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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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Camp by Lev A.C. Rosen — book review

52880287._SX0_SY0_.jpgBecause last year I read, and really enjoyed, Lev A.C. Rosen’s Jack of Hearts, I decided to give Camp a go, even if I was worried that the whole premise of ‘pretending to be different to make someone fall in love with you’ would be cring-y. Within a few pages however I was rooting for Randy Kapplehoff’s and his rather theatrical ‘plan’.
First off: I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with some many queer character. Gay, non-binary, ace, transgender, demisexual…this is a wonderfully inclusive novel. Hurray!
While Camp follows a somewhat clichéd plot—not-so-popular-theatre kid has a glow-up and tries to make the hot guy fall for him—the setting (summer camp), characters, and the humour make this novel worth a read. While I definitely felt the chemistry between Randy (Del) and Hudson (their flirting was on point), I simply adored Randy’s friendships. George and Ashleigh makes such an impact on Randy’s story. And although they are there to help him, advise him, and occasionally make fun of him, they are also given their own arcs.
While there are quite a few silly moments here and there, for the most part I found Camp to be hilarious. Rosen portrays the highs and lows of being a teenager. He really allows his characters to act like teens: they make mistakes, they are awkward, they are unsure of who they and who they want to be. Rosen also manages to include thought-provoking discussions about toxic masculinity and gender conformities.
Rosen also manages to make minor characters, such as Mark, stand out. They all have distinctive personalities and different ways of expressing their identity. Rosen’s depiction of sex is so refreshingly frank (it would be nice if YA books stopped treating sex as taboo).
The only thing I didn’t particularly like were the stars/galaxy metaphors (Randy feels ‘filled with stars’ one too many times).
Camp is a funny read perfect for the summer. Randy’s absorbing narration made me all the more invested in his story.

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

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The Binding by Bridget Collins — book review

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“Bindings are for desperate people. People who can’t go anywhere else.”

Surprising, occasionally frustrating, and relentlessly sad, The Binding never seemed to reach its full potential. I was genuinely intrigued by the premise (an alternative history in which book binders get rid of people’s ‘bad’ memories?) even if I know that the whole ‘memory-erasing’ idea isn’t wholly original (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, More Happy Than Not).

Throughout the first section of The Binding Bridget Collins’ keeps her cards close to her chest. We gather that the setting is in an alternative 19th-century England and that our narrator, Emmett Farmer, has just recovered from a mysterious illness. When Seredith, an old and secluded binder, requests that he become her apprentice, Emmett is left no choice and has to leave his parents’ farm. While working under Seredith’s roof Emmett briefly meets a young man whose appearance and behaviour stick to his mind.
When Seredith finally reveals Emmett what ‘book binding’ truly is, he’s uneasy about the whole thing.
The second and third section of the book take us down slightly different paths, although I must admit that the final part of the novel felt like a rehash of the first part.
I liked the ambiguity created by Emmett’s not knowing what happened to him or why Lucian Darnay’s face haunts him so. The book binding itself raises some thought-provoking questions about consent, and the characters do discuss the ethics of erasing someone’s memory. Sadly it seemed that it was mostly older men using binders to ‘erase’ their crimes (making binders wipe the memories of their victims/witnesses who were often women, quelle surprise).
The setting is rudimentary: vaguely historical, with little about this England’s history, and the narrative mostly focus on the class divide between those like Emmett and those like Lucian, without really expanding on other aspects of this ‘alternative’ English society. A few characters mention terms such as the ‘Crusades’ or ‘deportation’ but other than that we have little information about this country. I would also have liked at one point or another to have more details about the book binding itself (when did it start? how many binders are there? etc…).
The romance was a bit disappointing too. One of them always seemed to hate the other, and I couldn’t really see why all of a sudden they were in love. The whole plot involving their horrible families was frustrating. Emmett and his love interest are manipulated time and again (Emmett’s sister was a HORRIBLE little monster, and I should feel sorry for her? As if!). The story seems to fall into a pattern where Emmett and Lucian are made to suffer. They are sad, and sad, and some sad some more.
Towards the end they both do some questionable and out-of-character things, seemingly disregarding the safety and lives of other people…which okay.
The story didn’t feel all that ‘solid’, there were some rather shaky aspects that made sense for ‘plot reason’, too much time was spent on the two leads mistrusting one another, the few secondary characters were pretty one-dimensional, and the final part went all over the place, and eventually lead to a rushed ending that left so many things unresolved.
Still, Collins’ does create an intriguing atmosphere and the changes in tone and pace in the story kept things interesting.
All in all, I liked it more than not and I would definitely read something else by Collins.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Charioteer by Mary Renault — book review

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“He was filled with a vast sense of the momentous, of unknown mysteries. He did not know what he should demand of himself, nor did it seem to matter, for he had not chosen this music he moved to, it had chosen him.”

