Gallant by V.E. Schwab

Although I remember liking books by V. E. Schwab when I was a teenager the last couple of books I’ve picked up by her left me feeling rather underwhelmed. My reading tastes have definitely changed over the years but I hoped that I would always be able to appreciate her storytelling. I was sold on Gallant when I saw that it was being compared to Neil Gaiman and Guillermo del Toro and boy oh boy was I disappointed to discover that it was just a very tame take on the Gothic genre. I was hoping for something Dark a la Coraline or in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth but what we have here is a very cheesy and vanilla attempt at crafting a Gothic tale. The story stars the classic Schwab female protagonist, ie, Not Like Other Girls (Schwab’s books always leave me with the impression that they barely pass the Bechdel test). Olivia Prior is an orphan who has grown up in Merilance School for girls where she is mistreated by everyone for being mute. She also has a bit of a temper because she isn’t afraid of getting back at the mean girls and of ignoring her school’s rules. What a #girlboss. Anyway, Olivia’s only source of solace comes from her mother’s diary which details her descent into ‘madness’. Sections from her diary are interspersed throughout the narrative and these were truly over the top in their sensationalistic language and imagery. Olivia receives a letter from an uncle who says he wants her to come home to their family home of Gallant. When she arrives she discovers that her only living relative, her cousin Matthew, doesn’t want her there. Oh, I forgot, Olivia also sees ghouls. This aspect is sometimes forgotten and for the majority of the story appears only to crank up the Gothic mood. Nothing happens. Olivia’s inner monologue is as interesting as watching paint dry would be. She has no distinct personality even if the author tries to make her into this bold heroine who will not let people like those mean girls or her cold cousin tell her where she belongs. There are two other side characters who also live at Gallant and take care of Matthew and the property. Despite the small cast (you would think that more time was paid to developing these characters), the author doesn’t succeed in making these characters into compelling and or three-dimensional characters. Olivia is so vanilla as to be entirely forgettable. Her defining characteristic is that she’s an orphan and that she is mute. Personally, I don’t think it’s great that these things are made to be her ‘personality’ and Schwab incurs the risk of portraying mutism as a sign of ‘specialness’ (she can see ghouls, she’s not like other girls etc…). This kind of thing feels dated tbh. Olivia spends her time at Gallant being rather nosy about the past and Matthew and those two older characters are clearly keeping something away from her. Olivia re-reads her mother’s journal in an attempt to uncover the truth behind her ‘madness’ and the secretive behaviour of the last inhabitants of Gallant.

I foolishly thought that this was going to be a parallel/portal fantasy but this doesn’t come into play until the 60% mark or so. Which…by then my interest had already waned and died. The ‘villain’ has barely any page time and because of that I did not really feel creeped out by them. I did not feel the stakes and found myself skim-reading the last couple of pages just so I could be done with it all.
The tone was very Middle Grade which could have worked if the author had gone for a more ambiguous overall tone (like Gaiman does in Coraline) but I found her portrayal of her heroine and the villain simplistic indeed. The blurb makes it sound as if Olivia is taken by them but that was not the case at all. Even a Disney villain has more nuance than this one.
We have a poorly established setting (vaguely historical period in…england? i think? they name a few english counties/towns but if it was it was not convincing at all, the characters express themselves in a very un-English manner) and Gallant itself lacked oomph. There were too many descriptions that relied on very predictable imagery and the language too drove me up the walls. Whisper here, whisper there. Metaphors involving smoke, secrets, whispers, and shadows abound. There was no subtlety or variation whatsoever. The house(s) did not feel ominous or atmospheric.
While I can get behind books that are very aesthetic focused (such books by Holly Black and Seanan McGuire) they have to have the prose to back that up. But here disappointingly enough given Schwab’s usually stylish storytelling, the writing was flat. Because of this, the atmosphere felt flat too and the Gothic mood never truly convinced me.
I also have a bias against books where the main female characters have no meaningful relationship with other girls her age. And in fact, they are shown to be jealous, petty, and mean towards her even if she’d done ‘nothing wrong’. Like, can we put a stop to this girls-hating-girls trend in YA? Thank you.
A dull heroine, a slow-moving and predictable storyline, poorly developed secondary characters and setting…Gallant proved itself to be a milquetoast affair. I was hoping for a more mature tone and a more complex world-building and Gallant offered quite the opposite. A cheesy take on Gothic and the kind of flowery writing that is kind-of-pretty only if you post random quotes with no context on tumblr.
This was a forgettable and lacklustre read but just because it didn’t work for me doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give it a try.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy

Sweet Days of Discipline is a slim dagger of a novel.

