BOOK REVIEWS

Pretty as a Picture by Elizabeth Little

Action, cut, action, cut, action, cut, action, cut. These aren’t commands, not for me. They’re more like everyday punctuation. A capital letter. A period. An indication that I should pay attention to what’s going on in the middle.”

Pretty as a Picture tells a slow-burn type of suspenseful story, one that I would definitely recommend to movie aficionados as this novel shines a light on the realities of the film industry: from the demanding, if not downright tyrannical, directors and agents to the power dynamics and hierarchies that are at play in a film crew. This behind-the-scenes setting is perhaps the most interesting and dazzling aspect of this book.

Although there are certain elements within the narrative that would not be out of place in a thriller, Pretty as a Picture is above all a character-driver story. Marissa, our protagonist and narrator, makes this novel. While she may initially strike readers as yet another introverted ‘not like other people’ character—who is later on reassured by others about her looks and personality—Marissa not only experience things differently but others are aware of this and often make the point of commenting on it. Her poor social skills, her ‘ticks’, her struggle to read or understand other people’s tone of voice or body language, her dislike of physical contact….these all contribute to making small everyday things—such any type of social interaction—much harder for her.
Films help her navigate the world. When she doesn’t know what to do or say she turns to the films she’s watched. Sometimes she simply draws strength from the characters of her favourite movies, while on other occasions someone, something, or someplace might remind her of a certain film.

When her best friend, and former creative partner, moves out of their apartment and with her douche-y boyfriend, Marissa finds herself in need of an editing gig. Her agent pushes into accepting an offer for a film based on a true murder case. Marissa is told that the previous editor suddenly left so the director, Tony Rees, is desperate for someone to replace him. Marissa is taken to a remote island where she unearths more than one mystery: from the dismissal of various members of staff to the growing tension between the people working on the film…something is afoot. Marissa, alongside some new acquaintances, plays detective in order to find just what is going on this set.

The murder aspect of the story kicks starts around the half-way mark. Before then we are introduced to the story’s many characters and we get a chance to truly get to know Marissa. The slow yet atmospheric start gives way to an increasingly urgent storyline. There are some twists that are somewhat predictable but I still enjoyed seeing the way in which things unfolded.
Marissa is a distinctive narrator. Her interactions with others could be either funny, awkward, or tense, and I appreciated the way in which Elizabeth Little depicted her. We read about her vulnerabilities, her strengths, and her quirks.
The chemistry between Marissa and Isaiah adds a nice touch to the story.

Interspersed throughout Marissa’s narrative are snippets from her a true-crime podcast, ‘Dead Ringer’, run by two teenage girls who, like Marissa, are sleuths of sorts. These sections give us glimpses of what is to come, without ever revealing too much.
Filled with cinematic references Pretty as a Picture offers a sharp commentary about the film industry, the dead-girl trope, the way in which true-crime glamorises death, as well as insight into someone who is labelled as ‘different’ by their society.
Overall, Pretty as a Picture was a thoroughly entertaining novel and I would definitely recommend this to those who enjoyed The Lost Night, books by Riley Sager, or Still Lives.

my rating: ★★★½

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The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

The Hollow Places is a thoroughly entertaining novel that plays around with parallel worlds, portal fantasy and cosmic horror. When our narrator, Kara, moves back to her hometown (Hog Chapel, North Carolina) she is still reeling from her divorce. To avoid sharing a house with her mother she volunteers to work in her uncle’s peculiar museum (Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosity, and Taxidermy). She decides to catalogue the many curios and bizarre objects that live there. After her uncle is forced to take a break from the museum due to some health problems, she offers to look after it. Things however take a creepy turn when a hole in one of the museum’s walls leads to her bunker and that this in turn is connected to a rather horrifying reality which often defeats human comprehension. Simon, the gay barman who works next door to the museum and believes that he devoured his twin in the womb, is Kara’s offbeat companion. The two get in over their heads when they decide to the bunker.
Kara and Simon are immediately endearing. Kara, who is down-to-earth and incredibly witty (ranging from caustic to silly), is a likeable and diverting narrator while Simon is such a weird yet genuinely nice guy (capable of coming out with or believing in some seriously bizarre things). Their banter made the novel, and it was really refreshing for the main relationship in a book to be a platonic one.
While readers will probably feel some sense of anxiety or apprehension now and again, I would not classify this novel as a horror one. It certainly has horror elements, but ultimately, it seems more of an adventure/weird fiction type of thing (Stephen King by way of Terry Pratchett with some Jeff VanderMeer). Moments that have the potential of being disturbing (such as those scenes in which certain things appear to be ‘inside out’) and the willow trees were kind of creepy are alleviated by Kara’s humour. While I enjoyed the meta aspect of this novel and I do think that T. Kingfisher showcases some pretty impressive creative talent, part of me did find the latter part of the story to be a bit repetitive.
Overall I would probably recommend it to those who are looking for a fun read with some horror undertones.

