BOOK REVIEWS

The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

After reading an article that called Stephen Graham Jones “the Jordan Peele of horror literature” I was really looking forward to The Only Good Indians. Sadly, Jones’ novel never quite lived up to its eerie premise. Then again, this may the case of ‘it’s not the book, it’s me’ or maybe I have just become inoculated to horror fiction (the last horror books I’ve read—The Bright Lands, Revenge, Empire of Wild—did not elicit any feelings of fear or anxiety in me).


Anyhow, just because I did not find The Only Good Indians to be a particularly good piece of horror doesn’t mean that I would want to discourage others from reading it (if you are thinking of picking up this book I encourage that you read some of the many positives reviews here on GR). So, before I move onto my criticisms, here are some positives.
Jones’ is an undoubtedly imaginative writer. It is refreshing to read stories that do not implement Western myths, and the vengeful deity at the heart of The Only Good Indians is inspired by the Native American myth of Deer Woman. I appreciated the way Jones’ calls out stereotypes about Native Americans (for example by having his characters fear that they will become another ‘statistic’ or that their behaviour will fuel harmful stereotypes). There was also a brief scene in which Jones contrasts the views and attitudes of younger and older members of the Blackfeet tribe. Jones’ use of repetition and onomatopoeias (such as: “the story her stepdad told her isn’t the real story, isn’t the one with feet on the ground and smoke in the air, bang bang bang.”) could also be quite effective.

And now, onto the things I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy (mild-spoilers below).
The pacing…is kind of all over the place. Maybe I approached this book with the wrong exceptions but I wasn’t too keen on the way Jones’ structured his story. The four friends mentioned in the summary are not at the core of this story. We have one chapter focusing on one character, then we spend quite some time with another character, and then we move to two other characters. While I understand that geography was in the way of our deity’s hunt for these men, I do think that weaving their storylines together would have created some more suspense. By the time we move to the last two characters, we know what will happen (and yes, surprise surprise, it does happen). Their stories felt kind of disjointed, their relationship with each other a mere echo. The story never builds a momentum but rather it thrusts us in scenes in which shit has already hit the fan. Take Lewis. From the very first page we meet him, he’s kind of lost it. There is no slow descent into madness. Because we only see him at his worst, I never had time to care for him. There were quite a few chapters that cut off before a scene had reached its zenith, and we are only retroactively told of what came next, so that the narrative lost a lot of its urgency.
The characters…well, they are kind of the same man. They are kind of messy, selfish, not too bright. They articulated themselves in the same exact way, they had no real interests or drive, they kind of just exist. When having sex with his girlfriend Lewis makes a joke about going “bareback” which yes, Lewis himself admits is a “stupid joke” but that this joke re-appears later on…yeah, it didn’t make me feel particularly sympathetic towards him. The only time he showed some depth is when he acknowledges his own conflicted feelings about being with a white woman (and of the possibility of fathering children outside his community). Other than that, Lewis remains a static character. I think that making his story a bit longer, and of slowing down his mental breakdown, would have made him a more dimensional character. The other two guys were mostly forgettable (one is a father, the other one has a girlfriend).
The female characters were hard to digest as they would have been far more at home in a novel published in the 80s. They are physically and emotionally strong, paragons of strength who when needed can transform into sexy temptresses (which begs the question: why would they ever choose to be with or flirt with these four walking-disasters?).
The younger characters were less one-dimensional but they play such small roles that they didn’t really make a huge impact on the story.
Now, onto the most disappoint thing of this book: the horror element. Jones’ horror relies on gory descriptions. I didn’t feel chilled or disturbed by the content of this book. While I do find scenes that depict violent deaths (blood and gore galore) to be somewhat disgusting, for the most part I was unshaken by Jones’ reliance on splatter which would have more in common with B-horror movies than Peele’s Get Out. These explicit scenes were not very shocking or terrifying, in fact, they had the opposite effect as their gaudiness could be unintentionally funny.
The final section was corny as hell, and didn’t really fit with the rest of the novel.

