Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo

Summer Sons is very much a vibes-driven novel that would not exist without Maggie Stiefvater’s The Dream Thieves. From the aesthetics permeating the story to the combative & codependent character dynamics, Summer Sons share a lot of similarities with that book. Lee Mandelo’s older cast of characters however allow for them to employ an edgier tone, one that at times reminded me a bit of Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House (both mcs have spend most of their respective narratives chasing paranormal shit, to the detriment of their academic, getting repeatedly emotionally and physically bruised and pissing off ppl left and right). The first time I approach Summer Sons I ended up dnfing it. While I do agree with some of my initial criticisms I think this second time around I was able to just ignore the few bumps along the way and just let Summer Sons take me for a ride.

Written in snappy prose Summer Sons follows Andrew, who is in his early twenties and is about to begin a graduate program at Vanderbilt where he will be joining his best friend and (adopted) brother Eddie. Their bond is very much of the codependent variety, as the two were irrevocably bound together by a traumatizing childhood experience that has left them with, in the case of Andrew, some unwanted abilities. But then, just before their long-awaited reunion, Eddie commits suicide leaving behind a grief-stricken and confused Andrew. Eddie left everything to him, including a ridiculous amount of money and a house in Nashville (roommate included). Andrew moves there, but he couldn’t really care less about his studies. He is determined to find out what happened to Eddie. He is immediately suspicious of and antagonistic towards Eddie’s former roommate, Riley, and his cousin, Sam. Andrew is jealous of the time they spent with Eddie and is reluctant to reveal anything about his past or his intentions to them.

The first half of the novel has very little if no plot going on. I mean, things are happening but they mostly consist of Andrew feeling unwell, hitting someone, getting hit, getting drunk, getting high, ignoring his uni inbox, and making wild speculations about what happened to Eddie. He does have a few meetings with his advisor and tutor, but for the majority of the first half of the novel it’s more about the very charged dynamics between Andrew and Sam, and to a lesser extent, Andrew and Riley. There is a party or two, some drag races, and buckets of toxic masculinity. The chemistry between the various characters more than makes up for the lack of, shall we say, plot. The author also explores Andrew’s very intense relationship with Eddy, capturing the duo’s power dynamics.
I appreciated how thorny Andrew is. He is so careless about his own well-being that he engages in some pretty self-destructive behaviours. He is also repressed af, and struggles to reconcile himself with the possibility that his love for Eddy may have not been strictly platonic. And of course, his attraction to Sam complicates matters. And yeah, there was something about them that definitely reminded me of Ronan & Kavinsky, except not quite as messed up, as here both Andrew and Sam embody what I can best describe as an exceedingly Ronan-esque chaotic energy. I liked the realistic way Andrew responds to the queerness of this group of friends, and that it takes him time to truly allow himself the possibility of being attracted to men.
To exacerbate his alienation are recurring nightmarish visions of death and rot. Eddie’s phantom is stalking him, resulting in periods of dangerous dissociation. Riley and Sam claim they want to help but Andrew. being the hard-ass he is, is not so sure about letting anyone in.
The latter half of the novel has more to do with his amateurish sleuthing, as Andrew is forced to confront the likely possibility that what occurred to him and Eddie as children has something to do with Eddie’s death.
We have old family curses and blood rituals, eerie visions, and disturbing occurrences. Additionally, Mandelo dedicates time to critiquing how insular colleges are as well as the elitism and racism that pervade the academic world.
I liked the uneasy relationships the characters have with one another, and that Mandelo holds their main characters accountable for their past and present actions without writing them off as ‘bad’.

There were a few things that I wish could have developed differently. The paranormal element had potential but was implemented in an inconsistent and in some places sparse way that ultimately does it a disservice. I liked how it remains largely ambiguous but it could have been amped up in quite a few instances. Also, in the scenes where this paranormal element comes to the fore the descriptions could have been more vivid. It would have been nice to learn more about haunts/revenants or other spooky occurrences that Andrew & Eddie may have experienced after ‘it’ happened. Similarly, it would also have been nice to have more of a background about their childhood and teenage years (their relationship with Andrew’s parents, their high school days, etc..). We know about their tattoo and their ‘shared’ gf (who thankfully speaks up about being used and tossed aside like a toy) but very little about anything else. In some ways it makes sense since they were each other’s worlds, so everything else would barely register, however the complete lack of presence of Andrew’s parents was felt.
The resolution to Eddie’s death was too derivative, especially within the urban fantasy genre. She who shall not be named did that a few times in her series. Maggie Stiefvater subverts this trope by making readers, but not our main characters, aware of who the ‘antagonists’ are. Barudgo also does it in Ninth House, but in a far more twisty way than Mandelo. Here instead that finale seemed vaguely formulaic and entirely too predictable. That the ‘villains’ lacked a certain ‘oomph’ factor also made that last action rather lacklustre. I do think that at the end Andrew gets a bit too much of the blame for how things went down with the villain. The boy is an asshole sure. But he was just trying to find out the truth and how could he have possibly predicted that things would go down that way?!

