BOOK REVIEWS

Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford

“My father wasn’t a wound or even a scar, not a black hole or a dry desert. He just wasn’t. Not for me anyway. Mom was my sun and my moon. I was her all, too, and that was us.”

In Crooked Hallelujah Kelli Jo Ford presents her readers with a nonlinear exploration of the lives of four generations of Cherokee women. Each chapter can be read as a self-contained story, focusing on a particular phase of a character’s life (childhood, teenage years, early adulthood, etc). The first chapter gives us a flavour of these women’s lives: in 1974 Justine lives with her mother, Lula, and her grandmother, Granny, in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. Both Lula and Granny are ardent members of the Holiness Church. Justine, like the rest of her relatives, has to abide her church’s strict rules: she has to lead a pious life, dress modestly, conduct herself in a godly manner, say no to the sins of the flesh…the list goes on. Whereas Lula and Granny are passionate about their community, Justine finds herself growing restless. As teased by the novel’s summary, an ‘act of violence’ sets on her own journey, one that sees becoming entangled with layabouts, abusers, and alcoholics. Her daughter, Reney, finds herself following in her mother’s steps, ending up with men who are good-for-nothing. Some of the chapters focus on characters who don’t seem all that connected to the lives of Justine and Reney, and Granny, easily the most likeable character of the lot, doesn’t get enough page-time.
The nonlinearity of these stories was detrimental to my reading experience. Justine and Reney’s personalities blurred together, as they both seemed defined by the men they are with. Granny, on the other hand, had some discernible character traits that made into a far more rounded character. Lula remains an undeveloped character, someone who appears know and again as a woman who has been indoctrinated and blinded by her religious (in the first chapter alone she demonstrated some initiative). Justine has some sisters but they might as well not be there as are barely mentioned. The majority of the men were either despicable or incompetent. Then we have this odd chapter which focuses on a Forrest Gump sort of figure that felt really out-of-place (what did he have to do with Justine and Reney’s stories?).
I can’t say that I found Crooked Hallelujah to be a particularly memorable read. Rocky structure aside the characters and their storylines did not really leave a mark. We have snapshots from Justine and Reney lives, and these often emphasise how rootless they feel, or their questionable taste in men. I wish I’d gotten a stronger impression of the bond between Justine and Reney, or Reney and Granny (Reney tells us that Granny was her soulmate but the two shared very few moments together).
Still, I liked the author’s dialogues as she manages to convey different argots and dynamics. Her prose was for the most part okay, but, as I said above, her storyline seemed unfocused and repetitive and her characters were pretty thinly rendered. I can sort of see why so many other reviewers gave this one 3 stars. It isn’t necessarily bad but it just never seemed to reach its full potential. Zalika Reid-Benta in Frying Plantain not only implements a similar narrative structure but explores similar themes and dynamics (between mother/daughter, mother/grandmother, grandchild/grandmother) in a much more impactful and meaningful way, so I would probably recommend you pick that one up instead.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

“That was the thing that was at the heart of my reluctance and my resentment. Some people make it out of their stories unscathed, thriving. Some people don’t.”

In an eloquent and precise prose Yaa Gyasi interrogates a young woman’s relationship to her family, her faith, her past, and her self. Her brother’s addiction and her mother’s depression have irrevocably shaped Gifty, the protagonist and narrator of Transcendent Kingdom, who is now a sixth-year PhD candidate in neuroscience at Stanford. Her quiet and controlled existence is disrupted by the arrival of her mother, who has once again succumbed to a depressive state, barely responding to the world around her, let alone taking notice of her daughter. Gifty, who spends most of her time in her lab, where she’s researching the neural circuits of reward seeking behaviour (by experimenting on mice) finds herself looking back to her childhood, her college years and her first years at Stanford.
Throughout the course of the novel Gyasi weaves together Gifty’s past and present, delineating her self-divide and her fragile relationship to her mother.
Gifty’s recollection of her childhood is free of sentimentality, and she’s very much matter-of-fact when it comes to recounting her brother’s addiction to OxyContin, the racism she and her family are exposed to in America, the lack of support they receive (“They just watched us with some curiosity. We were three black people in distress. Nothing to see.”), especially from the members of their church.
We also learn of her parents’ immigration from Ghana to Alabama, her father’s disconnect from his new home, her mother’s desire to fit in and adapt, the rift caused by their opposing stances (wanting to return to Ghana/wanting to remain in America). After her father’s return to Ghana, Gifty’s mother spends most of her time working in order to keep the family afloat, so it is Nana who becomes the central figure in her life. In spite of their age gap and their sibling spats, the two are very close, and Gifty looks up to her brother. An injury occurred while playing basketball lands Nana in hospital where a doctor prescribes him OxyContin for the pain. In the following years Gifty witnesses her brother’s spiralling further into addiction, while her mother desperately tries to ‘save’ him.
While these experiences have affected Gifty’s relationship to her faith, and she’s somewhat embarrassed when reading her old diary entries, in which she pleads for divine intervention, as an adult Gifty finds herself craving that ardor.
In college she struggles between wanting to be alone and wanting to connect with others. Her background causes some of her science peers to make scoffing remarks or prejudiced presumptions, and the few people who try to get close to her are inevitably pushed away.

