Ponti by Sharlene Teo

Ponti, Ponti, Ponti…what a vexing read. This is one of those books that was ceaselessly frustrating and, dare I say, ultimately pointless. What was this book even about? There is no story, not really. We don’t even get satisfying character studies to make up for the plotlessness of Ponti. The characters are thinly-rendered and unfunny caricatures that for 99.99% of the novel remain unchanged in their behaviours & attitudes. Given the comparison to authors such as Elena Ferrante and Emma Cline, I went into this hoping for a story about fraught and complex female friendships and found myself bitterly disappointed as the one friendship we get is not really a friendship, not at all.
I will try to give an impression of what this novel is about but you will have to bear with me as, as I stated above, this novel doesn’t really have a plot. The narrative is set in Singapore and the chapters alternate between Szu, Circe, and Amisa. Szu’s chapters take place in 2003 when she’s sixteen, Circe’s in 2020, and Amisa’s take us from the late 60s to the 80s. Amisa once starred in an indie horror trilogy called Ponti. After that, her acting career never took off and she goes on to live a rather miserable life. Her daughter, Szu, both reveres and is discomfited by her. Because of her ‘horror’ past, Szu becomes obsessed with the genre and the Ponti trilogy in particular. Szu is alienated from other girls and spends most of her school days creeping her classmates out. She eventually falls in with Circe, who is from a wealthy and fairly stable family. The two allegedly become friends but in adulthood, they no longer are in touch. I guess the reason for their falling out is what is meant to propel the storyline but my god did it drag. I felt no interest in seeing how their falling out would unfold as I never bought into their friendship. The two are horrible people. Szu’s personality revolves around her supposedly ‘macabre’ love for horror and gory stuff. That’s it. If you were to strip off that, she would have no discernible traits. Circe is an acerbic bitch who spends most of the time being a selfish little brat. As an adult, she manages to be even more grating. Amisa’s chapters, which are told in the 3rd person, do not give us much insight into her or her past. What we learn about her life there, well, we’d already learnt about it in Szu’s chapters. The ‘humor’ involves a lot of girls being catty about other girls, more often than not Szu thinking mean things about Circe & Circe saying bitchy things to Szu. The way they describe other women/girls is fairly vile.
This kind of toxic dynamic does work when say done by authors such as Ottessa…but here, it just fell flat. The characters were so one-note and often sounded very much like the same person. The dark humor promised by the summary doesn’t really come through. The narrative tries to be edgy and gritty by having passages dedicated to Circe talking about her tapeworm or our various characters taking shits. Wow, how s u b v e r s i v e. I’m shook. Most of the chapters came across as repetitive as they give us time and again the same glimpses into these women’s lives. Their inner-monologues added no depth to them, if anything, they made all the more unbelievable and indistinguishable from each other. Everything is abject: one’s body, other people and their bodies, Singapore, womanhood. Every character has greasy hair and oily skin, which is fair enough, but these are often regarded with repulsion by our mcs. Again, if the author had managed to pull off’s Ottessa’s biting humor, maybe this could have worked but as things stand it just felt forced.
I kept on reading hoping that at some point the story would take off but it never does. Nothing major happens nor do we gain more insight into the characters and their various dynamics. This was a waste of my time. The only thing this book succeed in was in establishing the setting of Singapore. That’s about it.

The characters are 1 dimensional & vile, the non-existent story goes nowhere, and the prose tries & fails to be edgy/gritty.
If you are interested in this novel and not put off by its overall low rating here on gr I recommend you check out more positive reviews.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Misfits: A Personal Manifesto by Michaela Coel

“Speaking can be a terrifying action. Our words—even when spoken from a position so powerless that all that’s produced is a moth-like squeak—can be loud enough to wake the house: a house that is often sleeping peacefully and does not want to be disturbed; a house in which perhaps you’ve found a home.

I’m very much in awe of Michaela Coel. While I liked Chewing Gum well enough, I May Destroy You blew my mind. It made me cry, it made me laugh, it gave me friggin goosebumps. If you haven’t watched it, do yourself a favour, and do it ASAP.

I would recommend Misfits to those who haven’t watched Coel’s MacTaggart Lecture. That talk, transcribed here in Misfits, is powerful indeed. Honest and incisive, this talk is definitely a must-listen/read. Coel recounts growing up Black in London, from the racism she experienced at school (from both the students and the staff) to her time at drama school. She describes a few specific episodes that highlight her love for theatre and creativity. Coel also discusses how racist, sexist, and toxic the filming industry is. Later on, Coel also speaks of being sexually assaulted, and while she doesn’t go into too much detail, this part is particularly brutal. Additionally, Coel expands on her idea of being a misfit and exploring notions of belonging and identity.