The writing had a certain fanfiction-y quality but I found myself really enjoying it (so we have a lot of growling, flashing teeth, dangerous expressions, an overuse of ‘the boy’ instead of the characters’ names). The prose was snappy and intentionally edgy which makes for highly engrossing storytelling. I do wish that the author had reigned in on the more anatomical descriptions of his characters. There are whole paragraphs dedicated to describing whose leg is on whose ankle or how someone’s hand is dangling or touching somebody else’s body part). Yeah, in a way these add a certain sensual element that makes these scenes really pop, but there were moments where they ended up sidelining the actual storyline or drawing attention from the dialogue. There were also way too many random highfalutin words dropped in for no reason (such as ‘cadre’) and they had the same energy as me during my first year as an undergraduate student using archaic terms for no reason other than to make what I was writing sound clever (but i just ended up with some seriously jarring phrases).

Despite these criticisms, I did like Summer Sons. Andrew is a tortured and somewhat impenetrable character that is equal parts frustrating and lovable. Mandelo articulates Andrew’s inner conflict without resorting to cliches or moralisms. The interactions between the characters seamlessly alternate from being funny and entertaining banter to more heated and tense confrontations. The friendships and the romance we see develop between Andrew and others really make the book. I loved how the author is able to dedicate a lot of page time to Andrew’s unresolved and complicated relationship with his sexuality but also present us with some very casual lgbtq+ rep (we have a trans character, a positive portrayal of polyamory, and a character who uses they/them pronouns makes has a cameo appearance). The pining and sexual tension between Andrew and Sam were chief’s kiss.

I’d love to read more by this author (maybe something with wlw characters…? or just more girls in general cause i don’t think this book would pass the bechdel test test..at least in trc we have the women of 300 fox way).
If you like spooky summer ya novels, like Beware the Wild, The Wicker King, Wonders of the Invisible World, or the gritty aesthetics of urban fantasy series like Holly Black’s The Modern Faerie Tales, Summer Sons should definitely make it onto your tbr pile. I look forward to whatever Mandelo publishes next and I can definitely see myself re-reading Summer Sons.

ps: i did think it would have been nice for mandelo to mention in their acknowledgements stiefvater as her series clearly inspired this book.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

The Break by Katherena Vermette

The Break is a harrowing yet lucidly written intergenerational family saga that examines the repercussions of a horrific act of violence.
The book opens with Stella, a young Métis mother, witnessing a violent attack on some land near her house. Although torn, Stella doesn’t rush to the victim’s rescue and calls the police instead. When they show up the senior officer is quick to dismiss her, as there is no ‘body’, just some blood, and believes that she merely saw some ‘gang violence’. Scott, the younger officer, who is of Métis heritage, is not so sure. We eventually learn that the victim’s identity and that she happens to be related to Stella. The girl, a self-identifying ‘good’ girl who is an all-around good egg, is hospitalized and both physically and psychologically traumatized. Her mother, aunt, grandmother and great-grandmother are all deeply affected by her attack. They question who would do it and how to best help her in her recovery. Some want answers, others believe that finding the people who did this to her will not solve matters. We are also given the perspective of Scott who is hellbent on ‘solving’ this case, to the point where he disregards the magnitude of what the girl has experienced (pushing her to talk even if she shows signs of distress etc.). We learn of his struggle over his identity, from his colleague’s microaggressions to his own partner’s unfunny remarks about indigenous people. Although we are given insight into his experiences I had a hard time sympathizing with him as his voice stood out (and not in a good way) from the rest. I would have much preferred if the narrative hadn’t included his perspective and had focused on the women making up the girl’s family. There was something gimmicky about his chapters and it seemed to me that the author couldn’t’ choose between making him into a flawed yet ultimately empathetic guy or an unscrupulous ambitious dick. Another pov that felt unnecessary was Phoenix’s. She is an older teen who has severe mental health issues (from body dysmorphia and disordered eating to extreme anger and violent episodes). There were aspects of her character that struck me as gratuitous and sensationalistic. Also, having her pov didn’t really make her into a more nuanced character. While I understand that often abuse breeds abuse (so we have someone who was abused becoming an abuser) I am tired of how often this is ‘used’ in fiction as a way of not quite condoning but of making ‘sense’ of an abusive character’s actions. I also found it frustrating that her pov featured more in the story than the girl (i have forgotten her name, even though she is meant to be the figure tying all of these narratives together) who was attacked. She and her friend have a chapter now and again but I found them somewhat simplistic compared to the others. That the first time that they sneak out and ‘lie’ to their mothers ends in such a horrifying way also struck me as a wee bit much.

Still, this book certainly packs a punch or two. Katherena Vermette doesn’t soften the brutality of what the victim experiences nor are she quick to condemn characters like Stella. Throughout these perspectives, Vermette also explores the discrimination, violence, and abuse directed at indigenous women. Some of the characters are trapped in a stark cycle of violence, addiction, and or abuse and Vermette doesn’t shy away from portraying the harsh realities that many of them live in. The story also dabbles with magical realism as there are chapters from the perspective of a character who is no longer alive. Their identity isn’t quite a mystery but I appreciated that Vermette didn’t feel the need to over-explain their presence in the overarching narrative.
I would definitely read more by this author and I would encourage readers who can tolerate graphic descriptions of violent/sexual assault(s) to give The Break a chance.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh

The YA genre seems saturated by heroines who are (allegedly) neither beautiful nor intelligent but they are spunky and clumsy and bursting with goodness. Well, I have had my fill of these girls.

