Anything But Fine by Tobias Madden

I had quite hopes for Anything But Fine and the first few chapters promised a ya coming-of-age in the realms of The Sky Blues, Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun, and You Should See Me in a Crown. As the story progresses however I found myself growing weary of the unnecessary miscommunication. If you are a fan of Netflix teen comedies/dramas, Anything But Fine will likely be your next favourite read however, if you prefer more nuanced characters and more realistic scenarios/dynamics well, this may not deliver.

Set in Australia Luca Mason, our 16-teen-yr-old narrator has dedicated his life to ballet. His hopes of being accepted into the Australian Ballet School are thwarted after a bad fall results in a broken foot. After his doctors tell him that he is unlikely to ever be able to dance again Luca is more-or-less booted out of his fancy private high school. A lost and confused Luca distances himself from his ballet friends, three girls who do not seem to truly understand the irreversible consequences of his fall. At his new high school, Luca is befriended by Amina, an affectionate, dorky, genius. Luca also falls hard for Jordan Tanaka-Jones, the school’s handsome, popular and allegedly straight jock.
While the novel does rely on insta-love Luca’s crush/obsession with Jordan did strike me as fairly believable. Luca is a horny teenager whose life has recently experienced an unwelcome drastic change so he decides to focus his attention on the seemingly unattainable Jordan. Luca’s dad, who is still grieving the death of his wife, Luca’s mother, tries to reach out to Luca and talk about how his ballet-less life is affecting him but Luca is quick to shut down this conversation. He spends most of his time daydreaming about Jordan and only on occasion allows himself to think about ‘what-ifs’ where he is able to dance again or has never fallen in the first place.

Some positives: the writing was fairly engaging and there were even some well-delivered moments of humor. I appreciated that Luca was portrayed as flawed. He makes mistakes, he is rather self-involved, a bit desperate when it comes to Jordan, and could be a more attentive friend/son. The author also shows that while he is often at the receiving end of homophobic ‘jokes’ and verbal abuse, he has a lot to learn about other people’s experiences. He does grow aware of this and works to improve himself, which was nice to see. Amina, for 70% of the novel, was a very sweet lovable character. Yeah, she had the type of personality that is often given to secondary characters in teen movies, so some of the stuff she does/say is a bit ott but overall it kind of worked (or at least it did until that scene…). She had her own arc, which made her character more rounded.

