BOOK REVIEWS

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

Ninth House can be best described as: “talented, brilliant, incredible, amazing, show stopping, spectacular, never the same, totally unique, completely not ever been done before…”

Leigh Bardugo sure showed me. I went in to this expecting the worst (most of my GR friends panned this book, and their less-than-impressed reviews are hilarious) and soon found myself amazed by how much I was vibing with it.
Ninth House‘s campus setting brought to mind urban fantasy series such as Richelle Mead’s Bloodlines and Rachel Caine’s The Morganville Vampires but with the kind of magical elements and aesthetics from The Raven Cycle, or even Holly Black ‘s Modern Faerie Tales, and the dark tone of Vita Nostra. In brief, Ninth House was 100% up my lane.

“There were always excuses for why girls died.”

It took me a few chapters to familiarise myself with the story and its protagonist as when we are first introduced to Yale student Galaxy “Alex” Stern its early spring and shit has already hit the fan (ie she has clearly been through a lot). Thankfully the narrative takes us back to the autumn and winter terms, and we get to read of the events that lead to that prologue.
Alex’s ability to see ghosts (called ‘grays’) has caught the attention of Lethe (aka the Ninth House) a secret society that keeps in check the occult activities of the Yale’s eight secret societies (if you are wondering, yes, they do exist in real-world Yale…). She’s offered a place at Yale, for a price: Alex is to be Lethe’s ‘Dante’, who under the guidance of ‘Virgil’, ensures that the eight houses are obeying Yale’s rules. Each house practices a different kind of ‘magic’, but, it becomes quite apparent that magic, of whatever form or type, in this novel is not an easy or strictly ethical endeavour.
Alex, is just trying to survive. She run away from home as a teenager, started using downers to suppress her ability, lived with a man who abused her, and was the sole survivor of a multiple homicide. The girl is dealing with a lot of trauma and she’s kind of mess. Her mentor, Darlington, comes from a drastically different background. He’s white, wealthy, educated. Yet, in a manner very reminiscent to Gansey from TRC, he feels mundane and wants more. The two had a great chemistry (not in the romantic sense, at least, not in this first novel) and I appreciated the way in which Bardugo doesn’t present any of them as being ‘good’ or ‘heroes’ of some sort. If it wasn’t hard enough to adapt to Yale and Lethe, the societies may have had something to do with the murder of a ‘townie’. While almost every person she encounters tries to wave away her suspicions, Alex knows that the societies had something to do with it.

“I’m in danger, she wanted to say. Someone hurt me and I don’t think they’re finished. Help me. But what good had that ever done?”

If you ever craved a dark academia novel with a paranormal twist, this is it. But, as pointed out in many other reviews, this novel is Dark with a capital D. There are explicit scenes depicting sexual assault, rape, abuse, death, and other unpleasant, if not downright gory, things. It never struck me as gratuitous, anymore than I would call a novel by Stephen King gratuitous. The mystery kept me on the edge of my seat, the different timelines piqued my interest, the setting—of New Haven and Yale—was vividly rendered, the tone was gritty and real, the atmosphere was ‘edgy’ (in the best possible way), and the paranormal elements were hella innovative. I loved the descriptions of Alex’s environment, the attention paid to the architecture, the tension between her and the other characters, the momentum of her investigation. Yale is a haunted place, in more than one way. Bardugo combines fantasy elements with a sharp commentary on privilege, corruption, accountability. The story’s is an indictment against abuse of power and against violence (towards women, minorities, those deemed ‘expandable’). Trauma is not pretty, and Bardugo does not romanticise it in Alex. Speaking of Alex, she was a memorable character. I loved her for her strength and her vulnerability. Her cutting humour provided a few moments of respite from the novel’s otherwise dark tone.

Prior reading this novel I wouldn’t have called myself a ‘fan’ of Bardugo. I liked her YA stuff but I was never ‘blown’ away by it. Her foray into adult fiction has changed that.

my rating: ★★★★★

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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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Ghosts of Harvard by Francesca Serritella — book review


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“It’s supposed to be a time when you’re about to embark on your adult life, but for many young people, that springboard looks more like a precipice.”

Ghosts of Harvard is a patchwork of a novel. While the summary seems to promise more of thriller/academia type of book (I personally would not recommend this to those who enjoy campus novels or dark academia), what we do get is a mishmash of genres and storylines: to start with we have a moving family drama that examines the realities of caring for someone with a mental illness, then we head into the supernatural combined with the type of amateur investigation that is all the rage in domestic thrillers (someone you know has done something bad), before culminating in a melodramatic final act.

