The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings

“This is the story of the witch who refused to burn. Some people said that there was power in her blood, a gift from her ancestors that she could endure.”

Megan Giddings’s sophomore novel is highly evocative of those The Handmaid’s Tale inspired dystopias where readers are presented with a near-future where women—sometimes men—live in authoritarian societies where they have limited rights and freedoms and are under near-constant surveillance. When Women Could Fly does offer a more topical take on this genre, especially with what is going on with abortion laws in the States, and although the reality it presents us with is embedded with fantastical elements, reading this story still sent a chill up my spine. While this has been also compared to Shirley Jackson and Octavia Butler, personally I don’t quite see it. If anything Giddings’ novel was highly reminiscent of those early 2010s YA, where the female protagonists are often forced into marriage (this is not meant as a ‘snub’ as i remember being quite into them). Expect that Giddings’ more mature tone allows for more in-depth conversations about gender and racial discrimination, female bodily autonomy, reproductive justice, surveillance and privacy, and the ye old fear of that which is deemed ‘other’. The imagery and aesthetics did make me think of several horror films produced by A24, and part of me believes that maybe this story would translate better to the screen. That is not to say that it was badly written, far from it. However, several lacunae in the world-building really took me out. Additionally, the pacing was a bit all over the place, particularly in the latter half of the novel.

In this America witch trials are still a thing. To prevent women from becoming witches, the government closely monitors them, watching for any signs of ‘witchy’ stuff. While false allegations are punishable by law, most girls and women live in fear of being accused. The government also requires women over 30 to either marry (a man) or lose almost all forms of autonomy (such as having a job). Some women do choose this option, and are registered as witches, and (if memory serves) under house arrest. Women of color, Black women in particular, are even more heavily scrutinized, especially those like Josephine Thomas, whose own mother is believed to have been a witch after she ‘vanished’ overnight. Josephine, now 28, is ready to accept that her mother will never come back. Josephine has come to resent her mother: for leaving, for leaving without her, and for making her ‘suspect’ in the eyes of the government. With her 30th birthday approaching Jo finds herself forced to consider her options. She doesn’t want to give up her job at the museum, where they are actually somehow allowed to have an exhibition by a verified witch. She is seeing this guy who she kind of likes but feels frustrated by the societal pressure to marry him. Her father, a white guy, is not particularly close to her and he offered little support when Jo was under investigation after the disappearance of his wife.
The narrative opens with Jo having decided to officialize her mother’s death. Her mother’s will includes some specific directions she is to follow in order to then access her inheritance. Jo follows said directions and finds herself coming into contact with a reality that is very different from her own one.

I really liked the writing style, and the ambivalence permeating much of Jo’s narration, in particular in moments when she thinks of her mother or of the way women are treated. I also liked some of the vaguer aspects of this ‘reality’, and I was briefly at times reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘what-ifs’, where he very much focuses on a group of people and is able to capture their experiences without delving into many details about their world and the society they live.
Alas, here the author is inconsistently vague. We will learn that other countries have possibly banned witch-hunts/the monitoring of women but that’s more or less it when it comes to the outside world (“I cry sometimes thinking about how we’re the only developed country to let this still happen.”). Why don’t more women leave the States? Are they banned from doing so? The story may mention this but so briefly that it didn’t really sink in. In addition, we have a registered witch being allowed to have her art in a gallery… which threw me off a little. Why would the government allow her to do that? Her installations and pieces are fairly unsettling and very ‘witchy’…wouldn’t they worry about this being some sort of witch propaganda? The author is also quite inconsistent when it comes to lgbtq+ visibility and rights. In this extremely authoritarian and deeply conformist country, people identify as lgbtq+…Jo included. She’s bi and ‘out’. Her father isn’t keen on it and she knows she will be unable to marry anyone other than a man but I still wasn’t sure of the kind of rights lgbtq+ ppl had. Jo refers to herself as cis and acknowledges that the whole “women=maybe witch” thing her country has going on excludes ppl who identify outside of the gender binary…but we don’t really go into much depth with that other than once Jo mentions that gay men are sometimes suspected of being witches…it also seemed weird that such an oppressive and reactionary government would ‘allow’ ppl to openly identify as lgbtq+. Still, we do get Angie’s perspective on this, who is using a matchmaker who specializes in arranging safe marriages for gay women (for example by choosing gay men as their spouses).
Also, how are YA books with dragons in them being allowed to be published in a country where magic is considered a real threat? Surely the fantasy genre would be banned?!