As much as I loved Coel’s words, I’m not entirely sure why her talk was published as a book. The talk is sandwiched between two short new pieces, the first one preceding said talk where she writes about having anosmia, moths, and recalls a peculiar dream she had some years ago (it felt a bit disjointed). The latter bit is a short afterword. I would have probably appreciated this release more if it had included some more essays by Coel but I nevertheless was grateful to re-experience her lecture.

my rating: ★★★½

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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We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman

“Worse than being evil, you have been made embarrassing. A punch line, again and again, for a joke that just keeps telling itself. The joke is success. And the punch line—every single time—is you.”

We Play Ourselves is a surprisingly gratifying and shrewdly observed debut novel. Jen Silverman presents her readers with a resonant character study and a mordant exploration of the highs and lows of the entertainment industry. We Play Ourselves centres on Cass, a queer playwright in her early thirties who finds herself fleeing from scandal and a crumbling career after she does something ‘bad’. Leaving New York behind Cass seeks refuge in LA with an old friend of hers. Her agent won’t pick up her calls and she has become persona non grata online. ‘Lucky’ for Cass she discovers that her neighbour Caroline, a filmmaker working on a ‘feminist’ pseudo-documentary starring a group of teenage girls who have created their own all-female Fight Club. Cass, who is still clinging to the idea of a career in this fickle industry, finds herself assisting Caroline. While this Fight Club subplot is not the narrative’s focus it is a stepping stone of sorts. Cass becomes aware of how artificial Caroline’s project is and finds herself bonding with one of the girls B.B. (their friendships is one of the novel’s highlights).
As we see Cass struggling to reconcile with the direction her life has taken we delve into her time in New York and the choices that have led her flight to L.A.

“If you’re wondering what it feels like to want two completely opposite things to the same degree, at the same time, for entirely different reasons—it feels insane. But then again, maybe it’s hard to be alive on this planet and not know how that feels.”

I could really relate to Cass, for better or worse. First, in terms of her sexuality (“There is always a moment with straight girls in which I wonder if they think I’m checking them out. And then, especially if I wasn’t, I start acting weird, because I’m trying to make it clear that I’m not, but the more you try and act as if you aren’t doing something, the more you seem like you are.”), her relationship to failure, the way she responds to other people’s success, her chaotic feelings towards the ones she is jealous of (“I want to protect her, and i want to escape her, and I want to kill her and wear her skin, all that the same time and to the same degree.”) or how she sometimes confuses different types of love and intimacy.

Her narration is wry, honest, and playfully self-deprecating. For her self-sabotaging, her many stumbles and falls, Cass is ultimately able to acknowledge and learn from her mistakes. I found her character arc really satisfying and realistic.
We also have a rich cast of secondary characters who could be entertaining, frustrating, absurd, and even heart-rendering. The dialogues all rang true to life, Silverman renders the tentative way in which we speak through the frequent usage of question marks and words such as ‘like’. I found that Silverman dialogues had a very realistic rhythm and managed to capture the individual way we all express ourselves. Silverman also pokes gentle fun at a certain type of artsy and pretentious speak which is all the rage in artists/creative fields (people who speak about the death of authenticity or the performativity of the self) .

“I have started giving myself permission to be really, really ugly. I don’t know if anyone here has ever done that? But it’s incredibly freeing, actually.”

In addition to Cass’ bond with B.B, I loved Cass’ phone calls with Josephine and her friendship with Dylan (who is bi and in the midst of relationship troubles). I also appreciated that characters other than Cass are given their own struggles and arcs. Although some readers may be disappointed by the story’s direction (read: it doesn’t focus on the Fight Club documentary all that much) or by how unresolved other characters’ storylines are, I thought that these things made the novel all the more realistic. The book is, after all, about Cass so it seemed natural for the narrative to focus on her storyline.

Through Cass’ story, Silverman explores fame, failure, ambition, contentment, creativity, jealousy, rejection, sexuality, different types of love, as well as good and the not-so-good choices people make along the way. In her portrayal of the theatre world, the realities of writers/artists, and the fickle nature of fame Silverman demonstrates both a delightful sense of humor and an impressive capacity for insight.
We Play Ourselves is a promising debut novel, one that struck me for its sharp humor, its compelling character dynamics, and its realism.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Yes, Daddy by Jonathan Parks-Ramage

“Desire places people in dangerous positions. This was a fact I’d yet to learn and something Richard knew all too well.”