As I previously said, although I did not have a very high opinion of The Only Good Indians I wouldn’t discourage others from reading this novel. I don’t think I would have finished this novel if I’d read the book myself. The audiobook narrator gives a really good performance and he definitely kept me from DNFing this.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

Burnt Sugar is one of the worst books I’ve read in 2020. If you were able to appreciate this novel, I’m glad. This may be one of those ‘it’s me, not you’ cases…or maybe I’ve read too many stories exploring a complex mother/daughter relationship. To be perfectly frank, I bloody hated this book. It was painfully intent on nauseating the reader. We get it, the human body is base (Julia Kristeva has been there and done that). Burnt Sugar is ripe with garish descriptions of the abject human body: we have bodily fluids and waste, failing bodies, changing bodies (pregnancies, puberty), body parts compared to food or objects (breasts like dough, buttocks like empty sacks).
The narrator of this novel, someone who was so remarkable I can no longer recall her name, is the classic disaffected woman who is alienated from everyone and everything. A few days before listening to Burnt Sugar I read Luster, a novel that features a similar type of character except that there the author manages to make her protagonist into a nuanced human being, one who isn’t nice or extremely likeable but is nevertheless realistic and capable of moving the read.
But here, dio mio! The narrator comes across as petulant and myopic, understanding nothing about anything and no one. Readers are clearly not meant to like her but there are various scenes that try to elicit some sort of sympathy (the nuns mistreat her, her mother is mercurial, her ‘silly’ Indian-American husband is blind to her anguish) on her behalf. Except that I didn’t.
The MC goes and on about her mother, but we never gain insight into her actual feelings towards her. The MC is happy detailing all the wrongs she has endured, and seems to insinuate that she has become such a stronza because of her mother. The whole thing is incredibly superficial. Here we have another mother who is ‘hysterical’ just because ‘hysterical’ mothers can make for some dramatic scenes.
Indian-Americans are portrayed as foolish and brainwashed. Everybody is nasty and disgusting. Ha-ha! Oh wait, that isn’t quite ‘caustic wit’. There were a few—and when I say a few, I mean two or three—phrases that under certain circumstances (if you are as high as a kite) may come across as slightly amusing, but for the most part the MC’s cutting humour fell flat. Viewing everything as grotesque is hardly funny, and it gets tiring, fast.
I also found the author’s treatment and portrayal of postnatal depression and dementia to be highly insensitive. The mother in question becomes ‘monstrous’, the type of character that one may expect in Victorian literature. Who cares about realism when you can write explicit and ‘subversive’ things for the sake of shock value?
I think this was an awful novel…and it seems that I’m in the minority. Who cares. If you want to read it or loved it, good for you. I’m glad I was able to return this audiobook and I sincerely doubt I will ever try reading anything by this author.

Books with believably fraught mother/daughter relationships featuring alienated, disaffect, or challenging main characters : You Exist Too Much, The Far Field.

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

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Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall — book review

Boyfriend Material reads less like fiction than fanfiction. No one acts their age, we have50225678.jpg an exceedingly angsty protagonist, a plethora of silly side characters who express themselves using a Tumblresque sort of lingo, unlikely interactions, and a lot tropes.
The novel’s sitcom-like structure was predictable and often unfunny. Luc O’Donnell’s friends, colleagues, and acquaintances had very one-dimensional roles: we have the straight friend who is always having a crisis at work (one more ludicrous than the other), the lesbian friend who is short and angry, the gay couple that share the same first and last name (and are both referred as James Royce-Royce) and have opposing personalities, a few ridiculously posh characters (who had no clue of anything related to contemporary culture or social norms), the fanciful French mother (who is very much the British idea of a French person), the estranged rock star father…
Luc was so self-centred and monotonous that I soon grew tired of him. He has a few genuinely funny lines (when he’s told not to give up he replies: “But I like giving up. It’s my single biggest talent”) but these are far too few in-between. The narrative tries to make us sympathise with him because he’s been sold-out by his ex-boyfriend and because his dad had 0 interest in acting like a father…and yeah, those things aren’t great but they don’t make his self-pitying narcissism any less annoying. Most of the conversations he has with other people, Oliver in particular, revolve around what he has experienced, what he feels, wants, and fears. I just wish he hadn’t been so focused on himself as it made him rather unlikable.
The other characters are really unbelievable and behave unconvincingly. They did not act or speak like actual human beings.
The running gags were just unfunny: most characters treat Oliver’s vegetarianism as if it was an obscure dietary lifestyle they could never wrap their heads around, Luc’s posh colleagues doesn’t understand his jokes, while Welsh characters accuse Luc of being racist against Welsh people (this annoyed me because they kept throwing around the word ‘racism’ when it had nothing to with racism. Luc not knowing about Welsh history or culture is not racism).
The romance never grabbed me as Oliver was such a stilted character as to be difficult to believe in. Luc often acted like a child with Oliver which made their romance a bit…cringe-y.
Sadly, this novel just didn’t work for me. It felt superficial, silly, and juvenile.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton — book review


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Whodunnits, Agatha Christie, mysteries, and puzzles are all favourites of mine…so I was pretty excited to read The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle as it promised to combine all of these things together.

