The World Cannot Give by Tara Isabella Burton

this is my fault. i should know by now that titles claiming to have dark academia or sapphic vibes should be approached with extreme caution.

DISCLAIMER: I did not like this book and my review reflects of that. I will be brutally honest about my thoughts on this novel so if you want to read this or if this book happens to be on your ‘radar’ I recommend you check out more positive reviews. If you loved this book, I am happy for you but please don’t tell me I’m wrong for disagreeing with you.


Affected and self-important The World Cannot Give makes for a singularly insipid read. Its biggest ‘sin’ is that it tries to be the dark academia equivalent of Not Like Other Girls. For all its attempts at being ‘not like’ other dark academia books, The World Cannot Give was one of the most generic books I’ve read in a very long time. From its poorly rendered setting to its wafer-thin characters, The World Cannot Give reads like a been-there-done-that boarding school novel. This is the kind of novel that thinks it is a lot smarter than it is (in reality it is as intellectually deep as a puddle, of the shallow variety). For all its attempts at intertextuality and self-awareness (we have few throwaway lines on the dangers of romanticizing elitist institutions and idealizing the past and historical figures), it has nothing substantial or new to say. The author’s writing style and the tone of her narrative brought to mind two novels that I am not fond of, The Silent Patient and An Anonymous Girl. If you liked them chances are you will have a more positive reading experience with The World Cannot Give than I was.
If you like cheesy shows such as Riverdale or self-dramatizing books such as Plain Bad Heroines ,Belladonna, A Lesson in Vengeance, Vicious Little Darlings, Good Girls Lie (where characters are prone to angsty theatricals) you may be able to actually enjoy The World Cannot Give.
As I warned above, this review is going to be harsh so if you aren’t keen on reading negative reviews you should really give this review a miss.

minor spoilers below

STORY/PLOT
Contrary to what the blurb says, The World Cannot Give is no ‘The Girls meets Fight Club’. Nor is it a satisfying ‘coming-of-age novel about queer desire, religious zealotry, and the hunger for transcendence. And the only ‘shocking’ thing about it is that it is shockingly bad. On the lines of, how was this even published?
The first page is misleadingly promising. I liked the opening line and that whole first paragraph. Alas, with each new page, my high hopes dwindled.
Laura is on her way to St. Dunstan’s Academy in Maine. She’s ecstatic about attending this school because she hero-worships Sebastian Webster who used to go there in the 1930s. Angsty Webster wrote this book about the “sclerotic modern world” and the “shipwreck of the soul” and goes on and on about wanting to be “World-Historical”. Webster died at 19 fighting for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Anyway, our sensitive Laura is enthralled by his writings and his fake-deep ideas so of course, she wants to study where he did. She gets to St. Dunstan goes to her room and meets two girls who from this scene onwards will not change. That is, this one scene establishes their one-note characters. There is Freddy who is a tertiary sort of character who just glares, snorts, scowls, and grimaces because that’s the kind of mean-ish one-dimensional sidekick she is. Then there is Bonnie who is all about her followers and using her boarding school as a prop for her dark academia inspired videos & photos. Laura eventually goes to the school’s chapel (Webster is buried there and there is a statue in his honour in that area) and she hears the choir. Her spirit is so moved by what she experiences at the chapel that she feels lifted to a higher plane of existence or something. But wait, the choir is rudely interrupted by a girl with a shaved head who is a queer feminist who is just like so done with the institution and wants to abolish mandatory church attendance. Laura, our innocent, is shooketh by her actions and somehow, despite her wishy-washy personality, ingratiates herself with the choir president, Virginia. We learn virtually nothing more about the school, nor do we get any real insight into how Laura’s classes are going, what she’s studying, her teachers, their methods…Laura joins the choir and what follows is a lot of scenes that are just filler leading up to the real ‘conflict’. The choir, this ‘clique’, did not make for interesting people, consequently, I was bored by the limited banter that didn’t reveal anything significant about them or their surroundings. Laura is Virginia’s lapdog, so she starts emulating whatever Virginia does (comparing herself to other literary sidekicks), Virginia spends her time ranting about the ‘sclerotic world’, her aversion towards matters of the flesh, and bemoaning the ye olden days and is mad that she has to be in the proximity of so many sinners. She also doesn’t want Brad, who is also in the choir, and Bonnie to be together. Brad is loyal to Virginia so he is conflicted. Bonnie is in love with Brad for reasons. And why the hell not at this point. The only ones in the choir who came across as devoted to Webster, his ‘insights’ into the ills of the modern world, were Laura and Virginia. But they just have the same conversations about this guy. They don’t expand on his views, they merely reiterate the term ‘World-Historical’ and his other catchphrases. Anyway, time goes by and eventually things come to head when Bonnie decides to encroach on Virginia’s territory (the chapel) as retaliation for her interfering in her love life (instead of taking issue with Brad…ugh). Isobel, the queer feminist, comes into play but her presence is very much kept off-page. Virginia becomes increasingly fanatical and decides to go all Old Testament God on the people who have betrayed her or revealed that they are not ‘virtuous’ (quelle surprise…).