Throughout the course of the narrative Gyasi shows how time and again Gifty is made to feel as if she cannot possibly find comfort in both science and religion. Yet, for Gifty, the two are not in opposition: “[T]his tension, this idea that one must necessarily choose between science and religion, is false. I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded, I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.”
Given that her childhood was disrupted by her father’s departure, her brother’s addiction, and her mother’s depression, isn’t it natural for Gifty to wonder ‘why?’. Why did her brother become an addict? Why is her mother depressed? Her search for answers, for a reason, for the ability to discern cause and effect, fuels her studies and in many ways her faith. Once she finds herself once again with her mother however her resolve not to talk or reveal her past is tested.
This novel tells an emotionally devastating tale about love, forgiveness, guilt, pain, and identity. Reading this novel made my heart ache. Addiction and depression have left their mark on my family, and Gifty’s experiences hit too close to home. And yet, however upsetting it was to read about the insidiousness of addiction and depression, Gyasi incisive observations and wisdoms assuage my uneasiness.
Gyasi exerts perfect control of her prose as she navigates Gifty’s childhood and adulthood. Her restrained style perfectly reflects Gifty’s self-restraint. She offers piercing meditations on family, philosophy, science, and faith, and Gifty’s quiet meditations on these subjects are articulated in a meticulous yet striking way.
I’m not sure what else I can add other than I was (am) in awe of this book. It made me feel seen and understood.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Some of my favourite quotes:

“Nana was the first miracle, the true miracle, and the glory of his birth cast a long shadow. I was born into the darkness that shadow left behind. I understood that, even as a child.”

“I wanted, above all else, to be good. And I wanted the path to that goodness to be clear. I suspected that this is why I excelled at math and science, where the rules are laid out step by step, where if you did something exactly the way it was supposed to be done, the result would be exactly as it was expected to be.”


“It would have been kinder to lie, but I wasn’t kind anymore. Maybe I never had been. I vaguely remember a childhood kindness, but maybe I was conflating innocence and kindness. I felt so little continuity between who I was as a young child and who I was now that it seemed pointless to even consider showing my mother something like mercy. Would have I been merciful when I was a child?”

“The two of us back then, mother and daughter, we were ourselves an experiment. The question was, and has remained: Are we going to be okay?”

“My memories of him, though few, are mostly pleasant, but memories of people you hardly know are often permitted a kind of pleasantness in their absence. It’s those who stay who are judged the harshest, simply by virtue of being around to be judged.”

“I remember what it was like to be that age, so aware of yourself and of the theater of your private little shames.”

“It was boring, but I preferred this familiar boredom to the kind I found at home. There, boredom was paired with the hope of its relief, and so it took on a more menacing tint.”

““What’s the point of all of this?” is a question that separates humans from other animals. Our curiosity around this issue has sparked everything from science to literature to philosophy to religion. When the answer to this question is “Because God deemed it so,” we might feel comforted. But what if the answer to this question is “I don’t know,” or worse still, “Nothing”?”

“Thought I had never been an addict, addiction, and the avoidance of it, had been running my life”

“I didn’t grow up with a language for, a way to explain, to parse out, my self-loathing.”

