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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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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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Apartment by Teddy Wayne — book review

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“I’d been happy before just to be his classmate, to learn from him osmotically, but now I grew excited at what this might blossom into, the sort of close, symbiotic relationship I’d hoped grad school would offer and the Hemingway-Fitzgerald complementary pairing I’d always thought necessary to one’s artistic development.”

Set in New York between 1996 and 1997 Apartment portrays the making and dissolution of a friendship. Our unnamed narrator, who is attending the MFA writing program at Columbia, is a rather introverted young man. His father is paying for his tuition and his other expenses while he is staying in his aunt’s apartment (in what amounts to an illegal sublet).
His loner existence is shaken up when he begins to hang out with Billy, a talented classmate of his. Billy, who hails from the Midwest, has only recently gotten into writing and reading. Unlike our narrator, Billy struggles to make ends meet and works as a bartender. Out of a combination of guilt and genuine admiration for Billy and his writing, our narrator offers him his spare bedroom.

“A first sleepover, whether it was sexual or platonic, had a way of making you both more and less comfortable around the other person; you’d jumped a fence of intimacy, but now you saw each other in the blunt morning light.”

Living in such close quarters however is not easy. The power imbalance between the two of them (which sees the protagonist becoming Billy’s benefactor), their opposite financial situations, as well as Billy’s writing capabilities, put a strain on their bond. Soon it becomes apparent that they also have differing interests and political outlooks.
The unspooling of their relationship is uncomfortable to read. As their awkward chats give way to tense silences, we read with a mounting sense of dread.
The narrator’s discomfort becomes our own. Yet, his caginess puts us at arm’s length. Early on he confesses to Billy that his biggest fear is that no one will truly know him. While this hints at a certain level of self-awareness, our protagonist remains unknowable. His writing too, according to his classmates’ feedback, reflects his reticence to let others see him.
His self-imposed isolation gives way to a perpetual cycle of loneliness and alienation. As he realises that his friendship with Billy is irrevocably damaged, the narrator does the unthinkable.
In spite of the narrator’s unwillingness to articulate his true feelings, I came to care for him. His observations were rendered in a shrinkingly genuine manner, and even if he does not reveal himself to us, or others, we do become familiar with his solitude and with his feelings of not belonging.

“I would never relate to these people after all, they wouldn’t come to know me and no one ever would, and it wasn’t because I was a misunderstood rebel or suffered from some diagnosable pathology; I was an oddball—but not even a ‘classic’ oddball, no, I was an oddball among self-selecting oddballs who had found community with other oddballs, and to be on the outside of mainstream society i one thing, and admirably heroic struggle, but to be on the fringes of an already marginalized subculture is simply lonely.”

With a narrative that is rife with literary allusions and academic terms, Teddy Wayne’s conveys the sheltered yet claustrophobic atmosphere of an MFA program. The narrator and his classmates seem aware that they are active participants in what they define as ‘real life’. Billy’s less than privileged background is what differentiates him from the rest. Yet, the more time he spends at this program, the more self-assured he becomes. There are some great discussions around talent and ambition.
The narrator’s internal monologue also provides some moments of humour. For example, in contemplating a romantic relationship with another writer he makes the following observation:

“Writers were either histrionic or reserved or oscillated wildly between the two poles, all we’d have to talk about would be what we’d composed that day or how we were depressed that we hadn’t produced anything, the whole thing would be insular and incestuous.”

The novel also delves into themes of masculinity, identity, friendship, creativity, and sexuality. Wayne’s depiction of the mid-90s is simultaneously piercing and nostalgic. New York too is rendered in an evocative way.

Written in a propelling style and possessing all the trappings of a psychological thriller without actually being one, Apartment tells a profoundly poignant tale in which the narrator’s namelessness reflects his withdrawn nature.

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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Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman

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“Books wrote our life story, and as they accumulated on our shelves (and on our windowsills, arid underneath our sofa, and on. top of our refrigerator), they became chapters in it themselves. How could it be otherwise?”

Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader is a delightful and uplifting ode to bibliophiles.
Anne Fadiman’s collection of charmingly written essays examine the way in which much of her life was (and is still) shaped by books.
Fadiman pays attention to the physical spaces they occupy. For example, in her first essay,“Marrying Libraries”, she tells us of how she and her husband became truly married when they almost reluctantly ‘merged’ their collections). In “Never Do That to a Book” she presents us with the many ways books are and can be handled (there are those who *ahem* like me *ahem* are somewhat strict about the ‘correct’ handling of their books….and there are the scribblers and benders of spines, such as Fadiman’s brother and father, who will happily leave their books laying open or facedown). Fadiman also details the seemingly invisible ways in which books can influence us, our worldview, our sense of self, and the relationships we have with other people (books play a dominant role in Fadiman’s marriage and family) becoming something akin to a language or a means of communication.