TONE/WRITING
You see the cover, you read the blurb, you come across someone comparing this to Donna Tartt (comparing book such as this to the secret history should be made into a punishable offence…ahem, i’m jesting of course), you think, this is going to be DEEP and possibly even intellectual and emotionally stimulating. You are, of course, dead wrong. This book reads like a spoof. But not a fully committed one. It actually reminded me of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. There the narrative makes fun of the heroine for wanting to be in a Gothic novel and seeing the world through Gothic-tinted lenses and overdramatising everything. This is exactly it. Except, it also takes itself seriously…kind of? The writing and tone try to mirror the way Laura sees the world. She yearns for Webster and, like Virginia, finds the present-day intolerable. So the writing uses this exaggerated and self-dramatizing language reminiscent of historical novels. Some of these are actually decent. But then we get a lot of short sentences and exclamations marks. This kind of style can work. For instance, in Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia, which actually happens to be a far superior boarding-school book exploring queer desire. The language there is very high-flown but it worked because Strachey could write some truly beautiful and playful passages.
Here the writing verges on the ridiculous and more often than not it comes across as just plain bad. We had clumsy, inharmonious, and even cheesy sentences: “Barry Ng blushes at this. Virginia glares at him. Brad sighs a long and heavy sigh.”; “She looks from Brad to Bonnie and back again. Brad sighs a long and exhausted sigh.”; “Shame floods Laura’s face; she curdles it into fury.” (lol); ““One choir. One family.” Her smile twitches.” (twitching smiles? what is this? fanfic i wrote at 15?); “Her smile glints.” (ugh); “Virginia didn’t know. Virginia couldn’t have known. Virginia would never. Virginia always would. Of course, of course, Virginia would.”; “Isobel is wrong, Laura tells herself. Isobel has to be wrong. Isobel’s just jealous; Isobel has no sense of transcendence;”. And these are just a few examples…the writing & tone did nothing for me. Very few writers can make third person present tense work and Burton isn’t one of them I’m afraid…
I struggled to take it seriously and even if it was intentionally trying to be satirical, well, even then I would have found it ridiculous.

THEMES/ ‘IDEOLOGY’
Like I said above this book tries to be different from other boarding schools/dark academia books by referencing the rise in popularity that dark academia aesthetics & media have had in the last few years…but that doesn’t result automatically in a thought-provoking commentary on the dangers of romanticism elitist institutions such as universities and or private schools. One of the two only poc characters in the story has a few lines that highlight how institutions like St. Duncan are built on inequality and that we should be more critical about those Old White Men who likely committed Bad Things and should not be therefore uncritically revered. Yeah fair enough. But that’s it. Laura and Virginia spend the whole bloody book going on about the ‘sclerotic modern world’ and are contemptuous of anyone who isn’t in awe of Webster. They believe in God..sort of? For all their talk about sins and transcendence, I was not at all convinced that they even had a strong relationship to their faith. Virginia wants to be baptized, but her decision to do so is made sus because she’s portrayed as sort of unhinged so she truly isn’t ‘genuine’. Laura instead is more mellow about her faith so I don’t understand why she would Virginia’s fanatical rants to be of any appeal. You do you babe and all that but come on…Virginia wasn’t even a charismatic orator. Their ideology actually brought to mind the kids from The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. Like those lil creeps, Virginia and Laura find the modern world to be disgusting. They particularly don’t get why people are obsessed with sex. They merely want to transcend their bodies and reach a higher, more enlightened plane of existence. I think the author was trying to do her own version of “Beauty is terror” but yikes. It just came across as stagy. Additionally, I found it annoying that characters who could have been on the aroace spectrum are actually just ‘repressed’.
Anyway, this book had nothing interesting to say about faith, romanticizing the past, or the dangers of idealizing the ones you care for.
The story towards the end takes a weird route in that it becomes all about how boys/men exploit women and betray their trusts by sharing explicit photos and videos of their gf or sex partners with their male friends and this plotline worsened the already existing disconnect between the tone and the content of the book.

