BOOK REVIEWS

The Shape of Darkness by Laura Purcell

MILD-SPOILERS

At first I thought that The Shape of Darkness was going to be a spoof of Gothic novels. The dialogues were corny, the two main characters are exceedingly frail, and the ‘murder mystery’ storyline struck me as somewhat theatrical (or perhaps I should say more suited to a film than a book). But I was willing to read on, thinking that these exaggerations were intentional and that Laura Purcell was lampooning Victorian ghost stories…but the more I read the more the narrative seemed to try to impress upon me that it was telling a ‘serious’ story. Having now finished this novel I can safely say that it was very clichéd and unimaginative, the setting of Bath is barely rendered, the two main characters sound like the same person, and the big ‘twist’ was extremely predictable (I mean, I can think of two films—one in 1999 and one in 2001—that have a similar reveal). Also, The Shape of Darkness is yet another book that proves my least likely person is the culprit theory.
Anyhow, Agnes seems to believe that she is being targeted after the very first death. Which is…okay. The plot must go on I guess.

Anyway, the story starts with Agnes a silhouette artist. She has yet to fully recover from an illness that struck her a few years prior the start of the novel. She lives in a nondescript house with her orphaned nephew and her elderly mother. Her past is ‘mysterious’ and she’s clearly suffered more than on heartbreak. Her only friend happens to be a doctor who was married to her now deceased evil sister. Her few customers start turning up dead and Agnes worries that someone is after her.
Pearl is a medium who also happens to have an evil sister who forces to host seances. Pearl believes in the ghosts and there are scenes that seem to point to ‘otherworldly’ presences. Pearl is also, like Agnes, kind of sickly. The two characters in fact sound very much like the same person. They lack interiority and are mostly defined by how ‘frail’ and vulnerable they are. For quite awhile I thought that they were more or less the same age but I was surprised to discover that Pearl was 11 and Agnes in her 40s (yet they both sound like teenagers).

Agnes and Pearl end up ‘finding’ one another and Agnes convinces Pearl to help her contact her now deceased customers. We have two or three scenes in which Agnes is actually doing her job and we see Pearl doing two seances at the very beginning but after the 40% mark the narrative no longer focuses on these things.

The story takes a quite a few leaps in logic, there are a few too many convenient coincidences, the plot is dull, the characters uninspired. Although the story is set in Bath there are only a couple descriptions—a few sentences really—describing the city’s architecture. Agnes shows a surprising lack of awareness towards her norms of her time and there were a few inconsistencies. For example, a couple of pages after we are told that Agnes’ hands are swollen (possibly due to a combination of arthritis and chilblains) she does a silhouette for a customer. This requires her to use her fingers and I guarantee you that if her hands had truly been as the ‘swollen lumps’ we were told they were, she would not be able to move them very much, let alone being able to doe painstakingly controlled movements with her fingers. Instead we don’t even get a mention of her hands and fingers during this scene (we could have been told how difficult and painful it was to be using her hands when they were so swollen).

The story tries to be somewhat serious or creepy and yes, descriptions of Pearl’s father—who’s phossy jaw is rotting away—were not pleasant. But the narrative’s ‘supernatural’ undertones and ‘murder mystery’ storyline were bland and galaxies away from being remotely scary (or even atmospheric).

Here are a few examples of why I did not like the author’s writing: ‘But it cannot be, not after all of these years’, ‘her heart flutters its wings inside her chest’, the idea fills her with a sweet glow, ‘in her face are those simmering, witchy eyes’, ‘her slender trunk’ (this to describe a woman’s figure), ‘frightened whispers of her own conscience’.

Towards the end the story becomes so dramatic as to be frankly risible. There were a few scenes that were meant to inspire suspense or whatnot but they way they go down would have suited more a B movie.
If you liked it, fair enough, but I for one am glad I did not have to pay for my copy (the ‘perks’ of being on NetGalley).