“I suddenly have the sense of taking part in a play in which everybody knows their lines but me.”

With a fascinating premise and unique structure I was expecting The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle to be an amazing read…and while it certainly did succeeded in grabbing my attention, I was ultimately unconvinced by much of its narrative, which struck me as confusing for the sole sake of being confusing.35967101.jpg

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is the type of book that will make you want to scratch your head in confusion and start taking notes. The story maintains its momentum through a blend of action and detection. To start with, I enjoyed how complex the story seemed to be. It definitely kept me guessing and wondering what would happen next. After the half-way point however it seemed to me that all of the different threads were becoming knotted together in a rather tangled mess.

A few of my gripes

➜The Groundhog Day scenario would have been interesting enough…and yet Stuart Turton seems to have felt the need to make his story all the more convoluted by adding weird rules (view spoiler) or using the ‘time-loop’ excuse to make things go a certain way.

➜I know that this is the type of novel that requires one to suspend their disbelief…and I was willing to do so for the seven-days-in-one thing but I struggled to believe in the historical setting. The period was chosen as an homage to Agatha Christie…which is fair enough. There are certain 1930s aesthetics that lend themselves quite nicely to a whodunnit. In Turton’s novel however we have a murky image of this period…the dialogue felt gimmicky and the narrative never gave a clear impression of what year the party was actually taking place in. Just a vague ‘after the War’ sort of setting. The guests attending the party acted in a very impolite manner. Customs and conventions are often forgotten in favour of creating some drama between characters. Everybody seems ready to shoot one another (these type of people usually prefer to shoot pigeons and whatnot) and they are so openly aggressive and rude as to seem completely unconvincing. Turton’s portrayal of the class divide is frankly misleading (so that we will have servants act with open hostility towards the guests).
This cast of characters would have been better suited to a story in the Old Wild West.

➜The whodunnit should have been the heart of the novel. Yet, it is often obscured by a series of weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird nonsense that is there only to confuse the reader. If I were to take the whodunnit out of this ‘context’ it would just seem over-the-top. If you’ve read a few novels by Christie—or any other Golden Age Detective novel—you are bound to find the whole thing derivative. The other mystery is rendered in such a backhanded sort of way as not to be all that compelling.

➜The twists were mildly annoying. (view spoiler)

With so much focus on the structure of his story Turton ends up neglecting the characterisations of his characters so that most of them appear as little more than thinly rendered caricatures. Some of Aiden’s hosts possessed similarly unpleasant and interchangeable personalities while a lot of the men at this party acted in the same blustering way. None of the characters affected me on an emotional level as they seemed closer to cardboard cutouts than real people. The footman is such a laughably one-dimensional villain (seriously, he hunts Aiden singing “Run, rabbit, run”) and so is the main culprit.

➜Turton’s writing could occasionally resort to eye-roll worthy descriptions such as “Blakheath shrinks around me, shrivelling like a spider touched to the flame” and “our entire future’s written in the creases around her eyes; that pale white face is a crystal ball with only horrors in the fog”. Phrases such as these made Aiden’s narration seem rather theatrical.

Overall
The story is so focused on eluding its readers as to leave a lot to be desired. From the poorly rendered time period to the cartoonish characters…this novel was a bit of mess. Still, I did stick to it so it was obviously doing at least something right.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes – book review

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“She wasn’t really one for big groups, but she quite liked this, the jokes and the merriment, and the way that you could see actual friendships springing up around the room, like green shoots.”

The Giver of Stars is a sweeping romantic western that tells a fictionalised account of the Kentucky Pack Horse Librarians. It is very much a book-club kind of book as it is inspired by a real group of librarians who between 1935 and 1943 delivered books to some of the most remote regions in the Appalachian Mountains. Although this project, and the women behind it, make for a very inspirational subject matter….I’m not sure that this book does them justice.