Wholesome, vanilla, inoffensive, The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is a relatively enjoyable YA read that tone-wise will definitely appeal to younger audiences (with very few alterations this could easily have been a middle-grade book). As usual, I was sold by the comparison, which in this case happens to be one of my all-time favorite films, Spirited Away. While The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea does present readers with some vivid descriptions of the Spirit Realm, the characters and world-building were not as nuanced as Miyazaki’s ones. Also, I couldn’t help but compare (unfavourably) this to other fairy-tale-esque YA books such as Daughter of the Forest and Six Crimson Cranes.
Anyway, the story is fairly plot-driven as we follow our ‘spunky’ heroine trying to put an end to the curse afflicting the Sea God, a god who once protected humans but for generations has been destroying her homeland by causing deadly storms. To appease him every year a beautiful maiden is thrown into the sea and becomes his bride. This year it will be someone from Mina’s village, the lovely Shim Cheong who happens to be the object of affection of Mina’s brother, Joon. Seeing how much they love each other Mina hijacks the ceremony and sacrifices herself instead. Once in the Spirit Realm, she discovers that the Sea God has been asleep for years and that only his ‘true bride’ can put an end to his curse. We don’t learn much about what happened to the previous brides, with the exception of one, and she doesn’t really get much page time. It would have been nice to know what these other brides got up to in the Spirit Realm but alas the plot is very much focused on Mina who is determined to save her people from future heartaches. She’s somewhat aided by the ‘mysterious’ Shin, and his two sidekicks, the funny one and the surly one. They do come into contact with other gods and spirits but these scenes are short-lived and rather rushed. Mina makes a few heedless choices because she just can’t bear not to do what’s right (le sigh), and she eventually develops feelings for someone.
Mina manages to make people help her left and right because her goodness is just that motivating. Eventually, we learn more about the Sea God and the identities of Mina’s newfound allies.
It would have been nice to have Mina think about her family more. She mostly thought of her grandmother when the plot needed it and it felt a bit unrealistic that she would so easily get over them. I was also tired of the narrative telling us that Mina was not beautiful or intelligent when it is quite obvious that she is the most special girl in the whole bloody book. The love interest was a bit bland and his sidekicks were rather cliched. The Sea God’s curse and the events that led to it were somewhat anticlimactic. The story tries to have Mina bring these gods and spirits to their senses by reminding them that there are humans who pray for them and need their help, but her arguments were so simplistic that it made it hard for me to believe that her words/actions would be so ‘touching’ to others. The ending could have easily been shorter as it came across as prolonged for no reason whatsoever. While there were certain elements that I liked and I did not find this to be an unpleasant story, well, it felt very mid. I guess I could see this book working for readers who enjoyed Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow.
Sadly, I was rather disappointed by The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea, as I was looking for richer storytelling, a more developed cast of characters and world-building, and a less predictable plot. Overall this was an easy if forgettable read and I’m not sure whether I would read more by this author.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Gallant by V.E. Schwab

Although I remember liking books by V. E. Schwab when I was a teenager the last couple of books I’ve picked up by her left me feeling rather underwhelmed. My reading tastes have definitely changed over the years but I hoped that I would always be able to appreciate her storytelling. I was sold on Gallant when I saw that it was being compared to Neil Gaiman and Guillermo del Toro and boy oh boy was I disappointed to discover that it was just a very tame take on the Gothic genre. I was hoping for something Dark a la Coraline or in the vein of Pan’s Labyrinth but what we have here is a very cheesy and vanilla attempt at crafting a Gothic tale. The story stars the classic Schwab female protagonist, ie, Not Like Other Girls (Schwab’s books always leave me with the impression that they barely pass the Bechdel test). Olivia Prior is an orphan who has grown up in Merilance School for girls where she is mistreated by everyone for being mute. She also has a bit of a temper because she isn’t afraid of getting back at the mean girls and of ignoring her school’s rules. What a #girlboss. Anyway, Olivia’s only source of solace comes from her mother’s diary which details her descent into ‘madness’. Sections from her diary are interspersed throughout the narrative and these were truly over the top in their sensationalistic language and imagery. Olivia receives a letter from an uncle who says he wants her to come home to their family home of Gallant. When she arrives she discovers that her only living relative, her cousin Matthew, doesn’t want her there. Oh, I forgot, Olivia also sees ghouls. This aspect is sometimes forgotten and for the majority of the story appears only to crank up the Gothic mood. Nothing happens. Olivia’s inner monologue is as interesting as watching paint dry would be. She has no distinct personality even if the author tries to make her into this bold heroine who will not let people like those mean girls or her cold cousin tell her where she belongs. There are two other side characters who also live at Gallant and take care of Matthew and the property. Despite the small cast (you would think that more time was paid to developing these characters), the author doesn’t succeed in making these characters into compelling and or three-dimensional characters. Olivia is so vanilla as to be entirely forgettable. Her defining characteristic is that she’s an orphan and that she is mute. Personally, I don’t think it’s great that these things are made to be her ‘personality’ and Schwab incurs the risk of portraying mutism as a sign of ‘specialness’ (she can see ghouls, she’s not like other girls etc…). This kind of thing feels dated tbh. Olivia spends her time at Gallant being rather nosy about the past and Matthew and those two older characters are clearly keeping something away from her. Olivia re-reads her mother’s journal in an attempt to uncover the truth behind her ‘madness’ and the secretive behaviour of the last inhabitants of Gallant.