This is the fourth time I’ve read The Charioteer and once again I’ve been swept away by it. The Charioteer is quite likely my favourite novel of all time as there are few books that I care as much about.
There is something comforting about The Charioteer, which is strange given that Mary Renault’s impenetrable prose demands her readers’ full attention. There are the coded conversations, thoughts and feelings are often only obliquely hinted at, the pages are full of slang, and there are constant allusions to the Classics. Yet, her writing also has a languid quality, perhaps reflective of her protagonist’s convalescence.
In an almost Bildungsroman fashion The Charioteer introduces us to Laurie as a child. This first chapter recounts a significant moment of his childhood and is followed by a chapter of him at school where he has a memorable encounter with the Head of the School, Ralph Lanyon. The subsequent chapters follow Laurie as he’s recovering from a war injury at a hospital. Here he meets and falls for Andrew, a conscientious objector who is now working as an orderly.
While Laurie is aware of his sexuality, and believes that Andrew reciprocates his feelings, he’s unwilling to reveal to Andrew the true depth of his emotions. By chance Laurie ends up re-connecting with Ralph. As the title of the novel suggests, Laurie’s story can be likened to the myth of the charioteer from Phaedrus.
Now, I know that my summary doesn’t do this novel justice. I don’t wish to reveal too much about the story or its characters. Still, I can say that The Charioteer presents us with a beautiful narrative, one that captures a particular moment in time. The characters’ days are punctuated by Imminent Danger sirens, air raids, shortages. Laurie, alongside other patients, has to obey the hospital’s strict rules. Under Renault’s hand, the war seems almost ‘normal’, and characters will often discuss it as they would any other topic.
Renault’s portrayal of the gay community feels both intimate and compelling. While Laurie himself feels uneasy towards those he deems as ‘flamboyant’ or ‘effeminate’, the narrative doesn’t share his prejudices. Renault’s characters often engage themselves in conversations relating to their role in society, often professing contrasting beliefs. Their discussion on ethics and morality were riveting, and I soon lost myself in the rhythm of their back and forth.
The novel is as interested in what the characters say as it is with what they don’t say, whether this is due to self-censoring or self-denial. Although Laurie is the story’s protagonist, much of what he feels remains off page. Renault will often only allude to Laurie’s most innermost feelings. Because of this Laurie, and other characters, often seem like unsolvable puzzles.
Laurie’s story is also one that is concerned with connection. Although he becomes fast friends with another patient, he fears being ‘known’. Yet, in spite of this sense of loneliness, he is reticent about ‘embracing’ his community (“He kept telling me I was queer, and I’d never heard it called that before and didn’t like it. The word, I mean. Shutting you away, somehow; roping you off with a lot of people you don’t feel much in common with […]”).

Miscommunications abound in this novel. At times the characters make tentative attempts to form more meaningful relationships but they often betray themselves by not saying what they want to say or by saying the wrong things.
Renault renders sadness, anxiety, self-denial, awkwardness, tenderness, longing, ambiguity, confusion, honour, passion, and hope. Her characters reveal her piercing understanding of human nature. Through her expressive and elegant writing Renault demonstrates her inside knowledge of the society she depicted (Renault was both a lesbian and a nurse, which is possibly why she can so conjure up both queer parties and the daily routines of a hospital).
I love everything about this novel. Laurie’s quest for identity, the struggle between his desires and his ideals, is as moving as it is thought-provoking.
A truly complex and multi-layered masterpiece that is both heart-rending and intelligent.
Impenetrable, subtle, beautiful, touching. I can’t recommend this novel strongly enough.

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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Date Me, Bryson Keller by Kevin van Whye — book review

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“But what does normal even mean? Who decided that? And why are gay teens still forced to keep secrets and live double lives?”

