BOOK REVIEWS

Red Pill by Hari Kunzru

Once again, I am in the minority as I did not find Red Pill to be a particularly artful or clever novel. To be clear, I do think that Hari Kunzru can write very well indeed, however, his narrative struck me as all flash and no substance.

I was amused by the first quarter of this novel. Kunzru’s writing didn’t ‘blow’ me away but I did find his narrator’s inner monologue to be mildly entertaining. The more I read however, the more my interest waned. My mounting frustration at the silliness and superficiality of the story soon morphed into an overwhelming feeling of exasperation. Maybe, this is my fault. The summary, cover, and general ‘hype’ surrounding this novel led me to believe that Red Pill would be something more than your average ‘well-educated yet exceedingly average straight man has midlife crisis in Europe’ story but I was wrong.
As per usual, if you enjoyed this novel, well, ben per te. And, at the risk of anticipating righteous Kunzru devotees: No, I did not in fact ‘get’ this novel. There you have it.

I’m all for historical and literary references or philosophical asides but boy, oh boy, Red Pill sure liked to flex. Maybe, one needs a master in Philosophy and Literature to understand the brilliance of the narrator’s endless ramblings on Kleist, the Enlightenment, western philosophers, postmodern theorists, Evil, self-determination, and violence.
This nameless narrator of ours (of course he remains unnamed) is experiencing some existential dread. This may be because the novel is set in 2016 and our protagonist lives in America. His conviction that ‘something’ bad is going to happen soon aren’t unfounded. Suffering writer’s block our narrator is given a ‘golden’ opportunity, a three-months residency at the Deuter Center (located in Wannsee, Berlin). Here he will supposedly be able to crack on his “The Lyric I”.
Our narrator was no however prepared for the Deuter Center’s many rules. The Center is in fact a “experimental community” that promotes, nay insists, on the “public labor of scholarship”. The narrator finds the idea of having to undertake his research in a ‘communal’ space to be abject. His feelings of discomfort and anxiety are exacerbated by a particularly unpleasant and hectoring resident, a man who relishes in making others miserable, using pseudo-intellectual jargon to ‘demolish’ their thesis and beliefs. Cowed, our narrator, who is fully aware of his own inability to speak against this bullying man, hides in his bedroom, watching episode after episode of Blue Lives an America show about cops gone ‘rogue’ and operate under a ‘violence begets violence’ mentality which sees them torturing and killing criminals.
As the narrator’s obsession for this show grows, he starts exhibiting paranoid behaviour. His thoughts too, which are very much convey this sense of ‘being watched’ or controlled (by the Center? The show? Who knows.).
The narrative then switches to the story of Monika, a cleaner who works at the Center. Monika decides for some reason to make our unremarkable, and increasingly unbalanced, narrator into her confidante. She recounts of her time in a punk girl band in East Germany, and of the way she was persecuted by the Stasi. The story exists solely as a poorly veiled allegory. This novel is not really interest in Monika, and why should it be? This is very much a narrative about an average man’s midlife crisis and of his ‘descent’ into madness.
Pure happenstance, our narrator meets Anton, the creator of Blue Lives, at a party in Berlin. Anton is a ‘bad’ guy, our narrator is sure of this. Anton does in fact act like a dick, and doesn’t bother to conceal his alt-right leanings. This encounter upsets our narrator so much that he looses grip of himself.
What follows is a sequence of fevered events in which our protagonist tries to expose Anton to the world, believing that the best way of doing so is to hurtle down the path of insanity. Paranoia and gas-lightening abound in this part of the novel. Much of what happens seems to exist merely to ridicule our narrator, to emphasise his inability to form cohesive counter-arguments to Anton’s Mad Max worldview. He now ‘sees’ the world in all its ugliest glory, he has indeed taken the ‘red pill’ mentioned in the title.

