BOOK REVIEWS

Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang

While browsing a charity shop I picked up this collection of short stories. What drew me the most to Home Remedies was its cover (bright pink in my edition), and while I wasn’t expecting to like every single story, I hoped that I would find a few to be memorable. Sadly, none of the stories drew me in. Wang examines some serious—and potentially compelling—themes (generational differences, dislocation and deracination, familial expectations vs. personal identity) but her stories never led anywhere interesting, they meandered without focus, loosing themselves in details or exchanges that did not really contribute to the overall storyline, only to reach anticlimactic conclusions.

The collection is divided in three sections (‘Family’, ‘Love’, ‘Time & Space’), each containing 4 stories. One would think that these stories somehow focused on the topic of the section they are in, but they don’t. Take the story ‘The Strawberry Years’, I don’t think it had anything to do with ‘Love’, and yet it was in that section (the story is a surreal ‘someone is taking over my life’ kind of thing). One would think that a father-daughter story would fit in the ‘Family’ category but no, we find it in ‘Time & Space’ instead. But this is a minor, and I recognise, ultimately superficial ‘quibble’. It probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much if I found any of the stories interesting or affecting…but they left me cold. The author’s prose presented us with some pretty phrases, and some lucid imagery, but her characters and their experiences felt flat. Characters who belong to older generations are traditional, conservative, hard-workers. Younger characters are materialistic, lazy, opportunistic, and keen to emulate Western ways.
I read Home Remedies less than a week ago and I can hardly remember any of its stories.
Anyway, just because the author’s style did not really resonate with me doesn’t mean you should skip this one.

MY RATING: 2 of 5 stars


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Travellers by Helon Habila

“Are you traveling in Europe?” he asked. I caught the odd phrasing. Of course I was traveling in Europe, but I understood he meant something else; he wanted to know the nature of my relationship to Europe, if I was passing through or if I had a more permanent and legal claim to Europe. A black person’s relationship with Europe would always need qualification—he or she couldn’t simply be native European, there had to be an origin explanation.

Helon Habila’s Travellers is a searing and heart-wrenching novel that recounts the stories of those who are forced to, or choose to, migrate to Europe. Readers learn of how their lives have been disrupted by conflict, war strife, war, persecution, and famine. They embark on dangerous journeys, alone or with their loved ones, only to end up in countries which will deem them criminals, illegal, and aliens.

“As far as they were concerned, all of Africa was one huge Gulag archipelago, and every African poet or writer living outside Africa has to be in exile from dictatorship.”

Travellers can be read a series of interconnected stories. One of the novel’s main characters is nameless Nigerian graduate student who follows Gina, his wife, to Berlin where she has been granted an arts fellowship. Here Gina works on the ‘Travelers’, a series of portraits of “real migrants” whom she pays fifty euros a session. Gina shows little interests in those who sit for her, seeming more focused on displaying the pain etched on their faces (turning down those whose faces seem too “smooth” or untouched by tragedy). In spite of her self-interest and hypocrisy, Habila never condemns her actions. Our nameless protagonist however becomes close to Mark, a film student whose visa has just expired, who goes to protests and believes that “the point of art” is to resist. We then read of a Libyan doctor who is now working as a bouncer in Berlin, a Somalian shopkeeper who alongside his son was detained in a prison reserved for refugees in Bulgaria, a young woman from Lusaka who meets for the first time her brother’s wife, an Italian man who volunteers at a refugee center, and of a Nigerian asylum seeker who is being persecuted by British nativists. Their stories are interconnected, and Habila seamlessly moves switches from character to character. He renders their experiences with clarity and empathy, allowing each voice the chance to tell their story on their own terms. Habila shows the huge impact that their different statuses have (whether they are migrants, immigrants, refugees, or asylum seekers) and of the xenophobia, racism, and violence they face in the West. Habila never shies away from delving into the horrifying realities faced by ‘travellers’. Yet, each story contains a moment of hope, connection, and of humanity.
Habila writes beautifully. From Germany to Italy he breathes life in the places he writes of. Although we view them through the eyes of ‘outsiders’, Habila’s vivid descriptions and striking imagery convey the atmosphere, landscape, and culture of each country.
Habila also uses plenty of adroit literary references, many of which perfectly convey a particular moment or a character’s state of mind.
Travellers is as illuminating as it is devastating. Habila presents his readers with a chorus of voices. In spite of their differences in age and gender, they are all trying to survive. They are faced with hostile environments, labelled as ‘aliens’, dehumanised, detained, and persecuted. They have to adjust to another culture and a new language. Yet, as Habila so lucidly illustrates, they have no other choice.
Haunting, urgent, and ultimately life-affirming, Travellers is a must read, one that gripped from the first page until the very last one.
If you’ve read the news lately you will know that the current pandemic is having devastating consequences for migrants and refugees (here is a article published a few days ago: ‘Taking Hard Line, Greece Turns Back Migrants by Abandoning Them’). I know that we are not all in the position to donate but I would still urge you to learn how to support local charities (here are two UK-based charities: ‘The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants’ and ‘Migrant Help’. A few days ago I listened with disbelief and disgust as a man on the radio said that allowing the children of immigrants and refugees into British school would somehow be detrimental to the education of ‘genuine children’. Maybe that person wouldn’t have said such an ignorant thing if he had read this book.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Confession with Blue Horses by Sophie Hardach — book review

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“A year or so after my mother died, I received an unexpected inheritance.”

In Confession with Blue Horses Sophie Hardach captures the fraught atmosphere between East and West Germany.

