BOOK REVIEWS

Carol by Claire Morgan

“My Angel,” Carol said. “Flung out of space.”

Fans of the film adaptation of Carol may find the novel to be not quite as polished or romantic. I, for one, find the novel’s elusiveness and opaqueness to be entrancing. Unlike other books by Highsmith Carol is not a thriller or a crime novel, however, it has plenty of moments of unease (dare I say even of ugliness?) that brought to mind The Talented Mr. Ripley. Therese is a somewhat disaffected young woman who wants to become a theatre set designer but in the meanwhile she works in the toy section of a department store in New York. She observes the world and people around her with a mixture of apathy and ambivalence, the only feelings she experiences seem negative (her repulsion towards her coworkers, her disinterest towards her beau, her dread at the idea of being stuck at the department store ).

“Had all her life been nothing but a dream, and was this real? It was the terror of this hopelessness that made her want to shed the dress and flee before it was too late, before the chains fell around her and locked.”

Estranged from her mother Therese longs for her boyfriend’s family more than the man himself. And then she sees Carol: “Their eyes met at the same instant, Therese glancing up from a box she was opening, and the woman just turning her head so she looked directly at Therese. She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist. Her eyes were gray, colorless, yet dominant as light or fire, and caught by them, Therese could not look away.”
Therese’s infatuation is immediate, and the two women—in spite of their age gap, their differences in background and circumstances—begin to spend more and more time together. Highsmith’s captures the intensity of first love, as Therese’s thoughts become increasingly preoccupied by Carol. There is a lot of longing in this novel and Highsmith expresses it beautifully, rendering the nuances of Therese’s uncertainty, jealousy, and yearning. Therese’s naïveté and Carol’s rocky marriage create friction between the two women, but the attraction and affection they feel for each other is palpable. Even if Carol remains a bit of a cypher, I too like Therese found myself drawn to her.
Some may find Therese’s narration to be too dry or cold, but I have always felt the most for characters such as her. I appreciated how Therese reflects upon the smallest of things, and there are times where she entertains rather cruel or disquieting. Nevertheless, I found her to be a sympathetic and interesting character, and I certainly admired her determination to follow her own heart.
The languid pace and alluring language make this into an unforgettable slow burner. I love the dreamlike quality of the narrative, the chemistry between Therese and Carol, the nostalgic atmosphere, the realistic rhythms of the dialogue, the winter setting…I don’t know what more to say other than this novel just does it for me.

my rating: ★★★★½

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The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

For a book published in the 90s The Kitchen God’s Wife comes across as strangely outdated. And I guess in spite of Tan’s writing—which is far from mediocre or incompetent—I could not look past the fact that her story was the antithesis of female solidarity.

