Agatha of Little Neon by Claire Luchette

“We were fixed to one another, like parts of some strange, asymmetrical body: Frances was the mouth; Mary Lucille, the heart; Therese, the legs. And I, Agatha, was the eyes.”

Agatha of Little Neon is a gem of a novel. Claire Luchette’s prose is a delight to read, its deceptive simplicity bringing to mind authors such as Anne Tyler and Ann Patchett. From the very first pages, I was taken by Agatha’s thoughtful introspections—on her sisters, the people around her, her new community, the church—and her quiet wit.
Not only does Luchette demonstrate huge insight into human nature but I was always aware of how much empathy she had towards the people she’s writing of, regardless of who they are. While I was reading Agatha’s story it was clear to me that Luchette cared deeply about her characters, and she showcases both tenderness towards and understanding of her characters ( their struggles, desires, ‘flaws’, regrets).

“No one could understand why I hated talking, why it was so much work to come up with something to say. It was even more work to make it true or funny or smart. And then when you’d come up with it, you had to say it, and live with having said it.”

Agatha’s voice drew me in, so much so, that it seemed almost to me that I had been transported alongside her to Little Neon. After their parish experiences, some financial setbacks Agatha and her three sisters are relocated to Woonsocket where they will be staying at a halfway home, ‘Little Neon’. Over the previous 9 years the four sisters have led a symbiotic existence but once in Woonsocket Agatha finds herself growing apart from them. While her sisters stay at Little Neon, where they are meant to watch over its residents, Agatha teaches geometry at a local all-girl school. Here, for the first time in years, she is alone and unsupervised and this new independence forces her to reconsider who she is and what she wants. These realizations dawn on her slowly and over time, which made her ‘journey’ all the more authentic.
Agatha is a quiet and observant person who was drawn to the Church by her faith in God and by her desire to belong. For years her sisterhood with Frances, Therese, and Mary Lucille fulfilled her longing for connection but once she begins living at Little Neon she finds herself growing attached to its various residents in a way her sisters do not.

“How horrible, how merciful, the ways we are, each of us, oblivious to so much of the hurt in the world.”

Much of the narrative focuses on seemingly mundane, everyday moments. Meals, chores, trips to the local shops, car journeys. Yet, many of these scenes carry a surprising weight. These ‘small’ moments are given significance, Agatha, and by extension, us, may come to know someone else better or she finds her mind drifting to her past, her faith, her sisters.
Throughout the course of Agatha’s story, Luchette shows, without telling, the many ways in which the Church disempowers, exploits, and silences its women. Luchette’s commentary on the Church and its hierarchies and inner workings never struck me as didactic. Agatha’s disapproval of the Church does not result in loss of faith, something that I truly appreciated.
Luchette’s meditations on Christianity, sisterhood, loneliness, longing, belonging were truly illuminating. The author’s prose is graceful without falling into sentimentalism. In fact, some of the imagery within the story is quite stark and much of the narrative is permeated by a gentle but felt melancholy. This made those moments of connection and contentment all the more heartfelt and special.
There was a sense of sadness too, one that often resulted in many bittersweet moments. And, this particular line broke my heart as it reminded me of Jude from A Little Life: “I don’t think I have the constitution for it. For being alive.”

Agatha of Little Neon is an exquisite debut novel. The writing is beautiful, the characters compelling, the narrative moving. While it won’t appeal to those who are interested in plot-driven stories, readers who are seeking rewarding character arcs and/or thematically rich narratives should definitely consider picking this up.

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★★½

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ps: illustration from NYT

Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor

Taylor has gone and done it again. My poor heart can’t take this.

“[S]adness drenched them. Sadness at leaving. Sadness at going back to their lives. The sadness of knowing it would never again be this perfect, this easy.”

This may not sound like a compliment but I believe that Brandon Taylor has a real knack for making his readers feel uncomfortable and complicit by the violence—both physical & emotional—and cruelty that punctuate his narratives. It just so happens that I have a strange, ahem masochistic, fondness for these types of anxiety-inducing stories. Taylor excels at writing about things, people, and situations that are bound to make you feel uneasy, exposed even. Throughout this stunning collection of short stories, Taylor demonstrates time and again just how inexorably intertwined our fears and desires are. Taylor reveals the double-edged nature of desire, showing just how often we want that which we are (or should be) afraid of. Within these stories, Taylor explores and challenges the relationship between violence and intimacy, cruelty and compassion, happiness and sorrow, pleasure and pain. Taylor’s characters are painstakingly human, from their murky and unspoken desires/fears to their seemingly perennial indecisiveness. More often than not Taylor’s characters are not ‘nice people’, but, then again, who wants to read exclusively about ‘nice people’? The characters populating Taylor’s stories are messy, confused about what/who they want, unsure of themselves and others. They can be ugly, to themselves, to one another. But, their ability to hurt other people doesn’t make them any less human, if anything, I found that it made them all the more real.

