The World Cannot Give by Tara Isabella Burton

this is my fault. i should know by now that titles claiming to have dark academia or sapphic vibes should be approached with extreme caution.

DISCLAIMER: I did not like this book and my review reflects of that. I will be brutally honest about my thoughts on this novel so if you want to read this or if this book happens to be on your ‘radar’ I recommend you check out more positive reviews. If you loved this book, I am happy for you but please don’t tell me I’m wrong for disagreeing with you.


Affected and self-important The World Cannot Give makes for a singularly insipid read. Its biggest ‘sin’ is that it tries to be the dark academia equivalent of Not Like Other Girls. For all its attempts at being ‘not like’ other dark academia books, The World Cannot Give was one of the most generic books I’ve read in a very long time. From its poorly rendered setting to its wafer-thin characters, The World Cannot Give reads like a been-there-done-that boarding school novel. This is the kind of novel that thinks it is a lot smarter than it is (in reality it is as intellectually deep as a puddle, of the shallow variety). For all its attempts at intertextuality and self-awareness (we have few throwaway lines on the dangers of romanticizing elitist institutions and idealizing the past and historical figures), it has nothing substantial or new to say. The author’s writing style and the tone of her narrative brought to mind two novels that I am not fond of, The Silent Patient and An Anonymous Girl. If you liked them chances are you will have a more positive reading experience with The World Cannot Give than I was.
If you like cheesy shows such as Riverdale or self-dramatizing books such as Plain Bad Heroines ,Belladonna, A Lesson in Vengeance, Vicious Little Darlings, Good Girls Lie (where characters are prone to angsty theatricals) you may be able to actually enjoy The World Cannot Give.
As I warned above, this review is going to be harsh so if you aren’t keen on reading negative reviews you should really give this review a miss.

minor spoilers below

STORY/PLOT
Contrary to what the blurb says, The World Cannot Give is no ‘The Girls meets Fight Club’. Nor is it a satisfying ‘coming-of-age novel about queer desire, religious zealotry, and the hunger for transcendence. And the only ‘shocking’ thing about it is that it is shockingly bad. On the lines of, how was this even published?
The first page is misleadingly promising. I liked the opening line and that whole first paragraph. Alas, with each new page, my high hopes dwindled.
Laura is on her way to St. Dunstan’s Academy in Maine. She’s ecstatic about attending this school because she hero-worships Sebastian Webster who used to go there in the 1930s. Angsty Webster wrote this book about the “sclerotic modern world” and the “shipwreck of the soul” and goes on and on about wanting to be “World-Historical”. Webster died at 19 fighting for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Anyway, our sensitive Laura is enthralled by his writings and his fake-deep ideas so of course, she wants to study where he did. She gets to St. Dunstan goes to her room and meets two girls who from this scene onwards will not change. That is, this one scene establishes their one-note characters. There is Freddy who is a tertiary sort of character who just glares, snorts, scowls, and grimaces because that’s the kind of mean-ish one-dimensional sidekick she is. Then there is Bonnie who is all about her followers and using her boarding school as a prop for her dark academia inspired videos & photos. Laura eventually goes to the school’s chapel (Webster is buried there and there is a statue in his honour in that area) and she hears the choir. Her spirit is so moved by what she experiences at the chapel that she feels lifted to a higher plane of existence or something. But wait, the choir is rudely interrupted by a girl with a shaved head who is a queer feminist who is just like so done with the institution and wants to abolish mandatory church attendance. Laura, our innocent, is shooketh by her actions and somehow, despite her wishy-washy personality, ingratiates herself with the choir president, Virginia. We learn virtually nothing more about the school, nor do we get any real insight into how Laura’s classes are going, what she’s studying, her teachers, their methods…Laura joins the choir and what follows is a lot of scenes that are just filler leading up to the real ‘conflict’. The choir, this ‘clique’, did not make for interesting people, consequently, I was bored by the limited banter that didn’t reveal anything significant about them or their surroundings. Laura is Virginia’s lapdog, so she starts emulating whatever Virginia does (comparing herself to other literary sidekicks), Virginia spends her time ranting about the ‘sclerotic world’, her aversion towards matters of the flesh, and bemoaning the ye olden days and is mad that she has to be in the proximity of so many sinners. She also doesn’t want Brad, who is also in the choir, and Bonnie to be together. Brad is loyal to Virginia so he is conflicted. Bonnie is in love with Brad for reasons. And why the hell not at this point. The only ones in the choir who came across as devoted to Webster, his ‘insights’ into the ills of the modern world, were Laura and Virginia. But they just have the same conversations about this guy. They don’t expand on his views, they merely reiterate the term ‘World-Historical’ and his other catchphrases. Anyway, time goes by and eventually things come to head when Bonnie decides to encroach on Virginia’s territory (the chapel) as retaliation for her interfering in her love life (instead of taking issue with Brad…ugh). Isobel, the queer feminist, comes into play but her presence is very much kept off-page. Virginia becomes increasingly fanatical and decides to go all Old Testament God on the people who have betrayed her or revealed that they are not ‘virtuous’ (quelle surprise…).

TONE/WRITING
You see the cover, you read the blurb, you come across someone comparing this to Donna Tartt (comparing book such as this to the secret history should be made into a punishable offence…ahem, i’m jesting of course), you think, this is going to be DEEP and possibly even intellectual and emotionally stimulating. You are, of course, dead wrong. This book reads like a spoof. But not a fully committed one. It actually reminded me of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. There the narrative makes fun of the heroine for wanting to be in a Gothic novel and seeing the world through Gothic-tinted lenses and overdramatising everything. This is exactly it. Except, it also takes itself seriously…kind of? The writing and tone try to mirror the way Laura sees the world. She yearns for Webster and, like Virginia, finds the present-day intolerable. So the writing uses this exaggerated and self-dramatizing language reminiscent of historical novels. Some of these are actually decent. But then we get a lot of short sentences and exclamations marks. This kind of style can work. For instance, in Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia, which actually happens to be a far superior boarding-school book exploring queer desire. The language there is very high-flown but it worked because Strachey could write some truly beautiful and playful passages.
Here the writing verges on the ridiculous and more often than not it comes across as just plain bad. We had clumsy, inharmonious, and even cheesy sentences: “Barry Ng blushes at this. Virginia glares at him. Brad sighs a long and heavy sigh.”; “She looks from Brad to Bonnie and back again. Brad sighs a long and exhausted sigh.”; “Shame floods Laura’s face; she curdles it into fury.” (lol); ““One choir. One family.” Her smile twitches.” (twitching smiles? what is this? fanfic i wrote at 15?); “Her smile glints.” (ugh); “Virginia didn’t know. Virginia couldn’t have known. Virginia would never. Virginia always would. Of course, of course, Virginia would.”; “Isobel is wrong, Laura tells herself. Isobel has to be wrong. Isobel’s just jealous; Isobel has no sense of transcendence;”. And these are just a few examples…the writing & tone did nothing for me. Very few writers can make third person present tense work and Burton isn’t one of them I’m afraid…
I struggled to take it seriously and even if it was intentionally trying to be satirical, well, even then I would have found it ridiculous.