minor spoilers:
When we reach the halfway point, the story offers us insight into a community that is very different from the one Jo grew up in and once again I found myself having more questions, and the answers we do get didn’t entirely satisfy. The narrative suggests that they have been undetected due to ‘magic’ but I didn’t quite buy that. It also seemed weird that they would not reach out to more ppl. Jo’s motivations in the latter half of the novel were not entirely believable and the ending felt kind of rushed.

Still, despite my issues with the world-building (one too many holes, inconsistent) and plot (which is slow, fast, slow, fast, and with a few situations that clearly just exist to further the plot, even when they are not entirely convincing) I loved the author’s writing style, the parallelism between Jo’s world and our world (“Sometimes, people say Isn’t it lucky to be a woman now?”…kid you not a male colleague of mine said something along these lines and followed with “it is men who have it hard nowadays”), the use of witchcraft as a metaphor for ‘otherness’, the soft magic, the aesthetics, and the friendship between Jo and Angie.
The author does pose some interesting questions about the ‘cost’ of personal freedom, and throughout the narrative she interrogates themes such as love, equality, guilt, and forgiveness. Additionally, I appreciated the nuanced mother-daughter relationship. Part of me was annoyed at the romance subplot, which in my opinion takes away from ‘page time’ from non-romantic relationships. The writing has this hypnotic, remote yet sharp, quality to it that brought to mind Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. Giddings is certainly able to articulate thorny and ambiguous thoughts and feelings with clarity, however, she also allows Jo to retain a certain air of impenetrability. Jo’s introspections were compelling and I was thoroughly spellbound by her voice. Like I said, the world-building and plot did get in the way of my totally loving this but to be honest I can see myself re-reading this and not minding as much.

Some quotes:

“But there was always an objectiveness that insulated me, always allowed me to stay cool and defuse the situation. It was better for everyone if I remained at least six inches distant. A space far enough for me to evaluate, assess, and then fix things.”

“But all the magic in these museums is the magic of the dead—corpses and curses and in its own way reminding women that if there is anything inexplicable in the world, it is dangerous.”

“I had expected a tightening as I grew older; I would like what I liked and that was the essence of who I was. But my personality gets easily seeped now with new details. I read something new, I watch something new, I eat something new and the world feels again like a place where I want to stay.”

“Magic was everywhere. It felt like when you’re young and with your best friend in the world and you look at each other and feel as if you’re both the most attractive, interesting, fun people in the entire room. There’s nothing embarrassing about this confidence because it’s the truest thing and it lets you both be your best selves for hours.”

“For years, my mother had been a wound I could never fully stitch, one that when I was being honest with myself, I didn’t ever want to scab over, fade, disappear.”

“[My] mother’s absence had been—I was sure—the source of some of the biggest, ugliest parts of me. And because of all that empty space around her, because of time, because of sadness, I had idealized her, too.”

“What is it about love? Why does it make everything seem so important when most people give their love so carelessly to people, to pets, to objects that will never love them back?”

“What was it like to be loved in a way that felt immutable? To not be told I was loved, but to feel it, to see it most of the time?”

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼


Monster in the Middle by Tiphanie Yanique

A week or so before reading Monster in the Middle I read Tiphanie Yanique’s debut short story collection, Land of Love and Drowning, which I rather enjoyed. I remember being struck by Yanique ’s atmospheric storytelling, by her subtle use of irony, and by her thoughtful meditations on death, love, and everything in between. So, given that I have been known to have a soft spot for intergenerational dramas/interconnected storylines (The Vanishing Half, Commonwealth, The Travelers) I was fully convinced that I would love Monster in the Middle.
Albeit confusing, the opening chapter intrigued me. But with each subsequent point of view, I become increasingly aware of just how disjointed and directionless this book was.
Monster in the Middle tells the love story between Fly and Stela, he’s American and a musician, she’s a science teacher from the Caribbean. Yanique jazzes things up by making their romance, not the starting point of the novel but the very end goal. The storylines leading to their romance give us a glimpse into their parents’ lives and later on Fly and Stela’s own experiences as teenagers and young adults.

