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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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American Gods by Neil Gaiman — book review

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“Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.”

It isn’t surprising that American Gods is regarded as one of the genre-bending novels of all time.
Over the course of 500 pages Neil Gaiman deftly blends together fantasy, sci-fi, horror, noir, myths, history, theology, as well as physical, spiritual, and emotional road-trip. The end result is an incredibly imaginative novel, on that is quite unlike anything else I’ve read.

In the preface to the tenth anniversary edition Gaiman describes his novel as ‘meandering’: “I wanted it to be a number of things. I wanted to write a book that was big and odd and meandering, and I did and it was.” It is indeed meandering, wonderfully so. Gaiman’s consistently entertaining storytelling more than makes up for it. Also, given how many different storylines and characters there are in American Gods, it’s safe to say that I was never bored.

“We do not always remember the things that do no credit to us. We justify them, cover them in bright lies or with the thick dust of forgetfulness.”

Summarising this novel isn’t easy. The first time I read it I didn’t know much about it so I found myself experiencing a lot of ‘what the f*ck is going’ moments. This second time, even if I knew what was coming and where Shadow’s story was headed, I still managed to get lost in Gaiman’s heady prose.
The novel’s protagonist, Shadow, gets out of prison and is hired by the mysterious and relentlessly charismatic Mr. Wednesday. We soon realise that Shadow’s new boss is an endlessly scheming conman, and not quite human.

What follows is an epic journey in which Shadow meets many disgruntled and modernity weary gods and deities, some of whom share snippets of their history or lore with Shadow, while others remain far more unknowable. Interspersed throughout the novel are chapters recounting their arrival to America. From heroic battles and bloody sacrifices to tales of worship and faith that span centuries and cultures, these sections were thoroughly interesting.

Over the course of his road trip Shadow comes across a lot of weird stuff. We have the sense that these encounters are leading to something far more big. Yet, Gaiman keeps his cards close to his chest, and it is only after many many pages that we start to understand where the story is leading Shadow, and us, towards.
There are plenty of things that will keep us engaged in Shadow’s story. A dead wife, coin tricks, cons, sex (with divine beings…so things get pretty freaky), some horrific scenes (of slavery, of war, of death), satire, a small town which gives some serious Twin Peaks vibe, a hubbub of different cultures and voices…and so much more. There is also an ongoing juxtaposition between the past and present, ancient customs and modernity, old lore and modern believes which provided some serious food for thought.

Gaiman presents us with a narrative that is wickedly funny, frequently mischievous, and always brimming with energy. I loved the way he writes about myths and how distinctive and morally ambiguous his characters are. As interesting and beguiling as the various gods and deities are, once again I found myself caring the most for Shadow.
Gaiman’s dialogues and scenes too are memorable and compelling. And while his narrative does wander into obscure and mystical terrains, it always held my undivided attention.
American Gods gives its readers a bonanza of flavours. It is funny, moving, clever, and constantly surprising.

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf — book review

7119MpKPEZL.jpgThroughout the course of my undergraduate degree I consistently and persistently avoided Virginia Woolf’s body of work as on the best of days I have little patience for stream of consciousness (especially of the Joycean variety) and modernist literature. When my lecturers mentioned Woolf they always seemed to confirm my impression of her being a pretentious snob so I didn’t feel particularly inclined to pick up her impenetrably introspective novels.

As of late, I’ve been wanting to read more essays and, for some reason or other, I ended up reading Woolf’s The Common Reader…and I’m glad I did. Yes, her worldview betrays a certain elitism but given her time period I don’t feel particularly slighted by her notion of ‘common reader’ or by the way in which she refers to cultures outside of Britain (once again Italians are referred to as a vaguely uncivilised ‘Southern race’).