my rating: ★★★ ½ stars


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Mouthful of Birds by Samanta Schweblin

Like most collections of short stories Mouthful of Birds has some stories that are hits and ones that are misses. I think the collection definitely showcases Samanta Schweblin’s creativity and versatility. While most of the stories are permeated by the surreal they differ in tone and subject.

Schweblin makes the familiar feel unfamiliar. Many of the stories examine recognisable scenarios from an unexpected angle and it often takes a little time to catch up to what is going on.
One of my favourite stories, ‘Toward Happy Civilisation’, had some very strong Kafkaesque vibes and the creepy yet bizarre atmosphere I would except in a story by Shirley Jackson. Another favourite of mine was ‘The Merman’, an unapologetically offbeat tale involving, you guessed it, a merman and that reminded me of Kevin Wilson.

As much as I appreciated Schweblin’s dark humour and the weirdness of her stories, there were a few unmemorable ones. The title story was a bit of a letdown (I didn’t find it all that ‘shocking’ or subversive) and the really short ones were rather, if not completely, forgettable. I also did not care for that story that relied on animal cruelty. Not only did I not find it to be ‘horrific’ but it just came across as gratuitous and voyeuristic (gore and violence are cheap ways to ‘inspire’ fear).
Nevertheless I would probably pick up more of Schweblin work as this collection did show some promise.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Readers, I am disappointed.

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 2 ½ stars out of 5 stars

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Cardiff, by the Sea: Four Novellas of Suspense by Joyce Carol Oates

As I highly rate Joyce Carol Oates I was quite looking forward to Cardiff, by the Sea, a collection of four novellas ‘of suspense’. While I have only read a few of Oates’ works Patricide, a novella of hers, is a favourite of mine. The novellas collected in Cardiff, by the Sea have more in common with Oates’ The Pursuit as they are not only just as depressing but they are also written in a similar ‘stop and start’ type of prose. We have staccato sentences that often elide their subjects (such as “Chewing, trying to swallow but can’t.” or “Seeing the apprehension in the child’s face.”). While this style worked in the first novella, the longest in the collection, it felt a bit repetitive and overall less convincing in the following ones. In the first one we follow a deeply traumatised young woman and because of this the prose perfectly conveyed her ‘disturbed’ psyche. There were scenes where Oates’ choppy prose worked well, especially in terms of visuals and pacing: “Mia felt a stab of excitement. Following the flashlight beam. Shining light on ugly gouged tire tracks. Broken and shredded trees.”. As I’ve said however I do wish that this collection could have showcased Oates’ impressive stylistic range.
These novellas also share many other similarities outside of the way the are written. They feature women who are traumatised, abused, sexually assaulted, and/or gaslighted/manipulated. All of the male characters in these novellas are awful human being. They are pedophiles, rapists, murders, opportunists….the lists goes on. The women in these stories lack agency. There are one or two incidents that suggest otherwise but throughout the course of their narratives they are very much confined to the role of victims.