When Ella, a rather aimless thirty-something year old, comes across some of her mother’s diaries, she’s drawn back to her birth city, Berlin, where, assisted by an intern archivist, she will try to uncover who betrayed her parents all those years ago and the fate of her younger brother, Heiko.
Moving between past and contemporary Berlin, Hardach’s contrasts the stifling climate, as well as fear and suspicion, that pervaded the lives of GDR citizens to the bohemian and artistic Berlin of the 2010s. Yet, as Ella discovers on her trip, few people have forgotten the past.

While the ‘daughter finds papers/diaries from a female relative and decides to uncover secrets from the past’ is a rather tired premise, Hardach focuses on a time that has not received enormous attention in fiction (these type of dual narratives usually take place between now and WWII). Hardach excels in depicting Berlin and its different people, showing us that families, like Ella’s, can have divided allegiances. Rather than completely demonising those who worked for or respected the GDR, she gives these characters a chance to express themselves and their views. Her narrative navigates themes such as guilt and culpability with poignancy.
Given the nature of this story’s subject Hardach touches upon some frankly horrific topics, but she does so with an unsentimental approach.

What perhaps kept me from being fully immersed in this novel was the characterisation of certain characters. While those who have only small appearances struck me as believable, Ella and her family lacked…personality. Her parents and Toby in particular seemed somewhat unfinished portraits. While I understood that someone with PTSD could be a difficult character to render, someone like Toby should have had a lot more development. Ella too was very much reduced to her quest to find the truth about her parents failed escape attempt and of what happened to her little brother. Supposedly she is an artist but she never seems to think of her art or artistic process.

Not only does the storyline switch between Ella’s childhood to her present but there are a few chapters from the third perspective that focus on Aaron. These chapters felt somewhat out of place. Aaron remained a bit of a non-entity, whose only purpose is to assist Ella in her quest.

While I really appreciated the way Hardach’s handles difficult subjects matters, the wit and sorrow of her prose, and the mentions of Christa Wolf, part of me was left wanting more. The storyline treads a familiar and fairly predictable path.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert — book review

43884209.jpgI feel cheated by the cutesy illustration on the cover of Get a Life, Chloe Brown.
Having recently finished a romcom novel with a similar cover (If I Never Met You by Mhairi McFarlane) I was under the misguided impression that Talia Hibbert’s book belonged to the same genre.
While Get a Life, Chloe Brown certainly starts out like any other romcom, with the promise of a delightful enemies-to-lovers romance, after the first fifty pages or so I realised that this book was going to be a lot more explicit than I’d anticipated …still, I wasn’t prepared for the sex in this book to be quite so
cringeworthy
.

The Good Stuff

After escaping unscathed what could have been fatal accident Chloe Brown, a thirty-something-year-old whose fibromyalgia has led her to live a fairly controlled and risk-free life, decides to ‘get a life’. She makes a list (with things such as ride a motorbike, go camping, have carefree sex) and finally moves out of her family’s house.
The first few chapters of Get a Life, Chloe Brown were thoroughly entertaining.
While we know that Chloe has a lot to contend with, her upfront and amusing inner monologues, and her awkward exchanges with others were diverting and uplifting.
Chloe’s reserved demeanour and cutting humour cause the superintendent/handyman of her building to form a not so great opinion of her and sees her as a haughty snob. Chloe herself dislikes Redford ‘Red’ Morgan because of his laid-back attitude and for the easy way in which he can charm others (including her younger sisters).
After Red rescues Chloe from a tree (in what was her attempt to rescue a cat) the two strike up a deal: Red will help Chloe with her list and in exchange she will build a website for Red’s art. At this stage of the book I found their dynamic amusing and I sympathised with both of them.
I was particularly looking forward to reading about Chloe’s story arc as I also suffer from chronic pain. Talia Hibbert articulates the in congruencies that come with chronic illness: Chloe’s craves independence and freedom, she does not want to be see in the light of her condition…yet she simultaneously wishes that others could understand that the everyday activities, actions and movements they might take for granted are impossible or cause incredible pain to her. I loved it when she tells Red that she isn’t hurt, she is hurting. Her condition is a constant. Yet, she doesn’t let fibromyalgia dictate everything that she is or does. Chloe has so much else going for her: her job as a website designer, her sense of style, and her humour.

The Not So Good Stuff
As I said, the relationship between Red and Chloe started well enough as it promised to be more of a slow-burn. Boy, was I wrong. After the first 50 pages Red is already masturbating and fantasising about Chloe (this after 1 sort of amicable/very banter-y interaction). Soon, the novel completely focused on Red and Chloe and their shared physical attraction.
What about Chloe’s sisters? Her parents? Her grandmother? They seem forgotten. The sisters have a cameo or two but that’s about it. I wanted to see more family interactions…especially since we are told that Chloe spent the last ten years of her life interacting and socialising with her family and has 0 friends. Surely she would have thought about them more?
Red…I wanted to like him…but I just couldn’t look past his creepy behaviour. He barely knows Chloe when he makes a pass on her. She was vulnerable, and he seemed to take advantage of that. He also had this weird ‘I’m a nice guy’ act which had him behaving like a woman’s idea of the ideal man (sensitive, funny, attentive, artistic, and most of all: HUNKY). Because we will be reminded time and again that Red is BIG, he is HUGE. Red is basically a tall and ripped walking breathing Greek statue.
Most of the book is about Red and Chloe fantasising about one another and having sexual encounters. There is some predictable miscommunication towards the end and that’s about it.
I don’t mind the odd sex scene or so but when the narrative is nearly entirely focused on the physical attraction between the two leads well, I begin to loose interest.
Hibbert’s portrayal of class is simplistic and superficial. Part of me was annoyed by the fact that Chloe never acknowledges her privileged background. Having fibromyalgia does not negate one’s wealth/education.
More than anything, I was disconcerted by the incongruent tone of this novel: on the one hand we have this very cutesy story in which both leads seem to act in a very childlike manner (with Red thinking and saying to Chloe things such as “you are too cute”, nicknaming her “Button”, and their silly email exchanges) on the other we have scenes upon scenes of cringe-worthy sex scenes that seemed closer to bad porn (is there such a thing as good porn? I doubt that) that a romance novel.