Woolf’s essays are far more accessible than I’d imagined them to be. Unlike her fiction, here Woolf’s prose does not stray into the obscure, and needlessly confounding, territories of the English language. Here her lexicon is not only crystal clear but simply captivating. She writes with such eloquence and vitality, demonstrating her extensive knowledge of her subjects without giving herself airs. In fact, these essays never seem to reveal Woolf’s presence as she does not write as an “I” but as a “we”. While in clumsier hands I would have found the “we” to be patronising, Woolf’s essays are anything but. She includes us with ease, making us feel as if we were active participants in her analysis. Her subjects too are not passive figures easily relegated to the past. Her evocative descriptions have an immediacy that makes us momentarily forget that these authors are long-dead. Woolf does not waste time in recounting the entire careers and lives of her biographees. With a few carefully articulated phrases she hones in on the essence of these writers and their work. Woolf whisks away by asking us to ‘imagine’ alongside her these authors in their everyday lives, by speaking of their household, their country, and their world, with such familiarity as to convince us that she knew each one of them.

Her essays certainly demonstrate a wealth of knowledge. Woolf creates a myriad of connections, drawing upon history and philosophy in an engaging and enlightening manner. Certain historical facts went over my head, but that is probably due to my non-British schooling. Nevertheless, even when I wasn’t sure of whom she was writing about or the significance of one of her references, I still felt very much involved by what I was reading.

Woolf’s examination of the interplay between critics, readers, and writers becomes the central leitmotif of this collection. Time and again Woolf interrogates the way in which a writer is influenced by their readers and critics, and of the way in which this knowledge of a future readership shapes their writing. Woolf surveys different types of authors: fiction (such as Daniel Defoe, Joseph Conrad, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charlotte and Emily Brontë), essayists (such as Montaigne), poets, playwrights, and those historical figures who escape definition (such as the incomparable Margaret Cavendish).
In ‘On not knowing Greek’ and ‘The Russian Point of View’ Woolf turns to language and translation while in ‘Modern Fiction’, ‘The Modern Essay’, ‘How it Strikes a Contemporary’, and ‘How Should One Read a Book’ she considers the many faces of writing and the differences between classic and contemporary fiction/authors.

Even in those instances in which our interpretations differed, I recognised that her arguments were informative and persuasive. It is perhaps Woolf’s dialogic wit that makes her suppositions all the more compelling.

More impressive still is Woolf’s description of one of my least favourite literary styles in her much quoted essay titled ‘Modern Fiction’. Here her authorial presence is more felt as she expresses a wish to read fiction that reflects the continuous and incongruous flow of our thoughts.

I thoroughly recommend this to bibliophiles of all sorts. Whether you consider yourself a common reader or not Woolf’s essays have a lot to offer.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Skyward by Brandon Sanderson — book review

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I more or less inhaled this book.

“You get to choose who you are. Legacy, memories of the past, can serve us well. But we cannot let them define us. When heritage becomes a box instead of an inspiration, it has gone too far.”

This is easily my favourite book by Brandon Sanderson. A few years ago I read and was deeply impressed by his epic-fantasy novel Elantris…so I can sort of understand why some die-hard Sanderson fans might not find Skyward to be as intricate or as profound as his adult fiction.
Personally, however, I found Skyward to be a pure blast.

Within the first few chapters I fell unabashedly in love with this novel. This is undoubtedly thanks to Spensa Nightshade, also known as Spin. Her first-person narration is completely unreserved and utterly entertaining.
Growing up as the daughter of “the coward”, Spensa is desperate to prove herself. The planet in which she was born and raised is constantly under attack from the Krell. To survive humans have built communities underground. Pilots, who are considered to be the elite of this new society, train and live on a base on the ground surface of this planet where they try to defend themselves, and the rest of humanity, from the Krell’s attacks.

To become a pilot is no small feat. Many are killed or leave before their training is complete.
Spensa however is keen to fly and kill some Krell. Her reputation however makes her a persona non grata at the base so not only she has to catch up to the teammates who were raised by pilots, and have been training since they were born, but as the daughter of “the coward” she also has to put up with many other disadvantages. Time and again she struggles between wanting to prove to others and to herself that she is no coward and surviving. In a community which glorifies self-sacrifice and violence it isn’t easy to reconcile oneself with notions of courageousness and cowardice.

