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The Bright Lands by John Fram

At first, I was intrigued by The Bright Lands: a small town in Texas, missing teen(s), possible evil entities…I kind of expected it to be a modern take on Twin Peaks by way of Stephen King. Sadly, however, The Bright Lands never delivers on its intriguing premise. The writing leaves a lot to be desired, the dialogues are at best clumsy and at worst embarrassingly clichéd, the characterisation is sparse and tends to rely on tired stereotypes, the storyline is unfocused and unnecessarily convoluted, and the supernatural elements felt out of place.
The novel doesn’t really have a protagonist. We jump from character to character, without gaining any insight into who they are, most of whom are indistinguishable from each other. We are first introduced to Joel Whitley, who is in late twenties and lives a nice apartment in New York. He gets a series of texts from his younger brother, Dylan, who happens to be the star of his football team, if not their small town’s golden boy. Worried for him, Joel returns to his hometown of Bentley. Joel is understandably not keen to return to his homophobic community, especially after what happened before he left.
When Dylan disappears Joel reconnects with his ex-girlfriend, Sheriff’s Deputy Starsha Clark who still hasn’t forgiven him for ‘misleading’ her. Dylan’s teammates and his girlfriend are clearly hiding something, and there are rumours about a place called ‘the bright lands’.
Many of the town’s inhabitants begin to have nightmares hinting at some sort of Big Evil.
Joel never felt like an actual person. We know he’s gay and that his brother is missing. Other than that? Not much. His life in New York for example is only vaguely alluded to (only in those instances in which Joel notes that he now has plenty money) and his relationship with his mother is non-existent (for the matter she only has a cameo here and there…weird given that it is her son who is missing). He mostly reacts to things for plot reasons, but he really has 0 interiority.
The football team and cheerleaders are one-dimensional. They speak in clichés and their motivations are lazily unconvincing.
The adult men in this town are a similar shade of rugged bigot, the women and the girls instead are ‘badasses’.
What I’m getting at is that the characters were utterly ridiculous. Which would have been fine if it wasn’t for the fact that I was supposed to take them seriously.
John Fram tries to incorporate in his story topical themes such homophobia (which reigns supreme in Bentley), racism, police incompetence and corruption…but the way he addresses these is questionable. Suggesting that all homophobes are actually closeted gay or bi-curious men…is yeah, not great. The novel’s portrayal and treatment of queer men leaves a lot to be desired.
There is a lot of not telling, not enough showing. Chapters end in predictable cliffhangers, usually with a character learning or seeing something important, and it takes sometimes a few chapters before we return to that character and we get to read what all the fuss was about.
The latter half of the novel is utterly ludicrous. I can sort of see what Fram wanted to do…but I can’t say that he manages to pull it off. For one, I just didn’t buy into it. Second, the whole supernatural subplot was laughable…and this novel was meant to be a ‘horror’? Mmh..
The Bright Lands lacks emotional weight. The characters seem really unfeeling, or perhaps they just don’t register that they are feelings things such as anger or grief. They merely go from A to B.
This was a bland novel….and I’m not sure I will approach Fram’s future work.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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Bad Love by Maame Blue — book review