The cartoonish characters (the Center guy and Anton are pompous and blustering finger-wagging caricatures) and awkward interactions could be chalked down to Kunzru’s predilection for hysterical realism. This is satire. Okay. Fair enough. Still, what lies beneath his ‘satire’? An intelligent social commentary? A cautionary tale? Methinks not. The exaggerated characters and outlandish plot did not seem to have anything particularly to say. Beware ‘Antons’? Those who hold extremist views and use scholarly or high-register words to deflect their audience from the true meaning of what they are saying? Paranoia is a sane response to an ‘insane’ reality?
Kunzur’s arguments felt tired, especially in 2020, and serve a merely ornamental function. Take the role of the show Blue Lives in the story. Our narrator watches it with a mix of horror and fascination. He worries that no one has caught on the messages that Anton has peppered in his show, particularly a troubling quote by Joseph de Maistre. Our narrator tries to call out Anton, by criticising his show’s pessimistic worldview, in which the world is an “abattoir”. But that’s it. He doesn’t try to think why viewers of this show condone this kind of vigilante sort of justice. Kunzru has one quick scene in a kebab shop in which he attempts to unpack the psychology of people like Anton, but he does it in such a harried and obvious way (Anton telling our protagonist why his friends dislike immigrants and non-Western cultural influences), to which our inept narrator responds “fuck you”.
Kunzru also tries to show how good intentions can be misunderstood by having our supposedly progressive narrator attempt to help a refugee father and her daughter. Except that his attempt to help them is from the get go dodgy as he wants to prove Anton and his violent worldview wrong.
He’s also, surprise surprise, like Monika, made to seem complicit with Anton (so that he’s mistaken for a Fascist).
I get that we are not meant to like the narrator (he’s kind of a coward, kind of pathetic, kind of a creep when it comes to attractive women), but did the author really have to go out of his way to humiliate him? I already felt little for this man, and the more the story seemed intent on emphasising his many failings, the more I lost interest.
The author seemed more focused on making his narrative as nebulous as possible than of fleshing out or giving some nuance to his characters. Yet, the structure of the novel isn’t all that innovative. The plot too unfolds rather predictably. The narrator’s unreliability and his imminent breakdown are obvious, and I felt no apprehension about his decline or wellbeing. While the author’s prose was exceedingly well-articulated, I failed to grasp the meaning behind his words.
The narrator often recounted the conversations he had with others. Consequently, not only did the plot lack immediacy but the majority of the secondary characters were made to speak only through our narrator recalling the gist of their words (one could say that this is realistic as he is retroactively describing his time in Berlin but why do we get some dialogues then? Am I to believe then he has a sporadic exceptional memory?). The narrator’s inner-monologue is repetitive and appeared to be little other than navel-gazing. Many of his thoughts and feelings aren’t all that complex, and yet the author will dedicate entire paragraphs to them.
Also, while I understand that there times when you can get so flustered as to be unable to form a cohesive sentence or valid counter-argument (just think how many videos there in which ‘liberals/snowflakes/feminists are destroyed with FACTS and LOGIC’) it didn’t ring quite true when at the Center what’s-his-face is offensive towards every single other resident, and no one does anything about it. He wasn’t their boss or a threatening guy, yet, not one of these learned individuals was capable of calling him out. His behaviour, as far as I remember, doesn’t even get reported (which it should be given that he says inappropriate things, and actively works against the Center’s ideology). Speaking of the Center, that felt very much felt like ‘bait’. It seems that it will play some sort of role in the novel but it is totally sidelined in favour of our narrator spiralling out of control.
Another thing I couldn’t quite behind was Anton and his supposed powers of influence over our main character. While I can recognise that the narrator was in a susceptible, if not vulnerable, state I wasn’t convinced by the way Anton comes to dominate his every-thought. The guy may have been able to quote some obscure philosopher but that hardly makes him into almighty persuader.
The ‘writing about writing’ angle was but underwhelming and obnoxious. If anything, the narrator’s reflections on writing seemed to serve as excuses for the actual novel’s failings: “Plot is the artificial reduction of life’s complexity and randomness. It is a way to give aesthetic form to reality” (insert headache inducing eye-roll here). And of course, Chekhov’s gun gets a mention. How very self-aware.
While the protagonist did touch upon interesting subjects and ideas, often using researched vocabulary, he did so superficially, so that ultimately his narration seemed little other than bloviating.

In spite of the novel’s lampoon of the academic world, the narrative struck as being extremely elitist. Red Pill tells a meandering and ultimately inadequate story, attempting perhaps to shock or impress its own importance onto its readers. But I felt mostly annoyed by it all. Meaning and depth are lost in a prolix narrative that meanders maddeningly from one subject to the next without having anything substantial to say. Reading this was a huge waste of time, time I could have spent watching ContraPoints or Philosophy Tube. Did the world need another book dedicated to a self-proclaimed ‘average’ man who is having a ‘midlife’ crisis?

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson – book review

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“Bow all your heads to our adored Mary Katherine.”