And the negatives (spoilers ahoy): we are told that Luca’s raison d’etre is ballet and while he does now and on occasion think about I didn’t really buy into this aspect of his character. Look, I get that he would avoid thinking about it too much but surely he would notice how different his everyday life is now. He only comments on this once or twice which isn’t entirely credible. Like, the guy dedicated most of his life to ballet, something that requires a certain amount of devotion. He would have been performing/practising daily and followed a strict diet etc., yet he seemingly adapts to his new life with no problem. Also, while he does one time acknowledge to his father that he is in pain due to his foot, the author seems to gloss over his physical recovery. He has physio but those scenes are all about developing his romance. I just would have liked for ballet (or lack of ballet) to play more of a role in his story. As things stand, we are told he love(d) it but there were few scenes showing this. His former ballet friends are portrayed in a very mean girl way. And sure, there are girls who behave like they do but I did not appreciate that Lucas is dismissive of them from the start. He uses certain terms that were low-key sexist and the story doesn’t challenge any of them. Even the popular girls at his new school receive a similar treatment, and even Jordan and Amina dismiss them and imply that ‘popular’ girls are promiscuous/bitchy/and-other-negative-descriptors-almost-exclusively-used-for-women which seemed a bit out of character if I’m honest. Also, while I am a fan of media that falls under cringe comedy, and I am aware that one’s teen years may be filled with plenty of embarrassing/awkward moments, here there were several scenes that just seemed gratuitous. I am not keen on adult authors going out of their way to embarrass their teenage characters. And here we have a major plot point involving a character doing something very unbelievable and utterly embarrassing themselves and the people around them. Amina has a crush on Jordan and suspects that Lucas is hiding something from her, possibly something that has to do with Jordan. Lucas tells her he has a girlfriend but Amina doesn’t seem to believe him and decides to declare her feelings to Jordan in front of his teammates who have bullied her and Lucas. Why…why would she ever do such a thing? While I am willing to believe that she would confess her feelings to Jordan despite Lucas’ attempts to stop her, I didn’t believe that she would do it publicly and seemingly on the spur of the moment. Her refusal to listen to Lucas’ pleas not to go ahead with her plan also struck me as inconsistent with her characterization so far. Sure, she is shown to be a tad naive and very wholesome, her fangirling over one direction comes across as a tad childlike at times but she is also portrayed as empathetic and in many ways more mature than her peers. I struggled to reconcile her actions at that party with her character. She’s obviously turned down and made fun of by the one-dimensional-jock-goons. Both Jordan and Amina take it out on Lucas, which wasn’t entirely fair. In fact, this whole section strings together scene after scene where Lucas is made out to be an ‘awful’ guy. The boy is not perfect sure but I didn’t think it was fair that he was blamed for so many things and rather than communicating/explaining himself to Amina, Jordan, or his dad, he just chooses not to. After being blamed by Amina and Jordan for making her embarrass herself, he inadvertently outs Jordan to his homophobic teammate. In an attempt to warn Jordan about this he forgets that he and his dad are meant to be celebrating his mother’s birthday (i think it was her birthday). Rather than explaining what was going on, he lets his dad think he is simply ‘boy obsessed’ and too busy to care. The dad also insinuates that Lucas ditched his old ballet friends, and the boy doesn’t think of telling him that said friends mistreated him and were racist to Amina.
Now, onto the romance. Jordan was a slightly one-note character, and I am a bit tired of lgbtq+ YA novels where the lead falls for the popular and ‘totally straight’ person who isn’t ready/or sure they want to come out. But rather than discussing this with our protagonists, they make them feel ashamed of who they are. While Lucas does call Jordan out, he is ultimately made into the bad guy because hey ho he outs him!!! Like…ugh. I am not a fan of that plot point, at all. It would have been more suited to a show like Glee or something. But here it just comes across as totally unnecessary. While I do acknowledge that the author does allow both Jordan and Lucas to have valid opinions on the whole being ‘out’ and dating someone who is not ‘out’, towards the end he seems to just dunk on Lucas. Amina too after that whole confession-gone-wrong thing is angry at Lucas. Surely, the following day or whatnot, once she learns that the two were in a secret relationship, she would understand why Lucas couldn’t tell her? Best friends or not, Jordan told him he wasn’t ready to be out, so Lucas respected that. And Lucas even tries to stop her from making a fool of herself…and she blames him? Argh. The drama and miscommunication really annoyed me.
I would have liked for this book to be less focused on the romance with Jordan and more on Lucas’ character growth. His personality was not particularly well-defined, and I would have liked some moments of introspection where he truly thinks about ballet, what it means to him, etc. His character instead is more or less defined by his crush on Jordan, which ultimately does his storyline a disservice.

I’m sure a lot of readers will love this but I am just not a fan of the latter half of the novel.


my rating:★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au

“Maybe it’s good, I said, to stop sometimes and reflect upon the things that have happened, maybe thinking about sadness can actually end up making you happy.”

Cold Enough for Snow is a slight novella narrated and characterized by a crisp prose. Despite the introspective nature of this work (there are no dialogues and the few conversations that occur are summarized by our narrator), I felt a certain distance from the narrator and her musings had a remoteness to them that I was never quite able to immerse myself into her story. That is not to say that this was not an enjoyable read. It brought to mind authors such as and Rachel Cusk as well as María Gainza (Optic Nerve is a personal favourite of mine). These kinds of books are not plot or necessarily character driven but they present us with a series of observations regarding art, travel, places/spaces, memory, connection, and human nature. Similarly to Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts, the people that our nameless narrator speaks of remain unnamed, and the vagueness surrounding her and others struck me as very much intentional. The narrator, who lives in, you guessed it, an unnamed country, and her mother, who is based in Hong Kong, meet up in Tokyo for a holiday.

“It was strange at once to be so familiar and yet so separated. I wondered how I could feel so at home in a place that was not mine.”

