway’s Atticus Pünd Takes the Case). The Trehearnes’ daughter, Cecily, disappeared after telling them that Alan’s novel holds the truth behind the 2008 murder. The Trehearnes hire Susan, hoping that her knowledge of the book and her ties to the now deceased Alan will shed light on Cecily’s disappearance. Similarly to Magpie Murders the novel is divided between Susan’s narrative and Alan’s novel.
While it does take a stretch of the imagination to believe that the Trehearnes would hire Susan and not a private detective to find what happened to their daughter, I soon fell into the flow of story. Susan’s presence at Branlow Hall ruffles quite a few feathers. There is Cecily’s icy sister, the various hotel employees, Cecily’s husband and their nanny…we have quite a large cast. Some of them hold Susan accountable for Alan’s novel, others simply don’t like the idea of her ‘snooping’ around. Yet Susan, who is determined to find out what happened to Cecily, knows that her disappearance is tied up to that fateful night in 2008.
While I did like the story-within-the-story technique in Magpie Murders, in this novel I was far more invested in Susan’s ‘reality’ than Alan’s book. In fact, as much as I like I Horowitz’s writing, I did dislike Alan’s. I found myself agreeing with Susan’s comments about Atticus Pünd Takes the Case: Alan’s narrative is populated by cruel caricatures of the ‘real’ people from Branlow Hall. I just didn’t particularly care for Pünd and his investigation. Alan’s novel seems a clumsy attempt at imitating Agatha Christie. His dialogues lack her wit and his detective is forgettable. I wish that Horowitz had also included a few relevant chapters from Alan’s novel, rather than giving us the whole thing.
While many of the easter eggs and allusions in Alan’s novel went over my head (was all that kerfuffle with the names truly necessary?), I knew the identity of the killer early on…which is perhaps inevitable given that Alan tries so hard to emulate the Queen of Crime (view spoiler). While I do understand that much of what I disliked in Atticus Pünd Takes the Case was intentional (as characters from Susan’s narrative point out its many flaws), I still don’t understand why readers should have to read the whole thing. Also, Alan’s novel takes us away from the more interesting whodunnit.
For the most part I liked Susan’s investigation. There were so many subplots and red-herrings that it was hard to keep all the facts straight but for the most part I was intrigued by the unfolding of her investigation.
Sadly, I couldn’t help but noticing that Horowitz has written yet another book that casts homosexuality in a negative light. This is the third book by him (the other ones being Magpie Murders and The House of Silk) in which gay men are portrayed as morally corrupt (they are sadistic, pedophiles, liars, manipulative). Which…what gives Horowitz? Throughout Moonflower Murders characters make comments about ‘what can and what can’t be said’ nowadays, which suggests some sort of awareness towards ‘modern’ sensibilities’. While I do not except, nor desire, for characters to be models of virtue, it seems odd to make your 3 gay characters either horrible, such as with Alan and Frank, or a former prostitute who leads an unhealthy and unfulfilling existence. Great representation…not. While there aren’t any extremely likeable characters, Alan and Frank are perhaps the worst of the whole lot. When talking about Alan and Frank, other characters conflate their sexual orientation with their morally reprehensible behaviour. They will say ‘I have nothing against gay men’ and go on to say something that equates being gay with perversion. This is the second novel by Horowitz in which his main character doesn’t challenge other characters’ homophobic remarks (Susan…you’ve let me down).
In Horowitz’s novels being gay makes you undesirable.
This whole thing bugged me so much that I was unable to become truly invested in the story. Still, I did like Horowitz’s depiction of the publishing industry, and I was interested in Susan’s observations about the editing process or writing in general.

“Every writer is different,” I said. “But they don’t steal, exactly. They absorb. It’s such a strange profession, really, living in a sort of twilight between the world they belong to and the world they create.”

This was far from a ‘bad’ whodunnit. While I was disappointed by the way gay characters were portrayed, Horowitz’s writing is nevertheless engaging (and his quintessentially British humour gets to me). Atticus Pünd Takes the Case on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Binding by Bridget Collins — book review

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“Bindings are for desperate people. People who can’t go anywhere else.”

Surprising, occasionally frustrating, and relentlessly sad, The Binding never seemed to reach its full potential. I was genuinely intrigued by the premise (an alternative history in which book binders get rid of people’s ‘bad’ memories?) even if I know that the whole ‘memory-erasing’ idea isn’t wholly original (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, More Happy Than Not).

