BOOK REVIEWS

Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

“Fear of death is a powerful weapon.”

Remote Control is Afrofuturism at its best. Nnedi Okorafor seamlessly blends folklore elements and aesthetics with sci-fi ones, delivering a unique and intriguing piece of speculative fiction. Set in Ghana, Remote Control opens in medias res: the appearance of Sankofa, a fourteen-year girl, and her companion, a fox, sends the residents of a town into hiding. They shout her name and the following: “Beware of remote control, o! The most powerful of all witchcraft!”. Sankofa chooses a house in which she is treated like a honoured, and feared, guests. The following chapters tell Sankofa’s story and of her strange, and occasionally dangerous, powers. After a terrible tragedy forces her to leave her hometown Sankofa embarks on a journey in pursuit of the peculiar object responsible for her powers. As she is unable to use cars (since her ‘change’ she become a technology ‘repellant’) Sankofa walks, encountering both friendly and hostile people, seeking shelter in nature, finding comfort in the presence of her fury companion. Throughout the years she spends on the road we see the way people view her and her powers. Some see her as a ‘witch’ and seek to harm, while others seek her help. Time and again we see the damage caused by fear and hatred of the other or that which we do not understand. There were many harrowing scenes but thankfully there were also plenty of moments emphasising empathy, connection, and love.
As much as I appreciated the setting and the mélange of sci-fi and fable, what I loved the most about Remote Control was Sankofa herself. I don’t think I have ever warmed up so quickly to a character. Perhaps it is because she is a child but to be honest I tend not to like children (real and fictional alike) but Sankofa immediately won me over. There was something so endearing and wholesome about her that my heart ached for her. I found her level-headedness to be both sweet and amusing (“Being led out of town by an angry mob wasn’t the worst thing that could happen, best to stay calm and let it be done”).
My anxiety over her wellbeing did give the novella a suspenseful edge, so that I finished it as quickly as possible. The only aspect that didn’t quite ‘work’ for me was the ending (which could have been less ambiguous). Nevertheless, I would love to read more novellas set in this world!
I would definitely Remote Control recommend to fans of speculative fiction: the writing is evocative and inventive, the main character is wonderful, and Okorafor raises interesting questions about power and fear.

my rating: ★★★½

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Vicious by V.E. Schwab

Schwab’s aesthetics dominate this novel. There is a focus on how words and phrases sound, which does pay off, in fact, Schwab’s prose is one of the most likeable things of this novel. At times certain turn of phrases or repetitions may come across as pretentious or flowery but I think that for the most part Schwab exerts great control over her words. She measures pauses and words as to instil a rhythm to her narration. So, in some ways, Vicious is more ‘style’ than anything else. What characters say, how they look, how Schwab words things, it all creates a certain ‘look’.
While I did find the story to be engaging (different timelines keep the momentum of the story) I wasn’t completely taken by the characters. They seemed very much ‘sketches’ of existing types: morally grey for the sole purpose of seeming ‘ambiguous’…hopefully the sequel will provide them to be slightly more complex then what they came across as…


MY RATING: 3 of 5 stars

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The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

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

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

My rating: 3 ½ stars of 5 stars

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The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht — book review

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“He was alone and hungry, and that hunger, coupled with the thunderous noise of bombardment, had burned in him a kind of awareness of his own death, an imminent and innate knowledge he could neither dismiss nor succumb to.”

To begin with I was intrigued by Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife. Obreht’s writing is both intelligent and beautifully oblique. Her descriptions of the moral and physical landscape of the Balkans are evocatively rendered. Although Obreht avoids naming countries, alluding merely to ‘my side’ and ‘their side’, she does give her readers a strong impression of the communities she writes of. Whether she is describing them before or after this ‘unnamed’ war, her prose is piercing. She easily disentangles the feelings that different generations have during a war.