The narrator describes the various landscapes and locales she visits, all the while thinking back to her and her mother’s pasts. We are given brief glimpses into their lives that are often somehow connected to their present journey. This is the kind of novella that is more about creating and sustaining a certain nostalgic mood than of presenting us with a particularly immersive story. While I did appreciate the narrative’s melancholic and reflective atmosphere, I did find my attention wandering away from our protagonist’s contemplations and introspections. Her relationship with her mother often fades into the background, sidelined in favour of eloquent observations that don’t really leave a lasting impression. The title in many ways is rather apt as this novella is in many ways like snow. At first, you are taken in by how beautiful it is but within a couple of hours (or days), well, the snow has melted. That is to say, the beauty of Cold Enough for Snow is of a temporary nature.
Still, if you are a fan of travel journals or the authors I mentioned above you may find this to be your kind of read.

“I had wanted every moment to count for something. I had become addicted to the tearing of my thoughts, that rent in the fabric of the atmosphere. If nothing seemed to be working towards this effect, I grew impatient, bored. Much later, I realised how insufferable this was: the need to make every moment pointed, to read meaning into everything. ”

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A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske

“I am nothing like you, and yet I feel more myself with you.”

Part cute/steamy romance, part historical fantasy romp, A Marvellous Light is a delightful debut novel.

A Marvellous Light is likely one of the best romances to come out in 2021. I really had a blast with this novel! While Freya Marske’s historical setting and the magical system is not quite as detailed & complex as Susanna Clarke’s in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell or Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal series, its setting is vibrantly rendered and the fantasy aspect was a lot of fun and gave me some serious Diana Wynne Jones/Ghibli vibes. The main characters make the novel, and I found them incredibly endearing. The plot itself is fairly conventional, and it is Marske’s engaging style and her compelling protagonists that steal the show.

“You woke me up. You’re incredibly brave. You’re not kind, but you care deeply. And I think you know how much I want you, in whatever way I can have you.”

Set in Edwardian England, A Marvellous Light follows Robin Blyth and Edwin Courcey. Recently orphaned Robin is in his late twenties and despite his newly inherited title, he’s in urgent need of an income. A clerical mishap lands him in the position of ‘Assistant in the office of Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints’, his predecessor, a certain Reginald Gatling having gone suddenly MIA. On his first day on the job, Robin meets Edwin Courcey, who is the special liaison to the Chief Minister of the Magical Assembly. Robin, baffled by the discovery that magic is indeed real, is sure that someone more suitable should be taking his place. While Robin and Edwin are not keen on working together, after a certain altercation with some dubious individuals, the two decide to join forces in their effort to find out what happened to Reginald. Much of the narrative takes place in Edwin’s family home, where we learn more about how magic works and we see the bond between the two men solidify in something resembling a friendship.

The narrative’s scope remains rather narrow, and the story is very much focused on the blossoming romance between Edwin and Robin. The growing sexual tension between them complicates their ‘mission’, as the two men will be forced to confront the magnitude of their feelings for each other.
The dynamic between Edwin and Robin is truly charming. By switching between their perspectives we learn more about their personal histories, their relationship with their family members, and their previous romantic ‘exploits’. Edwin is a brilliant scholar, and he possesses vast magical knowledge. However, he does not possess much magic, and this has made his family treat him with open contempt. His older brother, who has a lot of magic, is a horrid bully, and his sister and parents have always turned a blind eye to his relentless tormenting of Edwin. Because of this Edwin is slow to trust, guarded to the point of rudeness. While Robin was never particularly close to his parents, who were not nearly as charitable and selfless as they liked to pretend, he is far more open and carefree. Of course, after a certain ‘event’, Robin too begins to have a lot on his mind. At Edwin’s family home the two grow closer, and as they attempt to find the truth behind Reginald’s disappearance they find themselves growing attached to one another.

While we don’t learn much about the Magical Assembly or of the history of magic in England (other than a snippet here and there), the author does a fairly decent job when it comes to world-building, avoiding info-dumps and overly complicated explanations. The mystery storyline is perhaps the novel’s weakest element. There is an attempt at a twist villain but I’m afraid that it was fairly obvious that that person was indeed a ‘baddie’. The last 30% is slightly repetitive, and maybe I would have found it more gripping if the villains had been more fleshed out (we also get the uber cliched line: “Come on board, you’ll have the power you’ve always wanted”). Speaking of secondary characters, they are somewhat one-dimensional. I kept confusing the people at Edwin’s house, as they all have ridiculously posh sounding nicknames and behaved in varying degrees of obnoxiousness.
I did however like Miss Morrisey and her sister, I mean: “And we are but feeble women,” said Miss Morrisey. “Woe.” They were a fun addition and I wish they had played a bigger role in the story (hopefully we will see more of them in the sequel!).

