Wahala by Nikki May

The cover and premise for Wahala made me think that this novel would be a beach thriller, something in the realms of Liane Moriarty. While the unfolding drama between a trio of ‘friends’ was fairly amusing to read of, Wahala wasn’t quite the suspenseful domestic thriller I’d hoped it to be. Still, this was, for the most part, an entertaining read and Ronke alone kept me turning pages.

Set in London, Wahala is centred around three mixed-race friends, Ronke, Simi, Boo. They met in Bristol and their shared experiences drew them together. Over the years they have all embarked on different paths but they remain close friends, eating out together or meeting up to vent about their partners or lives. Ronke, a dentist, doesn’t have the greatest dating history but she hopes that her current boyfriend, Kayode, is ‘the one’. Simi, married to Martin who lives and works in New York, is tired of putting up with her boss’ microaggressions. Boo is growingly dissatisfied with her life as a stay-at-home mum. She begins to resent her husband, Didier, and even her four-year-old daughter.
And then Isobel arrives. She’s hideously wealthy and an old acquaintance of Simi. Soon enough she inserts herself in the group, spoiling them with expensive gifts and seems more than willing to let them vent about their lives. While Boo falls completely under Isobel’s wing, and Simi too, finds herself confiding her secrets to her, Ronke remains suspicious of her motivations.

Each chapter switches between Ronke, Simi, Boo, so that we get to see their perspectives equally. We also begin to sense that Isobel is up to no good as she seems intent on stirring trouble, and soon enough cracks begin to form in the bond between Ronke, Simi, and Boo.

I liked the author’s sense of humor as well as her commentary on race, marriage, motherhood as well as her insights into Nigerian culture (her descriptions of Nigerian food are chief’s kiss).
Ronke, Simi, and Boo have very different personalities and, while they do share many similar experiences, backstories. Boo, for example, grew up not knowing her Nigerian father and because of this seems to distrust Black men like Kayode (her friends do call her out on this). Ronke, on the other hand, loved her father, who passed away when she was young and does not see herself dating a man who isn’t Black. Simi doesn’t want children, Ronke wants to start a family, and Boo has a child she seems to hate.

There were things that prevented me from truly loving this book. For one, the story could have benefited from an extra dose of suspense as the ‘thriller’ aspect comes into play at the very end. The narrative seems mostly driven by the miscommunication between the various characters (couples & friends alike) and after a while it became repetitive.
I also hated, and I mean it, Boo and Simi. They were awful, to their partners and Ronke. Ronke, who was honest, kind, funny, I loved. But seeing her remain friends with these two horrible people…? Why would she do this to herself?
Boo’s chapters were a chore to get through. She complains constantly about her husband and daughter, both of whom are actually far more likeable than she is. She’s also really stupid in that she jumps to idiotic conclusions without using any common sense.
Simi was more of a cypher and I did not feel particularly sympathetic towards her.
Isobel was very hard to believe in. Those ‘twists’ towards the end managed to be both predictable and totally OTT. Isobel seemed just to exist as the bad guy and maybe I would have found her more credible had she had her own chapters.
All in all, while Wahala is not exactly a riveting read, it was for the most part an amusing read that doesn’t take itself too seriously (the author pokes fun at her characters’ histrionics). I do think that Ronke deserved better and that Simi and Boo had it too easy…

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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White Ivy by Susie Yang

“She never got too greedy. She never got sloppy. And most important, she never got caught.”

Ivy Lin gives characters like Madame Bovary, Becky Sharp, and Lily Bart a run for their money. She’s terrible (and I loved her).

White Ivy is an addictive and razor-sharp debut novel. Susie Yang has spun a deliciously dark and deeply beguiling story, one that presents its readers with a piercing examination of class, gender, and culture. Part coming-of-age part psychological thriller White Ivy makes for a subversive and layered character study. The novel’s adroit commentary on privilege and powers is as unsettling as it is gripping. Yang’s taut storytelling not only amps up the tension between her characters but makes White Ivy into an edge-of-your-seat read. Fans of Patricia Highsmith and Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell should definitely consider picking this up.

