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Afterlife by Julia Alvarez — book review

Afterlife.jpgAfterlife is a slim novel that covers many topical and important issues, like mental health, in a not always satisfactory way. Alvarez’s style was at times a detriment to her story. While I could have moved past the lack of quotations, I had a harder time buying into the recursive narration. I sort of understood what Alvarez was going for, trying to render Antonia Vega’s inner monologue in what seemed to be a slightly less sporadic take on stream-of-consciousness, but I can’t say that it worked (for me). Antonia’s observations, reflections, and various thoughts often seemed far too contrived. For one, she was perpetually baffled: each interaction she has with another person has her wondering why certain customs exists, why society expects us to behave a certain way or why we adhere to certain etiquettes. At times it seemed that she had lived under a rock for the entirety of her life, when in actuality she was a teacher and therefore must have accumulated some life experiences.
While I appreciated that she wasn’t portrayed as inherently selfless, I wish we could have seen her in a more positive light. Her relationship with her sisters and husband seemed to reinforce this image of her interacting with them not because she wanted to or because she cared for them but because it was expected of her. Her two younger sisters merged into one blurry character, while her older sister’s personality was entirely reduced to the being the ‘problematic’ one. Alvarez presents us with a rather simplistic take of mental disorders and the sister who is possibly bipolar was a mere plot device that would enable Antonia to embark on her ‘new life’.
The book does pose some thought-provoking questions, especially regarding what people owe to each themselves and each other, but stylistically it just wasn’t for me. I hope other readers will be able to connected with Alvarez’s story and her characters more than I was.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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An Honest Man by Ben Fergusson — book review

In Ben Fergusson’s An Honest Man our narrator Ralf revi51QJeS5BD+L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgsits a particularly significant year in his life. The year is 1989 and Ralf is eighteen and lives with his family in West Berlin. Growing up in a bilingual household (his mother is English), Ralf has always felt like a bit of an outsider. In a few months him and his friends will part ways and go to separate universities (Ralf whose passion is geology plans to study in England). Until then they spend their days and nights relaxing: they go to the swimming pool, on nature excursions, drink together etc. Ralf’s routine is interrupted by Oz, born to Turkish parents and a few years older than him.
As Ralf struggles to reconcile himself with his growing attraction, and feelings, towards Oz, he also learns that Oz is keeping tabs on one of his neighbours, Tobias Rose. When Oz asks him for help Ralf finds himself uncovering life-altering secrets. As Ralf’s relationship with Oz deepens he is forced to question where is own loyalties lie, and who is willing to betray.

While the story does delve into espionage, the focus remains primarily on Ralf. His relationship with Oz sees him embarking on a journey of self-discovery. The approach of university also alters his perceptions about who he is and who he wants to become. When a shocking discovery jeopardises what little normalcy his life contained, Ralf becomes further enmeshed in a web of deceit.
The story is very much a coming of age. To begin with Ralf is a rather sheltered and somewhat naive boy, and as the story progresses, and he starts seeing with new eyes his family and friends, he becomes more of an adult.
Ben Fergusson portrays believably fallible characters. Ralf, somewhat understandably given that he has a lot to contend with, can be rather self-centred and bratty. More than once I experienced second-hand embarrassment at what he says or does. His relationship with Oz is filled with a young sort of longing, with plenty of awkward flirting (they talk about their favourite pasta shape) and even some tender moments. Oz’s introverted nature lends him an air of mystery, and readers, alongside Ralf, will find themselves wanting to learn more about him.
Ralf’s group of friends was also solidly depicted and we get to see how his relationship with each one of his friends differs. His friends all have their own backstory and clear-cut personalities.
Ralf’s relationship with his family plays a big role in the narrative. Although we might not like or forgive Ralf’s parents, Fergusson does give these characters some nuance.
What Fergusson truly excels at is brining West Berlin to life. The setting is vividly rendered, and Fergusson creates and maintains a rather bittersweet atmosphere. Ralf’s narration is filled with youthful descriptions and observations. His narrative is sensuous, as he always seem to loose himself in the bodies of those around him (noting the way the light illuminates someone’s hair or face).
The ending was a bit rushed for my taste, and part of me wished for a more satisfying confrontation between Ralf and certain other characters.
Although this is a slow-burn kind of story, I finished this novel in one day. Ralf’s story is absorbing, and Fergusson examines complex themes in a compelling manner. If you enjoy coming of ages, books by John Boyne, or stories set in times of political divide (such as Confession with Blue Horses and Swimming in the Dark), chances are you will like this book.

