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Monstress by Lysley Tenorio — book review

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


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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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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If I Never Met You by Mhairi McFarlane — book review


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“The trouble with liars, Laurie had decided from much research in the professional field, is they always thought everyone else was less smart than them.”

If I Never Met You is the fourth novel I’ve read by Mhairi McFarlane and I’m happy to say that it is my favourite book of hers. McFarlane just keeps getting better and better, and this time round she gives a new spin to the tired ‘fake-dating’ trope (which prior to this book I considered to be one of my least favourite romcom tropes).

“This Greek God was prepared to anoint her his Phony Goddess? It did feel like the most longed-for boy in school asking you to prom.”

Once again McFarlane writing combines laugh-out-loud moments with an insightful narrative that taps into deep-seated issues. Blending humour and realism McFarlane’s story is as witty as it is topical.
Our protagonist, and narrator, is Laurie, a thirty-six year old lawyer. Her world collapses when her partner of eighteen years leaves her. Having spent half of her life with Dan, and not knowing why he no longer wants to be with her, Laurie is hurt and confused. Worst still, Dan works at the same firm as Laurie so she is forced to keep up a happy front at work.
Laurie has barely had time to process Dan’s departure when, within weeks of their break up, he announces that he
1) has a new girlfriend (who happens to work at a rival firm)
2) is a father-to-be as said girlfriend is now pregnant.

Laurie soon finds that both her social and work life are affected by her new single status. As a woman in her late thirties she is subject to unwarranted comments regarding her future (such as ‘isn’t she too old now to find a new partner or start a family?’)
A rightfully angry Laurie makes a deal with her firm’s local Casanova, Jamie Carter, in order to put a stop to the fake-pity and gossip that her coworkers and acquaintances are showering over her. And maybe also to get back at Dan.

“If you wanted plumbing done, you hired a plumber. If you wanted your roof fixed you hired a roofer. If you wanted everyone to erroneously believe you were at it like knives, you recruited Jamie Carter.”

As they spend more and more time together, in order to make their fauxmance believable, Laurie and Jamie find themselves forming a bond of sorts. Although Laurie realises they are as different as chalk and cheese, she is surprised to discover that Jamie is far from the superficial all-looks-not-much-else guy he’d pegged him to be.

With dialogues that are simultaneously funny and clever If I Never Met You is hard to put down.
I loved Laurie. After her breakup with Dan she begins an introspective journey as she is forced to find herself in a reality that feels alien. She also experiences first-hand the double-standards of being a single woman rather than a single man. Colleagues and friends who prior to her breakup seemed relatively affable reveal their true colours.
Thankfully her best friend and Jamie provide the narrative with much needed positivity. They are both nuanced characters, with fears and desires of their own, and their relationship to Laurie present us with many tender scenes.
There is a bit of banter, which was a delight to read, and a few disagreements but for the most part Laurie and Jamie’s budding maybe-not-so-fake-romance had me smiling like an idiot.

Laurie’s trials and tribulations are both endearing and entertaining. There are some heart-breaking moments nestled in this otherwise light-hearted narrative. Laurie realises that sometimes it is better to choose carefully who you let into your life, and that perhaps some people aren’t worth forgiving.
From the humour to the romance, this novel simply stole my heart. I would call this type of book escapist fiction as it is sure to satisfy readers’ romcom requirements but to do feels like doing it a disservice. It isn’t all fun and games, and McFarlane doesn’t shy away from portraying the way in which rumours, gossips, and false impression affected both women and men. Laurie in particular goes through quite a few hardships and I felt immensely proud of her character growth.
Jamie too was surprisingly vulnerable, and I appreciated the way they supported each other.

“She’d never been called a survivor. She turned the word over her in mind: she liked how it sounded, applied to her. It wasn’t victimhood and it wasn’t self-aggrandising, it was about coping. And she had definitely done that.”

I thoroughly recommend this novel to fans of contemporary fiction and I’m really looking forward to reading this again.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken — book review

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The best childhood stories have wolves in them.
Often they are evil and dangerous creatures…and yet, there is something beguiling about them. Perhaps there is a freedom to their unrestrained roaming…the ones in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase are undoubtedly wild and ferocious creatures but they are not the story’s villains.