The Not Good At All Stuff (heads up: EXPLICIT LANGUAGE BELOW)
The scenes leading to their sexual encounters try to come across as hard-core, filled with dirty, and frankly crude, talk: the actual sex scenes however are anything but sexy or ‘steamy’ and I had a hard time keeping a straight face as they made me laugh my head off. They manage to be a weird combination of tawdry and hilarious.
These are some of unintentionally funny descriptions of Chloe and Red’s sex scenes:
➜ “her hot pussy fluttering around him” (fluttering?)
➜ “He gritted his teeth as his orgasm came barreling at him like a freight train” (I am dying with laughter. Like a freight train? Chloe better watch out!)
➜ “She melted, and he licked up her wetness like nectar.” (Chloe sure does melt a lot)
➜ “Her orgasm was so powerful she thought she might black out.” (their orgasms sure are powerful, better watch out for a concussion)

There were however also a lot of antiquated, and out of character, moments in which Red orders around Chloe (up to that point Red has been depicted as the embodiment of kindness, and whose inherently serene disposition make everyone around him, himself included, refer to him as a ‘nice guy’; whereas Chloe strives for independence and has a strong sense of integrity and justice).
Maybe if their ‘dirty talks’ had been more in line with their established personalities and dynamic (with Red reffering to Chloe as Button and Chloe calling Red Mr.Morgan ) I wouldn’t have found it so trashy. But here we have two supposedly ‘modern/different’ individuals who during their sexual encounters take up antiquated, outdated, and inherently misogynistic roles in which the man commands the woman:
➜“Who was she? Apparently, the kind of woman who thrilled at coarse orders like that, and broke a little bit when they were followed with hoarse manners.”
➜“I want to hold you open like this when you take my cock.”

And the worst thing is that this kind of talk starts when their friendship is still uncertain. Red, our supposedly tranquil and empathic guy, tells Chloe that “I want to put my hand under your skirt and feel how hot your pretty cunt is. But I bet you wouldn’t let me do that in public” when they still don’t know each other very well when they are out on a Chloe’s first night out.
There is also a scene following their first amicable encounter where we get a fully detailed depiction of Red masturbating while he fantasises about Chloe, a woman who until the previous morning he had disliked and whom he barely knows.

As much as I wanted to love this novel, I found the characters’ sex scenes to be vulgar and obsolete. One may have certain fetishes, whatever floats your boat, but why do so many ‘romance novels’s feature a woman who is happy to be spoken about in such a way? ‘Thrilled’ to be ordered and commanded, made to ‘beg’ until her manly man finally grants her the gift of his almighty ‘penis’. Also, how many women who come from a background similar to Chloe’s would refer to their vagina as their pussy? There is nothing wrong with the word VAGINA. It exists, use it.

I just wasn’t a fan of the way in which Hibbert would describe her characters’ desire. Most of the time her expressions and metaphors are either questionable or unfunny:
➜“She was dissolving like sugar in hot tea.”
➜“Her middle melted like chocolate fudge cake.”

Final verdict
What started out as a witty romcom ended up being closer to erotica with sex scenes which are both disempowering and unintentionally hilarious.
I have learnt my lesson: never trust a book cover.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater — book review

31373184.jpgThis book is full of Stiefvaterisms (in the best possible way).

“This is going to be a story about the Lynch brothers.”

The very first line of Call Dawn the Hawk echoes that of a fairy tale and Maggie Stiefvater’s uses her impressive storyteller skills throughout the course of this novel. There are many elements of her writing style that seem to mirror those of a fairy tale: she employs repetition and recurring motifs, ‘truth’ and ‘naming’ shape both the narrative and the characters, the words and images she uses have a certain significance. Stiefvater pays incredible attention to word she uses and to the way that certain phrases sound. Her use of repetition also gives a unique rhythm to her story. Yet her style doesn’t solely emulate that of a traditional fairy tale as she injects her prose with a good dose of modern aesthetics.

“This was stupid. Ronan was no hero, but he knew fucking right from fucking wrong.”

Call Dawn the Hawk stars one of my all time favourite ‘fictional’ characters: Ronan Lynch. Although he has somewhat ‘calmed’ down, most of what he feels and does is still undeniably Ronan-ish. It was tough seeing him struggle so much: he feels left behind by Adam (who is in college) and Gansey (who has taken a year off and is travelling alongside Blue). The ‘nighwash’ limits his movements, so much so that spending a night outside of the Barns can have quite destructive results.

“Ronan, with his dangerous dreams, sleeping some-place other than the Barns or Declan’s town house? Dubious. Moving someplace other than the Barns or Declan’s town house? Never.”

Stiefvater does a brilliant job in fleshing out Declan’s character. He had a rather limited role in The Raven Cycle so it was refreshing to see more of what goes on underneath his deceptively ‘bland’ exterior.

“He just didn’t think. For one second of one minute of the day, he didn’t run the probabilities and worst-case scenarios and possibilities and consequences. For one second of one minute of the day, he just let himself feel.”

I always liked Matthew’s character in the previous books. His innocence and happy-go-lucky attitude make a change from the other characters’ (especially his older brothers) more angsty personal arcs. It would be lovely to see him getting his own chapters in the next instalment of this series.
Scenes featuring the Lynch brothers are guaranteed to entertain. Their relationship is definitely…complicated…but also utterly compelling. Declan and Ronan clash so often but it is clear that they deeply care for one another (even if they have no idea how to expresses their love).
Surprisingly less complicated is Ronan’s relationship with Adam. It’s definitely not all roses and sunshine but we could definitely see how strong and mature their bond has become.

