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Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall — book review

Boyfriend Material reads less like fiction than fanfiction. No one acts their age, we have50225678.jpg an exceedingly angsty protagonist, a plethora of silly side characters who express themselves using a Tumblresque sort of lingo, unlikely interactions, and a lot tropes.
The novel’s sitcom-like structure was predictable and often unfunny. Luc O’Donnell’s friends, colleagues, and acquaintances had very one-dimensional roles: we have the straight friend who is always having a crisis at work (one more ludicrous than the other), the lesbian friend who is short and angry, the gay couple that share the same first and last name (and are both referred as James Royce-Royce) and have opposing personalities, a few ridiculously posh characters (who had no clue of anything related to contemporary culture or social norms), the fanciful French mother (who is very much the British idea of a French person), the estranged rock star father…
Luc was so self-centred and monotonous that I soon grew tired of him. He has a few genuinely funny lines (when he’s told not to give up he replies: “But I like giving up. It’s my single biggest talent”) but these are far too few in-between. The narrative tries to make us sympathise with him because he’s been sold-out by his ex-boyfriend and because his dad had 0 interest in acting like a father…and yeah, those things aren’t great but they don’t make his self-pitying narcissism any less annoying. Most of the conversations he has with other people, Oliver in particular, revolve around what he has experienced, what he feels, wants, and fears. I just wish he hadn’t been so focused on himself as it made him rather unlikable.
The other characters are really unbelievable and behave unconvincingly. They did not act or speak like actual human beings.
The running gags were just unfunny: most characters treat Oliver’s vegetarianism as if it was an obscure dietary lifestyle they could never wrap their heads around, Luc’s posh colleagues doesn’t understand his jokes, while Welsh characters accuse Luc of being racist against Welsh people (this annoyed me because they kept throwing around the word ‘racism’ when it had nothing to with racism. Luc not knowing about Welsh history or culture is not racism).
The romance never grabbed me as Oliver was such a stilted character as to be difficult to believe in. Luc often acted like a child with Oliver which made their romance a bit…cringe-y.
Sadly, this novel just didn’t work for me. It felt superficial, silly, and juvenile.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins — book review

220px-The_Ballad_of_Songbirds_and_Snakes_(Suzanne_Collins).pngIt’s a yikes from me.

Did the world really need The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes?
I think not.

Full of unnecessary exposition and weighed down by self-indulgent fanservice, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a train-wreck of a novel. The story lacks rhyme or reason, things happen only to advance the plot (regardless of whether they make sense because what is even logic?), there are no stakes (Coriolanus having to eat cabbage soup and not being able to pay taxes are hardly sources of tension), the characters are ridiculous and one-dimensional, frequently the writing veers into the ludicrous, and the author doesn’t trust her readers to reach obvious conclusions by themselves.

Having recently re-read the Hunger Games trilogy, I was reminded of how good a writer Collins is.
One of the strengths in THG series lies in Katniss’ first person narration which brings immediacy and urgency to her story. In THG Collins’ exploration of the ethics of violence and the conflict between survival and sacrifice struck me as being both nuanced and intelligent. There was also a certain ambiguity that allowed, nay encouraged, readers freedom of interpretation.
Which begs the question…Collins, what happened?

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes may be the prequel to THG trilogy, but it’s an altogether different beast. Which would have been fine by me if it had been ‘different but good’. What we have instead here are simplified discussions about human nature (are we inherently bad? Do our circumstances shape who we are ? Are we responsible for what we do in order to survive?), an unconvincing story that is dragged-out for 500+ pages and is populated by goofy characters.

