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The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett — book review

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“At first, passing seemed so simple, she couldn’t understand why her parents hadn’t done it. But she was young then. She hadn’t realized how long it takes to become somebody else, or how lonely it can be living in a world not meant for you.”

Brit Bennett’s second novel is a tour de force. The Vanishing Half gripped me from the very pages as I was instantly transfixed by Bennett’s subtle yet penetrating prose.
Bennett is a brilliant storyteller. Not one word is wasted, or so it seemed as I had the distinct impression that her writing was simultaneously concise and striking. Bennett’s prose effortlessly moves from present to past, as her story traverses decades (from the 60s to the 80s) and transports us from the small-town of Mallard in Louisiana to LA or New York. Bennett maps the lives of many characters, who inhabit markedly different worlds, focusing in particular on the lives and voices of the Vignes women.

“The Vignes twins left without saying good-bye, so like any sudden disappearance, their departure became loaded with meaning.”

Most people regard twins, particularly identical twins, as a source of fascination. Bennett, fully aware of this, adds a layer of depth to the mystique of twins by making the Vignes embark on drastically different paths. After witnessing their father’s lynching at the hands of white men, the Vignes have little love for their small-town, and aged sixteen they flee to New Orleans. Things don’t go as planned however and the twins become irrevocably separated. While Stella returns with a daughter to the hometown she so longed to escape, Desiree passes for white and marries a wealthy white man. In spite of this, their bond keeps them tethered together and even as the years go by the Vignes twins struggle to reconcile themselves with the loneliness of their ‘twinless’ existence. Their respective daughters share little in common. While Stella’s daughter Kennedy enjoys a life of privilege, Desiree’s daughter Jude is discriminated for her dark skin by her peers and the adults of her community.

“The hardest part about becoming someone else was deciding to. The rest was only logistics.”

The Vanishing Half tells a heartbreaking and relevant intergenerational tale. While Bennett does not condone the decisions and behaviour of certain characters, mainly Jude and Kennedy, she never condemns them either, revealing instead how viciously deep-rooted racism is. While Stella can enjoy the freedoms that come with being white (and wealthy), her fear of discovery causes her to adopt racist attitudes towards other people of colour and to inculcate racist beliefs in her own daughter.
Like her mother at her age, Jude is eager to leave the confines of the ‘narrow-minded’ Mallard. In college she tries to overcome the insecurities and self-hatred instilled in her after years of being othered.
While the Vignes twins and their daughters may occupy opposing realities, they grapple with similar questions of identity. Stella, Desiree, and Jude, who are alienated by their society because of their race and class, long to belong. Yet, they often sabotage their own attempts to connect to others (Stella’s attempt to bond with her black neighbour ends catastrophically).

“It scared her, how badly she wanted to belong to somebody.”

Bennett navigates the way in which race and class shape the way in which we are seen and treated by others. Her characters are vividly drawn, and it is their contradictory feelings and desires that make them all the more real. Bennett’s narrative doesn’t favor any one perspective, and in doing so allows her readers to form their own opinion of a character’s actions.
The relationships the characters have with each other are fraught. While most Stella, Desiree, Jude, and even Kennedy to a certain extent, all desire to fit in or to form meaningful connections, miscommunications abound as they are unwilling or unable to expose themselves to others.

“He was always doing that, trying to coax her further outside herself. But she felt safe like this, locked away.”

In Bennett’s novel love isn’t neat or easy and identity is an evolving process, her observations on race, class, and family are truly compelling. She touches upon a myriad of topics (poverty, abuse, trauma, unknowability) with thoughtfulness and clarity. To white people like me (I grew up in a really homogenous and racist country) the America Bennett depicts is both disturbing and illuminating. While there are many horrific scenes in The Vanishing Half, I encourage readers to read this novel. Characters such as Reese, Jude, and Early alone are worth knowing. Interspersed in the various narratives there are tender moments of genuine affection and understanding (Jude’s relationship to her mother and Reese are truly heart-rendering).

“You could live a life this way, split. As long as you knew who was in charge.”

