BOOK REVIEWS

Pretty as a Picture by Elizabeth Little

Action, cut, action, cut, action, cut, action, cut. These aren’t commands, not for me. They’re more like everyday punctuation. A capital letter. A period. An indication that I should pay attention to what’s going on in the middle.”

Pretty as a Picture tells a slow-burn type of suspenseful story, one that I would definitely recommend to movie aficionados as this novel shines a light on the realities of the film industry: from the demanding, if not downright tyrannical, directors and agents to the power dynamics and hierarchies that are at play in a film crew. This behind-the-scenes setting is perhaps the most interesting and dazzling aspect of this book.

Although there are certain elements within the narrative that would not be out of place in a thriller, Pretty as a Picture is above all a character-driver story. Marissa, our protagonist and narrator, makes this novel. While she may initially strike readers as yet another introverted ‘not like other people’ character—who is later on reassured by others about her looks and personality—Marissa not only experience things differently but others are aware of this and often make the point of commenting on it. Her poor social skills, her ‘ticks’, her struggle to read or understand other people’s tone of voice or body language, her dislike of physical contact….these all contribute to making small everyday things—such any type of social interaction—much harder for her.
Films help her navigate the world. When she doesn’t know what to do or say she turns to the films she’s watched. Sometimes she simply draws strength from the characters of her favourite movies, while on other occasions someone, something, or someplace might remind her of a certain film.

When her best friend, and former creative partner, moves out of their apartment and with her douche-y boyfriend, Marissa finds herself in need of an editing gig. Her agent pushes into accepting an offer for a film based on a true murder case. Marissa is told that the previous editor suddenly left so the director, Tony Rees, is desperate for someone to replace him. Marissa is taken to a remote island where she unearths more than one mystery: from the dismissal of various members of staff to the growing tension between the people working on the film…something is afoot. Marissa, alongside some new acquaintances, plays detective in order to find just what is going on this set.

The murder aspect of the story kicks starts around the half-way mark. Before then we are introduced to the story’s many characters and we get a chance to truly get to know Marissa. The slow yet atmospheric start gives way to an increasingly urgent storyline. There are some twists that are somewhat predictable but I still enjoyed seeing the way in which things unfolded.
Marissa is a distinctive narrator. Her interactions with others could be either funny, awkward, or tense, and I appreciated the way in which Elizabeth Little depicted her. We read about her vulnerabilities, her strengths, and her quirks.
The chemistry between Marissa and Isaiah adds a nice touch to the story.

Interspersed throughout Marissa’s narrative are snippets from her a true-crime podcast, ‘Dead Ringer’, run by two teenage girls who, like Marissa, are sleuths of sorts. These sections give us glimpses of what is to come, without ever revealing too much.
Filled with cinematic references Pretty as a Picture offers a sharp commentary about the film industry, the dead-girl trope, the way in which true-crime glamorises death, as well as insight into someone who is labelled as ‘different’ by their society.
Overall, Pretty as a Picture was a thoroughly entertaining novel and I would definitely recommend this to those who enjoyed The Lost Night, books by Riley Sager, or Still Lives.

my rating: ★★★½

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Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

This novel proved to be the perfect ‘escape’ read. While I may not have been enamoured by every single book I’ve read by Libba Bray (the finales to her series left me a wee bit unsatisfied) I do consider her to be an amazing writer and a favourite of mine. Usually, however, her books are in the realms of the ‘historical’, so I wasn’t sure what to except from Beauty Queens, I just knew that after watching a certain series I fancied a Lord of the Flies kind of tale (with a female ensemble). And wow…Bray sure delivered. Beauty Queens was everything I didn’t know I wanted. This is the kind of satirical teen comedy that will definitely appeal to fans of classics such as Heathers, But I’m a Cheerleader, and Mean Girls. The story, writing, and characters are all over the top in the best possible of ways. This is the funniest book I’ve read in 2020.