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

“Loving a country besides the one you lived in was a recipe for disaster.”

The Star Side of Bird Hill is an enjoyable coming-of-age novel about two sisters, Dionne and Phaedra, who are sent off by their mother to spend their summer with their grandmother, Hyacinth, in a small town in Barbados. The girls’ aren’t too happy to leave Brooklyn, even if their homelife hasn’t been great given that their mother, who is suffering from depression and no longer works, can’t look after them (or herself for the matter). In Bird Hill they are forced to acclimatise to a different culture, and are often treated as foreign by their grandmother’s community. Although Phaedra, who is 10, misses her mum, she soon grows attached to Hyacinth, especially once she learns how vital a role she plays in the community. Fifteen-year-old Dionne on the other hand, repeatedly clashes with Hyacinth and her rules. Even if she resents her mother, for having sent her away and for forcing her to take care of both her and Phaedra, she’s clearly hurting.
As the summer goes by the two sisters adapt to life in Bird Hill. Phaedra, who is made fun of by other young girls for being a bit of a tomboy, finds fulfilment in learning more of her family’s history and of her grandmother’s job as a midwife. Dionne takes far longer to adjust to Bird Hill and their grandmother’s presence. She flaunts her rules and seems intent on being as difficult as possible. After certain events happen, she too begins to reconcile herself with her life in Bird Hill and Hyacinth.
Throughout the course of the novel we are given flashbacks into the girls’ childhood as well as the start and end of their mother’s relationship with their father.

“You practice being one kind of thing too long, and soon enough that’s who you become.”

While the storyline is somewhat conventional of this ‘coming-of-age’ genre, the author injects vitality into her story thanks to the character of Hyacinth and the vividly rendered setting of Bird Hill. Hyacinth was a force of nature (and funny too: “Oh Lord, please deliver me from these Yankee children”). I loved her no-nonsense attitude and the many wisdoms she imparts on her granddaughters. Phaedra too was a likeable character (who likes reading Jamaica Kincaid, always a plus in my books), who had a clear personality from the get-go. Dionne, in comparison, was a far weaker character. She’s very much the epitome of rebellious and angsty teenager who spends most of her time disrespecting her elders and thinking about sex. Which is fair enough, but because Hyacinth and Phaedra weren’t relegated to their ‘grandmother’ or ‘young child’ role, Dionne’s poor characterisation—which hinges on her being a teenager—stood out.
The writing was heavy on the ‘telling’ and light on the ‘showing’. Conversations are summarised rather than being ‘played’ on the page, and because the third-person narrative switches from character-to-charcater the same events or information would be repeated over the course of a few pages. The flashbacks could have been better integrated within the narrative, as they often broke the flow of the story, and gave us chunks of backstory that could have been portioned out more uniformly.
Still, I liked reading about Bird Hill, Hyacinth, and Phaedra. And even if the story touches on topics such as mental illnesses, it did so without delving too deep in them, so that it maintained an overall lighthearted, if bittersweet, tone.
I would probably recommend it to readers who enjoyed Frying Plantain or other novel that focus on family relationships between women (mother/daughters, granddaughters/grandmothers).