‘Cardiff, by the Sea’: 4 stars
As I’ve said the best story in this collection is the very first one: ‘Cardiff, by the Sea’. This novella was creepy and atmospheric. We follow Clare a woman who receives a call informing her that her grandmother has died…except that Clare has never met or know of her having been raised by adoptive parents. When she visits her newfound ‘blood relatives’ in Cardiff she becomes increasingly obsessed with the death of her birth parents. She stays with her two great-aunts, who very much reminded me of April Spink and Miriam Forcible from Coraline (except they are far more sinister). They are perpetually arguing and interrupting one another. Perhaps their creepiness is due to Clare’s susceptible state of mind, perhaps not. Clare’s uncle also lives with them and soon enough Clare becomes convinced that he played some sort of role in her family’s demise.
This story is pure Gothic. Unease reigns supreme. Clare’s fragmented and unreliable memories contribute to this unsettling atmosphere. Oates’ prose her works really well as it reflects Clare’s psyche. Her trauma and shock definitely give her an alienated view of things. If you enjoy Shirley Jackson’s work or macabre stories such as the ones penned by Mariana Enríquez chances are you will appreciate this novella which is equal parts suspenseful and disturbing.

‘Miao Dao’: 3 stars
This story had potential. I mean: cats killing pervy men? I’m sold. We follow Mia who has just turned thirteen. Her father recently separated from her mother and she now rarely sees him. Her male classmates begin to harass her and her female peers are not all that supportive (if anything they perceive as either a loser or a potential ‘threat’). As Mia is ‘shamed’ for body she begins to feel deeply alienated. Mia finds momentary solace when she is among a group of feral cats that has taken residence in her neighbourhood.
When her mother gets together with a seemingly ‘good’ guy things take a turn for the worse. Mia ends up taking in a kitten, whom she names Miao Dao, and weird things start happening.
This story was kind of miserable. Even more so that ‘Cardiff, by the Sea’ as it focuses on sexual abuse. It also reminded me of my own adolescent, a period of my life I never wish to relive again. The ‘leering’, the comments, the physical harassment. The way all of these make the victim feel ashamed and embarrassed (as she perceives herself guilty since it is her body that is making these boys and men act this way). So, given all the horrible things that happen to Mia, I was hoping for the story to present us with a satisfying revenge storyline…and it kind of doesn’t. The ‘cat’ element was definitely underused, and I think that the story would have benefitted from venturing more into the paranormal. Still, the ending does kind of make up for some of my initial frustration towards this story.

‘Phantomwise: 1972’ : 2 ½ stars
This seemed a rehash of the previous two stories. We have a nondescript young woman—who similarly to Clare and Mia is mostly defined by the fact that she is being ill-treated/abused as opposed to having a discernible personality. The story follows a student who becomes involved with a professor (yes, this is that kind of story). As things sour between the two of them, the young woman becomes close to an older man who likes to talk about Lewis Carroll and his ‘Alice’. This isn’t a gripping or even suspenseful tale. Oates doesn’t really subvert this tired female student/male professor dynamic, if anything she goes full on misery porn. Misery and more misery. Women are helpless and men are predators. Great stuff.

‘The Surviving Child’ : 2 ½ stars
This last novella seemed a mix between Rebecca and Verity. We follow the new wife of a man whose previous wife not only committed suicide but she killed their daughter too. She spared the son and the new wife wonders what could have driven her to do so. The prose is once again full of Yoda-like sentences which didn’t really add anything to my reading experience. Kind of predictable but not as miserable as the previous novella.

With the exception of the titular novella I didn’t particularly care for stories in this collection. Oates can certainly write but her style here could have been more varied. Her female characters are passive, even pathetic at times, and I found myself wanting these stories to be more subversive.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars

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When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole

When No One is Watching is a gripping read, think Hitchcock by way of Liane Moriarty.
The novel is set in a predominantly black neighbourhood in Brooklyn. After her divorce Sydney Green, who is her 30s, returns to her old neighbourhood in order to take care of her ailing mother. Soon Sydney can’t help but notice that her beloved neighbourhood is changing, and not for the better. Her friends and neighbours are disappearing, only to be replaced by white and well-off couples and families. After taking part in a walking tour of the neighbourhood Sydney is understandably frustrated by its selective approach to history so she decides to create her own ‘revisionist’ tour, one that will delve into the city’s colonial past. She reluctantly lets her new white neighbour, Theo, help her in her research. Theo is in a rocky relationship with his obnoxious white girlfriend, a woman who has a framed portrait of Michelle Obama in her living room and is more than capable of threatening to call 911 on her new black neighbours, just for kicks. And if anyone calls her out on her racism, let the tear-ducts open.
Sydney grows increasingly paranoid as more of her neighbours disappear, seemingly overnight. She knows that something is wrong, and that her community is under siege.