CHARACTERS/RELATIONSHIPS
I understand that people are incongruent but these characters did not make bloody sense. They were extremely one-note and then for plot-reasons they would do something really random. Laura is boring and annoying. I can cope with characters who are obsessed with a friend or who are introverted or even naive. But Laura was just embarrassing. Her devotion to Virginia lacked substance. Their dynamic was uneventful. Bonnie was depicted in a purposely grating way and grated my nerves. Isobel was gay and a feminist and stands against the bullshit Virginia and Laura believe in. That’s it. The boys are either milquetoast assholes who don’t see the problem in sharing nudes or doing whatever Virginia says because why not. There is this one guy in the choir who exists just to say ‘that’s cringe’ or ‘that’s completely cringe’.
Virginia was the worst offender. She had no redeeming qualities but we were meant to feel some degree of sympathy towards her. Come on. She wasn’t a convincing or compelling character. I didn’t find her an intriguing or cryptic mystery. She was nasty and I didn’t like that everything she does or says is basically chalked up to her being a total religious zealot. All of her reactions are so extreme as to make her into a caricature more than a person. I didn’t like the way her eating disorder was portrayed as it
The obsession and desire promised by the blurb were just not really there. I mean, yeah, the girl was obsessed but there was something perfunctory about it. The sapphic yearning I was hoping to find in these pages was largely absent. There is a f/f couple, but they had barely any scenes and they had 0 chemistry whatsoever. They came across as friends or sisters even. Then we are meant to believe that someone like Isobel would fall for Virginia because they shared a past? Surely Isobel, who is supposedly clever, would be a bit sus about Virginia’s sudden change of heart. Also, shouldn’t Virginia’s decline in her physical and mental health be a red flag of sorts? Shouldn’t Isobel have shown more concern over Virginia’s state of mind?

SETTING
0 sense of place. There are barely any descriptions of the school and very few passages detailing the nearby landscapes. The novel takes place nowadays I guess but there were barely any contemporary references. This could have worked if then we didn’t have a plotline involving Bonnie’s online following, sexting, or even certain terms (such as cringe) being used. It just took me out of the story as the majority of the narrative and dialogues were trying to conjure an ‘old’ timeless vibe. I think if the novel had had a historical setting it would have actually worked in its favour. Its modern social commentary after all is very half-arsed and had a vague tokenistic vibe to it (isobel existing just to oppose the establishment etc.).

I’m going to recommend a few books that in my opinion do what this book tries to do a lot better: Frost in May (coming of age, all-girl school, Catholicism), Abigail (coming of age, WWII Hungary, all-girl school, fraught friendships), Old School (all-boys schools, jealousy, ambition, privilege, self-knowledge), Sweet Days of Discipline (queer desire, obsession, order vs. chaos, all-girl school), The Inseparables (all-girl school, obsession, queer desire, Catholicism),These Violent Delights (college, obsession, toxic relationships, queer desire), Olivia (all-girl school, France 1890s, unrequited love, queer desire), A Great and Terrible Beauty (fantasy, fraught friendships, all-girl schools, f/f side), Passing (jealousy, race, queer repressed desire), Ninth House (dark academia, Yale, urban fantasy, tackles privilege, corruption, misogyny), The Wicker King (dark academia vibes, queer desire, obsession, toxic relationships).