The novel’s very first line functions as a warning of sorts: “Ivy Lin was a thief but you would never know it to look at her.”
Ivy is indeed a thief. After spending her early years in the care of her grandmother, who would later provide her with an invaluable (if unorthodox) education in shoplifting, Ivy is reunited with her parents in America. Over the course of her childhood Ivy begins to despise her family and everything they stand for. By the time she’s a teenager, Ivy feels little other than loathing toward them. Her distorted sense of self and dubious worldview has been shaped by the books she read as a child. In a manner very reminiscent of Madame Bovary, Ivy’s attitude towards others and herself is irrevocably shaped by these fictions. While Emma read medieval romances that made her long for poetry-reciting-knights-in-shining-armour, Ivy’s imagination is populated by half-formed images of wealth, beauty, and whiteness. Ivy’s self-loathing, her internalised racism, and her contempt towards the poor and the working class are not easy to read. Yet, for the life of me, I could not bring myself to judge or condemn her. As the story progresses we see just how intent she is on attaining the riches and ‘class’ she so idealizes.
Growing up in suburban Massachusetts Ivy tries to fit in with her American peers. Ivy is ashamed of her Chinese immigrant parents and their low-income, finding them wanting of those ‘all-American’ qualities she has so come to yearn for. Although Ivy forges a temporary friendship of sorts with Roux Roman, a fellow outsider who shares some of her criminal inclinations. Ivy’s object of devotion is Gideon Speyer, the classic ‘golden boy’ who comes from a hideously wealthy family. Ivy longs both to be with Gideon and to have what he has.
After Ivy’s forced vacation in China, she returns to America to discover that her parents have moved so she loses touch with both Roux and Gideon. Years later, after Ivy has moved out and gone to university, Ivy comes across Gideon’s sisters and quickly inserts herself into Gideon’s life. All of a sudden her dreams seem to have been made into her reality. Not only is she socialising with the so-called upper-crust, spending her time in fancy mansions and eating at luxury restaurants but something may be happening between her and Gideon. Her social-climbing is thwarted by a ‘ghost’ from her past, someone who knows that Ivy isn’t the kind and friendly woman she is pretending to be with Gideon and his family.

Ivy shares quite a few similarities with classic anti-heroines who are determined to improve their circumstances, be it through lies or clever manipulations. Ivy also reminded me of Tom Ripley. Like him, Ivy is hungry for something more. She believes that wealth and Gideon will fill the hole within her but nothing seems able to satisfy her hunger. Gideon is not flawless, he is a rather remote and undecipherable figure. Unwilling to upset or break the idealized vision that she has of him, Ivy leaves much of his behaviour unchallenged. Of course, their dynamic had a ‘who’s using who’ angle to it that makes for some captivating reading material. Roux, for better or worst, is far less opaque. Similarly to Ivy herself, I felt rather conflicted towards him, unsure whether I should despise him or root for him. Speaking of rooting, I was rooting for Ivy. She’s vain, selfish, manipulative, and yet, I thought she was a truly fascinating character. As I said, she shares quite a lot in common with Tom Ripley so being on her side sometimes made me question my own judgement. But, given that every character in White Ivy is flawed or downright nasty, it wasn’t all that hard to be on team Ivy.
Yang’s prose is both elegant and astute. Her interrogation of class and privilege, which had some strong The Great Gatsby vibes (especially in contrasting old vs new money), is both unsparing and sophisticated. The world she portrays is as glamorous as it is terrible. Those who have always had money are disconnected from the everyday difficulties and realities experienced by those like Ivy, while those who do not but want to have that glittery lifestyle are almost blindsided by their wants.

I wish the ending could have been different as I found myself wanting more closure from the story and some of the characters. I also probably would have preferred it if Roux hadn’t been Romanian. Hear me out, I come from a country with a strong anti-Romanian attitude so I am quite susceptible when it comes to how Romanian characters are presented (and making them criminals and/or violent risks fuelling already existing harmful stereotypes).

White Ivy is a riveting debut novel. Ivy was a fascinating character, Yang’s prose is truly phenomenal, and the suspense is something else. Yang has spun an exceptional tale about love, obsession, lies, and betrayals. If you don’t mind reading about alienated characters whose moral compass is more than a little off, well look no further.

my rating: ★★★★½

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Symptomatic by Danzy Senna

“Every day in this new city I was trying to live in the purity of the present, free from context. Contexts, I knew, were dangerous: Once you put them into the picture, they took over.”

As with her latest novel New People, Symptomatic presents its readers with a claustrophobic and disquieting narrative that becomes increasingly surreal. Both novels are set in the 90s in New York and follow light-skinned biracial women whose white-passing often results in them feeling on the outside of both the white and Black communities. Senna’s razor-sharp commentary on race in America holds no punches as time and again she identifies and dissects everyday slights, aggressions, and hypocrisies. Symptomatic is narrated by an unnamed young woman in her twenties who is interning as a journalist. As she ‘passes’ as white she begins to feel alienated, a feeling that is exacerbated when she witnesses her white boyfriend—who believes she is Hispanic—guffawing at a friend’s racist impersonation. Our narrator is not close to her parents, each of who has embarked on a mystical or religious journey—nor her surfer brother. Senna portrays her feeling of aloneness with incisive precision. The main character feels so severed from her surroundings that she often feels or sees rather disquieting things that may or may not be there. The imagery Senna provides is unpleasant, unsettling, and even grotesque: a “raw chicken wing” lying in the gutter is the narrator’s eyes, however momentarily, a “pink fetus”, a “steak fry” transforms in a “severed finger”, a woman’s “pregnant belly” pokes out “like a tumor”.