I really liked the premise for this novel. Alyssa Cole touches upon many serious and relevant issues (racism, racial economic inequality, racial profiling, police brutality, gentrification, colonialism, ‘white tears’, performative allyship).
From the very first pages Cole creates this air unease as Sydney rightfully alienated by her changing neighbourhood. Soon enough she’s made to feel like an outsider in her own neighbourhood by the new white arrivals. Her anxiety is exacerbated by her fraught marriage with her now ex-husband which has caused her to doubt-herself and others. She feels watched, but by whom?
Although there were some really creepy moments that brought to mind Rear Window, we also had a few scenes that were kind of silly and had a more jokey tone. These mostly happened during Theo’s pov. Which brings me to the romance subplot…why?

Theo is a dullish character who is made to seem ‘human’ or flawed but ends up being straight up annoying as. His faux pas weren’t always convincing, and if anything they just made him a really bad match for Sydney. Sydney I liked. She was passionate and righteously angry. Her insecurities did get slightly irritating, especially when they lead to the predictable and avoidable misunderstanding that always happen in romance novels (usually 3/4 of the way through), but I rooted for her nonetheless. Could she have been a better friend to Drea? For sure. But given the less than ideal circumstances it made sense for Sydney to feel alienated and mistrustful. What I couldn’t get past was her supposed attraction to Theo. As mentioned above, the man was dull and kind of dense.

The ending seemed lacked the oopmh of Get Out, and perhaps it tries to follow it too closely. At the end things take a wild turn and I wasn’t convinced by the main revelations. The story, which so far had been suspenseful, spirals into violence…and it felt tacky. Scenes that should have been horrifying are delivered in a slapstick kind of way. I wasn’t against the violence per se (don’t @ me, I’ve been reading Frantz Fanon) but the way it is handled here was questionable indeed.
Another thing I didn’t like was that for 70% of the novel both narrators, Sydney and Theo, refer obliquely to ‘something’ bad and mysterious they have done. Why prolong the reveal ? By then I’d already kind of guessed what their ‘secrets’ where, and I didn’t really feel all that affected or shocked by their confessions.

As much as I appreciated the topics Cole discusses, as well the story’s earlier atmosphere, I was let down by the romance, the story’s inconsistent tone, and the finale. Theo made for a terrible character, and I really did not want him to be with Sydney…sadly we get this very out-of-place ‘sexy’ scene that would have been more suited to a book by Talia Hibbert or Helen Hoang.
Still, this was an absorbing read, and Cole is clearly informed on the issues she tackles throughout the course of the story. There are some illuminating, if sobering, discussions on New York’s history and those alone are worth a read.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars


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The Survivors by Jane Harper

Alas, figuring out the murderer’s identity in the first 15% made this book kind of a drag.

Having highly enjoyed Jane Harper’s The Lost Man, The Survivors felt by comparison vaguely uninspired. While the setting is just as atmospheric and vividly rendered as the ones in Harper’s other novels, the characters and mystery were very run-of-the-mill. In many ways it reminded me of Tana French’s latest novel, The Searcher: we have a not-so-young-anymore male protagonist who thinks he is a regular Joe and a crime forces him to reconsider his past behaviour/actions/attitudes. The Survivors begins with a juicy prologues that is meant to intrigue readers but I was not particularly lured by it. A lot of the dynamics in this novel seemed a rehash of the ones from The Lost Man and The Dry. Our protagonist, Kieran, returns to his small coastal hometown where a violent crime brings to light secrets from his own past. Kieran is happily married and a new father, and there were a lot of scenes featuring him being a soft dad and they just did nothing for me. I guess they were meant to emphasise the gulf between teenage-Kieran, who acted like a typical Chad, and father-Kieran. The ‘tragedy’ that irrevocably changed his life did not have the same emotional heft as Nathan’s family struggles in The Lost Man. Kieran tells other characters that he feels guilt-ridden but…it just didn’t really come across. Anyhow, Kieran returns to his home, he catches up with two best-friends, one is a bit of a loudmouth and kind of a douchebag while the other one has always been the more sensible and mature in the trio. The discovery of a young woman’s body lands the community in crisis. There is a lot finger pointing and gossip on a FB-knockoff. Kieran, who is not a detective nor a crime aficionado, wants to know what happened to this young woman as he seems to be acting under a sense of misplaced obligation towards her (and her death reminds him of his own tragedy). While he doesn’t starts snooping around he’s lucky enough that he happens to hear people’s private conversation, which often reveal something essential to the mystery. For some bizarre reason the person who is actually officially investigating this young woman’s death confides in Kieran, which…I had a hard time getting behind (job integrity? None).