Beauty Queens begins with ‘the Corporation’ addressing us readers, “This story is brought to you by The Corporation: Because Your Life Can Always Be Better™. We at The Corporation would like you to enjoy this story, but please be vigilant while reading”. We are also told to keep vigilant as the story we are about to read may have some ‘subversive’ content. Throughout the novel there are footnotes by ‘the Corporation’, sometimes advertising ridiculous products and sometimes professing distaste or disapproval over a certain scene.
The novel mainly follows nine beauty queens contestants who after surviving a plane crash that killed the majority of the other contestants (one for each state) find themselves on a seemingly deserted island. Rather than focusing on two or three contestants, Bray gives each of these nine beauty queens a backstory (I think only three contestants do not receive this treatment). We start with Adina, Miss New Hampshire, an aspiring journalist who joined the contest only to expose how misogynistic it is. At first Adina is snarky and not a great team player. Although she calls herself a feminist she has very ‘fixed’ notion of feminism, and her relationship with the other contestants will slowly challenge her previous views (on the contest itself, on liking thinks deemed ‘girly’,etc.). She immediately takes against Taylor, Miss Texas, the ‘leader’ of the surviving beauty queens. Taylor insists that they should keep practicing their routines for the contest as she believes that help is on the way. Taylor is badass, and I definitely enjoyed her character arc (which definitely took her down an unexpected path). We then have many other entertaining and compelling beauty queens: Mary Lou, who becomes fast friends with Adina in spite of their seemingly opposing views when it comes to sex; Nicole, the only black contestant, who wants to be a doctor but has been time and again been pressured into contests by her mother; participating as the only black contestant faces racism from the contest itself and the her peers; Shanti, an Indian American girl from California, who initially sees Nicole as ‘competition’ but as time goes by finds that she is only who understands how challenging it can be to navigate predominately white spaces; Petra, a level-headed girl who faces a different kind of prejudice; Jennifer, a queer girl who loves comics and has often been deemed a ‘troubled kid’; Sosie, who is deaf and always feels that she has to be happy in order to make others feel more ‘comfortable’; and, last but not least, Tiara, who at first seems like a comedic character, the ditzy or dumb blonde, but who soon proves that she is a very empathetic girl.
The girls don’t always get on with one another. In spite of their different backgrounds, interests, and temperaments, they have all been made to feel inadequate or ‘too much’.
As if surviving a deserted island wasn’t difficult enough a certain corporation is running some secret operation not far from the girls’ camp. Throw in some pirates/reality show contestants and there you have it.
Bray satirises everything under the sun: reality shows, beauty contests, pop culture, beauty products, corporations. While some of her story’s elements may be a bit ‘problematic’ in 2020, her satire never came across as mean spirited. In the end this is a story about acceptance and female solidarity. Bray shows all the ways in which society pressures and controls teenage girls, allowing for diverse perspectives and voices. Most of all, this novel is hilarious. Bray handles her over the top storyline and characters perfectly.
What more can I say (or write)? I loved it. This is the kind of uplifting read I would happily re-read.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

“Loving a country besides the one you lived in was a recipe for disaster.”

The Star Side of Bird Hill is an enjoyable coming-of-age novel about two sisters, Dionne and Phaedra, who are sent off by their mother to spend their summer with their grandmother, Hyacinth, in a small town in Barbados. The girls’ aren’t too happy to leave Brooklyn, even if their homelife hasn’t been great given that their mother, who is suffering from depression and no longer works, can’t look after them (or herself for the matter). In Bird Hill they are forced to acclimatise to a different culture, and are often treated as foreign by their grandmother’s community. Although Phaedra, who is 10, misses her mum, she soon grows attached to Hyacinth, especially once she learns how vital a role she plays in the community. Fifteen-year-old Dionne on the other hand, repeatedly clashes with Hyacinth and her rules. Even if she resents her mother, for having sent her away and for forcing her to take care of both her and Phaedra, she’s clearly hurting.
As the summer goes by the two sisters adapt to life in Bird Hill. Phaedra, who is made fun of by other young girls for being a bit of a tomboy, finds fulfilment in learning more of her family’s history and of her grandmother’s job as a midwife. Dionne takes far longer to adjust to Bird Hill and their grandmother’s presence. She flaunts her rules and seems intent on being as difficult as possible. After certain events happen, she too begins to reconcile herself with her life in Bird Hill and Hyacinth.
Throughout the course of the novel we are given flashbacks into the girls’ childhood as well as the start and end of their mother’s relationship with their father.

“You practice being one kind of thing too long, and soon enough that’s who you become.”