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

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Escape Routes by Naomi Ishiguro — book review

91JENwjsWpL.jpgLike many collections of short stories Naomi Ishiguro’s Escape Routes is a bit of a mixed bag.
The stories collected in Escape Routes are centred around individuals who feel ‘trapped’. Throughout the course of these narratives Ishiguro’s characters seem to undergo some sort of existentialist crisis. Most are mystified by their present and deeply uncertain of their future. Some crave to break free from what they perceive to be an unfulfilling or somehow undesirable existence. Others believe that there is something deeply wrong with them, physically or psychologically. There are also those who feel pressured by their parents, partners, or friends, to be someone they are not.
At times it is the possibility of the fantastic that changes their circumstances. On other occasions an encounter, with other people or with nature, might lead them to a path of self-acceptance or self-reconciliation.

In theory I appreciated the themes that Ishiguro explores in her narratives. Given the economical nature of the short story Ishiguro doesn’t waste her words as she often begins her stories by emphasising or addressing what troubles her characters’ minds. Ishiguro also demonstrates an intelligent and efficient use of the English language. Frequently she articulates her characters’ unease in an amusing manner. Ishiguro’s dialogues also demonstrate her ability to render the different ways in which people speak or express themselves as well as giving an impression of those pauses and inflections that characterise most conversations.

For the most part I enjoyed the humour with which she imbues her stories. Her characters are not to be taken too seriously and in depicting their predicaments she often adapts an ironic and vaguely self-aware tone. While she doesn’t make light of her characters’ various troubles, she does hint towards a self-dramatisation on their part.

Sadly, as much as I liked her writing style and the themes at the core of her stories I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed any of her stories. Most of these narratives are characterised by a studied weirdness, one that comes across as artificial. Whereas through her characters’ inner monologues and their conversations with others Ishiguro creates and maintains a sense of almost Wes Andersonesque absurdity, these more blatantly bizarre elements lessened the ‘ordinary yet surreal’ quality of her stories.
While the start of her stories are promising enough, they soon seemed to fall into a rather predictable ‘this-is-how-you-write-a-short-story’ structure. Rather than suffusing her narratives with a natural sense of ambiguity, Ishiguro mostly relies on her endings in order to ‘subvert’ our expectations. The perplexing and open-ended way in which her stories culminate in seemed more contrived than enigmatic.

The first two stories—‘Wizards’ and ‘Bears’—were perhaps the most successful ones in this collection. One follows a young boy and a rather child-like man in their quest for ‘more’. The boy hopes for magic while the man seems on the lookout for some sort of sign. Both of them feel that their parents’ would not accept or understand their true selves. The other is a quirky tale in which a man becomes paranoid over a stuffed bear.
Stories such as ‘Heart Problems’ and ‘Accelerate!’ were okay…if almost entirely forgettable. They played around with perspective, which kept me somewhat engaged but their endings were somewhat uninspiring.
This collection also includes a story that is divided in three parts: ‘The Rat Catcher I, II, and III’. This was the only story I actively disliked. It had this unsuccessful grotesque tone, a gimmicky and unconvincing ‘historical’ setting, and an incredibly derivative storyline. It’s never a good sign when you want to skim or skip a short story.

Perhaps I’ve read too many short stories by Shirley Jackson or watched too much stuff by David Lynch to be truly troubled or intrigued by Ishiguro’s work. While I can recognise that she a clearly talented writer (I wish I had her command of the English language) her storylines seemed to be held back by this conventional type of weirdness and a general lack of subtlety.
Rather than developing or expanding on the themes of entrapment and alienation, Ishiguro’s narratives are hampered by these attempts to ‘startle’ the reader with enigmatic—and incredibly formulaic—elements and endings.
Most of her stories rely perhaps a bit too much on capturing a character’s meandering line-of-thoughts. Their moments of introspection or self-analysis are interrupted by abstract contemplations which did little to add some emotional depth. If anything the characters’ zigzagging thoughts lessened my interest in them and their stories.