While I enjoyed those parts that focused on the library project, I found much of the story to be bogged down by unnecessary drama. Most of the book focuses on the way in which the big bad Van Cleve tries to ‘destroy’ this project and the women behind it…and it was all-too predictable. Plus, I found the romance factor to be far too twee for me.
When the narrative chronicled the librarians’ rounds, swiftly taking us alongside them through their rides across a vast and treacherous landscape, I felt very much engaged. The interactions between the librarians and those who inhabit these remote places were compelling, especially since the people they visit were mistrustful, if not downright aggressive. The librarians rise to the ‘challenge’ and try to emphasise the importance of literature without causing offence. In these sections the novel outlines the direct correlation between poverty and illiteracy, and the way in which literature can ‘unite’ people together.

Sadly, to deliver some of these deliberately positive messages, the book relies on a cast of shallow characters. We have the clearly good gals/guys (Alice and Margery are very much the heroines of the story) and the comically wicked guy, Van Cleve.
Alice would have been more suited, and convincing, in an 18th century novel (something like Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady). Her main distinguishing attribute is that she is British, so she has an ‘accent’ that is different from those around her. She possess only good qualities, and it is other people’s (the baddies) lack of understanding or ignorance that makes her seem like a ‘rebel’ of some sort (she isn’t).
Margery was the typical unconventionalwoman, who is opposed to marrying until she (view spoiler) Why in historical fiction there has to be this female character who is made to seem so unlikeother women (often the narrative or other characters will compare her to a man) in that she is against the marriage institution and does not wish to be tied down, and then (view spoiler).
Alice and Margery happen to fall in love for two handsome men, who happen to be laid-back, kind, aware of social injustices as sexisms and racial intolerance (ahem…sure….lets remember that this book is set in Kentucky during the 1930s)….and they (view spoiler).
The three other librarians are not given their individual character arcs, rather if something happens to them it is usually when either Alice or Margery is there, so that it can be thanks to our heroines that these other women gain self-assurance or whatnot. In fact Alice and Margery seems singlehandedly able to right any wrongs, save lives, unmask Van Cleve…
Van Cleve…is all flaws. You name it, he has it. He is corrupt, sexist, racist, cruel (against his fellow humans & animals), greedy, hypocritical…the list goes on. He is the villain. That’s all you need to know.
His son, Bennett, is presented as a coward who is unwilling or unable to stand up to his father (even when Van Cleve is haranguing Alice, his wife). Unlike the two heroes Bennett doesn’t do physical work and doesn’t care about women’s rights or literature…and that’s believable-ish…I guess (after all he does come from a well to do family). What I found pretty objectionable is that his sexual inexperience is made fun of by the narrative and our so called heroines & heroes. For some reason or other Bennett has never learnt about sex, and perhaps because of this he has come to regard sex as a sinful if not ‘bad’ act. Rather than making it clear that it was his strictly conservative and religious upbringing that has lead to his sexual abnegation/impotence, the narrative implies that it is another facet of his cowardice, something to be ridiculed as it is further confirmation that he is notenoughof a man (he doesn’t stand up to his father, he doesn’t work, he isn’t concerned by the inequities around him) and because of this he is ‘afraid’ of having sex. Ahaha (not).
If we were to reverse Alice and her husband’s role (so that it was Alice who was reticent or unwilling to have sex ) wouldn’t we criticise Bennett for pressuring his wife into having sex? Or of thinking her a coward or less of a woman because she doesn’t want to/can’t have sex? Wouldn’t we disapprove of the narrative and other characters making fun of her because of it?

The story started well enough but the cheesiness of the story, the one-dimensional characters, the unnecessary melodrama, were all not to my taste.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2.5 stars

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The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow — book review

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“Reason and rationality reigned supreme, and there was no room for magic or mystery. There was no room, it turned out, for little girls who wandered off the edge of the map and told the truth about the mad, impossible things they found there.”

Readers who have yet to dip their toes in the vast sea of YA fiction will probably enjoy The Ten Thousand Doors of January more than those who are well acquainted with this popular genre.

In spite of its first promising chapters, The Ten Thousand Doors of January never quite reaches its full potential.
The premise of the book called to mind Seanan McGuire‘s Wayward Children series—which also stars ‘magical’ doors—and the more adventure/travelling oriented YA such as Alexandra Bracken’s Passenger. The start of The Ten Thousand Doors of January, with its focus on the relationship between a young child and her guardian, held echoes of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass and Cornelia Funke’s The Inkheart Trilogy: Inkheart, Inkspell, Inkdeath. What followed sadly lacked the magic of these two series and throughout my reading of The Ten Thousand Doors of January I had the impression that it’s the kind of book that doesn’t know wherever it’s aimed towards middle-grade or young adult readers…it stars cartoonish characters that would be more suited to a MG while also trying to address more serious themes, all the while attempting to establish a complex ‘magical’ system.