MY RATING 3 / 5 stars

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No Name by Wilkie Collins

I love Wilkie Collins’ humour, the quirkiness and mannerisms of his characters, and the intricate plots of his novels. No Name focuses on a rather unconventional heroine, Magdalen Vanstone, who in a short amount of time finds herself orphaned and – due to an idiotic a legality – penniless. Her rightful inheritance lands in the hands of her cruel uncle who refuses to help his nieces. While Nora Vanstone, the older sister, becomes a governess, Magdalen will resort to all sort of tricks and subterfuges to get her inheritance back. Aided by a distant relation, Captain Wragge, a cunning man who prides himself for his transactions in ‘moral agriculture’ aka all sorts of frauds and schemes, and his wife, Mrs Wragge, a gentle soul in the body of a giantess. Magdalen will use her incredible skills of mimicry and acting to trick those who have robbed her and her sister of their fortune.
For the most part No Name was a fun read. Captain Wragge and his wife offer plenty of funny moments, and secret war between the captain and Mrs Lecount kept me on my toes. However, the latter part of the novel does drag a bit. There were a lot of instances where I think Magdalen should have remained in the limelight, given that she was the protagonist. My favourite part remains the first act, before the tragedy struck the Vanstone family. We get to see the lovely dynamics between the various family members and their routines. I loved those first 100 pages or so.
The ending sort of made up for all that Magdalen endures but…still, part of me wishes (view spoiler)[she had been able to get her fortune back by herself and that she had not fallen ill…I am glad that she ends up with Kirke but it seemed a bit rushed that ending. (hide spoiler)]

MY RATING: 4 ½ stars


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My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

“Ayoola lives in a world where things must always go her way. It’s a law as certain as the law of gravity.”


Having read this novel twice I can safely say that I find it to be an exceptionally riveting read: once I start it, I just want to keep reading.
My Sister, the Serial Killer is a darkly funny and engrossing read about two sisters in Lagos, one of whom is a serial-killer.
The chapters are often only two or three pages long, and not one word—or chapter title—goes to waste. Through these brisk chapters Oyinkan Braithwaite presents her readers with snapshots-like scenes that perfectly capture a particular a moment, conversation, or memory in Korede’s story. While these scenes aren’t extremely detailed, there is always something that really makes them pop to life (it might be a reference to Ayoola’s glossy appearance, or a description of Korede’s workplace).
The novel moves at a swift pace, keeping a focus on the tense dynamic between Korede and Ayoola, maintains its initial momentum: Korede’s alertness and wariness keep us on the lookout, so we too are wondering wherever Ayoola will strike again.
Another aspect that I enjoyed is the ambiguous relationship between the two sisters. Korede was not necessarily jealous of her sister, it was more than she was frustrated by the way others fell under her spell of her beauty. In spite of their differences, and of all the small betrayals, Braithwaite managed to make their bond stand out (those rare moments of affection show readers why Korede would put up with Ayoola). Although Korede, as the older sister, feels like Ayoola’s protector, when Ayoola goes after a man Korede cares for…well, Korede’s own loyalties start to waver.
Interspersed throughout the this sleek and utterly energetic narrative are snippets of the poem’s of one of Ayoola’s victims. While Ayoola shows little remorse for her actions, Korede has a harder time letting go of her guilt.
My Sister, the Serial Killer is a compulsive read that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of Sayaka Murata and the recently released Pizza Girl.


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Sabrina & Corina: Stories by Kali Fajardo-Anstine

Sabrina & Corina is a touching collection of short stories. In these 11 stories Kali Fajardo-Anstine depicts the lives and experiences of Latinas in the United States (mainly in Denver, Colorado). Their everyday realities are marked by many social injustices: poverty, racism, sexism, addiction, parental neglect, emotional and physical abuse. While Fajardo-Anstine doesn’t shy away from portraying their bleak circumstances, the stories never felt pessimistic or overwhelming depressing. As the characters are contending with grief and trauma—personal and generational—they find some solace in moments of connection, a sense of understanding or kinship, with others. The women in these stories also find comfort in taking part in or looking back to family traditions. These scenes gave the stories a rather bittersweet tone, one that perfectly complemented Fajardo-Anstine’s tender yet bold prose.
Motherhood, sisterhood, and female agency are at the heart of these 11 stories. While these over-aching themes gave a sense of unity to the collection, their similarities—in tone, topics, and style—caused the less memorable stories to blur together (some of these were ‘Sisters’, ‘Julian Plaza’, and ‘Any Further West’). The stories that really stood out to me were ‘Sugar Babies’, ‘Sabrina & Corina’, and ‘Tomi’. ‘Sugar Babies’ was easily a 5 star read and my favourite in the whole collection (perhaps because Fajardo-Anstine faithfully renders the perspective of a young girl)
Sabrina & Corina is a heart-rendering debut and I will be on the lookout for Fajardo-Anstine’s future work.