In recent years Shirley Jackson has experienced a kind of renascence. Perhaps because of Netflix’s adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House or possibly thanks to contemporary authors (such as Donna Tartt, Neil Gaiman, and Stephen King) who have credited Jackson as their inspiration, enhancing her reputation, and prompting a reappraisal of her work. The fact that the Gothic and Horror genres—long regarded as cheap and sensational—are no longer considered ‘lowbrow’ fiction has also contributed to this reassessment of Jackson’s oeuvre. Modern readers now see Jackson as a central figure of the America Gothic as much of her fiction paints a fascinating—if not disturbing—portrait of postwar America . Yet, I find it difficult to pigeonhole Jackson as a Horror writer. Her narratives often feature emotionally disturbed women who are trapped within Kafkaesque worlds. They reality they presents us with seems off. Jackson seems to magnify the way in which traditions and societal expectations threaten one’s individuality and creativity. Most of her stories follow a woman’s ‘quest’ to find or maintain her identify. The ‘horror’ within Jackson’s stories is experienced by her characters. It is because most of her protagonists are labelled as ‘different’ that they are made vulnerable. Yet, readers will often find that all of Jackson’s characters behave with eccentricity (there are whole towns and communities populated by weird people…a bit a la A Series Of Unfortunate Events). In spite of this our protagonists are still singled out, often because they seem more interested in practicing their personal brand of witchcraft than of engaging with the rest of their world.
Madness and evil pervade Jackson’s writing to the extent that even her depictions of everyday occurrences are riddled with human weaknesses, fears, and cruelties. In We Have Always Lived in the Castle evil takes many forms.

The protagonist of We Have Always Lived in the Castle—which happens to be Jackson’s last published novel—has no interest in personal growth. Mary Katherine, who goes by the nickname of Merricat (quite fitting given that she often behaves like her closest companion, a black cat named Jonas), is an untame and defiant tomboy whose apparent ingenuousness hides a razor-alert mind. Six years before the events of the narrative—at the age of twelve—Merricat’s mother, father, aunt, and younger brother died after eating sugar laced with arsenic. Constance, Merricat’s older sister, is accused and acquitted of the crime.
Ostracised from their village, Merricat and Constance have become completely estranged from society. At the age of eighteen—free from her parents’ rules—Merricat has fashioned Blackwood Manor into her own private and idyllic world. The two sisters and Uncle Julian—who survived the poisoning but is now wheelchair-bound and increasingly senile—lead a life that is relatively quiet and governed by the daily chores and the ritual of mealtimes. Constance is in charge of the cooking and spends most of her days looking after Uncle Julian and completing household chores with Merricat, whom she treats with loving indulgence, often condoning Merricat’s disturbing behaviour by saying “silly Merricat”. When Constance voices her desire to go outside of the property, Merricat fear of this begins to manifests itself in her surroundings, skewing the way she perceives her reality so that she views ordinary things as ‘omens’ that “spoke of change.” Merricat attempts to regain control of the situation through her witchcraft and by breaking objects but with cousin Charles’ unannounced visit, Merricat is forced to take more drastic approaches to self-preservation.

A third fourth reading of this short and beautifully odd novel has made me even more appreciative of Shirley Jackson’s mastery of words. The first time I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle I was propelled into an increasingly puzzling yet utterly compelling story. During my second reading, I payed more attention to all of the novel’s components, rather than just getting swept along the bizarrely unapologetic storyline. Each time I re-read this novel, I love it even more. Jackson doesn’t feel the need to explain the surreal reality of her novels which makes readers such as me all the more in awe of her craft. Although it is difficult to draw comparisons, I could describe her style as David Lynch meets Tim Burton. Everything and everyone within this novel is peculiar and most scenes and conservations seem to hold a level of absurdity. Merricat’s narrative is also marked by a sense of growing unease (towards change, the future, anything other than her own version of reality) and the tension created by her various anxieties is alleviated by the story’s dark humour.

There are many different layers to We Have Always Lived in the Castle. One the one hand, it is exactly what its reputation promises it to be: an incredibly eerie and compelling short novel. On the other hand, it also delves into many challenging and unsettling subjects, such as paranoia, persecution and violence. Shirley Jackson does not shy away from portraying the darker corners of human nature, in fact, she delves right into the darkest parts of the human psyche.
On the surface, Merricat’s alienation is debilitating yet a closer look suggests that her estrangement from her society is act of self-preservation, one that is both empowering and subversive, allowing them to defy the societal norms and expectations of their time. Throughout the course of her narrative she attempts—for better or worse—to shape and maintain her own identities, refusing the role thrust upon her by her society. In Jackson’s novels, a world of fantasy is preferable to the ‘real’ world, which is populated by people who perform acts of cruelty, physical brutality and or psychological violence against those they perceive as ‘outsiders’. Merricat, who embodies the feared ‘other’ through her unwillingness, if not outright refusal, to adhere to established social conventions, is the ideal scapegoats of her community.