The Good
Occasionally I do like to first address the good things—or to be more accurate, the things I personally liked—in a book. In the case of The Ten Thousand Doors of January that would be the writing style. Alix E. Harrow’s writing style was the best aspect of her debut novel.

“Books can smell of cheap thrills or painstaking scholarship, of literary weight or unsolved mysteries.”

The first-person point of view allows for a compelling and engaging narrative, a narrative which our protagonist is aware of:

“I ought to introduce Mr. Locke properly; he’d hate to wander into the story in such a casual, slantwise way.”

This awareness creates many charming moments as she intersperses her narrative with many amusing asides, for example telling us what she thinks of certain words or sayings: “After that, our fates were more or less sealed (a phrase that always makes me picture a weary old Fate tucking our futures into an envelope and pressing her wax seal over us).”
The openness of January’s storytelling is incredibly effective as it holds the reader’s attention and makes us sympathise with her.

“But, as Mr. Locke so often complained, I could sometimes be quite improper, wilful, and temerarious (a word I assumed was unflattering from the company it kept).”

That she often refers to existing stories/tales of children wandering into magical realms or such places acknowledges the intertextuality of her own story.

“People never got to stay in their Wonderlands, did they? Alice and Dorothy and the Darlings, all dragged back to the mundane world and tucked into bed by their handlers.”

And it is the very way that January recounts her own story that kept me interested…it was also nice to follow her character growth. Due to her father and her own appearance (she is described as having coppery-red skin) she is pegged as ‘no good’. Because of this, January does try to meet expectations of respectable femininity, an attitude which—as she herself notes later in her narrative—will hinder her future independence. We could see the way her circumstances affected and shaped her.

The Not so Good
Although I loved the portions recounted by January herself, incorporated in her narrative are sections from a book that she is reading…called The Ten Thousand Doors. These sections were boring and led to a very predictable reveal.
The magical doors that we are promised in the summary of….do not really make a ‘proper’ appearance as we are told of the adventures of other characters in a very rushed and indirect manner.
I was hoping that the story would follow January’s adventures but that wasn’t the case. She reads of other people’s adventures, and it is only it last 20% or so that she actually gets to do something more enterprising.
The book she reads is supposedly written by a scholar but it just seemed pale when compared to January’s own narrative. While her voice is engaging and genuine, the book she’s reading never really convinced me. It seemed to be trying for a similar effect as January’s sections but the ‘author’s’ voice failed to come across as believable or even as belonging to an actual individual.
The magic system, in other words the Doors, was poorly explained and explored. Parts that should have been more detailed and fleshed out are rushed over so that we never get a clear picture of how a Door works. We know that they introduce “change”, which is a very generic way of defining them.
There is little to no action and, with the exception of January, the characters we are introduced to never seemed very fleshed out. Some had very inconsistent personalities while others, such as the love interest, were painfully dull additions. And it isn’t great when as soon as we are introduced to a character we know the role they will play. Take for example this love interest. As soon as the words “childhood friend” and “boy” appeared on the page it was quite obvious that he would form a romantic attachment to January. His main two qualities are: he is Italian and he likes January. That’s about it (his name/appearance/personality are pretty much irrelevant).
I think that having more characters would have filled up the backdrop of January’s non-adventures a bit more. Maybe it could have detracted from the overall one-sidedness of two or three people in her life. Other than January there are mainly two other female characters, and they seem to share the same I-am-sort-of-empowered personality. With the exception of January’s father and her love interest all men sort of suck, seeming closer to caricatures of evil men rather than actual evil men.
While I loved January’s narrative voice, I disliked the way the writing would sometimes use metaphors or description that seemed to exist merely to meet certain YA aesthetics (we have the typical overabundance of colours: “I dreamed in gold and indigo”; as well as descriptions alluding to ‘glitter/shards’: “The thought was dizzying, intoxicating—I’d already broken so many rules tonight, left them smashed and glittering in my wake—what was one more?”).
The plot seemed to predictable and undeveloped…less sections from The Ten Thousand Doors would have given more page-time to January and her story.

Overall
The summary and first few chapters lead to disappointment. The simplified vision of evil, the boring and wafer-thin side characters, and the poorly developed ‘Doors’ all left me with a not so great impression of this book…which is a pity as I really really enjoyed the first few chapters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy — book review

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For readers in want of an incisive and creative account of life in East Germany, I strongly recommend picking up something by Christa Wolf.
I think that from now on I might stick to Deborah Levy‘s non-fiction.