It seems I’m not an Ice Queen after all…this book melted my heart.
Date Me, Bryson Keller is an incredibly sweet and thoughtful YA romance that can be easily read in one sitting. Before I move onto my actual review however I wanted to address some of the bad rep this book has been getting. Some reviewers (who haven’t even read it) are insinuating that this book is a rip off of Seven Days a BL manga. The two works do share the same premise and Kevin van Whye acknowledges this in his author’s note. In fact he says that a number of stories influenced him:
“I owe a great debt to all of them, including the Norwegian web series Skam (particularly season 3), To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (as well as the film adaptation, Love, Simon), the manga Seven Days: Monday-Sunday by author Venio Tachibana and illustrator Rihito Takarai, and the ’90s romcom She’s All That. Date Me, Bryson Keller is my #ownvoices take on these prior works.”
YA romances are not renown for their originality so I’m not sure why some are crying ‘outrage’ without even having read Kevin van Whye’s book. His novel reworks the ‘popular guy dates different people each week’ premise of Seven Days. These two works have very different characters, settings, and themes (also, most BL and GL mangas do not realistically portray the struggles of those who are part of the LGBTQ+ community).

Anyway, moving onto my actual review: Date Me, Bryson Keller is a delightful and surprisingly heart-rendering read. Kai Sheridan narration is compelling and I deeply felt for him. In spite of his awkwardness he’s capable of admirable self-respect. Due to a dare the most popular boy his private school has to date someone new every Monday. The first person to ask him gets to date him for a week. Although Kai wants to keep his head down, and is not ready to tell his friends and family that he’s gay, he finds himself asking Bryson out. To Kai’s surprise Bryson agrees. Over the course of the week the two secretly fake date. They meet up in the morning, go out for breakfast together, study together, and quite quickly they get to know each other. As Kai’s feelings towards Bryson intensify he begins to question whether they are reciprocated.
To begin with this struck me an impossibly cute and lighthearted story. Bryson is an actual Cinnamon Roll™ and it was so refreshing to see his relationship with Kai develop without any unnecessary angst. I also really appreciated Kai’s character arc. Things do eventually take a turn for the worst, and Kai has to deal with a lot. Through Kai’s story Kevin van Whye dispels this myth that homophobia’ no longer exists or that if it does it never originates from young people. Kevin van Whye maintains a wonderful balance between love story and coming of age, and alleviates the more heart-rendering parts of his novel with humour. The interactions between Kai and Bryson had me smiling like an idiot.
I will definitely be reading this again and I’m looking forward to Kevin van Whye’s next novel.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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The Red Scrolls of Magic by Cassandra Clare — book review

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“Romance was a lot of work.”

The Red Scrolls of Magic is a fun throwback to Cassandra Clare’s TMI in which Magnus and Alec finally get the stage for themselves. After the Mortal War the couple takes a well-earned romantic getaway in Europe. Once in Paris however an ‘old friend’ of Magnus breaks some bad news to him: a demon-worshipping cult called the Crimson Hand, which Magnus himself may have founded as a ‘joke’, is killing downworlders. From then on Magnus and Alec go from France to Italy, trying to find and stop the cult and leaving mayhem in their wake. Getting to know each other isn’t easy, getting to know each other when demons are trying to kill you…well that complicates things.
There is plenty of action and wit in The Red Scrolls of Magic. Even in the most deadly of situations Magnus remains a joker. By contrast Alec finds himself mingling with Magnus’ downworlder acquaintances, most of whom are suspicion or hostile towards Shadowhunters.
This was a very entertaining read. It has plenty of amusing dialogues, it gives some insight into the early stages of Magnus and Alec’s relationship (bonus: we read of Aline and Helen’s first meeting), and it has plenty of romance.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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An Honest Man by Ben Fergusson — book review

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

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

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

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The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune — book review

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“He was here to observe and nothing more. He couldn’t influence the orphanage. It wouldn’t be proper. The RULES AND REGULATIONS were specific about such matters.”

The House in the Cerulean Sea tells an equal parts heartwarming and silly tale. The world in this novel is fairly reminiscent of our own one however its pages are full of magical people and creatures. The government closely monitors those who are deemed not human and they are raised in government sanctioned orphanages.
As a case worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth (often abbreviated to DICOMY) Linus Baker, a solitary forty year old, oversees and inspects these orphanages. His job consists in ensuring the children’s wellbeing and that the people who are running these orphanages are following DICOMY guidelines. Linus himself abides by DICOMY’s strict rules and regulations.
His routine is brusquely interrupted when he is summoned by DICOMY’s Extremely Upper Management, only to be unexpectedly tasked with an unusual and highly sensitive assignment: he has to leave the city and travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage. The orphanage is run by the rather mysterious and eccentric Arthur Parnassus. It is up to Linus to determine whether the six children who reside there (a female gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist) should be taken away from the Island.
As the story progresses Linus begins to question DICOMY and its methods. Once he is able to move past what his case files tell him about these children, he begins to see them in their own right.