Bad Love is a compelling debut novel that is part modern love story, part coming of age. The novel’s narrator and protagonist recounts her first relationship, one that blurred the line between ‘good’ love and ‘bad’ love.
Ekuah, a British-Ghanaian university student in London, meets Dee on a night out with her friends. From this very first encounter, Ekuah feels a pull towards him. Dee is attractive, ambitious, and possesses an air of mystery. While Ekuah is inexperienced in love, she is not wholly naïve. Dee’s casual attitude towards their relationship soon begins to test their bond. They exchange bitter words, give each other the silent treatment, they make up, only to fight and make up again. Dee clearly prioritises his music and career over Ekuah, yet he also seem happy to have Ekuah to himself. After eighteen months together, Dee ghosts Ekuah: he doesn’t reply to her texts or calls, nor does he show himself when Ekuah looks for him at his place.
Ekuah is devastated. After graduating Ekuah meets Jay. The two find themselves growing closer thanks to their community-oriented work, and together they organise poetry events. Ekuah, smarting from Dee’s ‘disappearance’, is the uncertain one in this relationship. Her feelings are further complicated by Dee’s ‘reappearance’ into her life and by her parents’ crumbling relationship.
While Blue brilliantly renders all of the places Ekuah visits (such as Venice and Accra), when writing about London, the setting truly comes alive. Ekuah’s voice will undoubtedly hold her readers’ attention. I deeply emphasised with her, even if she wasn’t necessarily always ‘good’ or ‘kind’, especially where her mother was concerned. Yet, Ekuah’s vulnerabilities are rendered with clarity, and I felt on her behalf. Through Ekuah’s story, Blue presents her readers with a realistic portrait of love, one that definitely doesn’t view love through rose-tinted glasses.
While not much happens in terms of plot, Ekuah’s evolving relationships—with Dee, Jay, her parents—had me captivated. Blue’s scintillating prose, her realistic examination of the many faces of love, her nuanced and realistic characters, make for a truly heart-rendering read.
The ending is perhaps the only aspect of Bad Love that I found slightly unsatisfied. And a teensy part of me wishes that the Mafia had been left out of Ekuah’s lightening trip to Italy.
Still, I thoroughly recommend this read, especially to those who prefer realistic love stories.

My rating: 3 ½ stars of 5 stars

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Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan — book review

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“I felt I had hitherto woefully misdirected my energies in attempting to cultivate a personality. If you didn’t have one then that left more room for everyone else’s.”

With so many professional reviewers hailing Exciting Times as one of the best debut novels of 2020, praising Naoise Dolan for her wit and her razor-sharp social commentary, or describing her book as being “droll, shrewd and unafraid”, this promised to be an intelligent and compelling read. Sadly, as with a lot of hyped new releases, Exciting Times wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

While part of me rejoiced at the sight of quotations marks (yes, I’m looking at you Sally Rooney), I soon found myself wondering where the ‘wit’ I was promised was (in case you are wondering, largely MIA).
Exciting Times is an innocuous debut novel. It follows the tradition of the alienated young woman, which has regained traction over the past years, in no small part thanks to Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. The women who populate these novels have a lot in common with Esther Greenwood, who is perhaps the supreme example of the alienated female narrator (then again I think this title should go to Natalie Waite from Shirley Jackson’s Hangsaman). Ava, the protagonist of Dolan’s novel, is far less morbid than Plath’s or Moshfegh’s narrators. Her alienation comes across as a phase of sorts, something she was experiencing merely for the sake of the aesthetics. Still, Ava’s millennial despondency does seem to make her prone to bouts of lethargy and ennui.

“The trouble with my body was that I had to carry it around with me.”

At 22 Ava decides to leave Dublin behind and move to Hong Kong where she ends up teaching English grammar. Because she didn’t like herself in Ireland she believes that a change of scenery will either improve her personality or the way she sees herself. In Hong Kong Ava makes few attempts at socialising with her colleagues or her roommates, and it is only when she meets Julian, a banker, that she begins to be interested in someone other than herself. The two form a bond of sorts, which sees them occasionally sparring about the fraught history between Britain and Ireland, while for the most part they seem content with being cynical together. Soon enough Ava moves into Julian’s guest bedroom. While he’s back in England Ava meets and ‘falls’ for Edith who, unlike Julian, openly reciprocates her feelings.

“Keeping up with both of them took work, but their similarities lent the enterprise a certain economy of scale.”