I foolishly thought that this was going to be a parallel/portal fantasy but this doesn’t come into play until the 60% mark or so. Which…by then my interest had already waned and died. The ‘villain’ has barely any page time and because of that I did not really feel creeped out by them. I did not feel the stakes and found myself skim-reading the last couple of pages just so I could be done with it all.
The tone was very Middle Grade which could have worked if the author had gone for a more ambiguous overall tone (like Gaiman does in Coraline) but I found her portrayal of her heroine and the villain simplistic indeed. The blurb makes it sound as if Olivia is taken by them but that was not the case at all. Even a Disney villain has more nuance than this one.
We have a poorly established setting (vaguely historical period in…england? i think? they name a few english counties/towns but if it was it was not convincing at all, the characters express themselves in a very un-English manner) and Gallant itself lacked oomph. There were too many descriptions that relied on very predictable imagery and the language too drove me up the walls. Whisper here, whisper there. Metaphors involving smoke, secrets, whispers, and shadows abound. There was no subtlety or variation whatsoever. The house(s) did not feel ominous or atmospheric.
While I can get behind books that are very aesthetic focused (such books by Holly Black and Seanan McGuire) they have to have the prose to back that up. But here disappointingly enough given Schwab’s usually stylish storytelling, the writing was flat. Because of this, the atmosphere felt flat too and the Gothic mood never truly convinced me.
I also have a bias against books where the main female characters have no meaningful relationship with other girls her age. And in fact, they are shown to be jealous, petty, and mean towards her even if she’d done ‘nothing wrong’. Like, can we put a stop to this girls-hating-girls trend in YA? Thank you.
A dull heroine, a slow-moving and predictable storyline, poorly developed secondary characters and setting…Gallant proved itself to be a milquetoast affair. I was hoping for a more mature tone and a more complex world-building and Gallant offered quite the opposite. A cheesy take on Gothic and the kind of flowery writing that is kind-of-pretty only if you post random quotes with no context on tumblr.
This was a forgettable and lacklustre read but just because it didn’t work for me doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give it a try.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

“I was Tookie, always too much Tookie. For better or worse, that’s a fact.”

I feel quite conflicted over The Sentence. Although I loved the first half of this novel I found the latter to be boring and somewhat disjointed. While I’m sure many will be able to love everything about this book I wish it hadn’t quite tried to juggle so many different themes and genres.

The Sentence follows Tookie, an ex-con who now works as a bookseller at an Indigenous bookstore in Minneapolis after falling in love with books and words during her incarceration. Tookie’s winning voice is the book’s biggest strength. Her humor, remarks, and inner-monologue were a delight to read. It is rare to come across a narrator that is so genuinely funny. Her voice drew me in from the very opening pages which give us a recap of the events that led to her imprisonment. She could be down to earth, in a gritty sort of way, but she was also a compassionate and forgiving person. While her assessment of others (especially her customers) often poked fun at them (their appearance/reading habits/mannerism), she never struck me as a judgemental person. She was the kind of character that I wish existed so I could meet in real life. Not only did I find Tookie’s unruliness amusing but her love for literature certainly won me over. Throughout the course of The Sentence, Tookie talks about books, a lot of them, many of which I’ve read. Her analysis of these books, as well as their authors, certainly kept me engaged. It just so happens that in addition to the bookstore angle the narrative includes quite a few other storylines. A regular customer of the bookstore Tookie works at die. It just so happens that Fiona, the customer in question, was an annoying white woman who tried to legitimise her ‘interest’ in Native American cultures by claiming to have indigenous heritage. While Tookie did find her irksome, she’s not happy about her passing, especially when Flora’s ghost starts haunting her bookstore. While Tookie’s partner, a former tribal police officer, is somewhat sceptical about these visitations, Tookie knows that Flora ghost is haunting her.
Now, I found this premise compelling enough, and I even appreciate the narrative’s slow-pace as I found Tookie’s voice to be engaging enough. Sadly, the story takes a swerve halfway through when the covid pandemic steals much of the ‘show’. Personally, it’s too soon for me to be reading about the pandemic, given that it’s still ongoing. It just aggravated my anxiety and unease at the current situation. I also had very little interest in reading about these relatively ‘fresh’ events in such detail. The narrative then also touches upon BLM in a not quite superficial way but not the tone of the story undergoes a jarring change. The ghost aspect of the story fades into the background. The latter half of the novel lacked direction and seemed too intent on being relevant and topical than on continuing the story it had so far worked to establish. There was just too much going on and because of this secondary plotlines and characters suffered because of it. They lacked depth, nuance, and page-time. This is a pity as I was really invested in Tookie and her story. There were certain portions of the book later on that would have been more suited to an essay or a work of nonfiction. I also found the inclusion of ‘Louise’ self-insert cringey. I’m not a fan of the whole author inserting themselves in a story following their fictional character thing. I mean, why? Because Tookie works at a bookstore? Eeh…it just rubbed me the wrong way. Towards the end we also get random povs following other characters and I found them unnecessary.