A colleague of the protagonist helps her in her hour of need. After breaking up with her boyfriend the narrator needs a new place and this colleague, Greta, hooks her up with an apartment that has been temporarily vacated by its actual rentee. The narrator and Greta become close as they both happen to be light-skinned biracial women. In spite of their age gap, Greta is in her forties, they feel united by their experiences (of others assuming they are white, of being told they are not really Black, of being seen as ‘neither here nor there’). Their thoughts and feelings on race, on white and Black people, can be vicious, full of vitriol, and give us an understanding of them (of the way they have been treated or made to feel). Time and again the narrator is told that there is something about the way she looks, there is an “unsettling” “dissonance” to her that makes others feel uneasy, unable to place her.
As the two women spend more time together it becomes clear to the narrator that Greta is a deeply disturbed and perturbing person. When Greta’s obsession with her forces the narrator to cut ties with her, she soon discovers that the older woman is not willing to let go so easily.

“I felt ill. My symptoms were mild and vague. They roamed my body, like tinkers searching for new temporary homes where they could not be caught.”

Senna’s prose is as always terrific. I was hypnotized by her words, however uneasy they made me feel. Her commentary on race and contemporary culture is both illuminating and provocative, and, weirdly enough, I also appreciate the cynicism of her novels. The world she presents us with is ugly and so are the people inhabiting it. The oppressive atmosphere of her narratives is made all the more stultifying by the perturbing direction of her storylines. Simple interactions between characters are anything but simple as they are often underlined by a sense of anxiety.
Alas, Senna does have an Achille’s heel and that is the final act of her novels. Here there is a reveal which I definitely did not buy into, if anything, it made this one character seem less fleshed out than they were. The character’s spiraling into alienation is halted by witnessing someone who has already embarked on this path of self-destruction. The final confrontation also, as noted by other reviewers on GR, was a bit too reminiscent of Passing. As with New People the ending had a touch of bathos that made me reconsider the novel on the whole.
Still, in spite of this, I do love Senna’s writing. Her prose is mesmerizing and the content of her stories is both disquieting and eye-opening. If you like authors such as Ottessa Moshfegh you should definitely try reading something by Senna.

re-read: a truly disturbing piece of fiction. The mysterious shadows and symptoms haunting our protagonist are truly disturbing.

my rating: ★★

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Before the Ruins by Victoria Gosling

“To sleep on? Or to wake? This was the question facing me. To sleep, or to wake and face the reckoning, to find out what had been lost.”

Although by no means an incompetent debut Before the Ruins does not offer a particularly innovative take on this subgenre (usually we have big houses, a group of friends, something bad happens, years later something happens that makes our protagonist look back to this period of their life). The blurb for Before the Ruins does no favors to the actual contents of the novel. The diamond necklace functions as a MacGuffin, the ‘Game’ happens largely off the page, Andy’s “destructive behavior” does not seem all that destructive, and David is by no means ‘magnetic’. Maybe if I had not read any novels by Barbara Vine I would have been able to enjoy this more but while I was reading it I found myself more than once wishing I was reading Vine instead.

Before the Ruins is narrated by Andy who is her late thirties and works/lives in London. When the mother of her childhood best friend Peter calls her asking about his whereabouts Andy finds herself thinking back to that ‘fateful’ time in her life, when she was eighteen or so and alongisde Peter, and Marcus, Andy’s boyfriend, sneaked into ‘the manor’. Here they play ‘the game’, looking for a diamond necklace reputed to have been lost decades before. The arrival of David changes their group dynamics as both Andy and Peter fall for him. I thought that this would be the focus of the novel but in reality it is not. There two or three scenes depicting this ‘mythical summer’ and soon the focus of the story switches to the present day. We still get a few chapters relating past events, but these are fairly summative in nature.
Which brings me to my biggest criticism towards Before the Ruins : too much telling, not enough showing. Andy gives us recaps of these supposedly pivotal moments of her life. We do not see enough interactions between the members of the group, I wanted more of Peter and David, or at least more of Em and Andy. But what we get is a lot of pages emphasising that Andy was the ‘wild one’ from a difficult home, while everyone else seemed to have wonderful home environments. While Andy concedes that being gay in a small village in the 1990s was not easy for Peter the narrative will often stress Andy’s struggles. Em was portrayed as almost opposite to Andy’s tough-girl personality: she is ‘elfin’, an artist, more feminine, less in your face. Marcus was also painfully one-dimensional, as the not-so-nice-nice-guy. Peter…I really wanted to read more about it. But when Andy revisits the past she often skims over their time together, making their relationship seem not all that complex. He reminded me of other characters from this group of friends/something bad happens’ genre so I found myself almost superimposing my memory of those characters over him.
The setting of Marlborough was familiar to me, so I could easily envision the places that Andy was discussing but for readers who have never been to Marlborough or other villages in Wiltshire, well, they may find that the setting is at times a bit generic ‘countryside’. There are too few descriptions of Andy and her surroundings, especially once we get to the present. And, I would have loved to have more detailed descriptions of the manor (we get some at the start but I would have liked some more…I don’t expect Vine levels of architectural details but…).
Still, I did eventually warm up to the characters and story in the latter half of the novel. There are some beautiful and insightful observations about accountability, trauma, love, and grief. While the revelations towards the end did not come as surprise that is largely due to the fact that I have come across a lot of books that tread similar grounds (most of Vine’s novel, The Truants, The Secret History, The Lessons, If We Were Villains, The Likeness, The Sisters Mortland, Tell Me Everything….).
It frustrated me that Gosling either kept the most interesting encounters or exchanges off-page or simply rushed them. Expanding that ‘mythical summer’ would have given the overall story more tension (we could have seen with more clarity how David’s presence disrupted the group’s established dynamics). The story about the missing diamonds is delivered in a somewhat clumsy way, and I wish that the whole ‘game’ had been depicted in a different way. The novel is still engaging and suspenseful but I was often aware of where the story would go next.