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro — book review

000219247Never Let Me Go is a bleak novel, that is made ever bleaker by the way in which our narrator normalises her horrifying reality. Although this is a work of speculative fiction, Kathy’s world does not seem all that different from our own one (there were many moments which struck me as quintessentially British). Although Kathy’s recollection of her childhood is incredibly evocative, Kazuo Ishiguro keeps his cards close to his chest, so Hailsham School’s true purpose remains out of our reach. Yet, the more we learn about the guardians and the various rules imposed on Hailsham students, the more we grow uneasy, and suspicious, of Hailsham.
Kathy’s rather remote narration deepens the novel’s ambivalent atmosphere. We know that in the present, years after Hailsham, she works as a carer but we don’t really know what that entails.
Although Kathy doesn’t mythologising Hailsham, or her time there, her narration possesses a nostalgic quality. Ishiguro captures the intense, and ever-shifting, friendships we form as children. Kathy feels a certain pull to the brazen Ruth. Their fraught relationship frequently takes the centre-stage in the novel. There are misunderstandings, petty behaviours, jealousies, and all sorts of little cruelties. Ruth’s is an awful friend, yet I could see how important her presence was in Kathy’s life. By comparison Tommy seems a far simpler person, and I could definitely sympathise with his various struggles at Hailsham.
Ishiguro excels when he writes about ‘memory’. At times Kathy questions the accuracy of her memories, wondering whether what she has just relayed actually happened or not. There is regret too over her past actions or words she’d left unspoken. She also tries to see a scene through someone else’s eyes, hoping perhaps to gain some insight into others.
The novel poses plenty of complex questions and challenges definitions of ‘humanity’ and ‘freedom’. It definitely provided a lot food for thought.
As provoking as Never Let Me Go was, I can’t say that it moved it me as much as Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Redhead by the Side of the Road by Anne Tyler — book review

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“You have to wonder what goes through the mind of such a man. Such a narrow and limited man; so closed off.”

Redhead by the Side of the Road is a slender but tender novel. In her deceptively spare style Anne Tyler relates a quotidian tale about a rather ‘finicky’ man. Micah Mortimer, who is in early forties, lives a quiet life. His days are punctuated by his morning runs and his cleaning schedule. As the owner and sole-employee of TECH HERMIT Micah solves his customers’ IT-related problems. Given his chaotic childhood, as an adult Micah finds comfort in his routine. As the novel progresses Micah finds himself in rather challenging situations: Cassia, his ‘woman friend’, is risking eviction, and the son of his first true love shows up at his doorstep.
Redhead by the Side of the Road presents its readers with an ordinary story about an ordinary man. Tyler’s characters are vividly rendered. Regardless of their role in the narrative they struck me as real. Tyler certainly has a knack for portraying different personalities. She manages to capture an individual’s idiosyncrasies, the way they talk, their mannerisms and habits. Micah’s interactions with his neighbours, his customers, his family, and Cassia are filled with an abundance of awkward yet genuine moments.
Tyler is wonderfully empathetic towards her characters. She never criticises Micah for his reticence to connect to others or his many particularities, nor does he undergo a complete character change.
Through her perceptive prose and quiet humour Tyler tells a heartwarming story. It follows ordinary people doing ordinary things, yet in many ways it’s so much more.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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The Confession by Jessie Burton – book review

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Although The Confession had a very promising start…I think I liked the book’s cover more than its actual contents.

“It came smoothly to me, this loosening the threads of my own identity, weaving a new one. How had it become this easy to let go of myself, to pour words and fantasy into these gaping holes?”