While the storyline is somewhat conventional of this ‘coming-of-age’ genre, the author injects vitality into her story thanks to the character of Hyacinth and the vividly rendered setting of Bird Hill. Hyacinth was a force of nature (and funny too: “Oh Lord, please deliver me from these Yankee children”). I loved her no-nonsense attitude and the many wisdoms she imparts on her granddaughters. Phaedra too was a likeable character (who likes reading Jamaica Kincaid, always a plus in my books), who had a clear personality from the get-go. Dionne, in comparison, was a far weaker character. She’s very much the epitome of rebellious and angsty teenager who spends most of her time disrespecting her elders and thinking about sex. Which is fair enough, but because Hyacinth and Phaedra weren’t relegated to their ‘grandmother’ or ‘young child’ role, Dionne’s poor characterisation—which hinges on her being a teenager—stood out.
The writing was heavy on the ‘telling’ and light on the ‘showing’. Conversations are summarised rather than being ‘played’ on the page, and because the third-person narrative switches from character-to-charcater the same events or information would be repeated over the course of a few pages. The flashbacks could have been better integrated within the narrative, as they often broke the flow of the story, and gave us chunks of backstory that could have been portioned out more uniformly.
Still, I liked reading about Bird Hill, Hyacinth, and Phaedra. And even if the story touches on topics such as mental illnesses, it did so without delving too deep in them, so that it maintained an overall lighthearted, if bittersweet, tone.
I would probably recommend it to readers who enjoyed Frying Plantain or other novel that focus on family relationships between women (mother/daughters, granddaughters/grandmothers).

MY RATING 3 / 5 stars

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The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

“That’s the problem with summoning demons, you see. Sooner or later somebody else raises them against you.”

Readers who enjoyed Stuart Turton’s previous novel will probably find The Devil and the Dark Water to be a far more captivating read than I did. While I personally was not enamoured by The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, I was willing to give Turton another try.
The first quarter of The Devil and the Dark Water had me intrigued. The narrative opens in Batavia (Jakarta) in 1634. Our protagonist, Arent Hayes, a former mercenary turner bodyguard, is accompanying his employer and friend, Samuel Pipps, on a voyage to Amsterdam. This trip is not for pleasure as Samuel, a famous detective, has been convicted of a ‘mysterious’ crime and is under arrest. Arent wants to prove his innocence, but not knowing the crime Samuel has been accused of obstructs his attempts to free him. Still, he’s determined to protect him and decides to go alongside him to Amsterdam. As the passengers and crew embark this ship however, they are intercepted by a leper who perishes after pronouncing an ominous threat.
Before Samuel is taken to his cell in the ship, he tasks Arent with finding out more about the leper, believing that his threat was not empty one, and that someone means harm to the ship.
There are quite a few characters, but the 3rd person narrative tends to focus on Arent, the Governor General Jan Haan, and his wife, Sara Wessel. Sara, who happens to be very forward-thinking and in possession of some fine detective skills, joins Arent, and the two try to question the less-than-friendly crew and investigate the ship in order to find out whether something is truly haunting it.
Sinister occurrences seem to confirm our characters’ fears: someone or something is set on stopping the ship from reaching its destination.