The novel strives for depth, yet its attempts to address the nature/nurture question and other moral quandaries result in a clumsy and overt parable that is leagues from being a satisfying or insightful philosophical inquiry into human nature. An example of this would when Dr. Gaul assigns Coriolanus Snow and other mentors homework along the lines of: “Write me an essay on everything attractive about war.”
What follows is a predictable and cringe-y scene in which they express their different opinions (shocking I know). Was that the only way to include a discussion on the ‘positives’ of war? It seemed a desperate, and rather pathetic, attempt to throw into the story some ‘serious’ material. Just because the characters who are talking about these things have ancient-Roman-sounding names that doesn’t make their conversations any more meaningful or thought-provoking.
Not only does the character of Dr. Gaul exist to tick the ‘mad scientist’ box (I will get to her in due time) but she’s also there so she can explicitly ask characters ‘challenging’ questions regarding their moral and political tenets. So subversive and illuminating is she that she says things such as: “Who are human beings? Because who we are determines the type of governing we need” and “What happened in the arena? That’s humanity undressed. The tributes. And you, too. How quickly civilization disappears.”
We also have characters like Sejanus Plinth who although District-born has spent the last few years in the Capital, and he comes out with: “You’ve no right to starve people, to punish them for no reason. No right to take away their life and freedom.”. Did this guy just suddenly realised what kind of world he lives in? After years of Hunger Games he’s like ‘nah, that’s wrong. Humans should be free.’ (as if he doesn’t know that his words will have consequences?).
Away with Plato. Move aside Nietzsche. Sontag? Get out of here. There is a new philosopher in town.

Corny philosophising aside, the writing was weighed down by obvious statements which made the characters seem rather simplistic. Worst still we have cheesy gems such as “you’re mine and I’m yours. It’s written in the stars”, “although he didn’t believe in it, he tried to channel her telepathically. Let me help, Lucy Gray”, “The cabbage began to boil, filling the kitchen with the smell of poverty. ”
What in the world? I’m supposed to take this seriously?

The third person narration didn’t do the novel any favours. Most of Coriolanus’ thoughts and feelings aren’t articulated so that his character is given no new depths. Collins’ shies away from portraying him as a truly morally corrupt yet self-delusional person, making him into a not very convincing ‘he’s not that bad’ kind of guy. He’s an orphan who is tired of eating cabbage soup and not having money. Boo-hoo. His personality is just so tepid…he’s sort of ambitious, sort of a liar, a ‘sort of’ kind of person. Look, I wasn’t expecting the next Ripley or Humbert Humbert but Coriolanus is such a non-entity. While the narrative makes it seem as if he’s this cunning and charming guy, Coriolanus’ no Machiavelli. His elitist views are exaggeratedly rendered, so much so that they make him into a caricature of the contemptuous heir. Even those scenes in his family apartment or the ones where he’s with Tigris or Lucy Gray did not make Coriolanus any more believable or sympathetic. His ‘arc’ as such was merely motivated by his desire for wealth. As the descendant of a powerful yet crumbling Aristocratic family he believes he’s entitled to more than just cabbage soup for dinner. And of course, he hates Sejanus because ‘new money’.

From the first chapters characters are classifies as either good or bad. Throughout the course of 500+ pages they don’t change. Their thin personalities remain fixed.
Because of this the cast of characters is entirely forgettable. Although their names may appear on a page, their personalities remain largely non-existent. Coriolanus’ fellow students and mentors….did they even possess an individuality ? With the exception of holier than holier-than-thou Sejanus, these ill-defined Academy kids soon morphed with one another. What they say or do matters very little. They are mere accessories to Coriolanus’ story (we get it, although they have been indoctrinated to believe that the Districts are scum, they are not entirely entirely desensitised to violence or cruelty).
Lucy Gray was just so ridiculous. She seems one of the few random characters to have a normal name, and yet there was something comical about the way a ‘distressed’ Coriolanus would shout out her name. While the narrative did seem now and again aware that she was treated as an object, the way she’s depicted seems to corroborate this. She just didn’t convince me as an actual human being. At times she seemed a twelve year old Marie Sue, at times she seemed to have walked off the stage of a musical, and yet we are meant to find her intriguing?
The adult characters are unintentionally funny. From the ‘deranged’ Dr. Gaul (who speaks only in cliches and is not at all intimidating) to Dean Highbottom (whose surname merely brought to mind Neville Longbottom) who for some reason I don’t care enough about doesn’t like Coriolanus. These two, similarly to the other characters, do not leave their assigned roles (in this case ‘the mad scientist’ and ‘the bitter guy who for reasons holds a grudge against the protagonist’).
The characters in this novel are clownish. They have wannabe-Roman names, they speak in clichés and come out with uninspired maxims.