The premise of The Confession is one that has been done time and again. A young-ish woman forms a bond with an older woman, the latter is often famous (she can be an actress like in The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo or a writer such as in The Thirteenth Tale) or merely involved in some mystery of sorts (The Brimstone Wedding). The older woman will often confide in the younger one, who in her turn will find herself re-assessing her often until then unfulfilling existence. These books often implement a dual timeline to tell both of these women’s stories and towards the end a big secret will be revealed. So yes, I knew that this book was threading familiar paths…still, I hoped that it would give this scenario or these dynamics a new spin…(it didn’t).
In The Confession it is Rose Simmons who approaches the reclusive Constance Holden, an author who vanished from the ‘literary’ world after publishing her second book decades before. After years of silence, before Elise Morceau mysteriously disappeared, she was last seen with Connie.
Having waited so long for any information regarding her mother and her past, Rose, quite unwisely, decides to approach Connie under false-pretences and is employed by her. As Rose becomes invested in Connie she finds it more and more difficult to reveal her true motives and identity to the novelist.
All the while Rose is having some sort of identity crisis: does she love her boyfriend ? What does she want to do with the rest of her life? Can she ever know herself when she’s grown up with a missing parent?
In some chapters the narrative switches to third-person and jumps back in time, taking us to when Elise first met Connie. We see the way in which she falls for Connie, who by then is at the high of her career. The age gap and power imbalance in their relationship however soon causes a rift between them…

I enjoyed the first section of this novel and, in spite of Rose’s temporary lack of sense, I found both narratives to be engaging. Rose and Elise’s story arcs seemed almost to mirror one another; they both lack(ed) a mother figure and they are uncertain of their own abilities.
Much of the novel is concerned with themes of motherhood and pregnancy. Rose resists the pressure from her father, her best friend, and her boyfriend’s family to get married and have children. Feeling that she has yet to truly live she is not willing to lose her agency, and therefore, independence. It is Connie, a woman who has always dedicated mind and body to her writing, who helps Rose recognise that there are other paths for her…
Sadly, the characters, and by extension the relationships they had with one another, weren’t as nuanced as I would have liked. Most of the romantic relationships were rather unconvincing and never gave the impression that the characters actually cared or loved one another (view spoiler). Worst of all, the book, rather than creating a narrative in which there is room for different perspectives regarding certain topics, it goes on a self-righteous spiel. We get it, this is a truly feminist book.

Here are some of the reasons why I didn’t like this book as much as I hoped to:

✖I found many of the discussions surrounding female rage and autonomy as either incongruous or too ham-handed. First of all Connie expresses disapproval that she and her writing are defined only in terms of their femaleness; yet Rose, Connie, and Elise’s questionable actions or general flaws are presented as an unavoidable outcomes in a ‘patriarchal‘ world. Rather than being angry, they were feeling anger on behalf of their whole sex. Their words or choices seemed to always carry on some debate regarding their being female, which went at odds with the way in which these two narratives imply, directly and non, that these women should not be seen only in terms of their gender.

✖While initially I appreciated the story’s conversations around motherhood, I soon noticed that there wasn’t a single female character who was happy or at peace with not having children. We have the one who desperately yearns for a child; one who is about to have a second one and although she is not blind to the stress this will bring she seems relatively happy; and there are the ones who become pregnant and are faced with the choice of continuing or terminating their pregnancy. Connie, the one character who had the potential of being content with not having children, (view spoiler).
I also hated the fact that (view spoiler). All of the women seemed framed by their potential to become mothers. Couldn’t we have one woman who wasn’t defined by her ability to procreate ?!

✖Rather than having flaws the three main characters (Rose, Elise, and Connie) are merely reacting to a mean world. Their selfishness, anger, and stupidity were made to seem like the only solution to the bad people *ahem* or should I say men *ahem* around them. Rose and Elise’s seemed to share the same sort of aimless personality and funnily enough they both seemed too fixated on Connie (for Rose she is a sort of model for female independence; while for Elise she seems to be everything, yikes). Rather than being held accountable for their actions they are made to seem as if they are the wronged ones…they just didn’t seem to posses any distinctive characteristics, which the narrative tries to pin to the fact that they grew up without a mother figure. Mmmh.
Overall I just wasn’t keen on the way they would dramatise themselves and everything they did or felt.

✖The men are portrayed in such a shallow way. The two most prominent male characters seemed to just shrug a lot. They exist only to be insensitive: not only are they completely ignorant in matters concerning motherhood but they often seem to be held accountable for the female characters’ poor choices or bad behaviours. They were deliberately made to seem as little more than ‘meh’. They have no idea how to deal with emotions of any type or form (sadness, anger, love, you name it, they won’t cope with it).