The fairy-tale elements and imagery contribute to the novel’s simultaneously cozy and spine-tingling atmosphere.
Set in an alternative history of early-19th century England, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase follows the adventurous of two cousins as they try to escape from the evil clutches of their new governess and her cronies. We have bold Bonnie, daughter of Sir Willoughby, and her more timid cousin Sylvia who is an orphan and was raised by her frail aunt. When Sir Willoughby takes his wife onto a voyage for her health, he leaves Bonnie and Sylvia at Willoughby Chase. The two girls soon realise that their new governess Miss Slighcarp is up to no good. What follows is an engrossing adventure starring two brave children, train rides across dark forests, wicked governesses and teachers, a horrid boarding ‘school’, and many dangerous treks across forests teeming with wolves. 

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Aiken’s deceptively simple language ingeniously conjures Bonnie and Sylvia’s adventures in a way that reflects their ‘young’ point of view. The adults have a certain Dickensian quality to them that is apparent through their names and appearances.

There is so much to love in these pages. We have snow, sumptuous meals, hidden passageways, shipwrecks, and daring escapes. In spite of the many injustices Bonnie and Sylvia are made to experience, there is always an undercurrent of hope in this narrative.
Perhaps I love this novel so much because it speaks of my childhood, perhaps I simply recognise for what it is.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann

2505972493_e0150cbe1c_b.jpgInvitation to the Waltz is a short novel which was first published in 1932 and written by Rosamond Lehmann, an overlooked yet clearly talented author. The narrative takes place over the course of two days: the day of Olivia Curtis’ seventeenth birthday and the day in which, together with her older sister Kate and a dullish male chaperone, she goes to her first dance.

“And they waltzed together to the music made for joy. She danced with him in love and sorrow. He held her close to him, and he was far away from her, far from the music, buried and indifferent. She danced with his youth and his death.”

This is not the type of novel that has a clear storyline or plot. Lehmann spends a large portion of her narrative conveying Olivia’s various states of mind and detailing the frivolous chit-chat between the people around her on these two separate days (from her family members to her neighbours).
From the start readers will be aware of Olivia’s self-awareness over her own shyness and inexperience. Feeling inferior to the more mature and beautiful Kate, Olivia is desperately looking forward to her first dance as she hopes that something will happen there, even if she does not know exactly what that something should or will be. Lehmann skilfully renders Olivia’s innermost thoughts, emphasising the elusive shape of her desires. Olivia’s character brought to mind the nameless narrator of Rebecca as they are both almost painfully aware of being seen as young and green by the people around them. Olivia comes to mythologize the dance, regarding this event as something more than a rite of passage.

Lehmann’s style possesses an unflagging rhythm that effectively propels readers along. Between Olivia’s inner monologue and the constant—and often empty—chatter between the various characters Lehmann’s narrative almost becomes too much. The way in which she moves from conversation to conversation or from thought to thought gave her style a syncopated energy that was too nervy for my liking (it brought to mind the writing of Muriel Spark and Dorothy Baker).
I can definitely see why many readers compare Lehmann to Virginia Woolf. At the best of times I will find stream of consciousness to be too florid for my taste…so I was slightly put off by Lehmann’s use of this technique.

The long-awaited dance did not strike me as particularly memorable as lot of potentially significant scenes or conversations are absorbed into the noisy and forgettable chatter and general hubbub of the party.

On the one hand, I appreciated how upbeat this novel is and the way Lehmann captured that awkward transition between girlhood and adulthood…on the other, I can’t say that I was particularly engaged by her narrative or her characters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature by Viv Groskop — book review

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“Russian literature deserves more love letters written by total idiots. For too long it has belonged to very clever people who want to keep it to themselves.”