At first I was taken by Tan’s storytelling. The first 40 pages or so, those that take place in the ‘present’, were enjoyable. We learn that Pearl, a woman in her thirties, has always had a difficult relationship with Winnie, her mother. Some of this is due to generational and cultural differences but, as we soon learn, both mother and daughter have kept secrets from each other. When Winnie’s sister-in-law Helen/Hulan announces that she can no longer keep silent about their past, Winnie is forced to recount her many trials and hardships to her daughter. This is where the novel lost me. I find this kind of cheesy melodrama meets misery porn to be exceedingly frustrating. Winnie is basically Cinderella or the classic Mary Sue: 99% of people around her use her and abuse her. Every female character, with the exception of Grand Auntie Du, is cruel, vain, stupid, ugly, and or ungrateful. Winnie, on the other hand, is an angel. She is not like other girls. She endures and she suffers because she has aspirations to martyrdom.
Given that she is recounting past experiences directly—ie we get a 1st pov—you would think that at one point or another Winnie could express uncertainty over the accuracy of her memories or wonder if others recall things differently. But no! She keeps insisting that ‘this is what happened’ and that Helen is a liar who remembers things wrong. And, speaking of Helen, rather than painting a complex and fraught friendship, Tan presents us with the goody two shoes Winnie and the ugly, stupid, and venal Helen who is not only a horrible friend to Winnie but a lousy human being.
Anyway, Winnie recounts her tragic past: her mother abandons her, she is shunned by her wealthy father and raised by cartoonishly wicked relatives. In relating these experiences Winnie alway makes a point of emphasising her inherent goodness and beauty, often by making little digs about women’s failings. Winnie ends up marrying a horrible man who possess only vices. Her reminded me of the ‘bad’ men from The Giver of Stars and novels by Kristin Hannah. Personally, I prefer more nuanced characters. Tan also often conflates a characters’ physical appearance with their personality—so if one has an ugly character they will be indeed ‘ugly’ on the outside—which feels a tad…old-fashioned? Maybe it would be more suited to a novel dated from the 19th century than the 1990s.
The only sections that were somewhat interesting and whinging-free were the ones that stuck to facts. For example, when Tan writes details statics and about the Sino-Japanese War (as opposed to Winnie’s own experiences in it). When she writes of Nanking I felt much more horrified and moved than I was by anything related to Winnie.
Sadly, Winnie’s narrative is more intent on dissing on Helen than anything else. Here are some the lovely things she says/thinks about Helen: “Her mouth dropped open to let this thought come in and nourish her brain. I was thinking, Good, even though she is uneducated, she is quick to learn something new.” / “She was plump, but not in that classical way of a peach whose pink skin is nearly bursting with sweetness. Her plumpness was round and overflowing in uneven spots, more like a steamed dumpling with too much filling leaking out of the sides. She had thick ankles and large hands, and feet as broad as boat paddles. ” / her hair was “lumpy” / she had no sense of fashion, none at all.” / “a simple country girl”.
And Winnie goes on to tell Pearl that: “I am not being critical in remembering her features just because I am angry with her now”. Sure hon, go on and keep lying to yourself. Winnie never takes any responsibility. Everything is and or always was all Helen’s fault. Helen is ugly inside and out, “she broke harmony between us. I tell you, that day Hulan showed me her true character. She was not the soft melon head she made everyone believe she was. That girl could throw out sharp words, slicing fast as any knife”. And of course, “She’s the complaining one, not I”. I’m not so sure about that one Winnie…the story ended up being less about domestic abuse, war, and survival, then a woman going on and on about how her ‘supposed’ friend is a trash human being.
I swear, every few pages, Winnie would say something such as: “Who is the better cook? You see! I am not boasting. It’s true. ” / “You know what I think? When Jiaguo got his promotion, Hulan gave herself a promotion too! In her mind, she was more important than I was. ” / “She was always unhappy until I was the same level of unhappy as she was.” / “You would think Hulan would remember those hard little cakes, and then put a few coins, or maybe some food, into the beggar girl’s bowl, which is what I did. I’m not saying I did this all the time. But Hulan did not do this even once. Instead she put more food into her own mouth. She added fat onto her body the same way a person saves gold or puts money into a bank account, something she could use if worse came to worst.” / “So you see, I think it was some little river crabs Hulan wanted to eat in Changsha. That’s what made us sick. It stayed in our bodies and broke out one day.” / “She will probably tell you it was instant true love. Maybe for him. But I think she was being practical”….and I cannot stand this lousy portrayal of female ‘friendship’. Women, with the exception of Winnie, are catty and fake. Men, with the exception of Winnie’s Chinese-American second husband—are stupid, cowardly, or abusive sadists.
Other girls Winnie encounters also receive a similar treatment to Helen’s one. Winnie sometimes pretends to be nice (claiming that she didn’t hate a woman before stressing how selfish or unkind that woman was) but, in actuality, she is anything but. She describes a girl she dismisses as “stuck-up” as having “red as a demon’s” eyes. Her first husband’s new wife is not only “bossy” in both attitude and appearance but “stupid” (“You see how stupid his new wife was?”). Winnie also makes some weird comments about Burmese and Cantonese people, seems to relish the idea that Peanut, yet another cruel/vain girl, “who used to pride herself on the paleness of her skin. And now she was almost as dark as a Cantonese!”.
And yes, sure, Winnie suffers. Her husband is a monster with no redeeming qualities and with the exception of Grand Auntie Du and her American-born husband…well, everyone else is bad news.
I dislike this kind of ‘girl-on-girl hate’ and the whole Winnie=Cinderella thing was hella annoying.
Thankfully, I bought my copy of this book in a second-hand shop (then again, I will never get back the hours I spent reading this). While I wouldn’t recommend this novel to anyone in particular I’m aware that Tan is an extremely popular writer so….maybe it’s just me.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

“That was the thing about people on the outside. They thought it cheered him up to see their faces, but it just reminded him too much of freedom when everybody knew it was better to adjust to the kind of freedom available on the inside.”

