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:★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Archer by Shruti Swamy

Throughout the course of reading The Archer, I was painfully aware that I was in fact reading a novel. That is to say, I did not think this was a particularly ‘immersive coming-of-age’ story, quite the contrary. Almost every line I read struck me as contrived and as attempting (and failing) to be eloquent and adroit. This novel reads like something that should have stayed in drafts or that would have been okay if it had been some sort of MFA project. The verbose and trying-too-hard-to-be literary language was distracting and unimaginative. The main character and her environment felt inconsequential, the narrative more intent on showing off its supposedly ‘lyrical’ prose (which, you guessed it, in my eyes, was anything but). Banal, shallow, and repetitive ​​ The Archer was not for me. If you enjoyed this novel please refrain from commenting on things along the lines ‘you are wrong’. If you want to read this novel…eh, I guess I should remind you to check out more positive reviews.

The Archer begins with a 3rd pov that gives us an overview of the childhood of our protagonist. The narrative year tries to make it so that we are seeing things from the pov of a child, but it doesn’t quite pull it off. Vidya lives in Bombay during a generically historical period. There is Father Sir, Brother, The Mother, and briefly Room-Not-Mother. Vidya has to look after Brother and has to be obedient and respectful towards her elders. Nothing much happens other than some lengthy descriptions about objects or feelings that amount to absolutely nothing. Vidya is devoid of personality because we all know children don’t have those…anyway, one day she sees a Kathak class and wants to learn this type of dance. The Mother eventually dies (i think?) and Vidya is given even more responsibilities. Father Sir plays almost no role, his presence relegated to two or three scenes. The narrative begins switching from a 3rd to a 1st pov, in a painfully artificial attempt at mirroring Vidya becoming aware, through dancing, of ‘the self’.
There is a time skip and the story is narrated by Vidya herself, who is now at university. Once again the narrative is very much all telling, no showing. The author will dedicate a paragraph to describe the flesh of a fruit or the shape of a shoe but spend almost no time fleshing out the secondary characters who soon enough end blurring together. Vidya has a predictable half-hearted relationship with another girl, but because neither of these characters struck me as real I could not bring myself that they would care for each other.
Another time skip and Vidya is married to this generic guy. We learn nothing about him, nothing substantial that is but the author will inform us of the smell of his sweat and his cologne. K. Then we get the predictable pregnancy where Vidya learns that the body is abject.
I just found the language so profoundly irritating. As I said, there are very few scenes actually happening in ‘real time’ on the page. Vidya mostly recounts to us stuff that happens, taking away the immediacy of that moment/scene. There is also very little dialogue so that we spend most of our time just listening to Vidya’s voice. Yet, in spite of the pages and pages she spends navel-gazing, I did not feel as if she was a fleshed-out character. She was an impression, a generic girl who grows up to become a generic young woman. She’s often painted as the victim, but I felt no sympathy towards her.
The prose was full of cliched descriptions and platitudes (“ the scars on her skin making her legs more beautiful instead of less”). There were so many unnecessary words. Time and time again Vidya felt the need to say something backwards (on the lines of ‘it was not that I was sad’). Or we get passages like this: “Something else had been lost, many things had been lost, perhaps everything had been lost, the girl I had been felt far away, though I had come to school to be rid of her—the sad, motherless girl with dry ugly knees and a dark ugly face: that girl, I could not remember her as me, I could only remember her as though I watched her from somewhere outside her body;”. Rather than just saying things as they are, the author will refer to things such as Vidya’s ‘true voice’, or lazy descriptors such as ‘tomorrow-feeling’ and later ‘girl feeling’. Time and again Vidya will not say what she thinks or feels directly. She will preface whatever by saying ‘and so’, ‘perhaps’, ‘it seemed to me’, and then go to say ‘it wasn’t y nor was it x but it was z’. All these words end up amounting to nothing. They did not make Vidya into a more credible character nor did they bring to life her surroundings/experiences. Yet the author will sacrifice character development to these prolonged acts of introspection that actually don’t reveal anything about this character.
This was a bland affair. The best thing about this novel is the cover/title combo. Its contents left much to be desired. I’ve read far more compelling novels about fraught mother/daughter relationships (You Exist Too Much and The Far Field) and I wish that Vidya’s Kathak practices and her relationship with her teacher could have been the focus of the narrative.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon

As per usual I was drawn to a book because I found its cover cute. The novel itself has plenty of cute moments, however, various elements prevented me from truly appreciating it.