This love letter to books is written in a diverting prose. Fadiman’s style is amusingly anachronistic, and offers a wide range of humour that can swiftly switch from cheerful to ironic.
Fadiman’s witty observations combined with her knowledge and enthusiasm for her subjects (books, bibliophilia, grammar), make for a very interesting book on books, one that I would happily read again.

“This model of readers as consumers—one I have abetted in many a book review myself—neatly omits what I consider the heart of reading: not whether we wish to purchase a new book but how we maintain our connections with our old books, the ones we have lived with for years, the ones whose textures and colors and smells have become as familiar to us as our children’s skin.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

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The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón — book review

After finishing The Angel’s Game I was eager to start The Prisoner of Heaven as I was hoping that we could see how unreliable a narrator David was.220px-The_Prisoner_of_Heaven_-_bookcover.jpg

Tonally The Prisoner of Heaven is closer to the first book in this series, yet its short length and fast plot-line seemed more in a line with those of a short story or a novella. While The Prisoner of Heaven was a bit too long for my liking, and its story ‘dragged’ a little, I had the opposite problem The Prisoner of Heaven as I found myself wanting the story to slow down a little.
The story follows once more Daniel who is now married to Bea and has become a father himself. A figure from Fermín’s past will bring to light some old secrets and a not unsurprising connection between Fermín and David.
While I was interested in Fermín’s backstory I did find the Bea side-story to be a bit of distraction, one that did not really contribute to the overall story. When things seem to be getting into motion the story ends which did lessen my overall enjoyment.
Still, in spite of these reservations, Zafón—perhaps thanks to his translator—remains a good writer, even if he occasionally spends too much time on silly jokes.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón — book review

410JhN2DNoLLast summer I read and loved Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind. It was a fun romp filled with melodrama which owed much to 19th century sensationalism (in that it implemented puzzles, Gothic and Romantic elements, clever twists towards an overarching quest of sorts). Reading that book was a fun experience. Although The Angel’s Game has similar themes to those explored in the first instalment of this series, these are embedded in a much more labyrinthine narrative that offers its readers few moments of respite.
In an interview Zafón described The Angel’s Game as a story of damnation and indeed it is. Unlike the conventional and likeable hero of The Shadow of the Wind Daniel, this second book is narrated and focuses on David Martin a figure that has much in common with the archetypical tragic hero of a faustian tale.
The storyline is intentionally confounding and we are soon forced to question David’s experiences. Both in his writing career and in his love ‘life’ there is a sense of impeding doom. The mysterious French editor, Andreas Corelli, and David’s new home offer the story plenty of intrigue yet at times this was counteracted by an unclear story. A lot of what happens or what David discovers was lost to me as I struggled to make head or tail of the bizarre events that he allegedly experienced.
Backdrop to David’s damnation is a city in turmoil and Zafón really does a compelling job in describing Barcelona during and post Spanish civil war. Paranoia and violence abound within his work.
As its predecessor The Angel’s Game is a deeply intertextual text that references directly and obliquely the writers and books it echoes (from sensationalist such as Dickens and Collins to 18th century Gothic works) incorporating and subverting established elements of these genres.
Perhaps I missed the humour and the characters of the first book as I was never able to really connect to David as he kept much of himself out of his own narrative. Still, reading this made me want to read the sequels, so that I may be able to understand what really went on in this book.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 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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Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz — book review

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I like to think of myself as a “serious” Agatha Christie fan. With the exception of one or two books—aberrations of some sort—I have always enjoyed reading Christie. I also happen to be a huge fan of the Poirot ITV series (starring the impeccable David Suchet) on which Horowitz has worked on. As Horowitz demonstrates in Magpie Murders, he knows a lot about whodunnits, particularly those that are considered to belong to the ‘golden age’ of detective fiction.

Magpie Murders is both a homage and satire of the detective genre. In a similar vein to The Silkworm, this novel focuses on a writer, Alan Conway, whose latest—and last—manuscript brings about some drama. In Conway Horowitz presents readers with the epitome of the self-important and unpleasant writer, and it’s easy to see why his editor—and one of the narrators—Susan Ryeland wants little do with him. Yet, asshe informs us in the very first pages of this novel, Conway’s last manuscript will change her life.
Knowing this, we then read the manuscript alongside her, and Horowitz utilises the device of the story-within-a-story perfectly, giving each narrative more or less the same length. Conway’s novel is full of easter eggs, many of which Susan decodes later on, and I had a lot of fun reading this quintessentially British whodunnit. The narrative, for Conway’s novel and Susan’s story, shows a self-awareness in its use of certain tropes and devices.
This was a fun read that kept me entertained from its opening page to its final one.