Overall, while I can’t deny that Ishiguro is more than a capable writer, Escape Routes wasn’t a memorable read.
I wasn’t enchanted, mesmerised, or surprised by her narratives, and for the most part I was too aware of the fictionality of her stories to be able to suspend my disbelief or to truly ‘immerse’ myself into what I was reading.
Nevertheless, just because I wasn’t able to form an emotional attachment to Ishiguro’s characters and their stories doesn’t mean that other readers won’t like them, in fact, I hope that other people will appreciate Ishiguro’s work more than I did.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson — book review

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“I understand that art is a necessary component of a civilized society, but you cannot just go around shooting people. That’s going to be a problem.”

Having recently read and loved Nothing to See Here I wanted to check out Kevin Wilson’s earlier work. While The Family Fang has the same whimsical tone as his latest novel, its story has a broader scope and feels slightly more impersonal (perhaps this is due to the third person point of view).
Nevertheless the opening chapters of this novel are highly entertaining. Throughout the narrative there are sections from Annie and Buster’s childhood recounting the way in which their parents would rope them into being part of their ‘performances’ (which usually aimed to cause as much havoc as possible). Unsurprisingly, as adults Annie and Buster have little to do with their parents. Annie is an actress whose career is about to hit a rough spot, while Buster is a writer whose last novel wasn’t very well received. After a series of unfortunate yet oddly funny, events the two Fang siblings find themselves back into their parents’ home.
Although I liked the satire on contemporary art, as well as art criticism, I didn’t find Caleb and Camille to be all that interesting. They remain rather one-sided and did not strike me as being as compelling as they were made to be. Their over-the-top self-belief and art talk could be amusing but it didn’t render their personalities. Even when the narrative was focused on them, their motivations and behaviour remained off page. Although Annie and Buster were far more engaging, I still found their character arcs to be rather erratic.
Although for the most part he eccentric cast of characters did keep me interested in the story, I would have preferred a more focused and less meandering storyline. The pacing too seemed to be slightly off kilter.

Funnily enough some of my favourite scenes in this novel were the ones revolved around a film Annie’s working on (a film in which a woman looks after children who catch fire? Sounds familiar…).
While I appreciated Wilson’s motifs, imagery, and themes (once again we have questionable parents who do a questionable job raising their children), and I enjoyed the overall humour and eccentricity of his narrative, I did not feel particularly involved by his story nor his characters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Middlemarch by George Eliot — book review

penguin-cover-george-eliot-middlemarch.jpgWhile I won’t be the first or last reader to address the lengthiness of Middlemarch I do think that it’s worth noting that yes it could easily have benefited from a little ‘trimming’. Still, if you can move past its rather daunting size hopefully you will be able to appreciate George Eliot’s elegant and deeply attentive prose as much as I did.

“One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea—but why always Dorothea? Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage?”

Throughout the course of its lengthy narrative Middlemarch questions the ethics and moral principles of its characters, urging its readers to interrogate their own judgement and previous assessments regarding individual behaviours, whole institutions, and social conditions. Woven through the various storylines, that are running parallel to one another in Middlemarch, there are many thoughtful discussions and reflections regarding marriage, politics, science, faith, and class.

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Like its full title suggests (Middlemarch, A Study of Provincial Life) the novel is primarily concerned with the lives and opinions of the inhabitants of Middlemarch. Within this small town many find it difficult to uphold their own boundaries, and their freedom and happiness are often hindered by the prejudices and jealousies that characterise provincial existence such as theirs.

In their separate ways both Dorothea and Lydgate—the main two characters of this novel—wish to enact some sort of change in Middlemarch. Yet, their attempts are far too progressive for the relative conservative and close-minded neighbours.
Lydgate methods are regarded with suspicion so that slowly but surely he becomes ostracised from his community. Perhaps his status as a ‘new arrival’ to Middlemarch is the cause of the people’s distrust of him and his ‘innovative’ methods (his aversion towards prescribing prescriptions is misconstrued to the extent of being regarded as a sign of medical malpractice; his keenness to get his hands on a ‘corpse’ seems uncivil). His close association Nicholas Bulstrode further antagonises the people of Middlemarch against him.
His marriage to Rosamond Vincy occupies a significant part of his storyline and reminded me very much of another literary unhappy marriage. Similarly to Dr. Charles Bovary, Lydgate enjoys his work but isn’t well regarded by others. Rosamond struck me as a less fleshed out version of Madame Bovary: she is vain, frivolous, solipsistic, constantly afflicted by ennui, increasingly indifferent towards her husband’s woes, and harbours aspirations towards a more grandiose lifestyle. While Lydgate is by no means flawless I felt quite annoyed that the narrative sometimes presented Rosamond as a victim of sorts.