Populated with folkloric characters and examining themes such as cultural memory and death, I was prepared to be mesmerised by The Tiger’s Wife. The tale within tale structure of her novel brought to mind some personal favourites (such as books by Elif Shafak and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land) but I soon found myself wanting the narrative to focus and develop our protagonist more. Natalia Stefanovi’s personality remains off-stage, and she often seemed to function as a mere mouthpiece for her grandfather. The few scenes which gave us an impression of their relationship were far more poignant than those countless ones focusing on Galina’s residents. Ultimately Natalia’s narrative feels meaningless. She doesn’t embark on a quest nor does she come to re-asses her grandfather or his stories, she seems merely to be reiterating these tales, and she offers few personal insights.
The tiger, Gavran Gailé (the deathless man who Natalia’s grandfather encountered years before), and the deaf-mute woman know as the tiger’s wife were the figures to which the various tales stories returning to. While the tiger was painted in a fascinating and mythical light, the tiger’s wife struck me as a passive and one-dimensional character.
While Obreht’s depictions of death, illness, and war are haunting, and her story does reveal the desperation and exhaustion experienced by those in war-torn countries, I did find her story to be ultimately inconclusive. If Natalia had played a more active role in the novel I would probably enjoyed this novel more.
Still, Obreht’s prose does merit attention, and I will certainly be reading her next novels.

“It was another thing they never talked about, a fact I knew somehow without knowing how I’d ever heard about it, something buried so long ago, in such absolute silence, that I could go for years without remembering it. When I did, I was always stunned by the fact that they had survived it, this thing that sat between them, barricaded from everyone else, despite which they had been able to cling together, and raise my mother, and take trips, and laugh, and raise me.”

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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The Law of Lines by Hye-Young Pyun — book review

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“The future was a dark corridor. And though she would grope her way through it, the door at the end would be locked tight.”

After reading that Hye-Young Pyun’s novel The Hole won the ‘Shirley Jackson Award’, I was intrigued to read her work. Thanks to NetGalley I was able to read The Law of Lines in exchange for a review.

Within its first few chapters The Law of Lines introduces us to two seemingly unconnected young women: there is Se-oh, a recluse whose indebted father attempts to take his own life by burning their house down, and Ki-jeong, an unenthusiastic teacher who receives a call informing her of the death of her younger half-sister. Confronted with such personal and sudden losses both women find their lives spiralling out of control.

“Those sounds and sentences were lost to her now. His unconditional love, his wordless yet tender gaze, his steely look of fatherly responsibility. All gone. They were each different, but to her they were all synonyms for a father.”

Se-oh begin to understand the depths of her father’s desperation and holds the debt collector who hounded him responsible. Seeking retribution Se-oh begins to stalk the collector and entertains increasingly violent fantasies. However her past, the reason why she became a recluse, catches up to her and Se-oh has to confront whether she herself is accountable for her father’s death.

“The whole time she had stayed locked up at home, she had imagined the outside world as a place that could swallow her whole at any moment. But in truth, it was a place that paid her no attention at all.”

Ki-jeong has led a rather restrained existence, ensuring that she always abided the rules of her society. Ki-jeong is aware of her faults. For example, she knows that she isn’t a very inspired or driven teacher. However, when one of her most privileged pupils plays a cruel trick on her and threatens both her career and her reputation, as well as calling into question her moral integrity, Ki-jeong looses control.
Reeling from their losses, both of these women feel let down by their country’s system of justice. Amidst a backdrop of violent and vengeful thoughts Se-oh and Ki-jeong embark on separate investigations, trying to uncover the causes that led to death of their relatives and it is by assigning blame to others they relieve their own guilt.

“Ki-jeong knew that, of all laws, this—the way one thing leads invariably to the next—was the only of life’s laws that she could not find fault with.”

The beginning of Pyun’s novel is incredibly absorbing. She immediately establishes an atmosphere of uneasiness and of moral degradation: the world she depicts is populated by spiteful, malevolent, or apathetic individuals. Those in authoritative positions abuse their powers. Greed, corruption, and cowardice seem to drive the majority of these characters. It is her characters’ malice perhaps that Pyun turns to the most. Malice seems to creep its way into her character’s thoughts, blurring the lines between right and wrong, good and evil.

“She’d felt the unfamiliar thrill that comes only when you amplify your malice.”

Se-oh and Ki-jeong narratives interrogate the difference between victim and perpetrator. Is entertaining a violent fantasy really better than actual violence? Does vengeance condone one’s wrongdoings? Pyun traces the source and effects that malice and violence have on her characters’ minds.