✖While for the most part I really appreciated Burton’s prose, I soon grew wary of the odd way in which she would suddenly turn to saccharine language (for example in expressing the ‘anguish’ experienced by Rose and Elise). There were many sex scenes that were far too twee for my taste. And yet, amidst these corny love making scenes, there were these abrupt crude descriptions which seemed like a poorly veiled attempt to bemodern‘ that succeeded only in irritating me: (view spoiler).

✖This novel takes itself far too seriously. I found the self-congratulatory and polemical tone of the book to be off-putting. Rose and Elise’s stories were made to seem as ‘relatable’ narratives portraying a contemporary/modern female experience…and yet rather than starring complex and flawed protagonists the book focused on two female characters that seemed often just that: female. Oh, wait a second, Elise is beautiful. There we go. And in spite of its attempts to be a serious, if not literary, type of the novel, both Rose and Elise’s narratives soon turned into soap-operas full of perfectly avoidable miscommunications that have serious repercussions.

✖The mystery element is…lacking if not MIA.

In spite of its promising start (I did enjoy the first few cheap tees), and its beautiful front cover (isn’t it lovely?), The Confession was a rather frustrating book. Between its dichotomous arguments, its poorly developed characters, its uneven tone, and its propensity for melodrama it just didn’t work for me.
There are so many books that use a similar premise with much better results…

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars (rounded up to 3)

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The Door by Magda Szabó — book review

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“[I]t was as if Emerence turned on her ghostly heel and put two fingers up at our guilty consciences, and our attempts to approach her. Each time it was as if yet another undisclosed facet of her million secrets glittered before us”

One of the most obscurely bizarre books I’ve ever read.

Moving between the 1960s and the 1980s The Door’s narrative is concerned with the narrator’s relationship with her housekeeper Emerence. Throughout the course of the novel our narrator, a Hungarian writer called Magda, combs through her memories in order to revisit her complex relationship with Emerence, in what seems to be an attempt to make some sort of sense out of this enigmatic and perplexing woman.

Although The Door is quite unlike any other novel I’ve read it does share certain elements with Christa Wolf’s The Quest for Christa T. (which is also semi-autobiographical, set in a similar time-period, and narrated by a writer determined to revisit her relationship with her secretive friend), Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (yet another narrator/writer who interrogates her intense relationship with an old friend) and Joyce Carol Oates’ Solstice.
From its opening pages The Door throws us into a dizzying tale that seems to ignore logic or structure. There is little to no plot, but rather a collection of Magda’s memories of Emerence.

The first part of the novel has very little dialogue (a few lines here and there), and relies instead on Magda’s recounting what Emerence said or did. Soon we acquire a surreal impression of this formidable woman, yet Emerence remains an ambivalent figure, impossible to pin down. Magda’s attempts to make sense of her past behaviour towards her and others often results in little more than speculations and suppositions on her part.
However ordinary Emerence and her life may seem, her many peculiarities and her aversion towards God, the Church, the idea of an establishment itself, make her into a potentially disruptive figure. At times Magda’s recounts of Emerence make the latter seem as little more than an unhinged woman prone to childish temper tantrums and liable to bad moods. Her hatred towards ‘cultured’ and intellectual people seems to reveal a deep resentment towards those who unlike her did not have to start working at a young age. And yet, she seems so completely disgusted by them that it seems impossible for her to be secretly envious of them.
Emerence appears as a mercurial individual who, in spite of living in a country which imposed uniformity on its subjects, manages to retain her individuality. She seems the sole governor of her own existence, unbothered by the laws, policies, and societal norms that affect her neighbours.

As this murky narrative progresses, and Emerence slowly emerges from Magda’s memories, we begin to accept Emerence’s multivalency. Not one character seems to have thought of her the same way, whether they feared, hated, admired, or loved her. Her secrecy and control over her own self and her private space, make her seem closer to a sphinx than a mere mortal. She seems to radiate strength seeming to be a force of nature, a solid and unmovable presence in the lives of her neighbours and clients.
Yet, Magda’s memories are comprised of so many gaps and absences that we are constantly aware of the unreliability of what she does or does not remember. The Emerence that surfaces from Magda’s ‘reconstruction’ is a fragment of the actual woman, and Magda, alongside her readers, has to content herself with her imperfect knowledge of her former housekeeper. Ultimately Emerence remains unknowable.