The romance between Edwin and Robin is the cherry on the cake. Their chemistry, banter, and flirting make for some thoroughly enjoyable and surprisingly sweet passages. I wasn’t really expecting the story to be quite this smutty and I have to say that the sex scenes did feel a bit overlong. I don’t mind sex scenes but smut…eeh, it does nothing for me. I either find it unintentionally funny or boring. But this is clearly a ‘me thing’ so I’m sure other readers out there will be ahem more appreciative of these scenes.

While the plotline is somewhat predictable (we have those fairly obvious twists, the usual misunderstanding that occurs around the 70% mark in romances) Marske does have a few tricks up her sleeves and she leaves quite a few questions unanswered (hopefully the sequel will resolve some of these).

Overall this was a very entertaining read. It has humour, mystery, plenty of magical hijinks, and a lively Edwardian backdrop. Robin and Edwin are guaranteed to give you ‘the feels’, and I really liked their character arcs. And, last but not least, their romance. While I could have done with fewer sex scenes and more plot, Robin and Edwin’s relationship was great. The author doesn’t rush it, so we have quite a decent amount of longing/yearning….which I have always been a sucker for (especially in historical fiction). I am super excited to read the sequel and I thoroughly recommend this, especially to those who are looking for a sweet-turned-sexy queer romance + the perfect blend of fantasy and historical fiction.

my rating: ★★★½

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House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland

“Dark, dangerous things happened around the Hollow sisters.”

Brimming with beauty and danger House of Hollow is a spellbinding modern fairy tale. Written in a tantalising prose that seems to echo traditional fairy tales House of Hollow presents its readers with a beguiling tale about sisters and monsters.

“We were taken. We came back. None of us knew what happened, and none of us ever would. We were the miracle that parents of all missing children dreamed of. Spat back from the abyss, unharmed and whole.”

When they were children the Hollow sisters went missing. And then, a month later, they came back. Ever since their return, the Hollow sisters have become undeniably strange. Their hair has turned white, their eyes black, they have matching scars on their throats, and they seem to have unquenchable appetites without ever gaining weight. Something about them makes those around them feel intoxicated, as if under a spell.

“Strangeness only bred strangeness, and it felt dangerous to tempt fate, to invite in the darkness that seemed already naturally drawn us.”

At seventeen Iris Hollow desperately craves normalcy. Her older sisters left the nest years before and, unlike Iris, have no interest in playing normal. Grey, the eldest, is a supermodel and fashion designer, while Vivi is leading a sex & roll kind of lifestyle while touring with her band. After months without seeing them the Hollow sisters make plans to meet up….and Grey doesn’t show up. Fearing the worst, Iris and Vivi try to make sense of Grey’s disappearance and soon come across some disconcerting clues. Someone, or something, else is also after Grey, and it is up to Iris and Vivi to untangle the mystery of their sister’s disappearance.

“What you don’t understand,” she said to me once when I told her how dangerous it was, “is that I am the thing in the dark.”

There is so much that I loved about this novel. Sutherland’s prose is lush. Flowery descriptions give way to ones that are almost grotesque in nature. The fairy-talesque rhythm of her prose makes Iris’ story all the more alluring. The atmosphere is in this novel is as exquisite as it is eerie. We also get some exceedingly lavish descriptions about the characters’ appearances, clothes, and environments, which made the story all the more vivid.

I don’t want to reveal too much in terms of plot but things get dark. ‘The Halfway’ reminded me a bit of The Hollow Places while the supernatural elements brought to mind Natalie C. Parker’s Beware The Wild duology and Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tales series.
The magic in House of Hollow is as beautiful as it is dangerous and Sutherland is not afraid to reveal the rot that lies beneath a beautiful veneer.
The relationship between the Hollow sisters is utterly captivating, low-key co-dependent, and one of the novel’s biggest strength. Iris’ voice was compelling and I immediately felt drawn to her. Vivi and Tyler provided some lovely moments of lightness and I loved them from the get-go. Grey was a fascinating if sinister kind of character. The casual queer rep was a welcome surprise and made me fall even more in love with the story. And, I can’t begin to describe how refreshing it was to read a YA novel that isn’t about the romance!