Nevertheless, for all my criticism, I recognize that Gosling can write well, and even if Andy was not my kind of protagonist, I appreciated her character arc. Gosling is talented, of this there is no doubt, but I do wish that she had written a more original story.

my rating: ★★★¼

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When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole

When No One is Watching is a gripping read, think Hitchcock by way of Liane Moriarty.
The novel is set in a predominantly black neighbourhood in Brooklyn. After her divorce Sydney Green, who is her 30s, returns to her old neighbourhood in order to take care of her ailing mother. Soon Sydney can’t help but notice that her beloved neighbourhood is changing, and not for the better. Her friends and neighbours are disappearing, only to be replaced by white and well-off couples and families. After taking part in a walking tour of the neighbourhood Sydney is understandably frustrated by its selective approach to history so she decides to create her own ‘revisionist’ tour, one that will delve into the city’s colonial past. She reluctantly lets her new white neighbour, Theo, help her in her research. Theo is in a rocky relationship with his obnoxious white girlfriend, a woman who has a framed portrait of Michelle Obama in her living room and is more than capable of threatening to call 911 on her new black neighbours, just for kicks. And if anyone calls her out on her racism, let the tear-ducts open.
Sydney grows increasingly paranoid as more of her neighbours disappear, seemingly overnight. She knows that something is wrong, and that her community is under siege.

I really liked the premise for this novel. Alyssa Cole touches upon many serious and relevant issues (racism, racial economic inequality, racial profiling, police brutality, gentrification, colonialism, ‘white tears’, performative allyship).
From the very first pages Cole creates this air unease as Sydney rightfully alienated by her changing neighbourhood. Soon enough she’s made to feel like an outsider in her own neighbourhood by the new white arrivals. Her anxiety is exacerbated by her fraught marriage with her now ex-husband which has caused her to doubt-herself and others. She feels watched, but by whom?
Although there were some really creepy moments that brought to mind Rear Window, we also had a few scenes that were kind of silly and had a more jokey tone. These mostly happened during Theo’s pov. Which brings me to the romance subplot…why?

Theo is a dullish character who is made to seem ‘human’ or flawed but ends up being straight up annoying as. His faux pas weren’t always convincing, and if anything they just made him a really bad match for Sydney. Sydney I liked. She was passionate and righteously angry. Her insecurities did get slightly irritating, especially when they lead to the predictable and avoidable misunderstanding that always happen in romance novels (usually 3/4 of the way through), but I rooted for her nonetheless. Could she have been a better friend to Drea? For sure. But given the less than ideal circumstances it made sense for Sydney to feel alienated and mistrustful. What I couldn’t get past was her supposed attraction to Theo. As mentioned above, the man was dull and kind of dense.

The ending seemed lacked the oopmh of Get Out, and perhaps it tries to follow it too closely. At the end things take a wild turn and I wasn’t convinced by the main revelations. The story, which so far had been suspenseful, spirals into violence…and it felt tacky. Scenes that should have been horrifying are delivered in a slapstick kind of way. I wasn’t against the violence per se (don’t @ me, I’ve been reading Frantz Fanon) but the way it is handled here was questionable indeed.
Another thing I didn’t like was that for 70% of the novel both narrators, Sydney and Theo, refer obliquely to ‘something’ bad and mysterious they have done. Why prolong the reveal ? By then I’d already kind of guessed what their ‘secrets’ where, and I didn’t really feel all that affected or shocked by their confessions.

As much as I appreciated the topics Cole discusses, as well the story’s earlier atmosphere, I was let down by the romance, the story’s inconsistent tone, and the finale. Theo made for a terrible character, and I really did not want him to be with Sydney…sadly we get this very out-of-place ‘sexy’ scene that would have been more suited to a book by Talia Hibbert or Helen Hoang.
Still, this was an absorbing read, and Cole is clearly informed on the issues she tackles throughout the course of the story. There are some illuminating, if sobering, discussions on New York’s history and those alone are worth a read.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars


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Three by D.A. Mishani

Three wasn’t quite the “dark psychological thriller with a killer twist” I was anticipating. The blurb and cover suggests a far more suspenseful and possibly subversive tale that the one D. A. Mishani actually delivers. The novel’s tripartite structure didn’t feel particularly original as it has become quite popular in novels that fall under the ‘domestic thriller’ genre (more than once I was reminded of Erin Kelly’s Stone Mothers). The summary available for Three is really inaccurate. Yes, Three follows three women who live in Israel and meet the same man, Gil, who works as an immigration lawyer. One of them is a divorced single-mother, the other one is a Latvian immigrant who works as a caregiver, and the third one is a married woman who is working on her thesis. While the summary truthfully states that Gil “won’t tell them the whole truth about himself”, it is kind of stretching things when it says that these three women won’t “tell him everything either”. And that last bit about this novel being”a declaration of war against the normalisation of death and violence” is ludicrous.