Dio mio, this book was so stressful.
Equal parts gripping and horrifyingYes, Daddy is one hell of a debut novel. This is not the kind of book one enjoys reading. In fact, most of the things that happen in this novel are horrific. Yet, thanks to Jonathan Parks-Ramage’s superb writing skills, Yes, Daddy is the definition of unputdownable. The more alarming and distressing the story gets, the more impossible it was for me to tear my eyes away. Given the novel’s explicit nature and painful subject matter, I would recommend it only to those who are willing/prepared to be disturbed by what they will read.

In the novel’s prologue Jonah Keller, our protagonist, is a witness at a high-profile trial. One of the accused is Richard Shriver, a celebrated playwright and former boyfriend of Jonah. The story takes us back to 2009 and recounts the events that lead to that courtroom. Jonah is a twenty-five-year in badly of a break. He’s an aspiring playwright who works as a waiter at a horrible restaurant where he is routinely bullied and groped by his boss. Jonah’s relationship with his mother is strained, understandably given that his parents sent him to conversion therapy. In an attempt to improve his circumstances Jonah orchestrates a meeting with Richard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright in his fifties. Their relationship is intense, and soon Jonah becomes acquainted with the more disturbing aspects of Richard’s nature.
When Richard invites Jonah to spend the summer with him in his Hampton estate, Jonah jumps at the opportunity. Richard’s estate however proves to be the opposite of haven. Not only is Jonah forced to spend time with Richard’s horrible friends who take any opportunity to toy with him (expect many painful dinner scenes) but Richard begins to exhibit some alarming behaviours.
Soon, Jonah begins to feel that something sinister is going on. Why does Richard’s staff entirely consists of young and handsome men? Why do some have them have bruises? And what this all this talk about a basement? …..aaaaaaand here the story takes a nightmarish turn.

I will not say much else about the novel’s plot as I do not wish to spoil other readers’ experiences. Suffice to say: ‘bad stuff’ goes down but you will be unable to tear your eyes away from the page.
The novel ruthlessly explores the realities of being a victim of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. Jonah’s time at the estate irrevocably changes him. And yes, he, later on, makes some selfish choices, terrible even. But why should we expect victims to be paragons of virtue? If their trauma manifests itself in ugly or disturbing ways, what, they are no longer deserving of empathy?
Through Jonah’s story Parks-Ramage challenges this kind of thinking and I really admire him for it. He also shows that movements like #metoo have their limits/flaws and how easy it is for anyone to play judge, jury and executioner on social media.

If I had to rate the first 40% of the novel it would have probably been close to a 5 star however a major character in this novel (who Jonah addresses as ‘you’) really didn’t ring true to life (his character seemed to serve the role of a plot-device). And I also found certain other characters a bit OTT, so much so that they would have been at home in an episode of American Horror Story. There was also a son-mother relationship in this book that was a bit too a la Psycho and I can’t say that I believed in that much either. Lastly, towards the end, the narrative takes a direction that I wasn’t too enthused with. By then I had grown a bit wary of seeing Jonah suffer and I just wanted him to be left alone.

All in all, I found this to be an edge-of-your-seat kind of read. I was immediately drawn in by the narrative’s gothic undertones and won over by the story’s nods to The Talented Mr. Ripley and Rebecca. The more I read the more perturbed I became. In spite of its cover this novel is dark, disquieting, upsetting, and by no means an easy or enjoyable read. Still, I found Parks-Ramage’s prose captivating and I appreciated the way he combined an electrifying narrative with a thought-provoking commentary (on trauma, power, abuse, class, forgiveness, #metoo, the way the media treats victims of sexual violence). As debuts go this is an impressive one and I can’t wait to see what Parks-Ramage has in store next.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★½

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The Neil Gaiman Reader: Selected Fiction by Neil Gaiman

 

The Neil Gaiman Reader showcases Gaiman’s range as an author. Gaiman moves between genres and tones like no other. From funny fairy-talesque stories to more ambiguous narratives with dystopian or horror elements. While I have read most of his novels and a few of his novellas I hadn’t really ‘sunk’ my teeth in his short stories. The ones that appear in this collection have been selected by his own fans, and are presented in chronological order. While it was interesting to see the way his writing developed I did not prefer his newer stuff to his older one. In fact, some of my favorite of his stories are the ones from the 80s and 90s. Even then his writing demonstrates both humor and creativity. Some of the stories collected here read like morality tales while others offer more perplexing messages. Many of his stories revolve around the act of storytelling or have a story-within-story structure. At times he retells old classics, such as Sleeping Beauty, while other times he offers his own take on Cthulhu, Sherlock Holmes, and even Doctor Who. A few favorites of mine were: ‘Chivalry’, ‘Murder Mysteries’, ‘The Goldfish and Other Stories’, ‘The Wedding Present’, and ‘October in the Chair’. If you are a Gaiman fan and, like me, have not read many of his short stories you should definitely consider picking this collection up.


my rating:
★★★★☆

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Pretty as a Picture by Elizabeth Little

Action, cut, action, cut, action, cut, action, cut. These aren’t commands, not for me. They’re more like everyday punctuation. A capital letter. A period. An indication that I should pay attention to what’s going on in the middle.”