Written in a prose so sharp it will cut you, Sweet Days of Discipline is a work of startling and enigmatic beauty, a study in contradictions: order and chaos, sublimity and abjection, clarity and obfuscation, illusion and reality.

Fleur Jaeggy is in absolute command of her craft so that not a word is wasted or out-of-place. Jaeggy exercises formidable control over her language, which is restrained to the point of severity. By turns glacial and melancholic, Jaeggy’s epigrammatic style is dauntingly ascetic. Yet, her direct and crisp prose belies the complexity of her subject. I struggle to pinpoint what this book is even about. Our narrator is consumed by desire but the way she expresses and articulates said desire is certainly atypical. Even upon a second reading, I find myself enthralled by her mysterious and perplexing relationship with Frédérique. Ultimately, it is the obscure nature of their bond that makes me all the more eager to revisit this novel once more.

Our unnamed narrator’s recounting of her schooldays is pervaded by a dream-like quality. Torpor seems to reign supreme at Bausler Institut, an all-girls boarding school in the Appenzell. While the girls’ days are in fact dictated by routine, a sense of idleness prevails. Our narrator, who has spent most of her youth in boarding school, coldly observes the people around her. Her detachment and contempt towards her peers and the rarefied world she’s part of perfectly complement the staccato rhythm of Jaeggy’s prose. When Frédérique is enrolled in her school, she finds herself captivated by her. Her infatuation with Frédérique however doesn’t lead to happiness. Our narrator wants to best Frédérique, to ‘conquer’ her. She is both in awe and jealous of Frédérique’s apathy towards the students, the teachers, and their surroundings. The two eventually begin spending time together but our narrator cannot or is unwilling to express her feelings.
What follows is a taut tale of juxtaposition. The orderly world of the school is contrasted with the inner turmoil of youth. The narrator’s clipped commentary is at once hyperreal and unearthly. While the narrator does try to control her feelings, she’s at times overcome by their sheer intensity. Her love for Frédérique is also inexorably entwined with hatred, as she finds the idea of being bested, of being under anyone’s thumb, unbearable. Our narrator is unforgiving in her detailed recollection, her harshness and cruelty did at times take me by surprise. Yet, her longing for Frédérique and her unwillingness to bend for that love made her into a compelling character. As the narrative progresses she and Frédérique begin to lose sight of one another, and as adolescence gives way to adulthood one of them spirals out of control.
The English translation is superb. I’ve read this both in the original Italian and in English and I have to say that I don’t prefer one over the other. If anything Tim Parks, the translator, got rid of some rather outdated and insensitive terms in the original. The prose in the Italian version is also, to my ears at least, even more, stringent and stark than its English counterpart (maybe this is due to a combination of the slightly old-fashioned italian + my being so used to reading in english that books in italian will inevitably make for a more exacting reading experience).

Sweet Days of Discipline makes for a lethal read. Jaeggy’s austere prose is a study in perfectionism. Yet, despite her unyielding language and her aloof, occasionally menacing, narrator, Sweet Days of Discipline is by no means a boring or emotionless read. The intensity of our narrator’s, often unexpressed, feelings and desires result in a thrilling and evocative read.

my rating: ★★★★★

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

“He spoke the spell under his breath, still a little uncertain after the agonies he had endured. But magic came, ever his friend—magic answered his call.”

Written in a playful pastiche style Sorcerer to the Crown will certainly appeal to fans of Susanna Clarke, Neil Gaiman, and Diana Wynne Jones. Cho’s bombastic prose, characterized by an Austenesque sense of humor, and madcap fantasy of manners story were a delight to read.
The first time I read this, back in 2015/6, I did, truth be told, struggle to get into Cho’s high register language. But, the more I read, the more I familiarised myself with her lofty and loquacious style. Sorcerer to the Crown was a brilliant read, a real blast!

“In truth magic had always had a slightly un-English character, being unpredictable, heedless of tradition and profligate with its gifts to high and low.”