House of Hollow is an enthralling and subversive fairy tale, one that combines a missing person story with a creepy tale about scary places and dangerous girls. Sutherland’s writing is breathtakingly gorgeous, her characters alluring, her storyline entrancing. I am more or less in awe with House of Hollow, so much so that I would love it if Sutherland would grace us with a sequel.

my rating: ★★★★★

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The Survivors by Jane Harper

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars
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The Dark Days Deceit by Alison Goodman

 

 

To say that I am incredibly disappointed by this final instalment would be pretty accurate.
I enjoyed The Dark Days Club and I thought The Dark Days Pact was the perfect sequel. Goodman’s writing painstakingly depicted the Georgian era, its customs and language. Lady Helen, our main character, was both sensible and diplomatic, and she could also kick some serious ass. The slowest burn of them all, her infatuation with Lord Carlston was thrilling. Throw in some demons, action, and a lot of letters, and you get the perfect ‘Fantasy of Manners‘.
Or so I thought…
After reading The Dark Days Deceit I no longer feel fond of this world. This last novel left me with a bitter taste: nearly everything that I loved in previous instalments…I now sort of hate.

Positives:
Goodman’s writing is still par excellence. She makes the setting come life. Each scene that takes place is described with extreme detail, and the elegant prose resonates with the historical period itself. While there are plenty of dramatic and serious occasion, the style often comes across as satirical, poking fun at traditions and beliefs of that era.

Negatives
Where do I start?
It might be because the previous instalment came out nearly two years ago but it took me quite some time to readjust to this world. There are plenty of characters or things that have happened that I could not remember. The terms used to refer to the ‘supernatural’ elements were easier to remember but I was not a fan of the whole ‘Grand Reclaimer’ bond between Helen and Carlston. All of a sudden they seem able to share telepathic conversions?! And other people sort of notice?! Are they just obviously staring at one another? Subtle. Why even bother with the silent conversations.
Helen acted in such an irritating manner. The whole marriage plot was pointless and a real drag. Why save the world when you need to prepare your wedding? The world can wait. Worst still is that she was such a horrible friend. Carlston ‘s jealousy and short-temper made him just as likeable as Helen. Helen’s friends and the other members of the Dark Days Club seem to fade in the background, only to be (view spoiler)[ killed off (hide spoiler)] to make Helen feel as if ‘she had failed them all’.
The worst thing however is the ‘twist’ which made the whole plot ridiculous.


MY RATING: 2.5 of 5 stars


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Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings — book review

46184288._SY475_While Kathleen Jennings is an undeniably wonderful illustrator, I’m afraid that I wasn’t particularly impressed by her novella. What first struck me as somewhat discordant in Flyaway was the prose itself. At times the writing was clunky and there were passages that seemed as if they were trying to echo someone else’s style. The way Flyaway started was also incredibly reminiscent of my favourite novel by Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle. While in Jackson’s novel the ambiguity felt almost ‘natural’, Flyway seems to be blaring its own mysteriousness. Our narrator, Bettina (I had to check her name, that’s how ‘unforgettable’ she is) has this excessively creepy monologue which consists in her repeating to herself her mother’s ladylike beliefs/rules. Bettina cannot remember why her father disappeared. She isn’t concerned by her hazy memories until she receives a letter that for plot reasons convinces her to embark on a road-trip with her former best friends. Quite a few people have disappeared in their small town, and these three decide to figure out what’s going on. Interspersed in this already short story are chapters about minor characters who are connected to the town and its mystery.
The characters were mere names and lacked personality. Bettina’s narration isn’t nearly as ambivalent as it believes, the various stories were both boring and predictable, and I simply could not get into the flow of Jennings dissonant writing style.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales — book review

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“It was late afternoon, on the very last Wednesday of August, when I realized Disney had been lying to me for quite some time about Happily Ever Afters.”

Only Mostly Devastated tells a cute but extremely formulaic story that is as memorable as a teen coming-of-age movie (possibly of Netflix variety). I really wanted to enjoy this but I found the story to be unimaginative, the plot is uneventful and, with the exception of Ollie and Will, every single character struck me as being little more than a stand-in for a certain issue.

Positives
✓ Sophie Gonzales’ simple writing style effectively conveys Ollie’s various thoughts and experiences. Rather than loosing herself in a purply metaphors Gonzales has opted for a more direct and plain prose and this first-person narrative is perhaps the most accomplished aspect of Only Mostly Devastated. Ollie hooks readers in, right from his opening lines, and keeps us entertained and engaged throughout the majority of the novel.