The world-building relies on readers having read THG. Which is weird given that this is not a sequel.
Panem is a dictatorship because reasons.
The novel also has a weak sense of place. The Capitol is barely delineated. The Academy is a building, Coriolanus lives in an apartment, and the Hunger Games take place in an arena. The architecture of these places is obviously irrelevant. Who even cares about descriptions of the characters and their environment? (I do).

Minor spoilers ahead
One of the first things that did not seem very rational was that the Capitol assigned the tributes to eighteen-year olds. Sure, the childhoods of these Academy students were marred by the war, but in comparison to the tributes, they’ve led a fairly privileged existence. But however rich their education may be, they still lack experience. They have little insight into the entertainment industry and just because they’ve discussed war strategies doesn’t mean that they could give any useful battle tactics. One thing is theory, the other one is practice. Yet, we are supposed to believe that the powers that be
decided that this particular group of students will mentor the tributes for the upcoming Hunger Games. The reason for this ‘mentorship’ is to make the Hunger Games more popular, garner some extra views or I don’t know. To me this seems an ill-conceived plan.
Anyway, let’s go along with it: mentor=more entertaining Hunger Games. Okay, so why am I meant to believe that the same people who are working extra hard to make the Hunger Games more interesting would let the tributes starve for a few days in a zoo cage? So they can collapse and die as soon as they enter the arena? Why even bother with the mentors then?! It was quite clear that the only reason why the tributes end up in a zoo cage is to remind us readers that to the ‘civilised’ citizens of the Capitol, District people are less than ‘animals’.
There were so many scenes like this. They did not make sense but they are theatrical. Characters are attacked, killed, and or tortured for effect. For all she writes about violence and human nature, Collins’ will often sacrifice believability for exaggeration. The whole thing with Dr. Gaul and her snakes was laughable. She’s such a crudely drawn figure that it was impossible to feel intimidated by her actions. The violence in this novel seems closer to that of splatter film.
The Hunger Games themselves are not only boring but they are described in a yawn-inducing way. The games section reminded of how in THG films they occasionally showed the game makers watching Katniss to make up for the fact that in the book we had Katniss’ narration to fill the moments of ‘quiet’. There was something so impersonal about these Hunger Games that I really did not care to see the way they would unfold (we know who is going to win anyway).

Shockingly enough, I struggled to finish this novel and ended up skimming a few pages in the final section. I’m baffled. What is this mess? What was it trying to achieve? It adds nothing to the THG. Coriolanus is not nuanced nor is he believable. If anything he seems a very different shade of evil to that of President Snow. We still don’t know much about the war. We get it, the Capitol suffered at the hands of the ‘rebels’. Collins’ tries to make this particular Hunger Games more significant by making characters come up with ideas that will be implemented in the following Hunger Games (like the sponsors or whatnot). For some reason Collins’ has to ‘foreshadow’ later events or can’t help but to reference mockingjays (“the show’s not over until the mockingjay sings”) and ‘the hanging tree’ song. What was the point in Tigris? She had a small cameo in the …why try to make her ‘important’? Especially since her role in this prequel in pretty irrelevant.

With so many pages did we really need to have passages in which earlier conversations reappear in italics? Why not trust that your readers will be able to remember what Coriolanus is referring to?

Last but not least: I am so done with the ‘muttations’. They were the weakest aspect of THG trilogy and to dedicate so much page time to them is just…

Moral of the story: approach prequels with caution.

My rating: ★✰✰✰✰ 1 star

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Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan — book review

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“I felt I had hitherto woefully misdirected my energies in attempting to cultivate a personality. If you didn’t have one then that left more room for everyone else’s.”

