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Empire of Wild by Cherie Dimaline

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


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

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

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

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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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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Please See Us by Caitlin Mullen — book review

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“There is something bad in the air and in the water now, something rotten and wrong. A moral disease.”

While Please See Us gives its readers a slightly more innovative “missing women” type-of-story. Providing us with a panoramic of Atlantic City Caitlin Mullen’s novel follows Clara, a young psychic, and Lily who has only recently returned to the city. Between their first-person chapters we have those of Luis, a mute and deaf janitor who works at the same spa as Lily, and those of ‘the Janes’, victims of an unknown serial killer. The quasi-supernatural element gives this rather tired type of story a bit of an edge.
As more women are killed Clara and Lily find themselves embarking on an investigating of sorts.

What Mullen does best in this novel is render Atlantic City’s underbelly. The characters in the story feel stuck in what they rightly perceive to be a city in decline: addiction, prostitution, crime. Life in Atlantic City is not easy and ‘the Janes’ know this better than anyone. Mullen succinctly describes their fears and desires, as well as their circumstances. Some embrace their lifestyle, others believe that they deserve to be degraded and used by men, while some are battling against depression or addiction.

While Mullen manages to make ‘the Janes’ sympathetic without making them strictly likeable, her two main characters were pretty annoying.
Clara, who was raised by her aunt, has led a rather unsupervised life. Alongside her aunt she steals and cons people. Yet, her visions are no farce and she believes that a girl who recently went missing is in danger. Lily, who used to move in New York’s art sphere, finds herself working as a receptionist at a casino’s spa. Her breakup has given her quite a shock and she no longer feels as certain of herself as she used to.
Both Clara and Lily had very self-dramatising narratives. They seem constantly startled by the most ordinary things, and they both go around judging people in the same way…which struck me as weird. They see someone and they seem able to deduce that person’s character and story…Clara, for all her ‘street-smarts’ makes a ton of idiotic choices. Part of me wanted to give Lily a good shake. Much is made of the reason behind her breakup and when we get the details…well, it seemed very over the top. Her ex was hard believable as he was a mere caricature of the modern ‘artist’.
Clara and Lily’s chapters were aggravating and full of platitudes that made me roll my eyes. Mullen tries hard to make Lily have an artist’s worldview but to me these attempts seemed exaggerated: she tries to interact with Luis by making an obscure art reference, and she things stuff like this:
“That’s what I loved about portraiture—how it captured the way a person’s personality, their past, their secrets, their desires or disappointments, settled into their body, their face.”
Give me a break.
So many of Clara and Lily’s observations and inner monologues were pure cheese. One of them things this of Luis: “[His] personality was buried deep within his layers of silence”.
Speaking of Luis…what was the point in his character? For much of the novel Mullen makes these not so subtle hints that he is not quite ‘right’. He is repeatedly harassed and beaten up while the police stands by and does nothing (I mean, really?) and most people think he is a creep. Why is there this tendency to portray janitors this way? Let alone mute and deaf individuals?

The storyline takes its time to set off. What Clara and Lily do isn’t necessarily an investigation but a series of not always logical/organised attempts to discover where these missing women are.
There are quite a few female characters who said cringy stuff like ‘as a woman’ and things on those lines which…who speaks like that?
With the exception of two men who have very small cameos, all the guys in this book are basically the same: sadistic, predatory, violent, rapists, 100% vile.
The serial killer was the typical fanatic who stars in novels like these.
The way the ending unfolded irritated me. Shit finally hist the fan and then within a few pages its sort of over.
All in all there was a lot I did not like about this novel. Clara and Lily’s voices were pure cringe. The story was too slow and perhaps it would have benefited from being a tad more complex.

The Jane chapters and the portrayal of Atlantic City were the most absorbing aspects of Please See Us. Would I recommend this one? Not so sure…

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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American Gods by Neil Gaiman — book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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Call Down the Hawk by Maggie Stiefvater — book review

31373184.jpgThis book is full of Stiefvaterisms (in the best possible way).