“Thankfully, Mom and Dad raised me to aim low, to encourage a healthy contentment in hitting par.”

Ollie’s is an amusing narrator. He is fairly awkward, very sweet, and has a lovely sense of humour. He shows self-awareness and self-respect (two things that are often MIA in a YA main character). While he does use acronyms (I had to google D and M) and makes plenty of references to popular culture, these were well incorporated into the narrative (they didn’t come across as just random insertions). If anything they made him into a believable teenager.

“A week later, and I was still getting lost more often than the girl in the Labyrinth movie, except I didn’t even have David Bowie in tights as a reward for my efforts.”

✓ The Grease-inspired story had potential. This ‘Will isn’t the same after the summer’ scenario created a good amount of tension and angst. Ollie is confused and hurt by Will’s change of character (from a sweet and sensitive boy into an obnoxious class clown who doesn’t want to be seen with Ollie).
The relationship between Ollie and Will was well developed. While Ollie doesn’t excuse Will’s behaviour (“I’m a dick because I’ve always been a dick around my friends wasn’t really an excuse.”) he doesn’t pressure him to make their summer romance public knowledge. Ollie, quite rightfully, finds it intolerable to be someone’s ‘dirty secret’, yet he also understands the difficult position Will is in (“No one deserves to be outed against their will.”). In spite of their disagreements and different attitudes, readers can see just how much they care for each other. They share many tender moments and I thought that their ups-and-downs were very realistic.

Negatives
✗ The storyline starts well enough but soon fell into a predictable path. We have a certain number of subplots following Ollie’s friends and his aunt which were so thinly rendered as to have little impact on the overall story.
Ollie’s friends and his aunt seemed to exist only so that the novel could address certain hot topics. Sadly these characters were reduced to the issues they were contending with. Take Ollie’s new friends: they just happen to be the three people he gets to know on the first day. One is there so the novel can include a hurried, and extremely superficial, discussion on body positivity. She has few lines and they mostly have to do with her appearance/body/diets+exercise regime…her personality was mostly non-existent. She was defined by this subject matter. Another one of his new friends (the girl who decides to nickname our protagonist Ollie-oop on the very first day…who does that?! Someone from Riverdale?) exists so the story can include an ‘its okay to fail/keep trying’ message. And then we have the girl who had the potential to have a more defined personality (not a good one but still) ended up being portrayed as a rather clichéd bully-with-a-heart. These three girls were poorly developed and rather unbelievable. Ollie’s aunt (and her illness) seem to have been included only as an inciting plot-device…which isn’t great as it is a cheap way to try to make your readers feel sorry or sympathise with Ollie (he didn’t need this extra dose of sad).
Ollie’s parents are so unimportant and ‘unwritten’ as to be closer to two nebulous entities than to two human individuals. In her first appearance Ollie’s mother tells him that they will be moving to a new state and he can’t complain because she has a lot on her plate. Which…yeah. After that she has a few lines about ‘energy’ and such. Ollie’s father makes his first appearance around the 40% mark and tells him off because he is stressed. After that I’m not sure he does or says anything of notice. They were like the adults in Tom and Jerry..cut off from Ollie’s story, barely in the picture.
✗ Ollie’s ‘old’ friends disappear after one video call…clearly they had a very meaningful relationship with Ollie.
✗ Will’s two ‘dude friends’ were as poorly developed as the rest…
✗ That ending was way too cheesy (even by rom-com standards).

Teens who haven’t read a lot of YA might find more enjoyable than I did…but readers who aren’t keen on plots that rehash tired elements from high-school dramas might be better off skipping this one.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Dolores by Lauren Aimee Curtis – book review

I guess that I’m but a fickle creature: I saw and fell for the cover of this novella (the neon colours, the pose of the model, the simple font…I was a goner).
Sadly the actual inside of Dolores has little in common with its fantastic cover design.