At first the story held my attention, and I did find the novel to be rather atmospheric. Turton has clearly done extensive research in the way ship’s operated (from its hierarchy to the mentality of those willing to lead such a life) giving plenty of specific details relating to its various parts and or levels. Now, sadly, I can’t say the same for the narrative’s historical accuracy. The characters spoke in a very modern way, with the occasional ‘mayhap’ to give some authenticity. While sometimes adding modern elements to historical films or books can work (such as with The Favourite), here it just took me out. Having Sara remind herself and be reminded by others, such as her maid, that she is a ‘noble-woman’ seemed odd. While I understand that Turton did so because he wanted to explain to his readers that because of her class Sara could and couldn’t do certain things (or should be addressed in a certain way by those belonging to a lower class) or , but surely he knows that his audience would be already aware of this? The interactions between the characters also struck me as modern, and it seemed weird that every woman on the ship was so ahead of her times (Sara’s daughter is a genius). Arent struck me as the typical ‘giant’ with a heart of gold, who may have done some bad things in his past, but has now turned a new leaf. Samuel plays a very minor role, and while it made sense given his imprisonment, as things escalate on the ship, I would have expected for Arent to seek his counsel more often.
The middle of his novel drags. Arent and Sara investigate by asking the same boring questions to the same people, they explore the ship some more, and that’s kind of that. The Governor, who is compared to a hawk and happens to have very sharp nails, acts like a Bad Guy, which is not a spoiler since within a few lines of being introduced to him we know that he beats his wife.
Arent and Sara were similarly ‘good’. Unlike most other people on the boat they do not approve of the United East Indian Company. Given their respective backgrounds their humanitarian awareness seemed a tad odd.
Also, the whole romantic subplot….puh-lease.
There were quite a few moments that were meant to ‘unnerve’ the reader but I personally found them comical.
When characters made a certain discovery or realised something (“It can’t be…” he said out loud, as the answers arrived in a dizzying rush. “It can’t be…”) we had these ‘cliff-hangers’ as the narrative would jump to another character and by the time we returned to that other character I no longer cared to learn of their discovery. The writing in general wasn’t to my taste : “she had so much life, it was bursting through the seams of her” / “he was coming apart at the seams” / “her daughter’s [eyes] glittered with life. Her husband’s were empty, like two dark holes his soul had long run out”.
Toward the ending things take a chaotic turn. There are a few twists, most of which I’d predicted (not bragging, I have merely read enough mystery novels to know how certain stories will unfold). The novel’s main twist was painfully clichéd and made very little sense (it was obsolete).
Long, boring, unconvincing, and with a vague ‘historicalness’ that is miles away from the likes of Sarah Dunant or Eleanor Catton.

MY RATING: 2 ½ stars

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Crossings by Alex Landragin

Alex Landragin has written an ambitious tale, one that begins with the following line: “I didn’t write this book. I stole it.”
This prologue, written by a bookbinder, tells us of how this manuscript has come to be in his hands. The manuscript in question comprises three seemingly separate books: ‘The Education of a Monster’ written and narrated by Charles Baudelaire, ‘City of Ghosts’ which consists in diary entries from Walter Benjamin, and ‘Tales of the Albatross’ which follows Alula, who lives on Oaeetee, a remote island in the Pacific.

Crossings can be read in the conventional way or the Baroness way (which gives page particular page numbers one has to jump to at the end of a chapter). I read it the Baroness way, and I believe I made the ‘right’ choice. The Baroness sequence, unlike the traditional one, intertwines chapters from each section (Alula’s, Charles’, Benjamin’s), making the connection between these three narratives much more clear.
To give more information on the plot (or maybe, I should say, many plots) would risk giving the novel away. I will try to be as vague as possible: the novel will take readers across time and space, combing genres and playing with tone and style.

As much as I enjoyed the labyrinthine and story-within-story structure of this novel, I was ultimately disappointed by its characters and the ‘star-crossed lovers’ theme that unifies these seemingly disparate narratives. Alula, someone I wanted to root for, commits a particularly heinous act, one that she quickly absolves herself of, reassuring herself that she did what she did ‘for the greater good’.
The personality of the two supposed main characters never truly came across. While it made sort of sense, given the conditions they are in, I wanted some more interiority on their part. Additionally, Alula sounded very much like a Western woman. This could be excused away, given the direction that her story takes her in, but her voice still lacked authenticity.
While the author renders in minute detail aspects of the time he writes of, I wonder why he brought two real-life figures into the folds of his story. After all, Baudelaire’s work isn’t exestively discussed, nor does it actually play a significant role in the story (a Baudelaire society appears now and again but it seemed more a prop than anything else). It seemed that by making Baudelaire and Benjamin into his protagonists the author was trying to spruce up his otherwise boring narrators.
The villain, who comes out with things ‘we are not so different you and I’, was painfully clichéd and not at all intimidating.
This novel will definitely appeal to fans of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or even Stuart Turton’s The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. A novel that reads like a puzzle, one that combines different styles and genres.
While I did enjoy the adventure-aspect of this novel, and its structure is certainly impressive, I can’t say that it left an impression on me.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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The Veins of the Ocean by Patricia Engel

“I want to be forgotten. I want it to feel as if I’ve never existed. I want to be a stranger. Rootless.”