Dorothea’s obsession to do good (one could even call it her raison d’être) is perceived by others as excessive and of bad taste. Dorothea seems to have aspirations to achieve the saintly status and stature of stature of a figure like Saint Theresa. Feeling like a saint without a cause she goes for the next best thing: similarly to Milton’s daughters, whom she fervently admires, she wants to help a brilliant man in his writing.

“Now she would be able to devote herself to large yet definite duties; now she would be allowed to live continually in the light of a mind that she could reverence. This hope was not unmixed with the glow of proud delight—the joyous maiden surprise that she was chosen by the man whom her admiration had chosen. All Dorothea’s passion was transfused through a mind struggling towards an ideal life; the radiance of her transfigured girlhood fell on the first object that came within its level. The impetus with which inclination became resolution was heightened by those little events of the day which had roused her discontent with the actual conditions of her life.”

balbusso_middlemarch.jpgHer dedication to her old and callous husband, as the narrative points out, verges on reverence. She seems blind to his flaws and to the possibility that his work will not be anything other than a product of a genius mind. Similarly to many other heroines (Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa comes to mind) she seems more than willing to live a life of martyrdom, of becoming some sort of 19th century reincarnation of Joan of Arc.
To me it seemed that Dorothea’s interest in her husband’s work was an attempt to live a more meaningful and intellectually stimulating life vicariously through him. Sadly for her Casaubon is not interested in sharing his ‘genius mind’ with her, and more than once rejects her kind offers to be of assistance to him. His failing health makes him all the more selfish and vindictive. Yet, even as Dorothea’s hope for a more fulfilling existence dwindles she seems unable to cast any blame on Casaubon choosing instead—as the good martyr that she is—to endure the disappointments of marriage with ubiquitous affability, and her affection and devotion to Casaubon will remain almost unaltered.

“Marriage, which was to bring guidance into worthy and imperative occupation, had not yet freed her from the gentlewoman’s oppressive liberty: it had not even filled her leisure with the ruminant joy of unchecked tenderness. Her blooming full-pulsed youth stood there in a moral imprisonment which made itself one with the chill, colorless, narrowed landscape, with the shrunken furniture, the never-read books, and the ghostly stag in a pale fantastic world that seemed to be vanishing from the daylight.”

In spite of the slowness and vastness of the narrative Dorothea and Lydgate do not seem to undergo any signifiant character change but rather they seem to remain true to their beliefs however misguided these may be. In only one instance Dorothea seems to show awareness of her unhappy marriage with Casaubon while Lydgate is forced to leave Middlemarch not for the want of trying but due to external circumstances.
Running alongside Dorothea and Lydagate’s narratives are the ones concerning other inhabitants of Middlemarch among which are the Vincy family, the Garth family, Nicholas Bulstrode, and Camden Farebrother. Some of the characters, such as the Cadwalladers, seem to function as a chorus, gossiping and interrogating the actions of the central figures of the narrative. Yet their role is not a minor one as it is up to the ordinary people of Middlemarch to sway and derail our main characters’ storylines.
There are free-spirits such as Will Ladislaw who seem to function merely as the wild-carefree card’ that—being an outsider in more ways than one—isn’t as affected by Middlemarch’s petty politics and prejudices. His deep infatuation with Dorothea diminishes somewhat this liberty of his.

“I have never done you injustice. Please remember me,” said Dorothea, repressing a rising sob.
“Why should you say that?” said Will, with irritation. “As if I were not in danger of forgetting everything else.”

While I wasn’t entirely sure why Will falls for Dorothea in such a way their slow (read: very slow, incredibly slow) romance made for some of the most tender and heartfelt moments of the whole novel. Speaking of heartfelt scenes, I was pleasantly surprised by the one that takes place towards the end of the novel which stars Dorothea and Rosamond (two characters then until that point had not shared any meaningful heart-to-heart).

“Rosamond, taken hold of by an emotion stronger than her own—hurried along in a new movement which gave all things some new, awful, undefined aspect—could find no words, but involuntarily she put her lips to Dorothea’s forehead which was very near her, and then for a minute the two women clasped each other as if they had been in a shipwreck.”