“When does evil intent become evil itself? Is it evil simply to imagine and harbor an idea? Does it begin when a thought is put into action? And if that action fails, then did evil never exist to begin with?”

Throughout the story an air of squalor lingers over most scenes. These unpleasant characters have filthy habits (such as spitting) and grimy morals. Debt collectors torment those who are indebted, waging psychological wars against them. Young individuals are trapped into pyramid schemes and find themselves into nightmarish scenarios (a bit a la Sorry to Bother You).
Pyun emphasises humanity’s darkness by focusing on the seedy behaviour, physical appearances, or living conditions of her characters. She is almost unrelenting in the way in which she delves into the notion of evil.

“There’d been good, and there’d been bad. That was all. At the time, she’d thought that all of it was bad. Because happiness had flitted on by while bad things had a way of lingering.”

More than once I was reminded of Park Chan-wook’s The Vengeance Trilogy. Pyun’s novel is a bleak one. Yet, as gripping as the first half of The Law of Lines was, in the latter half the story looses its momentum. Ki-jeong sort of disappears and there we get a lengthy account of what drove Se-oh into hiding. When these characters paths finally cross, I found their interaction to be somewhat underwhelming. The ending too seemed rather ill-defined.
All in all, I am unsure whether I would recommend this book to other readers. There are some wickedly clever moments, plenty of interesting observations on Korean society as well as some fascinating discussions about justice. Once the storyline lost its initial edge however I didn’t care much for what I was reading. Perhaps certain things were lost in translation but I do think that the story could have been more complete.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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American Gods by Neil Gaiman — book review

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“Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.”

It isn’t surprising that American Gods is regarded as one of the genre-bending novels of all time.
Over the course of 500 pages Neil Gaiman deftly blends together fantasy, sci-fi, horror, noir, myths, history, theology, as well as physical, spiritual, and emotional road-trip. The end result is an incredibly imaginative novel, on that is quite unlike anything else I’ve read.

In the preface to the tenth anniversary edition Gaiman describes his novel as ‘meandering’: “I wanted it to be a number of things. I wanted to write a book that was big and odd and meandering, and I did and it was.” It is indeed meandering, wonderfully so. Gaiman’s consistently entertaining storytelling more than makes up for it. Also, given how many different storylines and characters there are in American Gods, it’s safe to say that I was never bored.

“We do not always remember the things that do no credit to us. We justify them, cover them in bright lies or with the thick dust of forgetfulness.”

Summarising this novel isn’t easy. The first time I read it I didn’t know much about it so I found myself experiencing a lot of ‘what the f*ck is going’ moments. This second time, even if I knew what was coming and where Shadow’s story was headed, I still managed to get lost in Gaiman’s heady prose.
The novel’s protagonist, Shadow, gets out of prison and is hired by the mysterious and relentlessly charismatic Mr. Wednesday. We soon realise that Shadow’s new boss is an endlessly scheming conman, and not quite human.

What follows is an epic journey in which Shadow meets many disgruntled and modernity weary gods and deities, some of whom share snippets of their history or lore with Shadow, while others remain far more unknowable. Interspersed throughout the novel are chapters recounting their arrival to America. From heroic battles and bloody sacrifices to tales of worship and faith that span centuries and cultures, these sections were thoroughly interesting.

Over the course of his road trip Shadow comes across a lot of weird stuff. We have the sense that these encounters are leading to something far more big. Yet, Gaiman keeps his cards close to his chest, and it is only after many many pages that we start to understand where the story is leading Shadow, and us, towards.
There are plenty of things that will keep us engaged in Shadow’s story. A dead wife, coin tricks, cons, sex (with divine beings…so things get pretty freaky), some horrific scenes (of slavery, of war, of death), satire, a small town which gives some serious Twin Peaks vibe, a hubbub of different cultures and voices…and so much more. There is also an ongoing juxtaposition between the past and present, ancient customs and modernity, old lore and modern believes which provided some serious food for thought.

Gaiman presents us with a narrative that is wickedly funny, frequently mischievous, and always brimming with energy. I loved the way he writes about myths and how distinctive and morally ambiguous his characters are. As interesting and beguiling as the various gods and deities are, once again I found myself caring the most for Shadow.
Gaiman’s dialogues and scenes too are memorable and compelling. And while his narrative does wander into obscure and mystical terrains, it always held my undivided attention.
American Gods gives its readers a bonanza of flavours. It is funny, moving, clever, and constantly surprising.