Francesca Serritella strikingly renders the setting of Harvard. Sadly however her protagonist’s investigation into her brother’s time there takes the centre-stage, so that Cadence’s studies and interactions with other students receive limited attention only. Nevertheless Serritella certainly knows Harvard, and she demonstrates her knowledge of its history, architecture, and traditions in a very compelling and evocative way.
After her brother’s suicide Cadence is obviously overwhelmed. Eric was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia while studying at Harvard so Cadence does feel to a certain extent haunted. Hoping that being at Harvard will somehow bring her closer to her brother, she soon begins to suspect that her brother was hiding something. As she becomes obsessed with her brother’s past, she begins to hear ‘voices’. What follows is a story that has the trappings of most domestic thrillers, the only difference being the academic backdrop.

The third person narration distances us from Cadence, so that much of her personality remains unseen. We know of her troubled relationship with her mother but we never truly delve into Cadence’s sense of self. She makes many nonsensical decisions for ‘plot’ reasons, and I can’t say that she ever did or said anything remotely remarkable or moving. Perhaps I would have sympathised more with her if she had at any point had an introspective moment. She briefly questions herself only when she’s worried that the voices she’s hearing are a figment of her imagination or a sign that she too may suffer from schizophrenia. She forms superficial friendships with her roommates and a guy who shares one of her classes, but for the most part she only comes into contact with individuals who are directly connected to her brother and his secret. Speaking of Eric’s friends, it was weird that Cadence only speaks to his best friend once. Although Cadence grows close to one of her brother’s peers, I never believed that she cared for the ‘living’ people she encounters at Harvard. She becomes somewhat chummy with the three ghosts who keep talking to her in her head, and who unsurprisingly help her in her investigation.
Throughout the course of Cadence’s ‘investigation’ we get snippets from her past that focus on her family life and her bond with Eric. These were easily my favourite parts of the novel. These scenes, although painful, possessed a genuine quality that made them much more poignant that the ones that take place at Harvard.

“Simple narratives were easier to tell, to teach, to understand, to remember. The lie endures for generations, while the truth dies with its victims. But what were the consequences?”

Serritella’s writing was absorbing and I generally enjoyed her reflections on family, mental health, grief, and Harvard’s history.
While part of me was happy that the novel didn’t drag on the ‘are the voice real or not’, ultimately I wasn’t all that taken by the novel’s execution: it veers into exaggerated territories that are punctuated by flashy twists. What could have been a compassionate exploration of grief and of loving someone who suffers from a mental illness is weighed down by unnecessary thriller-esque melodrama. The supernatural element would have been a lot more ‘haunting’ if it hadn’t been so cheesily predictable. While I appreciated the novel’s commentary on academia/educational institutions, and the nuanced portrayal of Eric’s mental illness as well as the realistic depiction of the stigma and discrimination against mental health, I was underwhelmed by the storyline and finale.

Specific plot points/scenes that were unconvincing/clichéd:

➜ The prologue. I’m tired of these prologues that ‘tease’ a possible death that is to come. The novel’s first chapters were compelling enough that they did not require such a gimmicky opening.

➜ Cadence’s first interaction with her roommate was jarring: “I’m Ranjoo, do you hate me already?”
“Only for those abs.” Who says that? Maybe if we had a better grasp of Cadence’s personality I could have believed that she would say something alongs these lines.

(view spoiler)

➜ Nikos. (view spoiler)

➜ The ghosts. (view spoiler)

➜ Prokop. (view spoiler)

➜ Eric. (view spoiler)

➜ The chapters would often end on these would be cliffhangers.(view spoiler)

➜ Lee. (view spoiler)

➜ The epilogue (view spoiler)

All in all I can’t say that I disliked Ghosts of Harvard but there were many elements within the narrative that lessened my overall reading experience and opinion of the book.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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If It Bleeds by Stephen King — book review

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“News people have a saying: If it bleeds, it leads.”

If It Bleeds presents its readers with four unnerving short stories. Yet, while Stephen King certainly excels at creating disturbing scenarios, there is something oddly comforting about his books. His distinctive voice feels familiar, and his stories are infused with a certain American nostalgia. King is a gifted and empathetic storyteller who is unafraid of entertaining dark possibilities. These stories in particular seem all too relevant for these uneasy times. King taps into anxieties about technology, media, and data privacy. Characters have to battle their own vices and make sense of what can only be evil. By thrusting his ‘ordinary’ characters into uncanny realities King challenges their perception of themselves and of the world. If It Bleeds features revenge, ambition, violence, apocalypses (?), corruption, and faustian pacts. But there are also plenty of moments in which human connections triumph: friends looking out for each other, dancing on the streets, moments of kindness.

MR. HARRIGAN’S PHONE: ★★★★✰ 4 stars
A very King-esque story. From the setting to the characters, this first story is great. I liked the atmosphere, the discussions around technology, and I was invested in the narrative.