MILD-SPOILERS BELOW

The first woman begins to date Gil even if she isn’t all that enamoured by him. The second one is under the misapprehension that Gil is an okay guy. The third doesn’t seem to want to take things further with him but then is somehow disarmed by Gil’s nonexistent power of persuasion. The three women don’t meet, and their narrative succeed each other chronologically. The first one is saturated by the woman angst-ing over her ex and her son. The second one portrays an immigrant woman as not all that bright and goes for the stereotype of the ‘foreign caregiver steals’. The third one has slightly more momentum than the previous two, as things by then have kind of escalated, but it didn’t offer any surprisings twists or a satisfyingly cathartic denouement.
Two of the women are painfully naive, prone to hysterics and self-pitying. Gil was portrayed in a vaguely ambiguous manner, but mostly he remains off-page and maybe that’s why I didn’t find his character to be credible.
I could have put up with the novel’s many clichés if it hadn’t been for the author’s writing style: all telling, no showing. There are very few dialogues, and most of the conversations are simply recounted to us. This passive re-telling of what the characters said to each other did little to add immediacy to the story. The third-perspective merely described what the characters do without ever delving under their surface, which had the effect of making these three women rather one-dimensional.
Although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this novel—especially to those who were intrigued by this novel’s misleading summary—I’m sure that there will be readers who find this kind of storytelling to be entertaining.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

 

“There is no time in our lives when we are so conspicuously without mercy as in adolescence.”

I don’t think I would ever picked up this ‘obscure’ and forgotten novel if it hadn’t been for the ‘crime fiction’ module I took during my second year of uni. Thanks to that module, which was in every other respect a huge waste of time (lecturer on Tom Ripley: “he does bad things because he wants more stuff”…truly illuminating), I was able to ‘discover’ Barbara Vine’s work.
Since then I’ve read a few other novels by Vine (which happens to Ruth Rendell’s nom de plume) and while I can safely say that she is an excellent writer, The House of Stairs remains my favourite of hers. Perhaps it is because of its sapphic undertones, or maybe I’m just a sucker for unrequited love stories.

“It felt like a passion, it felt like being in love, it was being in love, it was the kind of thing you delude yourself that, if all goes well, will last a lifetime. Things, of course, didn’t go well. When do they?”

The House of Stairs tells a dizzying tale of tale of psychological suspense. Like other novels by Vine it employ two timelines and explores the haunting effects of the past on the present. ‘The present’ features characters whose lives have been altered by an often unspecified accident and or crime. The second timeline, narrated from the retrospective, focuses on their past, and in particular on the events leading to that ‘one big event’. Vine does not limit herself to recounting past occurrences, instead she allows her characters to re-examine their own actions, as well as attempting to understand the motivations behind those of others. The past and present flow into each other, and throughout her narratives Vine traces both a crime’s roots and its subsequent ramifications.
Set in London The House of Stairs London opens in 1980s when Elizabeth—protagonist and narrator—glimpses Bell, a woman who has been recently released from prison. Seeing Bell is the catalyst that makes Elizabeth recount her story (transporting us to the late 60s and early 70s) but even if she knows the identity of Bell’s victim she does not share the details of this fateful event with the readers, preferring instead to play her cards close to her chest. This dual storyline creates an apparent juxtaposition of past and present. We can hazard guesses through brief glimpses of her present, her ambiguous remarks, such as ‘Bell’s motive for asking those questions was outside the bounds of my imagings’ and ‘[A]s they wished me to do, I was seeing everything inside-out’, and through her carefully paced recounting of those events.
By re-living that particular time of her life, Elizabeth—alongside the reader—acquires a better understanding of the circumstances that lead Bell to commit murder. Her narration is a far from passive relay of what happened for Elizabeth in the present seems actively involved in this scrutiny of past events.

“It is interesting how such reputations are built. They come about through confusing the two kinds of truth telling: the declaration of opinion and principle and the recounting of history.”

One of Vine’s motifs is in fact to include a house which is the locus of her story, functioning as a Gothic element within her storylines. In this novel the house (nicknamed—you guessed it—’the house of stairs’) is purchased by Cosette—a relation of Elizabeth’s—soon after the death of her husband, and becomes home to a group of bohemians, hippies, and outsiders of sorts. The house become an experimental ground: it is an escape from traditional social norms, a possibility for Cosette to make her own makeshift family.
The house creates an almost disquieting atmosphere: those who live there are exploiting Cosette, and tensions gradually emerge between its tenants. The house can be a place of secrecy—doors shut, people do not leave their rooms, stairs creak—and of jealousy, for Elizabeth comes to view the other guests as depriving her of Cosette’s affection.