Set in an alternate Regency England, Sorcerer to the Crown follows Zacharias Wythe, the country’s first Black Sorcerer Royal, who was raised by his recently deceased predecessor, Sir Stephen. While Zacharias clearly respected and was grateful to Sir Stephen, the two didn’t always see eye to eye. Moreover, Zacharias can’t forget that Sir Stephen bought and freed him, separating from his own family. This being Regency England Zacharias is treated with open animosity by most of his colleagues, some of whom are actively attempting to besmirch his name, claiming that he’s responsible for England’s decline of magic and Sir Stephen’s death. Zacharias is an incredibly level-headed individual, a thinker not a fighter. He’s serious, studious, punctilious. He’s also fair, loyal, and endearingly naïve. Yet, even he can’t quite keep his calm when his reputation, and life, are under attack. Attempting to clear his name and to discover the reason behind England’s magic drought, he leaves London.

“Magic was too strong a force for women’s frail bodies—too potent a brew for their weak minds—and so, especially at a time when everyone must be anxious to preserve what magical resource England still possessed, magic must be forbidden to women.”

He visits Mrs. Daubeney’s School for Gentlewitches, a place that is meant to snuff any magic from its pupils. In England, the only women who are ‘allowed’ to practice magic are those from the lower classes (and can only use spells to facilitate their daily chores/tasks). Due to her ‘questionable’ parentage (ie her mother was not an Englishwoman) Prunella Gentlemen, similarly to Zachariah, has always been treated as an outsider. Prunella is an orphan who thanks to her ‘generous’ benefactor, Mrs. Daubeney, was, for the most part, treated like the other students. When an incident threatens to change this, Prunella decides to take matters into her own hands and forge her own path to happiness.

“Your amoral ingenuity in the pursuit of your interest is perfectly shocking,” said Zacharias severely.
“Yes, isn’t it?” said Prunella, pleased.

Zacharias and Prunella cross paths and form a camaraderie of sorts. While Prunella is still very much self-serving, repeatedly going behind Zacharias’ back or eliding important information & discoveries, she does seem to enjoy bantering with Zacharias. Together they face disgruntled magicians, engage in some magical mishaps, attend/crash a ball, confront angry magical creatures, try to reason with a formidable witch, partake in discussions with some rather tedious thaumaturgist, and challenge the Society’s long-established traditions and hierarchies.

““Why, all the greatest magic comes down to blood,” said Mak Genggang. “And who knows blood better than a woman?”

While the witty dialogues and droll characters result in delightfully humourous, within her narrative Cho incorporates a sharp social commentary. From the rampant racism and xenophobia that were typical of this time to addressing gender and class inequalities. Through satire Cho highlights these issues, and, in spite of her story’s fantastical backdrop, Cho doesn’t romanticise this period of time and the England that emerges from these pages feels all too real. The use of historically accurate language and the attention paid to the time’s etiquette and social mores, result in an incredibly well-rendered historical setting.

While this type of narrative won’t appeal to those looking for action-driven stories, Cho’s sparkling storytelling is not to be missed. The follow-up to this book is, dare I say, even better.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Inseparables by Simone de Beauvoir

“She had appeared so glorious to me that I had assumed she had everything she wanted. I wanted to cry for her, and for myself.”



Superbly written The Inseparables is a novella that pairs an enthralling depiction of female friendship with a razor-sharp commentary on gender and religion This is the kind of work of fiction that reads like real life, unsurprising perhaps given that Beauvoir created Sylvie and Andrée after herself and her real-life friend Zaza Lacoin.

Written in a controlled and polished style The Inseparables presents us with a beguiling tale in which Sylvie, our narrator, recounts the enigmatic nature of her bond with Andrée. The two first meet as young girls while enrolled at a private Catholic school and, in spite of the divergence between their religious beliefs, they become, as the title itself suggests, inseparable. Due to the conventions of their time and society—the French bourgeois of the early 20th cent.—they cannot be too close and so have to refrain from being too intimate with one another, for example by addressing each other with the formal you.Still, they keep up a correspondence and talk at length to each other, earning themselves the disapproval of Andrée’s mother who frowns upon their, God forbid, long and possibly intimate conversations.

