BOOK REVIEWS

A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

“That was the thing about people on the outside. They thought it cheered him up to see their faces, but it just reminded him too much of freedom when everybody knew it was better to adjust to the kind of freedom available on the inside.”

Heartbreaking yet luminous A Kind of Freedom is a truly impressive debut. Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s prose struck me as assured and lucid. Sexton entwines three narratives, each following a different generation of the same family. In 1944 we follow Evelyn who lives in New Orleans with her family. Her pale skin and her father’s profession give her certain privilege in the city’s black community so when she falls in love with Renard, a boy who aspires to be a doctor but is looked down upon for being working class, Evelyn is forced to contend between responsibility—towards her parents—and freedom—to love who she wants. WWII and segregation pose a further threat to the couple.
In 1986 we follow their daughter, Jackie, as she tries to juggle single motherhood with work and house chores. Her husband, Terry, disappeared from her life after he became addicted to crack. After months without a word from him, he reappears, claiming that he’s clean and is actively trying to keep it that away. Knowing that to let Terry back into her life will not only earn the disapproval of her loved ones but might eventually result in more hurt, Jackie is torn between hope and fear.
We then have chapters set in 2010. T.C., Jackie’s son, has just been released from a four-month stint in prison. His girlfriend is pregnant and in spite of him being less than faithful he now wants to make things right with her. However, he immediately falls back into bad habits when he reconnects with his friend Tiger. Here we see the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans, specifically on T.C.’s community.
Regardless of the period Sexton is depicting, the setting and time are rendered in vivid detail. She evokes the atmosphere of the places she writes of as well as the changing vernacular. Sexton also emphasises the way in which racial inequality has morphed over the decades and the way this in turn affects and shapes Evelyn and her descendants. In her portrayals of addiction and poverty Sexton writes with empathy and insight, conveying the despair, fatigue, and anguish of those who like Jackie love someone who is abusing dangerous substances. Much of Jackie’s story hit close to home so I found her chapters to be painful reading material. There are moments of beauty and communion, made even more poignant by how rare they are. Although Sexton reveals the eventual outcome of Evelyn and Jackie’s narratives in T.C.’s chapters, when we returned to them I still found myself engrossed in their stories, hoping against hope that things would not unfold the way I know they will.
Sexton captures three generations of an African-American family who is trying to navigate a less than civil landscape. The characters have to contend with a society that is rife with injustices (racial disparity, classism, colorism, sexism, environmental disasters, drug epidemics, crime) and their attempts balance familial or societal duties with their personal desires. As the title itself suggests, the narratives are very much about freedom. Each character is trying their hardest to be free.
A Kind of Freedom filled me with sorrow. Sexton has written a heartbreaking debut novel, one that gripped me not for its plot but for its beautifully complex character studies.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue

Caroline O’Donoghue’s foray into YA will definitely appeal to fans of the genre. Although I do have a few criticisms I can safely say that I found All Our Hidden Gifts to be an entertaining read.

Set in Ireland, our narrator and protagonist is sixteen-year old Maeve Chambers, the youngest in a big family. She has quite a chip on her shoulder when it comes to her ‘brilliant’ sisters and brothers. Unlike them she isn’t academically gifted and for a period of time she was put in a slow-learning class. Maeve now attends an all-girls Catholic school and in trying to impress her peers lands herself in trouble. It just so happens that her detention includes cleaning out a cupboard know as the ‘Chokey’ where she finds a set of tarot cards…and it turns out that she has a skill when it comes to reading the cards.

The story takes a Labyrinth turn when Maeve’s new talent results in the disappearance of her former best friend, Lily, who she’d ditched in order to climb the social ladder. Was I expected the Goblin King to be responsible for Lily’s disappearance? Maybe…
Anyhow, when the police gets involved and things get serious Maeve’s life becomes quite messy. Maeve believes that a mysterious card from her deck may have stolen Lily away so she decides to deepen her knowledge of magic. Along the way she becomes close with another girl from her school and with Lily’s older brother, Roe.
As the kids investigate Lily’s disappearance they become increasingly suspicious of a cult-like Christian group that is very vocal in opposing LGBTQ+ rights.
I appreciated the issues O’Donoghue incorporates throughout her narrative. We have characters who are discriminated against for not being white or for not conforming to one gender. Lily wears a hearing aid, which is probably another reason why her classmates bully or exclude her, Maeve’s sister is gay, Roe is exploring his gender identity. As inclusivity goes, this novel is beautifully inclusive. Maeve, who is white, cis, straight, and from a possibly middle-class family, is called out for being insensitive or naive when it comes to discrimination. She’s also somewhat self-centred, in an angsty sort of way, and this too is pointed out by other characters. Fiona also makes a point of reminding Maeve not to make other people’s oppression all about herself.