Anyway, chances are you’ve read this kind of story before. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded this type of boilerplate plot if the characters had been somewhat interesting or layered. But they remain rather one-dimensional. Dick guy acts like a dick because deep down he’s insecure. The cold mother is cold because she’s still suffering the loss of her son. Artistic woman fears she will never leave her ‘dead-end’ job and ‘make’ it. Kieran is they type of character who is blandly inoffensive. After the trauma he experienced and now that he is a father & husband he realises that as a teenager he acted badly. Most of the conversations he has with women seemed to exist only to make him reflect on ‘toxic masculinity’ and the harm caused by the ‘boys will be boys’ mentality. And these realisations he has about sexisms seemed forced. Also, Kieran is meant to be in his thirties…and he comes across like a middle-aged man. I understand that there are people in their thirties who may as well be luddites but really? Kieran’s voice just wasn’t very convincing.
The male side characters like that writer, Kieran’s friends, and that impertinent young guy, were rather dull. The female characters were so obviously meant to be ‘strong’ and ’empowering’ but that didn’t really make them into realistic or likeable characters.
The culprit was obvious, so I did not feel any real ‘suspense’ or curiosity. Sometimes, even if you know who did it, you can still be able to enjoy the ride…but here I just wanted to get it over and done with. The murderer was extremely underdeveloped and their explanation at the end was very Scooby Doo-ish.

All in all, this was a disappointing read. While it wasn’t all that bad, and the story had at least a strong sense of place, I expected more from Harper.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars
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These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

“They could only stitch themselves back together if they did something irreversible.”

Heavenly Creatures by way of Patricia Highsmith, plus a sprinkle of Like Minds, and with the kind of teenage morbidity one could find in Hangsaman or Stoker.

Adroit and gripping, These Violent Delights is a superlative debut novel. Being the self-proclaimed connoisseur of academia fiction, I was drawn by the comparisons to The Secret History and I was amazed to discover that unlike other releases (not naming any names) These Violent Delights definitely had some TSH vibes. But whereas most academia books focus on a ‘clique’, Micah Nemerever’s novel is very much centred on the obsessive relationship between two seventeen-year olds.
If you’ve read or watched anything that revolves around a toxic relationship, you know what to expect from These Violent Delights. The prologue itself reveals to us that all will not be well for these two boys, and that at some point will embark on a path of no return.

“He couldn’t remember ever being the person he’d decided to become.”

The narrative takes us back to their first meeting. Paul, our protagonist, is a university freshman in Pittsburgh during the early 1970s. His father has recently committed suicide and his mother has yet to recover. Paul suffers from an almost debilitating insecurity, and shows a propensity for virulent self-recriminations. His inward-looking nature brings him no joy, as his mind is often consumed by his many ‘shortcomings’, and those of others. He feels misunderstood by his working-class family, and without his father, his grandfather, a man whose good-natured attempts to connect with Paul inevitably miss the mark, has become his closest male figure. His family fails to accept that Paul isn’t the type to ‘loosen’ up with his peers or have ‘fun’ with some girl.
When a discussion on experimental ethics in class gets Paul hot under the collar, Julian Fromme comes to his defence. On the surface Julian is the antithesis of Paul: he comes from wealth, he’s self-assured, easy-going, and charismatic. Yet, Paul is enthralled by him, especially when he realises that Julian carries within him a darkness not unlike his own. Their mutual understanding and their interest in one another results in instantaneous connection. They can have erudite talks, challenging each other’s stance on subjects related to ethics and morals, and revel in the superiority they feel towards their classmates. Within hours of their meeting their bond has solidified, becoming something impenetrable to outsiders. It soon becomes apparent that neither of them is in control in their relationship, and things are further complicated when their platonic friendship gives way to a more sexual one.
Their symbiotic bond is of concern to others (to be queer—in both senses—is no walk in the park, especially in the 70s), and attempts are made to separate the two. But Paul and Julian are determined to stay together, and more than once they tell each other that the idea of life without the other would be unbearable.