Pretty as a Picture tells a slow-burn type of suspenseful story, one that I would definitely recommend to movie aficionados as this novel shines a light on the realities of the film industry: from the demanding, if not downright tyrannical, directors and agents to the power dynamics and hierarchies that are at play in a film crew. This behind-the-scenes setting is perhaps the most interesting and dazzling aspect of this book.

Although there are certain elements within the narrative that would not be out of place in a thriller, Pretty as a Picture is above all a character-driver story. Marissa, our protagonist and narrator, makes this novel. While she may initially strike readers as yet another introverted ‘not like other people’ character—who is later on reassured by others about her looks and personality—Marissa not only experience things differently but others are aware of this and often make the point of commenting on it. Her poor social skills, her ‘ticks’, her struggle to read or understand other people’s tone of voice or body language, her dislike of physical contact….these all contribute to making small everyday things—such any type of social interaction—much harder for her.
Films help her navigate the world. When she doesn’t know what to do or say she turns to the films she’s watched. Sometimes she simply draws strength from the characters of her favourite movies, while on other occasions someone, something, or someplace might remind her of a certain film.

When her best friend, and former creative partner, moves out of their apartment and with her douche-y boyfriend, Marissa finds herself in need of an editing gig. Her agent pushes into accepting an offer for a film based on a true murder case. Marissa is told that the previous editor suddenly left so the director, Tony Rees, is desperate for someone to replace him. Marissa is taken to a remote island where she unearths more than one mystery: from the dismissal of various members of staff to the growing tension between the people working on the film…something is afoot. Marissa, alongside some new acquaintances, plays detective in order to find just what is going on this set.

The murder aspect of the story kicks starts around the half-way mark. Before then we are introduced to the story’s many characters and we get a chance to truly get to know Marissa. The slow yet atmospheric start gives way to an increasingly urgent storyline. There are some twists that are somewhat predictable but I still enjoyed seeing the way in which things unfolded.
Marissa is a distinctive narrator. Her interactions with others could be either funny, awkward, or tense, and I appreciated the way in which Elizabeth Little depicted her. We read about her vulnerabilities, her strengths, and her quirks.
The chemistry between Marissa and Isaiah adds a nice touch to the story.

Interspersed throughout Marissa’s narrative are snippets from her a true-crime podcast, ‘Dead Ringer’, run by two teenage girls who, like Marissa, are sleuths of sorts. These sections give us glimpses of what is to come, without ever revealing too much.
Filled with cinematic references Pretty as a Picture offers a sharp commentary about the film industry, the dead-girl trope, the way in which true-crime glamorises death, as well as insight into someone who is labelled as ‘different’ by their society.
Overall, Pretty as a Picture was a thoroughly entertaining novel and I would definitely recommend this to those who enjoyed The Lost Night, books by Riley Sager, or Still Lives.

my rating: ★★★½

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Are You Enjoying? by Mira Sethi

Are You Enjoying? reads very much like a debut. While I appreciated the themes Mira Sethi explored in these seven stories, the writing definitely detracted from my overall reading experiences. As collections of short stories go this is a rather forgettable and conventional one.