While I appreciated her growth, I still struggled to sympathise or like her. I found Roe and Fiona to be much more likeable and interesting characters. Maeve was the classic ‘I’m not beautiful like x or intelligent like y’ self-pitying kind of gall. She was boring and sounded much younger than her allegedly sixteen years of life. Which brings to my next ‘criticism’: there is a discrepancy between the tone and content of this novel. The tone, which is mainly created by Maeve’s direct narration, would have been more suited to a middle-grade book while her narrative’s content—the issues and discussions that came up in the story—are more tailored towards a YA audience. Both Maeve and the other sixteen-year olds sounded like they were twelve a lot of the time. Which made it weird when things like sex came up.
The bad American dude was somewhat cartoonish, and that whole side-plot felt rather undeveloped.
Lily was a promising character who might have been more fleshed out with some more flashbacks. And, to be honest, I would preferred this to be a friendship-focused kind of story. The romance between Maeve and Roe did not convince me, at all. She crushes on him from the get-go of the novel, but I could not for the life of me understand or see why he reciprocated her feelings. She says some pretty shitty things now and again to him and acts in a possessive way which irked me. I get she’s insecure but still….she knows she may have been responsible for his sister’s disappearance…and all she can think about are his lips?

Nevertheless, this was far from a bad or mediocre book. I like the way O’Donoghue writes and I appreciate her story’s themes and imagery so I would probably still recommend this. I, however, might stick to her adult fiction from now on.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard

I was intrigued by this novella’s premise—The Goblin Emperor meets Howl’s Moving Castle in a Vietnamese inspired setting—by its cover and of course by the promise of sapphic love story. Sadly, I can’t say that Fireheart Tiger was a particularly good read.
As per usual, if you are thinking of reading this I recommend you read some more positive reviews as my one is not a particularly enthusiastic one.

Fireheart Tiger would have probably worked a lot better if it had been told in a larger format as under its thinly rendered characters and world lies a potentially interesting story. Sadly, this is not a fully fledged novel. The first few pages deliver some exposition: our main character is Thanh a princess who was sent off to Ephteria as a political pawn (ie hostage). Now she’s back to her mother’s court (a place which is hardly described) where she chafes against her mother’s rule. Thanh’s self-pitying is interjected by various memories, mainly, one of a fire, and another one of a kiss she shared with the blue-eyed Eldris (her blue eyes are her major character trait) who is from Ephteria. With 0 preamble she finds herself reigniting her relationship with Eldris…it isn’t clear why as Eldris is as ‘magnetic’ as a slice of stale bread. Thanh too is the classic supposedly quiet and smart yet totally hapless heroine who really grinds me nerves. She claims to care for her country but spends the majority of her time passively thinking about Eldris and of how her mother is evil and uncaring. Thanh’s mother, however one-dimensional, made for a much more compelling character.
There is also another girl who after one brief meeting Thanh begins to call ‘little sister’ (or something along those lines) even saying that she misses her when this girl isn’t around (after one day?).
Eldris is clearly bad news, she is creepy but fails to be a truly manipulative or charismatic villain. The other ‘bad guy’ is portrayed in a very cartoonish manner (“We’re going to have such a lovely time together”) .
Perhaps I approached this with the wrong expectations. I hoped for something more mature and complex. The dialogues were clunky, the descriptions clichéd, the love story was unconvincing and undeveloped, the main protagonist was a boring Mary Sue, and the setting was barely rendered.

my rating: ★★½

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Are You Enjoying? by Mira Sethi

Are You Enjoying? reads very much like a debut. While I appreciated the themes Mira Sethi explored in these seven stories, the writing definitely detracted from my overall reading experiences. As collections of short stories go this is a rather forgettable and conventional one.