With so many professional reviewers hailing Exciting Times as one of the best debut novels of 2020, praising Naoise Dolan for her wit and her razor-sharp social commentary, or describing her book as being “droll, shrewd and unafraid”, this promised to be an intelligent and compelling read. Sadly, as with a lot of hyped new releases, Exciting Times wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

While part of me rejoiced at the sight of quotations marks (yes, I’m looking at you Sally Rooney), I soon found myself wondering where the ‘wit’ I was promised was (in case you are wondering, largely MIA).
Exciting Times is an innocuous debut novel. It follows the tradition of the alienated young woman, which has regained traction over the past years, in no small part thanks to Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. The women who populate these novels have a lot in common with Esther Greenwood, who is perhaps the supreme example of the alienated female narrator (then again I think this title should go to Natalie Waite from Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman). Ava, the protagonist of Dolan’s novel, is far less morbid than Plath’s or Moshfegh’s narrators. Her alienation comes across as a phase of sorts, something she was experiencing merely for the sake of the aesthetics. Still, Ava’s millennial despondency does seem to make her prone to bouts of lethargy and ennui.

“The trouble with my body was that I had to carry it around with me.”

At 22 Ava decides to leave Dublin behind and move to Hong Kong where she ends up teaching English grammar. Because she didn’t like herself in Ireland she believes that a change of scenery will either improve her personality or the way she sees herself. In Hong Kong Ava makes few attempts at socialising with her colleagues or her roommates, and it is only when she meets Julian, a banker, that she begins to be interested in someone other than herself. The two form a bond of sorts, which sees them occasionally sparring about the fraught history between Britain and Ireland, while for the most part they seem content with being cynical together. Soon enough Ava moves into Julian’s guest bedroom. While he’s back in England Ava meets and ‘falls’ for Edith who, unlike Julian, openly reciprocates her feelings.

“Keeping up with both of them took work, but their similarities lent the enterprise a certain economy of scale.”

The plot as such sees Ava obsessing about either Julian or Edith, checking their Instagram accounts, over-analysing their texts, and attributing a special meaning to everything they say or do.
In passing she talks with others about class, race, abortion. But these topics are briefly mentioned, and for the most part Exciting Times is about Ava’s detachment from others. In a certain way I can see why this novel could appeal to fans of Rooney as the narrative is very much focused on creating and maintaining an aesthetic of detachment. Ava is all about the ‘conceal don’t feel’. She feels ‘wrong’, ‘bad’, ‘damaged’, ‘messed up’, ‘different from other people’…you get the gist. While this is in part intentional, and both Julian and Edith call her out on the ‘woe is me’ act, the novel perpetuates this ‘she’s different’ by casually reminding us that she has a right to feel ostracised given that once a girl in school was homophobic towards her. Personally I don’t think that just because she spends large portions of her time daydreaming, envisioning what ifs scenarios, or wondering how others see her, she’s actually ‘different’.
The novel is so focused on being clever that it ends up not having anything substantial to offer.
Ava’s alleged ‘aloofness’ seemed an excuse for her character not to have a personality. One of my favourite literary characters is Charlotte Bronte’s Lucy Snowe, someone who is aloof, distant, occasionally manipulative, and who hides her feelings from the reader. In spite of this we do see glimpses of her emotions. Ava instead just tells us that she ‘loves/hates’ someone…and I just didn’t feel it. If anything she was infatuated with the idea of love…which brings me to the ending. Are we meant to believe that there was any character growth on her part? Cause I don’t…
Much was made of the power dynamics between her and Julian. Ava plays her own violin insisting that if she were to end things with Julian she would have to find a ‘crammy’ room…and I’m meant to feel sorry for the circumstances she’s in? She is employed, and earns far more than others, and has enough savings to leave Julian’s apartment (or make a small contribution). Yet, her ‘dilemma’ is made into this ‘big thing’.
Lastly, in the novel Hong Kong is a mere cardboard backdrop for Ava’s existentialist crisis. The story could have been set in any city outside of Ireland and it would barely need changing. Mentioning Hong Kong’s political unrest now and again was not enough.