Backdrop to Magda’s retrieval is a quiet sort of violence. We are aware of a potential danger but we cannot pinpoint what shape or form it will take. The unnerving relationship between Magda and Emerence is filled with recriminations, uneasy truces, and bitter exchanges. There are allusions to deaths and destruction but these never lead to a cathartic event or revelation.
In navigating the past the narrator is able to see anew many of the things that she had likely overlooked about her own life. She attributes new significance to certain moments of her life and of the way these shaped her relationship with Emerence. She seems to be both in her past and in her present, obsessed, if not desperate, with truly knowing Emerence, her life, secrets, and motivations.

“The situation had drained my energy. Cheerfulness keeps you fresh, its opposite exhausts. Now I was miserable, but not because I had to look for another help. The problem was simpler. I had finally accepted that it wasn’t just Emerence who was attached to me, with the sort of feelings normally reserved for family, but that I, too, loved her.”

For much of the novel, the two women are engaged in a war of constant surveillance. They are always scrutinising each other, and often criticising their different values and attitudes (more than once they clash over their different attitude towards religion and literature). Emerence’s secretiveness, her ‘closed’ door, mystify Magda who comes to think of Emerence’s apartment as an extension of Emerence herself.
Emerence’s ‘shut door’ allows for an array of interpretations. It is the very fact that this door is shutting out the rest of the world that arouses Magda, and the reader’s, curiosity. My mind formed the most wild of theories regarding Emerence’s past and what lay beyond her door. Yet, as Magda informs us early on, we are aware that we will never truly know Emerence or her motivations. It seemed that the novel emphasised the unknowability of a person, and the freedom that we can experience by presenting a self that isn’t entirely true.

Magda’s narratives describes seemingly mundane scenarios that teether on the edge of becoming something more: miscommunications regarding house routines can cause unforgiving shifts between the two women. The novel imbues the most ordinary of scenes or conversations with a sense of surreality. There were many moments that verged on absurdity (there were many almost Kafkaesque occurrences).
Emerence seemed the antithesis of normal. My mind was never made up about her. Certainly Magda’s recollections of her always left me feeling uneasy, almost queasy. At times she could be quick to anger and unforgiving, while in other instances she could seem so caring and kind. Her erratic behaviour, her naiveté, her small manipulations of those around her…I found myself interrogating everything she said or did, wondering alongside Magda ‘who‘ Emerence really was.

This novel is far from a pleasant read: it is unnerving and confusing, and I was mystified most of time (it left me with more questions than actual answers….) and yet, I felt a horrible sort of fascination towards it…read at your own risk.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Platform Seven by Louise Doughty — book review

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In spite of its flaws Platform Seven is a lot more thoughtful than one might expect from its murder mystery premise.

“There was a man on the station only two hours ago who will never go home again.”

One of the weakest aspects of this book is that it tries, and doesn’t really succeed, in combining two different genres and concepts together.
The first 30% or so of this novel proposes a slow and atmospheric take on the ghost story. Louise Doughty’s use of the supernatural, although patchy, allows her to create a mosaic of the lives and troubles of the people working at Peterborough Railway Station. Forgotten and largely overlooked, they are forced to deal with horrific situations such as suicides. Through Lisa Evans, the ghost of a suicide victim, we follow some of the night staff in their everyday lives. Lisa is somehow able to tell what these people feel and think, and there is a sense of quiet resignation in the people she observes. Although depressive, very much so, it was interesting to glimpse the fears and desires of the people observed by ghost-Lisa. I found Dalmar, Tom, Melissa, and Andrew’s lives interesting and affecting.