“There were a million tiny ways to make someone feel bad about something that didn’t involve saying anything directly.”

Taylor navigates self-loathing, loneliness, and longing against ordinary backdrops. Yet, while the environments and scenarios that we encounter in these stories are firmly grounded in realism, the ‘mundane’ trappings of Midwestern life that seem to characterise these narratives belie just how complex, emotionally wrought, and exacting these stories truly are.

“He had come up against the thing that felt most frustrating about this—the inability to articulate simply what he felt or what he wanted.”

Taylor’s style is deceptively functional, clinical even. He’s brutally concise when it comes to detailing his characters’ surroundings, appearances, and emotions. Yet, it is because his prose is habitually so unsparing that makes those brief lapses into tranquillity feel all the more precious. However rare, those brief glimpses of hope that we do get are truly touching.

As with Real Life, many of these stories are set in or around the academic world and once again Taylor articulates just how insular it can be. College is no safe haven however and the pressure to succeed often feels like a burden. There are many instances in which characters try to outdo one another, be it through personal or academic achievements, and we witness just how petty and competitive academia is. Most of these stories focus on Black queer characters and Taylor once again examines the intersection between sexuality and race. His characters often struggle to reconcile themselves with their identities and are often caught between opposing urges and desires. They seek to form meaningful connections but they are mostly unsuccessful. The relationships within these stories are hindered by unresolved tensions, veiled insults, hurtful barbs, real and perceived slights. Many of these relationships are unhealthy, seeming to bring more pain and suffering than not. Yet, we see that sometimes that is why certain characters decide to pursue certain people as Taylor repeatedly blurs the line between love and hate, passion and violence.

“There, he thought, was a truly horrifying possibility: that he was nothing more than another bit of local weather for the two of them, and that what felt to Lionel like the edge of some great change, a sign of his reacclimation to people, to the world, to the easiness of friendship, was nothing but another thing to them, one more thing that happened and was now over.”

‘Potluck’, ‘Flesh’, ‘Proctoring’, ‘Apartment’, and ‘Meat’ are interlinked stories revolving around Lionel, a Black grad student who in recent times attempted suicide, and two white dancers, Charles and Sophie, who are in an open relationship. At a party, Lionel and Charles seem to form a connection of sorts. Lionel is clearly ill at ease, especially given that the host of the party seems intent on making a move on him. With painful clarity, Taylor delineates Lionel’s anxieties and insecurities, and we understand why he would find Charles’ attention to be tempting. Lionel finds himself entangled in Charles and Sophie’s fraught relationship, and it is not always clear who is playing who or who wants whom. My heart really went out to Lionel and it was incredibly saddening to read of how this couple is trying to involve him in their ongoing drama.

In one story we read of a babysitter who is exhausted at her young charge, in another a young man’s old wounds are reopened, and in yet another, we witness a boys’ night out that quickly spirals into violence. A running motif, quite fitting given the collection’s title, is that of characters being compared or feeling like ‘beasts’ and ‘animals’. Many seem to struggle with their ‘wilder’ impulses, at times they even attempt to tamp their own desires down. But, as we see over and over again, they are often unsuccessful. Hence the violence and cruelty.

Last but not least, Taylor’s dialogues. They are startlingly realistic. From the tentative quality of certain exchanges to the stop-and-start rhythm animating many of the characters’ conversations.

“That’s so funny,” Lionel said. “People say that, We talked. But I don’t remember a single thing we said to each other.”

Fans of Real Life should definitely get their hands on Filthy Animals as this proved to be just as brilliant. From Taylor’s quietly cinematic style to his nuanced portrayal of human frailty, Filthy Animals is a terrific collection. If I was pressed to choose a favourite, I would probably go with ‘Anne of Cleves’.

As I touched upon earlier on, these stories are far from happy, yet, I was nevertheless enthralled by Taylor’s ability to capture with such authenticity and depth such a wide spectrum of emotions.

my rating: ★★★★¼

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Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse

Usually, I don’t go back on DNFs (there’s plenty more books in the sea and all that) but I also get that sometimes my enjoyment of a book depends on me getting to read it at the ‘right time’. The reason why I’d DNFed Storm of Locusts after reading just a chapter or so was that I found a certain scene to be way predictable. And that’s it. I was annoyed so I moved on to other books. Nearly two years later, I decided to give it another try, and I’m glad I did. Storm of Locusts was even more enjoyable than its predecessor and I had a really fun time reading it. There is action, character growth, and, as with Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse seamlessly incorporates certain aspects of Native American culture or beliefs into her story and world-building.