My rating: 3 ½ stars

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A Pure Heart: A Novel by Rajia Hassib — book review

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A Pure Heart’s portrayal of sisterhood is tepid at best.
The needlessly expository narration, the clichéd character dynamics, and the meandering storyline didn’t really grab me at all.

This novel reminded me a lot of The Other Americans and many other titles that seemed aimed at an American audience…so we have these two sisters who don’t get along: one is usually very religious and perceived by the others as conservative; the other one is usually pursuing some sort of academic study, she is thought as ‘unconventional’, she is far more spirited/animated than her sister, and she usually ends up falling in love or marring an American guy.

Maybe I could have looked past the predictability of the story if said story had been told in an engaging or emotionally charged manner…but that wasn’t the case. Here we have very flat storytelling, which provides very little nuance, and attempts to create atmosphere by describing each movement its various characters make (they sit up, they walk here, they walk there, they move their hands, the use their hands to lift objects, their legs move…) and resulting in a slog of a narrative.
There is this one scene in which perhaps the author wanted to juxtapose the tension between a group characters by over-describing all of their actions during their dinner together:
➜ “Rose pulled her hand back. She got up to carry the turkey to the countertop and, after washing her hands, started pulling pieces of meat off its carcass.
➜ “Ingrid walked up to the cabinet, stretched to reach the box of Ziploc bags.
➜ “Ingrid asked, taking the plates from Mark and rinsing them before putting them in the dishwasher.
➜ “Rose glanced at Mark, who was slowly wiping the table, now cleared of plates, with a wet washcloth, his hand going from side to side, again and again, […] Mark wiped the table with a dry cloth, now rubbing it in spots, scraping at it with his thumbnail, making sure every crumb was gone, every inch was glistening,”.

Soon I was tired of reading phrases such as these:
➜ “She did not lift her eyes from her noodles, stabbing them with the fork, turning it to wrap them around its prongs.
➜ “she opened the fridge, pulled out a cup of fruit yogurt, and ate it standing by the window.

The non-linearity of the story also served very little purpose. Looking at past events didn’t really provide us with a more in-depth portrayal of the various characters, but rather it made their shallow characterisation all the more glaring. We have the American nice-ish husband who is bland and in spite of his fixation on Egypt he will never quite understand his wife or her country; his douchebag male friend who is the stereotype of the inconsiderate bro-dude American; the eccentric Polish landlady…
The story would have benefited from having a narrower scope, giving us an insight into the psychology of the two sisters. This story could have easily been told in a more conventionally linear timeline, giving us time to familiarise ourselves with the two sisters, to see their bond shift and change over the course of their youth.

The last part of book includes the story of a character that should have either been the entire focus of this narrative or merely a ‘backstage’ figure…perhaps the author should have trusted her readers more as she didn’t quite need to cram in a hurried narrative of a hard-working young man who ends up doing an unthinkable act of violence after he experiences hardship after hardship.
What could have been an interesting story of sisterhood and belonging ended up becoming a rather trite, and occasionally tacky, narrative that strives to be aesthetic and topical…

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 ½ stars 

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Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen — book review

Untitled drawing (1)It isn’t surprising that Pride and Prejudice has become such a classic, one that inspired thousands of adaptations and re-tellings. Many of the story’s components have become conventions…and to dismiss this novel as a ‘girl’s book’ is not only incredibly superficial but it negates Jane Austen’s clever social commentary.
While many of its characters are satirical personifications of certain types of people (the solipsistic and frivolous mother, the disinterested father, the silly sister(s), the intellectual one, and so on) it does so in a compelling way that makes them all the more vivid in the reader’s mind. Austen’s witty narrative might not appeal to all readers but it is undeniable that her story presents us with sharp-witted portraits.
In spite of her ‘prejudices’ Liz was an admirable heroine whose loyalty to her family, and in particular to her sister Jane, made her all the more likeable. Her ‘romance’ with Darcy is but one of the many strands of this rich story that deals with class and gender. What happens between the characters is conveyed in a subtle manner, through carefully selected words…yet the narrative is always buzzing with a vibrant energy.
An entertaining read that definitely lived up to its fame.