While I’m glad to see that many of my friends and other readers were able to enjoy this latest release by Deborah Levy, I found it to be yet another example of all flash no substance.

There is little to no depth or feeling in the story and characters of this relatively short book, but rather an intentionally oblique narrative that time and again chooses style over substance.

To me, it seemed that the way the story was being told was all that mattered. And I admit that occasionally I found Levy’s use of repetition to be clever; these recurring word-plays, dialogues, and images did give a rhythm to the narrative and could occasionally serve as comedic relief. In those instances the novel reminded me of the verbose and sardonic style of Muriel Spark but for the most part I was irked by the novel’s own self-awareness at its own irony. This short novel could have benefited from being even shorter…but I guess then it wouldn’t have been longlisted for the booker prize.

In spite of what its title may suggest, the protagonist of The Man Who Saw Everything presents readers with a myopic narrative that deliberately misinterprets the people and events in his own life. The author has created an intentionally disjointed, and occasionally feverish, narrative at the expenses of its own main character whose role is soon apparent as being that of the Fool. His poor judgement and general lack of direction result in a series of would-be-humorous incidents in which he often embarrasses, and even mortifies, himself to others. Later on the paranoia pervading Saul Adler’s mind skewers his view of others so that potentially emotional scenes are negated by his fragmented narrative.
What is also of notice is that the structure of this novel disregards time’s linearity. In Beckett-like-fashion the author neglects to explain the construction of her novel or to clarify why certain events unfold in such a particular way. Although readers are not as in the dark as Saul Adler, we still have to puzzle out why the story is arranged in such a manner.
To begin with, I tried to extrapolate some sort of meaning or reason for this increasingly bizarre narrative but I soon gave up. One could easily attribute any sort of meaning for the idiosyncratic arrangement of this narrative without reaching any real conclusion.
Much of the weirdness of The Man Who Saw Everything seemed calculated to me, weird merely for the sake of being weird. Perhaps other readers will be able to immerse themselves in the narrative, but I, in all honesty, mostly perceived a degree of artificiality in the way the story was being told that exasperated me.
Because of this I never believed in the story or its characters. Our main character seemed so conveniently blind-sighted as to seem a mere caricature of the type of vain and solipsistic man who self-fashions himself as the wronged and alienated hero of his own story. His unreliability is apparent from the very first page, which is the likely reason why I wasn’t all that surprised by the revelation that we should not take for granted his descriptions and recollections of others.
The Man Who Saw Everything struck me more as a clever performance on the part of the writer, a studied demonstration of her writing’s skill, of her ability to ‘trick’ her readers, then an actual book with a story worth telling.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 all bark no bite stars

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Our Stop by Laura Jane Williams – book review

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While Our Stop may have made me smile me smile, once or twice, it mostly frustrated the living daylights out of me.

Our Stop implements a similar gimmick as quite a few other romances: from new book releases such as The Flatshare—where the two leads develop feelings for one another through post-it notes—to the classic You’ve Got Mail
In Our Stop Nadia and Felix develop romantic feelings for each other by carrying a sort of conversation, if not flirtation, in the Missed Connections section of a daily paper.
The premise is cheesy enough but I was ready to overlook it and enjoy the book as a light summer read.
Sadly, Felix’s approach of Nadia is definitely creepy

Felix first sees Nadia on his 7.30am Northern Line tube, taken by her he occasionally even overhears her conversations (and later on remembers something she said in one of these ‘listening in’ occasions and believes that he knows her merits on the basis of said conversations). Too shy to approach her directly, and knowing that if he were to do so she would peg him as a weirdo, he opens up about his feelings—or should I say attraction as it is hard to believe that he developed anything more than a infatuation—in the ‘Missed Connections’.
As luck would have it a friend of Nadia reads this and recognises that “the cute girl with the coffee stains on her dress” is none other than Nadia! Quelle surprise! While Felix knows that Nadia is young and good looking, those are in fact the two main reasons why he is so taken by this stranger, Nadia has no way of knowing that Felix is actually who he claims to be.