The setting (Pakistan) and ideas behind each story had potential, for example, in the first one, ‘Mini Apple’, a TV presenter has a ‘dalliance’ with an American woman, who works at the American embassy. While their dynamic had that certain something, the storyline doesn’t do much with it. The second one has very strong #metoo vibes as we follow an aspiring actress who has just landed a good role and catches the attention of the film’s tyrannical director. In another story Sethi writes of a young student who finds purpose after he joins an extremist group. Many of these stories examine topical and interesting topics but Sethi’s execution left much to be desired. The last story in particular, which happens to be the one this collection is titled after, struck me as being a rather lacklustre and superficial take on a toxic relationship.
Much of the phrases (“if you look closely, most women have restless eyes”) and imagery in these stories was clichéd (“he spat on the ground: a spray of blood soured in the dust”). The dialogue was clunky so much so that it made the characters seem unrealistic. We have a young man who works in the film industry say that after he uploaded a photo of himself without a shirt “lots of ‘like’ came. Then I was relaxed.” and “So many comments coming on my page”. Something about the way he phrased this didn’t really ‘flow’ (I am aware that others can and will think differently). In another story we get the director characters telling an actress that he “groom” her (surely he would use another word). And then later one we get a story in which a man says the following thing: “Your butt, it’s not a Kardashian yoga ball. It’s just a cute bubble”….what the feck is that even supposed to mean?
I also abhorred most of the author’s descriptions, which struck me as either ‘trying’ or nonsensical:
“Sex with Asher was liquid, hard, dissolving” , “The gray in Asher’s hair became a mischievous afterthought, like a snaggletooth on a beautiful woman” , “my face flushes red, flushes blue” (what is she, an ambulance?) , “her legs were smooth, as if rubbed with light”, “mopping kabab crumbs from his mouth with the coarse pink tissue wrapped around a bottle of Pepsi” (this unnecessary detail detracted from the actual scene), a “whistle” bounces from someone’s nose, “a brief dip in her wrist sprang into a mound of arm” (wtf?), and last but not least, “her collarbones were so deep they could rock a baby to sleep” (I assume here the collarbones are actually prominent given that the woman in discussion was skinny….).

Anyhow, just because this didn’t work for me does not mean you should not give it a try. I recommend you check out some more positive reviews before making up you mind.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino by Hiromi Kawakami

Considering that Hiromi Kawakami is one of my favourites authors this was a big letdown. The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino lacked the zing that made Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop into such fun and engaging reads. Nishino, the novel’s central character, is a boring creep and I could not for the life of me understand why so many women cared for him.

The Ten Loves of Mr. Nishino is divided in ten chapters, each one narrated by one of Nishino’s ‘loves’. The chapters do not follow a linear structure, so Nishino’s life is given to us in an almost fragmented way. The women Nishino loves easily blend together as they all shared the same kind of voice. I did not find them as likeable as the protagonists of Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop and maybe that’s because much of their narrative focuses on the relationship they have with Nishino. Most of them realise that Nishino is bad news who cheats and is emotionally unavailable. Yet, usually after they claim to dislike him, they will confess that they are on the verge of falling in love with him. Alas, because of ‘reasons’, they break up. The Nishino that emerges from these accounts is that of a pathetic and needy man who habitually lies. He has 0 charisma, here are two examples of some of his lines that make his ‘loves’ ‘giggle’: “Girls’ bottoms are always so cool, so smooth—I love them . . .” and “I love women’s breasts,”. Wow…isn’t he a poet?
Nishino is troubled and ‘broken’ and the women he loves pity him for it, hoping that one day he will find a woman good enough to ‘fix’ him (ugh).

minor spoilers ahead
The thing is, Nishino is a shit. He obviously does not care to have consensual sex with his ‘loves’: “I said, Stop, over and over, each time he quietly replied, I will not stop.” and “Hey, let’s have sex right now,” Nishino said. And then, without waiting for my response, he took me roughly.”.
He has sister issues, boo-fucking-hoo. Give me a break. The guy is a massive creep. He jokes to one of his ‘loves’ that he will marry his daughter (who is a child). Was it supposed to be funny? Coming from a guy who then at the age of fifty starts a sexual relationship a woman thirty years his junior?
I also did not care for the whole ‘breast milk scene’ involving Nishino and his sister. Surely that would not be the only way of ‘easing’ her pain (this is the third book I have read this year with weird breast milk scenes and I can safely say that I care little for this trend).

If you are thinking of reading something by Kawakami, I strongly recommend you pick up Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop instead of this.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Lake by Banana Yoshimoto

The Lake is narrated by the quintessential Banana Yoshimoto protagonist. While Yoshimoto’s sparse yet dreamy makes for an easy reading experience this is definitely not one of her ‘strongest’ novels.
Chihiro, daughter of an ‘unconventional’ couple, moves to Tokyo in order to pursue a career graphic artist. She’s still grieving her mother’s death and spends most of her time on her own. One day, as she is staring out of her window, she sees a young man staring back from a window across the street. The two quickly form a bond and begin to spend their spare time together. Nakajima, who has also lost his mother, is somewhat unwilling to discuss his past with Chihiro and when their relationship becomes more of a romance it becomes clear to her that he must have experience some childhood trauma.
This short novel is definitely not plot-oriented as the narrative mainly consists in Chihiro either navel-gazing or pronouncing two-bit aphorisms.
While Yoshimoto does evoke the places and sensations Chihiro visits/experiences, The Lake lacked the atmosphere and feeling of Kitchen an Umi no Futa (which I believe has yet to be translated in English). And whereas I usually enjoy how nostalgic ambience of her work, The Lake just came across as dated. Chihiro seems almost to relish the idea that Nakajima may be deeply traumatised and we also have a side-character who is affected by a mysterious illness and bed bound yet she is also omniscient and able to speak through others…
Overall, this was definitely one of Yoshimoto’s more banal stories as it lacked that vital zing which usually makes her books such zesty reads.

my rating: ★★½

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How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories by Holly Black

“I am nothing,” Cardan said, “if not dramatic.”