Throughout the first section of The Binding Bridget Collins’ keeps her cards close to her chest. We gather that the setting is in an alternative 19th-century England and that our narrator, Emmett Farmer, has just recovered from a mysterious illness. When Seredith, an old and secluded binder, requests that he become her apprentice, Emmett is left no choice and has to leave his parents’ farm. While working under Seredith’s roof Emmett briefly meets a young man whose appearance and behaviour stick to his mind.
When Seredith finally reveals Emmett what ‘book binding’ truly is, he’s uneasy about the whole thing.
The second and third section of the book take us down slightly different paths, although I must admit that the final part of the novel felt like a rehash of the first part.
I liked the ambiguity created by Emmett’s not knowing what happened to him or why Lucian Darnay’s face haunts him so. The book binding itself raises some thought-provoking questions about consent, and the characters do discuss the ethics of erasing someone’s memory. Sadly it seemed that it was mostly older men using binders to ‘erase’ their crimes (making binders wipe the memories of their victims/witnesses who were often women, quelle surprise).
The setting is rudimentary: vaguely historical, with little about this England’s history, and the narrative mostly focus on the class divide between those like Emmett and those like Lucian, without really expanding on other aspects of this ‘alternative’ English society. A few characters mention terms such as the ‘Crusades’ or ‘deportation’ but other than that we have little information about this country. I would also have liked at one point or another to have more details about the book binding itself (when did it start? how many binders are there? etc…).
The romance was a bit disappointing too. One of them always seemed to hate the other, and I couldn’t really see why all of a sudden they were in love. The whole plot involving their horrible families was frustrating. Emmett and his love interest are manipulated time and again (Emmett’s sister was a HORRIBLE little monster, and I should feel sorry for her? As if!). The story seems to fall into a pattern where Emmett and Lucian are made to suffer. They are sad, and sad, and some sad some more.
Towards the end they both do some questionable and out-of-character things, seemingly disregarding the safety and lives of other people…which okay.
The story didn’t feel all that ‘solid’, there were some rather shaky aspects that made sense for ‘plot reason’, too much time was spent on the two leads mistrusting one another, the few secondary characters were pretty one-dimensional, and the final part went all over the place, and eventually lead to a rushed ending that left so many things unresolved.
Still, Collins’ does create an intriguing atmosphere and the changes in tone and pace in the story kept things interesting.
All in all, I liked it more than not and I would definitely read something else by Collins.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Old School by Tobias Wolff — book review

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“A true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life.”

Old School presents its readers with a concise exploration of the complexities of writing and interpretation. Tobias Wolff exerts exquisite control over his prose, evoking through his sparse yet vivid language the rarefied world in which his unmanned narrator moves in. Wolff brings to life the youth of the days past and their strive for artistic recognition, capturing the various undercurrents that are at play in their exclusive school.

“[T]he almost physical attraction to privilege, the resolve to be near it at any cost: sycophancy, lies, self-suppression, the masking of ambitions and desires, the slow cowardly burn of resentment toward those for whose favor you have falsified yourself. ”

What seems at first to be an idyllic environment reveals itself as a place for competitiveness since, as our narrator himself points out, “if the school had a snobbery it would confess to, this was its pride in being a literary place”. Most students, our protagonist included, guard their writing efforts with suspicion, and are wary of criticism. The winner of the literary contest held by their school is awarded with a one-on-one meeting with famous writers (Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Hemingway all make an appearance in Old School).

“I never thought about making connections. My aspirations were mystical. I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems, hands that had touched the hands of other writers. I wanted to be anointed.”

The protagonist of this novel has mythologised this ‘audience’, attributing to this meeting a sense of sublimity and viewing the writers he admires through the eyes of a disciple. Yet, his grappling with his ‘voice’ and is often influenced by the writing of those he reveres. His desire to win the competition leads to fraying relationships with his roommate, friends, and to a certain extent his relatives.

“For years now I had hidden my family in calculated silences and vague hints and dodges, suggesting another family in its place. The untruth of my position had given me an obscure, chronic sense of embarrassment, yet since I hadn’t outright lied I could still blind myself to its cause. Unacknowledged shame enters the world as anger; I naturally turned mine against the snobbery of others.”

Additionally our narrator is struggling with self-knowledge. Having taken pains to project a certain image of himself, his own class-consciousness alienates him from other students. Soon, his blindsided determination to win tests his already strained relationships and sees him rejecting truth in favour of self-deception.
The narrator’s undoing is not easy to read. Yet, his narration retains this ambivalent quality that I found quite enthralling.
In some ways Old School does for a 60s prep school what Teddy Wayne’s Apartment does for a 90s creative writing course. Both of these books are deceptively slender, and pack a real emotional punch. Both of narrators are ambition driven and their path to self-discovery is treacherous.
If you are interested in a novel with plenty of insights on writing and authorial intent or for a story that chronicles a boy’s troubling self-discovery, look no further.

Some of my favourite quotes

“It had become a fashion at school to draw lines between certain writers, as if to like one meant you couldn’t like the other. ”

“Now they sounded different to me. The very heedlessness of their voices defined the distance that had opened up between us. That easy brimming gaiety already seemed impossibly remote, no longer the true life I would wake to each morning, but a paling dream.”

“Loyalty is a matter of dates, virtue itself is often a matter of seconds.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)
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BOOK REVIEWS

The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafón — book review

The_Labyrinth_of_Spirits_bookcoverFrom the blatant sexism pouring through each page to its bloated plot, The Labyrinth of the Spirits offers an inadequate conclusion to what I considered to be an entertaining series. If anything this disastrous farewell has made me reevaluate the whole Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. I vaguely remember finding the female representation in these books to be somewhat questionable. The women are passive, mere love interests. So, initially I was pretty excited to read The Labyrinth of the Spirits given that unlike its predecessors it stars a female protagonist…who sadly turns out to be a walking and talking clichè.