THEMES/ ‘IDEOLOGY’
Like I said above this book tries to be different from other boarding schools/dark academia books by referencing the rise in popularity that dark academia aesthetics & media have had in the last few years…but that doesn’t result automatically in a thought-provoking commentary on the dangers of romanticism elitist institutions such as universities and or private schools. One of the two only poc characters in the story has a few lines that highlight how institutions like St. Duncan are built on inequality and that we should be more critical about those Old White Men who likely committed Bad Things and should not be therefore uncritically revered. Yeah fair enough. But that’s it. Laura and Virginia spend the whole bloody book going on about the ‘sclerotic modern world’ and are contemptuous of anyone who isn’t in awe of Webster. They believe in God..sort of? For all their talk about sins and transcendence, I was not at all convinced that they even had a strong relationship to their faith. Virginia wants to be baptized, but her decision to do so is made sus because she’s portrayed as sort of unhinged so she truly isn’t ‘genuine’. Laura instead is more mellow about her faith so I don’t understand why she would Virginia’s fanatical rants to be of any appeal. You do you babe and all that but come on…Virginia wasn’t even a charismatic orator. Their ideology actually brought to mind the kids from The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. Like those lil creeps, Virginia and Laura find the modern world to be disgusting. They particularly don’t get why people are obsessed with sex. They merely want to transcend their bodies and reach a higher, more enlightened plane of existence. I think the author was trying to do her own version of “Beauty is terror” but yikes. It just came across as stagy. Additionally, I found it annoying that characters who could have been on the aroace spectrum are actually just ‘repressed’.
Anyway, this book had nothing interesting to say about faith, romanticizing the past, or the dangers of idealizing the ones you care for.
The story towards the end takes a weird route in that it becomes all about how boys/men exploit women and betray their trusts by sharing explicit photos and videos of their gf or sex partners with their male friends and this plotline worsened the already existing disconnect between the tone and the content of the book.

CHARACTERS/RELATIONSHIPS
I understand that people are incongruent but these characters did not make bloody sense. They were extremely one-note and then for plot-reasons they would do something really random. Laura is boring and annoying. I can cope with characters who are obsessed with a friend or who are introverted or even naive. But Laura was just embarrassing. Her devotion to Virginia lacked substance. Their dynamic was uneventful. Bonnie was depicted in a purposely grating way and grated my nerves. Isobel was gay and a feminist and stands against the bullshit Virginia and Laura believe in. That’s it. The boys are either milquetoast assholes who don’t see the problem in sharing nudes or doing whatever Virginia says because why not. There is this one guy in the choir who exists just to say ‘that’s cringe’ or ‘that’s completely cringe’.
Virginia was the worst offender. She had no redeeming qualities but we were meant to feel some degree of sympathy towards her. Come on. She wasn’t a convincing or compelling character. I didn’t find her an intriguing or cryptic mystery. She was nasty and I didn’t like that everything she does or says is basically chalked up to her being a total religious zealot. All of her reactions are so extreme as to make her into a caricature more than a person. I didn’t like the way her eating disorder was portrayed as it
The obsession and desire promised by the blurb were just not really there. I mean, yeah, the girl was obsessed but there was something perfunctory about it. The sapphic yearning I was hoping to find in these pages was largely absent. There is a f/f couple, but they had barely any scenes and they had 0 chemistry whatsoever. They came across as friends or sisters even. Then we are meant to believe that someone like Isobel would fall for Virginia because they shared a past? Surely Isobel, who is supposedly clever, would be a bit sus about Virginia’s sudden change of heart. Also, shouldn’t Virginia’s decline in her physical and mental health be a red flag of sorts? Shouldn’t Isobel have shown more concern over Virginia’s state of mind?

SETTING
0 sense of place. There are barely any descriptions of the school and very few passages detailing the nearby landscapes. The novel takes place nowadays I guess but there were barely any contemporary references. This could have worked if then we didn’t have a plotline involving Bonnie’s online following, sexting, or even certain terms (such as cringe) being used. It just took me out of the story as the majority of the narrative and dialogues were trying to conjure an ‘old’ timeless vibe. I think if the novel had had a historical setting it would have actually worked in its favour. Its modern social commentary after all is very half-arsed and had a vague tokenistic vibe to it (isobel existing just to oppose the establishment etc.).

I’m going to recommend a few books that in my opinion do what this book tries to do a lot better: Frost in May (coming of age, all-girl school, Catholicism), Abigail (coming of age, WWII Hungary, all-girl school, fraught friendships), Old School (all-boys schools, jealousy, ambition, privilege, self-knowledge), Sweet Days of Discipline (queer desire, obsession, order vs. chaos, all-girl school), The Inseparables (all-girl school, obsession, queer desire, Catholicism),These Violent Delights (college, obsession, toxic relationships, queer desire), Olivia (all-girl school, France 1890s, unrequited love, queer desire), A Great and Terrible Beauty (fantasy, fraught friendships, all-girl schools, f/f side), Passing (jealousy, race, queer repressed desire), Ninth House (dark academia, Yale, urban fantasy, tackles privilege, corruption, misogyny), The Wicker King (dark academia vibes, queer desire, obsession, toxic relationships).

Maybe if this novel had gone truly committed to being a parody, and upped the camp factor, maybe then I would have found it a little bit amusing. But it didn’t so nope, this novel did not work for me at all. The story was stupid, the characters were either bland or neurotic (in a really exaggerated, possibly problematic, way), the themes were poorly developed and relied on the usage of a few certain key terms (without delving into what this term truly means), the sapphic element was largely absent…you get the gist by now. I actually wish I’d dnfed but I hoped that it would improve along the way. When will I learn the lesson? A beautiful cover doth not make for a good book.

my rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Fiona and Jane by Jean Chen Ho

Fiona and Jane is yet another one of my most anticipated 2022 releases that left me wanting. While the author is certainly a decent writer, I found myself dissatisfied by the friendship that was meant to be the core of her book. Their relationship did not feel complex or nuanced, in fact, it did not even come across as particularly credible. More page time is spent on the inane arguments they have with the wishy-washy men they have sexual and or romantic relationships with than their friendship. The majority of the book is all about characters bickering with one another (which i would have not minded as much if said characters had been realistic or if, at least, their bickering had been somewhat entertaining….).