Holly Black’s prose is as tantalising as ever.
The tales collected in How the King of Elfhame Learned to Hate Stories focus on Cardan. We learn more of his childhood and get to see certain scenes and events from The Cruel Prince through his perspective.
Stories are at the heart of this volume as Cardan has various encounters with the troll Aslog who presents him with different spins on the same tale (in which a boy with a sharp tongue is cursed with a heart of stone…sounds familiar?).
Although Cardan is as capricious and dramatic as ever we do get to see why he is the way he is. Black does not condone his behaviour and there is some great character development on his part.
The illustrations are simply stunning. There are quite a lot and they are all beautiful. Rovina Cai’s style and the tones she uses really suit this Black’s faerie world.
If you are a fan of The Folk of the Air trilogy I would definitely recommend you pick this one up.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Readers, I am disappointed.

Plain Bad Heroines was one of my most anticipated 2020 releases…maybe I should have ‘hyped’ it so much. This is certainly an ambitious novel, one that is a few hundred pages too long. There were elements that I liked, but these were ultimately outweighed by my frustration toward the tone of the narrative, the dual storylines, and the characters.
Plain Bad Heroines begins at Brookhants School in 1902 when two students, Clara and ‘Flo’, who happen to be lovers are swallowed by “a fog of wasps”. Another death soon rocks the school, and all of the girls shared a fascination for Mary MacLane’s work (The Story of Mary Maclane & I Await the Devil’s Coming). The narrator, who playfully reminds us of their presence with plenty of direct addresses, footnotes, and asides. We do not know the identity of the narrator, but they posses an almost omniscient knowledge of the events they are recounting.
In the present three young women—all in their twenties—work on a film adaptation on a book called ‘The Happenings at Brookhants’. The book was written by one of these girls, Merritt (a character whom I lowkey hated) who happens to know Elaine Brookhants. Then we have Harper Harper, an up and coming actress/influencer whose personality revolves around her celebrity status, who will play Flo, and Audrey Wells (I actually had to check out her name as I could not remember it on top of my head…that’s how memorable she was) the daughter of a ‘scream queen’ who so far has an acted in B movies and ads.
The section set in the present doesn’t involve these three girls bonding or finding more about what happened at Brookhants. We are never told very much about Merritt’s book, so we don’t know how much they know about the whole affair. This timeline is also not all that concerned with filmmaking. What this storyline cares about is famous people: how they are followed by journalists or fans, how their lives revolve around instagram, how little privacy they have, and of their self-fashioning ways. The three girls do not really along. Their meeting, which happens quite a good chunk into this slow burner of a novel, reads like something that belongs in the realms ofGossip Girl or Scream Queens. And here I was hoping for an actual horror or at least something in realms of American Horror Story (the first seasons of course).
Our not-as-half-as-amusing-as-they-think-they-are narrator never really delves into these characters. It mostly describes what they are saying or doing. It focuses more on their ‘role’ (Harper=celebrity, Audrey=daughter of an 80s horror actress, Merritt=not like other girls writer). Their personalities are…kind of not there. Merritt is the only one with a semblance of one, and it ain’t a good one. The narrative tries really hard to establish Merritt’s ‘prickly’ personality (in a few occasion Merritt says or asks something generic and we are told “Merrit said like Merritt would” or “Merrit asked like Merritt would”). She’s petty, cruel, and domineering. She’s given a Sad Backstory™, so Readers are meant to let her behaviour slide. Except that this Reader could and would not. She seems blissfully unaware of her own privilege (she’s in her early twenties and has published a book, her mother teaches at a university and she has access to the library there, they are adapting her book and want her to be part of the process). She’s also not ‘plain’ looking. Her hair is pink because she’s Not Like Other Girls™ (a random character tells her she has “great fucking hair”) and she is also called hot by Harper. Yet, throughout the course of the book, Merritt acts like a fifteen-year-old girl who is spending too much time on Tumblr. Her pettiness is unwarranted and uncalled for, her jealousy is also over the top (she’s only just met Harper and she already jealous at the possibility of Audrey working alongside her…yet she knows that Harper is already in an open relationship).
Harper is also not plain. She’s famous, beloved, and uber cool. She has short hair, tattoos, smokes, and rides a bike. And of course, she also has a Sad Backstory™. The story mentions some family-related drama, but this a thread that is never truly resolved. Her motivations, desires, fears…who knows? I sure don’t. Maybe she likes Merritt? Maybe not?
While Audrey may not be plain looking, her personality is definitely plain. She doesn’t seem to possess any discernible traits.
Anyway, these three ‘work’ together (there are actually very few scenes that take place while they are working on the film sadly) and weird things start happening (we have wasps, weird weather, and a general heebie jeebies atmosphere).

