Swimming Back to Trout River by Linda Rui Feng

“After all, wasn’t it true that to love someone is to figure out how to tell yourself their story?”

With understated lyricism, Feng charts the experiences of a family divided by physical and emotional borders that are nevertheless united in their pursuit of a more ‘promising’ future, for themselves and each other. The narrative intertwines the trajectories of various characters: Momo and Cassia, a married couple whose relocation to America results in their estrangement, their daughter Junie, born with a congenital amputation, who is in China and being raised in a small village in the countryside by her beloved grandparents, and Dawn, a talented violinist who knew Momo in their college days. Moving from the 1960s to the 1980s, from Communist China to San Francisco, Feng spins a tale of grief and resilience. Throughout their adulthood Momo, Cassia, and Dawn experience loss, heartbreak, and time and again are forced to reconcile their own personal desires with the ones of others.

“The incandescent cocoon of music was pure rapture, and it said to him; Stay. It was a powerful beckoning, to be held in thrall, to be consumed, annihilated even.”

Classical music plays a crucial role in Dawn and Momo’s narratives and Feng beautifully articulates their relationship to it. When writing about music Feng’s writing acquires an almost luminous quality, one that—if you excuse my unintentional pun—is assured to strike a chord with her readers. I particularly liked the discussions surrounding the way other countries tend to stereotype musicians from East Asian countries (conflating attributes they associate with those countries—’conformity’, ‘rigidity’—with the music they produce).

“We learn so much more about things when they are broken or unmade, he thought.”

There is a particular episode early on in the narrative when something happens to a violin and well, I was almost in tears. In spite of these moments of tension and of Feng’s candid portrayal of the Red Guards, the narrative retains a quiet atmosphere, one that is pervaded by a sense of longing.

“He was impatient for time to pass, so that in his life, there would be less yearning and more having, less becoming and more being.”

While Feng’s writing is indisputably beautiful (I have dozens of highlights that will attest as much) I did find myself at a remove from her characters. That is not to say that I failed to sympathise with them. Their interactions—especially the ones between Junie and her grandad—could certainly be affecting. However, there was a veil between me and the characters that I was unable to penetrate. While this ‘distance’ did bring to mind the work Jhumpa Lahiri (a favourite of mine), here the slightness of the novel (just over 200 pages) meant that years of their lives would be condensed in a few pages, giving me little time to adapt to their new environments and circumstances. At times their personalities were too inscrutable so that I found myself confusing characters (especially the secondary ones that prop up in the America section of the novel). I also wanted more of Junie. She is very much sidelined for much of the narrative and I would have loved to read more about her childhood.

“In order for Junie to exist, two people had to come together during the Cultural Revolution under circumstances that one of them would later describe as inevitable, and the other, as coincidental.”

Feng’s exquisite prose and her meditation on art, culture, love, grief, exceptionalism, and dislocation result in a poignant and thought-provoking read. If you are a fan of authors such as Lahiri you should definitely not pass this up.

my rating: ★★★½

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

“Fear and hatred, fear and hatred: often, it seemed that those were the only two qualities he possessed. Fear of everyone else; hatred of himself.”

A Little Life is a heart-wrenching tour de force. Dark, all-consuming, devastating, moving, stunning, brutal, dazzling, beautiful, disturbing, A Little Life is all of these and so much more. This is the kind of novel that haunts.

“Fairness is for happy people, for people who have been lucky enough to have lived a life defined more by certainties than by ambiguities.”

The first fifty pages or so may give one the illusion that the story they are about to read is the usual tale of a group of friends trying to make it in the big city. Which in some ways, it is. Friendship is one of the novel’s underlying motifs. But, A Little Life is first and foremost a novel about pain, suffering, and trauma. And as highly as I think of this novel I could not in good conscience bring myself to recommend it to anyone else. Large portions of this 800-page novel are dedicated to depicting, in minute detail, a man’s past and present physical, emotional, and psychological suffering. We also have to read paragraph after paragraph in which adults inflict all kinds of horrific abuse on a child. What saves this novel from being yet another sensationalistic or gratuitous take on sexual abuse are Hanya Yanagihara’s clear and realist style and the many moments of beauty, kindness, love, empathy that are interjected throughout the narrative. Still, even so, I can see why some may find A Little Life to be too much. Hell, there were many instances where I found myself thinking ‘I can’t it, this is too much’. But who was I kidding? Once I started this novel I knew that I had to finish it and in fact I devoured it over the course of three days.

“Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.”

The novel recounts, decade-by-decade, the lives of four friends in New York City from their early 20s to their 50s. There is JB, a gay painter, Malcolm, who still lives at home and dreams of becoming an architect, Willem, an orphan who is pursuing an acting career, and Jude, also an orphan, who is a lawyer. Jude’s is reticent about his past and his friends know to leave it well alone. He has a limp and suffers from many health-related issues, which were caused by a car injury. As the story progresses the narrative shifts its focus on Jude and his many ongoing struggles. Jude’s horrific childhood and teenage years are revealed to us slowly over the course of the story. To cope with his traumatic experiences Jude self-harms, something that definitely hit close to home so I appreciate the authenticity with which Yanagihara portrays Jude’s self-harming. Similarly, his self-hatred and self-blaming are rendered with painful realism, without any judgment on the author’s part. While there were many—and I mean many—horrifying and painful scenes, there are moments of beauty, lightness, and tenderness. As an adult Jude is surrounded by people who love him, there are his friends, colleagues, neighbours, mentors, and it is here that the novel is at its most moving.
This is a novel about sexual abuse, pain, grief, friendship, love, intimacy, hope, and silences. The characters (it feels wrong to even call them that) are fully-formed individuals, imperfect, at times incongruent, yet nonetheless lovable. Oh, how my heart ached for them.
Yanagihara foreshadows certain events but even so, I found myself hoping against hope that the story would not be a tragic one. Yet, this unwillingness on Yanagihara’s part to provide a happy ending or to give her characters sort of closure that makes her novel simultaneously subversive and all the more realistic. Things don’t always get better, people can’t always overcome or reconcile themselves with their trauma, love doesn’t ‘fix’ people, you can’t magic away someone else’s pain. I have never sobbed while reading a book but I was sobbing intermittently throughout my reading of A Little Life. At times reading about Jude’s pain was brought me to tears, at times it was when coming across a scene that is brimming with kindness and love (basically anything with Jude and Harold or Jude and Willem).

“I want to be alone,” he told him.
“I understand,” Willem said.
“We’ll be alone together.”

This novel made me feel exposed, naked, vulnerable, seen in a way I wasn’t ready to be seen. It broke my fucking heart. It disturbed me, it made me ugly-cry, it made me want to find Yanagihara so I could shout at her. To describe A Little Life as a piece of fiction seems sacrilegious. I experienced A Little Life. From the first pages, I found myself immersed in Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm’s lives. When I reached the end I felt bereft, exhausted, numb so much so that even now I’m finding it difficult to to articulate why I loved this so much (then again my favourite band is Radiohead so I clearly like things that depress me). I doubt I will ever be brave enough to read it again but I also know that I will be thinking about A Little Life for years to come.
Adroit, superbly written, and populated by a richly drawn A Little Life is a novel unlike any other, one that you should read at your own risk.

my rating: ★★★★★

ps: the bond between Jude and Willem brought to mind a certain exchange from Anne Carson’s translation of Orestes:
PYLADES: I’ll take care of you.
ORESTES: It’s rotten work.
PYLADES: Not to me. Not if it’s you.

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The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun

Last year I read Hye-Young Pyun’s The Law of Lines and in spite of a few reservations, I did find it to be an absorbing read. Yes, it was bleak, dark, and even grotesque at times but her tone never struck me as cruel or gratuitous. Given that The Hole won ‘Shirley Jackson Award for Novel’ in 2017 I actually expected it to be as or even more accomplished than The Law of Lines (especially given that she published it a year after The Law of Lines). But, boy oh boy, was I wrong. Usually, when I write for a review I did not think much of, I like to put a lil’ disclaimer suggesting GR users check out more positive reviews and or not to take my review too seriously…which I will not be doing this time around with The Hole, a novel that I found to be abhorrent. I gave it the benefit of doubt, I kept on reading, hoping for the story to be anything other than torture-porn….and it did not happen.

There is so much wrong with this novel. It was not horror, it didn’t inspire feelings of fear or anxiety in me, only disgust. It was vulgur, sadistic, lurid, and ableist. The novel has been compared to Misery as it also happens to portray a man being held captive by an ‘insane’ woman but I doubt that King’s novel was as gratuitously sensationalist as this piece of garbage.