Heartbreaking yet luminous A Kind of Freedom is a truly impressive debut. Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s prose struck me as assured and lucid. Sexton entwines three narratives, each following a different generation of the same family. In 1944 we follow Evelyn who lives in New Orleans with her family. Her pale skin and her father’s profession give her certain privilege in the city’s black community so when she falls in love with Renard, a boy who aspires to be a doctor but is looked down upon for being working class, Evelyn is forced to contend between responsibility—towards her parents—and freedom—to love who she wants. WWII and segregation pose a further threat to the couple.
In 1986 we follow their daughter, Jackie, as she tries to juggle single motherhood with work and house chores. Her husband, Terry, disappeared from her life after he became addicted to crack. After months without a word from him, he reappears, claiming that he’s clean and is actively trying to keep it that away. Knowing that to let Terry back into her life will not only earn the disapproval of her loved ones but might eventually result in more hurt, Jackie is torn between hope and fear.
We then have chapters set in 2010. T.C., Jackie’s son, has just been released from a four-month stint in prison. His girlfriend is pregnant and in spite of him being less than faithful he now wants to make things right with her. However, he immediately falls back into bad habits when he reconnects with his friend Tiger. Here we see the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, specifically on T.C.’s community.
Regardless of the period Sexton is depicting, the setting and time are rendered in vivid detail. She evokes the atmosphere of the places she writes of as well as the changing vernacular. Sexton also emphasises the way in which racial inequality has morphed over the decades and the way this in turn affects and shapes Evelyn and her descendants. In her portrayals of addiction and poverty Sexton writes with empathy and insight, conveying the despair, fatigue, and anguish of those who like Jackie love someone who is abusing dangerous substances. Much of Jackie’s story hit close to home so I found her chapters to be painful reading material. There are moments of beauty and communion, made even more poignant by how rare they are. Although Sexton reveals the eventual outcome of Evelyn and Jackie’s narratives in T.C.’s chapters, when we returned to them I still found myself engrossed in their stories, hoping against hope that things would not unfold the way I know they will.
Sexton captures three generations of an African-American family who is trying to navigate a less than civil landscape. The characters have to contend with a society that is rife with injustices (racial disparity, classism, colorism, sexism, environmental disasters, drug epidemics, crime) and their attempts balance familial or societal duties with their personal desires. As the title itself suggests, the narratives are very much about freedom. Each character is trying their hardest to be free.
A Kind of Freedom filled me with sorrow. Sexton has written a heartbreaking debut novel, one that gripped me not for its plot but for its beautifully complex character studies.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Travelers by Regina Porter

The cast of characters and locations at the start of Regina Porter’s The Travelers is a tiny bit daunting as they promise to cover a far wider scope than your usual family saga. The Travelers explores the lives of characters who are either related, sometimes distantly, or connected in less obvious ways. Porter’s switches between perspectives and modes of writing, always maintaining authority over her prose and subjects. The Traveler provides its readers with a captivating look into Americans lives, chronicling the discrimination black Americans were subjected during the Jim Crow era, the experiences of black soldiers and female operators in the Vietnam war, the civil rights protests in the 1960s, and America under Obama. Porter combines the nation’s history with the personal history of her characters, who we see at different times in their lives. Sometimes we read directly of their experiences, at times they are related through the eyes of their parents, their children, or their lovers. Rather than presenting us with a neat and linear version of her characters’ lives, Porter gives us glimpses into specific moments of their lives. At times what she recounts has clearly shaped a character’s life (such as with an early scene featuring two white policemen), at times she provides details that may seem insignificant, but these still contribute to the larger picture.
Porter provides insights into racial inequality, discrimination, domestic abuse, parental neglect, PTSD, and many other subjects. Although she never succumbs to a saccharine tone, she’s always empathetic, even in her portrayal of characters who are not extremely ‘likeable’ in a conventional way. Sprinkles of humour balance out the more somber scenes, and her dialogues crackle with energy and realism. The settings too were rendered in vivid detail, regardless of when or where a chapter was taking place.
Porter’s sprawling narrative achieves many things. While it certainly is not ‘plot’ oriented, I was definitely invested in her characters. Within moments of her introducing use to a new character I found myself drawn to them and I cared to read more of them. Part of me wishes that the novel could have been even longer, so that it could provide us with even more perspectives. I appreciated how Porter brings seemingly periphery characters into the foreground, giving a voice to those who would usually be sidelined.
Her sharp commentary (on race, class, gender) and observations (on love, freedom, dignity) were a pleasure to read. I loved the way in which in spite of the many tragedies and injustices she chronicles in her narrative moments that emphasise human connection or show compassion appear time and again.
An intelligent and ambitious novel, one that at times brought to mind authors such as Ann Patchett (in particular, Commonwealth) and one I would definitely recommend to my fellow readers.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop

At Night All Blood is Black is a short yet certainly not breezy read. David Diop’s novel reads very much like the increasingly feverish confession of a man whose every-day reality is permeated by violence. He is both victim and perpetrator, cognisant of the violence that dominates his life yet somehow unwilling to truly consider the brutality of his as well as other men’s actions.