The novel opens with a chapter on Fly’s father. He and a white girl are running away together, or so it seems. She comes from a deeply religious family and he too is religious. Fly’s father also suffers from schizophrenia but at this point in his life, he believes that the voices he hears are from God. A chapter from Fly’s mother follows, and here we don’t really gain much insight into what had happened to Fly’s father or that girl. She tells us a bit of their marriage but in a way that didn’t come across as engaging or particularly realistic. The following chapters are about Fly as a teen and his college experiences. I hated that the author focuses so much on Fly feeling horny and whatnot. He eventually comes across a sex tape starring his father and that girl he was briefly with. This tape becomes a guilt secret, as he is ashamed of being turned on by it. He masturbates a lot, which, good for him I guess but I personally could have also done without those scenes (it reminded me of What’s Mine and Yours, where the sections focusing on the teenage boy character are all about him having boners). Fly’s character in these chapters is reduced to his sexuality.
In college, he gets involved with a really religious girl and this character made no sense whatsoever. I found it corny that she was singing or praying while they were being intimate with each other and that she has such a disconcerting approach to sex (it is implied that she ‘uses’ her body to make people straight…?!). Because of course, she would be like that.

Then we get to know about Stela’s mother. Again, there was something off-putting about the characters and the relationships they formed with each other. Same thing for Stela’s father, who is not her biological father (other than that i can’t recall anything about him). Stela eventually comes to the fore and surprise surprise even if her chapters also hone in on her teen years, she isn’t made into a one-dimensional horny adolescent. She grows up in Saint Thomas and eventually goes to study abroad in Ghana where she is the victim of a sexual assault. Years later she marries this blandish guy and then they both, unbeknown to each other, become involved with the same woman. I absolutely hated this storyline. It feeds into existing cliches about bisexual women and it made no bloody sense. I had a hard time believing that this ‘other’ woman would be so deceitful. Then again, the story implies that she is deceitful by nature as she also lies about her background to them. Anyway, at long last Fly and Stela meet and I felt absolutely nothing. I didn’t feel for either character and found them very much devoid of fleshed-out personalities. They merely served as plot propellers, enabling the author to give us some superficial love stories and some observations on multicultural and/or interracial relationships. These brief glimpses into the mc’s parents lives did not make them into particularly well-developed characters, quite the opposite. They felt a bit all over the place, as some chapters, such as the 1st one, hone in on a very specific episode, while others have a vaguer timeline.
While the story addresses important issues, it did so rather superficially. Towards the end, the narrative includes covid and the BLM movement but it does so in a rather rushed way. I would have liked less focus on the characters’ sex lives and more moments of introspection.

The writing could also be rather off-putting with cringey lines like: “When he put his hand to her there at the center, she pressed herself hard against him, and she was slick. It made him think of candy gone sticky in the sun.”; “his penis hard and curved, her vagina sticky and warm. They presented these things to each other like treasures: “So smooth,” she said to his; “So sweet,” he said to hers.”; “The primary thing in his life was the ocean of this woman’s insides.”.

Additionally, I did not particularly care for the way the author ‘dealt’ with the rape storyline. And we get some problematic lines such as: “Jerome was flirting, she knew, but he was seventeen and she, frankly, was susceptible at twenty-three.” and “Stela looked around and saw an empty easel erect in a corner. She wished she had a dick. She wanted to be inside this bitch of a woman.”.

Overall, I could not bring myself to like this book. This novel lacked the strongly rendered setting of Land of Love and Drowning and, moreover, the author’s style was too florid for me. I couldn’t take a lot of what I was reading seriously.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆


How to Escape from a Leper Colony: A Novella and Stories by Tiphanie Yanique

“Who wants to be the one in the Bible always getting cured? We want to be the heroes, too. We want to be like Jesus. Or like Shiva. Or like whomever you pray to.”