Maybe if this novel had gone truly committed to being a parody, and upped the camp factor, maybe then I would have found it a little bit amusing. But it didn’t so nope, this novel did not work for me at all. The story was stupid, the characters were either bland or neurotic (in a really exaggerated, possibly problematic, way), the themes were poorly developed and relied on the usage of a few certain key terms (without delving into what this term truly means), the sapphic element was largely absent…you get the gist by now. I actually wish I’d dnfed but I hoped that it would improve along the way. When will I learn the lesson? A beautiful cover doth not make for a good book.

my rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey

Cheesy, boring, poorly executed. While there is indeed a murder and the identity behind the culprit is, supposedly, a ‘mystery’, The Widows of Malabar Hill struck me as something in the realms of a third-rate period drama. The first part of the novel introduces us to Perveen Mistry, our protagonist, and works to establish the setting, which is 1920s Bombay. While the author succeeds in depicting the realities of colonialism, of being female in India at this time in history, and in providing her readers with some degree of insight into Zoroastrian and Muslim traditions, the setting wasn’t particularly vivid. There are some info-dumpings now and again which read like something straight out of a textbook (aimed at younger audiences due to the dumbing down of certain facts). Anyway, Perveen’s family is Zoroastrian and has begun working at her father’s law firm. Being the only, or one of the first, female lawyers in India comes with many challenges but thanks to her father’s endless belief in her capabilities and her law degree from Oxford Perveen feels ready for what’s in store. She becomes involved with the will of Mr. Omar Farid, a well-off Muslim man who had three wives. As these recently widowed women reside in a purdah, a secluded and strictly, children aside, strictly female space, Perveen is the ideal go-between. Perveen is worried that they are being taken advantage of as they seemed to have signed over their inheritance. We also read of Perveen’s British friend Alice who has returned to India after spending time abroad.
The flat if occasionally ridiculous writing (at one point Perveen is telling someone not to touch her briefcase and instead of having her ‘shout’, to indicate her panic, this happens: “It’s mine!” she bleated. what is she? a goat?!) was bearable but the slow-moving plot was a chore to get through. When the murder finally happens we get a flashback related to Perveen’s past lasting 50+ pages or so that bares little revelance to what had so far happened. The author paints a sloppy picture of an abusive marriage which seemed very much soap opera material. The abusive husband is one of the most one-dimensional characters that I’ve come across in a while, and that’s saying something.

Perveen is portrayed as Not Like Other Girls because she’s smart and interested in the law. The murder mystery is a mere blip in this melodrama-driven narrative. We don’t even get to spend that much time with the widows and their characters suffer because of it. The last scene was pure cheese (“To the power of women!” Alice toasted. “To the power of women” Perveen answered as their glasses clinked.).
I was hoping that this would be something in the realms of Agatha Christie or Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries but this book was anything but. It was more focused on Perveen’s married life and it wasted a lot of page-time in rehashing how it started and how it ended. As I found the author’s general delivery to be dry I had a hard time caring about anything that was happening or that was being recounted. Perveen grated on my nerves as she acted without thinking and did not strike me as particularly clever or caring. Alice’s personality was being English and gay. Perveen’s mother plays barely a role in the story, her father is largely overlooked, and her uni friends we briefly meet in that first flashback, well, they were mere background figures.
If you are interested in reading this I recommend you check out more positive reviews. I, for one, will be giving its sequels a large berth.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry

Perhaps I should not have requested an arc for People We Meet on Vacation as I was one of the few people who last was not particularly enamoured by Beach Read (i know, i know, the audacity). I actually ended up enjoying this more as I found it to be both funnier and a lot less angsty than Beach Read. Was People We Meet on Vacation particularly original? No.
Memorable? N o p e.
It was cute, silly, a tad cheesy, and a bit too clichèd for my taste (i get it, the romcom is a genre that thrives on tropes but there are limits: opposites attract, will they won’t they, female leads falls and has to be carried by the male lead, one of them is sick so the other has to play ‘nurse’, the list goes on).

The story is narrated by Poppy (who i could not help but compare to another romcom poppy) who is the classic relatable 30ish female lead: she is short, bubbly, quirky, doesn’t like sports. Poppy’s bbf is Alex, who is very much her polar opposite. He is more of a quiet composed kind of guy. They met at university and ever since then they spend their summer holidays together, travelling around America and even venturing abroad. Things change after their trip Croatia (i wonder what could have possibly happened…) and they are no longer in touch.
Two years after their fallout Poppy finds herself reaching out to him. Although she has her dream job, which allows her to do what she loves most (travel), an apartment in New York, and friends, she has become listless. After they reconnect Poppy and Alex go on another vacation together. Poppy wants their old friendship back even if her feelings towards Alex may be less than platonic. Interspersed throughout the ‘now’ are chapter recounting their previous holidays together.