I was once again ready to overlook this but the story ends up being way preachier than I’d expected….which is a tad incongruous given the whole meet cute/rose-coloured romance premise of the book. If you want to write a fun and gooey romance go on…but then maybe you should avoid going on and on about how your female lead and her besties are real feminists (and why is it so hard to find a good-looking guy who is touch with his feelings and doesn’t think that talking about what he feels with his male friends is gay) while showing us that your male lead is not like other men as he is a romantic, a good son, and knows all about consent, in fact, he would actually tell his walking stereotype of a ‘guy’ friend (you know the one who says things like ‘bro’ and ‘dude’, sleeps around, and says stuff like ‘whatever man’) that a very drunk girl can’t possibly consent to sleeping with him.
Maybe if these hot—or as they say nowadays ‘woke‘—topics had been handled with a bit more care and in a more convincing way, I wouldn’t have been as annoyed. Having your female characters say time and again “we are feminists” doesn’t make into actual feminists. Why do you have to acknowledge that they are indeed feminists? They are in their twenties, they have good millennial jobs, they live in London…your readers will assume that they are without the need for the author to use her characters as her own mouthpieces. I’m starting to get tired of these ugh-men books that have millennial women, so called woke-feminists, lamenting on why is it ‘so hard’ to find a uber-woke attractive man? Are all men bad?!
And why carry this sort of discussion in a book that has the male lead observing, and worse still obsessing, over a young woman he has glimpsed a few times on the tube?

Nadia allegedly develops feelings for Felix through his messages on the paper…she feels drawn to this unknown man (she immediately believes that he is just a normal guy rather than a creepy stalker) because he likes her and has publicly announced his interest in her. Feminism 1:1.
It seemed that Nadia develops feelings for Felix merely because they have yet to meet (so he remains the ideal man in her mind) and because twitter users are rooting for them…and maybe because she loves You’ve Got Mail…these are all very good reasons, not.
Funnily enough both Nadia and Felix are often helped by their friends when they write to each other…so that their messages are not entirely theirs. Which is why I had a hard time believing that Nadia is in love with this mystery guy aka Felix rather than the messages he writes with the help of his friend and that do not truly reflect his identity.

Maybe I wouldn’t have been so critical of this book if the story hadn’t been so desperately trying to come across as in and ‘up with the times’.
Another grating thing was that nothing much happens between the two. They have both side-plots through which the author can address certain ‘woke’ topics), they try and fail to meet (view spoiler), they have overly awkward conversations which should have been a source of humour but merely seemed over-the-top attempts to make us sympathise with these very realistic characters, and they both have another possible love interest.
To top it all of the succession of near misses was impossibly annoying…

I think if I’d read the book myself, rather than listening to the audible version, I would have left this unfinished.
If I were you I would find a less preachy and more genuine romance (especially since there is very little ‘romance’ to be found in this book).

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

The Truants by Kate Weinberg — book review

Untitled drawing (3).jpgThis is the type of non-literary book that has literary aspirations yet its laboured attempts to imbue its story and characters with a certain dose of moral ambiguity and depth ultimately fall flat.
In spite of its intriguing first few chapters The Truants soon followed the well-treaded path of similar campus/college novels: we have a main character who has a secret related to her past, she makes a new female friend who is more attractive and charming than she is, she falls for an alluring man who has secrets of his own, and she also finds herself drawn to her professor, who also happens to have secrets of her own.

I could have looked past the predictable and lacklustre dynamics around which the story pivots if the writing or the characters had revealed, at any point throughout the course of the novel, some depth or any other spark of vitality. Kate Weinberg’s prose was competent enough but as the story is told through an unmemorable main character’s point of view, much of it felt dull.
The Truants reminded me a lot of The Lessons by Naomi Alderman (not a good thing).

A more nuanced or interesting protagonist could have made this into a much more enjoyable novel. Our MC however is the typical forgettable young girl who somehow manages to attract the attention of people who seem a lot more fascinating than her…I write seem as I never quite believed that her guy (that’s how interesting he is) and her teacher were as clever or as alluring as our narrator told us. And that’s where the problem lies: she tells us that these two are such magnetic people. We are never shown exactly why they have such a powerful effect on her. This sort of introspective narrative can work…but here our MC’s examination of this period of her life seemed somewhat artificial.

I found this book engaging only when the characters discuss Agatha Christie. The rest is an overdrawn love triangle that is made to be far more tragic and destructive than what it is (dating for a few months when you are a first year uni student…is it as all-consuming as that?). The college aspect of the novel fades in the background, giving way to the usual melodramatic succession of betrayals and shocking secrets. If the characters had been more than thinly drawn clichés then I would have cared for this type of drama.