The plot as such sees Ava obsessing about either Julian or Edith, checking their Instagram accounts, over-analysing their texts, and attributing a special meaning to everything they say or do.
In passing she talks with others about class, race, abortion. But these topics are briefly mentioned, and for the most part Exciting Times is about Ava’s detachment from others. In a certain way I can see why this novel could appeal to fans of Rooney as the narrative is very much focused on creating and maintaining an aesthetic of detachment. Ava is all about the ‘conceal don’t feel’. She feels ‘wrong’, ‘bad’, ‘damaged’, ‘messed up’, ‘different from other people’…you get the gist. While this is in part intentional, and both Julian and Edith call her out on the ‘woe is me’ act, the novel perpetuates this ‘she’s different’ by casually reminding us that she has a right to feel ostracised given that once a girl in school was homophobic towards her. Personally I don’t think that just because she spends large portions of her time daydreaming, envisioning what ifs scenarios, or wondering how others see her, she’s actually ‘different’.
The novel is so focused on being clever that it ends up not having anything substantial to offer.
Ava’s alleged ‘aloofness’ seemed an excuse for her character not to have a personality. One of my favourite literary characters is Charlotte Bronte’s Lucy Snowe, someone who is aloof, distant, occasionally manipulative, and who hides her feelings from the reader. In spite of this we do see glimpses of her emotions. Ava instead just tells us that she ‘loves/hates’ someone…and I just didn’t feel it. If anything she was infatuated with the idea of love…which brings me to the ending. Are we meant to believe that there was any character growth on her part? Cause I don’t…
Much was made of the power dynamics between her and Julian. Ava plays her own violin insisting that if she were to end things with Julian she would have to find a ‘crammy’ room…and I’m meant to feel sorry for the circumstances she’s in? She is employed, and earns far more than others, and has enough savings to leave Julian’s apartment (or make a small contribution). Yet, her ‘dilemma’ is made into this ‘big thing’.
Lastly, in the novel Hong Kong is a mere cardboard backdrop for Ava’s existentialist crisis. The story could have been set in any city outside of Ireland and it would barely need changing. Mentioning Hong Kong’s political unrest now and again was not enough.

Some positives
Julian and Edith, although not strictly likeable, felt much more like well-rounded people. I couldn’t see why they were both interested in Ava given how self-involved she was.
Dolan has a knack for dialogues. They are extremely realistic: at times the characters talk about nothing, misunderstand each other, use the wrong words to express what they feel…her back-and-forths, or banter, between certain characters was fairly engaging.
Most of all I loved the way Dolan writes about the English language. Ava is attentive when it comes to English. She often questions people’s word choices (“We discussed whether the word ‘quite’ magnified or diminished a compliment. I sketched a cline on a napkin and put ‘quite’ between ‘a little’ and ‘very’.”) and, given her teaching position, she also reprimands herself for using ‘bad English’.
Dolan rendition of different intonations and accents is evocative:

“Her accent was churchy, high-up, with all the cathedral drops of English intonation. Button, water, Tuesday – anything with two syllables zipped up then down like a Gothic steeple.”

My favourite passages were the ones that focused on language and the ones describing a person’s pronunciation or words choices.
Ava does share some genuinely clever insights about the English language or modern methods of communications. For example I particularly liked the way she describes texts:

“We chose what to share. Through composition I reduced my life, burned fat, filed edges. The editing process let me veto post-hoc the painful, boring or irrelevant moments I lived through.”

Overall
As I’ve said before, this was an inoffensive novel. It wasn’t thought-provoking or half as witty as it tried to be but it isn’t badly written. I was hoping perhaps for a less glib take on alienation or a more complex interrogation of power dynamics and gender.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Chain of Gold by Cassandra Clare — book review

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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Escape Routes by Naomi Ishiguro — book review

91JENwjsWpL.jpgLike many collections of short stories Naomi Ishiguro’s Escape Routes is a bit of a mixed bag.
The stories collected in Escape Routes are centred around individuals who feel ‘trapped’. Throughout the course of these narratives Ishiguro’s characters seem to undergo some sort of existentialist crisis. Most are mystified by their present and deeply uncertain of their future. Some crave to break free from what they perceive to be an unfulfilling or somehow undesirable existence. Others believe that there is something deeply wrong with them, physically or psychologically. There are also those who feel pressured by their parents, partners, or friends, to be someone they are not.
At times it is the possibility of the fantastic that changes their circumstances. On other occasions an encounter, with other people or with nature, might lead them to a path of self-acceptance or self-reconciliation.