In the novel magical powers/appearances is a metaphor for being different. They are isolated from ‘ordinary’ humans, raised in controlled environments, treated with mistrust and or outright hatred. Linus finds himself challenging his own assumptions and preconceptions about these children.
Ultimately this is a story about the family that you choose: Linus himself has always felt like he doesn’t quite belong. On the Island, alongside the children and Arthur, he starts to feel more at ease with who he is as well as the type of person he wants to be.
The novel is filled with quirky humour and charming dialogues. There were quite a few elements that struck me as being a bit too silly for my taste, so that occasionally the story verged on being ridiculous (such as all of those ‘Oh My’ that Linus utters) but for the most part I liked this novel, it even made me smile here and there.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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The Lost Future of Pepperharrow by Natasha Pulley — book review

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is a somewhat disappointing followup to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street.512LpSa-J5L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg
Having really enjoyed The Watchmaker of Filigree Street I was really looking forward to be reunited with Thaniel and Mori.

Within the first chapters I had a slight sense of deja vu. The main difference between this sequel and its predecessor is the setting: whereas The Watchmaker of Filigree Street took place in London, The Lost Future of Pepperharrow whisks us to an alternate-history Japan. Backdrop aside, these two novels have almost identical storylines. Mori is up to something and he won’t share the details of what he is up to with Thaniel. There is a woman who is ‘ahead of her times’ and she doesn’t trust Mori. Thaniel is confused, we are confused, everyone is pretty much confused. Suprise, suprise, Mori was acting out of love.
The narrative struck me as confusing for the sole purpose of being confusing (in this aspect it frustrated me as much as The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle). Much of what occurs could have been avoided if Thaniel and Mori had an actual conversation but their few interactions were brief and superficial. Pepperharrow was just as unlikable as Grace. Much is made of her (she is different from other women) but to me she was merely aggravating (in her insisting that Mori is evil, in blaming him for everything, in her alliance with an actual murderer).
The story drags on and on, following a growingly desperate Thaniel as he tries to navigate Japanese customs and politics.
While I understand that Pulley wanted to distinguish formal from informal Japanese, part of me found the use of swearwords to be an ill suited stylistic choice.
Most of the female characters are annoying, the men are either hapless or arrogant…and the suspense felt forced.
Although the plotline unfolded in predictable manner there were so many confounding elements that I sort of lost interest in the story. Thaniel and Mori, characters I loved in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, were rather shadows of themselves.
The longer I’m making this review and the more I realise how much I actually did not like this book.
The only aspect I liked was the portrayal of a cultural divide between the united kingdom and Japan (their different traditions, languages, social norms etc.). Other than that…there wasn’t much I liked.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Chain of Gold by Cassandra Clare — book review

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“We don’t always love people who deserve it.”

To be honest, I thought I was over Cassandra Clare….and it turns out I was very wrong. There is something about the Shadowhunter world that I find interesting. And over the past ten years or so I have grown fond of it and the characters that inhabit it.
Chain of Gold sees Clare at the top of her game. The Infernal Devices series is my favourite by Clare…and Chain of Gold has the same atmosphere. Clare is great at rendering historical settings and I just loved the way she depicts the beginning of the 20th century.
There is angst, quite a few battles, drama, secrets, a few complicated love hexagons, and a lot of longing.

“Would you like to be a muse?”
“No,” said Cordelia. “I would like to be a hero.”

Cordelia Carstairs is perhaps one of my favourite heroines by Clare. Kind, just, not afraid of calling out her loved ones for their rude behaviour. There are so many other characters and relationships that I really loved. I was particularly fond of the bond between Cordelia and Lucie. The somewhat fraught relationship between Cordelia and Alastair was surprisingly poignant. The romantic relationships, often restrained, were engrossing.
The merry thieves (James and his friends) brought to mind Maggie Stiefvater’s the raven boys. James and Grace’s story had quite a few parallels with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.
This book made me laugh out loud, squee in delight, and stay up all night.
If I had to pick a favourite character it would probably be Alastair who is far from perfect but has a wonderful character arc.

I loved the setting (London), Clare’s writing, the atmosphere, the characters, the action, and the various mysteries that pop up in the narrative. I can’t wait to read the next instalment.

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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