Alex and Poppy’s banter was funny, and most of the narrative focuses on their bond. Their conversations and clowning around often emphasised their ‘opposing’ personalities. Poppy is loud and quirky, Alex is a bit of an old man. Ahah ensues.
The places they visit are mere backdrops to their banter, and in many ways, they embody the worst type of tourist (their idea of a vacation = my idea of hell). They also have 0 tolerance for heat and don’t tend to focus on the sceneries and cultures they are in (the only thing i remember from their trip to italy is that they eat parmiggiano). On these vacations, they come across funny, eccentric, downright odd people whose function is that of comedic relief.

I might have enjoyed this more if Poppy and Alex had been a bit more interesting. Poppy was just the quintessential romcom female lead and I while she did make me laugh now and then I can’t say that I particularly liked her. And I am tired of these stories where the male lead always has to have abs while the female lead is curvy or normal (the other woman instead is ‘fit’). Why can’ the male lead have an ‘average body? Why can’t the female lead be really into running or weightlifting?

Anyway, I did like their dynamic and inside jokes. I also appreciated that the male lead wasn’t the classic ‘i am no good for you’ type and we also get some lgbtq+ side characters.
The vacations do get repetitive, and I could have probably done without reading all of them (focusing instead of the ‘now). Poppy keeps referring to Croatia without actually saying what has happened but we all already can guess what ‘went down’ so why drag it on so long? It added no suspense whatsoever, if anything it detracted from the story. Towards the end, I found myself a bit unconvinced by the story’s so called conflict.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad read and I am sure that it will appeal to diehard romcom fans. I for one found this a relatively entertaining read even if I found some of the lingo (anything poppy’s friend rachel says) to be incredibly grating (i have nothing against americans but when i hear ‘wine dates’ i cannot help but to cringe).

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Split by Laura Kay

minor spoilers below

To be honest, The Split was a wee bit disappointing. Not only did the MC got on my nerves big time but most of the characters came across as very one-dimensional and the narrative’s attempts at humor were puerile. On the plus side: a sapphic rom-com in which the main tension does not originate from our MC or her love interest’s queerness. While the author does acknowledge the realities of growing up gay the story is not about queer suffering. Which, dare I say, was refreshing?
Sadly, the author’s characters leave a lot to be desired, characterization-wise. Our narrator is twenty-nine-year-old Ally who after quitting her teaching job has been in a bit of a slump. When her longtime girlfriend breaks up with her Ally leaves London, taking her now ex’s cat Malcolm with her, and seeks refuge in her hometown of Sheffield. Her dad, also a teacher, is incredibly understanding and supportive of Ally but also encourages her not to spend her days’ longing for her old life and ex. She reconnects with a childhood friend, Jeremy, who is also recovering from a breakup. It is Jeremy who ‘ropes’ Ally into taking part in a half marathon partly in the hopes of getting back to her exes partly in hopes of winning them back. Ally sends many emails to her ex, and their exchanges were painful. Ally offers idealized visions of their shared history while her ex sends emails that came off as entirely unconvincing, voice wise at least. I just didn’t buy into her. Kay tries to make her seem kind of mean and logical, but, for the most part, her emails were the equivalent of an actor flatly reading some not-so-great lines (she also delivers the really clichèd line: “you were in love with an idea of me”).
The story follows the usual romcom formula, which I wouldn’t have minded (after all I am a fan of some of Kinsella’s books), but, jaysus, Ally was unbearable. Okay, her moping and being pathetic about her ex is ‘understandable’. But, I am so tired of female protagonists who are the embodiment of the Not Like Other Girls™. Other women in this book care about clothes, the way they look, their diets, but Ally hates vegetables, loves donuts, wears old knickers, is sometimes a slob, etc etc. The author’s relentless attempts at making Ally into a relatable character end up making her into yet another Not Like Other Girls™ girl. Her ex and her new gf are vegans, they fake-care about the planet, they exercise. Ally likes take-outs and brownies and vies running as torture. Ally’s attempts to force her ex to travel to Sheffield were…cringy? Creepy? The worst thing about this book is the way Ally treats Jo. Jo doesn’t have a personality other than being younger than Ally, into running, and beautiful. Ally is immediately attracted to her and their relationship might have developed into a cute romance but no, I guess we can’t have that, Ally decides to use Jo to make her ex jealous. She crosses many lines and by the end, the narrative excuses her behavior by saying “oh well, good people make mistakes”. Except that Ally is not good. Yet, the narrative casts her ex into the role of villain, painting Ally as merely ‘misguided’ as opposed to manipulative and exploitative.
If you were able to enjoy this, I’m happy for you. The above review is expressing my personal thoughts towards this book and I am afraid that these were less than favorable.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★½