Merricat’s megalomania shows itself through her desire to exact punishments and for designating things and people as either “good” or “bad”. Her dichotomous view of the world causes her to behave in extremes: she varies between acting like a feral child, a sulky adolescent, and a seemingly Cassandra-like individual. Merricat obeys her childish impulses, and readily resorts to violence when not getting her way. Although Merricat sounds much younger than her eighteen years, her naivety is misleading, and her fantasies can easily move between those of a child (“I really only want a winged horse, anyway. We could fly you to the moon and back, my horse and I”) and those of a far more ruthless and dangerous person.
Her sadistic fantasies, her manipulation and subordination of Constance, and her desire to frighten others (“I always thought about rot when I came toward the row of stores; I thought about burning black painful rot that ate away from inside, hurting dreadfully. I wished it on the village.” ) reveal Merricat’s cunning awareness. Readers might find her charming, yet warped perspective jarring, especially since she avoids explaining her most malevolent deeds.

Merricat’s surreal inner world is conveyed through her first-person narration and readers are granted a unique insight into some of her mental strategies that she uses to feel protected from world around her’. To an outsider like her cousin Charles, many of Merricat’s actions seem to be unwarranted temper tantrums. Readers, on the other hand, know that Merricat always attributes a meaning—however absurd or far-fetched it may appear—to her every action and word. We are aware that she deliberately smashes objects in an effort to regain control over her life.
Merricat’s tendency to let her fantasies dictate her behaviour, turning her imagination into reality, distances herself from the ever-present threat of reality. She attempts to change and control aspects of her life through magical charms and fantasies, with little direct engagement with the outside world. Merricat’s need of control could possibly stems from her ‘fear of change’ which in turn causes her to perceive anything outside her and Constance’s established routine, such as the arrival of uninvited guests, as a threat to their wellbeing. Merricat tries to deflect ‘change’ through her own unique brand of witchcraft, which consists in the performance of various magical rituals, the burying of various ‘safeguards’, unspoken ‘spells’, and even the occasional“‘offering of jewellery out of gratitude”. Merricat draws strength from her belief in magic. What Charles—and presumably the rest of society—would see as childish games, Merricat views as the means to safeguard her future and protect her from the outside.

It is up to Merricat to fashion her home, Blackwood Manor, into a ‘castle’—a stronghold—which she can protect through various magical rituals and wards, and Merricat believes that nothing—and no one—can prevent her from projecting her fantastical and solipsistic view of the world onto her reality.
Shirley Jackson’s style is perfectly attuned to Merricat’s unnerving mind. Her obsessive and impulsive nature is fluidly conveyed by Jackson’s repetitive and rhythmical writing. Jackson also evokes a surrealisms reminiscent of fairy tales through the Merricat’s childlike urges and morbid fascination.
Merricat is a beguiling narrator. Her playful fantasies are juxtaposed against the most violent and bizarre thoughts. Her devotion to her sister borders on the obsessive yet it is through this puzzling relationship that we see a more genuine side to Merricat’s character. In spite of her selfish nature, her palpable fears and unique worldview make her into a fascinating protagonist. Once the stability of the sisters’ purposely reclusive existence is threatened, Merricat survives through her active fantasy. She retreats into the deepest parts of her made-up world. And it is her increasingly desperate attempts to retain control over both Constance’s and her own life that make her into such a brilliant character. Even in those instances where she ‘simply’ observes others, Merricat is always ‘there’, her presence unmissable to the readers.

Her sister Constance also demonstrates worrying behaviour. She too is initially in complete denial over the family’s status. She is in some things, rather controlling, while in other instances, she seemed…on another planet. While Constance remains a cypher of sorts, we see why Merricat needs her.
Uncle Julian ramblings were endearing and his sharp remarks provided much entertainment. Much of the story’s humour springs from his character.
Merricat perceives cousin Charles a threat right from the start. The scenes featuring him are brimming with tension: Merricat’s apprehension is all too real, and I found myself viewing him as an ‘enemy’, just as she does. Merricat’s descriptions of him often present him as something not quite human, a ghost or some such creature. While we can see that some of his criticisms towards Constance and Merricat had some truth, we are always seeing him through Merricat’s eyes.