“[H]e wasn’t afraid anymore. After a lifetime of yearning and trying not to yearn, he imagined the relief of surrendering.”

Even if we suspect that Paul and Julian’s intoxicating liaison will have internecine consequences, we are desperate for a moment of reprieve. But Nemerever’s narrative does not let up, not once. Readers will read with increasing anxiety as Paul and Julian embark on an ‘irreversible’ path, alienating those around them. Dread and anguish became my constant companions while I was reading this novel and I’m glad that I choose to read this when I was off work (I devoured this novel in less than 24h) since These Violent Delights is a riveting edge-of-your-seat kind of read.
A sense of unease pervades this story as even the early stages of Paul and Julian’s relationship are fraught. Julian is almost secretive when it comes to his family, and disapproves of the contempt Paul harbours towards his own mother. Their love for each other often veers into dislike, if not hatred, and they are quite capable of being extremely cruel to each other. Even so we can see why they have become so entangled together, and why they oppose anyone who threatens to separate them. But as they enable one other, their teenage angst morphs into a more perturbing sort of behaviour. Time and again we are left wondering who, if anyone, is in control.

“All they were—all they had ever been—was a pair of sunflowers who each believed the other was the sun.”

My summary of this novel won’t do it justice as I fear I’m making it sound like any other ‘dark’ tale of obsessive friendships (in this case a romantic one but still). It is Nemerever’s writing that elevates his story from ‘interesting’ to exhilarating (and downright distressing). He evokes the claustrophobic and oppressive nature of Paul and Julian’s bond, making us feel as if we too are caught in their all-consuming relationship. Nemerever’s also acutely renders Paul’s discomforts, the intensity of his love for Julian, of his self-loathing, and of his conflicting desires (to be known, to be unknowable). He wants his family to understand him, but in those instances when they prove that they may understand him more than he thinks, he does not hear them out.

“All I want to do is make you happy, and you’re the unhappiest person I’ve ever met.”

Similarly to The Secret History, the narrative is very much examining the way we can fail to truly see the people closest to us. Paul’s low self-esteem makes him constantly doubt everyone around, Julian included. He perceives slights where there are none, and even seems to find a sort of twisted pleasure (or as Lacan would have it, jouissance) in second-guessing Julian’s feelings towards him or in assuming the worst of others. He projects a preconceived image of Julian onto him (someone who is cruel and deceitful, someone who, unlike Paul himself, can easily adapt or pretend to be normal), and this prevents him from seeing him as he truly is.
The love Paul feels for Julian is almost fanatical, doomed to be destructive. This is the type of relationship that would not be out of place in a Magda Szabó (The Door), Joyce Carol Oates (Solstice) or a Barbara Vine novel (The House of Stairs, No Night is Too Long, A Fatal Inversion) or as the subject of a song by Placebo (I’m thinking of ‘Without You I’m Nothing’).

“They were wild and delirious and invincible, and it was strange that no one else could see it.”

Nemerever’s writing style is exquisite and mature. I was struck by the confidence of his prose (it does read like a debut novel). Not one word is wasted, every sentence demands your attention (which is difficult when the story has you flipping pages like no tomorrow). Nemerever brings to life every scene and character he writes of, capturing, for example, with painful precision the crushing disquiet Paul feels (24/7), his loneliness (exacerbated by his queerness and intelligence) and his deep-seated insecurity. Nemerever doesn’t always explicitly states what Paul is feeling, or thinking, and the ambiguity this creates reminded me very much of Shirley Jackson, in particular of Hangsaman (a scene towards the end was particularly reminiscent of that novel). Readers will have to fill the gaps or try to read the subtext of certain scenes or exchanges between P and J.