Elizabeth, plagued by the possibility of having inherited a family disease, finds comfort in Bell, a beautiful and alluring woman. Elizabeth comes to idolize Bell (comparisons to the portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi abound), and finds herself increasingly obsessed by her. Bell’s arrival into the house, however, will have violent consequences.
As Elizabeth is examining this time in her life, she, once again, finds herself falling under Bell’s spell.

“I found her exciting in a disturbing way, a soul-shacking way, without knowing in the least what I wanted of her.”

Like many other Vine novels The House of Stairs is a deeply intertextual work. Henry James, in particular, plays a significant role in Elizabeth’s narration.
Guilt, culpability, love, obsession, desire, greed, past tragedies, and family legacies are recurring themes in Elizabeth’s story. Vine, however, doesn’t offer an easy answer as she problematises notions of normalcy and evil.
There are many reasons why I love this novel so much: Vine’s elegantly discerning prose, her examination of class and gender roles in the 1960s-70s, the way she renders Elizabeth’s yearning for Bell…while I can see that some readers my age may find this novel to be a bit outdated, I would definitely recommend it to those who enjoy reading authors such as Donna Tartt, Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Magda Szabó.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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And Now She’s Gone by Rachel Howzell Hall — book review

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“Boyfriends and husbands, baby daddies and one-night stands were always madly, deeply, truly in love. Bloody love. Crazy love. Love-you-to-death kind of love.”

Last year I read the first book in Rachel Howzell Hall’s ‘Detective Elouise Norton’ series. It had a great sense of place and a brilliant main character. And Now She’s Gone shares many of its strengths. Once again Hall brings Los Angeles life and culture to life. From its more bourgeois or hipster-y venues to its neighbourhoods with their different identities. While And Now She’s Gone lacks some of Land of Shadows‘ grit, the narrative does touch upon sensitive topics.
Grayson Sykes, who goes by Gray, works at a P.I. firm, founded by an old friend of hers, and she’s just been assigned her very first ‘big’ case (previously she was tracing missing dogs).
Ian O’Donnell’s girlfriend and his dog have seemingly vanished without a trace. In spite of Ian’s seeming respectability, he’s white, wealthy, a successful doctor, Gray soon begins to question his relationship to his missing girlfriend. Isabel Lincoln, the missing woman, has an elusive past and her disappearance is anything but a straightforward affair.
Interspersed throughout the narrative are fragments from Gray’s own traumatic past. Her experiences inform her investigation, and she soon begins to question whether she wants to unite Ian with Isabel.
The novel juggles quite a few storylines. At times I did feel more invested in Gray’s story than in Isabel’s disappearance. Perhaps because the case becomes a rather thorny affair, and there were certain revelations that seemed a bit convenient. Still, I really liked Gray and her character arc. Hall pays attention to the smaller, and often overlooked, moments that make up a P.I’s investigation (such as non-functioning pens or dying batteries). Gray’s was an admirable and relatable protagonist. I do wish that some of those ‘then’ scenes were cut, merely because I would have preferred more time with Gray in the ‘now’.
Gray’s circle of friends were entertaining and served to lighten the overall mood. In spite of its serious themes, the story did have a breezy tone (a more modern Janet Evanovich?) and I definitely liked Gray’s sense of humour: “The Armed Forces Career was steps away from Panda Express. From broccoli beef lover to proud marine in less than twenty yards.”
The romance subplot kind of irritated me. While the sexual tension between these two was clear, and I wanted Gray to be happy, I did found the whole ‘you’re not ready for a relationship’ line to be rather presumptuous (who is he to decide whether Gray is read or not?). While there were some twists that I didn’t see coming, I wasn’t entirely convinced by the story’s resolution. It felt a bit too fantastical.
Still, I did find this novel to be entertaining. Hall’s descriptions managed to be colourfully amusing:
“Las Vegas in the morning was like the hot guy in a dark club who, in the light, had buck teeth, hair plugs, and smelled like a fifties-era bowling. Morning Vegas needed to stay in bed until dusk, until the neon and the glass and full-on commitment to the illusion worked best.”
I liked how aware the narrative is of certain tropes (Gone Girl is indeed mentioned). There were quite a few nasty individuals in this novel. Ian was a repulsive guy (more than once he comes out with ‘I’m a nice guy’ and says racist shit along the lines of ‘I don’t see colour’). We also have an abusive man who does come out with non-to-credible lines: “We could’ve ruled the world”.
Another minor thing that annoyed was Gray’s necessity for ‘bottled’ water (if you don’t like tap water just buy one of those water filters!).
And Now She’s Gone would probably make a great summer read. It has compelling protagonist, a fast-paced narrative, and a vividly rendered setting.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Our Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent

The opening lines of this novel are wonderfully theatrical:

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“All three of the Drumm brothers were at the funeral, although one of us was in a coffin.”