After surviving a car accident which his wife did not, Ogi wakes up at a hospital, paralyzed and disfigured. Ogi is an orphan with no close relatives so it is his widowed mother-in-law who takes the role of his caretaker. Ogi is presented as a rather misogynistic individual, who does not seem to be drowning in grief over the death of his wife. We get flashbacks into his married life that show us how not nice he was, he wasn’t a great man or good husband.
In the present, his mother-in-law is shown to be neglectful, cruel, and abusive towards him. She repeatedly humiliates him in front of others, for example, by changing him in front of them, ridiculing him for being disabled, touching him inappropriately. I am so sick of this type of ‘horror’. The bodies of those who fat, deformed, and or disabled, are treated with morbid fascination, described in a way that is meant to elicit feelings of disgust and or discomfort in the reader. Maybe that was okay in the 1980s but today? It is just fucking offensive. A fat woman’s body is a “sagging bloated thickened meat”. Wtf?
And the novel seems to imply that Ogi deserves his mother-in-law, that being disabled is his ‘comeuppance’ for his not-so-great behavior. Ma da quando in quando!

If you think that The Human Centipede is a brilliant work of horror then you may find The Hole to be a riveting read. I, for one, wish I could wipe it from my memory. I found it so tacky and revolting and perverted that I doubt I will ever pick up anything by this author ever again. That this trashy novel went on to win an award named after one of my favourite authors who excelled in creating atmospheres of quiet uneasy…well, that just adds insult to injury.

my rating: ★☆☆☆☆

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If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

Engaging and insightful If I Had Your Face is a solid debut novel from a promising writer.
If I Had Your Face follows four young women trying to navigate everyday life in contemporary Seoul. They live in the same building but to begin with are not exactly friends. We have Ara, a mute hair stylist who is infatuated with a member of a popular Kpop boy band, Kyuri, who has undergone numerous plastic surgeries and works at a ‘room salon’ where she entertains wealthy men, Miho, an artist who studied in NY and whose boyfriend comes from an influential family, and Wonna, who lives with her husband and is pregnant.
Part of me wishes that the novel could have been structured differently, so that instead of switching between these characters their stories could have been presented as a series of interlinked novellas. This would have probably prevented their voices from blurring together, which they sometimes did. Miho and Wonna’s chapters were a lot weaker in terms of ‘distinctive’ voice. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Cha’s breezy prose. It is very readable and vividly rendered the characters’
circumstances/environments.
I liked the balance Cha maintained between drama and realism. Cha’s commentary on South Korean society is both sharp and zingy. Through the Ara, Miho, Wonna, and Kyuri’s stories Cha shows the ways in which their choices, desires, sense of selves, are shaped by gender inequity, class, and oppressive beauty standards. Their parents are either dead or unable to help them financially so they rely on their income…beauty too is a currency and we see the advantages of being seen as beautiful entails.
Another aspect that I appreciated about this novel was that its characters are not paragons of virtue. They can be selfish, oblivious, not always willing to consider the weight of their actions or words, judgemental, flippant, and cruel. I did find myself far more interested in Ara and Kyuri than Miho and Wonna. This may be because the latter two had chapters that were heavy on ‘backstories’ (as opposed to focusing on the ‘now’). Miho’s personality seemed that of the artist (always with her head in the clouds, viewing the world through artistic lenses, too occupied by her art to remember to eat or take care of herself) while Wonna’s chapters did not seem to fit with the rest. Her chapters examine her marriage and her anxiety over her pregnancy (understandably since she had several miscarriages), which would have suited another kind of book. The other characters’ chapters did not have such narrow focus. Also, I just found myself growing fonder of Ara and Kyuri. Their storylines were gripping in a way that Miho and Wonna’s weren’t. The stakes were higher in Ara and Kyuri and their eventual friendship was rather sweet.
Cha’s If I Had Your Face is certainly a vibrant read. If you want to read more about modern South Korean society or of the trails and errors, ups and downs of life as a millennial you should definitely give If I Had Your Face a try.

ps: I have a bone to pick with whoever wrote the blurb for this novel. The blurb for the viking edition not only reveals too much but it is also kind of misleading (Ara’s obsession with a K-pop star “drives her to violent extremes”…? When? If this is referring to that one scene…that had very little to do with Ara’s crush on that K-pop star).


my rating: ★★★½

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Touring the Land of the Dead by Maki Kashimada

disclaimer: in the below review I am expressing my own entirely subjective opinion. I do not wish to invalidate anyone’s feelings or thoughts about this book. If you loved it or liked it, huzzah!
If you are thinking of reading this I recommend you check out some more positive reviews.