The setting (Pakistan) and ideas behind each story had potential, for example, in the first one, ‘Mini Apple’, a TV presenter has a ‘dalliance’ with an American woman, who works at the American embassy. While their dynamic had that certain something, the storyline doesn’t do much with it. The second one has very strong #metoo vibes as we follow an aspiring actress who has just landed a good role and catches the attention of the film’s tyrannical director. In another story Sethi writes of a young student who finds purpose after he joins an extremist group. Many of these stories examine topical and interesting topics but Sethi’s execution left much to be desired. The last story in particular, which happens to be the one this collection is titled after, struck me as being a rather lacklustre and superficial take on a toxic relationship.
Much of the phrases (“if you look closely, most women have restless eyes”) and imagery in these stories was clichéd (“he spat on the ground: a spray of blood soured in the dust”). The dialogue was clunky so much so that it made the characters seem unrealistic. We have a young man who works in the film industry say that after he uploaded a photo of himself without a shirt “lots of ‘like’ came. Then I was relaxed.” and “So many comments coming on my page”. Something about the way he phrased this didn’t really ‘flow’ (I am aware that others can and will think differently). In another story we get the director characters telling an actress that he “groom” her (surely he would use another word). And then later one we get a story in which a man says the following thing: “Your butt, it’s not a Kardashian yoga ball. It’s just a cute bubble”….what the feck is that even supposed to mean?
I also abhorred most of the author’s descriptions, which struck me as either ‘trying’ or nonsensical:
“Sex with Asher was liquid, hard, dissolving” , “The gray in Asher’s hair became a mischievous afterthought, like a snaggletooth on a beautiful woman” , “my face flushes red, flushes blue” (what is she, an ambulance?) , “her legs were smooth, as if rubbed with light”, “mopping kabab crumbs from his mouth with the coarse pink tissue wrapped around a bottle of Pepsi” (this unnecessary detail detracted from the actual scene), a “whistle” bounces from someone’s nose, “a brief dip in her wrist sprang into a mound of arm” (wtf?), and last but not least, “her collarbones were so deep they could rock a baby to sleep” (I assume here the collarbones are actually prominent given that the woman in discussion was skinny….).

Anyhow, just because this didn’t work for me does not mean you should not give it a try. I recommend you check out some more positive reviews before making up you mind.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

(heads up: this review contains mentions of eating disorders and body dysmorphia as well as explicit language)

While I doubt that Milk Fed will win many awards, I sure hope that it wins the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. It 100% deserves to.

“Was it real freedom? Unlikely. But my rituals kept me skinny, and if happiness could be relegated to one thing alone, skinniness, then one might say I was, in a way, happy.”

Milk Fed follows in the steps of novels such as My Year of Rest and Relaxation (or to name a few others: Pizza Girl, Luster, Exciting Times, Severance, Hysteria, The New Me…and no, this is by no means a comprehensive list). As I’ve said before in my review for Luster, these books are a hit or miss for me. And at first I thought that Milk Fed was a definite hit but after the 30% mark the novel became increasingly repetitive, annoyingly self-indulgent, and ludicrously sensationalistic. To me, Milk Fed reads like a less compelling version of You Exist Too Much. Both novels focus on young bisexual women who have a rather toxic relationship with their mother. They both suffer at one point or another from an eating disorder. They are self-destructive and directionless. Their attempts to seek therapeutic help do not go all that well. The narrator of You Exist Too Much does some fucked up things but ultimately I cared for and sympathised with her. It helped that I found her caustic wit to be genuinely funny. Milk Fed is all style and no substance. Perhaps those who can enjoy this kind of turgid prose may be able to find this novel amusing or insightful but it just reminded of all the reasons why I did not like Susan Choi’s My Education.
Also, fyi, I had an eating disorder. However, I would never describe myself as a ‘survivor’ nor do I believe that you can’t write a dark comedy about eating disorders. I like satire and cringe comedy (Succession and Fleabag are favourites of mine) but I am certainly not a fan of narratives that are solely intent on being as garish and gratuitous as possible.

Our narrator, Rachel, is an aimless twenty-something who in the very opening of the novel informs us that “It didn’t matter where I worked: one Hollywood bullshit factory was equal to any other. All that mattered was what I ate, when I ate, and how I ate it”. Rachel thinks about food 24/7. She obsesses about calories, follows seemingly arbitrary eating rituals, exercises everyday not in order to get stronger or leaner but to burn as many calories as possible. She seems to view her troubling relationship to food and her body as preferable to ‘the alternative’ (not being ‘skinny’). She goes to therapy, “hoping to alleviate the suffering related to both my food issues and my mother, but without having to make any actual life changes in either area”. During one of these sessions her therapist recommends that Rachel should take a “communication detox” from her mother (suggesting at least 90 days of no contact).

“Do you want to be chubby or do you want boys to like you?”

We learn through brief flashbacks and Rachel’s recounting that one of the reasons why developed an eating disorder is her mother. As a child Rachel’s mother would shame her for eating things she believed were ‘unhealthy’ or ‘bad’ and imposed strict diets on Rachel. Rachel began to binge-eat (in secret), which made her gain weight. To ‘make up’ for it Rachel begins to eat less and less, which sees her becoming anorexic (when she confesses to her mother that she thinks she may be anorexic her mother dismiss this by saying something on the lines of her not being ‘skinny enough’ to be truly anorexic). Rachel’s mother is horrible and she gives the mother from You Exist Too Much a run for her money…but, unlike You Exist Too Much, here we only told bad things about Rachel’s mother. Because of Rachel’s ‘detoxing’ from her, she never makes an appearance in the actual story. Her presence certainly haunts Rachel but I wish she had not been portrayed in such a skewed way. Making someone embody only negative traits is a very easy way of making them unlikable or into the ‘bad guy’.