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

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Bunny: A Novel by Mona Awad — book review

Untitled drawingThere are those bizarre and experimental books that manage to be entertaining, transgressive, and on occasion even thought-provoking. And then, there are books like Bunny whose weirdness largely rests on overusing the word bunny(which appears approximately 350 times, one time too many).
An intentionally silly story that owes more to Scream Queens and The Babysitter then Heathers or Mean Girls. If you are picking up Bunny thinking that it is some sort of intriguing campus novel, you should reconsider given that this book is the anthesis to The Secret History. If you are hoping for some sort of absurdist black comedy à la Yorgos Lanthimos, think again. The ‘satirical horror’ I was hoping to encounter in Bunny was closer to the ‘comedic horror’ in the Scary Movie franchise…

Writing about writing is never an easy endeavour since there is the high risk that you will remind your readers that they are indeed ‘reading’ a fictitious work. Since the main cast in Bunny is part of a creative writing MFA program…we were constantly reminded of how inane criticism can be. The five girls part of this program are apparently only able to write fiction that reflects their personal life or preferences…funnily enough, a lot of the criticism that these characters throw at each other’s pieces of writing could easily be aimed at Bunny (oh, the irony):

“Um, what the fuck is this, please? This makes no sense. This is coy and this is willfully obscure and no one but [the author] will ever get this […] spoiled, fragmented, lazy, pretentious […] And then I feel like screaming JUST SAY IT. TELL ME WHAT HAPPENED. TELL ME WHAT THE FUCK THIS MEANS AND WHAT YOU DID WITH HIM EXACTLY.”

Four of these girls are part of a clique that is the ultimate parody of cliques. From the first few pages they are presented as some sort of ‘hive-mind’, some sort of multi-conscious entity. Some of their conversations between them—as well as the narrator’s observations about them—could be amusing.
Although the narrator keeps insisting that she is ‘different’ (aka the only ‘big’ difference between her and the bunnies is her finances) she falls prey to this clique. Personally, I don’t think the story provides with a convincing reason for the MC to fall in with these girls. Even when the Mc sees their most secretive activities…it seemed that she stayed with them out of laziness (or merely as a way to further the plot).
The weirdness of this story seems contrived. This whole novel seems (rather ironically) like an exercise for a creative writing class. Many of the ‘bizarre’ elements in this story were predictable and had me rolling my eyes. The whole book is like a joke that goes on for too long. The first few chapters were amusing and the scenes that took place in the creative writing workshop were on point (and reminded me of the creative writing module I took in my first year of uni):

“Samantha, we’re at Warren. The most experimental, groundbreaking writing school in the country. This goes way beyond genre. It subverts the whole concept of genre.”
“And gender narratives.”
“And the patriarchy of language.”
“Not to mention the whole writing medium.”
“It basically fucks the writing medium, Samantha. Which is dead anyway, you know?”
“Exactly. This is about the Body. Performing the Body. The Body performing in all its nuanced viscerality.”

Yet, soon enough the repetitiveness of these exchanges grew tiresome and the style of the narrative became increasingly annoying and unnecessary. The narrative mimics the language—and perhaps vision—of this clique of girls: it is sweet, sticky, and extra. If you like eating candy floss until you feel sick you might be up for it…the narrative—if not the whole story—is a parody that lacks subtlety or real wit:

Here at Mini they have many cupcakes in mini but they should have more. Why don’t they have more? They should have more in mini, more! We tell them how they should have more in mini and they do not seem to make a note of it.

The narrative’s style was so repetitive! All too frequently words were repeated three times in a row in a cheap attempt to give urgency to the story.
The plot (if we can call it that) even in its ‘wtf moments’ is tedious. The characters and story seem merely a backdrop to this sickeningly sweet and repetitive language (hair like feathers, tiny pink-y small-ish hand, glossy this and that, teensy-weensy girls who eat teensy-weensy food).
This book didn’t inspire feelings of panic or fear, which I was expecting given its summary…I was never afraid of these demented girls and their stupid activities. A lot of the things seem to just happen to the MC as if she isn’t capable of these laughable ‘terrible’ things from happening (insert eye roll here). Again, I find it ironic that the MC’s own writing is criticised for this exact reason:

“Although we could hardly call her a heroine, could we? I mean, could we even call her that, Samantha? […] She’s quite passive, Samantha, isn’t she?”

I guess you could argue that this is all ‘intentional’. The stupid characters, the saccharine and repetitive language, the MC’s spinelessness…these things come across this way on purpose…but that seems like a cheap excuse to make the lazy and unfunny elements of your story ‘deliberate’.
The worst ‘sin’ of all is that this book leaves us with a less than favourable opinion about writing and criticism…which isn’t a great message.

 

My rating: ★★✰✰✰  2 of 5 stars

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