“This is going to be a story about the Lynch brothers.”

The very first line of Call Dawn the Hawk echoes that of a fairy tale and Maggie Stiefvater’s uses her impressive storyteller skills throughout the course of this novel. There are many elements of her writing style that seem to mirror those of a fairy tale: she employs repetition and recurring motifs, ‘truth’ and ‘naming’ shape both the narrative and the characters, the words and images she uses have a certain significance. Stiefvater pays incredible attention to word she uses and to the way that certain phrases sound. Her use of repetition also gives a unique rhythm to her story. Yet her style doesn’t solely emulate that of a traditional fairy tale as she injects her prose with a good dose of modern aesthetics.

“This was stupid. Ronan was no hero, but he knew fucking right from fucking wrong.”

Call Dawn the Hawk stars one of my all time favourite ‘fictional’ characters: Ronan Lynch. Although he has somewhat ‘calmed’ down, most of what he feels and does is still undeniably Ronan-ish. It was tough seeing him struggle so much: he feels left behind by Adam (who is in college) and Gansey (who has taken a year off and is travelling alongside Blue). The ‘nighwash’ limits his movements, so much so that spending a night outside of the Barns can have quite destructive results.

“Ronan, with his dangerous dreams, sleeping some-place other than the Barns or Declan’s town house? Dubious. Moving someplace other than the Barns or Declan’s town house? Never.”

Stiefvater does a brilliant job in fleshing out Declan’s character. He had a rather limited role in The Raven Cycle so it was refreshing to see more of what goes on underneath his deceptively ‘bland’ exterior.

“He just didn’t think. For one second of one minute of the day, he didn’t run the probabilities and worst-case scenarios and possibilities and consequences. For one second of one minute of the day, he just let himself feel.”

I always liked Matthew’s character in the previous books. His innocence and happy-go-lucky attitude make a change from the other characters’ (especially his older brothers) more angsty personal arcs. It would be lovely to see him getting his own chapters in the next instalment of this series.
Scenes featuring the Lynch brothers are guaranteed to entertain. Their relationship is definitely…complicated…but also utterly compelling. Declan and Ronan clash so often but it is clear that they deeply care for one another (even if they have no idea how to expresses their love).
Surprisingly less complicated is Ronan’s relationship with Adam. It’s definitely not all roses and sunshine but we could definitely see how strong and mature their bond has become.

“They hugged, hard. It was shocking to hold him. The truth of him was right there beneath Ronan’s hands, and it still seemed impossible. He smelled like the leather of the thrift store jacket and the woodsmoke he’d ridden through to get here. Things had been the same for so long, and now everything was different, and it was harder to keep up than Ronan had thought.”

Stiefvater also does a great job in introducing us to new characters. It took me a while to warm up to them (this is partly due to the ambiguousness which surrounds them) but I soon became fond of them. Jordan and Hennessy are wonderful addition to this series. They each have their own distinctive personality and their bond was surprisingly complex. Jordan interacts in particular with Declan and I was surprised by how much I liked their banter. Hennessy and Ronan instead share the same mercurial personality so it was equally interesting to see them interact with one another.
While Carmen Farooq-Lane’s chapters weren’t my favourite ones I still appreciated her perspective as her sections did add a sense of urgency to the overall narrative.

“This was, she told herself, the business of the end of the world.”