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano — book review

45294613.jpgDear Edward presents its readers with a moving coming of age that deals with themes of grief, loss, and death. Throughout the course of Edward’s narrative Ann Napolitano depicts the important role that friends and family play in a person’s recovery process.
While I was certainly felt invested in Edward’s story, I found the structure of Napolitano’s novel to be distracting and counterproductive.

Napolitano’s detailed yet slightly cold writing style may not appeal to some readers (it brought to mind Mira T. Lee and Ann Patchett). For the most part I appreciated her exact prose as it presents us with scenes that are both vivid and realistic.
Ordinary moments or motions were often the backdrop to emotionally charged scenes or realisations.
Napolitano also successfully renders the character of Edward, a 12-year old boy who is the sole survivor of a plane crash. Having lost his parents and his brothers, and with the heavy weight of the guilt that comes when you are only one to survive a crash that killed 183 other people, Edward becomes untethered. His ‘new’ life with his aunt and uncle isn’t easy. Suffering from physical wounds, PTSD, and increasingly detached from his own existence, Edward is struggling to find a place in a world that no longer makes sense to him. While he wasn’t the only one to be affected by the crash, the knowledge that he is the ‘sole survivor’ haunts him. Edward no longer feels the drive to do anything: he loses weight, he no longer feels hungry, and he has difficulties sleeping.

Edward’s story was compelling and heart-rendering. There were quite a few jarring scenes, and it wasn’t easy not to feel protective on his behalf as he the adults and kids around him try to make him ‘better’. The idea that anyone can move past something like a plane crash which killed the three people you loved the most in the whole world as well as many others…is madness. Yet, as the years pass, Edward fears that he is the only one who remembers this horrific tragedy.
The presence of his therapist, his aunt and uncle, his neighbours, and later on his school’s president help on his journey of self-recovery. Nevertheless he remains plagued by his sense of guilt and it is only when he comes across some letters addressed to him (as per the title of the novel: ‘Dear Edward’) from the friends, families, and loved ones of those who died on Flight 2977 that Edward begins to believe and envision a future in which he can help others and subsequently himself.

As heart-wrenching as Edward’s story was, the presence of Shay in his life was frustrating. From the first she treats Edward as some sort of oddity. She starts feeding him stories of his being ‘chosen’ by drawing parallels to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. Way to make him feel normal or not to blame…
She also often sounded a lot younger than her actual age. The stuff she comes up with was idiotic. I really didn’t see why Edward finds her presence to be so necessary to him. She wasn’t very bright or kind, she mostly tells Edward that she has it worse than him because he is a white and she isn’t and because her mom wants her to wear dresses and behave in an old-fashioned ‘girly’ manner.
The worst thing she says is that he is LUCKY. Like, what-the-actual-fuck.
Here we have this young boy who is detached from his reality, haunted by the deaths of his loved ones, and she tells him he is LUCKY. Because he “can get away with stuff”.
Part of believed that she would be cut out of his life since she is basically poison…but no. She remains a constant, for some bizarre reason I cannot grasp. She was toxic, and it seemed weird that her character would be made to seem as a positive presence in his life. She finds Edward fascinating because of his being a sole survivor. Years later she sort of grows tired of him being still ‘not over it’….young or not she sort of ruined the story for me.
She has one brief redeeming moment at the end of the novel which didn’t make up for her prior behaviour and attitude.

I would have liked this novel a lot more if the narrative had remained focused on Edward rather than jumping back to the Flight 2977. Here we have a very gimmicky jumping into the passenger’s lives, and they all seem to be having a mid-life-crisis or a long moment of introspection/self-analysis on this flight. How likely is it that so many people are reliving their past mistakes and present wants on a flight?
Sadly these characters were mere clichés.
We have the rich-business man with a drug problem, a cranky big-shot who is wheelchair bound and suffering from some form of dementia, the spiritual woman who wears bells on her skirts and exudes mystic vibes, the young woman who just found out she is pregnant, the soldier questioning his sexuality, and the most eye-roll-worthy of the lot: the flight attendant who is pure sex appeal and spends her time sashaying up and down the plane (view spoiler).