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The Rebellious Tide by Eddy Boudel Tan

This is one of those rare cases where I genuinely feel bad for not liking a book. The more I read The Rebellious Tide, the less I liked it. Yet, I really tried to pretend otherwise. Having loved Eddy Boudel Tan’s debut novel (it moved me to tears, something that does not happen often to grinches like moi) I had high expectations for his sophomore novel and I can’t help but be disappointment by it. If you are thinking of reading this novel I recommend you check out some positive reviews out as this review won’t be particularly ‘rosy’.

The Rebellious Tide follows Sebastien, a young man who is grieving the death of his mother. He resents his hometown as he believes that the townspeople have always treated him and his mother like outsiders (his mother was originally from Singapore). We learn of his on-off again relationship with Sophie and of his hatred towards his father, a Greek man who allegedly abandoned his mother when she was pregnant with Sebastien. So, naturally, Sebastien decides to take revenge on his father. Lucky for him, he manages to get himself hired as a photographer on a luxury cruise ship monstrosity (as a former Venetian I abhor cruises) which happens to captained by his father. He makes fast friends with two other members of staff and decides to make inquiries about his father, wanting to learn what kind of person he is. Soon Sebastien realises how rigid the hierarchy among staff members is, and his resentment towards his father makes him start a ‘rebellion’.
There were elements of the story that I liked, such as the cruise as microcosm of society. The ‘confined’ setting augmented the already brewing tension between the ship’s crew and the staff (who are deemed ‘inferior’ or ‘expandable’). But…I just could not believe in any of it. I couldn’t suspend my sense of disbelief, and I never bought into any of it. The characters were painfully one-dimensional, the female ones especially, and yet the storyline tried for this serious tone which…I don’t know, it just didn’t work for me. As I said, I wanted to like this so bad but the more I read the less I liked what I was reading. The story is very on the nose. The ‘Greek myth’ connection was jarring and out-of-place. While I could have bought the whole ‘lower decks=Hades’, ‘passageway in the lower decks=Styx’, okay…we get it, lots of Greeks work on this ship. But the whole thing between Sebastien and his supposed ‘love interest’ where they call each other Achilles and Patroclus? Come on! The two men barely know each other, their relationship struck me (and yes, this is once again my personal opinion) as just sexual. And there is nothing wrong with that! But why present it as a tragic love story? Bah!
The characters did not sound like real people, the dialogues were clunky, and the writing…I don’t know, I guess I preferred the author’s prose in After Elliot because it was in the 1st person (making the whole thing much more ‘intimate’) whereas here we have a perspective that is all over the place and yet it doesn’t really delve beyond a character’s surface level.
And the whole storyline is so damn cheesy and gave me some strong soap opera vibes. Convenient coincidences and clichés abound! And don’t get me started on Sebastien’s father (and that done to death line, “you remind me of myself when I was your age”).

As I said (or wrote) I do hate myself a little bit for not liking this novel. While I am of the opinion that this novel is in desperate need of an overhaul, I hope that it will find its audience and that readers will connect to Sebastien in a way that I was not able to.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★½ stars

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Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall — book review

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

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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Date Me, Bryson Keller by Kevin van Whye — book review

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“But what does normal even mean? Who decided that? And why are gay teens still forced to keep secrets and live double lives?”

