BOOK REVIEWS

The Low, Low Woods by Carmen Maria Machado


Having only read Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir, I wasn’t sure what to except from The Low, Low Woods. The summary promised a creepy tale: we have the classic small town setting (here called Shudder-to-Think), strange creatures (deer-women, skinless men), and an old mystery.
The first issue begins with our two protagonists, El and Octavia, waking up in a movie theatre and not being able to recall the previous hours. Something happened, they know as much, but finding out the truth behind their missing memories might stir up some trouble.
While I appreciated the story’s atmosphere, I didn’t find it very unsettling. We have random monsters that seem to appear only because ‘reasons’. Our two main characters weren’t very interesting or likeable. One of them is secretly dating a popular girl, and that storyline felt very unexplored.
There were many events that had unconvincing explanations. The author seemed intent on making the story as mysterious as possible by leaving loose strands. Each issues ends in a cliffhanger that is often not directly resolved at the beginning of the following issue. And then we have the 5th issue which is basically info-dumping. There was no suspense. The two girls discover the truth behind the town’s past in a very anticlimactic way. The ‘feminist’ angle was…meh? The story doesn’t have anything interesting or insightful to say about men who abuse or control women.
The art I quite liked. I saw other reviewers criticising it for being ‘scratchy’ but I personally thought that it fitted with the story’s aesthetics. Plus, there were some very stunning pages:




While I didn’t particularly like this graphic novel’s writing (we had clichéd quasi-wisdoms such as: “Sometimes, you have to listen to someone else’s story”), its characterization nor its storyline, the art was pretty good and both main characters were queer…so I guess you win some you loose some.

MY RATING: 2 ½ out of 5 stars
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The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye is an unflinching and deeply harrowing examination of race, colorism, gender, and trauma. Throughout the course of her narrative Toni Morrison captures with painful lucidity the damage inflicted on a black child by a society that equates whiteness with beauty and goodness, and blackness with ugliness and evil.
In her introduction to her novel Morrison explains her inspiration of the novel. Like Morrison’s own friend, the central character in The Bluest Eye, Pecola, is a black girl who yearns for ‘blue eyes’. Similarly to Sula in the eponymous novel, Pecola becomes her community’s scapegoat, but, whereas Sula embraces who she is, Pecola’s self-hatred is compounded by her community’s demonisation of her. The more people speak of her with contempt, the stronger her desire for blue eyes becomes.

Rather than making us experience Pecola’s anguish first-hand, Morrison makes readers into complicit onlookers. We hear the venomous gossip that is exchanged between the various members of Pecola’s community, we witness the horrifying sexual abuse Pecola’s father inflicts on her—from his point of view, not hers—and the good-hearted, if ultimately inadequate, attempts that two other young girls, Claudia and Frieda, make to try and help Pecola.
The adults in this novel are color-struck and condemn Pecola for her parents’ actions, suggesting that she herself is to blame for the violence committed against her. The story is partly narrated by Claudia, whose childhood naïveté limits her comprehension of Pecola’s experiences. We are also given extensive flashbacks in which we learn more about Pecola’s parents (their youth, their eventual romance, and their extremely fraught marriage). There are also scenes focused on characters that belong to Pecola’s community and who either use or abuse her
.
Throughout the course of the narrative, regardless whose point of view we are following, it is clear that Pecola is suffering, and that her home-life and environment are fuelling her self-loathing.
This is by no means an easy read. There is a nauseatingly graphic rape scene, incest, and domestic violence. Pecola is bullied, maltreated, and abused. The few moments of reprieve are offered by Claudia and Frieda, who unlike Pecola can still cling to their childhood innocence.
Pecola’s story is jarring and sobering, and at times reading The Bluest Eye was ‘too much’. Nevertheless, I was hypnotised by Morrison’s cogent style. She effortlessly switches from voice to voice, vividly rendering the intensity or urgency of her characters’ inner monologues. In her portrayal of Pecola’s descent into madness Morrison is challenging racist ideals of beauty, binary thinking, and the labelling of races and individuals as being either good or evil. Pecola’s family, her community, even the reader, all stand by as Pecola becomes increasingly detached from her reality. This a tragic story, one that is bound to upset readers. Still, the issues Morrison addresses in this novel are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago.

MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

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Blue Lily, Lily Blue & The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater

Blue Lily, Lily Blue is probably my second favourite book in the TRC series. Sad, funny, and magical Blue Lily, Lily Blue is a truly spellbinding novel. Each member of the Glendower gang is struggling with something, and even if it isn’t easy to see them fight with each other their bond is incredibly moving.

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars


I have a hard time reviewing books that I really loved. The story and characters in The Raven Cycle seem so much more than ‘fiction’, so it isn’t easy to speak, or write, about them in those terms. Still, I will try to express the reasons why I love this series so much: Maggie Stiefvater’s writing (I have pointed out before but she has a way with words), the myths that are explored within these books, the atmospheric and incredibly vivid setting of Henrietta (and Cabeswater, Monmouth Manufacturing, 300 Fox Way, the Barns), the balance of humour and sorrow, the tarot readings and ley lines, and of course, the characters, whose flaws make them all the more wonderful, and the relationships they form with one another. A lot happens in The Raven King, so much so that we don’t really have the time to process some of the more heart-wrenching scenes (if you’ve read this you know). Part of me wishes that we could have had a longer epilogue…still, I’m extremely grateful to Stiefvater for what she has accomplished with TRC. Ronan Lynch, I’ll be seeing you in your trilogy

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars
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The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater

The Dream Thieves is pure adrenaline. Ronan Lynch is my favourite asshole, which is probably why The Dream Thieves is my favourite book in The Raven Cycle series (and one of my favourite books period). Ronan is an incredibly complex boy whose ‘I don’t give a shit’ attitude makes him say or do rude and reckless stuff. He’s addicted to trouble.
I love the shifting dynamics and knowing looks that take place between the various members of the Glendower gang. I also really appreciate how Stiefvater never reveals too much about her characters or their motivations/feelings.

P.S. I’m not a car person, I don’t drive, I know nil abut cars…but damn, every time I read this book (or think about this book) I find myself agreeing with Ronan: cars are sexy.

MY RATING: ★★★★★ 5 stars
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The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater

Maggie Stiefvater is a marvellous storyteller. The Raven Boys is a fantastic novel: we have an intriguing storyline, Welsh mythology, magic and curses, and a cast of unforgettable characters. Rather than presenting her readers with ‘heroes and heroines’, paragons of beauty and virtue, Stiefvater’s characters, regardless of their role, are nuanced and messy. The raven boys and Blue can be insecure about themselves, each other, and their future. Their friendship is an intense one, but things are never easy between them. Stiefvater never reveals too much about her characters, so that they always retain a certain ambiguity, an enticing air of mystery. Stiefvater style carries a wonderful rhythm. I love the way she plays around with repetition and the way she describes her characters or how animated her scenes are (there are so many secret looks shared between the raven boys).
The Raven Boys is an incredibly atmospheric book that will always have a special place in my heart. Words cannot express how much I love this series.

MY RATING: ★★★★★ 5 stars
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The Searcher by Tana French

“He doesn’t like the feeling, or the fact that he recognises it and understands it perfectly; it’s as familiar to him as hunger or thirst. Cal never could stand to leave a case unresolved.”

If I’d read The Searcher without knowing the author’s identity, I’d never have guessed that it was a novel by Tana French.
Because the narrative in The Searcher is told in the third-person, it felt far less intimate and intricate than the Dublin Murder Squad series (which, with the exception of The Secret Place, have a first-person pov) so it took me awhile to warm up to French’s prose. While I understand that ‘sticking’ to the same writing style book after book must get tiring, I can’t say that I particularly liked French’s ‘new’ style (in fact, while reading I found myself longing for her ‘usual’ prose). And even if The Searcher was by no means incompetently written, the language French uses wasn’t quite as literary or complex as the one in her previous novels.

Onto the actual story: after becoming increasingly disillusioned with the police force Cal, our main character, retires from Chicago’s police force and decides to re-locate to the fictional Ardnakelty, a remote small village in the West of Ireland. Here he spends his time fixing up his decrepit new house and bantering with his neighbour.
The narrative moves at an incredibly slow pace…which would have been fine by me if pace had been sacrificed in favour of characterisation. But Cal isn’t an incredibly compelling or complex protagonist. What we get instead are long and detailed descriptions about Cal painting his desk or doing up something in his new house. While he goes on about his day he starts to feel as if someone is watching him.
After some more time passes he meets Trey, a kid from a poor and disreputable family. Trey’s brother is missing so he enlists Cal to find out what happened to him. Cal, who wants to keep his head down, is initially reluctant to get involved, however, as he spends more time with Cal (fixing up his furniture, hunting) he decides to help Trey.