In theory I appreciated the themes that Ishiguro explores in her narratives. Given the economical nature of the short story Ishiguro doesn’t waste her words as she often begins her stories by emphasising or addressing what troubles her characters’ minds. Ishiguro also demonstrates an intelligent and efficient use of the English language. Frequently she articulates her characters’ unease in an amusing manner. Ishiguro’s dialogues also demonstrate her ability to render the different ways in which people speak or express themselves as well as giving an impression of those pauses and inflections that characterise most conversations.

For the most part I enjoyed the humour with which she imbues her stories. Her characters are not to be taken too seriously and in depicting their predicaments she often adapts an ironic and vaguely self-aware tone. While she doesn’t make light of her characters’ various troubles, she does hint towards a self-dramatisation on their part.

Sadly, as much as I liked her writing style and the themes at the core of her stories I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed any of her stories. Most of these narratives are characterised by a studied weirdness, one that comes across as artificial. Whereas through her characters’ inner monologues and their conversations with others Ishiguro creates and maintains a sense of almost Wes Andersonesque absurdity, these more blatantly bizarre elements lessened the ‘ordinary yet surreal’ quality of her stories.
While the start of her stories are promising enough, they soon seemed to fall into a rather predictable ‘this-is-how-you-write-a-short-story’ structure. Rather than suffusing her narratives with a natural sense of ambiguity, Ishiguro mostly relies on her endings in order to ‘subvert’ our expectations. The perplexing and open-ended way in which her stories culminate in seemed more contrived than enigmatic.

The first two stories—‘Wizards’ and ‘Bears’—were perhaps the most successful ones in this collection. One follows a young boy and a rather child-like man in their quest for ‘more’. The boy hopes for magic while the man seems on the lookout for some sort of sign. Both of them feel that their parents’ would not accept or understand their true selves. The other is a quirky tale in which a man becomes paranoid over a stuffed bear.
Stories such as ‘Heart Problems’ and ‘Accelerate!’ were okay…if almost entirely forgettable. They played around with perspective, which kept me somewhat engaged but their endings were somewhat uninspiring.
This collection also includes a story that is divided in three parts: ‘The Rat Catcher I, II, and III’. This was the only story I actively disliked. It had this unsuccessful grotesque tone, a gimmicky and unconvincing ‘historical’ setting, and an incredibly derivative storyline. It’s never a good sign when you want to skim or skip a short story.

Perhaps I’ve read too many short stories by Shirley Jackson or watched too much stuff by David Lynch to be truly troubled or intrigued by Ishiguro’s work. While I can recognise that she a clearly talented writer (I wish I had her command of the English language) her storylines seemed to be held back by this conventional type of weirdness and a general lack of subtlety.
Rather than developing or expanding on the themes of entrapment and alienation, Ishiguro’s narratives are hampered by these attempts to ‘startle’ the reader with enigmatic—and incredibly formulaic—elements and endings.
Most of her stories rely perhaps a bit too much on capturing a character’s meandering line-of-thoughts. Their moments of introspection or self-analysis are interrupted by abstract contemplations which did little to add some emotional depth. If anything the characters’ zigzagging thoughts lessened my interest in them and their stories.

Overall, while I can’t deny that Ishiguro is more than a capable writer, Escape Routes wasn’t a memorable read.
I wasn’t enchanted, mesmerised, or surprised by her narratives, and for the most part I was too aware of the fictionality of her stories to be able to suspend my disbelief or to truly ‘immerse’ myself into what I was reading.
Nevertheless, just because I wasn’t able to form an emotional attachment to Ishiguro’s characters and their stories doesn’t mean that other readers won’t like them, in fact, I hope that other people will appreciate Ishiguro’s work more than I did.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano — book review

45294613.jpgDear Edward presents its readers with a moving coming of age that deals with themes of grief, loss, and death. Throughout the course of Edward’s narrative Ann Napolitano depicts the important role that friends and family play in a person’s recovery process.
While I was certainly felt invested in Edward’s story, I found the structure of Napolitano’s novel to be distracting and counterproductive.