“They hugged, hard. It was shocking to hold him. The truth of him was right there beneath Ronan’s hands, and it still seemed impossible. He smelled like the leather of the thrift store jacket and the woodsmoke he’d ridden through to get here. Things had been the same for so long, and now everything was different, and it was harder to keep up than Ronan had thought.”

Stiefvater also does a great job in introducing us to new characters. It took me a while to warm up to them (this is partly due to the ambiguousness which surrounds them) but I soon became fond of them. Jordan and Hennessy are wonderful addition to this series. They each have their own distinctive personality and their bond was surprisingly complex. Jordan interacts in particular with Declan and I was surprised by how much I liked their banter. Hennessy and Ronan instead share the same mercurial personality so it was equally interesting to see them interact with one another.
While Carmen Farooq-Lane’s chapters weren’t my favourite ones I still appreciated her perspective as her sections did add a sense of urgency to the overall narrative.

“This was, she told herself, the business of the end of the world.”

The chapters featuring Liliana struck me as vaguely unnecessary. Maybe this is due to her character…hopefully she will be a bit more fleshed out in the novels to come.
The plot itself is rather formulaic: we have chapters following each individual character until slowly their paths converge. We have the dreamers, a mysterious government agency that wants to eradicate the dreamers, and possibly the end of the world. Similarly to The Raven Cycle S also has chapters focusing on this ‘opposing team’ (those who are working against or are a potential threat to our protagonists).
Stiefvater has really honed her writing style. I loved the way she often mythicizes her characters, so that they almost appear as if they are the protagonist of some myth or ballad. I also found the recurring imagery and symbols within this novel to be incredibly effective. They created a unique atmosphere and worked well with the rhythm of her language.
Stiefvater also portrays different types of faith with great realism. Learning of the various character’s beliefs, convictions, and general outlooks made them all the more believable. Interspersed throughout the narrative there are many compelling discussions and observations regarding art (from painting techniques to the lives or works of certain artists).
The pacing of this novel is pretty furious. Lots of things happen, each chapter furthers the plot (characters come across someone or certain information that contributes to their overall storyline).

My only ‘quibbles’ are:
Bryce + the are a lot of unnecessarily oblique monologues and dialogues (I’m all for establishing a sense of mystery but these were merely cryptic for the sake of being cryptic).
Anyhow, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel. I felt ‘emotionally’ involved and I found myself simultaneously wanting to read it all in one gulp and also never wanting it to end.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

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In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado — book review

While I definitely admire Carmen Maria Machado for having not only the strength to tackle such a difficult subject matter but to do so by sharing her own personal experience91zeicdP-gL.jpg with her readers, and part of me also can’t help but to recognise that In the Dream House: A Memoir is one of the most innovative memoir I have ever read, I would be lying if I said (or wrote) that it was flawlessly executed. I’m definitely glad to see that many other reviewers are praising it and or have clearly found it to be an emotional and striking read…nevertheless I will try to momentarily resist peer pressure and express my honest opinion instead, which is that In the Dream House: A Memoir struck me as a rather disjointed amalgamation.
On the one hand we have pages and pages chock-full of quotations from secondary sources discussing the way in which American society tends to dismiss or not acknowledge that sexual, emotional, and physical abuse within the queer community is possible. These sections seemed to adopt an essayist’s language. However, while these sections used certain academic terms (possibly not accessible to a wide readership) and were structured like essays of sorts they didn’t really develop Machado’s initial argument (that abusive queer or LGBTQ relationships are often called in to question since many consider the idea of a woman abusing another woman unbelievable). I didn’t agree with some of her readings of certain queer films nor did I find her own brand of queer criticism all that compelling.
The other segments in this memoir draw from Machado’s personal history with an abusive relationship. Her partner (a woman) emotionally and psychologically abused her throughout the entirety of their relationship. Machado deviates from the usual recognisably ‘memoir’ way of presenting one’s own story offering us instead with fragments of her time in this abusive relationship. She addresses this past ‘self’ in the secondary person, so there are a lot of ‘you’ this and ‘you’ that, and her abuser as ‘the woman in the Dream House’. Here her language becomes even more flowery and the imagery and metaphors were rather abstract. These sections seemed snapshots more than anything else. The ‘poetic’ style seemed to take on more importance than Machado’s own story.
I also wasn’t all that keen on the way she traces past conversations and incidents back to folklore. She seems a bit too ready to connect every single moment of this awful relationship back to Jungian archetypes. It was weird and it made some aspects of memoir seem a bit artificial.
Also while I get that sometimes including graphic or deeply personal moments is horrifyingly necessary when discussing abuse (such as Isabelle Aubry does in her memoir where she talks in detail about the horrific sexual abuse her father inflicted upon her) here we had these random sex scenes which seemed to be included merely to be subversive.
Overall I just couldn’t look past my dislike for Machado writing style. Still, I’m definitely in the minority on this one so I recommend you check this one out and see for yourself whether you are interested in reading this.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Institute by Stephen King – book review

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“What we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good.” — Joseph Brodsky

The Institute is a gripping, if occasionally horrifying, read.
Stephen King is a great storyteller and The Institute showcases many of his strengths and traits: we have an engrossing narrative, children and teenagers with psychic abilities, and an army of evil characters.
While The Institute is in many ways a ‘classing King’, its story struck me for its incredibly relevant portrayal of America’s political and social climate (from Donald Trump to anti-vaxxers). The novel’s main concern however is the inhumane treatment of children: within this narrative we read of children who are used and abused, treated as commodities, and denied of their rights, freedom, and agency.
Their age, the fact that they are indeed children or underage, becomes a weapon that is used against them. King’s story subverts society’s notion of children, their role and place in society: children run away from home, they are rude, they don’t know enough about the real world or important issues, and they are egocentric. In The Institute not only do adults keep children in the dark but they use their limited knowledge and lack of experience against them. Those working for the Institute kidnap, imprison, and torture children. Yet, they believe that they are justified in their methods. They believe that as adults they have the power, if not right, to ‘punish’ and ‘educate’ children.