This book follows two Taiwanese American girls Fiona and Jane as they attempt to navigate girlhood and later on adulthood. While the earlier chapters give us a glimpse into their family history, the later ones are more concerned with their dating lives. They either end up dating manipulative men or end up pining for emotionally unavailable guys. While Jane is queer, her sexuality is very much depicted in a way that left a lot to be desired. At first, some of the chapters imply that she’s a lesbian but then it becomes apparent that she’s probably bi, pan, or queer. Nothing wrong there but for the fact that none of the chapters really focus on her same-sex relationships. These are mentioned, or even appear briefly, but they are not given the same weight as the relationships she has with men. Maybe if the men she ends up entangled with came across as fully-developed characters, I wouldn’t feel so frustrated but they did not and in fact, they were very similar to the men Fiona is with. Rather than expanding on a particular moment in their lives, these chapters usually hone in on a series of silly arguments they have either with each other or the men they are with. These arguments did not always come across as believable and they struck me as staged. As Fiona often takes the role of self-victimizing quasi-hysterical woman, I did not feel particularly engaged in the highs and lows of her romantic life. It did not help that her chapters were narrated in the 3rd person while Jane’s in the 1st one. Because of this I felt distanced by Fiona’s chapters in a way that I wasn’t with Jane. That is not to say that Jane was likeable or a good friend. She was merely the less annoying of the two. At the end of the day only one chapter really honed in on their bond, and the rest spend more time recounting the horrible men they end up with. Their bond was by no means intense or fraught, and there was something very lukewarm about their dynamic. We are told that they are, allegedly, friends. But did this friendship really come across in the actual story? Not really. Early on Fiona does something quite unforgivable to Jane and this is never truly addressed by either party.
I would have liked more time spent on exploring their family dynamics and I think their inner lives could have benefited from being more developed too. We see them at dinners or parties having the same mean-ish conversations with their friends (who make cameo appearances), moaning about the men they are (allegedly) deeply drawn to despite the way they treat them and having exceedingly millennial concerns. I disliked certain plotlines, especially the one involving Jane’s guilt over her father’s death. His sexuality and death become her ‘sad backstory’, something to make her character appear deeper than what she truly is. You might argue that the reason why their friendship features so little in their chapters is that in their adult lives away from one another etc etc…but then why, when the two are once again in the proximity of each other, would you dedicate the chapter actually titled ‘Fiona and Jane’ to Jane’s relationship with a traumatized veteran?
I found both of the titular characters to be selfish, ridiculous in the way they paint themselves as the wronged party, boring (they lack drive and seem to have no real passions/interests), and petty. All in all, I found them to be singularly unlikable. The way Fiona and Jane is formatted too made their relationship appear all the more insubstantial. The book consists of self-contained chapters that can be read like short stories. This type of structure can and does work if in the hands of, say, authors such as Zalika Reid-Benta, Sang Young Park, or Patricia Engel, but here this mode didn’t work so well. The halfhearted attempt at nonlinearity felt pointless, especially since, with the exception of the first three chapters/stories, the rest all take place in an ambiguous time and I was never quite sure in what phase of Fiona and Jane’s lives we were. Doubtlessly, the string of dickish men they become involved with made these chapters rather samey. Additionally, with the exception of the first 3 chapters, Fiona and Jane did not have a strong sense of place.
I will say that the author does highlight the stereotypes attached to women with Taiwanese heritage (at one point one of them dates a korean guy who says taiwanese girls are more ‘promiscuous’ than korean ones). And, despite all of my criticisms, towards the structure of the book, the underdeveloped friendship between Fiona and Jane, I did find the first 3 chapters compelling. The first one is narrated by Jane and reminded me of Mariko Tamaki’s Skim. The second one, if memory serves, is about Fiona’s early years in Taiwan and we see how her grandparents try their best to shelter her. The third one is certainly hard-hitting as it shows how in their efforts to be ‘grown up’ Fiona and Jane end up in a potentially dangerous situation, this one made me think of T Kira Madden’s memoir. But the rest? Meh. They brought to mind Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw . While the two belong to different genres, they both feature thinly rendered millennial-ish characters who have stupid arguments with each other. The trajectory of these arguments did not ring true to life. The characters’ responses to the so-called betrayals also struck me as melodramatic and inconsistent. At one point Jane is insulted and enraged at Fiona after the latter asks her whether she’s had an affair with the man she’s currently seeing. She dramatically storms off but then we learn that Jane knew that he was cheating on her and she is the one who is now begging Fiona for her forgiveness. Surely when Fiona first accused her of being the ‘other woman’ Jane, the friend that up to this point had been painted as the more reasonable and forgiving one, would not have either felt a niggling of guilt over the knowledge that Fiona is right about the cheating, just wrong about the other woman’s identity, or understood that her secrecy and complicity over the affair had made her suspect in her friend’s eyes? No. None of this goes through her head. She just becomes rather hysterical and childish, like, How dArE ShE, wE aRe FriENds.
Another thing that annoyed me is how the author depicts queerness. I did not like the avoidance of words such as bi/pan/and queer. These are not bad words. No one is saying that Jane had to talk about her sexuality 24/7 or wear a badge but that when someone calls her a lesbian in front of a guy she’s into, she later ‘reassures’ him by dismissing him, on the lines of, Who? Me? A lesbian? Nah, you know Whatshisface, he’s full of it. As if ‘lesbian’ were an insult of some sort. While she’s confused over what she feels for this guy she has a kind of rebound relationship with a woman who is given very little page time in comparison to her male partners…why?!
It seemed that time that could have been spent on developing Fiona and Jane’s characters, their backstories, their fears/desires etc., is sacrificed in favour of wannabe gritty and realistic scenes involving their time with forgettable assholes.
It makes sense that some of these chapters were originally published separately. The work feels disjointed and directionless, the vapid discussions of the characters were boring and I found the whole book to be deeply lacking in humour. The sex scenes came across as cheesy because they were trying really hard to be edgy and real. The last few lines, where Jane is all like, I will write a book about us or whatnot, was just..unnecessary.
All in all, I did not care for this novel. If you are interested in books that actually explore the themes this book was supposed to, I recommend you check out Kyle Lucia Wu’s Win Me Something. If you liked Fiona and Jane, well, I’m happy that you were able to appreciate it more than I was…so pls don’t @ me.

my rating: ★★½

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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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Happy Hour by Marlowe Granados

“It takes practice to have restraint, and we are not yet at an age to try it out.”



As the title and cover themselves suggest, Happy Hour is the book equivalent of an aperitif. I’m thinking of an Aperol spritz and some black olives. Nice enough while you’re having them but once they are gone you’re prepared to move onto something more substantial. That is not to say that Happy Hour has no merits, if anything, my frustration towards this novel stems from the fact that, in many ways, this could have been an excellent read. But, it was an unfunny, shallow, and monotonous story about young pretty people who enjoy drinking and eating at ‘in’ bodegas.