Rachel doesn’t care about her job ( I cannot precisely remember what she does other than it has to do with ‘Hollywood’) nor does she have any friends or hobbies (unless you count obsessing about food as a hobby). She is desperate for validation, which is perhaps why once a week she does stand up comedy for a night show called ‘This Show Sucks’. This thread of her life often felt unexplored and out of place. You could probably cut out the scenes she spends at this show and the story would be much the same (by the end this show’s main purpose seems to be that of a meeting place).
At work she has sort of bonded with an older woman who she sees both as a mother-figure of sorts and as an object of desire. This leads to some predictably gross incestuous fantasies that have a very Freudian feel to them as they exist mainly to indicate Rachel’s state of mind (and they have the added bonus of grossing the reader out). During one of these sexual fantasies, which goes on and on for quite a few pages, Rachel imagines being ‘mothered’ by this older female colleague. Later, when she begins bingeing again, she imagines having sex with this same colleague, only this time she is the one who is in doing the ‘dominating’.
Rachel’s first meets Miriam at the frozen yogurt shop where she usually gets a plain yogurt from (part of her eating routine). Miriam, who works at this shop, insists on giving Rachel a bigger portion of yogurt. Because of this Rachel is annoyed by Miriam. Added to that is Rachel repulsion towards Miriam’s body (she describes Miriam as being “medically obese”). However, Miriam’s nonchalance towards food and her body soon catch Rachel’s attention. Her initial repulsion gives way to lust, and the two women seem to ‘bond’ over the fact that they are both Jewish (Miriam however, unlike Rachel who does not seem to practice any Jewish rituals and does not believe in God, is Orthodox).
Miriam invites Rachel to her house and Rachel idealises her family and home-life. They all enjoy eating and cooking food, and their meals together are happy occasions.
Rachel believes that Miriam reciprocates her feelings and the two being a very one-way sexual relationship. Things, of course, do not go as planned. Rachel’s ups and downs with food, her self-hatred, her unresolved mummy issues, they all contribute to her self-destructive behaviour.
I probably wouldn’t have minded the book’s switch of focus (from Rachel’s ED to Rachel feelings for Miriam) if the relationship between Rachel and Miriam had not been wholly superficial. Miriam is reduced to the role of sex object. There are many instances were Rachel, and the readers, could have learnt more of her—what kind of person she is, her feelings towards Rachel, the way she sees herself, her future & desires, etc.—but we do not. What we get instead are many scenes about Rachel wanting to have sex with Miriam, obsessing over Miriam’s body, masturbating while thinking of Miriam or that her colleague, having sex with Miriam…the list goes on. The way Rachel’s thinks about Miriam’s body raised a few red flags and her attraction towards her sometimes verged on fetishising. She doesn’t think of Miriam but merely of Miriam’s body. Many of the metaphors used when the two are having sex or when Rachel is fantasising about her are food related (Rachel describes Miriam’s moles as “chocolate drops”, her tongue as a “fat piece of liver she was king enough to feed me”). She also loves watching her eat and is aroused when Miriam “slurp[s] dumplings”. Miriam’s “rolls of fat” are like “pussies” to Rachel. I don’t know…these descriptions were probably meant to be funny and weird but they mostly struck me as affected and cheap.
Most of the sex scenes in this novel were awful. They tried hard to be gritty and real but ended being the opposite: when watching a film with Audrey Hepburn Rachel imagines Audrey’s “concave thighs” and sticking her “mouth in her little pussy”; when she is holding Miriam’s hand she views this as an act of sexual intercourse, her finger is a “a cock, a penetrating object”; some of her fantasies included phrases such as “I activated Frankencock” or “It was like nipples were two clits”; when she is having sex with Miriam she smells “the faintest waft of shit coming up from underneath her. It smelled like fertile heaven: peat moss, soil, sod, loam”. Later in the novel she brags about fingering a guy to that older female colleague in order to impress her, feeling remorse in doing so. She never confronts her mother or this colleague, nor does she feel challenged or inspired by her relationship with Miriam. Yes, the more time she spends with Miriam, the less she restricts but throughout the course of the narrative she maintains an obsessive relationship with food and keeps assigning moralistic values to food. I never believed that she cared for Miriam, nor do I think that the relationship helped her somehow. Miriam…she did not strike me as a fully fleshed character. While her body is described in minute detail, her personality remains largely absent. Often, it seemed that Rachel viewed Miriam’s body as representing her ‘essence’. She likes going to the cinema, she’s Jewish, she seems to care for her family…other than that? Who knows!
Because this is a satire most of the characters exist in order to make fun of a certain type of person: we have Rachel’s manager, a woke ‘dude bro’, her older female colleague who is thin, mean, and enjoys belittling other people’s appearance etc., the famous actor who is kind of full of himself, the not very helpful therapist who sees fake deep things…
The narrative also had a thread involving a golem (Rachel creates it out of putty during one of her therapy sessions) and a series of dreams with Judah Loew ben Bezalel, and, to be perfectly honest, these were my favourite elements of Rachel’s story. Sadly however they do not play a huge role in the plot, and most of the narrative is dedicated to Rachel having sex or thinking about her ‘pussy’. Seriously, there were times when this book brought to mind WAP cause there are a few situations in which Rachel and Miriam would benefit from using a mop.