A few days before reading The Veins of the Ocean I read, and enjoyed reading, Patricia Engel’s Vida, a collection of short stories centred on a Colombian-American woman. I was intrigued by the premise of The Veins of the Ocean and the first chapters were deeply affecting. I was captivated by the understated lyricism of Engel’s prose, by Reina’s interiority and the reflections she makes by revisiting her past and her relationship with her difficult older brother.
After her brother is sentenced to death, Reina puts her life on hold. She works during the week and spends her weekends in a depressing motel close to Carlito’s prison. In spite of her brother’s heinous crime, Reina, unlike her mother, can’t cut him loose. During her visits, Carlito reveals to her the inhumane conditions of solitary confinement. After his death, Reina struggles to adjust to a life without him. She moves to a small community in Florida Keys and seems resigned to live a lonely existence until she comes across Nesto, an exiled Cuban who longs to be reunited with his children.
The narrative moves between past and present, sometimes seamlessly, sometimes a little more clumsily. As Reina tries to adapt to her new life, she’s forced to confront her own role in Carlito’s crime. As she reconciles herself with her own failures, and those of her loved ones, Reina finds the courage to truly live.
I loved the atmosphere, tone, and setting of this novel. The narrative had an almost lulling dreamlike quality that brought to mind the works of Ann Patchett. Reina too, could easily belong to a Patchett novel. Although she may appear to be a rather directionless individual, her sensitivity make her into an affecting character.
Sadly, I wasn’t all that enamoured with the men in this novel, in particular Reina’s love interest(s). Reina would often only belatedly introduce us to these characters, making their presence in the story feel rather sudden. These characters often are not given any direct dialogue, and their experiences and words are re-elaborated by Reina herself (she will say ‘he told me this’ or ‘he said this and that’). They often don’t appear in scenes as such, and Reina is merely thinking of what they told her. They felt kind of uninspired and forgettable. I also didn’t see the point in Dr. Joe. He has a very small role at the beginning of the novel, and yet Reina will often think back to his words in order to make sense of something (she will think ‘according to Dr. Joe Carlito did this because x’). And maybe it could have worked if his character had been a bit more fleshed out…but he had a hurried appearance which didn’t cast him in a very positive light.
Then we have Nesto…the main love interest. And I kind of hated him for 95% of the novel. He is condescending, quick to minimise Reina’s feelings or experiences (saying ‘you’re not Cuban, you grew up in America, you can’t understand’). He seems very uninterested in Reina’s painful past, flat out telling her that he doesn’t want to hear about it, and that for him she came into being that night they first met (“for me, you were born the day I met you. Nothing before that counts”). And yet he excepts her to listen to his own past, the difficulties he overcame, and his present struggles. The only times he didn’t make me roll my eyes, and want to strangle him, were when he spoke about the Orishas. His nuggets of wisdom however were banal at best: “To be human is to be imperfect”, the secret to life is “love”.
Later in the narrative he also tells Reina that she has “a debt to pay to Yemayá for your family”. Which, is king of crap thing to say. I just found him obnoxious and unsupportive.

What could have been a moving and incisive tale is let down by too much telling and not a lot of showing and by an extremely irritating love interest (curiously enough I found the love interests in Vida to be just as tiresome) who made me want to wish for a different ending for Reina (her happiness seems to completely hinge on their relationship…which yikes).

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Scenes of a Graphic Nature by Caroline O’Donoghue — book review

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“That’s what it comes down to, I suppose. I was obsessed with what I was, because I had no idea who I was.”

Scenes of a Graphic Nature is a thought-provoking and engrossing novel that is far darker than its brightly coloured cover suggests. After reading and being captivated by Caroline O’Donoghue’s debut novel, Promising Young Women, I had really high hopes for Scenes of a Graphic Nature.
The first person narration is engrossing and adds a sense of urgency to the story which follows Charlie Regan. Charlie, who is twenty-nine, is deeply unhappy: there is her father’s cancer, her strained relationship with her mother and her more successful best friend, her non-existent ‘career’ in the ever competitive film industry. In an attempt to make some extra cash Charlie has even begun selling photos, of a ‘graphic’ nature, of herself online. Given her not-so-great circumstances, Charlie feels understandably lost.
She finds some comfort in her father, whom she idolise, and his stories, one of which an account of his having survived a terrible tragedy. Inspired by this Charlie, alongside Laura, worked on ‘It Takes A Village’ a film that was based on her father’s story. When the film gains the attention of an Irish film festival, Charlie and Laura are invited to the event. With her father’s encouragement, Charlie set off to Ireland, hoping to find some guidance in the country she regards as her ancestral home. It happens that Charlie and Laura end up in Clipim, an island off the west coast of Ireland, and the place in which her father grew up. The people of Clipim however are not very forthcoming about the past, especially towards outsiders. Charlie however is convinced that someone is hiding the truth about the tragedy that irrevocably shaped her father’s life.