Despite my somewhat conflicting feelings over this novel, I would still recommend it. Just because I found the more topical sections to detract from the whole ghost-story setup, it may very well appeal to other readers. Tookie, as I said already, is a fantastic character and certainly worth getting to ‘know’. The dialogues rang true to life, the setting was well-established, and the dynamic between Tookie and the other characters (be it her partner, his daughter, or her colleagues & customers) was entertaining. Maybe if I were to read this when this pandemic is but a distant memory (ah!) I won’t be as critical of its 2020 setting. I appreciated the author’s discussions on literature, as well as her reflections on race, grief, fear, history, and love.

my rating: ★★★½

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Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw


and this was supposed to be a horror story? the only unsettling thing about this novella is that cover.

Nothing But Blackened Teeth was probably my most anticipated October 2021 release, and boy, did it disappoint. I mean, given that N.K. Jemisin called it “Brutally delicious!” I went into this novella with high expectations. After getting through this novella’s opening scene, my expectations were quashed. There is an argument of sorts between 4 generic people that was as realistic-sounding as, say, any line of dialogue from Riverdale (“Besides, my money is your money. Brothers to the end, you know?” / “You nearly cost me everything,” Talia said, still staccato in her rage.”).
Our narrator is at this allegedly creepy mansion in Japan that will serve as a wedding venue because the bride happens to be in haunted places. Our narrator doesn’t get on with the bride, there is beef between them because of whatever. They bicker and swear a lot (so edgy of them). Nothing much happens. Characters think the place is creepy, they hear something, and then towards the latter half of the novella, the story gives a half-hearted attempt at horror. There were 0 stakes, the 4 or 5 characters in this novella were different degrees of bitchy and hysterical. Their reactions/responses and the way they interacted with one another struck me as unbearably fake and unconvincing. The narrator’s edgy descriptions of their hands, faces, and voices did nothing to make their words or actions credible. I made the mistake of listening to this audiobook as I was re-reading The Haunting of Hill House and let me just say that Nothing But Blackened Teeth ain’t it. This novella is devoid of nuance and seems to believe that it is being a lot grittier and more subversive than it actually is. The characters are paper-thin and the mc’s narration is so self-dramatising as to be unbearable. In addition to weak dialogues and non-existent characterisation, this novella fails at atmosphere and tone. The haunted house is described so vaguely that it never struck me as a real place. The ghost is cheesy. While the novella tries to be more self-aware of horror tropes it ends up dishing out the same tired clichéd and ‘twists’. The narrator is bi but she only shares romantic/sexual tension with the 3 male characters (she dislikes and is disliked by the bride-to-be). Also, as you may have by now realised, I have already forgotten all of these characters’ names. Our narrator is a bitch, the bride-to-be is a fake, the groom exists, there is a character who is supposed to be a joker but comes across as plain rude and unfunny, and, lastly, there is a white guy who tries hard to be the golden boy. That’s all I remember about them. And they all like to get into really inane arguments that serve as mere page-filler.
While Nothing But Blackened Teeth is by no means the worst thing I’ve read this year, it is a truly banal horror story.
If you liked it, fair enough. If you are interested in reading it I suggest you check out more positive reviews as I have nothing good to say about it (wait, i lie, that cover is relatively disturbing, so there you go).

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi


That Helen Oyeyemi wrote her debut novel aged 18 while studying for her A-Levels is certainly an impressive feat. And, as debuts go, The Icarus Child is by no means a weak one. As this happens to be the third book I’ve read of hers I can see just how much her writing has grown since The Icarus Child. The story’s surreal atmosphere is certainly one that permeates most of her works, but perhaps here the fantastical elements aren’t as mind-boggling as the ones characterising her later books.