Maggie Hoskie, our narrator and a Diné monster hunter, is still recovering from Black Mesa. She’s heartbroken, having lost her only friend, and possibly more, Kai Arviso. Her latest job ends badly and Maggie finds herself taking care of Ben, a teenager who like Maggie also possess clan powers. Maggie is reluctant about her new position as Ben’s ‘carer’ but she was entrusted to her (this scene was a wee bit predictable, I mean, when you have someone say something on the lines of “If anything happens to me” you know something is going to happen to them).
Luckily (or not) for her Maggie doesn’t really have the time to adjust to having Ben around as she finds herself with twins Rissa and Clive Goodacre on a mission to find the ‘White Locust’ who may be responsible for kidnapping their younger brother. Although Rissa insists that Kai is in cahoots with the White Locust, Maggie refuses to believe him capable of harming the youngest Goodacre or supporting someone like the White Locust.
To find them, our gang has to travel outside the walls of Dinétah, and here they came across some dangerous people.
Maggie’s characterisation is phenomenal. Roanhorse captures her conflicted feelings towards her own actions—towards Kai and others—as well as the toll of her monster hunter title. Her feelings towards Kai are also depicted with realism and depth. We can clearly see why she cares for him so much and as I was reading I found myself growing apprehensive about their inevitable reunion. Maggie is not strictly likeable but I loved her nonetheless. I think Roanhorse makes it quite clear why Maggie is sometimes aggressive or cold towards others. Roanhorse gives Maggie her vulnerabilities while also making her into a bit of a badass.
There is also a focus on platonic relationships, which was great. Rissa initially treats Maggie with open hostility and even blames her for Kai’s actions. But as the two find themselves going through hell and back their feelings of enmity slowly give way to a bond based on mutual trust, perhaps even respect.
At first, Ben, being a teenage character in an adult book, acts like the classic teen brat. Thankfully, as time goes by, we see different sides to her, and I look forward to seeing more of her in the next books.
The
It’s been four weeks since the bloody showdown at Black Mesa, and Maggie Hoskie, Diné monster hunter, is trying to make the best of things. Only her latest bounty hunt has gone sideways, she’s lost her only friend, Kai Arviso, and she’s somehow found herself responsible for a girl with a strange clan power.

In her journey to find Kai Maggie becomes makes new allies, discovers how the people outside Dinétah have coped with the Big Water, lands in the territory of human traffickers, confronts a god at a casino (something about this part reminded me of American Gods, an all-time fave of mine) before, at last, coming face to face with Kai and the White Locust.

Roanhorse’s prose is terrific and kept me flipping pages. After the first few chapters, the pacing is fantastic, and the shifting dynamics between Maggie and the other members of her group were engrossing.
This is probably my new favourite by Roanhorse and I can’t wait to hear more from Maggie&co.

my rating: ★★★★¼


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The Red Scrolls of Magic by Cassandra Clare & Wesley Chu — book review

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“Romance was a lot of work.”

The Red Scrolls of Magic is a fun throwback to Cassandra Clare’s TMI in which Magnus and Alec finally get the stage for themselves. After the Mortal War the couple takes a well-earned romantic getaway in Europe. Once in Paris however an ‘old friend’ of Magnus breaks some bad news to him: a demon-worshipping cult called the Crimson Hand, which Magnus himself may have founded as a ‘joke’, is killing downworlders. From then on Magnus and Alec go from France to Italy, trying to find and stop the cult and leaving mayhem in their wake. Getting to know each other isn’t easy, getting to know each other when demons are trying to kill you…well that complicates things.
There is plenty of action and wit in The Red Scrolls of Magic. Even in the most deadly of situations Magnus remains a joker. By contrast Alec finds himself mingling with Magnus’ downworlder acquaintances, most of whom are suspicion or hostile towards Shadowhunters.
This was a very entertaining read. It has plenty of amusing dialogues, it gives some insight into the early stages of Magnus and Alec’s relationship (bonus: we read of Aline and Helen’s first meeting), and it has plenty of romance.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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Night Music by Jenn Marie Thorne — book review

30189974.jpgA delightful and thoughtful summer romance meets the classical music world in Jenn Marie Thorne’s criminally underrated Night Music.
Ruby, the seventeen-year-old daughter of the renowned composer Martin Chertok, has always felt the pressure of her name. However, unlike her older siblings, who have all embarked on successful musical careers, Ruby messes up her audition for Amberley School of Music. Having dedicated the last ten years of her life to her piano, Ruby struggles to envision a future outside of the music world. Her mother, a famous piano player, is far more concerned with her tours than Ruby. Her father, who is on Amberley’s faculty, is also far too devoted to his work. Ruby decides to figure out who she is and what she wants to do over the course of the summer…and then she walks in on her father’s new protégé playing her piano. After a viral YouTube video Oscar gained the attention of Martin and Amberley.
While Ruby certainly feels somewhat envious of Oscar’s musical genius, she soon developed feelings for him, and their bond is solidified by their love for music.
Oscar, who is black, knows all too well that his relationship with Ruby might jeopardise this one in a lifetime opportunity. Regardless, the two find themselves falling for each other.
Their relationship struck me as refreshingly ‘grown-up’. There is no ‘will they, won’t they’. Ruby is immediately drawn to Oscar, and their close-living quarters allows them to spend a lot of time together.
In many ways Night Music is a coming of age. Both Ruby and Oscar struggles against social and familial pressures: Ruby’s name may be ‘prestigious’ but it is very much a burden, while Oscar has to reconcile his love for classical music with its institutional racial bias.
I simply love the realistic way in which Thorne interrogates themes of privilege and failure. Being branded a genius or a prodigy is not all its cracked up to be.