It seems I’m not an Ice Queen after all…this book melted my heart.
Date Me, Bryson Keller is an incredibly sweet and thoughtful YA romance that can be easily read in one sitting. Before I move onto my actual review however I wanted to address some of the bad rep this book has been getting. Some reviewers (who haven’t even read it) are insinuating that this book is a rip off of Seven Days a BL manga. The two works do share the same premise and Kevin van Whye acknowledges this in his author’s note. In fact he says that a number of stories influenced him:
“I owe a great debt to all of them, including the Norwegian web series Skam (particularly season 3), To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han, Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli (as well as the film adaptation, Love, Simon), the manga Seven Days: Monday-Sunday by author Venio Tachibana and illustrator Rihito Takarai, and the ’90s romcom She’s All That. Date Me, Bryson Keller is my #ownvoices take on these prior works.”
YA romances are not renown for their originality so I’m not sure why some are crying ‘outrage’ without even having read Kevin van Whye’s book. His novel reworks the ‘popular guy dates different people each week’ premise of Seven Days. These two works have very different characters, settings, and themes (also, most BL and GL mangas do not realistically portray the struggles of those who are part of the LGBTQ+ community).

Anyway, moving onto my actual review: Date Me, Bryson Keller is a delightful and surprisingly heart-rendering read. Kai Sheridan narration is compelling and I deeply felt for him. In spite of his awkwardness he’s capable of admirable self-respect. Due to a dare the most popular boy his private school has to date someone new every Monday. The first person to ask him gets to date him for a week. Although Kai wants to keep his head down, and is not ready to tell his friends and family that he’s gay, he finds himself asking Bryson out. To Kai’s surprise Bryson agrees. Over the course of the week the two secretly fake date. They meet up in the morning, go out for breakfast together, study together, and quite quickly they get to know each other. As Kai’s feelings towards Bryson intensify he begins to question whether they are reciprocated.
To begin with this struck me an impossibly cute and lighthearted story. Bryson is an actual Cinnamon Roll™ and it was so refreshing to see his relationship with Kai develop without any unnecessary angst. I also really appreciated Kai’s character arc. Things do eventually take a turn for the worst, and Kai has to deal with a lot. Through Kai’s story Kevin van Whye dispels this myth that homophobia’ no longer exists or that if it does it never originates from young people. Kevin van Whye maintains a wonderful balance between love story and coming of age, and alleviates the more heart-rendering parts of his novel with humour. The interactions between Kai and Bryson had me smiling like an idiot.
I will definitely be reading this again and I’m looking forward to Kevin van Whye’s next novel.

My rating: ★★★½ stars

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Beach Read by Emily Henry — book review

9780241989524.jpgRomance enthusiasts will undoubtedly enjoy Emily Henry’s Beach Read.
Personally, while I do enjoy romance books, I usually prefer them to be less cheesy…and while certain scenes or lines in Beach Read did make me smile, it wasn’t quite the ‘laugh-out-loud’ read I was hoping it would be.

This is yet another novel that seems to hint at an ‘enemies-to-lovers’ romance but in actuality the two leads are never truly enemies or hostile towards each other. January, our lead and narrator, has a bit of a chip on her shoulder when it comes to Augustus. While they were in college Augustus made a comment that January interpreted as disparaging both her person and her writing. Years later the two find themselves living in the same town.
January needs a place to write her novel. Not only is she financially ‘broke’, but her boyfriend recently broke up with her. January, who is still grieving the loss of her dad, has few options lefts, so she decides to move into her father’s secret home. As she tries to make sense of the secret life her father kept, she finds it hard to envision writing a story with a ‘happy ending’.
January is quite ‘shocked’ to discover that her new neighbour is Augustus, aka Gus. She is sort of envious that his books are seen as ‘highbrow’ whereas hers are dismissed as ‘women’s fiction’. The two strike up a deal: January will write a book without her trademark ‘happy ending’ while Gus will try to write a ‘happy’ book.

While I liked the premise of this book I soon found myself rolling my eyes at its cliches: Gus has an ‘inky gaze’, a ‘crooked’ smile, he is ‘tall’ and ‘dark’. January’s backstory with her father was rather superficial: she feels betrayed, that much she states early on. Other than that I found that she would often merely rehash her story (her mother had cancer, twice, her father wasn’t the man she thought he was, their marriage was far from perfect). Her relationship with people other than Gus were very feeble: she has a best friend who lives in another city so the two of them keep in touch through texts…which were often very silly and seemed to be included only to add humour. Her mother was mentioned now and again but her personality remained undisclosed. We know she had cancer and that she doesn’t want to speak about her husband’s ‘secrets’. It would have been a lot more compelling and challenging if January had actually loved her ex-boyfriend but she admits early on that she loved the idea of them rather than him…which seemed to go against the book’s proclaimed self-awareness. Given that January writes romcoms it would have been more refreshing if we were presented with a story in which there isn’t such a thing as ‘you can only have one true love’…
Gus…he was very much the epitome of the angsty love interest. At one point he says: “I am angry and messed up, and every time I try to get closer to you, it’s like all these warning bells go off”….which yeah, who says stuff like this? And how is this romantic?
Not only does Gus have an appropriately Troubled Backstory™ but he is just sooooo angsty. Just because his eyes are ‘flashing’ or he smirks a lot doesn’t negate how annoying his ‘you can’t possibly understand me/I am a walking tragedy’ thing he has going is.
Most of his lines sounded unbelievable. At one point he tells January that she is “so fucking beautiful” and “like the sun”. Like, wtf man.