“I am having quite the adventure, Luke thought. Yes indeed, quite the adventure for me.”

This propelling narrative is populated by an array of believable characters. Rather than just focusing on the children, those who are oppressed by the Institute, King’s narrative is polyphonic. We become acquainted with the adults who commit such horrific acts, their working-dynamics, their motivations and beliefs. Still while we see that they themselves view their own actions as necessary, readers will still find most, if not all, of their behaviour and values to be utterly appalling.

“He was only twelve, and understood that his experience of the world was limited, but one thing he was quite sure of: when someone said trust me, they were usually lying through their teeth.”

The characters I cared about the most where of course the children (Luke, Kalisha, and Avery in particular). King gives each child and teenager imprisoned in the Institute a distinctive personality, which is no small feat given that their horrifying circumstances threaten to erode their very sense of self. They are repeatedly humiliated, tortured, and dehumanised. Yet, the fact that they are all living through this nightmare, create a powerful bond between them. They have a camaraderie of sorts, they distract each other from their terrible surroundings and heinous experiences.

King’s depiction of good and evil within The Institute’s brutal world although complex and ultimately open ended convinced me that the end does not justify the means. While in many of his novels there is an unseen or arcane evil presence, something un-human, within The Institute it is the seemingly ‘ordinary’ people who cause the most evil.
What is most terrifying is that they are often completely desensitized to the violence that they are committing against these children (and their parents). When we follow them in their ‘daily routines’ we see that they do not consider or second-guess their job requirements. They consider their horrific actions towards and mistreatment of these children as part of their job descriptions. After all, these children have psychic abilities, and therefore they are not really normal children. They are ‘soldiers’ and they have to do their duty. The way the Institute’s employees normalised their own violent and gruesome behaviour brought to my mind the notion of ‘the banality of evil’.

In spite of the novel’s dark themes and difficult subject matters, this novel never comes across as heavy going. King manages to inject this story with a healthy dose of humour and compassion. He also is one of the few authors who is able to incorporate popular American culture in a way that is accessible to non-American readers (most of his references are made clear because they aren’t just thrown out in the open air, they have some context). Speaking writing of America…I just enjoy the way he portrays small towns. He perfectly captures the ambience of the places he writes of, giving us an impression of a community within the space of a few lines.
King also excels at dialogue. The children and teenagers within this novel have the most entertaining of conversations and arguments. I particularly liked the way in which he employs various slangs as well as managing to convey a person’s inflections. You can see that King pays incredible attention to the English language, to the way people speak, and to the significance of their chosen words.
The novel’s occasional intertextuality (the horror fiction is after all a rather derivative genre) create some moments of entertainment, but it is his self-referentialism that is particularly effective (“They were holding hands and clutching dolls as identical as they were. They reminded Luke of twins in some old horror movie”).
Another thing that I appreciated is that the children’s psychic abilities doesn’t make them into unstoppable forces. Even Avery isn’t made into an all-mighty figure. He is a ten year old who didn’t have a lot of friends before meeting Luke and Kalisha. These children have all too believable fears and they obviously affected by their environment. And it’s perhaps because their powers are limited, because they are afraid and they have everything at stake, that makes their determination to leave the Institute all the more admirable.

“Telepathy always sounded great in stories and movies, but it was annoying as fuck in real life.”

The Institute’s story and its characters, even King’s writing itself, are—in more ways than one—incredibly vivid. With its thrilling storyline and through plenty of slam-bang chases and action scenes, this book makes for an adrenaline-fuelled read.
While there is a lot of stomach-churning violence (often committed against children) King’s descriptions never struck me as gratuitous. If anything that I was ‘forced’ to silently witness what these children endure made me all the more irate towards those who committed these vicious actions.

“Because it was chess now, and in chess you never lived in the move you were about to make, or even the next one.”

King examines the way in which power structures and or authoritative figures abuse and oppress those they perceive as expandable (in this case children) and he portrays in almost painful detail the way in which Luke, Kalisha, and Avery, are robbed of their ‘innocence’.
The absorbing narration, the captivating dialogues, and the edge-of-the-seat plot combine together into an exceptional reading experience.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Inheritance Series Review (Alexander Chee, Jennifer Haigh, Anthony Marra, Alice Hoffman)

Inheritance is a collection of five stories about secrets, unspoken desires, and dangerous revelations between loved ones. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single setting. By yourself, behind closed doors, or shared with someone you trust.
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The Weddings by Alexander Chee

Why am I here? he asks himself. What am I doing?”

In just under fifty pages Alexander Chee examines a man’s changing relationship to his old college friend. The weddings of the title are the backdrop to our protagonists’ personal crisis.
Jack Cho is a forty-something man in a committed relationship with Caleb. When they are invited to attend the wedding of a friend of Caleb’s, Jack finds himself, for the very first time, wondering if he too will marry. Soon after the couple is invited to the wedding of Scott, Jack’s college ‘friend’.
Jack is forced to confront his own repressed feelings for Scott. As certain details come to light, he becomes aware of having idealised this past relationship.
There were many realistically awkward moments and some great commentary regarding marriage (the pressure to marry, the way weddings become displays of the couple’s love).
Jack’s self-analysis was detailed in a poignant prose that conveyed his hurt and unwillingness to see Scott for who he truly is.
This short story also touches upon: fetishisation (naive as I am, I had no idea what ‘rice queen’ and ‘rice king’ meant), the double ‘rejection’ that Jack often feels being Korean American (Koreans will not view him as truly Korean and white Americans will question his nationality).
My only ‘complaint’ is that there was the occasional twee phrase:

Scott was so much trouble, whatever the reason was. A beautiful disaster.”