Happy Hour implements the kind of literary devices and motifs that are all the rage in a certain subset of millennial literature. We have a wry narrator who is in her twenties, prone to self-sabotage, alienated 24/7, and leading a rather directionless life. While she does feel detached from those around her, her running commentary is as sharp as a knife. The dialogues have a mumblecore vibe to them so that many of the conversations sound like something we ourselves have heard in RL (the kind of small talk that happens at wannabe-artsy-parties etc). Sadly, I found many of the scenes in Happy Hour to be repetitive and interchangeable with one another. Isa and Gala meet up with some people they may or may not know at a bar or at someone’s flat. They get tipsy, or drunk, talk about nothing in particular with the other guests, and eventually make their way back home by grabbing a taxi. They try to get by sponging off other people, setting up a market stall where they halfheartedly try to sell clothes, pose as models for artists, or even by going to bars and being paid (cash + unlimited drinks) by the owner to attract more clients (making in 3 hours what would take me, a minimum-wage-worker, a whole-ass shift). Because of their immigration status, they cannot apply to ‘desk jobs’, but we never really learn much about that. Their past is very intentionally shrouded in mystery, barely alluded to. I assume they are Canadian given that they speak English fluently and that they seem familiar with American/Western culture.
I sort of resented the implication that they are ‘survivors’. They may not have a family to fall back onto, but A) they have each other B) they have travelled and can earn money fairly easily because they are young and pretty C) they are CONNECTED. In what could seem like a running-gag of sorts Isa always seems to come across someone she knows. Most of their ‘friends’ and acquaintances seem well-off and educated and these two are able to go out partying every night or so without actually spending all of their money this way. They make no conscious effort to save up, wasting money on the kind of meals that will not be filling or nutritious (ever heard of rice and beans? clearly not) nor do they try to put a stop to their night lifestyle. While they are quick, Isa especially, to notice how privileged the people around them are, they seem unaware that beauty is a currency and that their ability to party every night or earn money modelling or sponge off rich obnoxious men is directly proportional to their physical apperance.

Isa has ‘suffered’; one of the men she sort of sees briefly during the course of the novel ghosts her or something along those lines and not for one second was I convinced that she was truly broken up about it. The author really tries to make her sound jaded and caustic but her observations were predictably vanilla, and, worst still, always seem to posit her in a good light. The dynamic between Isa and Gala was the most disappointing aspect of the novel. As I’ve said, I’m all for complicated female friendships like the one in Moshfegh’s MYORAR, or between Ferrante’s Lila and Lenù or Morrison’s Sula and Nel or Ruchika Tomar’s Cale and Penny. But here, eh. Isa is clearly better than Gala. Gala is selfish, superficial, a bad friend and possibly even a bad person. She’s a fake whose only moments of vulnerability are an act to earn ‘male’ attention or sympathy from others. And I hate that they have to resort to the kind of ‘who has a right to be sad’ pissing content. Gala was born in Sarajevo but Isa ridicules the fact that the Bosnian war may have traumatised her since she left when she was just a ‘baby’ (as if her parents’ trauma couldn’t have possibly have affected her growing up) and immediately has to mention her own ACTUAL trauma (her mom died, i think). Like, ma che cazzo? And before you say, clearly Isa believes herself to be the good guy, well, other characters consolidate this narrative of her being GOOD and Gala bad. Every guy they come across prefers Isa to Gala, all of their ‘shared’ friends don’t give two shits about Gala but care about Isa etc etc.
And, boy, the storyline was just so very repetitive. Yeah, the author is able to convey a sort of artsy-academic-hipster-millennial atmosphere however, even if a lot of the dialogues in her novel sound like actual conversations (the type you may overhear at parties or in a bar or even while using public transport) that doesn’t result in an incredibly realistic and or compelling narrative. Isa was a very one-dimensional vapid character who manages to be both dull and irksome. She’s a twenty-something possibly Canadian woman who describes herself as being both Pinoy and Salvadoreña. She was raised by her mother after her father decided to go MIA or whatever. Her mother died a few years ago and even if Isa barely acknowledges her, her presence is felt by her absence. While I appreciated the author’s subtle approach to Isa’s grief, my heart did not warm up to Isa. I wanted to like her and some of her comments about modern culture or the so-called millennial malaise were relatable(ish), but, I disliked how full of herself she was but not in an obvious egomaniacal sort of way, no, in a more self-pitying, ‘I’m Not Like Other People’, way. She has to put with Gala and the mean people she meets at her parties and her limbs ache after hours spent lying still for a painting and she’s always the one making the money whereas Gala does fuck all and it isn’t fair that horrible socialites have it better than her. Her navel-gazing wasn’t particularly amusing, her moments of introspection struck me as self-dramatising, and her observations on class, identity, and life in New York were rather banal. Worst of all, Isa’s dry narration is profoundly unfunny. She sounds exactly like the people she’s so quick to ridicule.

I will say that I did enjoy reading her thoughts on the art of conversation and I did find the novel to have a strong atmosphere and sense of place. You can easily envision the kind of events and parties the girls take part in, as well as the kind of crowds occupying these places. It just so happens that like Isa herself I’m not all that keen on the rich and pretentious. Unlike Isa however, I do not, and would not want to, move in their same circles. For all her complaining Isa doesn’t really try to forge more meaningful connections nor did she seem to really care about Gala. Their friendship seemed one of convenience and nothing else.

That’s more or less it. I wouldn’t have minded if Isa’s voice had been as amusing and entertaining as say the main character in Luster or My Year of Rest and Relaxation or Pretend I’m Dead or You Exist Too Much or The Idiot. It just so happens that I actively disliked Isa. This is weird given that the mcs from the novels I’ve just mentioned are not necessarily nice or kind or strictly likeable. But I found myself drawn to them all the same. Isa just pissed me off. She’s constantly painting herself as the better friend or the better person, and other characters are shown to be bad or mean or shallow. In My Year of Rest and Relaxation both the narrator and her ‘best friend’ are depicted as solipsistic, often immature, decidedly toxic people. Here instead Isa is the good guy and almost every other character is bad (because they are wealthy, white, pretentious, superficial etc.). At one point she’s at a gay bar (if i recall correctly) and someone asks her what she’s doing there and that this isn’t a place for her housemate fends him off immediately (saying something like “she’s my sister you old, white queen”). I’m not keen on authors using gay characters to ‘defend’ straight ones from other lgbtq+ people. Like, it’s okay because a gay character is telling off another gay character. He called her ‘his sister’ so that makes her what, part of the queer community?! This scene just rubbed me up the wrong way. What, Isa has a right to be in gay spaces because she has a gay friend and she’s just Not Like Other Straight People? Ma daje!

While, yes, I did dislike and was bored by Isa as well her story’s supposed storyline (don’t get me wrong i love a good ol’ slice-of-life now and again but here these parties & co were so samey and intent only on satirising millennials & the-so-called upper-crust) I actually liked the author’s style.
It’s a pity that I wasn’t able to connect to Isa (or anyone else for the matter). The cast of ever-changing characters made it hard for me to become familiar with anyone really. Many of them also happen to have silly posh sounding nicknames or names that make it even harder to remember who-the-hell-was-who. Some just exist only in the space of a single scene or to deliver a throwaway line and nothing else besides. The men around Isa all blurred into one generic asshole-ish kind of man. The story ends on a cheesy note, with Isa being ready to finally talk about her past.
But I don’t wish to dissuade prospective readers from giving this a shot. If you liked Jo Hamya’s Three Romes or Kavita Bedford’s Friends & Dark Shapes you might like this more than I was able to. It just so happens that, as stated above, I hated Isa and found her narrative to have one too many of the same kind of scenes/conversations. I would have liked more variety in the story and the characters themselves. All in all, it left me wanting.