As Edward grows into a young adult who is trying to overcome or at least reconcile himself with his trauma, readers are constantly being pulled back into the past.
Given that I felt that Edward was a much more nuanced character than those on the plane, I found these switches to be annoying breaks in his narrative. Maybe they couldn’t have seemed so one-dimensional if we’d seen them prior the flight (so rather than having chapters jumping back to these characters on the plane we could have had chapters showing us a ‘day’ in their lives). Their confinement to this space however didn’t allow for a lot of variation to their thought patterns etc. They sit there and they think of what has led them to this flight. They comment on other passengers, they chat with one another. And in the end they all die.
To me it seemed unnecessary to prolong their deaths…and I would have found it much more impactful if the flight ‘scenes’ had ended at the start of the novel.

While I certainly appreciated the way in which Napolitano’s handles this difficult if not frankly horrific subject manner, I wasn’t very taken by the structure of her novel or by Shay’s characterisation and the role she plays in Edward’s story.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Bleak House by Charles Dickens — book review

9780307947192.jpegWhile the first few chapters of Bleak House are rather entertaining, the fifty chapters that follow? Not so much.

There is a lot of ‘jumble and jargon’ going on in Bleak House. Having genuinely loved Great Expectations I am rather disappointment by this novel.
The humour present in Bleak House consists mostly in the narrative painting its characters as utter fools and in the usage and repetition of funny names (such as Boodle, Coodle, Doodle, Goodle, Hoodle, Joodle, Koodle, Loodle, Moodle, Noodle, Poodle, and Quoodle….highly amusing stuff, right?).

This mammoth of a novel presents its readers with a dizzying constellation of subplots that are allegedly unified by the absurd and never-ending court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
The novel intertwines two narratives: one is from the heroine’s, Esther Summerson, perspective, while the other one is the classic omniscient narrative. These two narratives have rather clashing tones: Esther’s chapters convey her ‘kind’ worldview (and alongside her we are supposed to feel pity for everybody she encounters and everything that happens) while the third-person one makes fun of everybody and everything. In one we are meant to take seriously the characters and their dramas, while in the other we are made to see the story’s many players as little more than laughing stocks.
Only one scene truly struck me as bleak. Every single other ‘bad’ or ‘sad’ thing after that? Those scenes were laughable. Character drop dead for no good reason, and their deaths have no emotional impact on other characters or the narrative itself.
Scenes that should be of key-importance are sped through, yet we linger on recursive dialogues and jumbled monologues. The interactions between Dickens’ various characters are extremely formulaic, so much so that one could always predict the way certain discussions or exchanges would end.
Whereas in Great Expectations I came to care for the all the characters—whether they were simple, ambitious, or somewhat removed—Bleak House seems to be populated by impossibly static characters. In spite of the many life-changing events they experience, they seem not to undergo any actual character change or development. They all have their fixed role, and they stick to it. They also one or two catchphrases which they seem to say whenever they make an appearance. They are unfunny caricatures who always behave in a certain silly way or say a certain silly thing. Within their first few appearances readers know that they are parodies, so why constantly repeat their ‘catchphrases’ or clumsily emphasise their vices/hypocrisies?
Rather than finding them amusing or clever, they annoyed me to no end. We have two or three virtuous young women, a lot of incompetent men, a few not-so-charitable charity-obsessed women, one or two cunning men, the ‘I know nothing’ or ‘I’m just a child’ type of characters…they all irked me. Their silly names failed to amuse me and I struggled to keep them straight in my mind as they all played a similarly clown-ish role.
Rather than focusing on parodying the legal system, Dickens’ attention seems to be all over the place Any aside or digression will do. Whether these digressions and ramblings are amusing or relevant…that seems of no concern. I soon came to regard these narratives as little more than words piled on words piled on words (ie. there was no, nil, nada, suspension of disbelief on my part).