The storyline set in the past had much more potential. Sadly, it doesn’t focus on Clara or Flo (their lives prior to their peculiar deaths of course) or Brookhants but rather it follows the headmistress of the school who lives in a house nicknamed ‘Spite Manor’. She lives with her lover, who also teaches at Brookhants. This timeline was definitely more Gothic, and there were scenes that struck me as quite atmospheric and well-executed. Sadly however the relationship between the two women was a let down, as it never struck me as the complex love story I was hoping for. Creepy things begin to happen, and they begin to grow apart. The deaths of three of their pupils forces them to question whether the ‘supernatural’ is to be blamed.

I was hoping for a Gothic love story, with some horror undertones. What we actually get is a work that is extremely meta. Some may find the narrator to be amusing, I mostly didn’t. The mystery is the most disappointing aspect of the whole book. It was very anticlimactic, as we simply get a chapter in which our narrator explains things to us. Flo, Clara, and the other girl are unimportant, they function as the Dead Girl trope. We don’t learn anything more about them after the 20% mark or so nor do we learn more about the book Merritt has written about them.
The storyline set in the present never reaches its apotheosis. Nothing major happens, there is no overlapping between the two timelines.
While I loved to see so many queer women, the relationships they have with one another are…a let down. Mean Girls ahoy. We have Merritt who says things like “Significant eye roll” or scenes in which characters take selfies, duplies, even quadruplies (uuuugh). More attention is paid to their hair and clothes than their actual personalities. Harper and Merritt begin flirting as soon as they meet, and later on, when there are more scenes of them together, they mostly bicker. They are sort of physically attracted to each other, but there is no real connection between them (I craved longing, passion, LOVE).
The creepy elements…aren’t all that creepy? If you have spheksophobia you might find this book scary…I mean, wasps do not inspire any real fear in me (I don’t like them, they strike me as kind of mean, in fact, I love CalebCity’s sketch on them). Mary’s writing is extremely camp and I just found it silly. While I could see why the girls back in the 1900s could be enthralled by it…I had a harder time believing that Merritt or Harper could find it as compelling.

Perhaps I approached this book with the wrong expectations (I saw Sarah Waters’ name on the cover so…) but Plain Bad Heroines was not the Gothic novel I was hoping it to be. The ‘past’ timeline was far from being a satisfying historical tale of paranormal suspense (I was hoping for something on the lines of Picnic at Hanging Rock meets A Great and Terrible Beauty). On the plus side: at least it was hella sapphic. I also liked the illustrations by Sara Lautman (I wish there had been more) and the chapter names could be kind funny.

Anyway, just because I didn’t think that this book was the bees knees (or perhaps I should say wasps knees) doesn’t mean that you won’t love it as it may as well be your cup of tea.

MY RATING: 2 ½ stars out of 5 stars

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Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Emma Bovary has become the epitome of desperate housewife, the archetypal unfaithful wife, the ultimate daydreamer whose fantasies lead to a premature self-destruction.

“She wished she could stop living, or sleep all the time.”

Madame Bovary follows the ‘provincial ways’ of the petite bourgeoisie. Charles Bovary is a so-so doctor, married to an older woman, and is ordinary in every which way. Similarly to Prince Myshkin his naïveté and kind-heartedness are perceived by those around him as weaknesses or signs of stupidity. He falls in love with Emma, the daughter of one of his patients, and lucky for him his wife just ups and dies (as she is hanging the wash she exclaims “Oh, my God!” sighs, loses consciousness and dies: “She was dead! How astonishing it was!”). Charles makes the most of this tragedy and asks Emma’s father for her hand in marriage. After an incredibly ornate wedding the two settle into married life. Or Charles does. He is exuberant, he adores Emma, lavishing her with affection. Emma, on the other hand, finds her husband suffocating and grows increasingly resentful towards him. She craves the “passion” and “intoxication” promised to her in her favourite books (in this she reminds me of Catherine from Northanger Abbey who obsesses over Gothic books, so much so that she ends up viewing the world through Gothic-tinted glasses).

