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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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Beach Read by Emily Henry — book review

9780241989524.jpgRomance enthusiasts will undoubtedly enjoy Emily Henry’s Beach Read.
Personally, while I do enjoy romance books, I usually prefer them to be less cheesy…and while certain scenes or lines in Beach Read did make me smile, it wasn’t quite the ‘laugh-out-loud’ read I was hoping it would be.

This is yet another novel that seems to hint at an ‘enemies-to-lovers’ romance but in actuality the two leads are never truly enemies or hostile towards each other. January, our lead and narrator, has a bit of a chip on her shoulder when it comes to Augustus. While they were in college Augustus made a comment that January interpreted as disparaging both her person and her writing. Years later the two find themselves living in the same town.
January needs a place to write her novel. Not only is she financially ‘broke’, but her boyfriend recently broke up with her. January, who is still grieving the loss of her dad, has few options lefts, so she decides to move into her father’s secret home. As she tries to make sense of the secret life her father kept, she finds it hard to envision writing a story with a ‘happy ending’.
January is quite ‘shocked’ to discover that her new neighbour is Augustus, aka Gus. She is sort of envious that his books are seen as ‘highbrow’ whereas hers are dismissed as ‘women’s fiction’. The two strike up a deal: January will write a book without her trademark ‘happy ending’ while Gus will try to write a ‘happy’ book.

While I liked the premise of this book I soon found myself rolling my eyes at its cliches: Gus has an ‘inky gaze’, a ‘crooked’ smile, he is ‘tall’ and ‘dark’. January’s backstory with her father was rather superficial: she feels betrayed, that much she states early on. Other than that I found that she would often merely rehash her story (her mother had cancer, twice, her father wasn’t the man she thought he was, their marriage was far from perfect). Her relationship with people other than Gus were very feeble: she has a best friend who lives in another city so the two of them keep in touch through texts…which were often very silly and seemed to be included only to add humour. Her mother was mentioned now and again but her personality remained undisclosed. We know she had cancer and that she doesn’t want to speak about her husband’s ‘secrets’. It would have been a lot more compelling and challenging if January had actually loved her ex-boyfriend but she admits early on that she loved the idea of them rather than him…which seemed to go against the book’s proclaimed self-awareness. Given that January writes romcoms it would have been more refreshing if we were presented with a story in which there isn’t such a thing as ‘you can only have one true love’…
Gus…he was very much the epitome of the angsty love interest. At one point he says: “I am angry and messed up, and every time I try to get closer to you, it’s like all these warning bells go off”….which yeah, who says stuff like this? And how is this romantic?
Not only does Gus have an appropriately Troubled Backstory™ but he is just sooooo angsty. Just because his eyes are ‘flashing’ or he smirks a lot doesn’t negate how annoying his ‘you can’t possibly understand me/I am a walking tragedy’ thing he has going is.
Most of his lines sounded unbelievable. At one point he tells January that she is “so fucking beautiful” and “like the sun”. Like, wtf man.

Another thing that I was hoping would receive more focus was their books. January once says that if she were to swap her ‘Janes’ for ‘Johns’, her books would no longer be labelled as ‘women’s fiction’ but as ‘fiction’…which is a statement I don’t entirely agree on. There are lots of female authors who write books with female protagonists that do not fall under the ‘women’s fiction’ category. Perhaps January should have been asking herself why certain genres are seen as inferior to others, or why the ‘chick-lit’ is seen as ‘rubbishy’ whereas the popular books by male authors (such as James Patterson) are not similarly dismissed.
There a few paragraphs of January’s own writing which were really cringe-y. I could not take her ‘serious’ story seriously, it was ridiculous. Also, why perpetuate this stereotype of the writer only being able to write about their own lives?

January is immediately attracted to Gus, so there is never a slow build up from friends to lovers. During their first few scenes together her stomach is already ‘flip flopping’.
Their make out/sex scenes were…okay I guess (?). Although I’ve read far worse there was one scenes which was just yuck-y: one moment January compares herself to a ‘toddler’ sitting on Gus’ lap, the next they are making out. Most of their flirting revolves around ‘junk food’ which yeah, I am not a huge fan of this ‘bonding over our mutual love of donuts’. It just strikes me as juvenile.