Although The Anna Karenina Fix is certainly written in an engaging style, Viv Groskop’s humour, which mostly consists in her resorting to a forced comedic ‘light’ tone when discussing serious subjects, lessened my overall reading experience.
In her introduction Groskop writes that:

“But first, an important disclaimer. This is not an intellectual book. It is not a work of primary research. It is not an academic thesis on Russian literature. It’s not supposed to be the last word in interpreting Russian literature. […] Instead it’s a guide to surviving life using some of the clues left in these great classics. It’s an exploration of the answers these writers found to life’s questions, big and small. And it’s a love letter to some favourite books which at one point helped me to find my identity and buoyed me up when I lost it again.”

…which is fair enough. However I don’t entirely agree with her claim that when reading a book “However you get it, you’ve got it right”. Of course different people will have different opinions or impressions of a book’s subjects and themes but the way she phrases struck me as both vaguely patronising and equivocal.
Groskop interweaves her own personal experiences when discussing her chosen authors and their work. The parallels she draws between herself and these writers seemed for the most part fitting. She doesn’t paint herself as the hero or heroine of the anecdotes she writes of, and uses a self-deprecating sort of humour to make light of her struggles to reconcile herself with a culture that is not her own. By drawing on her time as a student in Russia and by examining her relationship to the Russian language, Russian traditions, and Russian people, Groskop does present us with an intimate and compelling depiction of this country.
Complementing her ‘outsider’ perspective of Russia are the biographies of various Russian authors. While she sprinkles quite a few fun anecdotes from their lives, she seems to focus on their individual relationships to Russian and the values that emerge from their works (which as she remarks can go at odds to their own way of life).
Readers who have only read a few of these Russian authors (for example I’ve only read Tolstoy, Bulgakov, and Dostoevsky) might find The Anna Karenina Fix more entertaining than those who are already well acquainted with these classics of the Russian literature. Had I been better versed in the works and lives of these writers I’m not sure I would have found The Anna Karenina Fix very informative or insightful. As it is, Groskop did spark my interest in the works of Gogol, Akhmatova, and Turgenev.
Part of me wishes that Groskop had not revolved her analysis/discussions of these books on these novel’s alleged ‘life lessons’. The ‘self-help’ aspect of The Anna Karenina Fix seemed a bit unnecessary. In a certain way Groskop seems to be moralising these books in a way that almost goes against her initial claims (that these books can be appreciated without attributing to them clever messages and such things).
The ‘life lessons’ themselves were rather obvious:
Anna Karenina = “life is, essentially, unknowable”
Eugene Onegin = “Avoid hubris. Stay humble. Keep an eye out for self-defeating behaviours. Don’t duel.”
From chapter six she also begins to talk in terms of hedgehogs and foxes (from Isaiah Berlin’s essay titled The Hedgehog and the Fox) which didn’t strike me as being an incredibly profound analogy and she returns to this hedgehog/fox problem time and again…
Groskop’s humour was very hit or miss. At times her digressions, which usually appeared in brackets, were spot on funny. For the most part however these asides seemed out of place and forced (“I am not saying that Tolstoy is Oprah Winfrey with a beard […] Well, I am saying that a bit. And in any case, it’s just fun to think of the two of them together.”). Also this happens to be the second self-proclaimed work of ‘light’ unpretentious criticism that mentions popular culture one too many times (I am so sick and tired of the Kardashians).
At times she seems to play into this role of ‘amateur’ critic when in actuality she happens to have two university degrees in Russian and can speak fluent Russian. Lastly her constant digs against Nabokov were childish. We get it, the man was punctilious and big headed…can we move on?
All in all I would recommend this only to those who are thinking of reading more Russian literature but have yet to read the classics as The Anna Karenina Fix makes for a readable and quick introduction to prominent Russian authors.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski — book review

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“It’s best to start with the beginning—or at least what feels like it. I realise now that we never much talked about our pasts. Maybe it would changed something if we had, maybe we would have understood each other better and everything would have been different. Who can say?”