The Icarus Child revolves around Jessamy Harrison, who goes by Jess, an eight-year-old child with a white British father and a Nigerian mother living in England. The novel opens with her going on a trip to Nigeria with her parents where she stays in her mother’s family home. Here she comes across a girl called TillyTilly. The two quickly become friends but much about TillyTilly preoccupies Jess. Where are her parents? How old is she?
When she returns home with her family Jess discovers that TillyTilly has followed her there. As they spend more and more time together Jess realizes that TillyTilly is not like other children and that angering or antagonising her might result in disaster. Yet, her friendship with TillyTilly proves detrimental as an increasingly alienated Jess finds herself in trouble at school and at home.
Although the story is narrated through a 3rd pov Oyeyemi succeeds in authentically conveying Jess’ voice. We view her reality/world through her eyes and with her ‘child’ understanding. Things that are obvious to us are a mystery to her (for example when she observes the behaviour/actions of the adults around her). Jess is a sensitive child who often seeks refuge in her own imagination. The adults fail to understand or try to label her ‘difficult’ or ‘different’. Her loneliness is so poignant that I found myself truly invested in her character. TillyTilly is more of a trickster sort of figure, egging Jess to misbehave or let loose. Their dynamic brought to mind my own childhood best friend who was a fun if slightly tyrannical girl who was very much aware of how in awe of her I was (if she told me to jump, i’d jump).
What brings the story down is its meandering pacing and its repetitive scenes. When I thought that the story was reaching a conclusion I was amazed to discover that I was only at the halfway point. Much of the narrative consists in Jess having steadily severe temper tantrums, fighting with other girls at her school, or having to face her understandably exasperated mother. There were also some dream/nightmare sequences that were intentionally confusing that didn’t really add much to the narrative or atmosphere. The character of TillyTilly also proved a bit of a disappointment as she says the same ‘creepy’ things over and over again. The prose too was at times a tad jejune. Anyhow, the latter half of the novel was a bit of a chore to get trough. I found myself skim-reading hoping that the ending would be worth it but was let down by a frankly anticlimactic conclusion.

All in all, I would recommend this to fans of this author. While the story and writing aren’t quite as polished as her more recent releases, and on the whole, the novel isn’t as vivacious or as humorous as her usual stuff, The Icarus Child does introduce us to a compelling protagonist.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater

And so my latest TRC re-read has come to an end. What an outstanding series. Truly. I cannot even begin to articulate how much this series means to me and how much I love it.

In this finale, the stakes are higher than ever and a lot of things Stiefvater has hinted at in the previous instalments come to the fore. The Raven King makes for a bittersweet read. While Stiefvater’s delightful humor is still present, there are several scenes that are just brimming with sadness & melancholy. In a way, this mirrors the shift in tone and reflects how far the characters have come since their early days in TRC. That is not to say that they still don’t make mistakes or say the wrong things, but they have at least learnt how to communicate more with one another. Their experiences have made them more mature, and witnessing this ‘growth’ makes for such a rewarding experience.

With the exception of The Dream Thieves, which is pure gasoline, the other volumes in this series are characterised by a calmer pace. In The Raven King this too changes as the narrative is very much action-driven. Stuff just keeps happening and at times I missed the more tranquil pacing of TRC or BLLB. Still, I was very much hooked on the story. We get some great reveals and character development. Stiefvater’s storytelling is always on point, from the atmosphere she creates through the use of repetition to the vividly rendered setting of Henrietta (and Cabeswater, Monmouth Manufacturing, 300 Fox Way, the Barns)
As per usual, I adore the Gangsey. Gansey is going through a lot. While he’s certainly good at pretending that he’s control, there are various things that happen here that threaten his ‘everything is going swell act’. Adam is still learning more about his abilities but without Persephone there to guide him, he has to learn to trust his friends and himself. Blue’s reunion with her long-absent father is not particularly ideal as he refuses to talk to anyone. Ronan…my poor boy.
These characters truly are the heart of this series. I did find myself wanting more scenes of them together, and part of me resented that we get less of them in favour of introducing Henry. I like him, I do. I can tell Stiefvater cares for him and wants us to feel the same. The thing is, I would have preferred it if he’d been introduced earlier on in the series or if he’d played a more minor role. His presence in the narrative makes it so that we get less of Noah and less of Adam&Gansey or Ronan&Gansey…I also found myself missing the OG quest. In the previous books, Glendower is very much the goal and Gansey often talks about history and myths…here instead Glendower seemed an afterthought almost that only comes into play towards the end. But these things were fairly minor things.

A lot happens in The Raven King, so much so that we don’t really have the time to process some of the more heart-wrenching scenes (if you’ve read this you know). As I was reluctant to say goodbye to these characters part of me wishes that we could have had a longer epilogue…still, I’m extremely grateful to Stiefvater for what she has accomplished with TRC.
While TRK isn’t my favourite book in this series I still found it to be a fantastic read. I am in awe of this series.
I’m so happy that Stiefvater went on to write Call Down the Hawk and Mister Impossible. While the tonal shift may not appeal to all, personally, I think it really works in its favour.

my rating: ★★★★★

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The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould

“Ghosts are death, but maybe death can mean different things.”

Spooky, sapphic, summery, The Dead and the Dark delivers on all of these. Fans of YA paranormal YA novels like Beware the Wild or Stiefvater’s TRC or even graphic-novels such as The Low, Low Woods, should definitely consider giving Courtney Gould’s debut a shot. The Dead and the Dark = eerie atmosphere + oppressive summer heat + f/f romance + dysfunctional families + not-so-idyllic-small-town with secrets.

“In Snakebite, you were either fleeting or permanent. People who came to town always left, and people who left didn’t come back.”