“What is the point where a human being stops being a human being and becomes a thing? Most people think it happens with death but Dalmar knows it can happen a long time before then if it needs to, so that other people can bear what they are seeing. ”

At times being reminded that we were seeing their lives through ghost-Lisa seemed to offset how realistic these characters were. Ghost-Lisa herself seems to fluctuated between being a ghost, invisible and silent, nothing but consciousnesswho doesn’t have memories of her past, a body, or a sense of her own humanity (“When you don’t have a body, time is no longer even or consistent: it stretches and bends, folds in on itself. ”) little more than an impassive and intangible observer, and yet, she also comes across as the cliché of a ghost, one that wouldn’t be out of place in A Christmas Carol.
As the narrative slowly progresses ghost-Lisa seems increasingly incongruous. Although she initially stresses that she is a mere consciousness with no links to her past, she can also ‘see’, ‘float’, and move her human-shaped-ghost-body.
Because of this I was never able to immerse myself in what she was narrating, and part of me wishes that it had all been narrated from a third perspective as it would have made ghost-Lisa slightly less off-key and more convincing.

As ghost-Lisa becomes preoccupied with the latest suicide on ‘her’ platform she somehow becomes able to remember her own past. The switch between ghost-story to a tale of an abusive-relationship is quite jarring.
Rather than presenting us with Lisa’s whole life, Louise Doughty focuses on the last few years before her death, depicting a detailed, occasionally frustratingly so, portrait of the relationship between Lisa and her boyfriend. We follow them through nerve-racking dinners to conversations and fights that draw attention to the secret and concealed violence that dictates her boyfriend’s behaviour towards her. Lisa recounts how time and again she glossed over his increasingly manipulative behaviour towards her. The realisation that her beloved boyfriend Matty is a toxic little sh*t is a slow one and first we are forced to watch as Lisa becomes increasingly alienated from her life and daily existence because of him.

While I could sort of emphasise with Lisa’s difficultly in reconciling herself with her abusive relationship it a bit weird that this came to her as a ‘surprise’…from their very first meeting he acts in a perturbing way towards her. Other people think that he is charming-golden-boy…but I never saw that either. Late in the novel he sings her song during her birthday party but I’m not sure that singing one song would make her friends and family believe that he is the perfect boyfriend. As ghost-Lisa sort of pre-warns us about Matty’s true character, my perception of him never changed: from his first appearance to his last one he struck me as a horrible manipulator.

The scenes which feature their deteriorating relationship could at times be very repetitive and part of me wishes that we could have been properly introduced to Lisa before her relationship with Matty. At times her role seems to be confined to that of ‘victim’ (not that she isn’t a victim but her roles seemed to be restricted to that of Matty’s girlfriend) . I wish more of her personality had come through rather than having such a large part of the narrative focus on how paranoid and anxious she became during her relationship with Matty. More could have been made of her relationship with her family and best friend, so we could have at least seen Lisa ‘without’ Matty.

The pacing of the story was rather uneven. Occasionally the slow and ambiguous narrative could create and build tension. For example, Doughty emphasises Lisa’s unease during a fight with Matty at their favourite restaurant by dragging out the description of a pepper mill:

“As he turned it over our plates, coal-black chunks of pepper fell from the end and the grinding blades made a squeaking sound like the iron wheels of a very old train creaking slowly into motion. I felt plunged into seriousness, all at once, as if I had been missing something important in the debate we had just had, as if I should have known what it was but was too dim to work it out. The squeaking of the pepper mill set my teeth on edge. I realised the waiter was going to keep going until I told him to stop, so I lifted my hand.”

In other instances however Doughty seems to loose herself in detailed and irrelevant descriptions. A few pages are wasted on ghost-Lisa taking a gander through a Waitrose where she is repeatedly amazed by the items they sell:

“Since when did doughnuts come in so many flavours; lemon icing, raspberry icing, salted caramel icing? It isn’t just the doughnuts. I traverse the aisles. Ice cream sauce comes in creamy fudge flavour, Belgian chocolate flavour, raspberry coulis flavour and – my favourite – Alphonso mango, passion fruit and yuzu. What is a yuzu? Is an Alphonso mango significantly different from any other kind of mango […] then I go and confirm my suspicions about carrots: they are, of course, even more orange than I remember […] on my way out, I drift along the salad bar, glancing into the tubs of salad one by one, wondering why so many of them contain kidney beans.”