Like its title suggests, and similarly to the previous books, The Labyrinth of the Spirits presents its readers with a labyrinthine storyline. Carlos Ruiz Zafón once again showcases his penchant for melodrama, as well as a fondness for sprinkling Gothic and Romantic elements onto his narrative. There are also many aspects of The Labyrinth of the Spirits suggest that Zafón was also influenced by nineteenth-century Sensation and Detective fiction.
To begin with I appreciated Zafón’s humour, especially since it took the edge off from some of the somber scenes, but by the end I was so irritated by his one-dimensional characters that I was no longer amused by it. That’s when I realised that many of the jokes were made by men at women’s expense. After that things just went downhill. While I may have been intrigued by the baroque structure of his story, amused by some of the more clever pieces of dialogue, and even impressed by certain descriptions, ultimately I just could not stomach the rampant sexism in his novel.

One could try to lazily justify Zafón’s sexism by arguing that it is ‘historically authentic’….but I’m not sure it is. This novel is hardly realistic or historically accurate. And while the story takes place in 1959, Spain, Zafón uses Victorian ideals of gender in which women fall into either of these categories: they are objects of men’s sexual desire or pure and fragile virgins prone to mysterious maladies. Regardless of the category they fall into—‘whore’ or ‘angel’—their bodies will be objectified.
Alicia, one of the central figures in The Labyrinth of the Spirits is considered ‘different’ because she excels at her job as an investigator for Spain’s secret police. She is brusque and manipulative. She is also emotionally and physically scarred…two things that keep her from being wholly independent. Alicia, unlike her male counterparts, mostly gets things done by using the men around her…and it seems that no man can resist her. She is a ‘damaged’ ‘vixen’ who has no qualms about turning men’s attraction towards her to her own advantage. Yet, she often insists on playing solo, landing herself in dangerous or stupid situations. Time and again a man has to help her when her old injury plays up. She has no agency of her own and relies on male characters to help her (all the while claiming that she is a solitary creature). Men are attracted to her not because she is forthright or intelligent but because they are turned on by her ‘promiscuous’ ways. Not only does she openly flirt with them (oh my!) but she’s also a ‘lush’. Male characters with far worse habits are painted in far less judgemental light. All the male characters (all of whom are able-bodied) are incredibly patronising towards her and her body. Rather than calling them out, the narrative makes their behaviour seem a sign of their ‘fatherly’ love for her (most of these father figures also would like to sleep with her).
Female characters hate Alicia because they see her as a threat. They are jealous because she’s beautiful and sexy, and they worry that she will take their men.
Ultimately, like in the previous books, Alicia becomes a mere object of desire, her whole character reduced to the effect she has on the men around her. While she is presented as ‘subversive’, she is made emotionally and physically ‘unstable’, so that in actuality she can only operate when aided by a man.
The other female characters are just as one-dimensional. They either have ‘loose’ morals, and shake their hips to entice men, or are vulnerable because they are too pure for this world. All of the male characters are horny and find any excuse to talk about women’s breasts and thighs. Fermin, a character I used to find ‘funny’, is constantly talking about his sexual desire towards women, and it is usually made into some big joke. More problematic still is Fermin and another male character’s fixation with ‘mulatto girls’ (when talking about cigars one of them says: “They bring them to me straight from Cuba. Sheer class, the sort the mulatto girls roll between their thighs ”). These are the only instances when ‘mulatto’ girls are mentioned…
The way Zafón portrays his female characters is not ‘historically accurate’, it is just sexist. Why do his male characters, regardless of whether they fall into the good or bad category, are shown more empathy than his female ones? Alicia is constantly objectified and undermined by the narrative, even in those passages that are from her perspective. Why even bother with this pretence at being ‘subversive’ when in reality you are presenting your readers with the classic ‘damaged woman’?
When Zafón’s female characters are able to escape dangerous situations on their own they always suffer in a way male characters do not (view spoiler). Zafón’s women exist merely to be desired….and I’m supposed to believe that in the 1950s women did not have any agency at all? That their personalities were near non-existent? Even a novel dating from the Victorian era would present us with a more complex portrayal of female identity…

I’ve kept the worst thing about this book for last. Something happens towards the end of this novel that made me hate a character I previously liked.
(view spoiler)

A few lines later Bea has forgiven him and tells Daniel that: “I’d like to have another child. A girl. Would you like that?”

This rape is made to seem as a mere emotional outburst on Daniel’s part. There are no repercussions or guilt, and everything goes back to normal…but after this scene I found it impossible to view Daniel as the hero the narrative was making him to be (hide spoiler)].

The story goes on too long, and it ends up being a rather convoluted and overdramatic mess. There are few predictable twists and the ending ruined the whole series: (view spoiler).

While I can recognise that Zafón is both a terrific wordsmith and a marvellous storyteller, I can’t turn a blind eye to how sexist his gargantuan novel is.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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