Our Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent is a gleefully dark novel, filled with mean, selfish, and cruel individuals. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Nugent’s latest novel features one of the most unlikable casts of character

s I have ever encountered in a book. And yet, while the Drumm brothers and most of their social circle, are certainly detestable, the satirical tone that pervades Nugent’s narratives makes her characters’ nastiness a lot more ‘digestible’. Also, by exaggerating their worst traits and inflating the behaviours and reactions of nearly every-single character, the author gives her book a darkly humorous quality that keeps the story, and its characters, from being taken too seriously.

“You see, in our family somebody always had to be the butt of the joke.”

The alternating point of views and the non-linear structure of this novel add some spice to what would otherwise be a run-of-the-mill dark family drama. We have three brothers from Dublin:
William, a film producer who believes that his only ‘weakness’ are women and that he is the “most successful and least screwed-up” Drumm brother; Brian, the middle-child, who, as the only non-famous and rather forgettable brother, feels like the underdog of the family (but before readers begin to feel sympathetic towards him we soon see him for the greedy skinflint he really is); lastly, there is Luke, the youngest brother is perhaps the only one who isn’t a wholly repugnant being. He has his moments of dickishness but readers are soon confronted by the troubled state of his mental health. His life is punctuated by unhealthy behaviours: as a boy he went through a zealously religious phase, while years later, once his music career kicks off, he goes in and out of clinics, perpetually plagued by morbid hallucinations and nightmares. Alcoholisms, drugs, paranoia, depression, become the backdrop to his 20s and 30s.
In spite of their different career paths and lifestyles William, Brian, and Luke often find themselves, much to their chagrin, drawn back together. While we initially believe that Luke is the only Drumm brother to demonstrate concerning behaviour, we soon see notice that William and Brian aren’t as clear-headed as they’d like to believe.

“We all knew the experience had scarred him deeply, but it was one of our family’s little cruelties to revisit it, often.”

The story charts their bitter relationship as they try to one-up each other throughout the decades.The three brothers have never been on easy terms. They are—and always have been—rivals. If something good happens to one of them, the other two are envious and feel they themselves are entitled to happiness/success/money. The little ‘cruelties’ that they do to one another can vary from a seemingly childish taunt to a much more perfidious offence. As the narrative progresses we see that most of their interactions have always been either openly hostile or purely transactional.
Whichever brother is narrating will often paint himself as the blameless victim, the only ‘sane/good’ Drumm brother. I enjoyed discovering more about the Drumm’s familial history and found the story to be fairly suspenseful.

However, as much I enjoyed the ongoing melodrama between the Drumm brothers, part of me was ultimately unconvinced by the whole thing. From the first pages we understand that these three have never and will never love each other. Even Luke is far too self-involved to care for his older brothers. If he helps them out, he doesn’t do this out of selflessness.
The Drumm brothers have always resented or outright hated one another. At times it seems that there is some loyalty or affection between them but it is merely a false impression. They pretend to do things out of ‘brotherly’ concern or care but they are just trying to keep face (with their parents/partners/etc.). This made their recurring ‘betrayals’ less duplicitous. These ‘cruelties’ don’t seem all that cruel once we realise that they never shared a bond or connection. A toxic type of love would have been more interesting…but what we have here is three guys pretending—not very hard—that they feel something other than distaste for one another. They don’t seem hurt by the cruel words or slights they receive, rather they seem to think on the lines of ‘how dare he do this to me’.

I don’t know…I just didn’t feel the passion behind their actions. These characters weren’t unreliable as such. They simply recount events in a way that puts them in a good-light. And when they are describing some of their questionable behaviour they do so in a matter-of-fact way, without any ceremony. They quickly and efficiently justify their actions by saying that it was the only way or that the other brother deserved it.
It would have been a lot more interesting if they had done these ‘cruelties’ to the people they loved rather than to people they did not care for. In fact, they seemed to care for no one but themselves.

For the most part Nugent does a terrific job in rendering certain time periods: from the 70s to the early 2000s. However, when it came to the 2010s she gives us a simplistic vision by portraying this time as little other than ‘the social media/influencer era’. Here we have cliche after cliche. William’s daughter is the embodiment of the millennial (or what individuals of a certain age imagine all millennials to be like): she is attention-seeking, body-insecure, not very bright, bisexual only because it makes her seem alternative, a self-harmer, a fake depressive…in general Nugent’s portrayal of mental illness struck me as little other than showy.

Speaking of female characters, the three main women in this novel came across as flat. Their actions made no sense and it would have been a lot more interesting to have some short sections from their povs. The Drumm’s mother had the potential of being a complex character but she doesn’t get a lot of page-time. William’s wife is a mere plot device.

Also, as much as I was entertained by the sensationalist behaviour of these characters, I did find the latter-half of the novel to be slightly less intriguing than the first. The whole build up to ‘which one of them is dead’ loses a bit of its initial steam and the final reveal struck me as anticlimactic.
The epilogue was laughably cheesy, and I’m unsure if this was intentional or not.

Final verdict:

Our Little Cruelties is best enjoyed as a wickedly fun read rather than a psychological thriller. For the most part it is engaging and chock-full of drama between horrible people. The conversational style of the brothers’ narratives drew me in, so that I almost felt implicated by what they were telling me. Dark moments or serious issues are treated with flippancy, in a soap-opera sort of manner. If you stop to think whether the story or characters make sense…well, it might ruin your reading experience.