Before her parents’ separation 17-year-old Evie Thomas was a lover of romance and a believer in happy-ever-afters. When she becomes aware that her dad not only cheated on her mum but left them to be with the ‘other woman’, well, she’s pretty shaken up by it. A newly disillusioned Evie decides to make the very dramatic gesture of getting rid of all of her romance books (i mean, really?). After dropping them off at a ‘little free library’ a mysterious old lady seemingly appears from nowhere and encourages her to take a book titled Instructions for Dancing, a book about ballroom dancing. From then on Evie has the ability to see how peoples’ romances begun and how they will end. They just have to kiss in front of her and wham she gets a That’s So Raven vision that shows her a fast-forwarded version of the couple’s relationship, from their first meeting to their breakup/separation. Her new gift seems to confirm that, as she feared, in real life love always ends in heartbreak (lil’ bit ridiculous, i know…).
She eventually returns the manual for dancing to La Brea Dance. Once at this dance studio she just happens to come face-to-face with the kind of heartthrob guy who is very much the real-life embodiment of the LI in a romance (“For a second, I feel like I’m a character in one of my old romance books. Raising a single eyebrow is such a Classic Romance Guy Characteristic.”). The guy, X, and Evie end up competing as a pair for a dance competition in the Amateur Under 21 category with the intention of promoting the studio.
As you can imagine, in spite of Evie vowing that she’s done with love and romance and would certainly not fall for X because “Tall, hipster-hot and in a band? I mean, he’s the definition of a heartbreaker, right?”, the more they practice together, the closer they get.
The story focuses on their romance and on Evie’s feeling conflicted about love and romance. While the angst is at times outweighed by the sweeter moments, overall, I could have done with the elements of melodrama (between evie & x, between evie & her ‘friends’, between evie & her dad). I do feel bad for not being able to write a more positive review but I’m afraid that honesty always wins out in my reviews so I will be detailing all of the reasons why I was unable to like this novel. If this book happens to be on your radar or on your TBR pile I recommend you check out some more positive reviews.
Here are a few of the things that dampened my enjoyment of this book, SPOILERS BELOW:

The Magical Element
What was that all about?! At times the story seems to forget all about Evie’s ability to see how other peoples’ romantic relationships start and end. These glimpses into a couple’s story give us very incomplete visions of their relationship (let alone who they are). The visions were jarring, something that stood out against an otherwise realistic & contemporary YA backdrop. Maybe had they remained one of the main preoccupations of the narrative they would have not felt so out of place but as I said mentions and scenes featuring Evie’s power remained very inconsistent. There’s a lot about them in the first few chapters where Evie is immediately able to establish that her visions are real. And that they only serve as a way to add more angst to her character. You see, now she has proof that love is fake and true romance doesn’t exist. It just so happens that, except for one couple towards the end, all of the couples she has visions of break up/separate.

Storyline
This ties to the 1st point. I would have liked the storyline to be more consistent. At first, we get a lot about her visions and her ‘i don’t believe in love anymore’ act, before switching to the dancing side of things, before honing in on her romance with X and her arguing with her friends. Personally, I would have liked more family dynamics. She hates her dad because he cheated on her mom, which is fair enough, but that this made her go through such a dramatic ‘i’m getting rid of all of my romance books/love doesn’t exist/in case you didn’t notice i’m a cynic now’, well, I just a hard time putting up with the same information being repeated over and over again. We get it, she feels betrayed by her dad (even if one could argue that, given that she’s nearly 18 and about to leave for college, she should not feel so involved in her parents’ relationship with each other…they are individuals of their own). She spends most of the novel dissing her dad and acting like he’s a monster before arriving at the classic plot-point where she tries to understand his perspective etc. Like, why did she have to be so immature? Her character development was predictable and her relationship with her parents would have benefited from more page-time. Her sister too! They were at one point close and yet for extended periods in the novel the sister is very much forgotten.
Speaking of family dynamics I would have loved to see more of x and his own family (as opposed to him mentioning a call or two from his dad). His grandparents (as far as i can recall) own the dance studio where they are training at and yet we don’t learn too much about their relationship with one another.
The point is that to me, the story meandered too much and had one too many unnecessary ingredients that ended up ruining the final product. We have Evie angst-ing over her parents’ break up and her dad cheating, we have the little library and the visions, we have the dancing sessions, we have her romance with X, we have the fights with her friends, we have miscommunication and reconciliation, and then, in a very soap-opera-ish move, bam, a tragic, but ultimately entirely forced bittersweet ending that teaches Evie a valuable life lesson (that just because something comes to an end does not make what came before worthless or any less meaningful). It all felt vaguely calculated and moralistic while at the same time, we get sudden changes in the storyline direction that amount to a less than cohesive story.