One of my favourite shows is Mozart in the Jungle and Night Music provides us with a similar take on the classical music world. Thorne’s setting (New York) too is also wonderfully rendered.
The romance between Ruby and Oscar is incredibly sweet. Ruby’s relationship with her parents was complicated and believable. More than anything I appreciated Ruby’s self-growth, her self-awareness, and her willingness to recognise and call her self out for her own privileged background or for the presumptions she makes about others.
I’ve read this twice and I look forward to reading it a third time.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri — book review

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“In so many ways, his family’s life feels like a string of accidents, unforeseen, unintended, one incident begetting another.”

In the past few years I’ve read and fallen in love with Jhumpa Lahiri’s collection of short stories as well as her book on her relationship with the Italian language In Other Words. Although The Namesake has been sitting on my shelf for the last couple months, when it was chosen as one of the February reads for the ‘Around the World in 80 Books’ group, I was finally spurred into reading it, and I’m so glad I did. The Namesake did not disappoint.

Written in an elegantly sparse prose The Namesake tells the story of the Ganguli family. After their arranged marriage Ashoke and Ashima Ganguili move from Calcutta to America. It is in this new, if not perpetually puzzling, country that their children Gogol and Sonia are born and raised.
As Lahiri recounts the story of this family, she also interrogates concepts of cultural identity, of dislocation and rootlessness, of cultural and generational divides, and of tradition and familial expectation. As the title of the novel suggests, The Namesake focuses on Gogol’s fraught relationship with his own name. As the American-born son of Bengali parents, Gogol struggles to reconcile himself with his Russian name. His uncommon name comes to symbolise his own self-divide and reticence to embrace his parents’ culture.

“He wonders how his parents had done it, leaving their respective families behind, seeing them so seldom, dwelling unconnected, in a perpetual state of expectation, of longing.”

Names and trains are recurring motifs in this long spanning narrative. Time and again we read of the way in which names alter others’ and our perception of ourselves. Train journeys provide characters with life-changing experiences: from near misses with death to startling realisations.
Yet, in spite of these fated moments, Lahiri’s novel possesses an atmosphere that is at once graceful and ordinary. The language she chooses has this quiet quality that makes that which she writes all the more realistic. Her most insightful observations into her characters, or the dynamics between them, often occur when she is recounting seemingly mundane scenes: from food preparations and family meals to phone conversations.
In spite of the gentle rhythm of her narrative Lahiri also articulates the tension between past and present, India and America, parents and children, husband and wife. As Gogol grows we read of his love and sorrows, of his hopes and fears, and of his insecurities and his lifelong quest to belong. There are heartbreaking moments of affection and miscommunication, and Lahiri truly renders both the difficulties of acclimatising to another country and of embracing one’s heritage in a world where to be different is to be other.

By observing a characters’ clothes, appearance, or routine, Lahiri makes even those who are at the margin of the Ganguli’s family history come to life. The Ganguli’s first neighbours in America, Gogol’s teacher, who inadvertently cemented Gogol’s hatred for his name, and even Moushumi’s colleague are all vibrantly rendered.
While what Lahiri’s characters’ experience can be occasionally comic, she never makes them into a ‘joke’. In fact, she reserves judgment, and each character, regardless of their actions, is portrayed with compassion.

“True to the meaning of her name, she will be without borders, without a home of her own, a resident everywhere and nowhere.”

Another thing that makes this novel stand out is how much Lahiri leaves unspoken. There are no melodramatic scenes or confessions. At times it is only hindsight that allows a character to realise the importance of a certain moment.

“Somehow, bad news, however ridden with static, however filled with echoes, always manages to be conveyed.”

There is a naturalness and openness to her characters’ impressions. She writes with such clarity of such complex or ephemeral feelings or thoughts that I often had to stop to re-read a phrase in order to truly savour her words.

“For being a foreigner, Ashima is beginning to realize, is a sort of lifelong pregnancy—a perpetual wait, a constant burden, a continuous feeling out of sorts. It is an ongoing responsibility, a parenthesis in what had once been ordinary life, only to discover that that previous life has vanished, replaced by something more complicated and demanding. Like pregnancy, being a foreigner, Ashima believes, is something that elicits the same curiosity from strangers, the same combination of pity and respect.”

Lahiri is a master of the trade and in The Namesake she depicts an exquisitely intricate family portrait.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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Real Life by Brandon Taylor — book review

“Is it into this culture that he is to emerge? Into the narrow, dark water of real life?”