Some positives
Julian and Edith, although not strictly likeable, felt much more like well-rounded people. I couldn’t see why they were both interested in Ava given how self-involved she was.
Dolan has a knack for dialogues. They are extremely realistic: at times the characters talk about nothing, misunderstand each other, use the wrong words to express what they feel…her back-and-forths, or banter, between certain characters was fairly engaging.
Most of all I loved the way Dolan writes about the English language. Ava is attentive when it comes to English. She often questions people’s word choices (“We discussed whether the word ‘quite’ magnified or diminished a compliment. I sketched a cline on a napkin and put ‘quite’ between ‘a little’ and ‘very’.”) and, given her teaching position, she also reprimands herself for using ‘bad English’.
Dolan rendition of different intonations and accents is evocative:

“Her accent was churchy, high-up, with all the cathedral drops of English intonation. Button, water, Tuesday – anything with two syllables zipped up then down like a Gothic steeple.”

My favourite passages were the ones that focused on language and the ones describing a person’s pronunciation or words choices.
Ava does share some genuinely clever insights about the English language or modern methods of communications. For example I particularly liked the way she describes texts:

“We chose what to share. Through composition I reduced my life, burned fat, filed edges. The editing process let me veto post-hoc the painful, boring or irrelevant moments I lived through.”

Overall
As I’ve said before, this was an inoffensive novel. It wasn’t thought-provoking or half as witty as it tried to be but it isn’t badly written. I was hoping perhaps for a less glib take on alienation or a more complex interrogation of power dynamics and gender.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern — book review

Untitled drawing (5).jpgsecret libraries + magical doors + stories within stories within stories = my kind of book

“A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.”

This is the type of book that readers will either love or hater. Its playful style and recursive storytelling are definitely not for everyone. Within the first pages readers will realise whether they find this type of elusive narrative to be inviting or off-putting. Thankfully, in my case, I was perfectly happy to suspend my disbelief.

“Do you believe in the mystical, the fantastical, the improbable, or the impossible? Do you believe that things others dismiss as dreams and imagination actually exist? Do you believe in fairy tales?”

To me, The Starless Sea was not only a fun and entertaining read but one that wonderfully managed to pay homage to various forms of storytelling, often by incorporating and subverting established tropes and elements of the fantasy genre.
Heavily inspired by fairy tales, myths, and—surprise surprise—video games, The Starless Sea takes its readers into a metatextual romp filled with books, stories-within-stories, and magic.

“These doors will sing. Silent siren songs for those who seek what lies behind them.
For those who feel homesick for a place they’ve never been to.
Those who seek even if they do not know what (or where) it is that they are seeking.”

This fantastical adventure has many beginnings, the most notable being perhaps the one in which Zachary Ezra Rawlins, arguably the novel’s ‘true’ protagonist, comes across an odd book titled Sweet Sorrows. Zachary soon discovers that, not only is the book missing from the library’s catalogue, but that internet searches regarding it come up blank. Curiouser and curiouser still, Zachary believes that one of the chapters in Sweet Sorrows is about him.

“He had thought there could be no stranger feeling than stumbling across a book that narrates a long-ago incident from his own life that was never relayed to anyone, never spoken about or written down but nevertheless is unfolding in typeset prose, but he was wrong.”

Soon Zachary finds himself leaving the safety of his college life behind him in order to discover more about Sweet Sorrows. Secret organisations, book burnings, subterranean libraries, magical doors, pirates, men lost in time, mysterious entities, and many other-worldly things fill Zachary’s epic quest. Interspersed throughout his narrative arethe wondrous books he comes across, and the stories and characters within these books may be more real than not.

“Zachary takes out the book. He turns it over in his hands and then puts it down on his desk. It doesn’t look like anything special, like it contains an entire world, though the same could be said of any book.”

In many ways this novel struck me as a love letter to bibliophiles. Those who dream of walking into a wardrobe and finding themselves transported into a marvellous land or of falling down a rabbit hole and into Wonderland. There are many interconnected mysteries, some more slippery than others. In many ways Zachary’s quest echoes the classic hero’s journey. There is a call to adventure, supernatural aids, romance, transformations, revelations, and returns. Time and again Zachary finds himself having to solve puzzles in order to pull apart the mystery of a bee, a key, and a sword.