Evie
While not wholly unsympathetic, I found her selfish and immature to the point where I wanted to finish the book so I could get out of her head.
Supposedly 17, Evie is as emotionally mature as a 10-year-old. So, she caught her dad cheating and is traumatised, and begins acting like he’s some heinous human being and seems to believe that her mom owes her an explanation on why their marriage ended like this. Evie refuses to talk to him and acts like a brat. Her newfound attitude towards love and romance contributed to my impression of her being far too childish for her actual age. I would expect this over-the-top behaviour from a Disney movie, not a contemporary YA novel that is so clearly striving for depth and, visions aside, realism.
Her visions confirm her love ends in tears stance (i mean, at one point she throws at us the following: “Heartbreak = love + time”…which is something i could have written in one of my angsty poetry phases i went through aged 13 or so). Her dad betrayed her mom so it makes for her to seemingly overnight dismiss the notion of love/romance. I disliked how intrusive she was when it came to her parents’ relationship but I actively hated her behaviour towards two of her friends (one of whom is the nasty-type-friend, usually white and rich, that is all the rage in contemporary YA). They become a couple during the course of the novel (their personalities remain very much one-dimensional and their romance is rushed indeed) and Evie sees them kissing so of course she gets a vision that ends with them breaking up. She decides that they shouldn’t date because their eventual breakup will break their friendship group…so what does she decide to do? She refuses to see them! She isn’t all that concerned for them and their relationship, no, what worries is how their romance affects her. Selfish much? And the narrative goes on to prove that Evie was right and that of course, their failed romance ends up ‘breaking up’ their clique (really?).
It was just so frustrating to read her constant whining about her dad or making childish statements on how love ends in heartbreak yadda yadda. Why was it so hard for her to realise that yes, over the course of your life you will likely be with multiple people (as opposed to having only one ‘true love’)
And then her romance with X…yeah. At first, I found their interactions cute and understood to some extent why Evie was somewhat hesitant to admit her feelings towards him (after all, didn’t she swear off love?). But then, his presence in the novel amounts to serving as a plot device. He exists to teach Evie that it’s okay to fall in love and that even if said love ends with heartbreak that doesn’t change what came beforehand. What irked me the most is how his death is utilised by the narrative as the final step in Evie’s ‘learning to trust/love again’ arc. It wasn’t believable, it was clichéd and predictable from those rounds of questions earlier on in the story (where evie & co + X asks each other supposedly ‘philosophical’ questions that amount to: would you want to know when you are going to die or is true love real?). His death enables Evie to ‘grow’ as a character. That her reaction to learning of his approaching death is that of ghosting him…shit. Evie, sei una vera stronza. But it’s all good cause someone comes and tells her that she should not always be focusing on the end of things and think about the memories you make along the way (cheesy af). She apparently spends the next few months with him knowing that he will die but not telling him because earlier on he said that in a what-if scenario he would not want to know when he’s going to die….I mean really? She doesn’t even tell him to go to the doctor?

And they are meant to be teenagers?
The teenagers in this novel were so unbelievable. Their banter, as well as the ideas and opinions they express, were so vanilla. As I said earlier, with the exception of one or two lines here and there, these teens would have been better suited to a Disney movie. I guess they will appeal to fans of Netflix’s teen romance/drama/coming-of-age movie. The novel’s message too felt more in line with those kind of movies.

Self-Aware Romance (?)
Because Evie is a romance connoisseur she often lists tropes of the genre of says things on the lines of ‘it feels like i’m in one my old romance books’ or ‘he’s behaving like the LI in a romance’…yet, despite this supposed self-awareness the novel still implements many tired clichès and plot points.

The Dance Angle + Fifi
I liked the dancing sessions but after the halfway mark the dancing aspect of the novel seems largely sidelined in favour of angst between characters. Which, in my mind, is a pity. I would have preferred the novel to be more about dancing (esp. given that title + cover).
Fifi is X and Evie’s instructor and boy-oh-boy isn’t she a walking caricature. I struggle to understand why American authors (i’m looking at you casey mcquiston) write Eastern European characters this way. Not only do they have a thick accent but they have a funny way of expressing themselves and say borderline offensive/inappropriate things but it’s all good because accent + foreign = lol.