The underlying suspense, the growing unease, make this uncanny tale hard to put down.The vivid descriptions are simply tantalising, the surreal quality of the characters’ conversations is darkly amusing and the atmospheric setting is almost tangible. We Have Always Lived in the Castle makes for a lush and macabre read, one that will probably strike you as weird yet ultimately compelling. It could be read as a fairy-tale of sorts, an alternative to folklore narratives, or as a story that sets otherness against ‘herd’ mentality.
Recently there has been a film adaptation of this novel (you can watch the trailer for it here) which, in spite of some minor alterations, brings to life Jackson’s story. It conveys the novel’s unapologetic weirdness, its idiosyncrasies, and its black humour. The film Stoker also seems to have drawn inspiration from this novel.
The first page of this novel perfectly encapsulates its style and tone. If you are uncertain whether this is the kind of story for you, I recommend you read its opening paragraph:

“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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THE FAR FIELD: BOOK REVIEW

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The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay
★★★★✰ 4.5 of 5 stars

The Far Field is an exceptional debut novel. Madhuri Vijay has written a quietly intense tale that both conjures and conveys feelings of uncertainty.

After her mother’s death Shalini becomes detached from her daily existence. Increasingly alienated from others she makes the impulsive decision to travel to a remote Himalayan village in Kashmir where Bashir Ahmed —an old friend of her mother’s— lives.
In an interview Vijay describes Shalini as being “remote and closed-off, so hamstrung by doubt and suspicion, that even [she], as the writer, occasionally felt suffocated by her voice”. Well, I agree 100% with her. Shalini is a cypher. She is hesitant to demonstrate her feelings or to simply share her thoughts with the people who could potentially become her friends. Vijay has depicted her in this way quite intentionally. To me, Shalini’s inability to act was yes frustrating but it also created tension. Would she finally unwind? Could she be able to really live in the present? Connect with others?

Her journey does not follow the classic ‘coming of age’ that often occurs in similar novels (where a character travels somewhere to ‘find themselves’ or to come ‘to terms with their past). Shalini’s experiences in Kashmir are far more realistic. An ingrained distrust still dictates a lot of what she does. I was really saddened and frustrated by her half-hearted attempt at a friendship with Zoya and Amina. Shalini seems desperate to fill in the hole left by her mother’s death but she is also very reticent about revealing her innermost self.
Shalini was also utterly naive and rather self-centred. The few times she actually ‘acts’ or says something important she usually ends up doing or saying the wrong thing. She seems unable to read other people or to take in account what they too might be hiding/protecting their true emotions.
Given that Shalini is recounting her journey to Kashmir years after it, she often expresses the wish to have acted differently, and there are a lot of ‘if onlys‘ which furthered the tension of her story.
Having lived a life of comfort Shalini doesn’t seem to realise that not everyone knows those same comforts (which she has taken for granted).
There are chapters that focus on Shalini’s childhood and on her intense relationship with her fiery mother. It is perhaps because she is so young (and sheltered) that Shalini does not notice how trapped and unhappy her seemingly strong mother was. Their strained relationship takes its toll on both mother and daughter.

This novel depicts Shalini’s desperate attempts to belong and to reconcile herself with the way in which she treated (and was in turn treated by) her mother. Sadly, Shalini often acts under the wrong impression, and she either misunderstands others and or ends up being misunderstood by the ones she claims she cares for.
Vijay renders the way in which language can betray one’s intention or the way in which words often are not often.
This novel has a lot to wrestle with but it does so in a paced manner. This story is one of ambivalence and dissolution; the plot rests on the novel’s setting(s) and on Shalini’s interactions with mainly two other families. While the author does not shy away from portraying the religious conflict occurring in Kashmir, she focuses more on the experiences of various individual characters — the way in which they themselves are affected by dispute between India and Pakistan — rather than offering a dumbed down ‘overview’ of Kashmir’s long history of violence. Having Shalini as the narrator allows readers to glimpse Kashmir through the eyes of an ‘outsider’.
This is a story about privilege, guilt, grief, and isolation. Amidst the novel’s bleak realism there are some heart-rendering moments, and Vijay’s writing lyrical writing often allowed me to forget of the unease created by her story. I kept hoping against hope that the ending would provide some sort of not quite magical solution but that it could at least give me some closure…but I’m afraid to say that the ending is what makes this a 4 star read rather than a 5 one. WHY?!