Not only did this book leave me with a huge book-hangover but it also left me emotionally exhausted (when I tried picking up other books my mind kept going back to Paul and Julian). Paul is one of the most miserable characters I’ve ever read of. And while he is no angel, I found myself, alongside his family, wanting to help him. But I could also understand him as he strongly reminded of my own teenage experiences, and of how ‘wretched’ and alone I felt (woe is me), as well as the fierce, and at times detrimental, friendships I formed during those vulnerable years.
In spite of what Paul and Julian do, I cared deeply for them. I wanted to ‘shake’ them, but I also desperately wanted them to be happy.
I’m sure I could blather on some more, but I will try and stop myself here. Reading These Violent Delights is akin to watching a slow-motion video of a car accident or some other disaster. You know what will happen but you cannot tear your eyes away. Read this at your own peril!

MY RATING: 5 / 5 stars

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The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

“That’s the problem with summoning demons, you see. Sooner or later somebody else raises them against you.”

Readers who enjoyed Stuart Turton’s previous novel will probably find The Devil and the Dark Water to be a far more captivating read than I did. While I personally was not enamoured by The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, I was willing to give Turton another try.
The first quarter of The Devil and the Dark Water had me intrigued. The narrative opens in Batavia (Jakarta) in 1634. Our protagonist, Arent Hayes, a former mercenary turner bodyguard, is accompanying his employer and friend, Samuel Pipps, on a voyage to Amsterdam. This trip is not for pleasure as Samuel, a famous detective, has been convicted of a ‘mysterious’ crime and is under arrest. Arent wants to prove his innocence, but not knowing the crime Samuel has been accused of obstructs his attempts to free him. Still, he’s determined to protect him and decides to go alongside him to Amsterdam. As the passengers and crew embark this ship however, they are intercepted by a leper who perishes after pronouncing an ominous threat.
Before Samuel is taken to his cell in the ship, he tasks Arent with finding out more about the leper, believing that his threat was not empty one, and that someone means harm to the ship.
There are quite a few characters, but the 3rd person narrative tends to focus on Arent, the Governor General Jan Haan, and his wife, Sara Wessel. Sara, who happens to be very forward-thinking and in possession of some fine detective skills, joins Arent, and the two try to question the less-than-friendly crew and investigate the ship in order to find out whether something is truly haunting it.
Sinister occurrences seem to confirm our characters’ fears: someone or something is set on stopping the ship from reaching its destination.

At first the story held my attention, and I did find the novel to be rather atmospheric. Turton has clearly done extensive research in the way ship’s operated (from its hierarchy to the mentality of those willing to lead such a life) giving plenty of specific details relating to its various parts and or levels. Now, sadly, I can’t say the same for the narrative’s historical accuracy. The characters spoke in a very modern way, with the occasional ‘mayhap’ to give some authenticity. While sometimes adding modern elements to historical films or books can work (such as with The Favourite), here it just took me out. Having Sara remind herself and be reminded by others, such as her maid, that she is a ‘noble-woman’ seemed odd. While I understand that Turton did so because he wanted to explain to his readers that because of her class Sara could and couldn’t do certain things (or should be addressed in a certain way by those belonging to a lower class) or , but surely he knows that his audience would be already aware of this? The interactions between the characters also struck me as modern, and it seemed weird that every woman on the ship was so ahead of her times (Sara’s daughter is a genius). Arent struck me as the typical ‘giant’ with a heart of gold, who may have done some bad things in his past, but has now turned a new leaf. Samuel plays a very minor role, and while it made sense given his imprisonment, as things escalate on the ship, I would have expected for Arent to seek his counsel more often.
The middle of his novel drags. Arent and Sara investigate by asking the same boring questions to the same people, they explore the ship some more, and that’s kind of that. The Governor, who is compared to a hawk and happens to have very sharp nails, acts like a Bad Guy, which is not a spoiler since within a few lines of being introduced to him we know that he beats his wife.
Arent and Sara were similarly ‘good’. Unlike most other people on the boat they do not approve of the United East Indian Company. Given their respective backgrounds their humanitarian awareness seemed a tad odd.
Also, the whole romantic subplot….puh-lease.
There were quite a few moments that were meant to ‘unnerve’ the reader but I personally found them comical.
When characters made a certain discovery or realised something (“It can’t be…” he said out loud, as the answers arrived in a dizzying rush. “It can’t be…”) we had these ‘cliff-hangers’ as the narrative would jump to another character and by the time we returned to that other character I no longer cared to learn of their discovery. The writing in general wasn’t to my taste : “she had so much life, it was bursting through the seams of her” / “he was coming apart at the seams” / “her daughter’s [eyes] glittered with life. Her husband’s were empty, like two dark holes his soul had long run out”.
Toward the ending things take a chaotic turn. There are a few twists, most of which I’d predicted (not bragging, I have merely read enough mystery novels to know how certain stories will unfold). The novel’s main twist was painfully clichéd and made very little sense (it was obsolete).
Long, boring, unconvincing, and with a vague ‘historicalness’ that is miles away from the likes of Sarah Dunant or Eleanor Catton.