If you liked it or were able to relate to Isa, I’m happy for you, in fact, I wish that I could say the same. Please avoid leaving ‘you are stupid/wrong/well actually I loved Isa and you are clearly missing the point’ comments. I’m fully aware that the dislike Isa elicited in me is entirely subjective.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Wahala by Nikki May

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

For a book published in the 90s The Kitchen God’s Wife comes across as strangely outdated. And I guess in spite of Tan’s writing—which is far from mediocre or incompetent—I could not look past the fact that her story was the antithesis of female solidarity.

At first I was taken by Tan’s storytelling. The first 40 pages or so, those that take place in the ‘present’, were enjoyable. We learn that Pearl, a woman in her thirties, has always had a difficult relationship with Winnie, her mother. Some of this is due to generational and cultural differences but, as we soon learn, both mother and daughter have kept secrets from each other. When Winnie’s sister-in-law Helen/Hulan announces that she can no longer keep silent about their past, Winnie is forced to recount her many trials and hardships to her daughter. This is where the novel lost me. I find this kind of cheesy melodrama meets misery porn to be exceedingly frustrating. Winnie is basically Cinderella or the classic Mary Sue: 99% of people around her use her and abuse her. Every female character, with the exception of Grand Auntie Du, is cruel, vain, stupid, ugly, and or ungrateful. Winnie, on the other hand, is an angel. She is not like other girls. She endures and she suffers because she has aspirations to martyrdom.
Given that she is recounting past experiences directly—ie we get a 1st pov—you would think that at one point or another Winnie could express uncertainty over the accuracy of her memories or wonder if others recall things differently. But no! She keeps insisting that ‘this is what happened’ and that Helen is a liar who remembers things wrong. And, speaking of Helen, rather than painting a complex and fraught friendship, Tan presents us with the goody two shoes Winnie and the ugly, stupid, and venal Helen who is not only a horrible friend to Winnie but a lousy human being.
Anyway, Winnie recounts her tragic past: her mother abandons her, she is shunned by her wealthy father and raised by cartoonishly wicked relatives. In relating these experiences Winnie alway makes a point of emphasising her inherent goodness and beauty, often by making little digs about women’s failings. Winnie ends up marrying a horrible man who possess only vices. Her reminded me of the ‘bad’ men from The Giver of Stars and novels by Kristin Hannah. Personally, I prefer more nuanced characters. Tan also often conflates a characters’ physical appearance with their personality—so if one has an ugly character they will be indeed ‘ugly’ on the outside—which feels a tad…old-fashioned? Maybe it would be more suited to a novel dated from the 19th century than the 1990s.
The only sections that were somewhat interesting and whinging-free were the ones that stuck to facts. For example, when Tan writes details statics and about the Sino-Japanese War (as opposed to Winnie’s own experiences in it). When she writes of Nanking I felt much more horrified and moved than I was by anything related to Winnie.
Sadly, Winnie’s narrative is more intent on dissing on Helen than anything else. Here are some the lovely things she says/thinks about Helen: “Her mouth dropped open to let this thought come in and nourish her brain. I was thinking, Good, even though she is uneducated, she is quick to learn something new.” / “She was plump, but not in that classical way of a peach whose pink skin is nearly bursting with sweetness. Her plumpness was round and overflowing in uneven spots, more like a steamed dumpling with too much filling leaking out of the sides. She had thick ankles and large hands, and feet as broad as boat paddles. ” / her hair was “lumpy” / she had no sense of fashion, none at all.” / “a simple country girl”.
And Winnie goes on to tell Pearl that: “I am not being critical in remembering her features just because I am angry with her now”. Sure hon, go on and keep lying to yourself. Winnie never takes any responsibility. Everything is and or always was all Helen’s fault. Helen is ugly inside and out, “she broke harmony between us. I tell you, that day Hulan showed me her true character. She was not the soft melon head she made everyone believe she was. That girl could throw out sharp words, slicing fast as any knife”. And of course, “She’s the complaining one, not I”. I’m not so sure about that one Winnie…the story ended up being less about domestic abuse, war, and survival, then a woman going on and on about how her ‘supposed’ friend is a trash human being.
I swear, every few pages, Winnie would say something such as: “Who is the better cook? You see! I am not boasting. It’s true. ” / “You know what I think? When Jiaguo got his promotion, Hulan gave herself a promotion too! In her mind, she was more important than I was. ” / “She was always unhappy until I was the same level of unhappy as she was.” / “You would think Hulan would remember those hard little cakes, and then put a few coins, or maybe some food, into the beggar girl’s bowl, which is what I did. I’m not saying I did this all the time. But Hulan did not do this even once. Instead she put more food into her own mouth. She added fat onto her body the same way a person saves gold or puts money into a bank account, something she could use if worse came to worst.” / “So you see, I think it was some little river crabs Hulan wanted to eat in Changsha. That’s what made us sick. It stayed in our bodies and broke out one day.” / “She will probably tell you it was instant true love. Maybe for him. But I think she was being practical”….and I cannot stand this lousy portrayal of female ‘friendship’. Women, with the exception of Winnie, are catty and fake. Men, with the exception of Winnie’s Chinese-American second husband—are stupid, cowardly, or abusive sadists.
Other girls Winnie encounters also receive a similar treatment to Helen’s one. Winnie sometimes pretends to be nice (claiming that she didn’t hate a woman before stressing how selfish or unkind that woman was) but, in actuality, she is anything but. She describes a girl she dismisses as “stuck-up” as having “red as a demon’s” eyes. Her first husband’s new wife is not only “bossy” in both attitude and appearance but “stupid” (“You see how stupid his new wife was?”). Winnie also makes some weird comments about Burmese and Cantonese people, seems to relish the idea that Peanut, yet another cruel/vain girl, “who used to pride herself on the paleness of her skin. And now she was almost as dark as a Cantonese!”.
And yes, sure, Winnie suffers. Her husband is a monster with no redeeming qualities and with the exception of Grand Auntie Du and her American-born husband…well, everyone else is bad news.
I dislike this kind of ‘girl-on-girl hate’ and the whole Winnie=Cinderella thing was hella annoying.
Thankfully, I bought my copy of this book in a second-hand shop (then again, I will never get back the hours I spent reading this). While I wouldn’t recommend this novel to anyone in particular I’m aware that Tan is an extremely popular writer so….maybe it’s just me.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas — book reviews

7190.jpgWhile I understand historical context and I am quite able to appreciate classics without wanting them to reflect ‘modern’ sensibilities, I have 0 patience for books that glorify rapists.

SPOILERS BELOW

I don’t mind reading books about terrible people. I read Nabokov’s infamous Lolita and Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. I enjoy books by Agatha Christie and Shirley Jackson, which are often populated by entirely by horrible people. Unlike those authors, however, Alexandre Dumas goes to great lengths in order to establish that his musketeers are the ‘good guys’. Their only flaw is that of being too daring. The omniscient narrator is rooting hard for these guys and most of what they say or do is cast in a favourable light and we are repeatedly reminded of their many positive or admirable character traits. If this book had been narrated by D’Artagnan himself, I could have sort of ‘accepted’ that he wouldn’t think badly of himself or his actions…as things stand, it isn’t. Not only does the omniscient narrator condone and heroicizes his behaviour, but the storyline too reinforces this view of D’Artagnan as honourable hero.