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

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Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker : review

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In spite of its intriguing premise Cassandra at the Wedding is a novel that is obscured by an impenetrable and confounding narration.
The story is divided in three sections, two of which are from the point of view of Cassandra. Her narrative reflects her state of mind and she reports things with a puzzling intense yet unfocused perspective. Her mind jumps from thought to thought, and she often provides no context—or reason—for what she thinks or observes which leaves readers trying to navigate her increasingly mystifying thought-pattern .
The novel is very much focused on Cassandra and her identity. Characters describe her personality in a way that suggests that she is much more alluring and passionate than she actually is. Cassandra spends way too much time exploring her sense of self, providing little information or motivation in the situations that would actually benefit from more clarity on her part.
She is depressed, unhappy, unfixed. Her life seems to have spiralled out of control after her sister moved away from their shared apartment. While the confusing style does reflect her skewed perceptions it also distances readers from her experiences. So much is unsaid that it was hard to find reasons to sympathise with her or her struggles.
Her sexuality is only vaguely hinted at which given the time the book was written in, it does ‘make sense’ but then…why include this aspect of her character if you will barely acknowledge it? Moreover, Cassandra’s obsession with her twin sister seemed far too undeveloped and unexplained. Her fixation seems the drive of this narrative, yet there seemed little substance to her relationship with her sister.
In conclusion, I was hoping that this novel would be far more innovative and entertaining than it actually was.

 

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L’Arminuta (A Girl Returned) by Donatella Di Pietrantonio

In spite of its short length Arminuta packs a real punch. I was almost hypnotised by its incredibly unsentimental narrative. Although Di Pietrantonio uses a seemingly direct and unadorned language, she’s able to brilliantly evoke the narrator’s world. However stark and unpleasant, everything was depicted in such a sharp and vivid way that I was entranced even by those scenes which held no beauty.
The intensity of the narrator’s account of her ‘return’ is striking. As a child she is unable to reconcile herself with being sent away from the parents who raised her, and there is nothing quite as heartbreaking as a child who is made to feel like they are unwanted. Her biological parents are so different from her ‘previous’ parents that the narrator feels increasingly lost and unhappy. Angry at those who have rejected (treating her as if she were little more than a parcel), having to adjust to her family’s poverty (far from what she was used to), and enduring her brothers’ taunts, it is only through her studies and her younger sister Adriana that the narrator can alleviate her despair. The bond between the two sisters was rendered with incredible realism. Adriana is incredibly loyal to the narrator and provides plenty of heartwarming moments (she is such a passionate and resilient girl!).
In Arminuta the narrator relates her uneasy formative years, and her narrative is underscored by a muted ambivalence. In spite of its length this novel gives a layered portrayal of a girl divided between two families.
In an introspective and thought-provoking journey the narrator ventures into her painful childhood, viewing the behaviour of the adults around her with a new understanding while still faithfully conveying the feelings and thoughts she had at that young age.

Rating: 4 ½ stars

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Everything Here is Beautiful: Book Review


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Everything Here is Beautiful by Mira T. Lee

★★★★✰ 4 stars

  “Where are you? Where the fuck are you, Lucia?”

Being punched in the stomach would have been less painful than this.