Swimming in the Dark is a strikingly elegiac novel. The story, in its broadest terms, explores a young man’s identity and sexuality under Communist Poland.
In December 13th 1981 martial law is declared in the Socialist Republic of Poland. Ludwik Glowacki, a young Polish man now living in America, hears of this on the news. This Western ‘acknowledgment’ of his home country’s political unrest triggers a recollection of his past. Rather than reiterating his whole childhood, Ludwik lingers on some of his more meaningful experiences: starting at age nine, when he became infatuated with a Jewish boy, to his longer-lasting relationship to Janusz, a young man he meets while working on an agricultural camp.
Throughout the narrative Ludwik addresses Janusz in the second-person (which will probably elicit comparisons to Call Me By Your Name), giving his reminisce the impression of being an unwritten letter of sorts.

“You listened, really listened, gentle eyes taking me in without judgment, making me feel more heard than I knew I could be.”

But this is only partly a love story. Ludwik’s examination of his time in Poland will make you feel uneasy. We read of Ludwik’s early struggle to reconcile himself with his sexuality, of his self-discovery (aided by a copy of Giovanni’s Room), of his attempts to create a future in a growingly alienating society, and of the way Poland’s tumultuous political and economical landscape affect him and those around him.

“To my own surprise, I was unable to accept the shame he wanted me to feel. It was too familiar to be imposed: I had produced it myself for such a long time that, right then, I found I had no space left for it any more.”

Ludwik’s daily life is permeated by an undercurrent of fear one that forces him into secrecy. Yet as Ludwik struggles to maintain his identity in an increasingly watchful city, he finds himself not only holding but voicing dissident opinions. Because of this, his relationship with Janusz, who is much more complacent, becomes strained.

“Selfish. Growing into yourself is nothing but that.”

Jedrowski’s writing is by turns allusive and explicit. Ludwik’s intimate narration is one that might make readers feel almost uncomfortable, as if we were encroaching upon his privacy. Yet, this intimacy also allows us to experience some of Ludwik’s emotions, to understand the depth of his feelings for Janusz, his apprehension and guilt for having moved away from his grandmother, his growing sense of dislocation.

“I even attempt a smile. But I sense that either way my foreignness somehow absolves me from their judgment. To them, it must explain my strangeness completely.”

Jedrowski renders in an almost painful clarity what it means to live in a country in turmoil, a country whose government and (collapsing) economy worsen its citizens quality of life.
Against this bleak backdrop, Jedrowski’s prose seems almost startlingly luminous. He emphasises the more striking nuances of the English language, and his word choices perfectly lend themselves to conveying the beauty and anguish in Ludwik’s life.

“I was transported into a vision of my life that made me so dizzy my head began to spin. Shame, heavy and alive, had materialised, built from buried fears and desires.”

Jedrowski’s writing also showcases a propensity for metaphors: “‘Perverts’ — the word falling from her lips like a two-limbed snake, dangerous and exciting”. At times these metaphors could be beautiful, and often brought certain moments or images from Ludwik’s memory into the foreground, so that certain scenes are rendered in almost snapshot clarity. In other instances these seemed to accentuate Ludwik’s impression or feelings towards someone or something.

“My life was a tiny narrow corridor with no doors leading of it, a tunnel so narrow it bruised my elbows, with only one way to go. That or the void, I told myself. That or leave.”

Certain metaphors however stood out for the wrong reason, seeming over-written, silly, a bit too impressionistic, and made me wonder whether Jedrowski had an aversion for calling things what they are (for instance: “Tears started to slide down my cheeks like melted butter” / “Warm cave of his mouth” / “your ass was powerful, like two great smooth rocks sculpted by the sea” / “breasts like overripe fruit”).
Still, Jedrowski is a clearly skilled writer. The imagery he creates make his narrative into an almost sensory experience. His prose is acutely lyrical, and there were many instance in which I became lost in his language, in his rich, if occasionally high-flow, expression, and in his arresting juxtapositions.
Jedrowski’s flair for metaphors brought to mind authors such as André Aciman and Ocean Vuong, while the ambivalent tone that shapes much of Ludwik’s retrospective narrative reminded me of L’Arminuta and Lie With Me.
In spite of his novel’s tragic undertones, Jedrowski’s prose remains luminous, and there are some rare moments of true beauty in Ludwik’s deeply personal tale. Still, a sense of disquiet seemed ever present. Perhaps Ludwik’s hindsight distorts some of his memory, turning blissfully happy moments into bittersweet memories.