Our not so chivalrous heroes
What soon became apparent (to me) was that the narrator was totally off-the-mark when it came to describing what kind of qualities the musketeers demonstrate in their various adventures. For instance, early on in the narrative we are informed that D’Artagnan “was a very prudent youth”. Prudent? This is the same guy who picks a fight with every person who gives him a ‘bad’ look? And no, he doesn’t back down, even when he knows that his opponent is more experienced than he is.
D’Artagnan is not only a hothead but a dickhead. The guy is aggressive, impetuous, rude to his elders and superiors, and cares nothing for his country. Yet, he’s described as being devout to his King, a true gentleman, a good friend, a great fighter, basically an all-rounder!
I was willing to give D’Artagnan the benefit of the doubt. The story begins with him picking up fights left and right, for the flimsiest reasons. The perceived insults that drive him to ‘duel’ brought to mind
Ridley Scott’s The Duellists, so I was temporarily amused. When I saw that his attitude did not change, he started to get on my nerves. Especially when the narrative kept insisting that he was a ‘prudent’ and ‘smart’ young man.
D’Artagnan’s been in Paris for 5 minutes and he already struts around like the place as if he owned the streets. He hires a servant and soon decides “to thrash Planchet provisionally; which he did with the conscientiousness that D’Artagnan carried into everything. After having well beaten him, he forbade him to leave his service without his permission”. Soon after D’Artagnan is approached by his landlord who asks his help in finding his wife, Constance Bonacieux, who has been kidnapped…and D’Artagnan ends up falling in love at first sight with Constance (way to help your landlord!).
While Constance never gives any clear indication that she might reciprocate his feelings or attraction, as she is embroiled in some subterfuge and has little time for love, D’Artagnan speaks of her as his ‘mistress’. Even when he becomes aware that Constance may be up to no good, as she repeatedly lies to him about her whereabouts and motives, D’Artagnan decides to help her because he has the hots for her. Our ‘loyal’ hero goes behind his King’s back and helps Constance, who is the Queen’s seamstress and confidante, hide the Queen’s liaison with the Duke of Buckingham. Let me recap: D’Artagnan, our hero, who hates the Cardinal and his guards because they are rivals to the King and his musketeers, decides to help the Queen deceive their King and in doing so ends up helping an English Duke. Do I detect a hint of treachery? And make no mistake. D’Artagnan doesn’t help the Queen because he’s worried that knowledge of her disloyalty might ‘hurt’ the King’s feelings nor is he doing this because of compassion for the Queen. He decides to betray his country because he’s lusting after a woman he’s met once or twice. Like, wtf man?
Anyway, he recruits his new friends, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, to help him him out. Their plan involves travelling to England so the Duke can give to D’Artagnan the Queen’s necklace (given to him as a token of her affection). Along the way the musketeers are intercepted by the Cardinal’s minions (the Cardinal wants to expose the Queen’s affair) and Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are either wounded or incapacitated. D’Artagnan completes his mission, he returns to Paris, caring little for his friends’ whereabouts, and becomes once again obsessed by Constance. The Queen shows her gratitude by giving him a flashy ring.
Constance is kidnapped (again) and D’Artagnan remembers that his friends are MIA. He buys them some horses (what a great friend, right?) and rounds them up. He then forgets all about Constance and falls in love with Milady de Winter. He knows that Milady is in cahoots with the Cardinal but he’s willing to ignore this. In order to learn Milady’s secrets, D’Artagnan recruits her maid who—for reasons unknown to me—is in love with him. Our hero forces himself on the maid, and manipulates her into helping him trick Milady. He pretends to be Milady’s lover and visits her room at night, breaking the maid’s heart and putting her life at risk. He later on convinces Milady that her lover has renounced her and visits her once more at night and rapes Milady. D’Artagnan knows that Milady is in love with another man, but idiotically believes that forcing himself on her will have magically changed her feelings. When he reveals that her lover never called things off with her, and it was him who visited her room a few nights prior, well…she obviously goes ballistic. And D’Artagnan, who until that moment was happy to forget that she is a ‘demon’ and ‘evil’, discovers her secret identity.
D’Artagnan remembers that he’s in love with Constance who is then killed off by Milady, just in case we needed to remember that Milady is diabolical…more stuff happens, D’Artagnan wants to save the Duke’s live, just because it is the Cardinal who wants him dead. D’Artagnan, alongside his bros, plays judge, jury, and executioner and corners and condemns to death Milady.
In spite of our hero’s stupidity (he goes to dubious meeting points, ignores other people’s warnings, wears his new ring in front of the Cardinal) he wins. Hurray! Except…that he isn’t a fucking hero. This guy is a menace. He abuses women, emotionally and physically, manipulates them into sleeping with him, forces himself on them, or makes them agree to do his bidding. Women are disposable for D’Artagnan. He uses them and throws them to the side.
But, you might say, the story is set in the 17th century. Things were different then. Women weren’t people. Okay, sure. So let’s have a look at the way in which our young D’Artagnan treats other men. He beats and verbally abuses his servant, he goes behind the King’s back and commits treason, he forgets all about his friends unless he needs help in getting ‘his’ women.
The other musketeers are just as bad. Athos is a psychopath. At the age of 25 he forces himself on a 16-year-old girl, and then marries her because “he was an honorable man”. He later discovers that she has a fleur-de-lis branded on her shoulder, meaning that she was a criminal. Rather than having a conversation with her, asking what her crime was, he decides to hang her himself. Because he’s the master of the land. Athos also treats men rather poorly as he forbids his servant from speaking (not kidding, his servant isn’t allowed to talk). Porthos gaslights an older married woman, forcing her to give him money otherwise he will start seeing other women. Aramis also speaks poorly of women (but at least he isn’t a rapist, so I guess we have a golden boy after all).
The so-called friendship between the musketeers was one of the novel’s most disappointing aspects. These dicks don’t give two shits about each other. D’Artagnan forgets all about his friends, and when he then decides to gift them horses as a ‘sorry I left you for dead’ present, Aramis, Athos, and Porthos end up gambling them or selling them away. What unites them is their idiocy, their arrogance, and their misogyny.

Our diabolical femme fatale and the dignified male villain
Milady is a demon. She’s diabolical. She’s evil. Both the narrative and the various characters corroborate this view of Milady. Much is made of her beauty and her ability to entice men. Sadly, we have very few sections from her perspective, and in those instances she’s made to appear rather pathetic.
Our Cardinal on the other hand appears in a much more forgiving light. He’s the ‘mastermind’, the ‘brains’, and he’s a man, so he gets away with plotting against our heroes.

This book made me mad. I hate it, I hate that people view D’Artagnan & co as ‘heroes’, that the musketeers have become this emblem of friendship, and I absolutely hate the way women are portrayed (victims or vixens). I don’t care if this is considered a classic. Fuck this book.