How to Escape from a Leper Colony presents readers with a collection of interconnected tales that are a blend between the fantastic and the prosaic. Tiphanie Yanique’s prose is striking: her style carries playful, fabulist almost, undertones that perfectly complement the dreamlike quality of her narratives. This sense of surreality is further intensified by the use of repetition and recurring motifs. The characters populating these stories are often at a crossroads, caught between who they want to be and what others (or themselves) think they should be. The choices they make are not always for the best, and they often experience heartbreak, loss, desire, and shame. Yanique explores familial relationships, in particular the fraught bonds between children and their parents. Religion too plays a role in these stories, but each character has a unique relationship to their faith. Many of the stories revolve around characters who are attempting to find out a place where they belong. Death too is a recurring theme, particularly in those stories centred on a funerary home. While the setting remains unnamed and is only referred to as a Caribbean island (presumably Saint Thomas?), Yanique is still able to evoke a strong sense of place and there are some truly vibrant descriptions of the landscapes surrounding these characters. The dialogues too convey a strong sense of place as Yanique is able to capture different lilts and vernaculars. The only reason why I am not giving this a higher rating is that I believe this is the kind of collection that is meant to be re-read in order to be truly appreciated. I sometimes felt a bit disorientated by the way these stories were interconnected.
My favourite stories were the titular ‘How to Escape from a Leper Colony’ and ‘The International Shop of Coffins’. I loved how within these stories Yanique strikes a perfect balance between melancholy and humor. The unresolved nature of these narratives also added to the collections’ overarching magical realist tone.
How to Escape from a Leper Colony is a promising collection that will definitely appeal to fans of Edwidge Danticat and Mia Alvar. I definitely plan on reading more by Yanique!

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

How to Find a Princess by Alyssa Cole

“A princess and her lady knight—the kind of fairy tale she’d always wanted, if she had to be a princess.”

Perhaps I hyped myself so much so that disappointment was inevitable. How to Find a Princess was one of my most anticipated 2021 releases and I can’t say that I loved it. It had its entertaining moments and some funny lines but the pacing was all over the place. Also, tone-wise this felt less like an Anastasia retelling and more like something in the realm of a Netflix princess movie. I guess it makes for a decent escapist read.

After being let go from her job working at a store and being dumped by her girlfriend Makeda Hicks feels that she needs to change her attitude. The people around her either exploit her kindness or feel suffocated by it so she decides that she will start standing up for herself more. When an investigator from the World Federation of Monarchies shows up at her grandmother’s hotel Makeda is for one in her life quite vocal about not wanting to do what other people tell her to do. This investigator, Beznaria Chetchevaliere, is convinced that Makeda is her country’s missing heir and despite Makeda’s protestations, she is determined to follow the job through as to do so would reinstate her family’s honour (her grandmother was accused of betraying their now long lost Queen). The narrative doesn’t really provide much background for these characters other than vague impressions of their lives so far. They both seem to have no friends nor do we really delve into their relationship with their family members. Makeda’s strained relationship with her mother felt very surface level and seemed to exist only to complicate Makeda feelings towards the whole royal thing (her mother was obsessed with the possibility of Makeda being a princess and pretty much ridiculed in front of her own school turning Makeda into a pariah). Understandably Makeda isn’t keen to go to Ibarania.
The first 30% of the narrative feels very rushed and the chemistry between Beznaria and Makeda came across as somewhat rushed. The two bicker for a good 80% of the novel and I would be lying if I said that it didn’t get repetitive (because it sure did). Much of the humor stems from the cultural difference between Beznaria and Makeda and sometimes it felt rather forced. Beznaria is neurodivergent and this is sometimes used as a source of humor as she is often portrayed as taking things literally or is shown to be unaware of many social norms. 30% in, their relationship and the plot hit a plateau. The two make their way to Ibarania on a ship posing as a married couple because of reasons where they spend most of their days bickering. It is only around the 70% mark that their relationship moves on from this childish stalemate. But, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t feel the chemistry between them. Beznaria lies so much (lying by omission is still lying) and never properly apologises for the way she basically manipulates/bullies Makeda into going along.
We also never learn much about Ibarania other than it being a (fictional) island in the Mediterranean. A very small section of the novel actually takes place there and we don’t really glimpse its customs/traditions/peoples/landscapes. Also, while we know this place is missing an heir the narrative doesn’t really provide much information in regards to why they did not look for them before.