French brings to life the slightly claustrophobic atmosphere of a small village. In a community where everyone seems to know everybody’s business, Cal quickly realises how difficult it is to escape the shadow of your family. Although Trey is only thirteen, Ardnakelty residents believe that because he comes from a ‘rotten’ family he’s bad egg.
Cal makes slow progress in his ‘investigation’. He has little authority in the village, so he has to play up his ‘Yankee’ persona in order to get some answers. Still, the people he questions are reticent to talk and soon enough Cal realises that he has ruffled some of the locals feathers.
French vividly renders Cal’s environment, on the very first page we get this stunning description:
“The sky, dappled in subtle gradations of grey, goes on forever; so do the fields, coded in shades of green by their different uses, divided up by sprawling hedges, dry stone walls and the odd narrow back road.”
The Irish countryside is by turns idyllic and menacing, just as the people who inhabit the land. Much of the banter Cal has with his neighbour or with other men at the local pub carries a not-so-friendly edge. Seemingly harmless exchanges carry the possibility of danger. Yet, even if Cal is aware of this, and of the possibility of upsetting or antagonising the entire village, he’s unwilling to give up his search.

The mystery often took the backseat in favour of scenes detailing Cal’s daily routing (fixing up the house, fishing, going to the local store, phoning his daughter). There were also quite a lot of conversations about topics I didn’t particularly care for (look, I like dogs as much as the next person but my mind will start going blank if I have to read a few pages describing ‘pups’).
The dynamic between Cal and Trey was the most compelling aspect of this book. I did wish that some scenes of Trey interacting with his family could have been included as they would have given a fuller picture of his life.
Even if I wasn’t as interested in Mart or Lena, their words always rang true and they could provide some amusing moments. Cal, on the other hand, sometimes said things that didn’t entirely convince me. While he did question himself and his own behaviour, and I did appreciate that he struggled with the meaning of ‘doing the right thing’, his character was a bit of a blank at times. Although we are given his view on his job, on his feelings about police brutality, racial profiling, and corruption, as well as an impression of the kind of relationship that he has with his daughter and ex-wife, Cal’s main characteristic is that he is ‘American’. And sometimes what he said sounded a bit too American, even in those instances when he wasn’t playing up this role. His motivations for picking Ireland as his new home were also left unexplored. And what did his daughter think of this relocation? We simply know that she’s busy working but we don’t learn of her reaction upon discovering that her father had chooses to retire and move across the ocean.
The mystery storyline takes a rather predictable direction and I never felt any real sense of suspense. There were quite a few scenes that were just boring and added little to the overall story.
At the end of the day, The Searcher doesn’t offer a new spin on the Town with a Dark Secret™. The more I think about it the less I like this novel. It has a kind of Hot Fuzz sort of story (minus the laughs): we have a protagonist who ‘can’t switch off’ who goes to a small village and learns the meaning of friendship and finds out that there is a reason why locals don’t want him to investigate certain things.
An okay read but nothing like French’s usual.

My rating: 3 ½ stars of stars

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Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby

“You were never out of the Life completely. You were always looking over your shoulder. You always kept a gun within reach.”

Blacktop Wasteland is a thrilling, adrenaline-fueled read that gives a fresh new take on the One Last Job™ premise. S.A. Cosby’s pitch-perfect debut novel is brutal, twisty, and hella gritty. Blacktop Wasteland will have you at edge-of-your-seat from its very first chapter—in which our ‘hero’ takes part in a drag race—until the novel’s finish line. Although Cosby’s noir narrative is reminiscent of Walter Mosley and Dennis Lehane, his dynamic voice brings something new to the crime fiction scene.
Set in a small-town in rural Virginia, Blacktop Wasteland follows Beauregard Montagerom, nicknamed Bug, a family man who works as a mechanic at his own garage. Beauregard’s attempt to live an honest life is hindered by money troubles: business is bad and unforeseen expenses keep cropping up. Going against his wife’s wishes, Beauregard agrees to one last job. The heist, however, doesn’t go quite as planned…and things rapidly go south.
Blacktop Wasteland has a lot to offer: an action-packed storyline, charged dialogues, and compelling yet morally grey—if not downright corrupt—characters.
This is one gripping novel. While things do get violent and messy, Cosby manages to vividly render Beauregard’s complicated family dynamics, as well as the motivations of those connected to the heist. The way the story unfolds took me by surprise, and in the latter half of the novel, my jaw may have hit the floor once or twice.
Alongside some pretty epic moments—Beauregard, for all his faults, is one smooth guy—the story manages to pack quite a few emotional punches. Cosby doesn’t shy away from portraying the stark realities of crime, poverty, and racism.
Cosby’s descriptions were terrific, especially where cars were concerned (“the car shivered like a wolf shaking its pelt” , “the motor went from a roar to the war cry of a god”). They could also be startlingly humorous (such as “explanations were like assholes. Everyone has one and they are all full of shit”).
Reading Blacktop Wasteland felt like being taken on an exhilarating ride. This novel is smart, dark, funny, and—as previously mentioned—seriously gritty.