Written in a prose that manages to be both sickly and apathetic, this novella isn’t all that concerned on mapping out Dolores’ psyche and turmoils (yes, its title is rather misleading), rather it devotes itself to create a gallery of intentionally repulsive bodies.
Curtis’ writing style had this sticky quality that can at times have an almost nauseating effect on the reader. Rather than using this aspect of her prose to create atmosphere or render the novella’s setting (which actually takes place in part in an unmade country, and later on in what should be Spain…but could be any place in particular) it often goes to emphasise our discomfort towards the various characters populating this story.
These characters are often introduced to us in terms of their physical flaws: we have Dolores who is possibly ‘big’ or ‘voluptuous’ (other characters praise or ridicule her for her ‘largeness’ but we never get a description of her actual body), the nuns have all crooked teeth or misshapen jaws/faces. They are made to be repulsive, to inspire a sense of abjection in us. These characters’ are defined by their ‘repugnant‘ bodies, they do not seem to possess actual personalities or a sense of self, but rather they are little more empty shells made to disgust us.
This obsession with ‘the body‘ and its functions was tedious. Curtis seemed to go out of her way to stress the ugliness of her characters. The nuns shower once a week, and apparently that makes them filthy. Given that they do little work outside, and they are covered head to toes, isn’t an exaggeration to make it seem as if washing once a week would have them in such a state?
There were many instances when Curtis’ descriptions seemed gratuitous , especially since the narrative seemed to almost gleefully revel in detailing the inadequacies of the human body. And to dedicated a whole novel to the fallacies of our bodies is a bit much.

Dolores doesn’t have a voice. She does some things, but we never know what impels her to do what she does. What did she actually think of those Love Hotels? Was she having sex because she enjoyed it or did she feel pressured to became sexually active? What did she think of her pregnancy? I have no idea!
That this novella doesn’t bother to develop its central character is somewhat frustrating. Dolores seemed reduced to her ‘large’ body, as if that vague description equated a personality.
The majority of male characters want to use, and possibly abuse, Dolores…and sadly I have no idea of the way in which that affected her. Did she even realise that she was being manipulated? Or was she the one exercising some form of control over them during their encounters? This detachedness is never clearly explored, rather we are made to be content with a character who is as responsive as a rag doll.
Additionally, he novella fails to explore the possibility of there being a language/cultural divide between Dolores and the nuns. The setting of the story is completely murky, so much so that throughout the narrative there was no sense of place or time.
There is no heart in this story nor in its characters. The narrative is so concerned with making its characters as repelling as possible that it completely forgets to endow them with even a speck of personality.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

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Good Girl, Bad Girl by Michael Robotham — book review

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This was an unexpectedly silly thriller.
While the story’s premise was compelling enough, the characters and various plot-lines are tawdry rehashes of other novels in this genre…

The plot seems to focus on uninteresting encounters and two unrelated ‘mysteries’, one around Evie Cormac’s identity and past, and the other one is the case forensic psychologist Cyrus Haven is working on. Cyrus ends up fostering Evie and the two have a hard time adapting to their new circumstances. Evie has the ability to detect from someone’s face wherever that person is lying or not. Deeply alienated from her society, she seems both unable and unwilling to act in accordance to social norms. Yet, behind her unbrazen front, Evie is deeply insecure and prone to self-loathing. Sadly, her character was often reduced to a silly caricature of the ‘broken’ girl.
Cyrus is a less compelling protagonist. His voice often sounded far too similar to Evie’s…which wasn’t ideal given that the two have radically different upbringings…he is as interesting as a piece of sidewalk…in other words, not at all. His role in the investigation isn’t very clear cut and it is extremely unlikely that they would let him foster Evie…(conflict of interest anyone?)
Anyhow, the story isn’t all that interested in creating a layered or realistic murder investigation but rather it focuses on how ‘different‘ Evie is. At times it seemed that she was either being sexualized unnecessarily or with the intent of making her appear ‘edgy. She said a lot of stock angsty-teen phrases…she wasn’t likeable nor believable. Her involvement in Cyrus’ case is due to a series of extremely unlikely coincidences which came across as lazy shortcuts to have her help him out.
With the exception of Cyrus all the men in this novel were lacking in intelligence, completely misogynistic, and with no self-control, either shouting or grumbling poorly articulated comments at our two MCs or making sleazy passes at Evie. The women were either ‘promiscuous’, ‘aggressive’, or ‘wet blankets’….
Overall, I found this novel to be a bit of a cheap read…the writing was flat, the characters were stereotypes, and the plot never truly seemed to pick up speed.

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2.5 stars

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