It had been awhile since I finished a book in one day or since I read a book that made me cry…but once I started Real Life I simply couldn’t stop, even if what I was reading made me mad, then sad, then mad again, and then sad all over again.
This is one heart-wrenching novel. Reading it was an immersive and all-consuming experience. I felt both secondhand anxiety, embarrassment, and anger, and the more I read the more frustrated I became by my own impotence…still, I kept on reading, desperate to catch a glimpse of hope or happiness…

“People can be unpredictable in their cruelty.”

Taylor’s riveting debut novel chronicles a graduate student’s turbulent weekend. At its heart, this is the Wallace’s story. Wallace is gay, black, painfully aware of his almost debilitating anxiety and of what he perceives as his physical and internal flaws.
As one the few black men in this unnamed Midwestern city, and the only black man in his course, Wallace knows that he is in a ‘different’ position from his white friends. After a childhood disrupted by poverty and many traumatic experiences, he withdraws into studies, dedicating most of his waking hours to lab tests and projects. Yet, even if he works twice as hard as other students, many still imply—directly and non—that he was accepted into this program only because of his skin colour.

“Perhaps friendship is really nothing but controlled cruelty. Maybe that’s all they’re doing, lacerating each other and expecting kindness back.”

Real Life has all the trappings of a campus novel. From its confined setting of a university city—in which we follow Wallace as he goes to a popular student hangout by the lake, to his uni’s labs, to his or his friends’ apartments—to its focus on the shifting alliances and power dynamics between a group of friends. Yet, Taylor’s novel also subverts some of this genre’s characteristic. The academic world is not as sheltering as one might first imagine. Questioning ‘real life vs. student life’ becomes a leitmotif in the characters’ conversations. Taylor’s novel offers a much more less idyllic and romantic vision of the academic world than most other campus novels. If anything we became aware of the way in which ‘real life’ problems make their way into a student’s realm.

“Affection always feels this way for him, like an undue burden, like putting weight and expectation onto someone else. As if affection were a kind of cruelty too.”

From the very first pages we see Wallace’s environment and ‘friends’ through his alienated lenses. While most of his friends are queer—gay, bisexual, or an unspecified sexuality—they are white and from far more privileged backgrounds. At the beginning of the novel Wallace ‘gives in’ and agrees to meet them by the lake, after having avoided them for a long period of time.
What unfolds is deeply uncomfortable to read. In spite of their laughter and smiles, these people do not strike as friends. Their banter is cutting, their off-handed comments have sharp edges, and they are all incredibly and irresolutely selfish. Taylor’s quickly establishes the toxic dynamics between these ‘friends’. While they might not be directly aggressive or hostile, they repeatedly hurt, belittle, betray, and undermine one other.
The distance Wallace feels from them is overwhelming. Yet, even if he tries to be on the outskirts of their discussions, he finds himself having to deal with their racist or otherwise hurtful remarks. Worst still, he is confronted with his ‘friends’ cowardice when they feign that they do not say racist or demeaning things. If anything they usually imply that he is the one who is oversensitive.

Over this weekend we see time and again just how horribly solipsistic and cowardly Wallace’s friends are. They mask their racism and elitism under a pretence of wokeness. Similarly, one of Wallace’s fellow students, believes that as a feminist she can be openly homophobic and racist, throwing around words such as misogynistic without thought or consequence in order to masquerade her own bigotry.
Wallace’s friends’ racism is far more surreptitious. For the most part they pretend that race doesn’t matter, and that is Wallace who makes a ‘big deal’ out of nothing. Yet, when someone say something discriminatory out loud, they do nothing.

As he hangs out with his friends he finds himself noticing just how far from perfect they are. A perfect or happy life seems unattainable. Even moments of lightheartedness or contentment give way to arguments and disagreements within this group. Even if what plagues Wallace’s mind is far more disturbing than what his friends’ rather mundane worries (regarding their future careers, current relationship etc) he often chooses to comfort or simply listen to them, rather than pouring his own heart out. Wallace knows that they couldn’t possibly understand his relationship to his family and past.

“He misses, maybe, also, other things, the weight of unnamed feelings moving through him. And those feelings were transmuted into something cruel and mean.
There was an economy to it, even when you couldn’t see it at first, a shadow calculation running underneath all their lives.”

While he may not voice his troubles while he is hanging out with his ‘friends’, Wallace’s mind is often occupied with his own past and future. Taylor does a terrific job in giving us an impression of Wallace’s discordant psyche. Moments of dissociation make him further retread within himself, escaping his uncomfortable surroundings. Like Wallace we begin to see his surroundings as unpleasant and claustrophobic. At times the people around him blur together, blending into a sea of white faces, making him feel all the more isolated.
Wallace’s own insecurities colour most of his thoughts, feelings, and actions. Even when I could not understand him or in his moments of selfishness, I found myself caring for him and deeply affected by his circumstances. What he experiences…is brutal. When his coping mechanism (work/studying) is threatened his mental health spirals out of control.