Alfa Ndiaye’s first person perspective makes for an extremely effective narrative as it forces us to glimpse his violence through his own eyes. After Alfa, a Senegalese soldier fighting with the French army during WWI, witnesses the death of Mademba, his “more than brother”, he decides to avenge him by enacting a brutal ritual: he severs the hands of the “blue-eyed” German soldiers he kills. Alfa’s guilt towards Mademba’s death makes him relive that painful scene time and time again. Although his ‘trophies’ initially earn both black and white soldiers respect, after the fourth hand they cease to be congratulatory. Through a style that verges on the stream-of-consciousness Alfa details his time before and after Mademba’s death, allowing readers to see the way in which ‘inhumanity’ was forced upon him (the French army demand that soldiers such as Alfa perform the role of “savage”) and the repercussion that his own violence have on his psyche.
The repetition of phrases such as “I know, I understand” and “God’s truth” give Alfa’s mental meanderings an anguish sort of rhythm. Alfa’s grief and guilt threaten to his sanity and alienate him from his fellow soldiers. There were many raw and harrowing passages that were incredibly effective as they conveyed—almost to an unpleasant degree—Alfa’s pain, sorrow, and thirst for revenge. I was not a fan of the role female bodies play in this story. A trench is described as “open like the sex of an enormous woman” and there are one too many references to Alfa’s “insides” being “inside” a woman.
At times the novel seemed to place more importance on style than substance, which is a pity as I wish Alfa and Mademba’s relationship had been explored in more depth. Still, given how short this novel is it did not ‘drag’ on. The repetitive language was no always too my taste as it sometimes stood in the way of truly understanding/seeing Alfa.
While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to a lot of readers as this novel’s subject matter and style may not have large ‘appeal’, I would encourage those who are interested in reading more translated fiction to give this one a try.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“But in the places where it isn’t faded and where the sun is just so—I can see a strange, provoking, formless sort of figure, that seems to skulk about behind that silly and conspicuous front design.”

First published in 1892 The Yellow Wallpaper is a disquieting short story that has become a seminal piece of feminist literature. Charlotte Perkins Gilman presents her readers with a brief yet evocative narrative that will likely disturb even the most hardened of readers. What struck me the most about this story is that it does not read like something written at the close of the 19th century. Perhaps this is due to the way this story is presented to us. There is an urgency to the unmanned woman’s journal entries that comprise this story, her later entries in particular seem to have been written in haste and secrecy.
John, the husband of our protagonist, is a physician who insists his wife ought to rest in order to recuperate from the classic female illness which consists in “temporary nervous depression” and “a slight hysterical tendency”. John, alongside his sister and other doctors, insist that his wife ought not to overwork or excite herself so he forbids her from writing or performing any chore. He believes that nourishing meals and restorative walks will do wonders for her health. Our narrator however disagrees. Over the summer the couple is residing in a mansion that perturbs her. As the days go by her journal entries express her increasing fixation with her room’s yellow wallpaper. When she voices the wish to leave the mansion or to see others her husband insists that they should remain.
John’s blindness to his wife’s spiralling health exacerbates her illness. Her morbid fixation with her wallpaper leads her to believe that something, or someone, is hiding beneath its pattern.
Gilman’s haunting examination of female madness will definitely leave a mark on her readers. The narrative’s Gothic and oppressive atmosphere emphasise our protagonist’s stultifying existence. Her husband’s dismissal of her worries and his firm instance that she merely needs rests and walks outside to recover force her down a self-destructive path.
The journal entries are extremely effective in that they convey their author’s deteriorating state of mind. Her descriptions of the wallpaper—from its pattern to its colour and smell—are certainly unnerving as they place us alongside her.
John’s ‘cure’ for his wife is far worse that her malaise as he isolates her from the rest of society, confines her person to a room, and cuts her off from her creative pursuits and hobbies. The protagonist’s breakdown is brought about by those who wish to contain and or cure of her more ‘alarming’ emotions (such as sadness and grief) by locking her away.
If you are interested in reading more about this story or the portrayal of ‘female madness’ in Victorian literature I really recommend Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Crime And Punishment: A Novel in Six Parts with Epilogue by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is a favourite of mine so I was expecting Crime And Punishment be right up my street…aaaaand I hated it.