All in all, while now and again there were moments or exchanges that I found sweet (mostly between the main couple or evie and her bff martin), on the whole, I did not ‘vibe’ with it. I’m sure many others will love it and the points above are merely expressing my very subjective impressions of said book. Maybe the novel’s target demographic will have a more positive experience with it than I did.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Invitation to the Waltz by Rosamond Lehmann

2505972493_e0150cbe1c_b.jpgInvitation to the Waltz is a short novel which was first published in 1932 and written by Rosamond Lehmann, an overlooked yet clearly talented author. The narrative takes place over the course of two days: the day of Olivia Curtis’ seventeenth birthday and the day in which, together with her older sister Kate and a dullish male chaperone, she goes to her first dance.

“And they waltzed together to the music made for joy. She danced with him in love and sorrow. He held her close to him, and he was far away from her, far from the music, buried and indifferent. She danced with his youth and his death.”

This is not the type of novel that has a clear storyline or plot. Lehmann spends a large portion of her narrative conveying Olivia’s various states of mind and detailing the frivolous chit-chat between the people around her on these two separate days (from her family members to her neighbours).
From the start readers will be aware of Olivia’s self-awareness over her own shyness and inexperience. Feeling inferior to the more mature and beautiful Kate, Olivia is desperately looking forward to her first dance as she hopes that something will happen there, even if she does not know exactly what that something should or will be. Lehmann skilfully renders Olivia’s innermost thoughts, emphasising the elusive shape of her desires. Olivia’s character brought to mind the nameless narrator of Rebecca as they are both almost painfully aware of being seen as young and green by the people around them. Olivia comes to mythologize the dance, regarding this event as something more than a rite of passage.

Lehmann’s style possesses an unflagging rhythm that effectively propels readers along. Between Olivia’s inner monologue and the constant—and often empty—chatter between the various characters Lehmann’s narrative almost becomes too much. The way in which she moves from conversation to conversation or from thought to thought gave her style a syncopated energy that was too nervy for my liking (it brought to mind the writing of Muriel Spark and Dorothy Baker).
I can definitely see why many readers compare Lehmann to Virginia Woolf. At the best of times I will find stream of consciousness to be too florid for my taste…so I was slightly put off by Lehmann’s use of this technique.

The long-awaited dance did not strike me as particularly memorable as lot of potentially significant scenes or conversations are absorbed into the noisy and forgettable chatter and general hubbub of the party.

On the one hand, I appreciated how upbeat this novel is and the way Lehmann captured that awkward transition between girlhood and adulthood…on the other, I can’t say that I was particularly engaged by her narrative or her characters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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We Came Here to Forget by Andrea Dunlop — book review

42202020.jpgFor the most part We Came Here to Forget was a somewhat inconsistent read. Perhaps this is due to the two timelines, one which follows Katie Cleary as she grows up, and the other one focuses on the aftermath a personal tragedy. In order to escape from her unbearable existence (one in which she has just lost her friends, boyfriend, and career) Katie ‘reinvents’ herself as Liz Sullivan and travels to Buenos Aires.
Although we know that something bad has happened between Katie/Liz and her older sister, we don’t know the details until the very end. This choice, rather than creating suspense, frustrated me since I predicted what had happened (there are a few things that could make a whole family so infamous)…the timeline focused on the past provided little insight in Katie’s relationship with her sister and her parents. It was mostly telling rather than showing. The parents are only occasionally mentioned, and Katie’s sister, who should have been the focal point of this timeline, is rendered through vague descriptions and observations that usually allude to her later ‘crime’.
The present timeline provided a more nuanced and interesting story. Liz’s struggle to reconcile herself with that ‘bad thing’ and her own ‘fallout’ gave her character an emotional arc. Again, I think that revealing earlier on what happened with her sister would have allowed for even more depth but alas…this narrative was for the most part enjoyable. Although Liz initially struggles to adapt to her new surroundings, she soon falls in with a group of people similar to her: they have all left their ‘baggage’ in other countries. Perhaps the male characters came across as less nuanced than the female characters and their personalities too were somewhat same-y.
Kate/Liz’s love interests added little to the story. Luke had scarcely any lines, and remained off page for the majority of the story. Blair was also a character who remained in the sidelines until he makes a predictable appearance later on…Gianluca could have been an interesting character but he ended up being merely a plot device for Kate/Liz’s character development…throw in an oddly detailed and unnecessary sex scenes and there you have it: a mixed bag. Is the novel about family? Not really. Mental illness? A bit. Love? Occasionally.
It was just too inconsistent for my taste and I will be approaching Dunlop’s future work with caution…

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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