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

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How It All Blew Up by Arvin Ahmadi — book review

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DISCLAIMER: having just come across a 5-star review that says negative reviews should not remark on how this book doesn’t really explore Amir’s faith and/or heritage I felt the need to better articulate my thoughts about this book:
1) I’m not saying this book doesn’t have great Muslim rep because I found it unbelievable that a Muslim mc wouldn’t be thinking about his faith/heritage 24/7 or because the mc is a non-practicing Muslim
2) I do think that this book could have delved deeper into Amir’s relationship to his faith/heritage. Throughout the course of this novel Amir states that being gay is incompatible with being Muslim…and that’s it. He merely reiterates ‘Muslims don’t like gay people’…that strikes me (I am being entirely subjective) as somewhat simplistic.
3) the novel opens with his family being detained at an airport. The author states that he wanted to ‘subvert’ this type of situation but I am not sure he succeeded. Scenes from this ‘interrogation’ are interspersed throughout the novel, and it felt extremely gimmicky and insensitive (treating a serious situation in a very superficial and unconvincing way).
4) I’m not a Muslim so I recommend you read reviews from Muslim users. If you are thinking of reading this book I suggest you check out more positive reviews.

What I can comment on however is Ahmadi’s depiction of Italy and Italians (yes, I’m Italian)…which truly irritated me.
Maybe non-Italian readers will be able to overlook the stereotypes in this novel…personally I’m tired of books that portray Italy as a quirky land of Vespas and pasta. Fun fact: Italians don’t just eat pizza and pasta (I know, mind-blowing). Also, why do we always get this quaint image of Italian women hanging their laundry?
The Italian characters left much to be desired. There is this Italian couple (the only two Italian guys who actually make more than two or three appearances), possibly in their late twenties, and they are not monogamous. Cool for them, right? Except that they are actually deeply unhappy and they (view spoiler) Then we have a cute Italian guy from Puglia who plays a rather irrelevant role (I guess he’s there so we can have a kiss scene in the Sistine Chapel?).
Another Italian character is a guy who works at a bar/restaurant and speaks in a “It’s-a Me, Mario” accent (his supposed all-caps texts to his daughter? Ridiculous).

The story is very rushed. Amir is blackmailed, skips his graduation day, and flies to Rome. Here he manages to get an apartment, even if he’s never been to Rome before nor does he speak Italian. Lucky for him he comes across a group of ‘friends’: some are American, some Italian, most are gay. They invite him out, make him feel more comfortable with his sexuality. He manages to make some ‘illegal’ money by writing Wiki articles, he avoids his parents’ phone calls, and he tries not think about returning to America. Although he’s eighteen, he acts like a young teen, which made some of his encounters with his new ‘friends’ a bit problematic. More disappointing still is the fact that none of these gay couples are actually happy (as most of them seem to resent their partner and/or their friends). What kind of message are the readers supposed to get? Amir has ‘fun’ sort of. He drinks out and goes to parties. But then we ‘realise’ that they are either cruel, uncaring, unforgiving, and/or liars. While a certain positive review calls my review out on this, saying that characters should be allowed to be imperfect, I think they missed the point I was trying to make. I’m all for flawed characters but they have to be somewhat realistic. The characters here don’t ‘change’ or ‘learn’ from their mistakes. They are and remain one-dimensional (we have the closeted jock, the smart younger sister, the ‘motherly’ mother, the distant father).
I had the impression that Ahmadi skipped a lot of scenes, so that we had these jumpy transitions in which ‘time passed’ and ‘stuff happened’. The ending felt anticlimactic, angsty for the sake of being angsty (of course we have to have a big fight between our ‘friends’). The interrogation scene predictably amounted to nothing.
The writing, the characterisation, the way Italy is portrayed, all leave a lot to be desired (once again: this is my personal opinion).

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro — book review

000219247Never Let Me Go is a bleak novel, that is made ever bleaker by the way in which our narrator normalises her horrifying reality. Although this is a work of speculative fiction, Kathy’s world does not seem all that different from our own one (there were many moments which struck me as quintessentially British). Although Kathy’s recollection of her childhood is incredibly evocative, Kazuo Ishiguro keeps his cards close to his chest, so Hailsham School’s true purpose remains out of our reach. Yet, the more we learn about the guardians and the various rules imposed on Hailsham students, the more we grow uneasy, and suspicious, of Hailsham.
Kathy’s rather remote narration deepens the novel’s ambivalent atmosphere. We know that in the present, years after Hailsham, she works as a carer but we don’t really know what that entails.
Although Kathy doesn’t mythologising Hailsham, or her time there, her narration possesses a nostalgic quality. Ishiguro captures the intense, and ever-shifting, friendships we form as children. Kathy feels a certain pull to the brazen Ruth. Their fraught relationship frequently takes the centre-stage in the novel. There are misunderstandings, petty behaviours, jealousies, and all sorts of little cruelties. Ruth’s is an awful friend, yet I could see how important her presence was in Kathy’s life. By comparison Tommy seems a far simpler person, and I could definitely sympathise with his various struggles at Hailsham.
Ishiguro excels when he writes about ‘memory’. At times Kathy questions the accuracy of her memories, wondering whether what she has just relayed actually happened or not. There is regret too over her past actions or words she’d left unspoken. She also tries to see a scene through someone else’s eyes, hoping perhaps to gain some insight into others.
The novel poses plenty of complex questions and challenges definitions of ‘humanity’ and ‘freedom’. It definitely provided a lot food for thought.
As provoking as Never Let Me Go was, I can’t say that it moved it me as much as Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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Real Life by Brandon Taylor — book review

“Is it into this culture that he is to emerge? Into the narrow, dark water of real life?”

It had been awhile since I finished a book in one day or since I read a book that made me cry…but once I started Real Life I simply couldn’t stop, even if what I was reading made me mad, then sad, then mad again, and then sad all over again.
This is one heart-wrenching novel. Reading it was an immersive and all-consuming experience. I felt both secondhand anxiety, embarrassment, and anger, and the more I read the more frustrated I became by my own impotence…still, I kept on reading, desperate to catch a glimpse of hope or happiness…

“People can be unpredictable in their cruelty.”

Taylor’s riveting debut novel chronicles a graduate student’s turbulent weekend. At its heart, this is the Wallace’s story. Wallace is gay, black, painfully aware of his almost debilitating anxiety and of what he perceives as his physical and internal flaws.
As one the few black men in this unnamed Midwestern city, and the only black man in his course, Wallace knows that he is in a ‘different’ position from his white friends. After a childhood disrupted by poverty and many traumatic experiences, he withdraws into studies, dedicating most of his waking hours to lab tests and projects. Yet, even if he works twice as hard as other students, many still imply—directly and non—that he was accepted into this program only because of his skin colour.

“Perhaps friendship is really nothing but controlled cruelty. Maybe that’s all they’re doing, lacerating each other and expecting kindness back.”