Similarly to Promising Young Women, there is a sense of unease permeating the narrative. From Charlie’s awkward interactions with her mother and best friend, to her sense of disillusionment towards her work and love life. Clipim magnifies the story’s ambivalent atmosphere and O’Donoghue does not shy away from portraying the ramifications of the British occupation of Ireland. Over the course of the novel Charlie, who is quick to emphasise that she is indeed ‘half Irish’, realises that she has mythologised Ireland and her own connection to this country. While I was very much interested in Charlie’s journey, and in the story’s engagement with colonialism, national and self identity, and in her shrewd yet nuanced portrayal of Irish–British relations, the plot tangles itself in unnecessary knots. The latter half of the novel veers into clichéd territories: we have the Town with a Dark Secret™, almost a la The Wicker Man, which is almost entirely populated by physically and verbally ‘hostile’ individuals, There Be Strangers™. Charlie herself makes many stupid choices (which do create tension), and seems unable to read a room. Towards the end the story becomes increasingly disconcerting, which in some ways I was expecting given how hallucinatory Promising Young Women ended up being. Charlie hits rock bottom, some bad shit goes on, and then we get a hurried explanation and ending. The violence of certain characters seems totally brushed aside, which was rather unsatisfying. Also, Charlie’s ‘investigation’ seemed less an investigation that her getting drunk and making wild accusations.
Even as the story become increasingly confusing, and frustrating, I was still absorbed by O’Donoghue’s prose. I liked the way she writes and the themes/ideas she explores. Her main character is an imperfect human being who can be selfish and reckless. Her loneliness and her disillusionment however are rendered in an emphatic light. Certain relationships, such as the one between Charlie and Laura, were believably messy.
Yet, as much as I appreciated certain aspects of the story, part of me knows that the Clipim’s residents were depicted in a less cartoonish way. In spite of Charlie’s interesting inner monologue, the storyline could have maintained a better focus. Still, I would thoroughly recommend this books as O’Donoghue’s writing is incredibly compelling and in spite of her blunders Charlie was an all too realistic main character.

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

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The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton — book review

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“A person’s fortune always changes in the telling of it.”

Turns out that reading The Luminaries was a phenomenal waste of my time. Eleanor Catton writes well, and the concept behind her novel had the potential of being interesting, but on the whole The Luminaries seems to be little more than a dull rehash of Wilkie Collins’ Sensation novels. What is worse is tat Catton treats her characters as if they were disposable accessories, seeming far more focused on weaving into her storyline vague allusion to astrological signs rather than of creating memorable characters or an intriguing mystery.
At the end of the day a polished prose—which seems to merely mimic the language of nineteenth century fiction—doesn’t make up for the fact that over the course of nearly 900 pages Catton tells a story that isn’t worth reading.

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The novel’s astrology-based structure—which is made apparent from the character chart and the various charts which are interspersed throughout this tome of a book—amounts to little more than a clever gimmick. The all-knowing narrator tries to inject the many events recounted by the narrative with some sort of mystical meaning which came across as being both contrived and banal.