The chapters featuring Liliana struck me as vaguely unnecessary. Maybe this is due to her character…hopefully she will be a bit more fleshed out in the novels to come.
The plot itself is rather formulaic: we have chapters following each individual character until slowly their paths converge. We have the dreamers, a mysterious government agency that wants to eradicate the dreamers, and possibly the end of the world. Similarly to The Raven Cycle S also has chapters focusing on this ‘opposing team’ (those who are working against or are a potential threat to our protagonists).
Stiefvater has really honed her writing style. I loved the way she often mythicizes her characters, so that they almost appear as if they are the protagonist of some myth or ballad. I also found the recurring imagery and symbols within this novel to be incredibly effective. They created a unique atmosphere and worked well with the rhythm of her language.
Stiefvater also portrays different types of faith with great realism. Learning of the various character’s beliefs, convictions, and general outlooks made them all the more believable. Interspersed throughout the narrative there are many compelling discussions and observations regarding art (from painting techniques to the lives or works of certain artists).
The pacing of this novel is pretty furious. Lots of things happen, each chapter furthers the plot (characters come across someone or certain information that contributes to their overall storyline).

My only ‘quibbles’ are:
Bryce + the are a lot of unnecessarily oblique monologues and dialogues (I’m all for establishing a sense of mystery but these were merely cryptic for the sake of being cryptic).
Anyhow, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this novel. I felt ‘emotionally’ involved and I found myself simultaneously wanting to read it all in one gulp and also never wanting it to end.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

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The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova — book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Institute by Stephen King – book review

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“What we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good.” — Joseph Brodsky

The Institute is a gripping, if occasionally horrifying, read.
Stephen King is a great storyteller and The Institute showcases many of his strengths and traits: we have an engrossing narrative, children and teenagers with psychic abilities, and an army of evil characters.
While The Institute is in many ways a ‘classing King’, its story struck me for its incredibly relevant portrayal of America’s political and social climate (from Donald Trump to anti-vaxxers). The novel’s main concern however is the inhumane treatment of children: within this narrative we read of children who are used and abused, treated as commodities, and denied of their rights, freedom, and agency.
Their age, the fact that they are indeed children or underage, becomes a weapon that is used against them. King’s story subverts society’s notion of children, their role and place in society: children run away from home, they are rude, they don’t know enough about the real world or important issues, and they are egocentric. In The Institute not only do adults keep children in the dark but they use their limited knowledge and lack of experience against them. Those working for the Institute kidnap, imprison, and torture children. Yet, they believe that they are justified in their methods. They believe that as adults they have the power, if not right, to ‘punish’ and ‘educate’ children.

“I am having quite the adventure, Luke thought. Yes indeed, quite the adventure for me.”

This propelling narrative is populated by an array of believable characters. Rather than just focusing on the children, those who are oppressed by the Institute, King’s narrative is polyphonic. We become acquainted with the adults who commit such horrific acts, their working-dynamics, their motivations and beliefs. Still while we see that they themselves view their own actions as necessary, readers will still find most, if not all, of their behaviour and values to be utterly appalling.

“He was only twelve, and understood that his experience of the world was limited, but one thing he was quite sure of: when someone said trust me, they were usually lying through their teeth.”

The characters I cared about the most where of course the children (Luke, Kalisha, and Avery in particular). King gives each child and teenager imprisoned in the Institute a distinctive personality, which is no small feat given that their horrifying circumstances threaten to erode their very sense of self. They are repeatedly humiliated, tortured, and dehumanised. Yet, the fact that they are all living through this nightmare, create a powerful bond between them. They have a camaraderie of sorts, they distract each other from their terrible surroundings and heinous experiences.

King’s depiction of good and evil within The Institute’s brutal world although complex and ultimately open ended convinced me that the end does not justify the means. While in many of his novels there is an unseen or arcane evil presence, something un-human, within The Institute it is the seemingly ‘ordinary’ people who cause the most evil.
What is most terrifying is that they are often completely desensitized to the violence that they are committing against these children (and their parents). When we follow them in their ‘daily routines’ we see that they do not consider or second-guess their job requirements. They consider their horrific actions towards and mistreatment of these children as part of their job descriptions. After all, these children have psychic abilities, and therefore they are not really normal children. They are ‘soldiers’ and they have to do their duty. The way the Institute’s employees normalised their own violent and gruesome behaviour brought to my mind the notion of ‘the banality of evil’.