Lee’s depiction of mental illness is both incredibly vivid and deeply disturbing. Lucia is the focal point of the narrative: she is a free-spirit, full-of-life, a romantic with a big heart. However in her early twenties, something changes. Miranda is in many ways the opposite of her younger sister Lucia and after their mother’s death, Miranda struggles to understand what exactly is happening to her once so happy sister.
Not only does Lee masterfully utilises different point of views in order to give all of her characters an ‘equal’ voice but she also gives us a glimpse of what an ‘outsider’ thinks of Lucia’s situation and of her friends and family. After a particularly severe episode Lucia is hospitalised and we see what the nurses and doctors think of Lucia herself, and of her loved ones (Miranda, Manny—Lucia’s boyfriend— and Yonah, Lucia’s husband).
Each point of view brilliantly renders the individuality of a certain character. The chapters from Lucia’s perspective (which could be both in 1st and 3rd person) were incredibly jarring. A series of staccato sentences, broken up thoughts and impressions, really made me feel what Lucia was experiencing. In spite of how disturbing this feeling was, it was hard to take my eyes away from Lee’s vivid prose.
Another thing that stood out to me was the way in which Lee describes different places and cultures. Each of the main characters has a rich and multi-layered background. And the people that orbit around the main ‘cast’ were just as distinctive. With only a few words Lee is able to imbue her characters with history, personality and realism.

“There’s a word for this in Portuguese: saudade. It’s not exactly nostalgia, there’s more of a longing in it, for a feeling or way of life that may be impossible to recapture—that may or may not have even existed in the first place. An indolent dreaming wistfulness is how I’ve seen one writer describe it. Now that’s a great word.”

The narrative traces Lucia’s life, and the way in which she attempts to escape from her diagnosis. Fearing the loss of her individuality, Lucia tries to reject labels and or diagnosis, which are presented to her as inescapable sentence. Those she cares for try in different way, and with different—if not terrible—results, to help her. More than once the characters and their narratives confront the increasingly blurred line between Lucia and her mental illness. Would Lucia still be herself if it wasn’t for mental illness? Is her personality a result of her schizophrenia? Where does Lucia begin and where does her disorder ends?

“Later, in hindsight, they would come together on this: to wonder when it had become impossible to distinguish which parts of Lucia fell under her own juridistinction and which belonged to her illness.”

Lee does not provides with an answer. In her portrayal of Lucia—and of mental health in general—she never resorts to a didactic or dogmatic explanations, but rather she lets her narrative—which follows different characters during different periods of Lucia’s life—relate how Lucia’s illness is perceived by her and those around her.

 “I’m human first, aren’t I? Aren’t we all?”

We could clearly see that Miranda has the best intentions and tries her best to help Lucia, yet, we can also see how Lucia and others might find Miranda ‘controlling’.
We could also see how Lucia begins to disconnect from her everyday reality and those around her. For example, she is unable to recognise Manny’s terror at being deported or Miranda’s own concern about trying to have a child of her own.
The relationships between the various characters are all too realistic. Misunderstandings can foster resentment and tensions. In spite of all of this pain and hurt, there are some truly beautiful moments of tenderness and compassion that convey the underlying love and affection between these characters.

“You could say: This is the way tow people drift apart.”

Equally harrowing and evocative, Everything Here Is Beautiful is a heart-rendering debut that really that really packs a punch.

“I try not to think about it. I don’t take it personally. People say things, people do things, these two are not the same, I know that. I hope she’s happy, that’s all.”

There are a lot of ‘disturbing’ and painful things: Lucia’s mental illness, how her diagnosis alienates her from her sister, what Lucia experiences during one of her psychotic episodes, what others feel in witnessing Lucia’s dangerous behaviour. And perhaps all of these distressing moments make those rare moments of calm and or peace all the more beautiful.

“When she wakes, she feels something inside her like a venom, a flare in her chest, a burning sensation just beneath her skin. The serpents. A thought flickers. She extinguishes it. When she slows her breath to listen, the air is quiet. It is only her.”

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