Overall however this was a short yet intelligent story that pays careful attention to those awkward pauses and heavy silences that can fill a conversation. It reminded me a bit of Come Rain or Come Shine: Faber Stories by Kazuo Ishiguro and certain short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri.

“Even then, ha he would endlessly be a curiosity and not a person. He would forget this was true and then be reminded this way, this he most recent in the jarring series of moments that threaded thorough his whole life in America. When did it end? When would they all just get used to him—to all of them?”

Rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars


48581928.jpgZenith Man
by Jennifer Haigh

“Had Harold Pardee killed his wife? In hair salons, at lunch counters, the question was posed. Such a death, in Bakerton, was without precedent.”

This being the first work I’ve read by Jennifer Haigh, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m not sure if this story fits in the Inheritance collection. While others authors who have contributed to this series have focused on themes of reconciliation: Alice Hoffman and Anthony Marra, respectively in Everything My Mother Taught Me and The Lion’s Den, focus on the fraught dynamics between a children and their parents, while in The Weddings Alexander Chee turns towards a complicated ‘friendship/first love’.
Zenith Man has a very different tone that sets it apart from the rest these stories. It seems closer to a work of Souther Gothic or Noir. Similarly to Shirley Jackson Haigh’s presents us with a slightly unsettling depiction of on an ‘ordinary’ town and its people. There is a sense of unease as well as a good dose of dark humour.
Haigh’s is a good storyteller who creates and maintains this uneasy atmosphere, one that makes us pay attention to the specific language she uses.

“In Bakerton a murder would not have been forgotten. The local memory was a powerful tool, an instrument so sensitive it recalled events that hadn’t actually occurred.
Conscious of its new status as a place where things happened Bakerton cleared its throat and commenced speculating.”

So while Haigh’ writing style is definitely enjoyable, I wasn’t as taken by the story itself. It was okay, but I was expecting a more interesting storyline.

Rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Lion’s Den by Anthony Marra

“I won’t introduce you to my father, not personally, not yet. Changes are you already know him.”

This Inheritance collection is turning out to be a rather good one. Anthony Marra’s contribution adds a bit of humour to this series.
The narrator’s father was responsible for a leak of classified documents, landing his own family in the spotlight. Some thought him a hero, others a traitor.
Years later, after publishing a memoir on his childhood, our narrator tries to reconcile himself with his now ill father.
The tone of this short story is somewhat satirical and it definitely provides its readers with quite a few amusing lines: “His Bluetooth is so firmly rooted in his ear that may, technically, qualify as a cyborg. .”
There is a realistic awkwardness between the various characters’ interactions which made all the more realistic.

“Honesty comes in an infinite variety, none crueler than a teenager’s tedium.”

The narrator quotes Natalia Ginzburg, so yes, this story definitely a plus fo that. However, the nitpicker in me couldn’t help but notice that our narrator (someone who can quote Ginzburg) fell for the classic Frankenstein slip (where instead of saying that someone looks like Frankenstein’s monster, he refers to them as looking like Frankenstein): “Father Carlson’s student have that Frankenstein look of being assembled from different limbs that don’t quite fit together.”

Anyway, this was an entertaining short story. It may focus on self-involved individuals (who seem rather disconnected from everyday life) but it also manages to explore compassion and acceptance in very natural (non schmaltzy) way.

Rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars


48582002.jpgEverything My Mother Taught Me
by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman is an exceptional writer. This was a short yet striking tale that captivated me from its very opening lines:

“There are those who insist that mothers are born with love for their children and place them before all other things, including their own needs and desires. This was not the case with us.”

As per usual Hoffman showcases the way in which her insightful prose beautifully lends itself to the subjects of her story. The narrator paints an uneasy picture of her relationship with her mother. There is some recurring ‘Hoffman imagery’ (red shoes, sailors, the sea) which made the story all the more enthralling. I particularly liked the way the landscape mirrors the narrator’s feelings.

“The sea was a dangerous enemy, and we were surrounded by it. But I remembered what my father had told me. You could grow to love something so strong and elemental, but you’d have to value the beauty of it more than you did your own life.”

I definitely recommend this to fans of Hoffman. While her latest novel,
The World That We Knew
is a triumph of motherhood, in this short story, we are confronted with a mother who is unwilling or unable to love anyone but herself. Hoffman conveys the resentment and hurt of this ultimate rejection though the daughter’s perspective.
Quick and atmospheric Everything My Mother Taught Me is not to be missed.

“I closed my eyes and went through a list of everything I wished I could thank him for giving me. Patience, loyalty, trust, and hopefully, in time, kindness.”

Rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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The Dutch House by Ann Patchett — book review

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“I was still at a point in my life when the house was the hero of every story, our lost and beloved country.”