Anyhow, I will definitely keep my eyes open for more of Vijay’s stunning and heartbreaking writing.

PS: I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by Sneha Mathan. Mathan does an incredibly job. Her voice is 1)beautiful 2)capable of making me feel a wide range of emotions 3)simply captivating

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THE REMAINS OF THE DAY: BOOK REVIEW

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The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

 ★★★★★ 5 of 5 stars

“Indeed — why should I not admit it? — in that moment, my heart was breaking.”

…and now I am sad.
This hit me harder than expected.

I find it impossible hard to believe that this book was written by Kazuo Ishiguro and not Mr. Stevens. The thing is, by the end, I believed in Mr. Stevens’ existence…
Okay, it might sound odd but that’s just how good this novel is. It made me nostalgic for something I have never known. I was overwhelmed by sadness and regret on behalf of Mr. Stevens. 71raA6p02aL.jpg
Regardless of its author, it is a beautifully written story. The narrative takes us back to certain pivotal moments of Mr. Stevens’ time at Darlington Hall. Through these glimpses we gain a vivid impression of Mr. Stevens. The other characters are just as nuanced and believable as the narrator himself. As Mr. Stevens’ looks back on his years of service, I became acquainted with him. He keeps back quite a lot, especially when it comes to his innermost feelings, and that made him all the more realistic.
This is a poignant and heart-rendering character study that was perfect for a melancholic soul like mine.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Dominic West (Mr. Stevens) who did an outstanding job.

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Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

While this might not be Lehane’s best novel, it is one of his most suspenseful ones.
Having watched the screen adaptation years ago, I was worried that I would not be able to find the twist as shocking…well, I shouldn’t have worried. Lehane is always able to shock his readers.
A story that thrums with tension, Shutter Island constantly questions its own narrative and characters. A mounting uncertainty accompanies readers – and the story’s protagonist– in what soon reveals to be a puzzling – and inexplicable – mystery. The disappearance of a patient in a hospital for the criminally insane brings U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner Chuck Aule, to Shutter Island. Teddy’s investigation is further complicated by the island’s uncooperative staff and an incoming hurricane. In the midst of these adversatives Teddy is forced to confront his own past. A confined setting and plenty of suspicious characters add more fuel this mystery.
Lehane’s ability to flesh out different characters is as good as ever. Through a few sharp observations, or a word or two, he is able to bring characters to life: they are all remarkably vivid. Teddy, Chuck, the orderlies, the doctors, they all strike an impression in the reader.
Lehane’s very immediate style intensifies the emotional charge of his scenes. Also, his narration reflects the protagonist’s state of mind, causing an instantaneous reaction in the reader.
This a story if violence, denial, and trauma. While it may be upsetting (*ahem*…devastating…) it is also incredibly engaging novel, one that poses plenty of challenging questions.

My rating: 4.5 stars

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The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

First things first: I read both Tithe and Valiant, when I was about twelve or so, and I absolutely loved them. They influenced my later readings, for I had found myself desperately in want of more dark fairy tales.
To say that I was looking forward to The Cruel Prince would be an understatement. I was ecstatic when I discovered that Holly Black was writing more about the faerie world of her previous novels, so I impatiently awaited the release of this novel. I’m happy to say (or write) that the gorgeous cover and intriguing synopsis fulfilled – and surpassed – my high expectations.

One of the main characteristics of this novel is that it is extremely sensual. There are the more apparent lush scenes, but also there are many observations and remarks referring to Jude’s sensory faculties: there is an emphasis on smell, taste and touch. Because of this the faerie world is extremely vivid and clear cut. There is an almost tangible physicality to Jude’s surroundings, one that, more often than not, borders on being both dangerous and sexual. Holly Black is able to write of a scarily convincing world, by playing with established tropes but also by forging her own lore. Her fairy world is so satisfying. Her fairies are tantalizing: they play clever tricks, employ artful magic and live in alluring castles.