The Dead and the Dark follows Logan Ortiz-Woodley, the long-suffering daughter of the duo behind ParaSpectors, a ghost-hunting type of ‘documentary’ TV show. Due to her dads’ work, Logan has grown up all over the US, never staying in one place for long. Her dads, Alejo and Brandon, often seem to prioritise their filming schedule over her. While she has a good relationship with Alejo, Brandon has always been a distant figure, to the point of being cold towards her. After her final year of high school, Logan finds herself tagging along with Alejo to join Brandon who has been staying in Snakebite, Oregon for the past few months. Snakebite happens to be her dads’ hometown but Logan knows next to nothing about that time in their lives. Her dads claim that they are there to work on their latest season but Logan suspects some ulterior motives behind their decision to return to this clearly hostile small-town.
Once in Snakebite Logan learns that the town’s golden boy went missing soon after Brandon moved back, and many of its inhabitants seem to believe that he was responsible. Logan teams up with Ashley Barton, the girlfriend of the golden boy and a golden girl in her own right as she’s the daughter of the most powerful family in Snakebite. Despite their differences, Logan and Ashley decide to investigate her boyfriend’s disappearance, and soon enough realize that Snakebite may be haunted in more ways than one.

“If pain is the measure, I promise Snakebite is full of ghosts.”

Their thrilling investigation (which sees them uncovering years-old secrets, come to terms with hard truths, suspect their loved ones, see this town and its people through new eyes, and come across ghosts and a ‘dark’ evil entity) was certainly engrossing. I liked their dynamic and how by spending time together they slowly start catching feelings for each other. The setting of Snakebite was really well done. The town’s hostility towards the Ortiz-Woodley family adds extra urgency to the girls’ investigation.

“At the end of all of this, Snakebite would never be the same.”

Now on what didn’t quite work for me: all that supposed evidence incriminating Brandon. That a lot of his scenes or flashbacks involving him in the first half of the novel corroborate this view of him as being a potentially bad guy. It got a bit silly as I already knew who the culprit was. And yes, that ‘twist’…I saw it coming a mile away. Maybe I’ve just read too many mystery novels or maybe I should have not spent a few years of my life watching all 70 episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot but it just so happens that most of the time I guess who is behind a certain crime and or even their motivations. This doesn’t always ruin the story for me but here it sort of made the whole reveal and explanation anticlimactic. Towards the end I also found myself feeling more engaged in Alejo and Brandon than Logan and Ashley which is weird as I’m closer in age to the girls & I’m a lesbian woman. But there was something about Ashley that I just found a wee bit boring and not very engaging. She was very sheltered and compared to Logan I found her character somewhat flat.
The ‘missing boy’ plays a similar function as the dead girls that populate so many crime shows and fiction. We never really learn anything much about him other than he was an actual golden boy and he’s merely a plot device.
Ashley’s mother seemed a poor rip-off of the mother from Sharp Object (a novel that, surprise surprise, the author mentions in the acknowledgements). We never learn much about Ashley’s family which seemed like a wasted opportunity.

The secrecy also got to me. The girls repeatedly ask the ‘adults’ what went on in Snakebite all those years ago or why there is such animosity between Ashely’s mother and Logan’s dads…but they all say dismissive things like ‘soon we’ll tell you/not now/when all of this is over’. It’s one of my least favourite tropes and I wish that it hadn’t been so overused in this story. The time skips (sometimes one or two weeks go by after a certain scene) did not always seem necessary as they clearly served a buffering function.

Still, this was an absorbing and quick read. The relationship between Logan and her dads, specifically Brandon, was one of the most compelling aspects of the storyline. All in all, I’m glad I read this and I look forward to whatever Gould writes next.

my rating: ★★★½

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Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

As riveting as watching paint dry.

I wasn’t planning on reading this as I wasn’t all that enthused by Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow. But, as I don’t like to write off authors on the basis of just one book & earlier this week I was in the mood for a gothic-kind-of-read, well, I decided to give Mexican Gothic a shot after all. And…yeah, my reading experience of Mexican Gothic was not a great one. The only reason I managed to finish it was because I listened to the audiobook at 1.75x speed.
If you liked this novel, ben per te. If you are thinking of reading it, I recommend you check out some more positive reviews as I have very few good things to say about it.

Let us begin with the supposed plot/story which takes place in 1950s Mexico (although dare i say, the historical setting was exceedingly generic). Noemí Taboada, our heroine, is a ‘spunky’ and ‘stylish’ young woman who enjoys going to parties, flirting with boys, and pursuing whatever she wants to pursue. Her father, a wealthy man, receives a letter from his niece and Noemí’s cousin. Catalina makes some alarming claims in her letter, hinting at some Big Bad™ and pleading for help. So Noemí’s father sends his daughter to High Place, Catalina’s husband’s family home where the newlywed couple resides. Once there, Noemí, so smart is she, notices that something is afoot. Almost every person in High Place is creepy af. We have Virgil, Catalina’s brutish yet handsome husband, who not only shows little concern over his wife’s malaise but he’s prone to making unpleasant passes at Noemí and seems the human embodiment of baseness (the villainous guy is indeed villainous? quelle surprise! ). His father, Howard, is even creepier than he is. He’s decrepit looking and into eugenics (don’t tell me…he’s also a baddie? no! i am shook). Then we have this woman called Florence who is also part of the family and seems a mere rip-off of Mrs Danvers. Her son, Francis, seems the only ‘nice’ person in the household but, as Noemí reminds us time and again, he’s so frail and shy, always doing his family’s bidding.