That scene lasted way longer than it should have and it didn’t really serve any purpose other than a weak reassertion that ghost-Lisa has few memories of her life.

Overall I think that the idea was better than the execution. There were scenes which were both powerful and horrific, but more often than not these were lost in a painstakingly redundant narrative which repeatedly looses itself in digressions that added very little to the overarching story.
Platform Seven seemed to contain two different books. A not entirely convincing supernatural ghost-story (where much is made of the coincidence of two suicides at the same platform) in which ghost-Lisa follows others around, making occasionally thought-provoking deliberations but frequently resorts cookie-like musing. The other narrative is an uncomfortably close look at how vicious and insidious an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship can be. We see how Matty uses his job as a doctor to guilt-trip Lisa, how he deliberately works to erase her sense of self, her self-esteem, and her happiness.
While I wouldn’t necessarily say that I ‘enjoyed’ reading this (given that the novel deals with many different forms of abuse) Doughty’s approach to this subject was interesting and refreshing.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Truants by Kate Weinberg — book review

Untitled drawing (3).jpgThis is the type of non-literary book that has literary aspirations yet its laboured attempts to imbue its story and characters with a certain dose of moral ambiguity and depth ultimately fall flat.
In spite of its intriguing first few chapters The Truants soon followed the well-treaded path of similar campus/college novels: we have a main character who has a secret related to her past, she makes a new female friend who is more attractive and charming than she is, she falls for an alluring man who has secrets of his own, and she also finds herself drawn to her professor, who also happens to have secrets of her own.

I could have looked past the predictable and lacklustre dynamics around which the story pivots if the writing or the characters had revealed, at any point throughout the course of the novel, some depth or any other spark of vitality. Kate Weinberg’s prose was competent enough but as the story is told through an unmemorable main character’s point of view, much of it felt dull.
The Truants reminded me a lot of The Lessons by Naomi Alderman (not a good thing).

A more nuanced or interesting protagonist could have made this into a much more enjoyable novel. Our MC however is the typical forgettable young girl who somehow manages to attract the attention of people who seem a lot more fascinating than her…I write seem as I never quite believed that her guy (that’s how interesting he is) and her teacher were as clever or as alluring as our narrator told us. And that’s where the problem lies: she tells us that these two are such magnetic people. We are never shown exactly why they have such a powerful effect on her. This sort of introspective narrative can work…but here our MC’s examination of this period of her life seemed somewhat artificial.

I found this book engaging only when the characters discuss Agatha Christie. The rest is an overdrawn love triangle that is made to be far more tragic and destructive than what it is (dating for a few months when you are a first year uni student…is it as all-consuming as that?). The college aspect of the novel fades in the background, giving way to the usual melodramatic succession of betrayals and shocking secrets. If the characters had been more than thinly drawn clichés then I would have cared for this type of drama.

While this novel was slightly better than other clique-focused releases (such as the campus novel Tell Me Everything and the artsy Fake Like Me) I would recommend you skip this one…maybe you could try the very entertaining If We Were Villains or Donna Tartt’s seminal The Secret History or even the hugely underrated The House of Stairs.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Center — book review

Things You Save in a Fire was a heart-warming if occasionally cheesy read. Untitled drawing (1).jpg

“For the first time, I understood. In all the times I’d remembered that story, I’d experienced every single part of it from my own perspective, standing in my own sixteen-year-old shoes. Now, for the first time, I saw it unfold from a new angle. ”

Katherine Center’s writing easily transports her readers into a compelling tale of strength—both physical and emotional—and forgiveness. The story is narrated by Cassie Hanwell, a female firefighter who dedicates her life to her job. Being a firefighter is everything for Cassie so when she is forced to leave her Texas firehouse and move to Boston to help her estranged mother…well, things don’t go so smoothly. Her fraught relationship with her mother hides years of hurt…so Cassie isn’t keen on patching things up with her mother. Worse still, her new job at the Boston firehouse proves just as challenging. Cassie has to prove herself to her all-male team time and again, often working twice as hard to prove that she is just as capable as her male counterparts.