Touring the Land of the Dead comprises two short stories. The first one follows Natsuko who is travelling with her husband, who after an unspecified neurological disease requires walking aids (he sometimes walks with a cane or uses a wheelchair). The way the narrative treats Taichi’s disability is somewhat…questionable? Then again, I also recognise that many countries treat those with visible disabilities as ‘undesirable’ or ‘pitiable’ (I myself come from a country that isn’t exactly disability-friendly). Anyhow, Natsuko is going to this spa with Taichi, hoping for…rest? I don’t know. It wasn’t very clear. All the while we get pages and pages of flashbacks which give us unnecessary glimpses into Natsuko’s relationship with her horrid mother and dick of a brother. Natsuko is a kind of Cinderella who is ill-treated by her awful and greedy family. They treat her poorly, throw abuse at her, use her as a monetary source, and even behave abhorrently towards Taichi, who is shown to be kind and respectful towards them. I would have much preferred for these flashbacks to be focused on Natsuko and Taichi, as opposed her unpleasant relatives. The prose was uninspiring and occasionally clunky. At times dialogues had quotation marks, at times they were in italics (and no, it wasn’t as if one indicated a conversation occurred in the past and the other in the ‘now’). I’m afraid I found this to be boring, unconvincing, and utterly forgettable.
The second story, ‘Ninety-Nine Kisses’, was a mess. I have no idea what it was trying to achieve but…bleargh. The narrative seemed to equate incest-y thoughts with quirkiness…which did little other than alienate me.
Overall, I had a hard time immersing myself into these stories. Usually while I read I am ‘pulled’ into a story, but here…nothing happened. I read some words. That’s that.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★

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Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse

“A smart Teek survives the storm, but a wise Teek avoids storms altogether.”

It took me awhile to warm up to Black Sun and during its first half I worried that I would find myself once again in the ‘unpopular’ opinion camp. As I’d read and liked Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning I was hoping that I would find Black Sun to be at least an entertaining read…but within the first 40% I found myself tempted to DNF it but I’m glad i persevered. Overall I think this is a really good start to the Between Earth and Sky series. I do have some ‘reservations’, but these are minor criticisms, and on the whole I would definitely recommend it to fans of N.K. Jemisin and Guy Gavriel Kay.

This novel’s biggest strengths is its world-building which is inspired by the pre-Columbian cultures of the Americas. The Meridian is a land that is home to many different clans, all of which have their own distinctive customs. Many resent the Watchers, “whose duty it was to keep the calendar and wrestle order from chaos” and who maintain “the Balance between what is above us and what is below”, which isn’t surprising given when we learn of the Night of Knives. The Watchers, an order composed of priests such as the Sun Priest and the Priest of Succor, reside in the “celestial tower” which is located in Tova. The sprawling action of the novel takes us all over Meridian. From the city of Tova, Meridian’s religious heart (where we learn of the conflict between the Watchers and the cultists as well as the disparities between Sky made clans and Dry Earthers), to the merchant city of Cuecola. We also accompany characters on their voyage across the treacherous Crescent Sea and gain insights into the matriarchal Teek people. Although part of me wishes that the novel had focused on two particular characters, I understand that the multiple perspectives allow us to explore different quarters and cultures of the Meridian. While certain settings could have been described more fully, we always given detailed descriptions of what the characters are wearing (from their clothes and hair styles to their accoutrements), which made them all the more vivid. Also, these descriptions often lead to insights into a particular clan/culture: “She came from a culture that lived on islands and in the water. Clothes were for protection from the elements and occasionally to show status, bug generally, Teek weren’t big on covering up for any supposed moral reasons. Cuecolans and, frankly, all the mainlanders were much too uptight about nudity.”
Although each city/district/clan has its own set of established norms, the Meridian has many LGBTQ+ people (and with the exception of Cuecola seems an accepting place). We have queer main and side characters and a third gender which are referred to as bayeki and use xe/xir pronouns. I loved the casualness of Roanhorse’s representation (casual but never insensitive or superficial).
This world also has some fab lore and magic. There are those who can read the skies, the Teek who can Sing to the water ie calm the seas (they call the water Al-Teek, their mother), and those who can converse and command crows. And we also have gigantic crows that can be ridden. How cool is that?
Unlike many other high fantasy books there is no info-dumping here. If anything Roanhorse keeps her cards close to her chest. We sometimes learn of certain things via conversations, such as when a character from X place has gone to Y place and is questioning a particular aspect of that society/city/culture. These dialogues didn’t feel contrived, and they provided us with a fuller picture of the Meridian.
I can’t wait to explore this world more in the next instalment.