Not Quite a Review, More of an Ode to Ann Patchett:

Usually I tend to post my reviews a couple of days after I’ve finished reading a book. With The Dutch House it took me nearly two weeks to work up the ‘courage’ to review it. The fact is that I loved The Dutch House so much that I find hard to see it as a ‘mere’ work of fiction.
This is the eight novel that I’ve read by Ann Patchett and she has yet to disappoint. It is difficult to ‘pick’ a favourite, even if I can see that throughout the course of her writing career she has really honed her craft. Yet, I wholeheartedly loved her early books (especially her unjustly underrated 1997 novel, The Magician’s Assistant), so to imply that she ‘keeps getting better’ would be doing her a disservice. Regardless of the scope of her stories (whether they take place in a short period of time in a particular city, such as in Run, or move us between two ‘extremes’, in The Magician’s Assistant we move between Los Angeles and Nebraska, or take us on even longer journey, for instance in State of Wonder we follow Dr. Marina Singh’s as she leaves Minnesota for the Amazon Rainforest) Patchett tends to explore the same themes: there is a focus on familial relationships, especially between siblings, and these established dynamics are often changed due to some ‘major’ event (often the death of a loved one/relative/colleague). Although The Dutch House is written in Patchett’s signature prose, which can be described as being deceptively simple it features a first-person perspective, which is a departure from her usual third-person point of view. Being inside Danny Conroy’s head makes for an immersive experience and within the first pages I was captivated by his story.
Through an act of retrospection Danny looks back to the past and what follows is a narrative that could be described as a bildungsroman. Danny’s childhood in the Dutch House—a large, if not incongruous, mansion in a prosperous suburb of Philadelphia—is clouded by the absence of his mother (a woman he cannot clearly recall but whose absence he nonetheless feels) and by his relationship with his remote father. It is Maeve, Danny’s older sister, who takes on the role of ‘parental’ figure, and their relationship is very much the underlying thread of the story.

The Dutch House, weighed down by its history, inspires fascination in Andrea, the woman who will go on to become Danny and Maeve’s step-mother. The novel begins in fact with Danny’s memory of his first meeting with Andrea, one that seems to have almost a fairy-tale-esque quality in that it was the day where ‘everything’ seemed to change.
Throughout Danny’s narrative we will also see the way in which the Conroy siblings remain drawn to the house, a house which seems to acquire an emblematic role in the lives of those who have lived in: it represents their childhoods, their father—his career, his marriage(s)—and the rather unfortunate VanHoebeeks. Patchett renders this house without loosing herself in extensive architectural descriptions, rather she brings to the foreground some of its features (Maeve’s windowseat) and some of its objects. The paintings within the house (Maeve’s portrait and those of the VanHoebeeks) also seem to hold a certain function in Danny’s recollection of his past.

“Maybe it was neoclassical, though with a simplicity in the lines that came closer to Mediterranean or French, and while it was not Dutch, the blue delft mantels in the drawing room, library, and master bedroom were said to have been pried out of a castle in Utrecht and sold to the VanHoebeeks to pay a prince’s gambling debts. The house, complete with mantels, had been finished in 1922.”

In his remembrance Danny frequently makes vague, if not downright oblique, allusions to later events or revelations, which in turn creates tension between his past and present. Also framing Danny’s recollection of his youth are a series of scenes in which alongside Maeve, he sits in her car outside the Dutch House.
Danny also questions the veracity of his memories: “But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.” He reassess certain moments and figures of his past, finding hidden complexities in what had at first appeared to be seemingly unremarkable occurrences.

“Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?”

While the novel is narrated by Danny he never paints himself as the ‘hero’ of his own story. He often wonders whether he should have acted in a different way towards someone or something, trying to understand why things unfurled the way that they did. While the motivations of other characters might escape him, and possibly us, they are never reduced to a certain role/function. The each have a story even if we are not always made privy to it. An although there is an awareness of the limitations provided by Danny’s narration, the story never feels restricted to his experiences and worldview.

“Whatever romantic notions I might have harbored, whatever excuses or allowances my heart had ever made on her behalf, blew out like a match.”

My edition of this novel includes an essay in which Ann Patchett says that “for a long time I had planned to call the book Maeve as it was her story.” The novel, in fact, very much pivots around Maeve but it is her brother who is telling her tale.
We see the way in which their experiences in the Dutch House makes them determined to fulfil their desires or to take a certain path in their life: for Danny that is to become, as his father before him, a real-estate developer, while Maeve wants to carry on working a job she loves even if many consider her to be overqualified to do. While to some degree Danny’s vision of Maeve influences our perception of her, we are always aware that she may have hidden qualities. What is certainly undeniable is her love for her brother. Their bond is portrayed with such frankness and poignancy as to become vividly real in the reader’s mind.
This a story full of beauty and sorrow. There are regrets, wonderful reflections on memory, moments that are brimming with love or sadness…Patchett spins a tale in which families fall apart or come together. It is an intimate depiction of the bond between two siblings. Time and again Danny draws strength from his relationship to his sister, and even when he begins to feel unmoored from his own life, and as he struggles trying to reconcile himself with his past, Maeve provides him with a sense of belonging.
Patchett’s sense of place is as detailed and evocative as ever. She seamlessly renders midcentury America through Danny’s narration, evoking within me a sense of nostalgia for a country I’ve never even been to. And while Danny’s story spans decades, it maintains its focus on the same group of people, painting an intimate portrait of Danny’s friends and family.
…to put it simply I fell in love with it. Patchett’s harmonious prose made the experience all the more beautiful, and I was so enthralled by her story and her characters that to I struggled to think of them as works of fiction.
What more can I say? I think this is a masterpiece.

“We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it. I was sickened to realize we’d kept it going for so long, not that we had decided to stop.”

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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Coventry by Rachel Cusk — review

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I have rather mixed thoughts about Rachel Cusk’s Coventry: Essays. Maybe I’m just not the right ‘reader’ for her work…I previously read, and was rather underwhelmed by, Outline…a book that has won quite a few literary awards and is thought of by many as a modern classic.