Spensa was an extremely likeable character. Her propensity for dramatic and grisly declarations (such as: “When you are broken and mourning your fall from grace, I will consume your shadow in my own, and laugh at your misery”) might make her seem somewhat ridiculous but we soon realise that being constantly seen and treated in the light of her father’s actions has made her this way.
She was funny, brave, and surprisingly vulnerable. Sanderson does a great job with her character arc. Spensa soon realises that to be a pilot is not all about being brave.
The dynamics she has with the rest of her team are compelling and entertaining as I found all of the characters to be just as nuanced as Spensa. Sanderson reveals some of the fears and desires that have shaped or are shaping who they are and what they want. There are no good or bad people and being a hero is not all that’s cracked up to be. Some characters retain a sense of mystery, which makes them all the more intriguing.

The action is more or less non-stop. It vaguely reminded of certain mecha anime (except we have ships instead of giant robots). The fight scenes, which were intense and adrenaline-fuelled, kept me on the edge of my seat.
The world-building and society imagined by Sanderson are interesting and richly detailed. He keeps quite a few card close to his chest, so that readers, alongside Spensa, are always left wanting to know more about the Krell and the circumstances that landed a human ship on this planet.

Perhaps my favourite thing about this book was the relationship Spensa has with a certain M-Bot. Their conversations were a pure delight to read. I was also pleasantly surprised by the sort of friendship she forms with a certain Jerkface.

The only thing I would have liked to have been different is a certain revelation towards the end. Part of me wishes it could have been more showing and less telling. Still, that was a very minor thing in an otherwise faultless novel.

Final verdict:
I loved this novel and I have already bought a copy of Starsight as I can’t wait to be reunited with Spensa&co !

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars (rounded up)

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Our Stop by Laura Jane Williams – book review

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While Our Stop may have made me smile me smile, once or twice, it mostly frustrated the living daylights out of me.

Our Stop implements a similar gimmick as quite a few other romances: from new book releases such as The Flatshare—where the two leads develop feelings for one another through post-it notes—to the classic You’ve Got Mail
In Our Stop Nadia and Felix develop romantic feelings for each other by carrying a sort of conversation, if not flirtation, in the Missed Connections section of a daily paper.
The premise is cheesy enough but I was ready to overlook it and enjoy the book as a light summer read.
Sadly, Felix’s approach of Nadia is definitely creepy

Felix first sees Nadia on his 7.30am Northern Line tube, taken by her he occasionally even overhears her conversations (and later on remembers something she said in one of these ‘listening in’ occasions and believes that he knows her merits on the basis of said conversations). Too shy to approach her directly, and knowing that if he were to do so she would peg him as a weirdo, he opens up about his feelings—or should I say attraction as it is hard to believe that he developed anything more than a infatuation—in the ‘Missed Connections’.
As luck would have it a friend of Nadia reads this and recognises that “the cute girl with the coffee stains on her dress” is none other than Nadia! Quelle surprise! While Felix knows that Nadia is young and good looking, those are in fact the two main reasons why he is so taken by this stranger, Nadia has no way of knowing that Felix is actually who he claims to be.

I was once again ready to overlook this but the story ends up being way preachier than I’d expected….which is a tad incongruous given the whole meet cute/rose-coloured romance premise of the book. If you want to write a fun and gooey romance go on…but then maybe you should avoid going on and on about how your female lead and her besties are real feminists (and why is it so hard to find a good-looking guy who is touch with his feelings and doesn’t think that talking about what he feels with his male friends is gay) while showing us that your male lead is not like other men as he is a romantic, a good son, and knows all about consent, in fact, he would actually tell his walking stereotype of a ‘guy’ friend (you know the one who says things like ‘bro’ and ‘dude’, sleeps around, and says stuff like ‘whatever man’) that a very drunk girl can’t possibly consent to sleeping with him.
Maybe if these hot—or as they say nowadays ‘woke‘—topics had been handled with a bit more care and in a more convincing way, I wouldn’t have been as annoyed. Having your female characters say time and again “we are feminists” doesn’t make into actual feminists. Why do you have to acknowledge that they are indeed feminists? They are in their twenties, they have good millennial jobs, they live in London…your readers will assume that they are without the need for the author to use her characters as her own mouthpieces. I’m starting to get tired of these ugh-men books that have millennial women, so called woke-feminists, lamenting on why is it ‘so hard’ to find a uber-woke attractive man? Are all men bad?!
And why carry this sort of discussion in a book that has the male lead observing, and worse still obsessing, over a young woman he has glimpsed a few times on the tube?