Napolitano’s detailed yet slightly cold writing style may not appeal to some readers (it brought to mind Mira T. Lee and Ann Patchett). For the most part I appreciated her exact prose as it presents us with scenes that are both vivid and realistic.
Ordinary moments or motions were often the backdrop to emotionally charged scenes or realisations.
Napolitano also successfully renders the character of Edward, a 12-year old boy who is the sole survivor of a plane crash. Having lost his parents and his brothers, and with the heavy weight of the guilt that comes when you are only one to survive a crash that killed 183 other people, Edward becomes untethered. His ‘new’ life with his aunt and uncle isn’t easy. Suffering from physical wounds, PTSD, and increasingly detached from his own existence, Edward is struggling to find a place in a world that no longer makes sense to him. While he wasn’t the only one to be affected by the crash, the knowledge that he is the ‘sole survivor’ haunts him. Edward no longer feels the drive to do anything: he loses weight, he no longer feels hungry, and he has difficulties sleeping.

Edward’s story was compelling and heart-rendering. There were quite a few jarring scenes, and it wasn’t easy not to feel protective on his behalf as he the adults and kids around him try to make him ‘better’. The idea that anyone can move past something like a plane crash which killed the three people you loved the most in the whole world as well as many others…is madness. Yet, as the years pass, Edward fears that he is the only one who remembers this horrific tragedy.
The presence of his therapist, his aunt and uncle, his neighbours, and later on his school’s president help on his journey of self-recovery. Nevertheless he remains plagued by his sense of guilt and it is only when he comes across some letters addressed to him (as per the title of the novel: ‘Dear Edward’) from the friends, families, and loved ones of those who died on Flight 2977 that Edward begins to believe and envision a future in which he can help others and subsequently himself.

As heart-wrenching as Edward’s story was, the presence of Shay in his life was frustrating. From the first she treats Edward as some sort of oddity. She starts feeding him stories of his being ‘chosen’ by drawing parallels to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter. Way to make him feel normal or not to blame…
She also often sounded a lot younger than her actual age. The stuff she comes up with was idiotic. I really didn’t see why Edward finds her presence to be so necessary to him. She wasn’t very bright or kind, she mostly tells Edward that she has it worse than him because he is a white and she isn’t and because her mom wants her to wear dresses and behave in an old-fashioned ‘girly’ manner.
The worst thing she says is that he is LUCKY. Like, what-the-actual-fuck.
Here we have this young boy who is detached from his reality, haunted by the deaths of his loved ones, and she tells him he is LUCKY. Because he “can get away with stuff”.
Part of believed that she would be cut out of his life since she is basically poison…but no. She remains a constant, for some bizarre reason I cannot grasp. She was toxic, and it seemed weird that her character would be made to seem as a positive presence in his life. She finds Edward fascinating because of his being a sole survivor. Years later she sort of grows tired of him being still ‘not over it’….young or not she sort of ruined the story for me.
She has one brief redeeming moment at the end of the novel which didn’t make up for her prior behaviour and attitude.

I would have liked this novel a lot more if the narrative had remained focused on Edward rather than jumping back to the Flight 2977. Here we have a very gimmicky jumping into the passenger’s lives, and they all seem to be having a mid-life-crisis or a long moment of introspection/self-analysis on this flight. How likely is it that so many people are reliving their past mistakes and present wants on a flight?
Sadly these characters were mere clichés.
We have the rich-business man with a drug problem, a cranky big-shot who is wheelchair bound and suffering from some form of dementia, the spiritual woman who wears bells on her skirts and exudes mystic vibes, the young woman who just found out she is pregnant, the soldier questioning his sexuality, and the most eye-roll-worthy of the lot: the flight attendant who is pure sex appeal and spends her time sashaying up and down the plane (view spoiler).