“One day your country is yours, and the next it isn’t.”

Living in a country that through its laws and policies imposed uniformity on its subjects, Ludwik not only does he hold onto his individuality but he tries to overcome the shame and guilt that seem irrevocably ingrained in him. Ludwik’s psychological turmoil is temporarily alleviated after he comes across an illicit copy of Giovanni’s Room. He begins to draw parallels between himself and its protagonist, and soon he fears that he too will behave in a cowardly way. I too became increasingly afraid for him, especially as he is repeatedly forced into morally distressing situations. Yet, to go against the tide is no easy feat, and there were many challenging occasions where Ludwik has to fight not to stray from his values.

“But like stones thrown into the sky with all one’s might, pieces of that night – the boys and the men who wanted them, the flirtation, the codes of seduction I could only guess at – returned to me with even greater intensity than I had lived. The law of gravity applies to memories too.”

Ludwik’s relationship to Janusz is rendered with poignancy. There are moments of vulnerability, of frailty, of emotional and physical abandon, of weariness, and of grief. Due to the secret nature of their relationship Ludwik seems to be perpetually longing for Janusz. However, Ludwik’s anxiety for his/their future, Janusz’s job and acquaintances, and their contrasting political views, create conflict between them.

“I wondered about your role in all this, what kind of pact you’ve made with yourself. Because we all make one, even the best of us. And it’s rarely immaculate. No matter how hard we try.”

This novel is a deeply intratextual work. James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room appears throughout the narrative, at times it alleviates Ludwik’s despair, in other occasions it appears to him almost as a cautionary tale. Baldwin’s novel allows him to read from a perspective he can understand.

“I was paralysed by possibility, caught between the vertigo of fulfillment and the abyss of uncertainty.”

In navigating his past Ludwik demonstrates incredible self-awareness. He acknowledges early on that his recollection of his past is imperfect and possibly biased. Retrospective blurs his memories. Yet, its is his present knowledge that allows him to ‘dig’ deeper, to discern his own motivations and feelings as well as those of others. In fact, as Ludwik ruminates his way through his past, he seems also to be trying to understand or question some of his choices.

“How does one bond with another child, as a child? Maybe it’s simply through common interest. Or maybe it’s something that lies deeper, for which everything you say and do is an unwitting code. ”

Swimming in the Dark presents its readers with an examination of a young love that is filled with passion, misery, contrition, and jealousy. Simultaneously graceful and unrestrained, this novel is brimming with sensitive and penetrating observations about youth, love (of being gay in a society that deems same-sex love unacceptable), family, and freedom. Written in a fluid prose Swimming in the Dark tells a moving story one that struck me for its piercing realism, for its painful subject matter, and for its believable and compelling characters.

“It sounded like an appeal, a right violated and invoked. My hand on the door handle, my back to you, heart pulsing in my temples. I could sense the word throbbing in the air. My name, claiming me. It wrapped its fingers around my shoulders and tried to hold me back.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center — book review

Things You Save in a Fire was a heart-warming if occasionally cheesy read. Untitled drawing (1).jpg

“For the first time, I understood. In all the times I’d remembered that story, I’d experienced every single part of it from my own perspective, standing in my own sixteen-year-old shoes. Now, for the first time, I saw it unfold from a new angle. ”

Katherine Center’s writing easily transports her readers into a compelling tale of strength—both physical and emotional—and forgiveness. The story is narrated by Cassie Hanwell, a female firefighter who dedicates her life to her job. Being a firefighter is everything for Cassie so when she is forced to leave her Texas firehouse and move to Boston to help her estranged mother…well, things don’t go so smoothly. Her fraught relationship with her mother hides years of hurt…so Cassie isn’t keen on patching things up with her mother. Worse still, her new job at the Boston firehouse proves just as challenging. Cassie has to prove herself to her all-male team time and again, often working twice as hard to prove that she is just as capable as her male counterparts.