Another thing that I was hoping would receive more focus was their books. January once says that if she were to swap her ‘Janes’ for ‘Johns’, her books would no longer be labelled as ‘women’s fiction’ but as ‘fiction’…which is a statement I don’t entirely agree on. There are lots of female authors who write books with female protagonists that do not fall under the ‘women’s fiction’ category. Perhaps January should have been asking herself why certain genres are seen as inferior to others, or why the ‘chick-lit’ is seen as ‘rubbishy’ whereas the popular books by male authors (such as James Patterson) are not similarly dismissed.
There a few paragraphs of January’s own writing which were really cringe-y. I could not take her ‘serious’ story seriously, it was ridiculous. Also, why perpetuate this stereotype of the writer only being able to write about their own lives?

January is immediately attracted to Gus, so there is never a slow build up from friends to lovers. During their first few scenes together her stomach is already ‘flip flopping’.
Their make out/sex scenes were…okay I guess (?). Although I’ve read far worse there was one scenes which was just yuck-y: one moment January compares herself to a ‘toddler’ sitting on Gus’ lap, the next they are making out. Most of their flirting revolves around ‘junk food’ which yeah, I am not a huge fan of this ‘bonding over our mutual love of donuts’. It just strikes me as juvenile.

For the most part I didn’t particularly hate or love this book. I do enjoy reading ‘feel good’ books (some of my faves are by Sophie Kinsella and Mhairi McFarlane) but Beach Read didn’t really work for me. I guess I was excepting a more ‘subversive’ take on the romance genre…but here there are tropes upon tropes.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune — book review

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“He was here to observe and nothing more. He couldn’t influence the orphanage. It wouldn’t be proper. The RULES AND REGULATIONS were specific about such matters.”

The House in the Cerulean Sea tells an equal parts heartwarming and silly tale. The world in this novel is fairly reminiscent of our own one however its pages are full of magical people and creatures. The government closely monitors those who are deemed not human and they are raised in government sanctioned orphanages.
As a case worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth (often abbreviated to DICOMY) Linus Baker, a solitary forty year old, oversees and inspects these orphanages. His job consists in ensuring the children’s wellbeing and that the people who are running these orphanages are following DICOMY guidelines. Linus himself abides by DICOMY’s strict rules and regulations.
His routine is brusquely interrupted when he is summoned by DICOMY’s Extremely Upper Management, only to be unexpectedly tasked with an unusual and highly sensitive assignment: he has to leave the city and travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage. The orphanage is run by the rather mysterious and eccentric Arthur Parnassus. It is up to Linus to determine whether the six children who reside there (a female gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist) should be taken away from the Island.
As the story progresses Linus begins to question DICOMY and its methods. Once he is able to move past what his case files tell him about these children, he begins to see them in their own right.

In the novel magical powers/appearances is a metaphor for being different. They are isolated from ‘ordinary’ humans, raised in controlled environments, treated with mistrust and or outright hatred. Linus finds himself challenging his own assumptions and preconceptions about these children.
Ultimately this is a story about the family that you choose: Linus himself has always felt like he doesn’t quite belong. On the Island, alongside the children and Arthur, he starts to feel more at ease with who he is as well as the type of person he wants to be.
The novel is filled with quirky humour and charming dialogues. There were quite a few elements that struck me as being a bit too silly for my taste, so that occasionally the story verged on being ridiculous (such as all of those ‘Oh My’ that Linus utters) but for the most part I liked this novel, it even made me smile here and there.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes – book review

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2.5 stars

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