Now…on the things that sort of worked and sort of didn’t (for me of course, these ‘criticisms’ are entirely subjective and I encourage readers to read reviews that express opposing takes/views). We have three main storylines: Xiala, a captain and a Teek who after accepting a job offer from a merchant lord finds herself transporting important cargo to the city of Tova; the cargo happens to be Serapio who was blinded by his own mother as part of a ritual and is now part of an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it prophecy prophesy; Narampa, the Sun Priest, who is a Dry Earther and as such is held in contempt by other Watchers. Although we are given the perspectives of individuals who are on opposing sides, I never felt very sympathetic towards Narampa, so for awhile I found myself rooting for the anti-Watchers…until that ending of course.
While most readers will correctly predict that at one point or another the lives of the paths of these characters will cross, they each of their own storyline. The first half of this novel is very much of slow-burn. While there is plenty of action and drama, I didn’t find the plot all that gripping (the chapters focusing on Serapio’s childhood were strongly reminiscent of Damaya’s chapters in The Fifth Season). Much of Narampa’s storyline irked me as it was kind of predictable (we have the cunning mean girl who tries to sabotage her). It is suggested that Narampa wants to change the ways of the Watchers but this isn’t explored all that well. There is too much time spent on her relationship to Iktan, the Priestof Knives who now protects Narampa. They were former lovers, and Narampa is suddenly interested again merely because she assumes that Iktan is seeing someone else (which is somewhat realistic but their former relationship remains vastly uncharted so that I never could picture them together or even believe that Narampa still had feelings for Iktan). Part of me thinks that we weren’t meant to like Narampa all that much, but I do wish she could have been made more sympathetic. After the 80% I did start to dislike her less so at least her character arc isn’t a flat one. Flashbacks into her childhood would have probably made her seem like a less uptight and supercilious.
Xiala and Serapio at first reminded me a bit too much of the two main characters in Trail of Lightning. Their personalities too seem to revolve around their unique abilities. But once their voyage across the Crescent Sea gets interesting we get to see a more rounded picture of their personalities as well as insights into their pasts, fears, and desires. Dismissing Xiala as a loud-mouth or the typical spitfire heroine would be to ignore her more vulnerable side. Her powers were cool, and I loved learning about the ways of the Teek or their relationship to Al-Teek. Serapio did walk to close to the “monster/villain/antihero” line. Readers seem to love type of character in spite of his actions. Usually his traumatic past gives him a free pass. Thankfully, Roanhorse subverts this trope. Serapio, like Xiala, has many vulnerable moments. Although he does question the path he has taken, we see that there are quite a few people responsible for his having embarked upon it.
While I could get past their instantaneous kinship, given their status as outsiders, I wish that their feelings had remained platonic…or that at least that their romance could have been explored in the next instalment. I wasn’t a big fan of their romance. While I did enjoy their dynamic, their attraction and romantic feelings for each other made their relationship a bit more basic. And, dare I say that my sapphic heart was sad to read another fantasy book with a het central romance? While Xiala is queer and attracted to women, she has never felt anything like what she feels for Serapio (insert eye roll). And I definitely did no enjoy reading this line: “I’ve been on a ship for the past two weeks with a celibate. Offer now, and who knows what happens? I’ve only got so much self-control”. This line would not be okay if uttered by a male character…so why is it okay if Xiala says it? Serapio is younger and inexperienced, so why can Xiala make a ‘I will jump your bones/I can’t help myself’ joke?
Still, I did overall enjoy their bond and scenes together. Hopefully their romance will be more convincing to me in the follow up book.
We also get a fourth character. He is introduced around the 40% mark…and his chapter are unnecessary. We never learn more of what kind of person he is, but rather his chapters are very oriented. He has very few chapters and with the exception of the last one these could be cut out of the novel without any major changes to the overall narrative.