Sylvie is fascinated by Andrée, in particular, she seems hyperaware, intrigued even, by her self-divide. On the one hand Andrée, a devout Catholic, expresses conservative ideas and opinions, which make her appear particularly naive. On the other Andrée possesses a clever mind and a propensity for expressing surprisingly subversive thoughts. Andrée is a magnetic individual who oscillates between irreverence and conformity. Sylvie, who did not grow up to be a staunchly religious individual (apropos, in a diary entry beauvoir wrote: “i have no other god but myself”), cannot always reconcile herself to Andrée’s way of thinking and struggles to understand the loyalty that Andrée has for her family, which Sylvie herself views as suffocating.

As the two grow up we see how Andrée continues to struggle with understanding her own emotions, trying and failing to contain her fiercer self. We also see how her mother’s constant reprimand have affected her self-worth and distorted her view of herself. When she falls for Pascal, a puritanical young man who seriously considered being a priest, Andrée’s resolve to lead the kind of life that her family, as well as her society, is tested. She desperately wants to escape her present circumstances but this desperation ultimately results in self-sabotage. We witness her unravelling through Sylvie’s eyes, who, as much as she yearns to be of help, cannot ultimately save her.

Beauviour’s piercing commentary on gender, class, and religion was profoundly insightful. She addresses these things with clarity and exactness, illustrating how fatal oppression and repression are on a person’s psyche. What I found particularly touching, and relatable, in this novel was the unrequited nature of Sylve’s love for Andrée. Regardless of whether the love she feels for Andrée is a platonic one or a romantic one, we know that Andrée doesn’t feel the same passion for Sylve. Whether she’s unwilling or unable to reciprocate the iSylve’s feelings, we do not know for certain, however, we can see how deeply this realization cuts Sylvie. Sylvie is shown to be both jealous and resentful of Andrée’s family, holding them responsible for her friend’s unhappiness.

This novella’s subject did bring to mind Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline, which also explores an intense female friendship, Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia
(which is far more flowery and sentimental than this but also capture a youth’s unrequited love and longing for another) as well as novel such as Abigail and Frost In May (which are both set in all-girl schools and touch on female friendships and religion).
While Sylvie is both attuned and attentive to Andrée, her moods and beliefs, she does, like we all tend to do, idealise her given that she is her object of desire (whether this is desire is platonic or sexual, it’s up to the reader to decide, i, to no one’s surprise, felt that it was the latter).
This was a riveting read. The prose is sublime, the story an equal parts evocative and tragic exploration of young & unrequited love, heartache, independence, kinship and intimacy.

I will say that as much as I loved this I couldn’t help but the publisher’s short bio of Beauvoir, as well as Levy’s and the translator’s mentions of her, felt very incomplete. As far as I can recall they all omit to mention Beauvoir’s more ‘unethical’ behaviour. As a teacher, she had ‘relationships’ with her underage pupils and went on to sign a petition seeking to abrogate the age of consent in France (because of course age is just a number!). Here you might argue that those things have nothing to do with this novella or her friendship with Zaza (discussed by both Levy and the translator). But I maintain that they do. You can’t just mention the fact that she’s a feminist and try to analyse her real-life friendship with another woman or her commentary on female sexuality while at the same time omitting that in her lifetime she (‘allegedly’) groomed her underage female students and seemed in favour of pedophilia. That she did those things did not detract from my reading experience however it certainly made me a little bit more critical of our narrator’s obsession towards her friend.


Some of my favourite quotes:

“Secretly I thought to myself that Andrée was one of those prodigies about whom, later on, books would be written.”

“No, our friendship was not as important to Andrée as it was to me, but I admired her too much to suffer from it.”

“What would I have daydreamed about? I loved Andrée above all else, and she was right next to me.”

“I thought to myself, distressed, that in books there are people who make declarations of love, or hate, who dare to say whatever comes into their mind, or heart—why is it so impossible to do the same thing in real life?”

“The errors I admitted were those of the soul above all: I had lacked fervour, too long forsaken the divine presence, prayed inattentively, regarded myself too complacently.”

“Andrée was unhappy and the idea of it was unbearable. But her unhappiness was so foreign to me; the kind of love where your kiss had no truth from me.”

“Never. The word had never fallen with such weight upon my heart. I repeated it within myself, under the never-ending sky, and I wanted to cry. ”

“No doubt she loved Andrée in her way, but what way was that? That was the question. We all loved her, only differently. ”

“Happiness suits her so well, I thought.”