“I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately both have failed to fully satisfy in their aim: to make clear, to make meaning.”

“I like you best when you’re feeling holy. You make me feel holy too.”

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Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline

Empire of Wild is one of those novels that doesn’t live up to its intriguing premise. There were a few moments that I actually enjoyed, but these were far too few in between. We have a half-baked storyline, some painfully cartoonish villains, a thinly rendered main character, and an unsatisfying conclusion.


Empire of Wild follows Joan who has recently returned to her Métis community in northern Ontario. After a heated argument with her husband, over the land Joan has inherited from her father, he walks out of their home in a huff…and he doesn’t come back. A year later Joan is still desperately trying to make sense of Victor’s disappearance, hoping to glimpse his face every time she goes outside. Although her family initially helped her look for Victor, they have now moved on and urge her to do the same.
When Joan walks into a revival tent for laughs, she doesn’t expect to see her husband. Except the man, a reverend, doesn’t know who she is, and calls himself Eugene Wolff.
Ajean, an older woman from Joan’s community, believes that the Rogarou, a wolf-like creature, may have something to do with what happened to Victor. Joan, convinced that Eugene is Victor, decides to ‘take’ him back, and the person behind the revival isn’t too happy about it.

I really liked the scenes with Ajean. I liked her no-nonsense attitude and her knowledge of Métis lore. Sadly, she only plays a minor role in the story, and the narrative mostly switches between Joan, Victor, and the two ‘bad’ guys. Joan’s nephew had the potential of being a likeable character (he feels left out from his immediate family and has a quirky obsession with Johnny Cash) but there were things he said or did that didn’t really ring true (and made him sound like an older man or a possessive lover). Although the book summary makes it sound as if he really helps Joan in her ‘quest’ to take Victor back, he mainly looks up stuff on the internet for her (and he does this quite later on in the narrative…which is weird given that Joan should have wanted this type of information way earlier in the story).
Joan’s family are also largely overlooked, which is a pity as it would have been nice to read about Joan’s relationship with her mother and siblings. They have two meals together, and that’s about it. Their first meal actually gave us an impression of their dynamics and disagreements (when discussing their job prospects), but this scene was far too fleeting, and I wish the story had remained more focused on Joan’s family.
There were chapters focused on Victor, and these were very short and intentionally confusing (he is the woods). In a way these chapters weren’t actually about him. He’s so out of it that we don’t really gleam anything about what kind of person he is. I think that the story would have benefited from some flashbacks, that way we could have seen Victor and Joan together. But we don’t. And because of that I didn’t really care for their relationship. Joan misses him, sure. Often, however, she seemed to miss having sex with him—which, fair enough—more than him.
After seeing him once at the revival, during this ‘first’ meeting she’s somewhat drunk, she is absolutely certain that this reverend is Victor. She doesn’t wait for proof but immediately plans to win him back by seducing him. Like, really? She doesn’t seem worried about the fact that he could have been brainwashed or possessed, or that he has amnesia. Nah. After this confusing encounter she knows that this man is her husband (I mean, I wish she could have at least considered the twin brother theory) and rather than doing some extensive research, she’s all ‘I’m going to wear my best panties’. Which, yeah. Great plan.
For reasons unbeknown to me, the narrative also follows the two baddies. Rather than making them more believable, these sections consolidated my not so positive view of them. They were painfully clichéd. The ‘evil’ son of German immigrants who possesses only vices (he’s either having, just about to, or finished having sex). The woman is a psychopath who is jealous, petty, and cruel. I didn’t particularly like the ‘slut-shaming’ tone the narrative had when focused on this character.
Speaking of ‘shaming’, most of the time both overweight and underweight characters are described with a certain acerbic or mocking tone. The three young-ish women who have most page time (Joan, Ivy, and Cecile) are particularly disparaging towards each other’s bodies. And part of me really wanted to shake them for it. Given the circumstances they are in, would Joan really have the time to whinge about Joan’s thigh-gap?
I think this book could have been far more interesting and thought-provoking. I wish Dimaline could have explored more in-depth the effects that colonialism, capitalism, religious institutions, the Canadian government have on a community like Joan’s. But she merely scratches the surface by mentioning that indigenous people are being manipulated/forced into giving their lands away. And for the most part the narrative seemed to imply that only cartoonishly bad men are responsible for this.
Joan was an underwhelming character. I only really rooted for her in one scene, where she punches someone who 100% deserved to be punched. Other than that…I found her quite superficial and unlikeable.
The novel is also really obsessed with Joan’s ‘panties’…1) I hate that word 2) why mention them so many times?
The dramatic confrontation at the end was predictable and didn’t really make sense (what’s new?!).