In spite of my initial sentiments towards this novel Roanhorse’s writing is absorbing. There are many discussions, surrounding violence and justice for example (“justice came through the actions of humans holding wrongdoers to account, not through some vague divine retribution and certainly not through violence”), that can be applied to our own world. Xiala, Serapio, and even Narampa face stigma for who they are (“People like us are always hated until they need us—isn’t that always the way?”). Roanhorse gives different perspectives on the same or similar incidents/issues, presenting us with a nuanced view of things. She also wrote some wickedly cool lines and descriptions such as “He screamed, euphoric, and the world trembled at his coming” / “a false god is just as deadly as a true one” / “the world shuddered, as if it recognized him and feared what it saw”.
If you want to read an action-driven epic set in a non-Western inspired world and that is brimming with amazing visuals and concepts look no further. In spite of my criticisms towards the first half of the novel and the romance I did enjoy it and I would actually read it a second time (perhaps when the sequel is about to come out).

MY RATING: 3 ¾ stars (rounded up) out of 5 stars

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Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert — book review

43884209.jpgI feel cheated by the cutesy illustration on the cover of Get a Life, Chloe Brown.
Having recently finished a romcom novel with a similar cover (If I Never Met You by Mhairi McFarlane) I was under the misguided impression that Talia Hibbert’s book belonged to the same genre.
While Get a Life, Chloe Brown certainly starts out like any other romcom, with the promise of a delightful enemies-to-lovers romance, after the first fifty pages or so I realised that this book was going to be a lot more explicit than I’d anticipated …still, I wasn’t prepared for the sex in this book to be quite so
cringeworthy
.

The Good Stuff

After escaping unscathed what could have been fatal accident Chloe Brown, a thirty-something-year-old whose fibromyalgia has led her to live a fairly controlled and risk-free life, decides to ‘get a life’. She makes a list (with things such as ride a motorbike, go camping, have carefree sex) and finally moves out of her family’s house.
The first few chapters of Get a Life, Chloe Brown were thoroughly entertaining.
While we know that Chloe has a lot to contend with, her upfront and amusing inner monologues, and her awkward exchanges with others were diverting and uplifting.
Chloe’s reserved demeanour and cutting humour cause the superintendent/handyman of her building to form a not so great opinion of her and sees her as a haughty snob. Chloe herself dislikes Redford ‘Red’ Morgan because of his laid-back attitude and for the easy way in which he can charm others (including her younger sisters).
After Red rescues Chloe from a tree (in what was her attempt to rescue a cat) the two strike up a deal: Red will help Chloe with her list and in exchange she will build a website for Red’s art. At this stage of the book I found their dynamic amusing and I sympathised with both of them.
I was particularly looking forward to reading about Chloe’s story arc as I also suffer from chronic pain. Talia Hibbert articulates the in congruencies that come with chronic illness: Chloe’s craves independence and freedom, she does not want to be see in the light of her condition…yet she simultaneously wishes that others could understand that the everyday activities, actions and movements they might take for granted are impossible or cause incredible pain to her. I loved it when she tells Red that she isn’t hurt, she is hurting. Her condition is a constant. Yet, she doesn’t let fibromyalgia dictate everything that she is or does. Chloe has so much else going for her: her job as a website designer, her sense of style, and her humour.

The Not So Good Stuff
As I said, the relationship between Red and Chloe started well enough as it promised to be more of a slow-burn. Boy, was I wrong. After the first 50 pages Red is already masturbating and fantasising about Chloe (this after 1 sort of amicable/very banter-y interaction). Soon, the novel completely focused on Red and Chloe and their shared physical attraction.
What about Chloe’s sisters? Her parents? Her grandmother? They seem forgotten. The sisters have a cameo or two but that’s about it. I wanted to see more family interactions…especially since we are told that Chloe spent the last ten years of her life interacting and socialising with her family and has 0 friends. Surely she would have thought about them more?
Red…I wanted to like him…but I just couldn’t look past his creepy behaviour. He barely knows Chloe when he makes a pass on her. She was vulnerable, and he seemed to take advantage of that. He also had this weird ‘I’m a nice guy’ act which had him behaving like a woman’s idea of the ideal man (sensitive, funny, attentive, artistic, and most of all: HUNKY). Because we will be reminded time and again that Red is BIG, he is HUGE. Red is basically a tall and ripped walking breathing Greek statue.
Most of the book is about Red and Chloe fantasising about one another and having sexual encounters. There is some predictable miscommunication towards the end and that’s about it.
I don’t mind the odd sex scene or so but when the narrative is nearly entirely focused on the physical attraction between the two leads well, I begin to loose interest.
Hibbert’s portrayal of class is simplistic and superficial. Part of me was annoyed by the fact that Chloe never acknowledges her privileged background. Having fibromyalgia does not negate one’s wealth/education.
More than anything, I was disconcerted by the incongruent tone of this novel: on the one hand we have this very cutesy story in which both leads seem to act in a very childlike manner (with Red thinking and saying to Chloe things such as “you are too cute”, nicknaming her “Button”, and their silly email exchanges) on the other we have scenes upon scenes of cringe-worthy sex scenes that seemed closer to bad porn (is there such a thing as good porn? I doubt that) that a romance novel.