““Don’t be sad,” she said. “In every family there’s a bit of rubbish. I was the rubbish.”

“For Andrée, there was a passageway between the heart and the body that remained a mystery to me. ”

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

my rating: ★★★★☆

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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

All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue

Caroline O’Donoghue’s foray into YA will definitely appeal to fans of the genre. Although I do have a few criticisms I can safely say that I found All Our Hidden Gifts to be an entertaining read.

Set in Ireland, our narrator and protagonist is sixteen-year old Maeve Chambers, the youngest in a big family. She has quite a chip on her shoulder when it comes to her ‘brilliant’ sisters and brothers. Unlike them she isn’t academically gifted and for a period of time she was put in a slow-learning class. Maeve now attends an all-girls Catholic school and in trying to impress her peers lands herself in trouble. It just so happens that her detention includes cleaning out a cupboard know as the ‘Chokey’ where she finds a set of tarot cards…and it turns out that she has a skill when it comes to reading the cards.

The story takes a Labyrinth turn when Maeve’s new talent results in the disappearance of her former best friend, Lily, who she’d ditched in order to climb the social ladder. Was I expecting the Goblin King to be responsible for Lily’s disappearance? Maybe…
Anyhow, when the police gets involved and things get serious Maeve’s life becomes quite messy. Maeve believes that a mysterious card from her deck may have stolen Lily away so she decides to deepen her knowledge of magic. Along the way she becomes close with another girl from her school and with Lily’s older brother, Roe.
As the kids investigate Lily’s disappearance they become increasingly suspicious of a cult-like Christian group that is very vocal in opposing LGBTQ+ rights.
I appreciated the issues O’Donoghue incorporates throughout her narrative. We have characters who are discriminated against for not being white or for not conforming to one gender. Lily wears a hearing aid, which is probably another reason why her classmates bully or exclude her, Maeve’s sister is gay, Roe is exploring his gender expression (and possibly his gender identity?). As inclusivity goes, this novel is beautifully inclusive. Maeve, who is white, cis, straight (?), and from a possibly middle-class family, is called out for being insensitive or naive when it comes to discrimination. She’s also somewhat self-centred, in an angsty sort of way, and this too is pointed out by other characters. Fiona also makes a point of reminding Maeve not to make other people’s oppression all about herself.

While I appreciated her growth, I still struggled to sympathise or like her. I found Roe and Fiona to be much more likeable and interesting characters. Maeve was the classic ‘I’m not beautiful like x or intelligent like y’ self-pitying kind of gall. She was boring and sounded much younger than her allegedly sixteen years of life. Which brings to my next ‘criticism’: there is a discrepancy between the tone and content of this novel. The tone, which is mainly created by Maeve’s direct narration, would have been more suited to a middle-grade book while her narrative’s content—the issues and discussions that came up in the story—are more tailored towards a YA audience. Both Maeve and the other sixteen-year olds sounded like they were twelve a lot of the time. Which made it weird when things like sex came up.
The bad American dude was somewhat cartoonish, and that whole side-plot felt rather undeveloped.
Lily was a promising character who might have been more fleshed out with some more flashbacks. And, to be honest, I would preferred this to be a friendship-focused kind of story. The romance between Maeve and Roe did not convince me, at all. She crushes on him from the get-go of the novel, but I could not for the life of me understand or see why he reciprocated her feelings. She says some pretty shitty things now and again to him and acts in a possessive way which irked me. I get she’s insecure but still….she knows she may have been responsible for his sister’s disappearance…and all she can think about are his lips?

Nevertheless, this was far from a bad or mediocre book. I like the way O’Donoghue writes and I appreciate her story’s themes and imagery so I would probably still recommend this. I, however, might stick to her adult fiction from now on.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Readers, I am disappointed.

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

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

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

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

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

 

MY RATING: 2 ½ stars out of 5 stars

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Abigail by Magda Szabó — book review

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“In later years, whenever she dreamed of the fortress and the city the wind would always be present, moving restlessly among human figures obscurely glimpsed in the haze.”