In the following chapter (which happens to be my favourite one) the narrative describes Emma’s childhood and education at a convent. It is there that Emma becomes enthralled by the world of popular romances. She feels “an ardent veneration for illustrious or ill-fated women” such as Joan of Arc, Mary Stuart or the nun Héloïse. Emma is captivated by the regalia worn by the hero of a novel rather than by the hero himself. We find this same attitude towards many things in her life: “She loved the sea only for its storms, and greenery only when it grew up here and there among ruins”. Likewise, while at the convent she seems to more attracted to the trappings of religion rather than feeling a genuine devotion: she focuses on the appearance of the “white-faced” nuns, the rosaries, the copper crucifixes, “the perfumes of the altar, the coolness of the fonts, and the glow of the candles”. She does not pay attention to the Mass, gazing instead “in her book at the holy pictures with their azure edges”. Emma Rouault loves “the church for its flowers, music for the words of its songs, and literature for its power to stir the passions”.

Emma Bovary strongly resembles her maiden self. She is disappointed by her marriage, for she considers Charles to be a man who “taught her nothing, knew nothing, wished for nothing”. She thinks him dull and unambitious, the very opposite of an ideal husband. Emma is equally let down by her experience of motherhood, which is quite unlike the one she envisioned. Finally, her love affairs—with Rodolphe and Léon—seem to offer merely a pretext for her to exchange keepsakes and letters with another person. Emma goes through the motions of being in love without feeling any real love; it is the opportunity of wearing a new riding habit that causes her to embark upon her first affair. It is unsurprising then that she soon grows weary of both her lovers: “[Emma] was rediscovering in adultery all the platitudes of marriage”.

As Emma’s appetite for luxurious material goods increases, she grows more disillusioned with her life, and since the happiness those extravagant items give her is merely temporary, she is unable to fight ennui. Her mounting debt to Lheureux, the man who sells her the material goods she so desperately craves, and her failed love affairs contribute to bringing about Emma’s own demise.

Even before marrying Charles, Emma had fallen prey to ennui: soon after leaving the convent “she considered herself to be thoroughly disillusioned, with nothing more to learn, nothing more to feel”. Whereas boredom is a ‘response to the immediate’, ennui ‘belongs to those with a sense of sublime potential, those who feel themselves superior to their environment’. And indeed, Emma feels a sense of superiority to what surrounds her: her dull husband, her mother-in-law, her servants, the uncouth villagers, the “tiresome countryside, the idiotic petits bourgeois, the mediocrity of life”. Emma is adamant that she has been cast in the wrong role, that of a petit-bourgeois woman, believing that she deserves to live as a heroine in a romance does, married to Prince Charming and surrounded by beauty.

A pattern gradually emerges: time and again Emma is disappointed by her attempts to reconstruct the world portrayed in her romantic novels. At the same time, it is almost as if Emma is unconsciously not really interested in satisfying her desire or making her daydreams reality; what she seems to truly enjoy is the act of desiring itself. After all, it is only in her fantasies, and by apotheosizing her past experiences, that Emma can envision herself experiencing a form of pure sensation and heightened emotion. And perhaps it is the very act of fantasizing that enables her to feel something akin to jouissance, which in Lacanian theory is a form of ‘backhanded enjoyment’, an excessive pleasure that ‘[b]egins with a tickle and ends with blaze of petrol’. The pleasure that Emma feels by longing – by the very act of daydreaming – is similar to the ecstatic feeling experienced by her dream self. Yet, the enjoyment that she derives from yearning is accompanied by a feeling of pain since Emma is only able to long because she is missing something. Paradoxically, then, Emma can find fulfilment in the perpetuation of her non-fulfilment given that ‘every form of fulfilment necessarily brings an end to the desired state of longing, it is only the infinite deferral of satisfaction that keeps desire alive’.

There is the tendency to believe that Emma’s mania, her depression and her subsequent suicide result from her clumsy attempts at upward mobility. Flaubert makes Emma’s desires and her unhappiness quite clear to us: she wishes to live like the heroines in her beloved romances, yearns for an impossible glittery lifestyle but, try as she might, never really succeeds in replicating the feelings or experiences she has read of. Certainly, there are many instances where readers will find Emma’s dissatisfactions to be risible. But, however small-minded and solipsistic Emma Flaubert articulates her sense of entrapment and addiction to longing (for sublimity, love, completion, meaning) in such a way as to challenge easy dismissals of her desires (as being petty or superficial).