For the most part I didn’t particularly hate or love this book. I do enjoy reading ‘feel good’ books (some of my faves are by Sophie Kinsella and Mhairi McFarlane) but Beach Read didn’t really work for me. I guess I was excepting a more ‘subversive’ take on the romance genre…but here there are tropes upon tropes.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf — book review

7119MpKPEZL.jpgThroughout the course of my undergraduate degree I consistently and persistently avoided Virginia Woolf’s body of work as on the best of days I have little patience for stream of consciousness (especially of the Joycean variety) and modernist literature. When my lecturers mentioned Woolf they always seemed to confirm my impression of her being a pretentious snob so I didn’t feel particularly inclined to pick up her impenetrably introspective novels.

As of late, I’ve been wanting to read more essays and, for some reason or other, I ended up reading Woolf’s The Common Reader…and I’m glad I did. Yes, her worldview betrays a certain elitism but given her time period I don’t feel particularly slighted by her notion of ‘common reader’ or by the way in which she refers to cultures outside of Britain (once again Italians are referred to as a vaguely uncivilised ‘Southern race’).

Woolf’s essays are far more accessible than I’d imagined them to be. Unlike her fiction, here Woolf’s prose does not stray into the obscure, and needlessly confounding, territories of the English language. Here her lexicon is not only crystal clear but simply captivating. She writes with such eloquence and vitality, demonstrating her extensive knowledge of her subjects without giving herself airs. In fact, these essays never seem to reveal Woolf’s presence as she does not write as an “I” but as a “we”. While in clumsier hands I would have found the “we” to be patronising, Woolf’s essays are anything but. She includes us with ease, making us feel as if we were active participants in her analysis. Her subjects too are not passive figures easily relegated to the past. Her evocative descriptions have an immediacy that makes us momentarily forget that these authors are long-dead. Woolf does not waste time in recounting the entire careers and lives of her biographees. With a few carefully articulated phrases she hones in on the essence of these writers and their work. Woolf whisks away by asking us to ‘imagine’ alongside her these authors in their everyday lives, by speaking of their household, their country, and their world, with such familiarity as to convince us that she knew each one of them.

Her essays certainly demonstrate a wealth of knowledge. Woolf creates a myriad of connections, drawing upon history and philosophy in an engaging and enlightening manner. Certain historical facts went over my head, but that is probably due to my non-British schooling. Nevertheless, even when I wasn’t sure of whom she was writing about or the significance of one of her references, I still felt very much involved by what I was reading.

Woolf’s examination of the interplay between critics, readers, and writers becomes the central leitmotif of this collection. Time and again Woolf interrogates the way in which a writer is influenced by their readers and critics, and of the way in which this knowledge of a future readership shapes their writing. Woolf surveys different types of authors: fiction (such as Daniel Defoe, Joseph Conrad, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charlotte and Emily Brontë), essayists (such as Montaigne), poets, playwrights, and those historical figures who escape definition (such as the incomparable Margaret Cavendish).
In ‘On not knowing Greek’ and ‘The Russian Point of View’ Woolf turns to language and translation while in ‘Modern Fiction’, ‘The Modern Essay’, ‘How it Strikes a Contemporary’, and ‘How Should One Read a Book’ she considers the many faces of writing and the differences between classic and contemporary fiction/authors.

Even in those instances in which our interpretations differed, I recognised that her arguments were informative and persuasive. It is perhaps Woolf’s dialogic wit that makes her suppositions all the more compelling.

More impressive still is Woolf’s description of one of my least favourite literary styles in her much quoted essay titled ‘Modern Fiction’. Here her authorial presence is more felt as she expresses a wish to read fiction that reflects the continuous and incongruous flow of our thoughts.