This collection by Cusk is divided in three sections: the first consists of autobiographical essays (“Driving as Metaphor”,“Coventry”, “On Rudeness”, “Making Home”, “Lions on Leashes”, “Aftermath”) in which she makes various speculations regarding notions of motherhood, home, and agency, often using her personal history—for example with divorce—as a springing board for later suppositions. The other two sections include essays in which she mainly speaks of artists and authors (a few being “Louise Bourgeois: Suites on Fabric”, “Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence”, “Olivia Manning: The Balkan Trilogy”, “Eat, Pray, Love”, “Never Let Me Go”, “On Natalia Ginzburg”).
I much preferred the essays included in these last two sections of this collections. Even if I didn’t entirely agree with some of her readings I thought that Cusk’s ‘critical’ essays were well articulated and interesting. Sadly, I found her autobiographical essays to be rather obnoxious.

At times I had the distinctive impression that the Cusk that emerges from these autobiographical essays seems to have undergone a processes of self-fashioning. Cusk presents herself as a sphinx-like figure, a seer of sorts, capable of discerning the universal truths from personal experiences and opinions. The weight she seems to give to her own mental meanderings seems rather unjustified.
I was also discomfited by the impassive manner in which she would methodically dissect the people around her, coldly pointing out their flaws without ever rendering with clarity a sense of their personality or their shared history with her.
This reticence to let ‘us in’ that manifests itself throughout her biographical essays was detrimental to my reading experience. She seems unconcerned by ideas of privacy as she speaks of very personal subject matters (her divorce for example) yet provides so little context when describing certain episodes and events in her life that made it difficult it for me to relate to her experiences or viewpoint. For example in “Coventry”, the essay which has become the title of this whole collection and therefore one might assume that it has some importance, she doesn’t really make it clear to her readers why her parents “send her to coventry” or what is the exact nature of their relationship. In another essay she examines the way in which divorce has changed the reality and shape of her family in a rather metaphysical way, so that it seems almost as if she wasn’t writing of her own personal experiences presenting her personal experience as some sort of universal one.
She skirts around the edges of possibly complex and fraught relationships without ever delving into the ‘thick of it’
. Because of this, the comments she made about the people in her life struck me as somewhat callous and even uncalled for as I wasn’t made privy to the reason behind her words.
I acknowledge that autobiographical essays are a tricky feat but there are many writers who manage to give an outline of their relationships with their family without revealing everything about them (This is the Story of a Happy Marriage). If an essay examines something that is specifically connected to a certain episode or person from its author’s life one might expect a ‘personal’ element to supplement this exploration of this certain event/individual. For instance, in an essay in which Cusk writes of being repeatedly “send her to coventry” by her parents would, in theory, give us at least a vague impression of the dynamics between them (it doesn’t).
In her philosophising Cusk shows a tendency for issuing rather banal dictums (cars=people, airports=places of transport, children=extension of their parents, homes=reflecting those who inhabit them). At times these rather predictable statements could lead into more profound observations, such as when Cusk expands her vision of airports as places of convergence or how a visit to a clothing shop leads into a discussion regarding the falsity of the customer service industry.

Cusk also demonstrated a propensity for unfortunate analogies: she is “a self-hating transvestite” because she earned the money in her household and did her share of the house-chores . She and her husband were “two transvestites, a transvestite couple” because he was a stay at home dad. She also compares her changing notions “of a woman’s beauty” to “an immigrant’s notion of home”, that is “theoretical”: “My mother may have been my place of birth, but my adopted nationality was my father’s”. This seemed a somewhat dramatic comparison…then again she goes to equate being ignored to being at war so yes, Cusk has a tendency to dramatise some of her so-called ‘struggles’. After her divorce she feels that “my children and I […] we are like a Gypsy caravan parked up among the houses, itinerant, temporary” . Another clumsy comparison she makes is that of feminist to alcoholics: feminists stay away from “the kitchen, the maternity ward – like the alcoholic stays away from the bottle. Some alcoholics have a fantasy of modest social drinking: they just haven’t been through enough cycles of failure yet. The woman who thinks she can choose femininity, can toy with it like the social drinker toys with wine”.
Speaking of feminism, I didn’t entirely agree, or cared to agree, with her vision of feminisms which seems to present feminism at its most radical: “ The joke is that the feminist’s pursuit of male values has led her to the threshold of female exploitation” and “what I lived as feminism were in fact the male values my parents, among others, well-meaningly bequeathed me – the cross-dressing values of my father, and the anti-feminine values of my mother ”. For Cusk a feminist “does not propitiate: she objects. She’s a woman turned inside out”. Feminists hate feminine values and notions of domesticity…and some sure do but isn’t a bit of a generalisation to imply that all feminists will inadvertently fall into this trap of hating other women?
Cusk’s notion of male and female values seemed outdated. In each of this autobiographical essays she seems a bit too concerned with bringing different episodes or topics back to issues of femininity vs. masculinity, definitions of womanhood and manhood which weren’t as ‘mind-blowing’ as the author herself seemed to think. Cusk’s speculations seemed to clearly stem from the mind of someone…shall I say intellectual? Of a certain class? Because of this she seems unaware of making quite a few unfortunate analogies that made me wonder whether a reality check was needed.
Yet, in spite of my criticism towards Cusk’s essays I still thought that does manage to make some interesting speculations regarding things such as rudeness and her portrayal of the polarisation in post-Brexit Britain ‘hits’ right on the nail as she shrewdly describes her country’s current political climate.
Woven throughout Cusk’s essays are a set of theories and concepts such as “suspension of disbelief” and “story vs. reality” yet, in spite of her assertion that as a writer she is values “objectivity” she shows a predilection for self-dramatisation and for conflating notions of subjectivity and objectivity.
However I also have to concede that one of the reasons why I wasn’t able to relate to Cusk’s autobiographical essays might be due to generational, if not cultural, differences. My mother, unlike me, seems to have appreciated most of these essays and doesn’t seem to think that Cusk’s speculations about feminism and domesticity are quite as obsolete as I claim they are.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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