Sadly, this really didn’t work for me. A good premise is let down by an uneventful storyline, one-dimensional characters, and an occasionally cringey prose. If there is a sequel, I will be steering clear of it.
Then again it was refreshing to read a story centred around Métis community that has a supernatural twist. So, even if I didn’t particularly care for this novel, I wouldn’t discourage other readers from picking this one up.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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Frost In May by Antonia White — book review

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“Do you know that no character is any good in this world unless that will has been broken completely? Broken and re-set in God’s own way. I don’t think your will has been quite broken, my dear child, do you?”

After converting to Catholicism, nine year old Nanda Gray is sent by her father to the Convent of Five Wounds. Although Nanda is open to the teachings of her new religion, life at the convent is not easy. Alongside the other girls Nanda has to adhere the strict rules and routines imposed by the nuns. The girls are discouraged from forming friendships as these are ‘against charity’ and lead to ‘dangerous and unhealthy indulgence of feeling’. Their conducts are constantly monitored, so much so that the girls have few occasions in which they can simply ‘be’. While Nanda comes to regard her convent as her home, and does try her best not to disobey the nuns, she also questions their authority.
Antonia White articulates beautifully Nanda’s desire to nurture her own individuality. Although Nanda cannot always make sense of her discontentment towards the constraining atmosphere of the convent, her indefinite and contrasting feelings are rendered with incredible empathy and attention.
White also captures a particular phase of growing up, that passage from childhood to adolescence. While Nanda does experience idyllic moments and grows fond of two other girls, she can’t quite reconcile herself with the convent’s ideal of femininity. Yet, she also craves acceptance—from her father, the nuns—and, however unsuccessfully, she does attempt to iron out her personality.
The way in which the nuns inculcate notions of evil and guilt into Nanda and the other girls can be upsetting. Not only that but every day the girls are subjected to or witness to humiliations and psychological punishments. Thankfully, Nanda’s ‘forbidden’ friendships alleviate the mood of the novel.
White’s dramatisation of her own time in a convent makes for a compelling read as her examination of Catholicism is both interesting and illuminating.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Little Family by Ishmael Beah – book review

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“Almost everything in this country is on its way to losing itself.”