My rating: 4 ½ stars

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The Fell of Dark by Caleb Roehrig

…and I thought that vampires were passé.
The Fell of Dark is a fun take that on vampires and ‘the chosen one’ trope. Usually, I’m a nitpicking reader but with The Fell of Dark I was happy to suspend my disbelief.
Is this novel perfect? Definitely not. Is it entertaining? Hell yes!
Our narrator and protagonist, sixteen-year-old August Pfeiffer, lives in Fulton Heights, Illinois. This small town happens to be a nexus for mystical and supernatural energies which is why it attracts so many vampires. August, the only ‘out’ gay boy in his school, isn’t particularly fond of his hometown (mostly due to its vampire populace). In spite of the vampires prowling his town at night, his biggest concern is algebra…until he receives a cryptic and ominous message from a distractingly cute-looking vampire (who happens to have an English accent). Things became increasingly bizarre as August finds himself at the centre of a feud between different vampire sects, an order of mortal knights, and a coven.
This is a very plot-driven book and August can’t seem to catch a break. For ‘reasons’ however he’s the chosen ones, and the whole world depends on him.
August’s narration is the strongest aspect of this book. He’s a rather awkward and perpetually horny teen who also happens to be an incredibly funny narrator (laugh-out-loud kind of fun).
This novel’s plotline is kind of basic but Caleb Roehrig makes it work. There is a certain self-awareness that makes up for the derivativeness of some of the storyline’s components (for example, the fact that no one seems to be telling August the truth because almost a running gag).
Those expecting this to be a love story of sorts will probably be disappointed as this novel has more of a lust/attraction-subplot than a romantic one.
With the exception of August, the characters are somewhat one-dimensional (also, it seemed that every single character was connected with one of these cult-ish groups). Still, the role they come to play in August’s story did hold my attention.
The world in this novel isn’t all that detailed. A few characters occasionally give some exposition about vampires and their history, but that’s about it.
This is an absorbing book. It has a lot of silly moments but I never found these to be ridiculous or unfunny. If you are a fan of Buffy or Carry On you will probably enjoy it as much as I did.

ps: I spent my day off work listening to the audiobook edition (which lasted about 12 hours) which…yeah. That was a new record for me. But once I started listening to it I couldn’t stop (Michael Crouch is an amazing narrator).

My rating: 3 ¾ stars

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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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Blackwood by Michael Farris Smith — book review

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Blackwood is a gritty read. Set in Red Bluff, Mississippi, a rather dismal small-town, the story follows a small cast of miserable characters. There is a family that is new to town, that are referred to as ‘the man’, ‘the woman’, and ‘the boy’, who stir some trouble with the locals, the sheriff, Myer, and Colburn, a sculptor who has return to Red Bluff after years away. The characters spend most of the narrative expressing their dejected opinions, the male characters in particular seem prone to long and existentialist monologues (that did not seem to fit with their characters but whatever) and feeling a growing sense of unease. In the background there are some kudzu vines that are acting up, swallowing up whatever, and whoever, is in their path.
I wasn’t fond of the way in which Smith would avoid referring to his characters’ names, and often I wasn’t sure who the scene was focusing on. The two ‘mains’, Myer and Colburn, had the same kind of wretched disposition. The three women who have some page-time are treated like doormats most of the time….or are just there so the men can lust after their bodies.
I guess I liked the atmosphere but I didn’t find this to be a particularly memorable or disconcerting read.

My rating: ★★★3 of 5 stars

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