As Edward grows into a young adult who is trying to overcome or at least reconcile himself with his trauma, readers are constantly being pulled back into the past.
Given that I felt that Edward was a much more nuanced character than those on the plane, I found these switches to be annoying breaks in his narrative. Maybe they couldn’t have seemed so one-dimensional if we’d seen them prior the flight (so rather than having chapters jumping back to these characters on the plane we could have had chapters showing us a ‘day’ in their lives). Their confinement to this space however didn’t allow for a lot of variation to their thought patterns etc. They sit there and they think of what has led them to this flight. They comment on other passengers, they chat with one another. And in the end they all die.
To me it seemed unnecessary to prolong their deaths…and I would have found it much more impactful if the flight ‘scenes’ had ended at the start of the novel.

While I certainly appreciated the way in which Napolitano’s handles this difficult if not frankly horrific subject manner, I wasn’t very taken by the structure of her novel or by Shay’s characterisation and the role she plays in Edward’s story.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Skyward by Brandon Sanderson — book review

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I more or less inhaled this book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin — book review

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Rusting Earth…The Fifth Season is a spectacular read.

“This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all.”

Reviewing The Fifth Season is no small feat. We have N.K. Jemisin’s writing style, her intricate and all-encompassing world-building, and her unflinching and emotionally resonant storytelling.
Even upon a second reading, I find myself simply in awe of what Jemisin has achieved with this novel. Although her novel interrogates themes that are often at the core of many sci-fis and fantasy books, and its racial, social, and geo-politics carry echoes of our own world. Some of its imagery and ideas brought to mind Avatar: The Last Airbender as well as some of Studio Ghibli’s films. And given this novel focus on nature one could see it as a work of environmental fantasy. Yet The Fifth Season, with its unprecedented structure and its intricate constructions, is a novel like no other.

“According to legend, Father Earth did not originally hate life.”

By switching between three different perspectives (Essun, Damaya, and Syenite) Jemisin is able to present her readers with three different stories which are unified by an overarching theme of survival. In spite of their different ages, circumstances, and locations, these three women are orogene, that is they possess orogeny, the ability to manipulate earth and stone. In this world, known as the Stillness, orogenes are seen as dangerous abominations. Yet, given the frequent earthquakes and the continent’s mercurial weather, orogenes do come in handy. The constant othering experienced by orogenes makes readers question whether a society such as this should even survive the end of the world. After all life in the Stillness is not just. Here your second name indicates your use-caste (which is inherited by one’s same-sex parent) and the only way to avoid these strict and predetermined hierarchies is to become commless, and be consequently cut off from the rest of civilisation.
Jemisin’s novel asks whether a society that is conditioned by such class differentiations and that maintains a systematic system of oppression and injustice should be considered ‘civilised’ to begin with. Readers, alongside some of the characters, begin to see Father Earth’s rage (which according to stonelore is the reason why there are so many earthquakes and environmental disasters) as justified.

“Then people began to do horrible things to Father Earth. They poisoned waters beyond even his ability to cleanse, and killed much of the other life that lived on his surface. They drilled through the crust of his skin, past the blood of his mantle, to get at the sweet marrow of his bones.”