The halting and recursive dialogue is incredibly realistic. Even when discussing seemingly ordinary things there is an underlying tension. And there is almost a stop-start quality to the characters’ conversations that struck me for its realism. The way in which their arguments spiral into awkward silences, the tentative words that follow more heated ones, the impact of tone and interpretation.

A sense of physicality, of eroticism, pervades Taylor’s narrative. Characters are often compared to animals, close attention is paid to their bodies—from their skin to their limbs—and to the way the move and look by themselves and together as a group. This attentiveness towards the body emphasises Wallace’s own insecurity about the way he looks. In one of his more brooding moments he finds himself questioning whether he wants to be or be with an attractive guy. His contemplations about same-sex attraction definitely resonated with me. Envy and desire are not mutually exclusive.

“This is perhaps why people get together in the first place. The sharing of time. The sharing of the responsibility of anchoring oneself in the world. Life is less terrible when you can just rest for a moment, put everything down and wait without having to worry about being washed away.”

Taylor often contrasts seemingly opposing feelings. For example, sensual moments are underpinned by a current of danger. Wallace seems to find both force and vulnerability erotic.
Taylor’s narrative repeatedly examines the tense boundaries between pleasure and pain, attraction and repulsion, tenderness and violence. Taylor projects Wallace’s anxiety, depression, and discomfort onto his narrative so that a feeling of unease underlines our reading experience.

“He had considered himself a Midwesterner at heart, that being in the South and being gay were incompatible, that no two parts of a person could be more incompatible. But standing there, among the boats, shyly waiting to discover the people to whom he felt he would belong, he sensed the foolishness in that.”

Taylor’s prose could be in turns thoughtful and jarring. There are disturbingly detailed descriptions about Wallace’s lab-work, unflinching forays into past traumas, and thrilling evocations of sexual desire.

A seemingly ordinary weekend shows us just how inescapable social hierarchies are. The secular world of academia does not entirely succeed in keeping the real world at bay. Depression, anxiety, dysphoria, the lingering effects of abuse all make their way into Wallace’s story. We read of his confusing desires, of his ‘friends’ hypocrisy, of his own appetite for self-destruction…Real Life is not an easy read. There were many horrible moments in which I wanted to jump into the narrative to shake Wallace’s friends. Wallace too, pained me. In spite of his observant nature, he remains detached. He picks up on his friends’ horrible behaviour but with one or two exceptions he does not oppose them. Yet, I could also see why he remained passive. Being in his position is exhausting.

“It is a life spent swimming against the gradient, struggling up the channel of other people’s cruelty. It grates him to consider this, the shutting away of the part of him that now throbs and writhes like a new organ that senses so keenly the limitations of his life.”

Even if I craved for a more reassuring ending I still think that this is an impressive debut novel one that strikingly renders what it feels to inhabit a black body in a white-dominated environment. Real Life tackles racism, privilege, cruelty, cultural and power dynamics, and the complexities of sexual desire head on. Wallace’s friends are aggravating if not downright despicable. Which is perhaps why when alongside Wallace we glimpse some kindness in them, it makes us all the more upset.

Reading Real Life made me uncomfortable, angry, sad. Lines like these, “He typically brings crackers or another form of fiber because his friends are all full of shit and need cleaning out from time to time”, even made me laugh out loud.
What I’m trying to say, or write is this: this is a brilliant novel, one you should definitely read (with some caution, of course).
Anyhow, I can’t wait to read more by Taylor.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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A Beautiful Crime by Christopher Bollen — book review

40535984.jpgA Beautiful Crime is a tantalisingly suspenseful part thriller part romance, one that brilliantly captures the landscape, aesthetics, and politics of Venice.

“The love of the city had killed its people. Quite simply, Venice had been visited to death.”

The opening of the novel has a terrific hook. We know that someone at some point is going to die. But who? And how?

“When you see an opportunity, take it. You can brood over the ethics later.”

Vaguely reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley but starring two much more sympathetic, and empathetic, protagonists, A Beautiful Crime follows a tense cat-and-mouse game in which readers are never sure who is deceiving who.

Nick is a twenty-five year old from Ohio whose move to New York didn’t exactly result in a clearer idea of who he is or what he wants to do. His older boyfriend doesn’t seem to understand Nick’s restlessness. When Nick meets Clay, who is just two years older than him and from New York, sparks fly.
In spite of their different backgrounds, they fall hard and fast for each other. Clay, rumoured to have murdered his best friend after having tricked him into making him his heir, needs a lot of money and fast. Together they decide that the easiest way to get so much money is to con someone who has more money than sense. It just so happens that the person Clay hates most in the world fits the bill.
In order for their plan to succeed they go to Venice since it is where Richard Forsyth West, aka their mark, is currently staying.

Christopher Bollen maintains a taut tension throughout the course of his narrative. Readers, alongside Nick and Clay, will fear that some hitch might reveal and ruin their plans. What may appear as simple conversations will have you sitting on the edge of your seat. And while we know that objectively what Nick and Clay are doing is wrong, we are still rooting for them to succeed.
Time and time again, in both New York and Venice, Nick and Clay wrestle with their morals as well as their greed, desire, love, and any personal vendettas they may or may not harbour.