Cassie’s voice is compelling and likeable. She constantly questions herself, her motivation, and her choices, and is unafraid of criticising her own behaviour and/or reassessing her opinion of others. She is brave, righteous, and surprisingly amusing.
Her story is moving and funny, with plenty of serious moments…Cassie struggles with her new reality as well as past traumas. Falling in love with rookie, a sweet and handsome firefighter newbie, further complicates matters. Although the romance is insta-lovey I still rooted for Cassie and found her budding relationship with rookie to be heartwarming.

Towards the end the plot ends up taking a turn which I didn’t particularly like…yet, in spite of the cheesy finale, which is far too neat and squeaky clean, I enjoyed listening to this and I will definitely be picking up other novels by Center.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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Summer by Edith Wharton — book review

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Although short Summer is an interesting read.
Feelings and actions are obliquely revealed or hinted at, so much so that many of the decisive events that our ‘heroine’ Charity experiences are only alluded to or described in an indirect fashion.

Because of this, the changing dynamics between the various characters can at times be hard to follow or understand. Yet, Wharton’s narration does render, withan almost painful accuracy, those emotions and thoughts that can align the reader to Charity’s state of mind.

There is a sense of sadness and growing unease that makes this novella into a rather distressing reading experience. While the story examines class, gender, and desire in an intriguing manner it also presents us with many unhappy scenarios and characters who are selfish, greedy, and snobbish.
Wharton deftly illustrates how Charity’s background (the fact that she comes from “up the mountain” ) not only negatively affects her reputation—that is the way she is perceived by others—but it is also the cause of her own sense of inferiority. Almost incongruously to this deeply ingrained feeling of shame, and the fear that she is like her mother (a poor woman of ill reputation), Charity holds the fervent belief that she is superior to others and deserving of an exciting and self-fulfilling life.
These contrasting beliefs are the likely reason why Charity denies herself happiness and in self-denial she bottles up her love for Lucius Harney.
The story is not a happy one, and as Charity mirrors her mother’s path, readers will find the turn of events to be almost inevitable ones. Perhaps a slower narrative could have examined with even more depth Charity and her story, as the narrative in Summer quickly moves from scene to scene without much room to digest the causes and consequences of Charity’s actions…

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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Between a Wolf and a Dog : Book Review

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Between a Wolf and a Dog
by Georgia Blain
★★★✰✰ 3 stars

This novel had a really strong start: Blain’s style was compelling and brought her story to life.
However, as the narrative progresses, I started to notice that the language and descriptions could be very repetitive and, at times, even overdone.
Although there are flashbacks and chapters set in the past, the majority of the story chronicles one single day. The focus is on Ester, a family therapist, her mother Hilary, who is a filmmaker, her estranged sister April, who is a singer, and Ester’s ex-husband Lawrence. The characters are portrayed with exquisite detail and within the space of a few pages their personalities are richly rendered. They all going through long moments of introspection, where they examine their present, past, and possible futures. The rift between Ester and April is one of the central aspects of the novel.
Failed ambitions, forgiveness, and loneliness are a common thread between these characters. They might not be extremely likeable but they seemed, for the most part, incredibly human.
I enjoyed the role that art has in this novel. At times the narrative pokes fun at the pretentiousness that exists in the ‘art world’, while in other occasions it embraced the creative process.
Sadly, halfway through I found that both the writing and the characters to be slightly more dramatic then what was necessary. All the women are ‘golden’ and ‘beautiful’, with ‘golden hair’ and ‘golden skin’, they are ethereal beauties….Lawrence is also incredibly handsome. It wouldn’t have bothered me if this had not been repeated throughout the course of the novel.
Also, there were many times where the writing seemed excessive. We have at least three instances were someone wants to ‘drink’ someone in (they specify ‘teeth’ and all). Everything was magnified to intensify certain feelings.
An absorbing start leads into a self-indulgent litany.

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