The narrator Jude, despite being a ‘mere‘ human, can hold her own ground against her immortal companions. Too many times we find a simply ‘likeable’ heroine, who is not nearly as complex or developed as her male counterpart or other secondary characters. Jude, instead, is one of – if not the – most absorbing characters of the story. She is nuanced and flawed, possessing an admirable resilience and an understable thirst for power. She is an unconventional heroine, and I loved her in spite – and because – of that. She confides in us, and while she isn’t always truthful, I felt connected to her. And while this novel may be called ‘The Cruel Prince’ Prince Cardan is not the main focus of the story, Jude plays the vital role in her own story. Still, Cardan was incredibly fascinating, and he too cannot be neatly fitted into the ‘antihero’ category. Holly doesn’t make condone his cruelty or his behaviour, and yet, she is able to give him other attributes that make him as complicated as Jude. There is an array of fully fleshed out side characters: there are many characters who make an impact on Jude and her story, her sisters, her ‘father’, her ‘Court’…
The story is at once fast paced and not. Many things happen but Holly Black never rushes the plot. There are almost leisurely passages in which we can glimpse the faerie world and its customs, and I was more than happy to see certain familiar faces…
A beautifully written captivating fairy tale, one that is satisfyingly eerie and intricate.

My Rating: 5 stars

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Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent

I won’t deny that –initially– there is an underlying tension that renders some portions of the story to be gripping. The first opening lines propel us into what promises – and fails – to be an intriguing mystery.
My main reservation about this novel is that it switches tones too often: there is an unbalanced – if not jarring – disparity between the seemingly ‘dark’ components and the unbelievably ridiculous moments.
I initially thought the narration and story reminded me of Joanne Harris’ Gentlemen and Players but it never really holds onto its strengths. That book perfectly balances humor and drama. Lying in Wait does not. The narrator who is almost gleefully telling us about their ‘bad’ intentions loses all its appeal. There are scenes and monologues that are just oddly grotesque: they do serve the purpose of unsettling the reader but they lose their desired effect by repulsing us and by making us question the believability of their situation/words. What should be funny is so ridiculously lampooned that it just becomes irksome.
The satirization of ‘class’ is completely overdone. Comments about ‘oh dear, the unemployed’ or ‘we do not mix with them dear’ were more annoying than witty.
The appealing premise leads to a ludicrous series of events which on the whole lead to a pointless finale. Then again, the story serves no real purpose and delivers no real message. The characters are all inept and their naivety is just downright irritating. I know that the story is set in the 80s, but I refuse to believe that people were so gormless.
What could have been a compelling mystery filled with dark humor ends being an exaggerated parody of the genre.

My rating: 1 star

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Villette by Charlotte Brontë

Even after a second reading I am still surprised by how much this novel resonates with me. A lot readers will start Villette expecting a rehash of Jane Eyre—a novel which I enjoyed but wasn’t particularly taken by—which is a pity given that the narrative of Villette takes its reader through a much more labyrinthine path that the straightforward Bildungsroman of Jane Eyre.

“No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, ant tilled with manure. Happiness is a glory shining far down upon us out of Heaven. She is a divine dew which the soul, on certain of its summer mornings, feels dropping upon it from the amaranth bloom and golden fruitage of Paradise.”

From the first few chapters I fell in love with Villette.
Brontë’s writing is so insightful that it is hard not wanting to highlight, or make a not of, every single paragraph. She has a way with words, managing to orchestrate long yet fluid phrases, that project both strong imageries and feelings. She gives intricate and sharp observations, vivid descriptions, thoughtful considerations and manages to imbue her characters with unnerving realism.
Villette‘s plot rests upon its narrator. In fact, this novel, is all about Lucy Snowe. A study of her psychology and of her own sense of self. Yet, even upon a second reading, she remains somewhat unknowable to me as she is careful to keep her feelings in check, and on more than one occasion she refrains from sharing certain knowledge with us readers. Her self-division is such that might lead other characters—and some readers—to assume that she is ‘cold and distant’, a desired effect as she intentionally wants to curb the part of her self that is passionate and feeling.

“Oh, my childhood! I had feelings: passive as I lived, little as I spoke, cold as I looked, when I thought of past days, I could feel. About the present, it was better to be stoical; about the future–such as a future as mine–to be dead.”