Little Family is a deeply felt novel. Set in an unnamed African country, the narrative revolves around five young people whose makeshift home is a derelict airplane.
Ishmael Beah’s paints a sobering landscape: government corruption, extreme social divide, the malignant vestiges of colonialism, colourism, military/police brutality. The ‘little family’ at the heart of his novel do their best to survive, pouring their different skills and strengths into clever swindles. Beah’s illuminating prose gracefully renders their day to day activities.
The first half of the novel follows each member of the family without delving into their pasts. I really loved these early chapters. In spite of the dangers they face, the members of this family are brave beyond belief. Beah clearly has a wonderful ear for the rhythm of children’s conversations: there is silliness and the kind of banter that teeters between playful and not-so-playful. Unlike the adults in his novel Beah never dismisses the voices of his young characters. Although they are painfully aware of being “the ones society had no use for”, and that each day may bring a new form of dehumanization, they unanimously wish for change (for safety, for their poverty to end, for their country to rid itself of corruption and the inequalities brought by colonialism).
Elimane and Khoudi, the older members of this little family, are not only incredibly self-aware (of their role in their society, of their country’s fraught history, of the different degrees of inequality within their community) but often encourage others to question established norms. As we follow them during their daily routines we gain an impression of the dynamics within this family. It was Namsa, the youngest one in the family, who stood out to me in this first half of the novel. She approaches her family’s excursion with a sense of buoyant adventure, and although she worries that she won’t be able to keep up with the others, she’s just as, if not more, quick-witted.
While outside of their home the group often has to keep apart from each other, as not to draw suspicion, the depth of their bond, their mutual ease and trust, is clear.
The tempo in the latter half of the novel is far less absorbing. The story focuses almost exclusively on Khoudi and her ‘awakening’. What follows is rather predictable: she learns the power of her own body, becomes intrigued and eventually entangled with a group of privileged young people, and distances herself from the ‘self’ she is within the ‘little family’. While I can appreciate a ‘coming of age’ tale or a story that charts a quest for one’s identity, I did find Khoudi’s journey to be clichéd and clearly written by a man. There are a few scenes that seem straight out of a boy’s fantasy of a girl who is on the cusps of womanhood (discovering her beauty and sexual desire, becoming close to another beautiful young woman…and of course, although each one of them is interest/infatuated with a man, when they are alone together they kiss…but it means nothing). The tonal shift too, left me wanting. The little family is sidelined in favour of a love story, one that was particularly uninspired (if anything the whole star-crossed lovers thing made Khoudi’s early characterisation somewhat redundant). The ending was abrupt and unsatisfying.
As much as I loved the first half, Khoudi’s half was bland. I also felt annoyed that the characters we grown to know in the early chapters are more or less abandoned by the narrative in favour of a romance.
Still, the author treats his characters and the issues they face with empathy so I would probably recommend this one to those readers who don’t mind when novels change the direction of their story.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel — book review

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To simply define Wolf Hall as being a historical narrative seems unfair. The word ‘historical’ conjures a sense of events that happened a long time ago. Wolf Hall, unlike most historical fiction, struck me for the immediacy and urgency of its narrative. While the events Hilary Mantel writes have occurred nearly half a millennium ago, the world she writes of feels far from stale or antiquated. Readers are made to feel as if Mantel had just plucked us from the 21st century and transported us into the political and religious unrest of the Tudor era.

Mantel breathes new life into the drama that unfounded so many centuries ago.
The novel’s present-tense narrative undoubtedly contributed in making me feel as if the events Mantel was writing of were happening right now. The narrative is not an omniscient one, there is no foreshadowing of what is to come. Throughout the course of this novel we are made to feel alongside Thomas Cromwell and his contemporaries that their future is not yet fixed.

The title of this novel conveys the dangerous atmosphere of Henry’s court. Suspicions run high, everyone seems intent on outwitting and outmanoeuvring his or her opponents, there is a great deal of plotting, quite a few betrayals, and a perpetual sense of unease hangs in the air. We read of a divided nation, a divided court, and of the self-division that occurs within every single character. As the characters wage overt and indirect wars for power and position, readers are presented with a panorama of human vices and follies.

Yet, while the world Mantel writes of is certainly a treacherous one, Wolf Hall contains so much beauty. I was moved by the glimpses of genuine love and vulnerability between certain characters. Thomas Cromwell in particular seems to possess plenty of admirable qualities. It is through his eyes that we often see his surroundings and he always seems to pay attention to all the beautiful textures that enrich his world. From the fabrics of people’s clothings to their appearances and expression. His perceptive eye seems often to pick up on other’s true intents and desires. In spite of the tension between the different ‘players’, there are also surprising moments of empathy and understanding.

It is incredibly just how engaging Mantel’s dialogues were. While I sometimes struggled to keep up with what was being said, or left unsaid, I still found myself captivated by the nuances of the characters’ language. While some are observe rules of civility, others let their passion or greed shape what the say. Each sparring of words is fraught with tension. There are so many clever uses of the English language, so many elegantly veiled threats and well-crafted sentiments. Regardless of their role or position, not one character seems to utter a word in vein.

What perhaps took me time to adjust to was the ‘he’ pronoun. The third point of view narrative does not refer to Thomas Cromwell by his name but by ‘he’. When this happened when Cromwell was speaking to other male characters I found it difficult to follow. My non-British education also proved to be a hindrance (it took me quite some time to figure out who was who).