Nothing seems to happen. Noemí is sort of spooked but not really. She has bad dreams that she brushes off (i wonder if they really are dreams…or wait, don’t tell me, they are not ‘merely’ dreams? i am gobsmacked!). The house is creepy. Kind of. Noemí ‘disobeys’ the family’s rules by smoking indoors and taking off to the nearby town/village. There she comes across a character who serves the role of explainer, as she recounts the Doyles’ family history and of how the miners they employed died a mysterious death (or something along those lines). Despite knowing this and her cousin’s ravings about the house & her ‘new’ family Noemí doesn’t really cotton on to the situation. She is presented as this subversive modern Gothic heroine who doesn’t take shit from anyone and swears (such a badass, isn’t she?) because she isn’t afraid of being rude and gets indignant about the racist/sexist/generally offensive remarks made by this remarkably deranged family…and yet, in spite of all of these things, she struck me as frustratingly passive and, worst still, una vera cretina. And, one could say that it is understandable, she was being ‘gaslighted’ by those twisted and nefarious Doyles and by the house itself…but the thing is, she was also getting some pretty clear messages from beyond the veil (and she wasn’t the sceptic type who totally writes off the supernatural and she wasn’t the only one experiencing this ‘disturbing’ stuff so…).

The storyline was uneventful, filled with scenes that seem lifted from other works of Gothic: shifting shapes/people in the walls? The Yellow Wallpaper; incest? The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, Flowers in the Attic, Crimson Peak; female mc is concerned because her newly married sister/cousin seems to have fallen mysteriously ill and her husband is clearly after her fortune? The Woman in White; Haunted house? Puh-lease, anything Shirley Jackson; inclusion of hard-hitting topics such as the horrors of ‘post-Enlightenment scientific racism’? Beloved.

This novel consists of Noemí having the same tedious conversation with the same boring characters. She gets the heebie-jeebies, does nothing about it. Her sleuthing? What sleuthing? She sort of figures things out towards the end but not really. More often than not ‘stumbles’ her way through this supposed ‘mystery’. And then we just had to have the villains explain things to her in their diabolical villainous monologues.

I did not find Noemí to be an engaging character. The way she comported herself struck me as overwhelmingly anachronistic. Someone ‘cool’ modern audiences can root for. Look at her, she gets angry when insulted! She swears! What a riot! An icon! A real feminist!

Don’t get me started on the other characters. If the story hadn’t taken itself so seriously I could have almost appreciated them (in a, look at them, they are clearly so OTT). But the story does seem to present them as these figures we should ‘fear’…speaking of fear. Was this meant to be horror? Not once was I creeped out or scared or anxious. If anything, I found the prose, dialogues, and character interactions to be so corny that there was no way I could feel apprehensive on the behalf of Noemí (who, truth be told, i did not care for in the least).

While the imagery and atmosphere did occasionally strike me as effectively Gothic, the setting and story would have benefited from more descriptions. The house in particular is depicted in such vague terms that I had a hard time visualising it (from its architecture to its interior decor). In my humble opinion, Gothic tales featuring haunted houses necessitate more evocative descriptions.
The whole mushroom/gloom thing was preposterous. It made the story all the more ridiculous.

So, to recap, this is why I did not like this:
Storyline: nothing interesting happens, there is barely any suspense unless you believe that one-dimensional creepy characters who act creepy from the get-go are a source of tension (personally i don’t).
Characters: clichèd? Not even in a fun way? They were really uninspired. Noemí wasn’t as annoying as the heroine from Gods of Jade and Shadow (who was very much a cinderella sort of figure) but she was so thick. The spooky family was laughably ‘evil’. And I can’t say that I like it when male characters who are physically described as frail-looking, not very ‘masculine’, are made into weak cowards (yeah, the guy here ultimately steps up but for the majority of the novel he is basically a carpet).
Dynamic/relationships: very surface level? Especially between the various family members. We get very few interactions between them and they seem to regard each other as strangers. Also, the interactions between these characters seemed so stilted, theatrical even.
Gothic elements: I know this genre is known for being derivative, for sticking to the same tropes etc…but this was written in the mid-to-late 2010s…surely, the author could have subverted some of these tropes? Her supposedly ‘spunky’ heroine is as hapless as an Ann Radcliffe one.
Ghosts/Haunting: banal? As uninspired as everything else about this book?
Historical setting: uberly generic. Thrown in a ‘women had it worse than now’, a few quaint phrases/expressions, some good ol’ racism/sexism/bigotry….and there you have it, historical vibe achieved!
Prose: simple, silly, and dramatic yet trying now and again to be ‘edgy’ and serious.

Also, I know this is not an entirely ‘valid’ criticism, but this is the second novel that I’ve read by this author and the lack of queer characters is…disappointing.

I think that this novel has confirmed that Moreno-Garcia is not the author for me. I’m happy other readers can appreciate her work, I, however, cannot in good faith count myself among her admirers. Maybe one day I will try something else by her…maybe (tis’ unlikely).

my rating: ★★½

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