In spite of the novel’s dark themes and difficult subject matters, this novel never comes across as heavy going. King manages to inject this story with a healthy dose of humour and compassion. He also is one of the few authors who is able to incorporate popular American culture in a way that is accessible to non-American readers (most of his references are made clear because they aren’t just thrown out in the open air, they have some context). Speaking writing of America…I just enjoy the way he portrays small towns. He perfectly captures the ambience of the places he writes of, giving us an impression of a community within the space of a few lines.
King also excels at dialogue. The children and teenagers within this novel have the most entertaining of conversations and arguments. I particularly liked the way in which he employs various slangs as well as managing to convey a person’s inflections. You can see that King pays incredible attention to the English language, to the way people speak, and to the significance of their chosen words.
The novel’s occasional intertextuality (the horror fiction is after all a rather derivative genre) create some moments of entertainment, but it is his self-referentialism that is particularly effective (“They were holding hands and clutching dolls as identical as they were. They reminded Luke of twins in some old horror movie”).
Another thing that I appreciated is that the children’s psychic abilities doesn’t make them into unstoppable forces. Even Avery isn’t made into an all-mighty figure. He is a ten year old who didn’t have a lot of friends before meeting Luke and Kalisha. These children have all too believable fears and they obviously affected by their environment. And it’s perhaps because their powers are limited, because they are afraid and they have everything at stake, that makes their determination to leave the Institute all the more admirable.

“Telepathy always sounded great in stories and movies, but it was annoying as fuck in real life.”

The Institute’s story and its characters, even King’s writing itself, are—in more ways than one—incredibly vivid. With its thrilling storyline and through plenty of slam-bang chases and action scenes, this book makes for an adrenaline-fuelled read.
While there is a lot of stomach-churning violence (often committed against children) King’s descriptions never struck me as gratuitous. If anything that I was ‘forced’ to silently witness what these children endure made me all the more irate towards those who committed these vicious actions.

“Because it was chess now, and in chess you never lived in the move you were about to make, or even the next one.”

King examines the way in which power structures and or authoritative figures abuse and oppress those they perceive as expandable (in this case children) and he portrays in almost painful detail the way in which Luke, Kalisha, and Avery, are robbed of their ‘innocence’.
The absorbing narration, the captivating dialogues, and the edge-of-the-seat plot combine together into an exceptional reading experience.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Platform Seven by Louise Doughty — book review

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In spite of its flaws Platform Seven is a lot more thoughtful than one might expect from its murder mystery premise.

“There was a man on the station only two hours ago who will never go home again.”

One of the weakest aspects of this book is that it tries, and doesn’t really succeed, in combining two different genres and concepts together.
The first 30% or so of this novel proposes a slow and atmospheric take on the ghost story. Louise Doughty’s use of the supernatural, although patchy, allows her to create a mosaic of the lives and troubles of the people working at Peterborough Railway Station. Forgotten and largely overlooked, they are forced to deal with horrific situations such as suicides. Through Lisa Evans, the ghost of a suicide victim, we follow some of the night staff in their everyday lives. Lisa is somehow able to tell what these people feel and think, and there is a sense of quiet resignation in the people she observes. Although depressive, very much so, it was interesting to glimpse the fears and desires of the people observed by ghost-Lisa. I found Dalmar, Tom, Melissa, and Andrew’s lives interesting and affecting.

“What is the point where a human being stops being a human being and becomes a thing? Most people think it happens with death but Dalmar knows it can happen a long time before then if it needs to, so that other people can bear what they are seeing. ”

At times being reminded that we were seeing their lives through ghost-Lisa seemed to offset how realistic these characters were. Ghost-Lisa herself seems to fluctuated between being a ghost, invisible and silent, nothing but consciousnesswho doesn’t have memories of her past, a body, or a sense of her own humanity (“When you don’t have a body, time is no longer even or consistent: it stretches and bends, folds in on itself. ”) little more than an impassive and intangible observer, and yet, she also comes across as the cliché of a ghost, one that wouldn’t be out of place in A Christmas Carol.
As the narrative slowly progresses ghost-Lisa seems increasingly incongruous. Although she initially stresses that she is a mere consciousness with no links to her past, she can also ‘see’, ‘float’, and move her human-shaped-ghost-body.
Because of this I was never able to immerse myself in what she was narrating, and part of me wishes that it had all been narrated from a third perspective as it would have made ghost-Lisa slightly less off-key and more convincing.