Nadia allegedly develops feelings for Felix through his messages on the paper…she feels drawn to this unknown man (she immediately believes that he is just a normal guy rather than a creepy stalker) because he likes her and has publicly announced his interest in her. Feminism 1:1.
It seemed that Nadia develops feelings for Felix merely because they have yet to meet (so he remains the ideal man in her mind) and because twitter users are rooting for them…and maybe because she loves You’ve Got Mail…these are all very good reasons, not.
Funnily enough both Nadia and Felix are often helped by their friends when they write to each other…so that their messages are not entirely theirs. Which is why I had a hard time believing that Nadia is in love with this mystery guy aka Felix rather than the messages he writes with the help of his friend and that do not truly reflect his identity.

Maybe I wouldn’t have been so critical of this book if the story hadn’t been so desperately trying to come across as in and ‘up with the times’.
Another grating thing was that nothing much happens between the two. They have both side-plots through which the author can address certain ‘woke’ topics), they try and fail to meet (view spoiler), they have overly awkward conversations which should have been a source of humour but merely seemed over-the-top attempts to make us sympathise with these very realistic characters, and they both have another possible love interest.
To top it all of the succession of near misses was impossibly annoying…

I think if I’d read the book myself, rather than listening to the audible version, I would have left this unfinished.
If I were you I would find a less preachy and more genuine romance (especially since there is very little ‘romance’ to be found in this book).

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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Beautiful by Juliet Marillier — review

In Beautiful subverts fairy-tale storylines by making her heroine a troll princess. Hulde is in fact the sole daughter of a tyrannical queen who terrorises those around her. In spite of its title, the story is not concerned with beauty: Hulde knows that humans are afraid of her. Trolls are seen as hideous creatures and throughout the course of the story’s three acts Hulde will have to reconcile herself with her appearance and her position as (view spoiler).612XkHP-AnL._SL500_
I’ve read many of Marillier’s books and it was refreshing to read of a protagonist who isn’t stereotypically beautiful. I also like the way bravery is what Hulde aspires to, rather than beauty. She constantly tries to better herself and ultimately learns that to be brave also entails trusting others.
Marillier pays particular attention to storytelling itself and in her adventures Hulde often draws strength from old tales of brave heroes and heroines.
Although this was an enjoyable read, with some interesting takes on certain tropes, I found the story to be less complex than some of Marillier’s other novels…perhaps because this is an audible original so Marillier kept things ‘simple’ for this type of format or maybe because this was the spin-off of a short story she’d written…longtime fans of Marillier might find this story to be less layered than her usual.
Still, this is a short audiobook and makes for a short and entertaining read.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars

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A Memory Called Empire : Book Review

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A Memory Called Empire
by Arkady Martine      ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

Yet another example of great concept, poor execution.

A Memory Called Empire is an ambitious first instalment. Sadly, the interesting topics and discussions approached by the novel were diminished by an unclear world-building and by a monotone storyline.

“Three Seagrass gave Mahit a look which clearly expressed, despite the fundamental cultural differences in habitual facial expression, a chagrined admiration of her nerve.”

The main focus of the story is language. The protagonist is Mahit Dzmare, Lsel Station’s new ambassador, who is sent to the capital of the multi-system Teixcalaanli Empire. Mahit tries to navigate her new position and surroundings but struggles to reconcile herself with a culture that poses a threat to her own one (the people from Lsel Station—Stationers—are considered ‘barbarians’). Things are complicated by the mysterious death of her predecessor and by the conflict that seems to brewing beneath the surface of this supposedly civil and powerful city.

“So perfectly imperial, to have messages made of light and encrypted with poetry, and require a physical object for propriety’s sake.”