I would not recommend this to those who have been affected by an ED. Although the author initially seemed to have captured many sentiments that resonated with me, Rachel’s ED is ultimately used as a source of humour. There are many grotesque scenes that serve very little purpose other than ridiculing her. And I’m very over books or films that feature characters who offhandedly remark ‘I tried to go bulimic once but like it didn’t work’ (then again, I had bulimia so I am a bit touchy on that particular front).
Anyway, this novel tries to be outrageous and subversive but it succeeds only in being gratuitous. This is the kind of satire that is all bark, no bite. The author’s commentary on modern work culture, eating disorders, contemporary society, religion, the Palestinian-Israel conflict …is lacking.
Also, I find it hard to believe that Rachel, our supposedly shrewd girl, and this famous actor would get Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s creature confused.

Nevertheless, just because I found Melissa Broder’s story to be superficial and ultimately unfunny, does not mean that you should not give this novel a try (bear in mind however that this books has some pretty yucky and incest-y content).
Here is a snippet which I did not enjoy but might very well appeal to other types of readers:

“Her hair was the color of cream soda, or papyrus scrolls streaked with night light. Her eyebrows were the color of lions, lazy ones, dozing in sunlight or eating butter at night with their paws by lantern. Her eyes: icebergs for shipwrecking. Lashes: smoke and platinum. Her skin was the Virgin Mary, also very baby. Her nose: adorable, breathing. Upper lip: pink peony. Lower lip: rose. The teeth were trickier, but her inner mouth was easy–Valentine hearts and hell.”

my rating: ★★½

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Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Readers, I am disappointed.

Plain Bad Heroines was one of my most anticipated 2020 releases…maybe I should have ‘hyped’ it so much. This is certainly an ambitious novel, one that is a few hundred pages too long. There were elements that I liked, but these were ultimately outweighed by my frustration toward the tone of the narrative, the dual storylines, and the characters.
Plain Bad Heroines begins at Brookhants School in 1902 when two students, Clara and ‘Flo’, who happen to be lovers are swallowed by “a fog of wasps”. Another death soon rocks the school, and all of the girls shared a fascination for Mary MacLane’s work (The Story of Mary Maclane & I Await the Devil’s Coming). The narrator, who playfully reminds us of their presence with plenty of direct addresses, footnotes, and asides. We do not know the identity of the narrator, but they posses an almost omniscient knowledge of the events they are recounting.
In the present three young women—all in their twenties—work on a film adaptation on a book called ‘The Happenings at Brookhants’. The book was written by one of these girls, Merritt (a character whom I lowkey hated) who happens to know Elaine Brookhants. Then we have Harper Harper, an up and coming actress/influencer whose personality revolves around her celebrity status, who will play Flo, and Audrey Wells (I actually had to check out her name as I could not remember it on top of my head…that’s how memorable she was) the daughter of a ‘scream queen’ who so far has an acted in B movies and ads.
The section set in the present doesn’t involve these three girls bonding or finding more about what happened at Brookhants. We are never told very much about Merritt’s book, so we don’t know how much they know about the whole affair. This timeline is also not all that concerned with filmmaking. What this storyline cares about is famous people: how they are followed by journalists or fans, how their lives revolve around instagram, how little privacy they have, and of their self-fashioning ways. The three girls do not really along. Their meeting, which happens quite a good chunk into this slow burner of a novel, reads like something that belongs in the realms ofGossip Girl or Scream Queens. And here I was hoping for an actual horror or at least something in realms of American Horror Story (the first seasons of course).
Our not-as-half-as-amusing-as-they-think-they-are narrator never really delves into these characters. It mostly describes what they are saying or doing. It focuses more on their ‘role’ (Harper=celebrity, Audrey=daughter of an 80s horror actress, Merritt=not like other girls writer). Their personalities are…kind of not there. Merritt is the only one with a semblance of one, and it ain’t a good one. The narrative tries really hard to establish Merritt’s ‘prickly’ personality (in a few occasion Merritt says or asks something generic and we are told “Merrit said like Merritt would” or “Merrit asked like Merritt would”). She’s petty, cruel, and domineering. She’s given a Sad Backstory™, so Readers are meant to let her behaviour slide. Except that this Reader could and would not. She seems blissfully unaware of her own privilege (she’s in her early twenties and has published a book, her mother teaches at a university and she has access to the library there, they are adapting her book and want her to be part of the process). She’s also not ‘plain’ looking. Her hair is pink because she’s Not Like Other Girls™ (a random character tells her she has “great fucking hair”) and she is also called hot by Harper. Yet, throughout the course of the book, Merritt acts like a fifteen-year-old girl who is spending too much time on Tumblr. Her pettiness is unwarranted and uncalled for, her jealousy is also over the top (she’s only just met Harper and she already jealous at the possibility of Audrey working alongside her…yet she knows that Harper is already in an open relationship).
Harper is also not plain. She’s famous, beloved, and uber cool. She has short hair, tattoos, smokes, and rides a bike. And of course, she also has a Sad Backstory™. The story mentions some family-related drama, but this a thread that is never truly resolved. Her motivations, desires, fears…who knows? I sure don’t. Maybe she likes Merritt? Maybe not?
While Audrey may not be plain looking, her personality is definitely plain. She doesn’t seem to possess any discernible traits.
Anyway, these three ‘work’ together (there are actually very few scenes that take place while they are working on the film sadly) and weird things start happening (we have wasps, weird weather, and a general heebie jeebies atmosphere).