MY RATING: 2 ½ stars

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Seven Years of Darkness by You-Jeong Jeong

Well, that was kind of ridiculous…
The title and summary of this novel gave me the impression that the story would be very much focused on Sowon, the son of mass murder, who seven years after his father’s crimes receives a mysterious package that forces him to confront his past. And in some ways, we are given that. Sadly, the narrative is less concerned with Sowon piecing together these past events than with simply retelling everything that happened in one go. The majority of this novel details the event that occurred seven years prior, without any insights from the present, but in a blow-by-blow type of account. See, the package Sowon receives contains a manuscript. The manuscript, penned by Sowon’s guardian, recounts what happened at Seryong Lake, giving us the perspective of most of the people involved. Sowon’s guardian, Ahn Sungwhan, had until that morning been sharing his living spaces with him. All of a sudden, he disappears, and Sowon receives this manuscript.
The story in the manuscript primarily follows Sungwhan, who was working as a security guard at Seryong Lake, a ‘first-tier’ reservoir located in a remote village; Dr. Oh Yongje, who owns the arboretum on the reservoir; and Sowon’s father, Hyonsu, a former baseball player who has just been hired as the new head of security at Seryong Dam (making him Sungwhan’s boss).
A tragic night leads to the lives of these men to become inexorably entwined. The inciting incident happens early on, and what follows are pages and pages of a kind of ‘cat and mouse’ game. The ‘baddie’ is revealed early on, and he seems to posses only vices. He’s a mastermind and brilliant gas-lighter who missed out on a career as a detective. The two others characters are far more hapless, and their attempts to escape the baddie’s clutches inevitably fail.
The novel jumps back to ‘seven years later’ briefly in the middle, and only for a few pages, and at the very end. The rest of the narrative treats these past events as if they are just occurring, so no new insights or even foreshadowing is offered. Two of the men are seemingly unsympathetic, prone to anger and brutish, even druknkunly, behaviour. The other one seems to become loyal to one of them for no reason whatsoever. The wives of Hyonsu and Yongje are portrayed as somewhat hysterical. Hyonsu’s wife in particular is made into a huge ‘nag’, and her character is restricted to that role.
The two children, Sowon, who was 11 at the time, and Yongje’s daughter are very much secondary to the mind-games between the adults. Yongje’s daughter dies early on and we never learn anything substantial about her, although the author does attempt to create a connection between her and Sowon.
The whole thing was cheesy. The characters were caricatures, the plot was surprisingly boring (just these three men try to outsmart each other), and I’m not sure why the novel was titled what it was. ‘Present’ Sowon doesn’t have to investigate anything, he simply reads this manuscript.
That Sungwhan was able to narrate the events from Yongje’s perspective wasn’t very convincing.
As thrillers go, this left me feeling kind of flat. Maybe readers who don’t expect there to be more of a conversation between past and present may find this to be a gripping read…

My rating: 2 ½ stars

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