The world Martine has created has potential. Sadly, I was never drawn into the story or its characters.
The political intrigue was barely there. There were a lot of repetitive conservations which came across as a ‘lithe’ banter, not very amusing or clever. Characters attributed a lot of value and significance to things that had little to no importance in the overall storyline.
The Teixcalaanli language had some interesting components. Teixcalaanlitzlim have different mannerism and expressions to that of the Stationers (they smile with their ‘eyes’ rather than their teeth) but theses weren’t as well explored as some of the ‘technical’ aspects of the Teixcalaanli language. Martine does however render the nuances that words and a language can have:

“I am terrified of you, your Excellency, she said, using the word for ‘terror’, which, in poetry, could also mean ‘awed’. The sort of adjective that was applied to atrocities or divine miracles. Or emperors, which Mahit assumed were in many ways both at once.”

One of the reasons why I didn’t connect with the character is that they have terrible names. I guess I couldn’t believe in characters who were described in one or two lines and, worse still, they had depersonalising names: Three Seagrass, Twelve Azalea, Six Helicopter, Two Lemon, Three Sumac….the list goes on and one. This combination of a number+word created a lot of confusion. Which wasn’t helped by the general lack of individuality shown by these characters.I understand that this uniformity is in some way a part of the Teixcalaanli culture but at times they seemed excessively similar to one another. A lot of the characters were meant to be clever and cunning but came across as anything but.
Mahit herself lacks history. Her character seems to exist only from the moment she has become the new ambassador. The dynamics between her and her imago (the memory of the now deceased ambassador) made her slightly more appealing…but her imago was MIA for a lot of her narrative…so that didn’t really improve her as a character.
The characters move from one interior to the next often showing very little autonomy or initiative. Scenes that should have had some emotional impact felt flat and impersonal.
The muddled world building gave the impression that the Teixcalaanli Empire has been existing for a short amount of time. It was all too colourless for my taste.
Overall, this was a very generic sci-fi. It borrowed a lot from existing empires and offered very little innovation. Still, it was far from terrible, and if you can look past a poorly constructed universe (which focuses on a rather bland society), you might be able to appreciate this.

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The Saint of Incipient Insanities: Book Review

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The Saint of Incipient Insanities
by Elif Shafak

★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4 just for kicks)

“Lovers are pathetically charming, and exceedingly full of themselves, itself more precisely, for one of the plentiful troubles with loving couples is that the minute two autonomous selves develop themselves into a duo, instead of “two” (as in one plus one), they somehow become “zero” (as in one minus one). Likewise, before anyone could follow up, Ömar and Gail had germinated into a totality.”

Established fans of Elif Shafak should be wary of The Saint of Incipient Insanities. This novel is quite un-Shafak-like. Maybe because she wrote this directly in English, or maybe because she wanted to try something different, but the tone and structure of this novel are very ‘unique’ and differ from other works by Shafak.
I think Shafak must have had a lot of fun writing this book. She experiments with her style, the way language itself sounds and works, testing the limits of what a ‘novel’ should be like. Her wide ranging vocabulary makes each page rather a lot to take in. At times she could be beautifully articulate and in others she could digress in wordy tangents. Most of the time however I was entertained by her playful and discursive prose, amused by the long-winded passages on the importance of a character’s surname and or the name of an english textbook.
The novel doesn’t present us with a ‘cohesive’ storyline, each chapter has a quirky name and what follows is usually connected to it. For example, in the first chapter ‘Started Drinking Again’, ex-housemates Ömar and Abed are hanging out in a bar called The Laughing Magpie and talk about the way in which their names and surnames have been mispronounced and changed by Americans; their different relationship towards their shared faith (Abed does not drink, Ömar has just started again); and about Gail, Ömar’s wife.
The rest of the novel focuses on the time when Ömar, who travelled from Turkey to complete his PhD in Boston, was living with Abed—from Morocco—and Piyu—from Spain—two other students. Living under the same roof they might share a sense of ‘foreignness’ but they have rather clashing personalities. Shafak focuses particular on the struggles of Ömar, Abed, Piyu’s girlfriend Alegre, and Gail, Ömar’s future wife. There are plenty of weird conversations, bizarre behaviours, and outlandish monologues. Each character seems to be experiencing some sort of personal crisis, each of them is too wrapped up by their own individual situation to notice that their friends are undergoing similar situations. In spite of the seriousness of some of their difficulties, such as Alegre’s eating disorder, Shafak portrays their plights in a rather humorous manner.
Which brings me to the tone of this novel. As mentioned previously, the narrative is playful. Shafak easily moves from city to city, interweaving different conversations and places in the same sentence, and cities and objects have personalities and a point of view of their own.