Abigail follows fourteen-year-old Gina Vitay’s time as a Matula student in the months leading to the German occupation of Hungary. First published fifty years ago, its English translation has only just come out (Len Rix’s translation does not disappoint). Last year I read, and was perturbed by, Magda Szabó’s The Door. While I was enthralled by Szabó’s prose, I was ultimately left feeling rather mystified by the whole ordeal. Abigail, on the other hand, is deceptively simple in that it may at first strike readers as a conventional coming-of-age. Szabó however permeates this tale of youthful innocence and friendships with an air of unease. Similarly to The Door, Abigail presents its readers with a narrative that is fraught with a quiet suspense. Our heroine is initially oblivious to the threat looming over her country and she’s far more concerned with the various dramas that make up her everyday life at her exclusive all-girls school. After she’s made privy to a secret that if known could wreak havoc, she will have to learn “dignity and self-discipline”.
Although the narrative obliquely hints at this possibility of danger and violence, an atmosphere of apprehension prevails.

“From this moment onwards, Gina, your childhood is over. You are now an adult, and you will never again live as other children do. I am going to place my life, and yours, and that of many other people, in your hands. What can you swear on that you will never betray us?”

61W2x8+3CJLIn the autumn of 1943 (when Hungary was still a member of the Axis powers), the pampered daughter of a widowed General is abruptly sent away from her beloved home in Budapest and enrolled in a remote all-girls boarding school. Located in Árkod, Bishop Matula Academy is an exceedingly puritanical institution, a place that our heroine quite fittingly describes, more than once, as a “fortress” and a “world of black and white”. The General refuses to disclose the reason for this ‘exile’ and an uncomprehending Gina is unable to discern her father’s true motivations.

“In the past she had been able to persuade him to do almost anything; now he seemed deaf to all her pleadings. He had decided on her fate without discussing a single detail and had merely informed her what would happen.”

At Matula Gina feels constricted by the school’s “strictly regimented life, with every minute accounted for”. Worse still, after her catastrophic first day at Matula she becomes persona non grata with the rest of the fifth year. To begin with Gina views the other girls and their traditions through her ‘big-city’ lenses. She’s contemptuous of their childish games believing that her flirtations with a young lieutenant (which took place at her Auntie Mimó’s tea dances) make her far more worldly than the other girls. Being ostracised from the other girls soon takes its toll and Gina is left feeling profoundly alone and miserable. Most days, her classmates (who share her living quarters with) refuse to interact with her, and when they aren’t ignoring her they insult or bully her.
Gina is also forbidden from interacting with the outside world, and her letters and weekly phone calls to her father are monitored, and if need be censored, by members of staff (since the general should only hear “cheerful, positive things from [her]”).
Gina’s difficult beggings at Matula are alleviated by the presence of a statue known as Abigail. According to school legend, Abigail aids and protects Matula’s students. Gina’s initial skepticism dissolves when she herself receives Abigail’s protection. The mystery of Abigail’s identity underlines Gina’s story, even after Gina reconciles herself with life at Matula.

“Everything that had been boring, childish and indeed hateful the day before now seemed wonderful, reassuring and comforting.”

szabo.1_2048x2048.jpgWhile there are moments of idyllic happiness, these are far and few between. Gina’s prickly, and impulsive, nature are rendered with great empathy. Szabó’s narrative reflects Gina’s ‘limited’ worldview. She misunderstands and misinterprets the adults around her, in particular the dynamics between two of her teachers and Sister Susanna, the fifth year’s prefect. Gina, like most of the other girls, views her class tutor Kalmár as a contemporary “St. George, a knight in shining armor”. Her feelings towards her Latin teacher, Kőnig are far from amicable. She mistakes his kindness and compassion for cowardice and stupidity (another reviewer quite aptly compared him to Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin).

“Once again she had the feeling of being caught up in a play, a play in which she had a totally insignificant role and whose plot was impossible to follow.”

After Gina’s adolescent worries are replaced with far greater ones (ones that serious social implications), she tries to become a responsible adult. She soon learns that even good actions can backfire. Similarly to The Door, the characters in Abigail often cause the most harm to each other when they are trying to do good.

“All my life I have been a wild thing, Gina reflected. I am impatient and impulsive, and I have never learned to love people who annoy me or try to hurt me. Now I shall try to learn these virtues, and I shall do so for the sake of my father: for him I shall seek to be gentle and patient.”