Many consider Crime And Punishment to be one of the most influential books of all time…and I have to wonder…how? The Idiot, although certainly flawed, tells a far more cohesive and compelling narrative. The central figure of Crime And Punishment is an angsty and hypocritical wanker. I do not have to like a character to ‘root’ for them but Dostoyevsky, man, you gotta give me something…anything! Instead we have this appealing main character who for reasons unknown to me manages to captivate everybody’s attention.

Crime And Punishment is divided in six parts. In the first one—which I actually kind of liked—we are introduced to Rodion Raskolnikov an impoverished young man who dropped out of university and is now forced to go to a pawnbroker for funds. He believes that his financial circumstances are the only thing standing in the way of a ‘good’ life so he decides to kill the pawnbroker, telling himself that she is a callous old woman who sort of deserves to meet a violent end. In this first part Raskolnikov has various monologues, in which he argues with himself. A letter from his mother, informing him that his sister is engaged to an older man of affluence, he kind of looses it. He also meets another ‘tormented’ soul, Marmeladov, an alcoholic ne’er-do-well, who basically tells Raskolnikov his life story (his incoherent ramblings go on for pages and pages and pages).
Raskolnikov uses an axe to kill the pawnbroker but things, predictably, don’t go quite as he had planned.

The follow five parts haven’t all that much to do with this murder or with the detective who is pursuing Raskolnikov. After committing this crime Raskolnikov falls ill, he faints more often than Harry Potter and Frodo combined. Lots of people try to help him but he remains an asshole. Razumíkhin, who was also forced to drop out of university due to his finances, is utterly loyal to him. And…why? Even prior his ‘madness’ it seems that Raskolnikov was a noxious mix of moody and unpleasant. Then these two are joined by Raskolnikov’s sister and mother, and by the two ‘bad’ men who are interested in his sister. And of course, we also get some more of Marmeladov and his family, in particular his daughter, a beautiful prostitute whose childlike appearance (insert puking sounds here) and inherent purity make Raskolnikov besotted with her.

Everyone goes on a tirade, no one makes any bloody sense. Ramblings here, ramblings there, ramblings every fucking where. The dialogues are repetitive, the plot makes no sense (convenient coincidences aside it seems odd that Raskolnikov would not think back to his article on ‘extraordinary’ and ‘ordinary’ criminals just once in part one or two given what he wanted to and what he ended up doing), and I have 0 tolerance for grown ass men finding women attractive because they have ‘childlike’ physiques, temperaments, or features. And of course, here we have women who tremble like leaves.

There were so many over the top moments and whereas I found this fantastical realism amusing in The Idiot here they just annoyed me. Raskolnikov is dumb, he isn’t a brilliant criminal, or a genius, or master manipulator, or even charming…he just is. He makes so many avoidable mistakes, which made me wonder why it took the detective so long to finally confront him. Speaking of the deceive, his scenes with Raskolnikov had this very ‘anime’ feel to them (which works in parodies such as Love is War) and I could not for the life of me take them seriously.

What kind of point was this book trying to make? I have no clue. I did not enjoy the discussions on ‘extraordinary’ and ‘ordinary’ men, which seem to suggest that the reason why the detective is so in awe of Raskolnikov is that he considers him to be an ‘extraordinary’ individual, one who should not be punished as hard as ‘ordinary’ individual should. Yikes.

To quote Nabokov: Dostoyevsky’s “sensitive murderers and soulful prostitutes are not to be endured for one moment—by this reader anyway”.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell

MILD-SPOILERS

At first I thought that The Shape of Darkness was going to be a spoof of Gothic novels. The dialogues were corny, the two main characters are exceedingly frail, and the ‘murder mystery’ storyline struck me as somewhat theatrical (or perhaps I should say more suited to a film than a book). But I was willing to read on, thinking that these exaggerations were intentional and that Laura Purcell was lampooning Victorian ghost stories…but the more I read the more the narrative seemed to try to impress upon me that it was telling a ‘serious’ story. Having now finished this novel I can safely say that it was very clichéd and unimaginative, the setting of Bath is barely rendered, the two main characters sound like the same person, and the big ‘twist’ was extremely predictable (I mean, I can think of two films—one in 1999 and one in 2001—that have a similar reveal). Also, The Shape of Darkness is yet another book that proves my least likely person is the culprit theory.
Anyhow, Agnes seems to believe that she is being targeted after the very first death. Which is…okay. The plot must go on I guess.