I thoroughly recommend this to bibliophiles of all sorts. Whether you consider yourself a common reader or not Woolf’s essays have a lot to offer.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Coventry by Rachel Cusk — review

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I have rather mixed thoughts about Rachel Cusk’s Coventry: Essays. Maybe I’m just not the right ‘reader’ for her work…I previously read, and was rather underwhelmed by, Outline…a book that has won quite a few literary awards and is thought of by many as a modern classic.

This collection by Cusk is divided in three sections: the first consists of autobiographical essays (“Driving as Metaphor”,“Coventry”, “On Rudeness”, “Making Home”, “Lions on Leashes”, “Aftermath”) in which she makes various speculations regarding notions of motherhood, home, and agency, often using her personal history—for example with divorce—as a springing board for later suppositions. The other two sections include essays in which she mainly speaks of artists and authors (a few being “Louise Bourgeois: Suites on Fabric”, “Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence”, “Olivia Manning: The Balkan Trilogy”, “Eat, Pray, Love”, “Never Let Me Go”, “On Natalia Ginzburg”).
I much preferred the essays included in these last two sections of this collections. Even if I didn’t entirely agree with some of her readings I thought that Cusk’s ‘critical’ essays were well articulated and interesting. Sadly, I found her autobiographical essays to be rather obnoxious.

At times I had the distinctive impression that the Cusk that emerges from these autobiographical essays seems to have undergone a processes of self-fashioning. Cusk presents herself as a sphinx-like figure, a seer of sorts, capable of discerning the universal truths from personal experiences and opinions. The weight she seems to give to her own mental meanderings seems rather unjustified.
I was also discomfited by the impassive manner in which she would methodically dissect the people around her, coldly pointing out their flaws without ever rendering with clarity a sense of their personality or their shared history with her.
This reticence to let ‘us in’ that manifests itself throughout her biographical essays was detrimental to my reading experience. She seems unconcerned by ideas of privacy as she speaks of very personal subject matters (her divorce for example) yet provides so little context when describing certain episodes and events in her life that made it difficult it for me to relate to her experiences or viewpoint. For example in “Coventry”, the essay which has become the title of this whole collection and therefore one might assume that it has some importance, she doesn’t really make it clear to her readers why her parents “send her to coventry” or what is the exact nature of their relationship. In another essay she examines the way in which divorce has changed the reality and shape of her family in a rather metaphysical way, so that it seems almost as if she wasn’t writing of her own personal experiences presenting her personal experience as some sort of universal one.
She skirts around the edges of possibly complex and fraught relationships without ever delving into the ‘thick of it’
. Because of this, the comments she made about the people in her life struck me as somewhat callous and even uncalled for as I wasn’t made privy to the reason behind her words.
I acknowledge that autobiographical essays are a tricky feat but there are many writers who manage to give an outline of their relationships with their family without revealing everything about them (This is the Story of a Happy Marriage). If an essay examines something that is specifically connected to a certain episode or person from its author’s life one might expect a ‘personal’ element to supplement this exploration of this certain event/individual. For instance, in an essay in which Cusk writes of being repeatedly “send her to coventry” by her parents would, in theory, give us at least a vague impression of the dynamics between them (it doesn’t).
In her philosophising Cusk shows a tendency for issuing rather banal dictums (cars=people, airports=places of transport, children=extension of their parents, homes=reflecting those who inhabit them). At times these rather predictable statements could lead into more profound observations, such as when Cusk expands her vision of airports as places of convergence or how a visit to a clothing shop leads into a discussion regarding the falsity of the customer service industry.