Real Life has all the trappings of a campus novel. From its confined setting of a university city—in which we follow Wallace as he goes to a popular student hangout by the lake, to his uni’s labs, to his or his friends’ apartments—to its focus on the shifting alliances and power dynamics between a group of friends. Yet, Taylor’s novel also subverts some of this genre’s characteristic. The academic world is not as sheltering as one might first imagine. Questioning ‘real life vs. student life’ becomes a leitmotif in the characters’ conversations. Taylor’s novel offers a much more less idyllic and romantic vision of the academic world than most other campus novels. If anything we became aware of the way in which ‘real life’ problems make their way into a student’s realm.

“Affection always feels this way for him, like an undue burden, like putting weight and expectation onto someone else. As if affection were a kind of cruelty too.”

From the very first pages we see Wallace’s environment and ‘friends’ through his alienated lenses. While most of his friends are queer—gay, bisexual, or an unspecified sexuality—they are white and from far more privileged backgrounds. At the beginning of the novel Wallace ‘gives in’ and agrees to meet them by the lake, after having avoided them for a long period of time.
What unfolds is deeply uncomfortable to read. In spite of their laughter and smiles, these people do not strike as friends. Their banter is cutting, their off-handed comments have sharp edges, and they are all incredibly and irresolutely selfish. Taylor’s quickly establishes the toxic dynamics between these ‘friends’. While they might not be directly aggressive or hostile, they repeatedly hurt, belittle, betray, and undermine one other.
The distance Wallace feels from them is overwhelming. Yet, even if he tries to be on the outskirts of their discussions, he finds himself having to deal with their racist or otherwise hurtful remarks. Worst still, he is confronted with his ‘friends’ cowardice when they feign that they do not say racist or demeaning things. If anything they usually imply that he is the one who is oversensitive.

Over this weekend we see time and again just how horribly solipsistic and cowardly Wallace’s friends are. They mask their racism and elitism under a pretence of wokeness. Similarly, one of Wallace’s fellow students, believes that as a feminist she can be openly homophobic and racist, throwing around words such as misogynistic without thought or consequence in order to masquerade her own bigotry.
Wallace’s friends’ racism is far more surreptitious. For the most part they pretend that race doesn’t matter, and that is Wallace who makes a ‘big deal’ out of nothing. Yet, when someone say something discriminatory out loud, they do nothing.

As he hangs out with his friends he finds himself noticing just how far from perfect they are. A perfect or happy life seems unattainable. Even moments of lightheartedness or contentment give way to arguments and disagreements within this group. Even if what plagues Wallace’s mind is far more disturbing than what his friends’ rather mundane worries (regarding their future careers, current relationship etc) he often chooses to comfort or simply listen to them, rather than pouring his own heart out. Wallace knows that they couldn’t possibly understand his relationship to his family and past.

“He misses, maybe, also, other things, the weight of unnamed feelings moving through him. And those feelings were transmuted into something cruel and mean.
There was an economy to it, even when you couldn’t see it at first, a shadow calculation running underneath all their lives.”

While he may not voice his troubles while he is hanging out with his ‘friends’, Wallace’s mind is often occupied with his own past and future. Taylor does a terrific job in giving us an impression of Wallace’s discordant psyche. Moments of dissociation make him further retread within himself, escaping his uncomfortable surroundings. Like Wallace we begin to see his surroundings as unpleasant and claustrophobic. At times the people around him blur together, blending into a sea of white faces, making him feel all the more isolated.
Wallace’s own insecurities colour most of his thoughts, feelings, and actions. Even when I could not understand him or in his moments of selfishness, I found myself caring for him and deeply affected by his circumstances. What he experiences…is brutal. When his coping mechanism (work/studying) is threatened his mental health spirals out of control.

The halting and recursive dialogue is incredibly realistic. Even when discussing seemingly ordinary things there is an underlying tension. And there is almost a stop-start quality to the characters’ conversations that struck me for its realism. The way in which their arguments spiral into awkward silences, the tentative words that follow more heated ones, the impact of tone and interpretation.

A sense of physicality, of eroticism, pervades Taylor’s narrative. Characters are often compared to animals, close attention is paid to their bodies—from their skin to their limbs—and to the way the move and look by themselves and together as a group. This attentiveness towards the body emphasises Wallace’s own insecurity about the way he looks. In one of his more brooding moments he finds himself questioning whether he wants to be or be with an attractive guy. His contemplations about same-sex attraction definitely resonated with me. Envy and desire are not mutually exclusive.

“This is perhaps why people get together in the first place. The sharing of time. The sharing of the responsibility of anchoring oneself in the world. Life is less terrible when you can just rest for a moment, put everything down and wait without having to worry about being washed away.”

Taylor often contrasts seemingly opposing feelings. For example, sensual moments are underpinned by a current of danger. Wallace seems to find both force and vulnerability erotic.
Taylor’s narrative repeatedly examines the tense boundaries between pleasure and pain, attraction and repulsion, tenderness and violence. Taylor projects Wallace’s anxiety, depression, and discomfort onto his narrative so that a feeling of unease underlines our reading experience.

“He had considered himself a Midwesterner at heart, that being in the South and being gay were incompatible, that no two parts of a person could be more incompatible. But standing there, among the boats, shyly waiting to discover the people to whom he felt he would belong, he sensed the foolishness in that.”

Taylor’s prose could be in turns thoughtful and jarring. There are disturbingly detailed descriptions about Wallace’s lab-work, unflinching forays into past traumas, and thrilling evocations of sexual desire.

A seemingly ordinary weekend shows us just how inescapable social hierarchies are. The secular world of academia does not entirely succeed in keeping the real world at bay. Depression, anxiety, dysphoria, the lingering effects of abuse all make their way into Wallace’s story. We read of his confusing desires, of his ‘friends’ hypocrisy, of his own appetite for self-destruction…Real Life is not an easy read. There were many horrible moments in which I wanted to jump into the narrative to shake Wallace’s friends. Wallace too, pained me. In spite of his observant nature, he remains detached. He picks up on his friends’ horrible behaviour but with one or two exceptions he does not oppose them. Yet, I could also see why he remained passive. Being in his position is exhausting.

“It is a life spent swimming against the gradient, struggling up the channel of other people’s cruelty. It grates him to consider this, the shutting away of the part of him that now throbs and writhes like a new organ that senses so keenly the limitations of his life.”

Even if I craved for a more reassuring ending I still think that this is an impressive debut novel one that strikingly renders what it feels to inhabit a black body in a white-dominated environment. Real Life tackles racism, privilege, cruelty, cultural and power dynamics, and the complexities of sexual desire head on. Wallace’s friends are aggravating if not downright despicable. Which is perhaps why when alongside Wallace we glimpse some kindness in them, it makes us all the more upset.

Reading Real Life made me uncomfortable, angry, sad. Lines like these, “He typically brings crackers or another form of fiber because his friends are all full of shit and need cleaning out from time to time”, even made me laugh out loud.
What I’m trying to say, or write is this: this is a brilliant novel, one you should definitely read (with some caution, of course).
Anyhow, I can’t wait to read more by Taylor.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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