In spite of her best efforts, Gina cannot pacify herself with her school’s authorities nor does she feel less stifled by its suffocating rules. Still, readers will be able to witness Gina’s incredible, and admirable, character growth. I deeply sympathised with Gina, especially since I too found Matula to be a repressive institution, more interested in assigning blame and punishment than actually encouraging students to learn and grow from their mistakes.

“She was oppressed by a consciousness of living in a world of strangers, subject to rules that constantly disrupted the rhythm of her life, and where everything that belonged to her, everything that was part of her, seemed far away.”

In many ways Abigail has all the trappings of a coming-of-age. While Abigail’s identity is not a mystery to the reader, there are plenty of smaller mysteries peppered throughout Gina’s story. Harrowing moments are made all the more powerful by the fact that they often occur off-page. Gina’s troubled relationship with her classmates feels far from childish, and the friendships that she will later develop with some of the other girls are rendered with surprising tenderness.

“When they were at last in bed she lay there, wide awake, thinking about the strange and unexpected way important events in our lives come about—never as we imagine them beforehand, always in quite other ways, in very different circumstances and seemingly by chance”

Szabó’s sinuous and beguiling storytelling gripped me from the very first pages. Abigail provides us with an intimate glimpse into the life of a girl burdened with a dangerous secret. Szabó captures the fraught climate of a country at war.

“She tried to imagine what it would be like if every window in the country could be left open and every street flooded with light, and there was no war and none of this dying, no burdensome secrets, no danger or destruction. ”

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Frost In May by Antonia White — book review

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“Do you know that no character is any good in this world unless that will has been broken completely? Broken and re-set in God’s own way. I don’t think your will has been quite broken, my dear child, do you?”

After converting to Catholicism, nine year old Nanda Gray is sent by her father to the Convent of Five Wounds. Although Nanda is open to the teachings of her new religion, life at the convent is not easy. Alongside the other girls Nanda has to adhere the strict rules and routines imposed by the nuns. The girls are discouraged from forming friendships as these are ‘against charity’ and lead to ‘dangerous and unhealthy indulgence of feeling’. Their conducts are constantly monitored, so much so that the girls have few occasions in which they can simply ‘be’. While Nanda comes to regard her convent as her home, and does try her best not to disobey the nuns, she also questions their authority.
Antonia White articulates beautifully Nanda’s desire to nurture her own individuality. Although Nanda cannot always make sense of her discontentment towards the constraining atmosphere of the convent, her indefinite and contrasting feelings are rendered with incredible empathy and attention.
White also captures a particular phase of growing up, that passage from childhood to adolescence. While Nanda does experience idyllic moments and grows fond of two other girls, she can’t quite reconcile herself with the convent’s ideal of femininity. Yet, she also craves acceptance—from her father, the nuns—and, however unsuccessfully, she does attempt to iron out her personality.
The way in which the nuns inculcate notions of evil and guilt into Nanda and the other girls can be upsetting. Not only that but every day the girls are subjected to or witness to humiliations and psychological punishments. Thankfully, Nanda’s ‘forbidden’ friendships alleviate the mood of the novel.
White’s dramatisation of her own time in a convent makes for a compelling read as her examination of Catholicism is both interesting and illuminating.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Olivia by Dorothy Strachey — book review

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“And so that was what love led to. To wound and be wounded. ”

Set in a French finishing school Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia tells the story of a schoolgirl’s infatuation with her headmistress. Narrated by its titular character, Olivia perfectly evokes adolescent love. Olivia becomes enamoured with Mlle. Julie, and experiences an awakening of sorts.

“Pretty girls I had seen, lovely girls, no doubt, but I had never paid much conscious attention to their looks, never been particularly interested in them. But this was something different. No, it was not different. It was merely being awakened to something for the first time—physical beauty. I was never blind to it again.”

Not only do her feelings towards Mlle. Julie alter her sense of self but they also seem to heighten her senses. Her narration is full of ecstatic exclamations and passionate declarations. She often looses herself is sensuous raptures in which she elevates Mlle. Julie to a godly status. Olivia however is not the only to pine after her, and Mlle. Julie herself seems to be involved with the other headmistress, Mlle. Cara. Strachey’s perfectly captures the anguish of unreciprocated love. Mlle. Julie is Olivia’s objet petit a, in other words her unattainable object of desire. Although Olivia longs for Mlle. Julie, it seemed to me that the impossibility of this love magnified the intensity of her feelings. She seems almost satisfied by her own yearning and angst. Strachey vividly renders Olivia’s finishing school, from the petty jealousies between pupils to the rivalry between Frau Riesener and Signorina. I particularly liked reading about the school’s two factions: the ‘Julie-ites’ (who studied Italian with Signorina) and the ‘Cara-ites’ (who studied German with Frau Riesener).