Bollen’s writing style presents us with some breathtaking and insightful descriptions of Venice. As a former resident of the comune of Venice I am perhaps a bit too critical when I read novels that feature this city. So, I’m happy to say, or write, that Bollen’s depiction of this city is truly true to life. He really does render its beauty and incongruities, providing an interesting commentary on Venice and its inhabitants, of its fatal dependency on tourism, and of the way it is perceived by the rest of the world.
Although both Nick and Clay view Venice through the eyes of an outsider, the Venetians we encounter along the way, from Daniela to Battista, give us an insight of the ‘real’ Venice.

“What would Venice be like without any Venetians living in it? There were only fifty-three thousand of these rare humans left, and the number was shrinking by a thousand each year.”

Venice is much more than the glamorous backdrop to Nick and Clay con as in many ways it plays a central role in the story. It is a city or romance and of ruin. It fills Nick and Clay with equal parts awe and melancholy. The dizzying spell it casts on those who live there is clear. There were moments in which Bollen’s portrayal of Venice brought to mind Thomas Mann’s in Death in Venice. In both of these works Venice appears as a labyrinthine and suggestive city one that might very well bring the worst out of people.

“Nick was hallucinating. Hew was mistaking marble ballrooms and gilt facades and velvet-upholstered gondolas for real life. People went mad in Venice because it lacked the reality check of poverty and ugliness and ordinary struggles. ”

Alongside this high-stakes con we read of Nick and Clay’s relationship. Part of me wanted to see more of them together but in order for their plan to succeed it is vital they are not seen together, so it made sense that they didn’t get share many scenes. Their feelings for one another add a moving note to the story.
Both the secondary characters and the ones who had only small cameos were nuanced and fully fleshed out. At times it was difficult to discern whether someone’s intentions were good or bad which made the story all the more compelling.

“These monsters, Nick thought, and at the same exact moment, These wonderful people.”

Bollen does a terrific job in rendering the ‘artsy’ community of Venice and of giving us an amusing impression of the ‘inglese italianato’ (or perhaps in this case the Americano italianato/the Italianised American) those types of art and cultural enthusiasts who like to play at being intellectual.

I also appreciated the novel’s engagement with issues such as racism (Clay is black), class, and privilege. Wealth, youth, and beauty also make their way into Bollen’s narrative. Both Nick and Clay have to confront their own desire for wealth and of what they would be willing to do for their own safety.

I only spotted two mistakes in Bollon’s Italian which is so refreshing! Usually books set in Italy by non-Italian writers are not only riddled with clichés but with easily avoided mistakes (such as papa instead of papà). Bollon not only captures Venice but he also mentions the Venice-Mestre dynamic.

Bollon’s engaging prose offers plenty of amusing descriptions (“the silent brag of an attractive companion”), easily renders a beautiful landscape, and provides thoughtful character studies.

A Beautiful Crime is an exhilarating novel that will have you flipping pages like there’s no tomorrow. In spite of its dark moments and of the unease the pervades most of its scenes, Bollen’s narrative maintains a beautiful momentum. Through striking depictions of love, friendship, and, of course, Venice A Beautiful Crime is a thrilling read.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

Some of my favourite quotes

“He believed in friendliness the same way he believed in his youth: he thought both could save him. His youth and friendliness were master keys to all future rooms.”

“The world promised Nick nothing at that age but showed him glimpses of its finest possibilities.”

“For him, walking around as a gay man in his hometown was tantamount to being out on bail: he was free to go about his business, but everyone treated him with a heightened suspicion, as if unsure whether he had committed a crime.”

“Nick saw it as a chance to be delivered from the purgatory of mid-twenties aimlessness.”

“In the stronghold of dry, hot days, visitors clotted the streets like human glue, and cruise ships barged into San Marco’s Basin with horns that blasted louder than any church bells.”

“Wheelie suitcases had become the unofficial soundtrack of Venice, a city that had triumphed for millennia on the very absence of wheels.”

“It was a secondhand high to watch a first-timer take in the city.”

“Another person’s idea of normalcy was always a foreign country, just as your borders on that dominion were constantly expanding or shrinking, ejecting proud, long-standing residents while taking in exciting new émigrés that would have been denied entry the year before.”

“In the hush of early evening, Venice changed from past to present. ”

“Nick preferred to think of people as messy whirlpools of wants and desires, as unpredictable bundles of urges even when the appropriate bait was placed in front of them. ”

“Nothing else could touch him, large or small, because he’d filled his quota on pain. But the loss of a parent doesn’t immunize a person from betrayal any more than surviving a shark bite protects its victim from a car crash.”

“Nick found himself impressed by his own bullshit. It was undeniably top-quality bullshit. It sounded so erudite and convincing, even to the one who was spewing it.”

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If I Never Met You by Mhairi McFarlane — book review.