Many of the characters’ have to contend with their personal weaknesses: there are those like Fred Vincy whose spindrift ways will alienate—with the exception of his mother—those around him, Lydgate’s pride will lead him to refuse time and again the help of others, while Dorothea’s devotion towards her husband will jeopardise her own chance at love and happiness.
The narrative contends with the politics occurring in a provincial town in the 1830s, incorporating historical events and decrees within its various storylines.
The resulting effect seems close to that of a painstakingly realised tapestry representing the most trivial aspects of a ‘provincial life’. Elliot contends with questions of ethics and morality by confronting her characters with various setbacks and challenges. Money seems to be a running topic in each of her characters’ lives: there are the ones who have too much for their liking, such as Dorothea, and the ones who find themselves ruin their reputations and their relationships with their loved ones for it.
While I didn’t feel particularly sympathetic towards the novel’s various characters (I despised Fred’s entitled whininess and found his portions of the story to be intolerable; Dorothea and Will seemed far less interesting and intriguing that what other characters make them to be) I loved George Eliot’s writing. She could create such beautifully articulated insights and observations as to make even the most ordinary of conversations or landscapes something of interest. Her calibrated style brought her characters to life:

“Every nerve and muscle in Rosamond was adjusted to the consciousness that she was being looked at. She was by nature an actress of parts that entered into her physique: she even acted her own character, and so well, that she did not know it to be precisely her own.”

While much of the narrative concerns matters pertaining to a particular moment of time, there were many instances in which Eliot’s writing and narrative seem to transcend the limitations of their time. Throughout her novel she adds many remarks and details as to make her story all the more vivid in the readers’ mind: by specifying the tone of one’s words (“”Rosy!” cried Fred, in a tone of profound brotherly scepticism.in a tone of profound brotherly scepticism”) or ones movements and gestures (“”No,” said Will, shaking his head backward somewhat after the manner of a spirited horse”) she makes her characters and mannerisms all the more real.
Moments of humour are often made at the characters’ expenses. For example the narrative will address the characters as ‘poor’ as they are deeply involved in experiencing moments of personal anguish or self-commiseration. There are also some interesting insults and reproaches that could be surprisingly funny. For example Lydgate calls his wife a ‘basil plant’:

“He once called her his basil plant; and when she asked for an explanation, said that basil was a plant which had flourished wonderfully on a murdered man’s brains. ”

The narration was surprisingly innovative in that it seems to switch from a removed third-person perspective to a vigorous first-person one. The awareness shown by the narrative acquires an almost metafictional quality as it questions the traditional structure of the ‘novel’ and the representation of its characters as the ‘heroes’ and ‘heroines’ of their own stories.
One of the setbacks of this novel is its length. Perhaps if I’d found the characters more compelling I wouldn’t have minded as much but as it is they often frustrated or bored me so I don’t think I’ll be re-reading this anytime soon.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars

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The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy — book review

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For readers in want of an incisive and creative account of life in East Germany, I strongly recommend picking up something by Christa Wolf.
I think that from now on I might stick to Deborah Levy‘s non-fiction.

While I’m glad to see that many of my friends and other readers were able to enjoy this latest release by Deborah Levy, I found it to be yet another example of all flash no substance.

There is little to no depth or feeling in the story and characters of this relatively short book, but rather an intentionally oblique narrative that time and again chooses style over substance.

To me, it seemed that the way the story was being told was all that mattered. And I admit that occasionally I found Levy’s use of repetition to be clever; these recurring word-plays, dialogues, and images did give a rhythm to the narrative and could occasionally serve as comedic relief. In those instances the novel reminded me of the verbose and sardonic style of Muriel Spark but for the most part I was irked by the novel’s own self-awareness at its own irony. This short novel could have benefited from being even shorter…but I guess then it wouldn’t have been longlisted for the booker prize.