“Slowly they attempt to sort through a thousand questions. For every connection they make between one book and another there are more that don’t fit. Some stories seem completely separate and distant and others feel explicitly connected to the story they have found themselves in together now.”

As much as I loved Zachary and his adventure, I do think that certain elements within this novel could have been made more clear. I’m all for ambiguity and suspense but there were quite a few scenes that seemed unnecessarily cryptic. Yes, enigmatic statements and puzzling riddles sound cool enough…maybe less so when there are so many.
While I enjoyed the novel’s story-within-story structure, I think that a greater focus on Zachary’s narrative would have strengthened some of the character dynamics (especially with the main two other characters, Dorian and Mirabel). Towards the end of the book we suddenly get snippets from a character that up to that point had remained rather on the outskirts…and I didn’t really much care for those sections (if anything they interrupted the momentum of Zachary’s quest).

Erin Morgenstern’s writing style is brimming with wonderful descriptions and possesses a very strong storyteller quality. For example, the beginning of her chapters seem to have been worded in a way that echoes the openings of fairy-tales. The lovely rhythm of her prose is entrancing and extremely readable. It may appear simple but it provides us with some vibrant scenes. Not only do the locations and clothes within this novel create a beautiful aesthetic but they often carry intertextual references.
The Starless Sea is a modern and self-aware take on some well-worn and well-loved tales, one that I recommend to fans of Neil Gaiman, V.E. Schwab, Maggie Stiefvater, and Catherynne M. Valente. It may not have moved me as much as The Night Circus but I nevertheless enjoyed reading it. I was pretty excited when the narrative mentioned some of my favourite authors (Donna Tartt, Sarah Waters, and Shirley Jackson) and when it referred to some of my favourite childhood stories.

Given how much I liked Zachary, I would happily read this novel again. And perhaps a second reading will make me love and understand the various stories even more.

“Zachary recalls innumerable fairy-tale warnings against eating or drinking in underworlds and at the same time realizes he is incredibly thirsty.
He suspects this is the only way forward.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to 4)

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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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Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia — book review

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In spite of the beautiful attention that Gods of Jade and Shadow pays to the function of myths and deities in our everyday lives…this turned out to be an unexpectedly juvenile read…

The swift storytelling found in Gods of Jade and Shadow might not appeal to those readers who prefer slower and more in depth narratives such as The Song of Achilles. Here there is a focus on the action or better yet on the quest undertaken by our protagonist. Scenes rarely featured the same backdrop since the various characters keep moving from one location to another which in turn leads to underdeveloped settings. The various places and characters-human and non-encountered by our protagonist(s) are often breezed through so that they have little time to leave an impression on the reader. Having finished this book a few days ago I recall not one of the characters that Casiopea and Hun-Kamé encounter…which isn’t a good sign.

The story is predictable and follows a repetitive pattern in which our cinderella-like main character Casiopea unwilling joins a former god, Hun-Kamé, who will be able to regain his rightful role as ruler of Xibalbla only after he finds certain ‘items’ (which are conveniently stored in places he knows of and that are fairly easy to reach). The story in its simplicity seems more fitting in a middle-grade novel rather than an adult one, and in fact, I would have actually preferred it if this book had been clearly aimed at a younger audience.
Another criticism I have is that it should have been more decisive in its tone, darker as Valente’s Deathless, or as tantalisingly ingenious as Seanan McGuire‘s Wayward Children series, or even as satirical and fun as Zen Cho‘s Sorcerer Royal duology. But the tone in Gods of Jade and Shadow remained rather inconsistent, which is a pity since there are many occasions where Moreno-Garcia’s writing style does really echo that of a skilled storyteller. The narration at times evoked that of a fairytale yet in certain instances this omniscient narrative seemed rather simplistic and often reached clichéd conjectures.

The setting only comes into focus when the narrative explicitly addresses some of the trends of the twenties…mentioning a couple of times the popular dances and haircuts from this period does not render the time in question. At times it did so by literally blurting out these trends on the page:

Mexico City in the 1920s was all about the United States, reproducing its women, its dances, its fast pace. Charleston! The bob cut! Ford Cars!”