The most dislikable thing about Bleak House is its heroine. I’m glad she’s Dickens’ only female narrator as her characterisation is utterly ridiculous (is this really how Dickens’ thinks that women are/were?). I guess this an early example on how to write an unbelievable female lead. Perhaps a third person narrative could have made her less insufferable…
Esther Summerson is a paragon of purity. She is self-effacing, kind-hearted, empathetic, self-sacrificing, forgiving, innocent, a true Mother Teresa.
I know that characters such as her can have a certain function in a narrative…usually however they are not the narrators and they are not to be taken seriously. Here it seemed that readers are not only meant to believe in Esther’s existence but also like her. Personally, I’d rather read from the perspective of an unscrupulous social-climber or an ambivalent dark horse than from this type of demure and saintly young woman. Throughout the narrative Esther appears as the embodiment of perfection. Esther does no wrong and everyone loves her. She spends her narrative saying ‘dear’ this and that or feeling ‘sad’ or ‘pity’ for others. She gave me a massive toothache and I was relieved to see her narrative draw to a close.
Also, this might seem like I’m being unnecessarily picky, variations of the word ‘tremble’ appear 35 times. I probably wouldn’t have minded if the word had been attached to different characters. In Bleak House 99% of the trembling is done by none other than our heroine, Miss Goody-Two-Shoes Esther Summerson.
This book had a potentially intriguing storyline. Sadly the mystery is lost in an ocean of subplots, side-stories, and never-ending digressions. Dickens’ serious themes—such as extreme poverty, child neglect, domestic abuse, class disparity—are diluted and overshadowed by his humour. His satire is all bark and no bite, his heroine is trying, the legions of secondary characters are forgettable and mildly annoying…all in all this was an unnecessarily long and rather forgettable novel.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman — book review

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“Heart of my heart, love of my life, the only loss I will never survive.”

The Nightingale meets The Golem and the Jinni in Alice Hoffman’s latest novel. Yet, while The World That We Knew may in points thread similar paths to those of many other novels (historical fiction seems to be brimming with WWII books) it is also undeniably Hoffman’s own unique creation, one that seamlessly blends the magical with the real.

“If you do not believe in evil, you are doomed to live in a world you will never understand.”

Hoffman’s distinctive writing style imbues her narrative with a beautifully rhythmic quality. Sentences seems to smoothly run into each other, swiftly carrying us from one scene to the next, and creating an effect of constant motion within the narrative itself.
Because of this the novel is more fast-paced than Hoffman’s works usually are. In a certain way it seemed to reflect the turbulent times it depicted, keeping up with the ever-changing war torn Europe, and while I can see why this worked, part of me wished for a slower pace…then again that might have counteracted the sense of urgency generated by the perpetually moving narrative.
Hoffman’s prose also resonates with the story’s focus on Jewish Mysticism and folklore. Not knowing much about certain Jewish practices and beliefs, I was absorbed by Hoffman’s comprehensive representation of this faith and its ideologies. Hoffman allows each of her characters to have a different understanding of this faith, one that is affected—for the better or worse—by their rapidly deteriorating realities. Jewish faith seems to be a multivalent and dynamic element of the story, appearing as more than a mere backdrop, a crucial component of Hoffman’s storytelling itself.

“Hanni Kohn saw what was before her. She would do whatever she must to save those she loved, whether it was right or wrong, permitted or forbidden.”

The enduring love of a mother for her daughter sets in motion the story. To protect her twelve year daughter Lea, Hanni Kohn seeks help from Ettie, a rabbi’s daughter, as to create a golem, one that will become Lea’s guardian. The story will follow Lea, Ava (the golem), Ettie, and two brothers, Julien and Victor, as they attempt to navigate a world which seems determined to erase them and find solace in one another and in the kindness and compassion of strangers. There are many affecting relationships within these pages, familial ones (such as a mother/father-child or a sibling bond), and romantic ones.

“Each felt fortunate to be in the company of the other. The reset of the world and its cruelties didn’t matter as much when they were together.”

As these characters are united and separated, scattered across Nazi-occupied France, they are made to endure loss after loss. Yet, the narrative never entirely succumbs to darkness. While they are negotiating their feelings of grief and despair, they find purpose in helping those around them. Some become part of the resistance (rescuing thousands of Jewish lives) demonstrating their bravery in bold acts of heroism, others perform smaller acts of kindness (for instance Lea’s bond with another girl in hiding).