Cassie’s voice is compelling and likeable. She constantly questions herself, her motivation, and her choices, and is unafraid of criticising her own behaviour and/or reassessing her opinion of others. She is brave, righteous, and surprisingly amusing.
Her story is moving and funny, with plenty of serious moments…Cassie struggles with her new reality as well as past traumas. Falling in love with rookie, a sweet and handsome firefighter newbie, further complicates matters. Although the romance is insta-lovey I still rooted for Cassie and found her budding relationship with rookie to be heartwarming.

Towards the end the plot ends up taking a turn which I didn’t particularly like…yet, in spite of the cheesy finale, which is far too neat and squeaky clean, I enjoyed listening to this and I will definitely be picking up other novels by Center.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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Promising Young Women by Caroline O’Donoghue — book review

 

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“I was afraid, really, of being the main character in my own life.”

Promising Young Women is an intelligent and subversive novel that examines the darker and more twisted aspects of a relationship between a female employee and her boss.

There was something about the story and its characters that reminded of Joyce Carol Oates (Zombie, Solstice, A Fair Maiden, and Nemesis) in that Promising Young Women is brimming with an almost palatable darkness so much so that readers will find themselves overwhelmed by it.

From its very opening page the novel juxtaposes the sweet with the grotesque:

[T]he excess of uneaten cake was attracting rats, and when bodies started appearing — bloated and sugar-filled and, more than once, belly-up in the stairwell — they insisted we downsize.”

This sets the tone for the rest of the novel as we follow the protagonist, a young promising woman, in a feverish journey towards self-destruction. When Jane Peters turns 26 she is newly single (her long-term boyfriend has fallen in love with someone else) and painfully aware of what she perceives as being her own unfulfilled existence. She works at Mitchell Advertisement where she is one of the many “young women” who work alongside—and often for—older men. When Clem, her much older boss, begins to show interest in her, she finds herself rapidly falling under his spell.
The story that follows is very much a subversive take on the trope of the young woman/married older man cliché and from the get go we are made aware of how imbalanced their relationship is. An unmoored Jane feels pressured by the skewed power dynamics between her and Clem into continuing their affair. We witness how slowly yet surely Jane’s sense of self is eroded by Clem and by her own growing dissociation with her past self.
The deceptively simple prose (as opposed to Oates’ more eloquent prose) is compelling and offers readers with a direct look into the mind of an alienated woman. Backdrop to Jane’s disintegration is the dangers of workplace competitiveness, the lack of privacy that comes with being an online presence, and the persistency of the more unseen aspects of sexism (a scene where Jane visits a doctor will have you simmering with rage). It is also a satire of certain trends (‘actualisation’, yoga retreats) in a way that doesn’t minimise from Jane’s—frankly horrific—experiences.

The story blurs the line between reality and fantasy, and as Jane’s body and mind become affected by a series of mysterious ailments, so does the prose attain a feverish quality that perfectly captures the Jane’s fears and anxieties.
Unlike other contemporary novels exploring similar themes, O’Donoghue’s debut never romanticises the way Clem degrades Jane, nor does it suggest that Jane’s weight loss makes her more ‘ethereal’ or ‘aesthetically cool’ (there is none of the usual ‘sharp-cheekbones’ crap) but rather it shows us in horrifying, and almost grotesque detail, Jane’s estrangement from her own body. Clem’s presence in Jane’s life has almost the same effect as an infection…
It was also interesting to read about the way Jane’s ambitions regarding her career affects some of her friendships, or causes those around her to reassess their perception of her. In some ways it is Jane’s ‘promising future’ that makes her dissolution all the more affecting.

Make no mistake, this isn’t a pleasant read. Yes, it was gripping, but more than once I felt sickened by what I was reading. O’Donoghue has created a captivating and terrifying modern Gothic tale which depicts the more poisonous aspects of love affairs, sexism (especially at the workplace), and friendships. Although I was surprised by how weird it ended up being, I completely bought into it.
This was a bizarre, compelling, and thought-provoking debut.

I choose to be someone that things happen to, because it was easier than being someone who made things happen.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to 4 since this is a debut)

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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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