Anyway, the story starts with Agnes a silhouette artist. She has yet to fully recover from an illness that struck her a few years prior the start of the novel. She lives in a nondescript house with her orphaned nephew and her elderly mother. Her past is ‘mysterious’ and she’s clearly suffered more than on heartbreak. Her only friend happens to be a doctor who was married to her now deceased evil sister. Her few customers start turning up dead and Agnes worries that someone is after her.
Pearl is a medium who also happens to have an evil sister who forces to host seances. Pearl believes in the ghosts and there are scenes that seem to point to ‘otherworldly’ presences. Pearl is also, like Agnes, kind of sickly. The two characters in fact sound very much like the same person. They lack interiority and are mostly defined by how ‘frail’ and vulnerable they are. For quite awhile I thought that they were more or less the same age but I was surprised to discover that Pearl was 11 and Agnes in her 40s (yet they both sound like teenagers).

Agnes and Pearl end up ‘finding’ one another and Agnes convinces Pearl to help her contact her now deceased customers. We have two or three scenes in which Agnes is actually doing her job and we see Pearl doing two seances at the very beginning but after the 40% mark the narrative no longer focuses on these things.

The story takes a quite a few leaps in logic, there are a few too many convenient coincidences, the plot is dull, the characters uninspired. Although the story is set in Bath there are only a couple descriptions—a few sentences really—describing the city’s architecture. Agnes shows a surprising lack of awareness towards her norms of her time and there were a few inconsistencies. For example, a couple of pages after we are told that Agnes’ hands are swollen (possibly due to a combination of arthritis and chilblains) she does a silhouette for a customer. This requires her to use her fingers and I guarantee you that if her hands had truly been as the ‘swollen lumps’ we were told they were, she would not be able to move them very much, let alone being able to doe painstakingly controlled movements with her fingers. Instead we don’t even get a mention of her hands and fingers during this scene (we could have been told how difficult and painful it was to be using her hands when they were so swollen).

The story tries to be somewhat serious or creepy and yes, descriptions of Pearl’s father—who’s phossy jaw is rotting away—were not pleasant. But the narrative’s ‘supernatural’ undertones and ‘murder mystery’ storyline were bland and galaxies away from being remotely scary (or even atmospheric).

Here are a few examples of why I did not like the author’s writing: ‘But it cannot be, not after all of these years’, ‘her heart flutters its wings inside her chest’, the idea fills her with a sweet glow, ‘in her face are those simmering, witchy eyes’, ‘her slender trunk’ (this to describe a woman’s figure), ‘frightened whispers of her own conscience’.

Towards the end the story becomes so dramatic as to be frankly risible. There were a few scenes that were meant to inspire suspense or whatnot but they way they go down would have suited more a B movie.
If you liked it, fair enough, but I for one am glad I did not have to pay for my copy (the ‘perks’ of being on NetGalley).

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Readers, I am disappointed.