“We three brothers all looked, one to the other. We knew it was inevitable.”

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier — book review

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Rebecca is a work of Gothic suspense that is told in a mesmerising prose and makes for an enthralling and evocative read.

“Colour and scent and sound, rain and the lapping of water, even the mists of autumn and the smell of the flood tide, these are memories of Manderley that will not be denied.”

While reading Rebecca I realised that I was already familiar with its opening lines and some of the novel’s key scenes. This may be because of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca film or thanks to the hilarious sketch by That Mitchell and Webb Look.
In many ways Rebecca—its story, its characters, its use of Gothic elements—is not incredibly original. Yet, rather than relying wholly on its precursors (such as Bluebeard and Jane Eyre) Rebecca presents us with a more self-aware take on these otherwise tired dynamics and scenarios.
While the cast of characters do have attributes that bring to mind Jane Eyre (not only is du Maurier’s narrator a ‘plain Jane’ but one of her few hobbies happens to be ‘drawing’) they also possess qualities that reflect their own period.

The narrator’s namelessness is incredibly effective. It suggests that this novel is indeed not about her, but about Rebecca (after all the novel is titled after her). Her namelessness also reinforces her sense of inadequacy—that is of being less, not enough, simply unequal to Rebecca—and her anxiety regarding herself and others.
Daphne du Maurier untangles the mystery at the heart of her novel in a slow yet utterly compelling way. During the ‘final’ explanation she details in incisive precision the motivations and circumstances that can lead ‘ordinary’ individuals to commit a major crime. More impressive still is that even after this ‘twisty’ revelation the narrative maintains its suspense.
Much of the narrative’s ‘tension’ arises from seemingly ordinary moments. Our narrator seems to find the conventions and traditions of the British upper class to be exhausting. In spite of her often reiterated wish to be a magnetic and socially accomplished woman, she shrinks away from her role as Manderley mistress (during ‘unpleasant’ or simply adult conversations she will lower her gaze and occupy herself with her hands or with petting the dog).
The narrator’s namelessness emphasises her disempowerment. While she refers to herself as Maxim’s wife, and others will address her as Mrs de Winter, our narrator feels unequal to her position and inferior in all aspects to the previous Mrs de Winter.
The narrator’s unwillingness and inability to fulfill Rebecca’s old duties or to partake in the daily runnings of Manderley, render her vulnerable to the creepy Mrs. Danvers (a woman who is as watchful as Madame Beck in Villette).
The second Mrs de Winter struggles to assert herself, so much so that she falls victim to Mrs. Danvers’ psychological attacks. It is because she is constantly undermined by Mrs. Danvers, timid towards Manderley’s staff, and painfully aware of being scrutinised, surveyed, and compared to Rebecca, that our narrator becomes convinced of her own inferiority.
While the premise and dynamics within this novel are far from unique, I enjoyed seeing how things played out. A naive young woman, her distant and secretive husband, his recently deceased achingly-beautiful-and-charming first wife, his Bluebeard-esque estate with its skull-faced servant…these are all exceedingly Gothic elements. Given the popularity of the ‘domestic thriller’ genre, it appears that readers have yet to grow tired of these type of stories. There are few authors however who have du Maurier’s sensual prose. There is a sensuality in the narrator’s obsession and jealousy towards Rebecca. While the second Mrs de Winter never sees a photo or portrait of Rebecca, she becomes familiar with everything about her. From her perfume and clothes to her calligraphy and daily routine. Other people’s impression of Rebecca shape the narrator’s own vision of her. Rebecca comes to embody all the characteristics that the present Mrs de Winter would like to possess. Her fascination is intermingled with a deeply felt hatred.

There is little romance in the love story within Rebecca. In spite of her naïveté, our narrator soon realises that Maxim is far from love-struck. His marriage proposal seems much closer to a business proposal, and later on, not only does he seem disinterested in our narrator but he is quick to dismiss her worries and anxieties (he will tell her not to be a little idiot).
Jealousy and paranoia soon begin to plague the second Mrs de Winter. She desires more than anything to be loved by Maxim, and fears that she will never live up to his first wife Rebecca. As she becomes more and more haunted by Rebecca, the narrator’s susceptible mind often lead her to distort and exaggerate simple conversations, and to observe in her surroundings Rebecca’s imprint (there were many moments in which she reminded me of Jane Austen’s incredibly impressionable heroine Catherine Morland). Through the narrator’s dreams and her moments of dissociation readers begin to see just how deep Rebecca’s presence is within her psyche and life.
The landscape alleviates our heroine’s mystification. The gardens and the sea mirror her state of minds, and allow her to examine and question her own feelings and circumstances. Manderley’s flora and fauna, as well as its weather, capture a sense of the sublime. The idyllic and haunted Manderley plays a central role in the story and constantly occupies the narrator’s mind.
Amidst love, jealousy, and feminine ideals, this beautifully written novel conveys with perfect clarity what it means to be young and inexperienced.

 

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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