Ava seemed to be the embodiment of physical and emotional strength. While she may have been created as a ‘stand-in’ for Lea’s mother, she has her own distinctive personality, one that seems, to both readers and characters alike, to be other-worldly. As Ava experiences the world around her she begins to feel more keenly for those around her. Her new sense of self goes against her very nature—we are told many times that one should not mistake a golem for a human being—yet she slowly begins to gain independence. She forms a beautiful and heart-wrenching bond with a heron and her unique worldview gave us glimpses into the magical and temporarily relieved us from the otherwise brutal landscape of the narrative.

“In truth, she felt a kinship with bread and the way it was made, the damp weight kneaded and shaped into proper form, heated until it was set.”

Lea’s tumultuous relationship with Ava is rendered in a striking manner. Lea’s grief and confusion cloud her feelings towards Ava, while Ava slowly loosens the bonds of the role imposed on her by her creator(s).
Hoffman conveys with painful clarity the feelings of entrapment and claustrophobia known by those who are forced into hiding. There are many distressing scenes in which we witness characters being killed or taken to death camps, and Hoffman emphasises the horrors of certain parts of her story by juxtaposing them with seemingly ordinary and mundane scenes. We become accustomed to a family (its routine and dynamics), only to witness them being torn apart.
The youth and dreams of these characters are hampered by a series of events which presage the horrors to come. As Jewish citizens loose their rights and freedom, our characters are forced to reassess their view of the world and of their own future.
In spite of the uncertainty given by their stories, the narrative foreshadows some of these characters’ future decision or actions.

“Her greatest sin would be committed in the future, and it was one for which she could never be forgiven.”

Within her story Hoffman contrasts heart-warming moments between friends and families with the evil carried out by the Nazis and their collaborators. The novel explores the way each character attempts to make sense of themselves in an unrecognisable world.
It is a a tale of faith, grief, love, death, sorrow, destiny, bravery, and freedom. I was both anxious and eager to read about the various characters respective journey’s even if the narrative anticipated the way their story would unfold.

“The past was simply where she lived now, crossing over from on world to the other with such ease it was becoming more difficult to remain in the here and now.”

I thoroughly recommend this to fans of both historical fiction and magical realism. Hoffman’s melodic prose makes for an emotional reading experience.

ps: A ‘shout out’ to NetGalley for allowing me the pleasure of reading this prior its publication!

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

We Came Here to Forget by Andrea Dunlop — book review

42202020.jpgFor the most part We Came Here to Forget was a somewhat inconsistent read. Perhaps this is due to the two timelines, one which follows Katie Cleary as she grows up, and the other one focuses on the aftermath a personal tragedy. In order to escape from her unbearable existent (one in which she has just lost her friends, boyfriend, and career) Katie ‘reinvents’ herself as Liz Sullivan and travels to Buenos Aires.
Although we know that something bad has happened between Katie/Liz and her older sister, we don’t know the details until the very end. This choice, rather than creating suspense, frustrated me since I predicted what had happened (there are a few things that could make a whole family so infamous)…the timeline focused on the past provided little insight in Katie’s relationship with her sister and her parents. It was mostly telling rather than showing. The parents are only occasionally mentioned, and Katie’s sister, who should have been the focal point of this timeline, is rendered through vague descriptions and observations that usually allude to her later ‘crime’.
The present timeline provided a more nuanced and interesting story. Liz’s struggle to reconcile herself with that ‘bad thing’ and her own ‘fallout’ gave her character an emotional arc. Again, I think that revealing earlier on what happened with her sister would have allowed for even more depth but alas…this narrative was for the most part enjoyable. Although Liz initially struggles to adapt to her new surroundings, she soon falls in with a group of people similar to her: they have all left their ‘baggage’ in other countries. Perhaps the male characters came across as less nuanced than the female characters and their personalities too were somewhat same-y.
Kate/Liz’s love interests added little to the story. Luke had scarcely any lines, and remained off page for the majority of the story. Blair was also a character who remained in the sidelines until he makes a predictable appearance later on…Gianluca could have been an interesting character but he ended up being merely a plot device for Kate/Liz’s character development…throw in an oddly detailed and unnecessary sex scenes and there you have it: a mixed bag. Is the novel about family? Not really. Mental illness? A bit. Love? Occasionally.
It was just too inconsistent for my taste and I will be approaching Dunlop’s future work with caution…

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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