I wanted more of the vernacular (which I know is difficult since the characters are not speaking in English but I’m sure that there are differences between contemporary Yucatec Maya and the one spoken in the 20s). The story could have easily had a modern setting as the only thing that truly emerges from this historical setting is that our protagonist as a woman has little control over her life.
Another thing that detracted from my overall enjoyment of this story was the over use of exclamation marks (“It was not possible. He was ruler of Xibalbla now! Nothing could change this, nothing could ruin his plans.”) or when the narrative used expressions such as ‘oh dear‘ (“That might be a relief, since she did not understand what they were supposed to do in the city, and oh dear, she wasn’t ready for any of this.”).

Perhaps this was done to lend immediacy to the events narrated or to give urgency to certain moments or thoughts but it seemed a bit contrived and was not handled all that well.
As the story focuses on the quest, the characters seemed rather flaky. Casiopea was the typical heroine of certain YA fiction, she is kind and just yet has endured many wrongs (alienated from the rest of her family, made to their bidding, etc…). Much was made of her ‘temper‘ so much so that I kept excepting a trace of it but found none. I’m not sure why her will was emphasised so much, and in often such cheesy lines:

She was wilful, daggers hidden beneath her muttered yeses, her eyes fixing on him, slick as oil.

The romance was unnecessary and ‘blossomed’ out of nowhere. It made a potentially interesting character into a love interest, turning yet another dark and powerful death god into little more than eye-candy.
In spite of all these flaws I still enjoyed those passages which solely focused on reiterating Mayan mythology. It was in those moments that the narrative really brought into focus the events and figures it spoke of. And there were certain descriptions that had a nice rhythm but these were far too few.

There was the slim veneer of civilty to his actions. He spoke unpleasantries, but in the tone of a gentleman.

Overall, I’m not sure I do recommend this one.
Cho’s fantasy-romp series (Sorcerer to the Crown & The True Queen) offers a similar type of fast-paced storytelling but with much more historical detail, while N.K. Jemisin‘s The Fifth Season creates a much more complex and compelling narrative that addresses dynamics between humans and divine beings.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

The Body in Question by Jill Ciment — book review

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“A flirtation would make the sequestered nights more interesting. ”

This was an interesting novella that reminded me of some short stories by Joyce Carol Oates. There is this sense of unease which permeates the narrative as well as a growing sense of foreboding. The writing style is intentionally detached, for instance addressing two of the main character as C-2 and F-17, and the other jurors by nicknames (deriving from their profession or appearance). The story was an intriguing take on the usual whodunnit as it is up to the jurors to decide wherever the accused, a teenage girl, murdered her toddler brother. The focus of the story shifts from this case to the affair between C-2 and F-17. Both the case, the “romance”, and the various dynamics between the jurors were rendered in a realistic and captivating way.

“To pay attention to something you don’t understand when there is such an alluring narrative waiting to take over your thoughts proves undoable. ”

The less you know about this story the better. It is a compelling work with a strong vision and plenty of atmosphere. The narrative addresses many interesting things (such as the complicated marriage between a fifty-two-year-old and someone in their eighties) in a quietly observant way. I particularly enjoyed references to Madame Bovary and Forman’s Amadeus (two favourites of mine) as well as the cold yet evocative writing style.

“C-2 has never had the patience to listen to someone else’s story and not try to guess the ending. But guessing the ending is different than calcifying into certitude. She would be willing to switch sides if persuaded, but that wouldn’t stop her from speculating. Who honestly imagines themselves to be that neutral and fair?”

The only reason why I am not giving this a full 4 stars is that towards the end it seemed that the narrative lost some of its original momentum and my interest waned. Nevertheless, I am looking forward to reading something else by Climent and, if you are looking for an engaging read that provides plenty of food for thought, you should consider picking this up.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

Bunny: A Novel by Mona Awad — book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

My rating: ★★✰✰✰  2 of 5 stars

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