The story’s opening chapters are promising enough.On a stormy January night in 1866 Walter Moody, one of the book’s central figures, takes shelter in the Crown Hotel (Hokitika, New Zealand) and, unbeknownst to him, interrupts a secret meeting between twelve men. Over the course of the next 400 pages or so each man gives his account (directly and not) regarding the suspicious death of a hermit named Crosbie Wells, the possible suicide of Anna Wetherell (a prostitute often referred by 90% of the characters as ‘the whore’), and Francis Carver, a captain of ill-repute. Each has played a different role in these strange events, and naturally they all have an incomplete picture of these odd occurrences and coincidences. With the help of Moody they try to put the various pieces of this puzzle together. So far…so good, right?
Sadly, I soon realised that these characters were of secondary importance to the very structure of the novel. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded as much if these characters weren’t so easily forgotten and swept aside by the narrative which around at the 70% mark ends up focusing on two of the most weakly drawn characters of the entire novel. One was largely MIA, the other one possessed a personality that was defined by her profession…and all of a sudden I’m 1) supposed to care for these two, 2) take them seriously. S-u-r-e thing.
The twelve men were stereotypes but they had the potential of being interesting. Yet the narrative doesn’t really do anything with them (I was particularly frustrated by Ah Sook’s character arc).710V6t8+AGL.jpg
In spite of the emphasis that our omniscient narrator puts on faith and the converging paths of these various characters, it all seemed so random and inconsequential.
Hundreds and hundreds of pages and there is no pay off.
The setting of the story lacks ambience. The narrative does ‘tells’ a lot and ‘shows’ very little. While Eleanor Catton’s writing does accurately convey the historical period in which her story is set, it also struck me as cold.
Her prose lacks Wilkie Collins’ humour. Her story and structure seem far too dull and contrived to be part of the Sensation genre. There may be certain elements (stolen identities, secret marriages, forged documents, an evil woman) but there is no passion, no spark. The characters are unfunny stereotypes that have no real impact on the narrative. If the story doesn’t care for its characters, why should I?
There are so many descriptions about their behaviours and values that don’t really amount to anything. Their personalities are almost interchangeable. At times these descriptions of their beliefs and conducts seemed to be little more than results of Catton’s logorrhoea. They sounded clever but they didn’t really go towards making that character (and his motivations) more vivid or realistic.
There is a lot of repetition. Some was intentional (given that these men are discussing the same events time and again) a lot was empty prattle. Much of the dialogue consisted in characters asking the same question twice or three times, giving the same reply twice or three times, or not understanding each other (and having to repeated themselves twice or thee times).
While I can’t deny that Catton can write very eloquently indeed, I was only able to enjoy the first 200 pages or so of her novel.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Everything Inside: Stories by Edwidge Danticat

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“The difference between her and them was as stark as the gulf between those who’d escaped a catastrophe unscathed and others who’d been forever mutilated by it.”

This was such a wonderful and poignant collection of short stories.
In a interview on LitHub Edwige Danticat said that one of the reasons why she loves the short story form is that it allows her “to magnify smaller moments and to linger on these small epiphanies in the smaller interactions that mean so much”, and indeed each one of her stories seems to prolong a particular moment in her characters’ lives.
Given the brevity of her stories Danticat doesn’t wast any words. And yet, while her writing could be described as both economic and simple, her prose also demonstrated a richness of expression that resonated with the feelings and scenarios experienced by her characters.

Through the wide range of her narratives Danticat examines similar themes in very different ways. Within her stories Danticat navigates the way in which bonds are tested, broken, or strengthened in times of crisis. Most of Danticat’s narratives are concerned in particular with the diasporic experiences of Haitians in America, and she emphasises the feelings of longing, loneliness, and displacement experienced by those who are forced to adapt to a new country and a different culture with poignancy and clarity. They are never reduced to the status of ‘outsider’, and while their shared heritage does mean that they may have had similar experiences, each one of them has a distinctive voice and a particular relationships with the countries they currently inhabit.
With seeming ease Danticat imbues her characters with their own history and personalities, so that within a few pages we would feel as if we’d know them personally, so much so that to define them as characters seems almost an injustice.
Within these narratives the ordinary moments that make up everyday life can carry both enlightening and tragic overtones. These stories centre on the characters’ anxieties, hopes, and fears they may harbour for themselves or their loved ones.
In “Dosas” Elsie, a nurse’s assistant, is betrayed by her husband and her own best friend. Months later her now ex-husband calls her and begs her to help pay the ransom for his kidnapped girlfriend, who happens to be Elsie’s former friend. His increasingly desperate calls threaten to disrupt the course of her life.
In “The Port-au-Prince Marriage Special” a woman who has returned to Haiti to run a hotel with her husband is confronted with her own privilege when her young nanny is diagnosed with AIDS; the woman has to reconcile herself with her own misjudgement regarding her nanny’s mother and with her preference for a white doctor over a local one.
In “Hot-Air Balloons” we observe the bond between two young women, one of which has started to work for Leve a women’s organisation in which she witnesses the most brutal aspects of humanity. Still, even when we are presented with these stark accounts of abuse or suffering the story maintains a sense of hope in the genuine relationship between these two women.
Another story that examines the bond between two women is “Seven Stories”. After publishing a short story a writer is contacted by her childhood friend Callie, the daughter of the prime minister of an unnamed island. After her father’s assassination Callie was forced to flee from the island and years later our narrator is invited by her friend who has by now married the island’s new prime minister.