As ghost-Lisa becomes preoccupied with the latest suicide on ‘her’ platform she somehow becomes able to remember her own past. The switch between ghost-story to a tale of an abusive-relationship is quite jarring.
Rather than presenting us with Lisa’s whole life, Louise Doughty focuses on the last few years before her death, depicting a detailed, occasionally frustratingly so, portrait of the relationship between Lisa and her boyfriend. We follow them through nerve-racking dinners to conversations and fights that draw attention to the secret and concealed violence that dictates her boyfriend’s behaviour towards her. Lisa recounts how time and again she glossed over his increasingly manipulative behaviour towards her. The realisation that her beloved boyfriend Matty is a toxic little sh*t is a slow one and first we are forced to watch as Lisa becomes increasingly alienated from her life and daily existence because of him.

While I could sort of emphasise with Lisa’s difficultly in reconciling herself with her abusive relationship it a bit weird that this came to her as a ‘surprise’…from their very first meeting he acts in a perturbing way towards her. Other people think that he is charming-golden-boy…but I never saw that either. Late in the novel he sings her song during her birthday party but I’m not sure that singing one song would make her friends and family believe that he is the perfect boyfriend. As ghost-Lisa sort of pre-warns us about Matty’s true character, my perception of him never changed: from his first appearance to his last one he struck me as a horrible manipulator.

The scenes which feature their deteriorating relationship could at times be very repetitive and part of me wishes that we could have been properly introduced to Lisa before her relationship with Matty. At times her role seems to be confined to that of ‘victim’ (not that she isn’t a victim but her roles seemed to be restricted to that of Matty’s girlfriend) . I wish more of her personality had come through rather than having such a large part of the narrative focus on how paranoid and anxious she became during her relationship with Matty. More could have been made of her relationship with her family and best friend, so we could have at least seen Lisa ‘without’ Matty.

The pacing of the story was rather uneven. Occasionally the slow and ambiguous narrative could create and build tension. For example, Doughty emphasises Lisa’s unease during a fight with Matty at their favourite restaurant by dragging out the description of a pepper mill:

“As he turned it over our plates, coal-black chunks of pepper fell from the end and the grinding blades made a squeaking sound like the iron wheels of a very old train creaking slowly into motion. I felt plunged into seriousness, all at once, as if I had been missing something important in the debate we had just had, as if I should have known what it was but was too dim to work it out. The squeaking of the pepper mill set my teeth on edge. I realised the waiter was going to keep going until I told him to stop, so I lifted my hand.”

In other instances however Doughty seems to loose herself in detailed and irrelevant descriptions. A few pages are wasted on ghost-Lisa taking a gander through a Waitrose where she is repeatedly amazed by the items they sell:

“Since when did doughnuts come in so many flavours; lemon icing, raspberry icing, salted caramel icing? It isn’t just the doughnuts. I traverse the aisles. Ice cream sauce comes in creamy fudge flavour, Belgian chocolate flavour, raspberry coulis flavour and – my favourite – Alphonso mango, passion fruit and yuzu. What is a yuzu? Is an Alphonso mango significantly different from any other kind of mango […] then I go and confirm my suspicions about carrots: they are, of course, even more orange than I remember […] on my way out, I drift along the salad bar, glancing into the tubs of salad one by one, wondering why so many of them contain kidney beans.”

That scene lasted way longer than it should have and it didn’t really serve any purpose other than a weak reassertion that ghost-Lisa has few memories of her life.