In the opening of the novel we witness the destruction of the most powerful city in the Stillness, Yumenes. Its obliteration opens a rift in the earth and causes the start of a season, a merciless winter that is likely to last for centuries. For Essun, a forty-year old woman living in a small comm, the world is ending in more ways than one. After a terrible act of violence in which Essun’s not yet three-year old son Uche is killed by his own father, and her husband, Essun is forced to leave her comm in a desperate attempt to find her daughter. Hope, love, and revenge spur her onwards as she embarks on a desperate pursuit of her husband. The start of a brutal season has forced many into leaving their comms and Essun is not the only one to brave the treacherous landscape of the Stillness. Hatred, confusion, and guilt follow her as she attempts to catch up to her husband and daughter. Soon however she finds two companions, both outsiders of sorts, and their presence makes the survival of each day easier. Although Essun’s chapters (told through a 2nd person narration) are weighed down by her grief and trauma, her love for her daughter and the fragile connections she forms with her two companions alleviate the tragic tones of her story.
By comparison Damaya’s chapters retain a sense of innocence in spite of the ill-treatment and manipulations she is repeatedly subjected to. Once her parents discover that she possess orogeny, Damaya, a child from the Nomidlats, is taken to the Fulcrum, a paramilitary order that ‘trains’ orogenes. In the Fulcrum not only does Damaya have to learn to control her orogeny but she has to survive the dangerous contempt of her classmates. The Guardians, an order that controls the orogenes, instil fear and compliance in the young orogene. We read of the way in which this environment affects Damaya and the way in which it slowly yet surely skewers her worldview so that she begins to see herself as someone worth hating.
Last but not least there is Syenite, a fourth-ringer member of the Fulcrum who is assigned to various jobs around the Stillness and whose latest assignment is not as easy as she’d hoped. Partnered with Alabaster, a ten-ringer who was born into the Fulcrum, Syenite hopes to earn a ‘ring’ after the completion of this mission. While Syenite seems to have grown adjusted to the ways of the Fulcrum, and of the way in which orogene are treated by their society, when she is implicitly ordered to make more orogene, a seed of resistance takes root in her. Her story shows readers the politics of the Stillness: from the socioeconomics of the comm Syenite and Alabaster are sent to, to the larger political landscape of the Stillness. Syenite retains a hope for a future that is different, one in which orogene are not oppressed, weaponised, and discriminated against.
In each chapter we read of different types of survival. What Essun, Damaya, and Syenite experience is not easy to read. They are used, abused, controlled, othered, and persecuted by a system of power. Yet Jemisin doesn’t let her novel or her characters be completely obscured by the bleakness of life in the Stillness. The connections they form with others provide us with many emotionally powerful and heart-stirring moments.
This novel confronts so many serious themes and issues that it is difficult to pinpoint some of them. One could read this a story of survival, a testimony of humankind’s ability to adapt, or a tale that focuses on the impossibility that is maintaining one’s moral integrity or sense of self in a world that marginalises, enslaves, and oppresses those that are deemed different or undesirable. There is an urgency in the stories of Essun, Damaya, and Syenite, one that made me read with my heart in my throat. The constant sense of danger, of a catastrophe on the horizon, made this novel hard to put down (even the second time round).

“The world is what it is. Unless you destroy it and start all over again, there’s no changing it.”

One of the reasons why The Fifth Season has such compelling narratives is Jemisin’s jaw-dropping world-building. There is so much depth and richness in her world that it is all too easy to visualise it. She provides us with stunning descriptions describing the geography of the Stillness (its various landscapes and formations to its weather) so that it feels as real as it does for the characters who inhabit it. Jemisin seamlessly integrates throughout her narratives a lot of the Stillness’ history. We are given an impression of this world through its stonelore—which brings together history, science and myth and informs many of the customs of the people of the Stillness— and through the knowledge of the various characters.
From their beliefs to their language(s) and traditions, Jemisin meticulously constructs this world in a way that always leaves us wanting more. She allows her world to retain a mysterious allure so that she can later on surprise us with certain revelations.
There are a lot of horrifying things in the Stillness. From the seasons to the caste-system…what becomes apparent is that there are few safe places in this land.
Throughout the course of her novel Jemisin seems to be asking her characters and us whether we should consider nature, and Father Earth, to be the villains of her story given the destruction and pain they cause or if the fault lays on the people.

Breathtaking world-building aside, we also have Jemisin’s specular writing. Her prose can be in turns elegiac and gritty, graceful and direct. Through her razor-sharp narration she captures the incongruent reality of living in a world which seems hell-bent on killing you. Jemisin’s magnetic writing style provides us with plenty of arresting scenes, clever expressions, and mind-boggling descriptions of the orogenes’ powers. Time and again she juxtaposes destruction with creation portraying horrific moments in a hauntingly beautiful way.

Final verdict:
This novel is a triumph. The crème de la crème of speculative fiction.

 

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 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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Our Stop by Laura Jane Williams – book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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