This is a dense novel that demands its readers full attention. There is much to be admired in Wolf Hall. Mantel’s research, her grasp of the English language, her nuanced, and frequently immoral, characters…yet, reading her novel proved to be a laborious experience. There was so much that went over my head, and while I can see that this is due to my lack of knowledge, I also think that some of her stylistic choices (such as the constant use of ‘he’) lessened my enjoyment of her narrative.

Wolf Hall is a well written and exquisitely intelligent novel in which Mantel presents us with a beautifully intricate tapestry of shifting allegiances.

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

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American Gods by Neil Gaiman — book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova — book review

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What could have been the perfect historical mystery for bibliophiles ended up being an unnecessarily long-winded and frequently dull novel.

“Looking up from my work, I suddenly realized that someone had left a book whose spine I had never seen before among my own textbooks, which sat on a shelf above my desk. The spine of this new book showed an elegant little dragon, green on pale leather.”

The Historian alludes to a variety of works, sometimes by means of subtle allusions, while in other cases Elizabeth Kostova seems to be emphasising her own novel’s intertextuality, such as its ostensible intertextual relationship to Stoker’s Dracula.
While Dracula has come to represent a turning point in vampire literature, hailing it as the ‘original vampire novel’ means disregarding the earlier encounters with vampires of other writers such as Goethe, Byron, Le Fanu, and Polidori. Although the ‘romantic’ and ‘seductive’ vampires populating today’s media don’t seem to owe much to Bram Stoker’s hairy-palmed Dracula, he has become an intrinsic part of vampire culture (if not a synonym of vampirism itself). While vampires are inherently intertextual beings (readers know more or less what to expect when reading a vampire novel) I was hoping that Elizabeth Kostova would not relegate her version of Dracula to the sidelines of her story…which sadly seems to be the case. Kostova, even more than Stoker, pushes Dracula, otherwise known as Vlad Țepeș, to the margins of her narrative.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of The Historian is its supernatural ambience and the stylistic strength of Kostova’s writing as she deftly weaves together folklore and history in what is neither a carbon-copy of nor a sequel to Dracula. Kostova’s story is an amalgamation of genres: a work of Gothic that largely relies on the epistolary form, a detective novel that is equal parts adventure, travelogue, and history lesson. Through these various styles Kostova examines the often conflictual relationship between Christian West and the Islamic East.
Kostova’s re-elaboration of the myths and stories established by works such as Dracula reflects a divided Europe. She examines themes of immortality, monstrosity, and otherness, against a backdrop of quiet social upheaval. Paul and Helen’s quest to find Dracula/Vlad’s tomb is often impeded by the political atmosphere of the countries they visit. Paul in particular, being American, is regarded with suspicion by these countries’ socialist regimes. This added another layer of secretiveness to their ‘adventures’, one that forces them to carry out their true research under a guise.

While we do get an overall biography of Vlad Țepeș, the ‘man’ himself does not recount his own experiences, we don’t see from his own point of view. His potential victims inform us of his misdeeds and history…which serve to make Vlad into a rather one-sided character. He is ‘evil’, and that seems to be that. I was expecting a far more nuanced portrayal of vampires and of this infamous historical figure. Terrible people/creatures can still be compelling subjects. Kostova’s novel however does not really allow this vilified figure the chance to speak his truth. I could have understood his motivations without necessarily agreeing with them. Sadly, Vlad seems evil for the sake of being evil. We learn of his monstrous actions but we never truly glimpse the mind behind those brutal deeds. Vlad is evil because of his transgression of the natural order…and that’s it. Vampirism aside Kostova’s depiction of Vlad does not really propose any new ‘reading’ of his rule.