In spite of what its title may suggest, the protagonist of The Man Who Saw Everything presents readers with a myopic narrative that deliberately misinterprets the people and events in his own life. The author has created an intentionally disjointed, and occasionally feverish, narrative at the expenses of its own main character whose role is soon apparent as being that of the Fool. His poor judgement and general lack of direction result in a series of would-be-humorous incidents in which he often embarrasses, and even mortifies, himself to others. Later on the paranoia pervading Saul Adler’s mind skewers his view of others so that potentially emotional scenes are negated by his fragmented narrative.
What is also of notice is that the structure of this novel disregards time’s linearity. In Beckett-like-fashion the author neglects to explain the construction of her novel or to clarify why certain events unfold in such a particular way. Although readers are not as in the dark as Saul Adler, we still have to puzzle out why the story is arranged in such a manner.
To begin with, I tried to extrapolate some sort of meaning or reason for this increasingly bizarre narrative but I soon gave up. One could easily attribute any sort of meaning for the idiosyncratic arrangement of this narrative without reaching any real conclusion.
Much of the weirdness of The Man Who Saw Everything seemed calculated to me, weird merely for the sake of being weird. Perhaps other readers will be able to immerse themselves in the narrative, but I, in all honesty, mostly perceived a degree of artificiality in the way the story was being told that exasperated me.
Because of this I never believed in the story or its characters. Our main character seemed so conveniently blind-sighted as to seem a mere caricature of the type of vain and solipsistic man who self-fashions himself as the wronged and alienated hero of his own story. His unreliability is apparent from the very first page, which is the likely reason why I wasn’t all that surprised by the revelation that we should not take for granted his descriptions and recollections of others.
The Man Who Saw Everything struck me more as a clever performance on the part of the writer, a studied demonstration of her writing’s skill, of her ability to ‘trick’ her readers, then an actual book with a story worth telling.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 all bark no bite stars

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Fake Like Me by Barbara Bourland — book review

Untitled drawing (2).jpgBeyond its promising summary Fake Like Me is little more than a predictable and unsatisfying ode to the female artist.

This book is not doing any favours to modern and in particular abstract art. If anything it confirms the notion that today ‘anything’ can qualify as art, and that critiques of modern art use an array of pretty metaphors that have little meaning or depth.
ps: by “modern” art I mean conceptual, installation, and performance art (made by artist of dubious talent such as Tracey Emin).

This novel should not be pegged as a suspense since there is very little tension or mystery to be found in its story. The first chapter sets an intriguing stage which is soon discarded as our mc travels to a retreat that is poorly described.
A lot of the details surrounding this place are given in a muddled manner so that I could never quite picture it in my mind. The mc spends the first 30% of the novel in a self-pitying stupor, and she becomes increasingly obsessed with Carey Logan an artist who drowned in the retreat’s lake. Apparently the two not only look alike but they are both ‘women’ so our mc obviously believes that it is them vs. the patriarchy. We are led to believe that there are only a handful of female artists (a huge lie) and that their work is therefore some sort of statement about their sex. Sure, way to embellish things…

While this book succeeds in describing the technical aspects of constructing huge canvases, it fails to actually illustrate what these pieces on the whole look like. Yes, I know the colours that our nameless protagonist has used, but what about the shapes and forms of her painting? All those pages on the products she uses, where she buys these products, and how cumbersome these materials and tools can be…all for what? To have only a vague idea of what our mc’s ‘masterpieces’ look like?

Usually I prefer slow burn reads but here the narrative really made it hard for me to remain engaged in the story. This is partly due to the narrator, whose namelessness is merely a cheap trick to convey her ‘ambiguous’ or formless identity. She was the typical solipsistic self-pitying main character who believes that she is different from other women (she is not as attractive or stylish or confident, you know the drill). Her reflections on her art and art itself were laughable and seemed to belong to a thirteen year old rather than a person in their 30s. For that matter, all of the characters sounded and acted in a way that seemed ‘young’. They act like teenagers who have had little life experiences…and the other artists and characters are never properly introduced, some have two or three lines here and there, which made them very superficial. The book is surprisingly tame and predictable yet the narrator seems to take herself and her artwork pretty—if not all too—seriously.

Overall I thought that this was a clichéd story starring an irritating mc who attributes to her work all sorts of vapid or glib metaphors.
If you are looking for a novel that beautiful portrays the struggles of an ambitious young artist I recommend Self-Portrait with Boy.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali — book review

the-stationery-shop.jpgMaybe I shouldn’t have read this alongside a book by Elif Shafak…a writer who brilliantly evoke multiple cultures and cities populating them with vastly differentiating, and realistic, people. Although in The Stationary Shop there are glimpses of a talented writer, the writing was incredibly repetitive with an abundance of clichéd phrases and observations. The few scenes which managed not to make me roll my eyes were the ones which revolved around cooking.