Plain Bad Heroines was one of my most anticipated 2020 releases…maybe I should have ‘hyped’ it so much. This is certainly an ambitious novel, one that is a few hundred pages too long. There were elements that I liked, but these were ultimately outweighed by my frustration toward the tone of the narrative, the dual storylines, and the characters.
Plain Bad Heroines begins at Brookhants School in 1902 when two students, Clara and ‘Flo’, who happen to be lovers are swallowed by “a fog of wasps”. Another death soon rocks the school, and all of the girls shared a fascination for Mary MacLane’s work (The Story of Mary Maclane & I Await the Devil’s Coming). The narrator, who playfully reminds us of their presence with plenty of direct addresses, footnotes, and asides. We do not know the identity of the narrator, but they posses an almost omniscient knowledge of the events they are recounting.
In the present three young women—all in their twenties—work on a film adaptation on a book called ‘The Happenings at Brookhants’. The book was written by one of these girls, Merritt (a character whom I lowkey hated) who happens to know Elaine Brookhants. Then we have Harper Harper, an up and coming actress/influencer whose personality revolves around her celebrity status, who will play Flo, and Audrey Wells (I actually had to check out her name as I could not remember it on top of my head…that’s how memorable she was) the daughter of a ‘scream queen’ who so far has an acted in B movies and ads.
The section set in the present doesn’t involve these three girls bonding or finding more about what happened at Brookhants. We are never told very much about Merritt’s book, so we don’t know how much they know about the whole affair. This timeline is also not all that concerned with filmmaking. What this storyline cares about is famous people: how they are followed by journalists or fans, how their lives revolve around instagram, how little privacy they have, and of their self-fashioning ways. The three girls do not really along. Their meeting, which happens quite a good chunk into this slow burner of a novel, reads like something that belongs in the realms ofGossip Girl or Scream Queens. And here I was hoping for an actual horror or at least something in realms of American Horror Story (the first seasons of course).
Our not-as-half-as-amusing-as-they-think-they-are narrator never really delves into these characters. It mostly describes what they are saying or doing. It focuses more on their ‘role’ (Harper=celebrity, Audrey=daughter of an 80s horror actress, Merritt=not like other girls writer). Their personalities are…kind of not there. Merritt is the only one with a semblance of one, and it ain’t a good one. The narrative tries really hard to establish Merritt’s ‘prickly’ personality (in a few occasion Merritt says or asks something generic and we are told “Merrit said like Merritt would” or “Merrit asked like Merritt would”). She’s petty, cruel, and domineering. She’s given a Sad Backstory™, so Readers are meant to let her behaviour slide. Except that this Reader could and would not. She seems blissfully unaware of her own privilege (she’s in her early twenties and has published a book, her mother teaches at a university and she has access to the library there, they are adapting her book and want her to be part of the process). She’s also not ‘plain’ looking. Her hair is pink because she’s Not Like Other Girls™ (a random character tells her she has “great fucking hair”) and she is also called hot by Harper. Yet, throughout the course of the book, Merritt acts like a fifteen-year-old girl who is spending too much time on Tumblr. Her pettiness is unwarranted and uncalled for, her jealousy is also over the top (she’s only just met Harper and she already jealous at the possibility of Audrey working alongside her…yet she knows that Harper is already in an open relationship).
Harper is also not plain. She’s famous, beloved, and uber cool. She has short hair, tattoos, smokes, and rides a bike. And of course, she also has a Sad Backstory™. The story mentions some family-related drama, but this a thread that is never truly resolved. Her motivations, desires, fears…who knows? I sure don’t. Maybe she likes Merritt? Maybe not?
While Audrey may not be plain looking, her personality is definitely plain. She doesn’t seem to possess any discernible traits.
Anyway, these three ‘work’ together (there are actually very few scenes that take place while they are working on the film sadly) and weird things start happening (we have wasps, weird weather, and a general heebie jeebies atmosphere).

The storyline set in the past had much more potential. Sadly, it doesn’t focus on Clara or Flo (their lives prior to their peculiar deaths of course) or Brookhants but rather it follows the headmistress of the school who lives in a house nicknamed ‘Spite Manor’. She lives with her lover, who also teaches at Brookhants. This timeline was definitely more Gothic, and there were scenes that struck me as quite atmospheric and well-executed. Sadly however the relationship between the two women was a let down, as it never struck me as the complex love story I was hoping for. Creepy things begin to happen, and they begin to grow apart. The deaths of three of their pupils forces them to question whether the ‘supernatural’ is to be blamed.

I was hoping for a Gothic love story, with some horror undertones. What we actually get is a work that is extremely meta. Some may find the narrator to be amusing, I mostly didn’t. The mystery is the most disappointing aspect of the whole book. It was very anticlimactic, as we simply get a chapter in which our narrator explains things to us. Flo, Clara, and the other girl are unimportant, they function as the Dead Girl trope. We don’t learn anything more about them after the 20% mark or so nor do we learn more about the book Merritt has written about them.
The storyline set in the present never reaches its apotheosis. Nothing major happens, there is no overlapping between the two timelines.
While I loved to see so many queer women, the relationships they have with one another are…a let down. Mean Girls ahoy. We have Merritt who says things like “Significant eye roll” or scenes in which characters take selfies, duplies, even quadruplies (uuuugh). More attention is paid to their hair and clothes than their actual personalities. Harper and Merritt begin flirting as soon as they meet, and later on, when there are more scenes of them together, they mostly bicker. They are sort of physically attracted to each other, but there is no real connection between them (I craved longing, passion, LOVE).
The creepy elements…aren’t all that creepy? If you have spheksophobia you might find this book scary…I mean, wasps do not inspire any real fear in me (I don’t like them, they strike me as kind of mean, in fact, I love CalebCity’s sketch on them). Mary’s writing is extremely camp and I just found it silly. While I could see why the girls back in the 1900s could be enthralled by it…I had a harder time believing that Merritt or Harper could find it as compelling.

Perhaps I approached this book with the wrong expectations (I saw Sarah Waters’ name on the cover so…) but Plain Bad Heroines was not the Gothic novel I was hoping it to be. The ‘past’ timeline was far from being a satisfying historical tale of paranormal suspense (I was hoping for something on the lines of Picnic at Hanging Rock meets A Great and Terrible Beauty). On the plus side: at least it was hella sapphic. I also liked the illustrations by Sara Lautman (I wish there had been more) and the chapter names could be kind funny.