There are so many things that made me love this book. Flaubert’s prose (or Lydia Davis’ impeccable), his attention to the minute details that constitute provincial life, his irony, his absurd characters….the list goes on.
Flaubert excels at depicting the contradictory nature of people, the fleeting moments of irritation, boredom, hate, passion…there are many scenes which seem to ridicule his characters’ worries, but he never directly pokes fun at his characters (his readers will do that for him). And while a certain sardonic humor prevails there are also episodes that will certainly elicit our sympathies.
Although this novel is often labelled as a romance or a tragedy, Madame Bovary reads like an anti-romance. We have characters such Emma and Léon, idealists, self-proclaimed romantics, who are trapped in a realist narrative. Yet, Flaubert is also making fun of realism. There are so many descriptions of what the characters are wearing, of the smells or objects, houses, streets, you name it. Then juxtaposing these lavish or picturesque descriptions we have scenes detailing Charles’ operating on the stable boy’s club foot, and these scenes make for some nausea-inducing reading material.
Nevertheless this remains a beautifully crafted novel. Flaubert’s acuity, his striking prose, his vibrant characters, make for an unforgettable read. One should not approach this novel hoping for something in the realms of Anna Karenina. Although one could describe Emma as the ‘heroine’ of this novel, she possesses mostly qualities that will make readers hate her. There were many instances in which I disliked her (just read of the way she treats her servants or her daughter or even Charles). But Flaubert is a deft writer, and Emma cannot be simply be labelled as ‘unlikable’. In many ways she reminds of the alienated women who star in recent fiction such as the narrator in My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Emma is like them bored, self-destructive, prone to bouts of depression, and finds pleasure only in daydreams.
The first time I picked up this novel I struggled to make it past the first chapter. I then ended up listening to the audiobook (narrated by Juliet Stevenson who gives an impeccable performance) and, just like that, I was transfixed. This second time around I read it myself (I own a very stylish penguin classics edition) and I was once again enthralled by Flaubert narrative. I was particularly intrigued by the seamless way in which he shifts perspectives. This time I was also able to truly savour Flaubert’s prose as I already knew how the storyline would unfold. Next time I may try reading the Italian translation and maybe who knows, one day I will be able to read the original French (okay, that’s quite unlikely but you never know…). Anyway, I could probably go on and on about this novel. I would not recommend it to those who have a low tolerance for irony and kind of detestable characters.

MY RATING: 5 out of 5 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

“A smart Teek survives the storm, but a wise Teek avoids storms altogether.”

It took me awhile to warm up to Black Sun and during its first half I worried that I would find myself once again in the ‘unpopular’ opinion camp. As I’d read and liked Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning I was hoping that I would find Black Sun to be at least an entertaining read…but within the first 40% I found myself tempted to DNF it but I’m glad i persevered. Overall I think this is a really good start to the Between Earth and Sky series. I do have some ‘reservations’, but these are minor criticisms, and on the whole I would definitely recommend it to fans of N.K. Jemisin and Guy Gavriel Kay.

This novel’s biggest strengths is its world-building which is inspired by the pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas. The Meridian is a land that is home to many different clans, all of which have their own distinctive customs. Many resent the Watchers, “whose duty it was to keep the calendar and wrestle order from chaos” and who maintain “the Balance between what is above us and what is below”, which isn’t surprising given when we learn of the Night of Knives. The Watchers, an order composed of priests such as the Sun Priest and the Priest of Succor, reside in the “celestial tower” which is located in Tova. The sprawling action of the novel takes us all over Meridian. From the city of Tova, Meridian’s religious heart (where we learn of the conflict between the Watchers and the cultists as well as the disparities between Sky made clans and Dry Earthers), to the merchant city of Cuecola. We also accompany characters on their voyage across the treacherous Crescent Sea and gain insights into the matriarchal Teek people. Although part of me wishes that the novel had focused on two particular characters, I understand that the multiple perspectives allow us to explore different quarters and cultures of the Meridian. While certain settings could have been described more fully, we always given detailed descriptions of what the characters are wearing (from their clothes and hair styles to their accoutrements), which made them all the more vivid. Also, these descriptions often lead to insights into a particular clan/culture: “She came from a culture that lived on islands and in the water. Clothes were for protection from the elements and occasionally to show status, bug generally, Teek weren’t big on covering up for any supposed moral reasons. Cuecolans and, frankly, all the mainlanders were much too uptight about nudity.”
Although each city/district/clan has its own set of established norms, the Meridian has many LGBTQ+ people (and with the exception of Cuecola seems an accepting place). We have queer main and side characters and a third gender which are referred to as bayeki and use xe/xir pronouns. I loved the casualness of Roanhorse’s representation (casual but never insensitive or superficial).
This world also has some fab lore and magic. There are those who can read the skies, the Teek who can Sing to the water ie calm the seas (they call the water Al-Teek, their mother), and those who can converse and command crows. And we also have gigantic crows that can be ridden. How cool is that?
Unlike many other high fantasy books there is no info-dumping here. If anything Roanhorse keeps her cards close to her chest. We sometimes learn of certain things via conversations, such as when a character from X place has gone to Y place and is questioning a particular aspect of that society/city/culture. These dialogues didn’t feel contrived, and they provided us with a fuller picture of the Meridian.
I can’t wait to explore this world more in the next instalment.