Her unreliability seems a natural outcome of her not wanting to reveal herself completely to us and others, and perhaps by lying to her readers, she can also deceive herself. We never know why she has become so alienated from her feelings but given that even as a child she was self-possessed, a quiet observer, it seems that it is merely an aspect of her self.
This divide between duty and self-fulfilment is the main focus of the narrative. Brontë’s Lucy, similarly to her more famous literary sister Jane, is a woman living on the social margins of her society: an orphan with few living relations and or friends, she lacks conventional beauty and the wealth necessary to be respected by society.
Lucy minimises the loss of her family, not wanting to dwell on how this affected her nor on the difficulties she experienced as an orphan, dismissing that period of her life as “a long time—of cold, of danger, of contention”. Her hardships go unheard since “to whom could [she] complain?” and so she grows accustomed to solitude believing that “there remained no possibility of dependence on others” .
The narrative that follows will see her confronted with different forms of femininity and womanhood which are often embodied in the women she meets in England and in Villette.

“When I looked, my inner self moved; my spirit shook its always-fettered wings half loose; I had a sudden feeling as if I, who had never yet truly lived, were at last about to taste life: in that morning my soul grew as fast as Jonah’s gourd.”

One of my favourite scenes sees our narrator rejecting ideals of femininity in a museum. One painting features a Cleopatra-like figure whose sumptuous body makes our protagonist at ill at ease; the other one demonstrates the traditional life of woman: a young and demure bride, a wife and mother, and finally a widow. Lucy, in the course of this maze-like narrative will demonstrate a headstrong will in that in spite of the concealment of her feelings she remains true to her self.
Her character is so real that I was inevitably drawn to feel what she felt: I wanted what she wanted, for I couldn’t stand to see her unhappy.

“My state of mind, and all accompanying circumstances, were just now such as most to favour the adoption of a new, resolute, and daring–perhaps desperate–line of action. I had nothing to lose. Unutterable loathing of a desolate existence past, forbade return. If I failed in what I now designed to undertake, who, save myself, would suffer? If I died far away from–home, I was going to say, but I had no home–from England, then, who would weep?”

The ending is ambiguous and somewhat open-ended yet those last bittersweet pages soften the story’s final blow.
This novel is a beautifully written character study that plays around with Gothic and Romantic elements. There is great character development, shifting dynamics between friends and acquaintances, a painfully concealed and unrequited first love, and a series of feverous experiences which blur the line between reality and fantasy…Villette is a compelling portrait of a woman’s individuality.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

A surprisingly entertaining novel that brims with a polite sort of humor that is nevertheless appealing to the modern reader. Various characters give their account in regards of a missing diamond worn by Rachel Verinder on her eighteenth birthday. This yellow diamond, also known as ‘moonstone’, we are told has been stolen from India by Rachel’s uncle who upon his death left it to his niece. On the morning after her birthday Rachel discovers the diamond missing and her household is soon thrown off balance: police question the servant and houseguest with little avail. Sergeant Cuff is brought to investigate but the diamond remains missing. An acquaintance of Rachel wanting to ‘solve’ the case asks a few of the people involved to recall the events surrounding the disappearance of the diamond, the first account, for example is given by Gabriel Betteredge, faithful servant of Lady Verinder. I loved his bit. He often recalls things that are not strictly pertinent to the diamond but he is also very aware of this and apologizes in advance. His account creates two vivid pictures: a before and after the diamond. In the light of the following events, the Betteredge’s initial account becomes incredibly nostalgic. He gives a great sense of place, of the household and the servants within the house. Betterdge is an amiable character and whose depth is given by his habits and mannerism.
The following threads were not as enjoyable, they were shorter and less encompassing: Drusilla Clack, an ardent Evangelical, gives us nothing of too much importance, Dr. Candy and Jennings were forgettable despite the vital information given by their accounts.

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

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If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

“Actors are by nature volatile–alchemic creatures composed of incendiary elements, emotion and ego and envy. Heat them up stir them together, and sometimes you get gold. Sometimes disaster.”

An enjoyable debut novel that delivers plenty of Shakespearean ‘nuggets’.
To label this story a mystery is a mistake. It isn’t. It is quite obvious what has happened, however, that doesn’t make the book any less entertaining.
We follow Oliver during a particular stressful period of his life the months leading up to his arrest. His relationship with his close friends becomes particularly tense: jealousies and misunderstanding abound in his life. Rio’s captures the anxieties of a young and ambitious group of people who make the mistake of believing to be the only ones struggling with their situation causing them slowly to drift from one another. I wish some things could have been developed a bit more, especially when concerning Oliver’s relationship with a certain character. Nevertheless, If We Were Villains has plenty of vivid characters and is written in a swift and occasionally eloquent writing style. I definitely recommend this to fans of Shakespeare or of the theatre.

My rating: 3.75 of 5 stars

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