THE LIFE OF CHUCK: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars
This story has a very interesting structure. There are some moving moments, especially towards the end. I was a bit confused but that was probably intentional.

IF IT BLEEDS: ★★★★✰ 4 stars
Holly is a blast and this story cemented my love for her. Her ‘peculiarities’ make her all the more relatable. Her pursuit of justice makes her into an admirable charter and it was fascinating to read of the way her investigation unfolded.

RAT: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars
Although I really like it when King writes about writers I found this last story to be simultaneously grotesque and hilarious. Also reading about a ‘snot-clotted bandanna’ during these pandemic gave me the heebie-jeebies.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 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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The King of Crows by Libba Bray — book review

unnamed.jpgI hate to say it, or write it, but The King of Crows wasn’t a very satisfying conclusion to The Diviners series.

“Who got to decide what made somebody an American? America, the ideal of it at least, was its own form of elusive magic.”

While it isn’t as drawn-out as the finale to the Gemma Doyle series (which was around 800 pages) it struck me as being similarly anticlimactic.
In The King of Crows the pacing of the story is all over the place and the characters have very rushed and unsatisfying arcs.

Nearly three years have gone by since the release of Before the Devil Breaks You. Given that this series started back in 2012, it isn’t all that surprising that I’d forgotten a quite a few major plot-points. Still, I remembered the diviners, their personalities and powers, as well as their group dynamics. Libba Bray doesn’t spend too much time recapitulating old events, and once I caught up or remembered what was going on I found the first few chapters of this novel to be promising enough.
Once the diviners are scattered across America however the story’s upbeat pace comes to a halt. What follows over the course of the next three-hundred pages is a tedious repetition of similar scenarios.
The diviners encounter good folk, who are willing to help them or understand what it means to be different (such as the members of a circus), as well as horrible individuals and groups of people (the most noticeable being the KKK). They all come to terms with their simultaneously beautiful and terrible country/world. All the while we get random chapters showing us that ghosts are coming (phrases such as ‘ghosts are coming’ and ‘this country is full of ghosts’ are repeated so many times as to loose the initial sense of danger and urgency that they carried). The confusing showdown between our good guys (aka the diviners) and the baddies is crammed in the last hundred pages.
The narrative in The King of Crows lacked the mystery-factor that made the other volumes in this series intriguing.

In short: the story is just padding.

Characters behave as flimsy versions of their former selves (Evie and Ling, both of whom I previously really liked, were simply irritating) and had very rushed storylines that seemed to add very little to their overall arc.
Take Henry. Most of his scenes revolve around the way in which his sexuality is deemed abnormal by his society. That’s pretty much it. Ling’s sections also often emphasise her sexuality. Whereas those scenes that focus on characters such as Memphis and Theta seem to focus on other aspects of their lives (their general desires and fears, etc). Jericho has the most eye-roll worthy storyline which sees him (view spoiler).
Even the banter between the various diviners felt unimaginative. At times their conversations and discussions seem to rely on their catchphrases (Evie says something ‘scandalous’, Sam says something flirty, Jericho doesn’t get whatever is going on, Ling is disapproving…).
None of the romances were interesting. They mostly revolved around cute nicknames (such as baby vamp) and on scenes featuring some very uninspired flirting.

The King of Crows is a Disney type of villain. I remember that the first instalments of this series presented us with creepy or fascinating antagonists…but this guy is just dull. He has a few cameos here and there, scares our protagonists, does some mayhem, and is very much the novel’s boogeyman.

The setting too seemed to lack its usual spark and vibrancy. Previously I loved the way in which Bray brought 1920s New York to life. In this volume however most of the ‘action’ is outside of New York, and we read of a series of small and forgettable towns…which do not make very intriguing backdrops.

The plot was full of convenient coincidences. What frustrated me the most was a ‘revelation’ towards the end, which came as no surprise whatsoever (view spoiler)

Bray draws an unsubtle parallel between the rampant racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, anti-Semitism, othering, and other forms of bigotry of the 1920s and today’s political climate (there are phrases such as ‘get out of our country’). Her approaches to some of these topics came across as rather on the nose. For example when Theta learns that someone she likes was raised by slave-owners she has such an unbelievably naive ‘how could she?’ reaction.

The epilogue struck me as predictable….(view spoiler)

All in all…this was an incredibly disappointing followup to Before the Devil Breaks You.
While Bray is an undoubtedly good writer The King of Crows simply lacks the glamour and electricity that made the other instalments so much more engaging and atmospheric. It had a meandering narrative, with lots of repetition regarding the importance of storytelling and stories, a passage from Nietzsche which felt rather out of place, some lacklustre cosmic horror, and a cast of one-dimensional characters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 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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BOOK REVIEWS

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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