The Not Good At All Stuff (heads up: EXPLICIT LANGUAGE BELOW)
The scenes leading to their sexual encounters try to come across as hard-core, filled with dirty, and frankly crude, talk: the actual sex scenes however are anything but sexy or ‘steamy’ and I had a hard time keeping a straight face as they made me laugh my head off. They manage to be a weird combination of tawdry and hilarious.
These are some of unintentionally funny descriptions of Chloe and Red’s sex scenes:
➜ “her hot pussy fluttering around him” (fluttering?)
➜ “He gritted his teeth as his orgasm came barreling at him like a freight train” (I am dying with laughter. Like a freight train? Chloe better watch out!)
➜ “She melted, and he licked up her wetness like nectar.” (Chloe sure does melt a lot)
➜ “Her orgasm was so powerful she thought she might black out.” (their orgasms sure are powerful, better watch out for a concussion)

There were however also a lot of antiquated, and out of character, moments in which Red orders around Chloe (up to that point Red has been depicted as the embodiment of kindness, and whose inherently serene disposition make everyone around him, himself included, refer to him as a ‘nice guy’; whereas Chloe strives for independence and has a strong sense of integrity and justice).
Maybe if their ‘dirty talks’ had been more in line with their established personalities and dynamic (with Red reffering to Chloe as Button and Chloe calling Red Mr.Morgan ) I wouldn’t have found it so trashy. But here we have two supposedly ‘modern/different’ individuals who during their sexual encounters take up antiquated, outdated, and inherently misogynistic roles in which the man commands the woman:
➜“Who was she? Apparently, the kind of woman who thrilled at coarse orders like that, and broke a little bit when they were followed with hoarse manners.”
➜“I want to hold you open like this when you take my cock.”

And the worst thing is that this kind of talk starts when their friendship is still uncertain. Red, our supposedly tranquil and empathic guy, tells Chloe that “I want to put my hand under your skirt and feel how hot your pretty cunt is. But I bet you wouldn’t let me do that in public” when they still don’t know each other very well when they are out on a Chloe’s first night out.
There is also a scene following their first amicable encounter where we get a fully detailed depiction of Red masturbating while he fantasises about Chloe, a woman who until the previous morning he had disliked and whom he barely knows.

As much as I wanted to love this novel, I found the characters’ sex scenes to be vulgar and obsolete. One may have certain fetishes, whatever floats your boat, but why do so many ‘romance novels’s feature a woman who is happy to be spoken about in such a way? ‘Thrilled’ to be ordered and commanded, made to ‘beg’ until her manly man finally grants her the gift of his almighty ‘penis’. Also, how many women who come from a background similar to Chloe’s would refer to their vagina as their pussy? There is nothing wrong with the word VAGINA. It exists, use it.

I just wasn’t a fan of the way in which Hibbert would describe her characters’ desire. Most of the time her expressions and metaphors are either questionable or unfunny:
➜“She was dissolving like sugar in hot tea.”
➜“Her middle melted like chocolate fudge cake.”