“At the same instant as that clack! in Istanbul, a sigh was heaved in Boston as Alegre pushed the door of the first place she found open at this hour.”

While the narrative does tell us the characters’ innermost thoughts and fears it also makes ‘fun’ of them. A lot of the time their actions and or their discussions seem ridiculous. They have these quirky habits, or behave in a peculiar way (Gail initially only eats chocolate and bananas…I swear she rivals Samuel Beckett‘s Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape & Embers and Debra Ellen Thompson insists on being called Debra Ellen Thompson), they might take themselves seriously but the narrative makes light of their troubles and or obsessions. The ironic content also reinforces the humorous tone of the novel. At times, especially when the narrative focused on Alegre and Gail, there is only dark humour. In fact, I would almost call this novel a black comedy.

“It wasn’t the cold that made them frown like that. It was something else. Something less blustery and rheumy, more difficult and hideous…something that, if asked, they might have defined as a sudden sense of sulky solitude, thought probably not in these words, and surely not in this specific order.”

I don’t think this book will appeal to a lot of readers…it’s just so bizarrely unique. I loved the characters’ garrulous discussions, the songs (from the Stooges to Nick Cave) and cultural references (this novel is set in the early 2000s), plus they mention Slavoj Žižek whom I adore so…the characters might seem like satires of certain types of people but Shafak manages to make me believe in them and care for them.
I am far from squirmy but I did find the graphic depiction of Alegre’s eating disorder almost… overwhelming…so approach with caution.
Lastly, that ending was underwhelming. I was fully excepting another chapter and then…nothing!
Still, I might one day re-read this just so I can appreciate once more Shafak’s compendium of words.

“Urban legends are the free citizens of the world. They need no passport to travel, no visas to stay. They are verbal chameleons, absorbing the color of the culture they come into contact with. Whichever shore they reach, they can instantly become a native of it. Urban legends are free souls that belong to no one, and yet are the property of all. ”

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Blood Echo: Book Review


Blood Echo
by Christopher Rice

★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

I really enjoyed Bone Music, its action oriented plot made for thrilling read. Both Charlotte and Luke showed some actual character growth, and I came to like them both.
Sadly, Blood Echo is merely an echo of its predecessor. The beginning of this novel was promising enough, but it turns out that Charlotte’s hunt for a ‘serial killer’ was merely an appetiser and not the full course meal. The action-packed start leads to a long-winded back and forth between various characters.
This book consists in characters bickering and/or arguing with one another about the most inane things. I get that ‘tension run high’ when you are leading, or part of, a secret operation that could revolutionise the world as we know it but why waste precious time rehearsing the same arguments?! Cole, Charlotte, and Luke (as well as a lot of the side characters) will have these stupid ‘power struggles’ where one character feels the need to assert his or her authority over another character. There will be character A who says something along the lines of “you don’t want to mess with me” and character B will give a stupid reply like “is that a threat?
I wouldn’t have minded as much if these arguments made 1) sense 2) advanced the plot 3) revealed something about a character. But they don’t! They just came across as ‘pissing contests’ and they make up the MAJORITY of this forking narrative. What happened to the actual story?Is there a story? N-O! We just have characters questioning each other about every other sentence they say making each ‘conversation’ almost never-ending, they almost seem to parrot one another.
I grew tired of how stupid the characters were and Cole, who happens to have a bigger role in this book, was such a disappointment. I was hoping that his having the ‘limelight’ would show what sort of personality/history/character he has but no such luck. Towards the end he recounts a traumatic event in such a ‘I’m such a hard-core guy now‘ way that made what could have been a potentially emotional/distressing scene as flat as a pancake.
Charlotte and Luke seem to regress, becoming more immature by the sentence.

Overall, not only was this was a huge let down but it also made me dislike the characters and world I’d previously loved in Bone Music.

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