Overall I think that the idea was better than the execution. There were scenes which were both powerful and horrific, but more often than not these were lost in a painstakingly redundant narrative which repeatedly looses itself in digressions that added very little to the overarching story.
Platform Seven seemed to contain two different books. A not entirely convincing supernatural ghost-story (where much is made of the coincidence of two suicides at the same platform) in which ghost-Lisa follows others around, making occasionally thought-provoking deliberations but frequently resorts cookie-like musing. The other narrative is an uncomfortably close look at how vicious and insidious an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship can be. We see how Matty uses his job as a doctor to guilt-trip Lisa, how he deliberately works to erase her sense of self, her self-esteem, and her happiness.
While I wouldn’t necessarily say that I ‘enjoyed’ reading this (given that the novel deals with many different forms of abuse) Doughty’s approach to this subject was interesting and refreshing.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Wylding Hall : Book Review

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand
★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars

I’ve read two other books by Elizabeth Hand, one of which I consider an all time favourite.
Wylding Hall begins strongly enough. The narration uses a limiting form of structure and consists in a series of interviews with the former members of a British an acid-folk band.
In the 70s the band stayed at Wylding Hall in order to work on their second album but things don’t go quite as planned. During their interviews each character gives their own account of those weeks at Wylding Hall. Some of them are still convinced that whatever happened there was caused by unknown supernatural forces. Some are not so sure.
The fact that they are looking back to their time in Wylding Hall gives their accounts a nostalgic tone. They seem to regret not having prevented one of their own from falling ‘prey’ to whatever roamed Wylding Hall. Some simply yearn for the music they were able to create while staying at the hall or for their carefree living styles.
I was absorbed by the story but there seems to be no real conclusion…there is this mounting uneasy which culminates in nothing.
Great until its disappointing ending.

For fans of We Sold Our Souls.

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Lisey’s Story by Stephen King

Lisey's StoryLisey’s Story by Stephen King
★★★★✰ (4 stars)

Stephen King is such a skilled storyteller. He has a ‘voice’ that I find incredibly compelling.

 

“And then sometimes a day would come, a gray one (or a sunny one) when she missed him so fiercely she felt empty, not a woman at all anymore but just dead tree filled with cold November blow. She felt like that now, felt like hollering his name and hollering him home, and heart turned sick with the thought of the years ahead and she wondered what good love was if it came to this, to even ten seconds of feeling like this.”

 

Lisey’s Story differs slightly from King’s other works. Yes, you can tell his style from the very first page but in Lisey’s Story he plays a lot with font, words, and sounds. Really, King has a right go at it. And I loved it. I always noticed how King pays attention to accents and expressions but here he outdoes himself.

Lisey’s Story introduces us to Lisey, a middle-aged woman, widow of Scott Landon, a famous writer and a somewhat troubled man. Two years after his death Lisey and her older sister, Amanda, go through some of his stuff in his office. Old memories are ignited by the sight of a photo, making Lisey recall much of her life with Scott. The border between past and present seems to blur and because of this the story isn’t always easy to follow. Nevertheless, I think that the confusion we might feel is intentional: Lisey herself is confused, so why should we get a clearer recollection of certain events?
Sadly, Lisey has other troubles demanding her attention; Amanda’s health reaches a new-time low, and a man wanting Scott’s surviving work is leaving increasingly threatening messages.
The novel unfolds slowly, but really brings to life the character of Lisey. Her memories, her grief, and her frustration are perfectly rendered. We are given many different impressions of her marriage with Scott. Lisey herself forgets or doesn’t allow herself to remember the worst things that happened to Scott, keeping the reader ‘out of the loop’.
The ‘sister-thing’ was another strength of this novel. The relationship between Lisey and Amanda was so incredibly vivid: their history, the way in which they spoke to one another…these moments between them felt all too real.
Last, but not least, I want to praise King’s ability to picture different times and places in such an evocative and clear manner.
Lisey’s Story is a bit of a dark horse: it is slow and labyrinthine but it also has a lot going on.

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