Final verdict
What started out as a witty romcom ended up being closer to erotica with sex scenes which are both disempowering and unintentionally hilarious.
I have learnt my lesson: never trust a book cover.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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THE HOUSEKEEPER AND THE PROFESSOR: BOOK REVIEW

housekeeper_professor
The Housekeeper and the Professor
by Yōko Ogawa
★★★★✰ 3.5 stars

A poignant and gentle tale of a friendship between a professor (whose memory lasts approximately 80 minutes), his housekeeper and her ten-year-old son, who goes by the nickname of ‘Root’.
The narrative of The Housekeeper and the Professor although brimming with compassion avoids being over-sentimental. There is plenty of kindness and love to be found in this novel. Ogawa’s style depicts with honesty the friendship between an old and vulnerable man and a hard-working single mother. The housekeeper, a good-natured woman, becomes interested in maths thanks to the professor, who prior to his brain injury was a professor of maths. While living in solitude, cut away from the world, he still possess his love for numbers and a knack for teaching.
Nothing eventful really happens, and this is not a plot-driven novel. The narrator recounts this friendship and a particular time of her life in an almost wistful manner. Her reminiscing provides some beautiful observations and some lovely phrases.
As silly as it might sound, there was a bit too much talk of numbers&maths and baseball, so I did feel a bit distanced from the story at times. Nevertheless, if you fancy a quick and moving story, look no further.

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Borderline by Mishell Baker

After her suicide attempt, Millie has lost her legs and gained a myriad of scars. She has spent months in a private clinic, not really planning to get back out. But, when she receives an intriguing ’employment’ offer, she finds herself unable to refuse. Turns out that Hollywood is brimming with fairies, and people like Millie, who has BPD, are more attuned to this magical reality.

Borderline is a fast-paced and addicting read. Millie’s mind is in a constant buzz: her mood swings, and passionate reactions maintain the story’s momentum .
Millie soon discovers that the Arcadia Project is dealing with ‘out of the ordinary’ occurences and that her new ‘colleagues’ are rather *ahem* bonkers *ahem*…which led me to wonder, would they really trust a bunch of really untrustworthy and somewhat unbalanced people with maintaining order between these two worlds? Even Caryl, Millie’s boss, seems to have no clue how to keep them all in check. Millie is kept in the dark a lot of the time, which might allow her to wander off on her own, but is hardly credible. She is meant to obey a series of set rules that no one is willing to explain to her: she inevitably ends up breaking rules that she didn’t even know existed. The power structures in Arcadia Project is also sketchy. We don’t get a fully view on how they operate… Still, despite my initial disbelief, I soon found myself willing to believe that yes, there could be a group of dysfunctional individuals living together mostly tasked with tracking faerie folk gone AWOL.
Millie’s companions are not exactly welcoming, which further distances Millie from their organisation. Millie’s first case is the drive of the story. Turns out that fairies have human soulmates (Echos), and that they can greatly influence creative people: most artists and directors have a fairy friend inspiring them…the Echo of one of a famous – and much admired by Millie – director has seemingly disappeared…
I liked Baker’s take on fairies/magic. They are in some ways as one might expect them: they are alluring, they enjoy misleading humans, and there is a strong divide between ‘high’ and ‘low’ fairies. I wasn’t 100% sold on the idea of them having human ‘soulmates’ but I soon become used to it. A thing that I really appreciated was how Baker pays attention to the ‘language’, in fact, Millie notices that newcomers fairies stress the wrong syllables.

Millie is a bit of a mess. And she knows it. I initially didn’t like how often she refers to her BPD as to explain her behaviour, as if readers are led to believe that Baker is justifying Millie’s selfish actions and sharp words. But it isn’t. Millie is just using the coping mechanism she has learned in her hospital stay. She is trying to understand her own actions, by putting them in perspective of her BPD and disability. The anger and frustration at the loss of her legs was intense. All of her emotions are vividly rendered, and while Millie is undoubtedly damaged, she carries a spark that makes her incredibly engaging. I loved her, in spite of her irrationality and hot temper. And, more importantly, I liked that this novel is about her. Yes, she forms various relationships – none of them romantic – but she remains the focus.
The other characterswell. They could be just as maddening. I often wondered if Millie was really deserving of their behaviours: she was often treated as this big hot mess (which, to be fair, she sort of is) but they themselves are offbeat… I couldn’t really get a good ‘feel’ of them; they were are all a bit too erratic. I was curious about them but I was hoping for a fuller picture of their personalities.

All in all, I wasn’t fully taken by all of the story’s aspects, but, I did find Borderline to be a hugely compelling read with a fresh spin to UF genre, and I soon grew accustomed to some of the more questionable scenarios.