“I didn’t have to think too much about this. I already knew. I am the girl—the woman—who is always going to be looking for stability, a safe harbor. I am never going to forget that I can easily lose everything I have, including my life, in one instant. But this is not what I told her. I told her that I was going to be the kind of friend she could always count on.”

The characters in Danticat’s stories are often confronted with impossible choices. Within their realities they are forced to contend against betrayal, illnesses, the devastating earthquake of 2010, medical malpractice, kidnappings, and the risks that come with being ‘undocumented’. They are made vulnerable by their status or haunted by the knowledge that the world can be a terrible place. Still, while there were many moments of unease, the stories always maintain a vibrancy that made them hard to put down. Her characters demonstrated empathy, love, and compassion so that her stories never felt bleak or hopeless.

I can’t recommend this collection enough. These stories were both upsetting and moving, and within each narrative we follow how a certain ‘change’ forces each character to reassess their own existence. The crisis they experience are depicted with subtlety and consideration. Danticat interrogates serious themes (identity, mortality, grief) whilst focusing on ordinary moments. Phone conversations and dinners become the backdrop for larger debates. Her narratives illuminate the complexities faced by those who are born, or raised, in a country that is now in crisis.
A heart-rendering collection of stories that provided me with a lot food for thought and which I will be definitely reading again.

2nd reading:
I have now read it again and I found as compelling as the first time. This may be the first collection of short stories I’ve ever re-read and it surprised by how many details had stayed with me from the first reading.

MY RATING: 4 ½ stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie — book review

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I can definitely see why many consider And Then There Were None to be Agatha Christie’s magnum opus. Over the past year I have read—or listened to—approximately 30 works by her. With the exception of one one or two anomalies, her books have never failed to entertain me. And I agree with those who call her the queen of crime fiction. Most of her murder-mystery stories implement literary devices that are now considered to be conventions of this genre, and while readers are duped by red herrings and false leads, her professional, or amateur, detectives always manage to extrapolate the truth. The guilty parties are punished, justice is served, and everything is well in the world.
In And Then There Were None she disrupts her usual form, as she challenges her readers expectations by providing us with a cast of quite likely guilty characters. Justice in And Then There Were None takes a sinister role, as we become invested in the lives of the people it seeks to punish.
A rhyme also acquires a dark and deadly significances as Christie uses the ten little soldiers rhyme to create, maintain, and build tension. As the story progresses, and the number of soldiers dwindles, this seemingly harmless rhyme seems far more terrifying than it first appeared to. Christie almost seems to be making a game out of this rhyme, one that is guaranteed to captivate her readers’ attention.
As per usual Christie demonstrates a shrewd insight into human nature. Cut off from the rest of society, the guests soon realise the direness of their situation…soon they fall prey to suspicion and an ever growing sense of uneasiness. The crimes they may, or may have not, committed will arouse further mistrust among the already divided group. Readers too will find themselves questioning the reliability of these characters, and depending on our feelings towards them, we will hope for their innocence or guilt…
With a few singularly effective descriptions Christie breathes life into her characters and their personalities. The changing dynamics between these various characters also provide us with yet another source of excitement. While their various exchanges and discussions do demonstrate Christie’s wit, I had the distinctive impression that this time around Christie had reined in her humour.

When reading crime fiction we often expect the naming and capturing of a criminal. This is usually followed by a restoration of both a moral and a social order…in And Then There Were None it is not the case.

A note on the audiobook edition:
Dan Stevens is such a charismatic narrator. His performance make for a highly engaging experience.

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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