The storyline set in the past had much more potential. Sadly, it doesn’t focus on Clara or Flo (their lives prior to their peculiar deaths of course) or Brookhants but rather it follows the headmistress of the school who lives in a house nicknamed ‘Spite Manor’. She lives with her lover, who also teaches at Brookhants. This timeline was definitely more Gothic, and there were scenes that struck me as quite atmospheric and well-executed. Sadly however the relationship between the two women was a let down, as it never struck me as the complex love story I was hoping for. Creepy things begin to happen, and they begin to grow apart. The deaths of three of their pupils forces them to question whether the ‘supernatural’ is to be blamed.

I was hoping for a Gothic love story, with some horror undertones. What we actually get is a work that is extremely meta. Some may find the narrator to be amusing, I mostly didn’t. The mystery is the most disappointing aspect of the whole book. It was very anticlimactic, as we simply get a chapter in which our narrator explains things to us. Flo, Clara, and the other girl are unimportant, they function as the Dead Girl trope. We don’t learn anything more about them after the 20% mark or so nor do we learn more about the book Merritt has written about them.
The storyline set in the present never reaches its apotheosis. Nothing major happens, there is no overlapping between the two timelines.
While I loved to see so many queer women, the relationships they have with one another are…a let down. Mean Girls ahoy. We have Merritt who says things like “Significant eye roll” or scenes in which characters take selfies, duplies, even quadruplies (uuuugh). More attention is paid to their hair and clothes than their actual personalities. Harper and Merritt begin flirting as soon as they meet, and later on, when there are more scenes of them together, they mostly bicker. They are sort of physically attracted to each other, but there is no real connection between them (I craved longing, passion, LOVE).
The creepy elements…aren’t all that creepy? If you have spheksophobia you might find this book scary…I mean, wasps do not inspire any real fear in me (I don’t like them, they strike me as kind of mean, in fact, I love CalebCity’s sketch on them). Mary’s writing is extremely camp and I just found it silly. While I could see why the girls back in the 1900s could be enthralled by it…I had a harder time believing that Merritt or Harper could find it as compelling.

Perhaps I approached this book with the wrong expectations (I saw Sarah Waters’ name on the cover so…) but Plain Bad Heroines was not the Gothic novel I was hoping it to be. The ‘past’ timeline was far from being a satisfying historical tale of paranormal suspense (I was hoping for something on the lines of Picnic at Hanging Rock meets A Great and Terrible Beauty). On the plus side: at least it was hella sapphic. I also liked the illustrations by Sara Lautman (I wish there had been more) and the chapter names could be kind funny.

Anyway, just because I didn’t think that this book was the bees knees (or perhaps I should say wasps knees) doesn’t mean that you won’t love it as it may as well be your cup of tea.

 

MY RATING: 2 ½ stars out of 5 stars

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