While I really appreciated the use of different timelines in Kostova’s latest novel, The Shadow Land, here the various storylines were rather uneven: in the 1970s our narrator is a sixteen-year old girl who remains unnamed throughout the course of the novel, her father Paul (his story takes place in the 1950s), and Paul’s former mentor, Professor Bartholomew Rossi (most of his letters are dated from the 1930s). Initially I thought that the narrative would mainly switch between Paul and his daughter…so I was rather disappointed to discover that the daughter’s story is non-existent. She appears at the beginning of this bulky book and has a few chapters here and there…and that’s it. Paul’s story is the main focus of the narrative, and sadly I just wasn’t all that taken by him or his adventures. Him and Helen definitely travel through interesting cities and places (Turkey, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, France) and I did appreciate Kostova’s use of the sublime in these ‘travelogue’ sections: the way in which the landscapes inspires fear and awe in Paul (these sections reminded me of Ann Radcliffe).
Sadly Paul and Helen’s journey soon grew rather repetitive and predictable. They always seemed to encounter the right people and the right time which definitely struck me as a too coincidental. While I certainly enjoyed reading of the history of the cities they travel through, I wasn’t all that invested in them or their ‘quest’.
Perhaps I was hoping for a more emotionally involving story (such as the one in The Shadow Land) but here the characters were largely secondary, if not downright passive, and while there were plenty of opportunities to flesh them out, to give us an impression of their personalities, their ‘quest’ has far more importance.
The ‘quest’ largely relies on their finding documents or people who know something about Dracula’s existence. They gather information slowly, over the course of hundred and hundred of pages. A lot of what they ‘discover’ wasn’t all that surprising…the ending felt anti-climatic to the extreme.
Nevertheless, in spite of my not so great opinion of this novel, I did appreciate Kostova’s subject matter and her confluence of classicism and romanticism, of logic and emotion, of mysticism and faith. Last but not least, I have always loved descriptions of books and libraries…

“Besides, you can tell a great deal from a historian’s books.”

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Dolores by Lauren Aimee Curtis – book review

Untitled drawing (2).jpgI guess that I’m but a fickle creature: I saw and fell for the cover of this novella (the neon colours, the pose of the model, the simple font…I was a goner).
Sadly the actual inside of Dolores has little in common with its fantastic cover design.

Written in a prose that manages to be both sickly and apathetic, this novella isn’t all that concerned on mapping out Dolores’ psyche and turmoils (yes, its title is rather misleading), rather it devotes itself to create a gallery of intentionally repulsive bodies.
Curtis’ writing style had this sticky quality that can at times have an almost nauseating effect on the reader. Rather than using this aspect of her prose to create atmosphere or render the novella’s setting (which actually takes place in part in an unmade country, and later on in what should be Spain…but could be any place in particular) it often goes to emphasise our discomfort towards the various characters populating this story.
These characters are often introduced to us in terms of their physical flaws: we have Dolores who is possibly ‘big’ or ‘voluptuous’ (other characters praise or ridicule her for her ‘largeness’ but we never get a description of her actual body), the nuns have all crooked teeth or misshapen jaws/faces. They are made to be repulsive, to inspire a sense of abjection in us. These characters’ are defined by their ‘repugnant‘ bodies, they do not seem to possess actual personalities or a sense of self, but rather they are little more empty shells made to disgust us.
This obsession with ‘the body‘ and its functions was tedious. Curtis seemed to go out of her way to stress the ugliness of her characters. The nuns shower once a week, and apparently that makes them filthy. Given that they do little work outside, and they are covered head to toes, isn’t an exaggeration to make it seem as if washing once a week would have them in such a state?
There were many instances when Curtis’ descriptions seemed gratuitous , especially since the narrative seemed to almost gleefully revel in detailing the inadequacies of the human body. And to dedicated a whole novel to the fallacies of our bodies is a bit much.

Dolores doesn’t have a voice. She does some things, but we never know what impels her to do what she does. What did she actually think of those Love Hotels? Was she having sex because she enjoyed it or did she feel pressured to became sexually active? What did she think of her pregnancy? I have no idea!
That this novella doesn’t bother to develop its central character is somewhat frustrating. Dolores seemed reduced to her ‘large’ body, as if that vague description equated a personality.
The majority of male characters want to use, and possibly abuse, Dolores…and sadly I have no idea of the way in which that affected her. Did she even realise that she was being manipulated? Or was she the one exercising some form of control over them during their encounters? This detachedness is never clearly explored, rather we are made to be content with a character who is as responsive as a rag doll.
Additionally, he novella fails to explore the possibility of there being a language/cultural divide between Dolores and the nuns. The setting of the story is completely murky, so much so that throughout the narrative there was no sense of place or time.
There is no heart in this story nor in its characters. The narrative is so concerned with making its characters as repelling as possible that it completely forgets to endow them with even a speck of personality.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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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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