Anyway, just because I didn’t think that this book was the bees knees (or perhaps I should say wasps knees) doesn’t mean that you won’t love it as it may as well be your cup of tea.

MY RATING: 2 ½ stars out of 5 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro

“I had always understood, of course, that the task of rooting out evil in its most devious forms, often just when it is about to go unchecked, is a crucial and solemn undertaking.”

As much as it pains me to admit this…I didn’t particularly care for this novel. While it is written in Kazuo Ishiguro’s trademark prose, which is both eloquent and introspective, the more I read and the less invested I felt in the story and in particular in Christopher Banks, our narrator and protagonist. It saddens me not to have enjoyed When We Were Orphans as I consider Ishiguro to be an excellent writer and certainly a favourite of mine. Then again, Ishiguro himself said that “It’s not my best book”. Still, while I wasn’t expecting When We Were Orphans to be as poignant as
The Remains of Day or Never Let Me Go, I hoped that I would at least find it to be an engaging read.
At first I was intrigued by the narrative. Although Christopher is a famous detective his investigations are only alluded to. This itself is very unusual and it subverts the reader’s expectations. Usually, when a book revolves around a detective chances are that whatever case(s) they are working on will be a central part of the story. Here instead Christopher’s job is treated like any other job. It is Christopher himself who is a mystery. Ishiguro introduces us to certain aspects of his life, for example at first we read many scenes in which he is socialising at glitzy parties or events. The story begins in the 1930s England and Christopher is slowly making a name for himself. We learn that he is an orphan and that he grew up in the International Settlement of Shanghai. As with other novels by Ishiguro our narrator finds himself recollecting a certain period of his life, in this case is childhood. He reconsiders figures and scenes from his past, scrutinizing and questioning his own memories, re-experiencing specific episodes both through the uncomprehending eyes of a child and through his newly acquired adult perspective.
Scenes from his past are interspersed throughout Christopher’s narrative. In the present he meets Sarah, a young woman who also happens to be an orphan. Sarah seems intent on upward social mobility or so we can assume given that she expresses a wish to marry someone of importance. We also learn more of Christopher’s circumstances.
Throughout his careful examination of his past Christopher remains a somewhat remote and cautious narrator. Usually I find cold or detached narrators to be right up my street (such as with Brontë and Kincaid’s Lucys) but Christopher’s opaqueness seemed a bit contrived at times. He remains a half-formed thing for much of his narrative. For instance, when he is thinking of childhood it is Akira who steals ‘the sh0w’. Child-Christopher remains an amorphous figure, who possesses no discernible traits.
Still, I appreciated the way he considers the limitations of memory, how certain events are coloured by later ones, how some incidents will always remain unclear.
What seems to drive his remembrance is the loss of his parents (the exact nature of which we learn quite late in the narrative). The second half of the novel sees Christopher back in Shanghai and here things take on a hazy quality. While in the first half there are many time skips, I never felt that I was missing out on any vital scene. Once Christopher is Shanghai however I started to feel mildly annoyed by how many things happened off page. Nothing is explained to us, we are simply made to go along with Christopher and his outlandish plans. He finds himself in the midst of the Second Sino-Japanese War and kind of loses his marbles. He makes foolish decisions and behaves in an abhorrent fashion. I could not for the life of me believe that he felt any particular strong feelings for Sarah. During his earlier reminiscence I did not feel his grief or anguish when he considered his parents. And yet, all of a sudden, it seems imperative for him to uncover the truth. The more ill-behaved he became the more antipathy I felt for him and the book as a whole. This character change was abrupt and doubtful. While Christopher never struck me as a particularly likeable or kind person he seemed a level-headed and sensible person. And then he just becomes this increasingly tyrannical, inconsiderate, and impudent man.
The mystery was anti-climatic and the story lacked a cohesive structure or at least a rewarding storyline. Christopher remains undeveloped and uninteresting, while the secondary character seemed mere devices. Take Akira for example…his role in the story is disappointing. At the end especially he just ‘puffs’, vanishes, disappears. Christopher doesn’t think of him or their last encounter.
Nevertheless Ishiguro’s prose is certainly refined and, to begin with, thoughtful. His dialogues always ring true, from the words they use to express themselves to the vernaculars they use, even when the motivations of his characters don’t. He certainly succeeds in evoking the society in which Christopher moves, as well as the cultural differences between England and China. While I didn’t particularly enjoy this novel I still consider Ishiguro to be one of the best writers ‘out there’.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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