Now…on the things that sort of worked and sort of didn’t (for me of course, these ‘criticisms’ are entirely subjective and I encourage readers to read reviews that express opposing takes/views). We have three main storylines: Xiala, a captain and a Teek who after accepting a job offer from a merchant lord finds herself transporting important cargo to the city of Tova; the cargo happens to be Serapio who was blinded by his own mother as part of a ritual and is now part of an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it prophecy prophesy; Narampa, the Sun Priest, who is a Dry Earther and as such is held in contempt by other Watchers. Although we are given the perspectives of individuals who are on opposing sides, I never felt very sympathetic towards Narampa, so for awhile I found myself rooting for the anti-Watchers…until that ending of course.
While most readers will correctly predict that at one point or another the lives of the paths of these characters will cross, they each of their own storyline. The first half of this novel is very much of slow-burn. While there is plenty of action and drama, I didn’t find the plot all that gripping (the chapters focusing on Serapio’s childhood were strongly reminiscent of Damaya’s chapters in The Fifth Season). Much of Narampa’s storyline irked me as it was kind of predictable (we have the cunning mean girl who tries to sabotage her). It is suggested that Narampa wants to change the ways of the Watchers but this isn’t explored all that well. There is too much time spent on her relationship to Iktan, the Priestof Knives who now protects Narampa. They were former lovers, and Narampa is suddenly interested again merely because she assumes that Iktan is seeing someone else (which is somewhat realistic but their former relationship remains vastly uncharted so that I never could picture them together or even believe that Narampa still had feelings for Iktan). Part of me thinks that we weren’t meant to like Narampa all that much, but I do wish she could have been made more sympathetic. After the 80% I did start to dislike her less so at least her character arc isn’t a flat one. Flashbacks into her childhood would have probably made her seem like a less uptight and supercilious.
Xiala and Serapio at first reminded me a bit too much of the two main characters in Trail of Lightning. Their personalities too seem to revolve around their unique abilities. But once their voyage across the Crescent Sea gets interesting we get to see a more rounded picture of their personalities as well as insights into their pasts, fears, and desires. Dismissing Xiala as a loud-mouth or the typical spitfire heroine would be to ignore her more vulnerable side. Her powers were cool, and I loved learning about the ways of the Teek or their relationship to Al-Teek. Serapio did walk to close to the “monster/villain/antihero” line. Readers seem to love type of character in spite of his actions. Usually his traumatic past gives him a free pass. Thankfully, Roanhorse subverts this trope. Serapio, like Xiala, has many vulnerable moments. Although he does question the path he has taken, we see that there are quite a few people responsible for his having embarked upon it.
While I could get past their instantaneous kinship, given their status as outsiders, I wish that their feelings had remained platonic…or that at least that their romance could have been explored in the next instalment. I wasn’t a big fan of their romance. While I did enjoy their dynamic, their attraction and romantic feelings for each other made their relationship a bit more basic. And, dare I say that my sapphic heart was sad to read another fantasy book with a het central romance? While Xiala is queer and attracted to women, she has never felt anything like what she feels for Serapio (insert eye roll). And I definitely did no enjoy reading this line: “I’ve been on a ship for the past two weeks with a celibate. Offer now, and who knows what happens? I’ve only got so much self-control”. This line would not be okay if uttered by a male character…so why is it okay if Xiala says it? Serapio is younger and inexperienced, so why can Xiala make a ‘I will jump your bones/I can’t help myself’ joke?
Still, I did overall enjoy their bond and scenes together. Hopefully their romance will be more convincing to me in the follow up book.
We also get a fourth character. He is introduced around the 40% mark…and his chapter are unnecessary. We never learn more of what kind of person he is, but rather his chapters are very oriented. He has very few chapters and with the exception of the last one these could be cut out of the novel without any major changes to the overall narrative.

In spite of my initial sentiments towards this novel Roanhorse’s writing is absorbing. There are many discussions, surrounding violence and justice for example (“justice came through the actions of humans holding wrongdoers to account, not through some vague divine retribution and certainly not through violence”), that can be applied to our own world. Xiala, Serapio, and even Narampa face stigma for who they are (“People like us are always hated until they need us—isn’t that always the way?”). Roanhorse gives different perspectives on the same or similar incidents/issues, presenting us with a nuanced view of things. She also wrote some wickedly cool lines and descriptions such as “He screamed, euphoric, and the world trembled at his coming” / “a false god is just as deadly as a true one” / “the world shuddered, as if it recognized him and feared what it saw”.
If you want to read an action-driven epic set in a non-Western inspired world and that is brimming with amazing visuals and concepts look no further. In spite of my criticisms towards the first half of the novel and the romance I did enjoy it and I would actually read it a second time (perhaps when the sequel is about to come out).

MY RATING: 3 ¾ stars (rounded up) out of 5 stars

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