Perhaps I was hoping for a story with a greater focus on the political conflict in 1950s Tehran but The Stationary Shop is first and foremost a love story. This love story features many clichés and banalities which seem more fitting of a soap opera.
Many of the ‘key’ plot points were predictable and demanded a huge suspense of disbelief, such as (view spoiler).
The story follows as Roya spends most of her life pining away for Bahman, and that’s about it. The revolutions, wars, and marriages that occur are merely a prop to this lacklustre love story which was filled by saccharine declarations and obstacles that were frankly laughable.
And I am sick of reading of ‘evil’ mother-in-laws. That the story then tries to use mental illness as the instigator for this character’s evil actions was little more than a cheap trick.
Kamali should have trusted her readers more rather than reiterating the same things time and again. A lot of pages repeat the same information using exactly the same words, and I was frustrated by this constant ‘spoon-feeding’. We get it! There are paragraphs and paragraphs that are just useless or poorly phrased and add little to the narrative.
The story makes completely avoidable, and unnecessary, things happen to its characters as a way of making readers ‘feel bad’ or sympathize with them..which didn’t really work for me. Roya was a boring character whose main characteristic is that she loves Bahman. Bahman is a poorly rendered character whose spotty characterization makes for a really unbelievable love interest. The characters rotating around Roya alternate between being bland and cartoonish.
Overall, this books was frustrating. Not only is everything that happens in this story is predictable but the way in which the narrative reveals major plot points is incredibly grating. I probably won’t be trying other novels by Kamali anytime soon…

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2.5 stars

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10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak — book review

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Shafak never disappoints!
In her newest novel Shafak explores many of the themes she has already touched upon in previous novels in an innovative manner as the narrative bridges the gap between the life and death of its protagonist.
There is something about Shafak’s prose that really resonates with me. She can address serious and complex issues without jeopardising the creativity of her story or the nuances of her characters.

After she is killed Tequila Leila is not quite dead-dead. Her consciousness seems to ‘survive’ long enough for her to revisit some of her memories. In each chapter Leila remembers a certain event in her life, however mundane it might be, and the narrative beautifully conveys the feelings, smells, and landscapes that make up these memories.
On the one hand, through these memories, we get to know Leila and watch as she forms relationships outside of her familial ones, on the other, we glimpse the city of Istanbul, some of its history and its many different faces.
Ultimately, in spite of the tragedies and traumas that Leila or her friends experience, there is love and hope to be found in this beautiful book. The story brims with empathy and humanity, depicting the distressing yet beautiful life of Leila.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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The History of Living Forever by Jake Wolff — book review

Untitled drawing (1).jpgThe History of Living Forever is an ambitious novel. The narrative includes multiple timelines and often switches between 1st and 3rd perspective, weaving together a compelling yet intricate story. Two of the central figures in these various ‘timelines’ are Conrad Aybinder and Sammy Tampari who in spite of their student-teacher relationship, and of Conrad being underage, become involved romantically. Their “liaison” however is soon cut short by Sammy’s death. A grief-struck Conrad finds himself entangled in what was Sammy’s search for immortality. Through Sammy’s diary entries he discovers that for years Sammy had been using himself as a guinea pig. Had Sammy lost his mind? Or was he really onto something?
With this fascinating premise The History of Living Forever details Sammy and Conrad lives, moving from their childhoods to their adulthoods. They are highly intelligent individuals who are feel somewhat isolated by their intellect (both of them are high-school seniors at the age of 16), I like the fact that the narrative never romanticises their worst actions or behaviours and that other characters call them out on their ‘bad antics’. I also enjoyed the way the characters around them were rendered. Wherever they had an important role or not they were engaging and realistic. I was particularly affected by the parents and relatives in this story. While Conrad’s dad is an alcoholic and could have easily been relegated to the role of ‘bad dad’ the narrative offers a nuanced portrayal of him and his addiction.
The plot was in constant movement, shifting from past to present, jumping from one theory to the other. We learn what drives Sammy’s quest for immortality and see that at the age of 40 Conrad still thinks of him.
At times I was overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of information we were given. Don’t get me wrong, it was all fascinating, but science and maths are not my fortes so I think (okay, I know) that many things that went over my head. Nevertheless, I was captivated by this story which is a story about science, love, obsession, and immortality. Immortality makes for an intriguing topic, one that Wolff skilfully explores. Part of me wishes that we could have had more of Conrad and less of Sammy, or that at least we could have known what Sammy felt for Conrad.
Overall, I think this is an incredibly creative novel, one that bridges genre (coming of age, mystery, adventure, speculative fiction). While I wish that some of the characters’ arcs had been handled differently, I am looking forward to reading this again (and perhaps I will have a better grasp of the theories discussed).

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