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“The trouble with liars, Laurie had decided from much research in the professional field, is they always thought everyone else was less smart than them.”

If I Never Met You is the fourth novel I’ve read by Mhairi McFarlane and I’m happy to say that it is my favourite book of hers. McFarlane just keeps getting better and better, and this time round she gives a new spin to the tired ‘fake-dating’ trope (which prior to this book I considered to be one of my least favourite romcom tropes).

“This Greek God was prepared to anoint her his Phony Goddess? It did feel like the most longed-for boy in school asking you to prom.”

Once again McFarlane writing combines laugh-out-loud moments with an insightful narrative that taps into deep-seated issues. Blending humour and realism McFarlane’s story is as witty as it is topical.
Our protagonist, and narrator, is Laurie, a thirty-six year old lawyer. Her world collapses when her partner of eighteen years leaves her. Having spent half of her life with Dan, and not knowing why he no longer wants to be with her, Laurie is hurt and confused. Worst still, Dan works at the same firm as Laurie so she is forced to keep up a happy front at work.
Laurie has barely had time to process Dan’s departure when, within weeks of their break up, he announces that he
1) has a new girlfriend (who happens to work at a rival firm)
2) is a father-to-be as said girlfriend is now pregnant.

Laurie soon finds that both her social and work life are affected by her new single status. As a woman in her late thirties she is subject to unwarranted comments regarding her future (such as ‘isn’t she too old now to find a new partner or start a family?’)
A rightfully angry Laurie makes a deal with her firm’s local Casanova, Jamie Carter, in order to put a stop to the fake-pity and gossip that her coworkers and acquaintances are showering over her. And maybe also to get back at Dan.

“If you wanted plumbing done, you hired a plumber. If you wanted your roof fixed you hired a roofer. If you wanted everyone to erroneously believe you were at it like knives, you recruited Jamie Carter.”

As they spend more and more time together, in order to make their fauxmance believable, Laurie and Jamie find themselves forming a bond of sorts. Although Laurie realises they are as different as chalk and cheese, she is surprised to discover that Jamie is far from the superficial all-looks-not-much-else guy he’d pegged him to be.

With dialogues that are simultaneously funny and clever If I Never Met You is hard to put down.
I loved Laurie. After her breakup with Dan she begins an introspective journey as she is forced to find herself in a reality that feels alien. She also experiences first-hand the double-standards of being a single woman rather than a single man. Colleagues and friends who prior to her breakup seemed relatively affable reveal their true colours.
Thankfully her best friend and Jamie provide the narrative with much needed positivity. They are both nuanced characters, with fears and desires of their own, and their relationship to Laurie present us with many tender scenes.
There is a bit of banter, which was a delight to read, and a few disagreements but for the most part Laurie and Jamie’s budding maybe-not-so-fake-romance had me smiling like an idiot.

Laurie’s trials and tribulations are both endearing and entertaining. There are some heart-breaking moments nestled in this otherwise light-hearted narrative. Laurie realises that sometimes it is better to choose carefully who you let into your life, and that perhaps some people aren’t worth forgiving.
From the humour to the romance, this novel simply stole my heart. I would call this type of book escapist fiction as it is sure to satisfy readers’ romcom requirements but to do feels like doing it a disservice. It isn’t all fun and games, and McFarlane doesn’t shy away from portraying the way in which rumours, gossips, and false impression affected both women and men. Laurie in particular goes through quite a few hardships and I felt immensely proud of her character growth.
Jamie too was surprisingly vulnerable, and I appreciated the way they supported each other.

“She’d never been called a survivor. She turned the word over her in mind: she liked how it sounded, applied to her. It wasn’t victimhood and it wasn’t self-aggrandising, it was about coping. And she had definitely done that.”

The only thing that I didn’t like was the predictable and avoidable ‘misunderstanding’ that awlays occurs around the 80/90% mark in romcoms.

I thoroughly recommend this novel to fans of contemporary fiction and I’m really looking forward to reading this again.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak — book review

Shafak never disappoints!
In her newest novel Shafak explores many of the themes she has already touched upon in previous novels in an innovative manner as the narrative bridges the gap between the life and death of its protagonist.
There is something about Shafak’s prose that really resonates with me. She can address serious and complex issues without jeopardising the creativity of her story or the nuances of her characters.

After she is killed Tequila Leila is not quite dead-dead. Her consciousness seems to ‘survive’ long enough for her to revisit some of her memories. In each chapter Leila remembers a certain event in her life, however mundane it might be, and the narrative beautifully conveys the feelings, smells, and landscapes that make up these memories.
On the one hand, through these memories, we get to know Leila and watch as she forms relationships outside of her familial ones, on the other, we glimpse the city of Istanbul, some of its history and its many different faces.
Ultimately, in spite of the tragedies and traumas that Leila or her friends experience, there is love and hope to be found in this beautiful book. The story brims with empathy and humanity, depicting the distressing yet beautiful life of Leila.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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