Cusk also demonstrated a propensity for unfortunate analogies: she is “a self-hating transvestite” because she earned the money in her household and did her share of the house-chores . She and her husband were “two transvestites, a transvestite couple” because he was a stay at home dad. She also compares her changing notions “of a woman’s beauty” to “an immigrant’s notion of home”, that is “theoretical”: “My mother may have been my place of birth, but my adopted nationality was my father’s”. This seemed a somewhat dramatic comparison…then again she goes to equate being ignored to being at war so yes, Cusk has a tendency to dramatise some of her so-called ‘struggles’. After her divorce she feels that “my children and I […] we are like a Gypsy caravan parked up among the houses, itinerant, temporary” . Another clumsy comparison she makes is that of feminist to alcoholics: feminists stay away from “the kitchen, the maternity ward – like the alcoholic stays away from the bottle. Some alcoholics have a fantasy of modest social drinking: they just haven’t been through enough cycles of failure yet. The woman who thinks she can choose femininity, can toy with it like the social drinker toys with wine”.
Speaking of feminism, I didn’t entirely agree, or cared to agree, with her vision of feminisms which seems to present feminism at its most radical: “ The joke is that the feminist’s pursuit of male values has led her to the threshold of female exploitation” and “what I lived as feminism were in fact the male values my parents, among others, well-meaningly bequeathed me – the cross-dressing values of my father, and the anti-feminine values of my mother ”. For Cusk a feminist “does not propitiate: she objects. She’s a woman turned inside out”. Feminists hate feminine values and notions of domesticity…and some sure do but isn’t a bit of a generalisation to imply that all feminists will inadvertently fall into this trap of hating other women?
Cusk’s notion of male and female values seemed outdated. In each of this autobiographical essays she seems a bit too concerned with bringing different episodes or topics back to issues of femininity vs. masculinity, definitions of womanhood and manhood which weren’t as ‘mind-blowing’ as the author herself seemed to think. Cusk’s speculations seemed to clearly stem from the mind of someone…shall I say intellectual? Of a certain class? Because of this she seems unaware of making quite a few unfortunate analogies that made me wonder whether a reality check was needed.
Yet, in spite of my criticism towards Cusk’s essays I still thought that does manage to make some interesting speculations regarding things such as rudeness and her portrayal of the polarisation in post-Brexit Britain ‘hits’ right on the nail as she shrewdly describes her country’s current political climate.
Woven throughout Cusk’s essays are a set of theories and concepts such as “suspension of disbelief” and “story vs. reality” yet, in spite of her assertion that as a writer she is values “objectivity” she shows a predilection for self-dramatisation and for conflating notions of subjectivity and objectivity.
However I also have to concede that one of the reasons why I wasn’t able to relate to Cusk’s autobiographical essays might be due to generational, if not cultural, differences. My mother, unlike me, seems to have appreciated most of these essays and doesn’t seem to think that Cusk’s speculations about feminism and domesticity are quite as obsolete as I claim they are.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Less by Andrew Sean Greer — book review


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I’m sure I won’t be the first or last person to find Less to be a bit less than expected.
Although it had its moments, for the most part I found myself annoyed by its employment of satire. Not only does Greer lampoon the literary world but almost every scene ends up being satirical of someone or something.

One of the things that distanced me from the story and our main character was the narrating style. Although for the most part it is narrated in 3rd person, we soon discover that the story is actually being narrated by an omniscient narrator. Which might have worked if the narrator didn’t turn out to be (view spoiler). I would felt much more connected to Less if the story had been told directly through his pov or in a way that allowed us to glimpse his feelings and thoughts.
The story as such consists in a series of mini misadventures, where Less travels from country to country (trying to ignore his age, career, and love life) misunderstands, time and again, everybody around him.
The countries themselves blend together and combine into an irrelevant landscapes that only once succeeds in stirring some emotion in Less (and after this moment of being affect by his surroundings follows a silly joke). There are many instances were emotional depth was lost to satire. I wasn’t interested in the characters or in our protagonist’s self-discovery…in spite of its short length this novel bored me.
The novel’s self-awareness didn’t stop me from wanting to criticise it. Less is writing a book about a middle-aged white American, a Flâneur of sorts. Less himself mirrors his main character’s arc as his wanderings apparently provide him with some insight into himself and his life. Sadly I didn’t see this growth. What I read was other characters telling him to get over himself since as a he doesn’t have huge money problems, and most importantly, he is a white American man which means that he should not complain. This kind of thinking is very superficial and limited. Not only it pushes aside one’s feelings but one’s mental health (is Less not allowed to feel lonely and depressed?!).

The metafictional aspect of this novel wasn’t as innovative as the narrative would have you think… All in all, I thought that this novel did nothing new but perhaps it will resonate with other readers.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2.5 stars

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