While this novel was slightly better than other clique-focused releases (such as the campus novel Tell Me Everything and the artsy Fake Like Me) I would recommend you skip this one…maybe you could try the very entertaining If We Were Villains or Donna Tartt’s seminal The Secret History or even the hugely underrated The House of Stairs.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia — book review

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In spite of the beautiful attention that Gods of Jade and Shadow pays to the function of myths and deities in our everyday lives…this turned out to be an unexpectedly juvenile read…

The swift storytelling found in Gods of Jade and Shadow might not appeal to those readers who prefer slower and more in depth narratives such as The Song of Achilles. Here there is a focus on the action or better yet on the quest undertaken by our protagonist. Scenes rarely featured the same backdrop since the various characters keep moving from one location to another which in turn leads to underdeveloped settings. The various places and characters-human and non-encountered by our protagonist(s) are often breezed through so that they have little time to leave an impression on the reader. Having finished this book a few days ago I recall not one of the characters that Casiopea and Hun-Kamé encounter…which isn’t a good sign.

The story is predictable and follows a repetitive pattern in which our cinderella-like main character Casiopea unwilling joins a former god, Hun-Kamé, who will be able to regain his rightful role as ruler of Xibalbla only after he finds certain ‘items’ (which are conveniently stored in places he knows of and that are fairly easy to reach). The story in its simplicity seems more fitting in a middle-grade novel rather than an adult one, and in fact, I would have actually preferred it if this book had been clearly aimed at a younger audience.
Another criticism I have is that it should have been more decisive in its tone, darker as Valente’s Deathless, or as tantalisingly ingenious as Seanan McGuire‘s Wayward Children series, or even as satirical and fun as Zen Cho‘s Sorcerer Royal duology. But the tone in Gods of Jade and Shadow remained rather inconsistent, which is a pity since there are many occasions where Moreno-Garcia’s writing style does really echo that of a skilled storyteller. The narration at times evoked that of a fairytale yet in certain instances this omniscient narrative seemed rather simplistic and often reached clichéd conjectures.

The setting only comes into focus when the narrative explicitly addresses some of the trends of the twenties…mentioning a couple of times the popular dances and haircuts from this period does not render the time in question. At times it did so by literally blurting out these trends on the page:

Mexico City in the 1920s was all about the United States, reproducing its women, its dances, its fast pace. Charleston! The bob cut! Ford Cars!”

I wanted more of the vernacular (which I know is difficult since the characters are not speaking in English but I’m sure that there are differences between contemporary Yucatec Maya and the one spoken in the 20s). The story could have easily had a modern setting as the only thing that truly emerges from this historical setting is that our protagonist as a woman has little control over her life.
Another thing that detracted from my overall enjoyment of this story was the over use of exclamation marks (“It was not possible. He was ruler of Xibalbla now! Nothing could change this, nothing could ruin his plans.”) or when the narrative used expressions such as ‘oh dear‘ (“That might be a relief, since she did not understand what they were supposed to do in the city, and oh dear, she wasn’t ready for any of this.”).

Perhaps this was done to lend immediacy to the events narrated or to give urgency to certain moments or thoughts but it seemed a bit contrived and was not handled all that well.
As the story focuses on the quest, the characters seemed rather flaky. Casiopea was the typical heroine of certain YA fiction, she is kind and just yet has endured many wrongs (alienated from the rest of her family, made to their bidding, etc…). Much was made of her ‘temper‘ so much so that I kept excepting a trace of it but found none. I’m not sure why her will was emphasised so much, and in often such cheesy lines:

She was wilful, daggers hidden beneath her muttered yeses, her eyes fixing on him, slick as oil.

The romance was unnecessary and ‘blossomed’ out of nowhere. It made a potentially interesting character into a love interest, turning yet another dark and powerful death god into little more than eye-candy.
In spite of all these flaws I still enjoyed those passages which solely focused on reiterating Mayan mythology. It was in those moments that the narrative really brought into focus the events and figures it spoke of. And there were certain descriptions that had a nice rhythm but these were far too few.

There was the slim veneer of civilty to his actions. He spoke unpleasantries, but in the tone of a gentleman.

Overall, I’m not sure I do recommend this one.
Cho’s fantasy-romp series (Sorcerer to the Crown & The True Queen) offers a similar type of fast-paced storytelling but with much more historical detail, while N.K. Jemisin‘s The Fifth Season creates a much more complex and compelling narrative that addresses dynamics between humans and divine beings.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars

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