The novel doesn’t have a plot as such. The narrative seems intent on using a certain type of language in order to translate to the page Olivia’s feelings towards Mlle. Julie. Through her grandiose prose Strachey articulates the highs and lows of Olivia’s infatuation. Her writing has a flamboyantly poetic quality, one that complements Olivia’s emotions—from her desire to her misery—and her reverence towards Mlle. Julie.
Being an individual who is not only prone to crushes, but one that tends to romanticise said crushes, well, I rather identified with Olivia. It’s a pity that Olivia is Strachey’s only novel.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Some of my favourite quotes:

“Was this stab in my heart, this rapture, really mine or had I merely read about it? For every feeling, every vicissitude of my passion, there would spring into my mind a quotation from the poets.”

“These people seemed to be beset on every side by “temptations”; they lived in continual terror of falling into “sin”. Sin? What was sin? Evidently there loomed in the dark background a mysterious horror from which pure-minded girls must turn away their thoughts, but there were dangers enough near at hand which made it necessary to walk with extreme wariness—pitfalls, which one could hardly avoid without the help of God.”

“Did I understand the play at that first reading? Oh, certainly not. Haven’t I put the gathered experience of years into my recollection of it? No doubt. What is certain is that it gave me my first conception of tragedy, of the terror and complication and pity of human lives. Strange that for an English child that revelation should have come through Racine instead of through Shakespeare. But it did.”

“I went to bed that night in a kind of daze, slept as if I had been drugged and in the morning awoke to a new world—a world of excitement—a world in which everything was fierce and piercing, everything charged with strange emotions, clothed with extraordinary mysteries, and in which I myself seemed to exist only as an inner core of palpitating fire.”

“But there was no need of wine to intoxicate me. Everything in her proximity was intoxicating.”

“The dullest of her girls was stirred into some sort of life in her presence; to the intelligent, she communicated a Promethean fire which warmed and coloured their whole lives. To sit at table at her right hand was an education in itself.”

“No, I have never seen anyone freer from every sort of selfishness, never seen anyone devote herself to others with such manifest gladness. And yet, with all her altruism, one could never think of her as self-sacrificing. She never did sacrifice herself. She had no self to sacrifice. When she gave her time, her thoughts, her energies to bringing up her stepbrothers and stepsisters, it was really a joy to her.”

“I think there was nothing else she wanted. If I too would have liked to serve, I was continually conscious that I was incapable and unworthy, continually devoured by vain humilities. And then there was also in me a curious repugnance, a terror of getting too near.”

“Let me think of those words later, I said to myself, there’s too much in them—too much joy and terror. I must brush them aside for the moment. I must keep them, bury them, like a dog his bone, till I can return to them alone.”

“It was at this time that a change came over me. That delicious sensation of gladness, of lightness, of springing vitality, that consciousness of youth and strength and ardour, that feeling that some divine power had suddenly granted me an undreamt-of felicity and made me free of boundless kingdoms and untold wealth, faded as mysteriously as it had come and was succeeded by a very different state. Now I was all moroseness and gloom—heavy-hearted, leaden-footed.”

“But I wasn’t thinking. I was sometimes dreaming—the foolish dreams of adolescence: of how I should save her life at the cost of my own by some heroic deed, of how she would kiss me on my death-bed, of how I should kneel at hers and what her dying word would be, of how I should become famous by writing poems which no one would know were inspired by her, of how one day she would guess it, and so on and so on.”

“On the very first morning of what was to be my new life, how could I expect to banish entirely those haunting visions—of a shoulder—of a profile?”

“I had been so utterly absorbed by the newness and violence of all my emotions, that it had never occurred to me the present could be anything but eternal.”

“I must feed on beauty and rapture in order to grow strong.”

“I pondered the episodes I have just related. I lived them over again, sometimes with ecstasy, sometimes with anguish.”