I loved how casual the queer rep was and there was the odd moment that made me smile or that I found cute. Overall however the world, characters, and story within this novel felt very undefined. There were too few secondary characters and the ones that were mentioned now and again (on the ship for example) blurred together. Bez and Makeda as leads were a bit confined in their roles (Bez being this offbeat investigator and Makeda a nice girl who doesn’t want to be a princess). The whole ‘watering can’ metaphor to describe Makeda’s feelings was kind of forced and lasted way longer than it should have.
The narrative plays around with popular fanfic tropes (fake dating, only one bed) and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. If you are in the mood for an easy sapphic read, this may very well hit the spot. I for one hoped would have preferred for Bez and Makeda not to spend most of the novel pretending they are not into each other.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Ones We’re Meant to Find by Joan He

 

 

 

The cover for this book is goals…its contents not so much. I found this novel to be an odd melange of confusing and simple. The characters came across as flat (little more than names on a page), the world-building, although at first promising, ultimately struck me as patchy, and the storyline and twists were just not up my street. Still, I know that quite a lot of people are looking forward to this novel so I encourage prospective readers to check out some more positive reviews, as this may as well be one of those ‘it’s not it’s me’ cases.

The novel follows two sisters, the older one, Cee, has been stranded on an island for the past three years, while the younger one, Kasey, lives in one of the few existing eco-cities and is trying to make sense of Cee’s disappearance. Climate and environmental disasters have made eco-cities refuges for humanity. Of course, not everyone is allowed entrance in eco-cities, and in spite of their utopian promises, eco-cities’ such as Kasey’s are incredibly classists (people are ‘ranked, the cities themselves have stratified structure and those who live in the lower stratums lead less privileged lifestyles than those on ‘top’). Although much of Kasey and Cee’s world remains largely unexplored we do get some details about life in their eco-city. For example, we learn that ‘holoing’ is a green alternative which allows the citizens of the eco-city to conduct ‘nonessential activities’ in the holographic mode. There is also Intraface which allows its users to capture their memories as well as apps which can ‘adjust’ a person’s serotonin levels. Kasey, who is a very logical person and who makes sense of the world around her through a scientific lens, finds herself, somewhat uncharacteristically one could say, trying to find what happened to her sister, even if she’s convinced that Cee is dead.
Meanwhile, Cee has been trying to leave the island she woke up on. She desperately wants to be reunited with Kasey, and is prepared to risk her life in her attempt to build a raft/boat that will allow her to set forth into the ocean. Cee recollects very little about her former life and seems to have entirely forgotten about the existence of the eco-city or the rest of the world. All she knows is that she has to find her sister.

Here are the problems that I had with this novel (minor-spoilers below):

→the writing itself. Cee’s sections are narrated in the 1st person, Kasey’s in the 3rd. Something switching between perspectives can enhance a story (as with Red at the Bone, Everything Here is Beautiful, The Travelers, or anything by N. K. Jemisin), but, more often than not, is unnecessary. Kasey remains remote, which is perhaps intentional, after all, the author goes above and beyond in order to emphasise how ‘cold’ and ‘detached’ and ‘Not Like Other People’ she is (it seemed weird that the possibility of her being neurodivergent was never raised or discussed considering how technologically advanced these eco-cities are—for example, if someone feels upset they can locate the source of that feeling, be it a memory or whatnot). Yet, on the other hand, being in Cee’s head didn’t do all that much for her character either. She doesn’t know a lot, her inner monologue consists mostly of what she observes (the island, the ocean, the rocks, the sand, her shack, her robot helper). When the boy arrives her mind is mostly occupied with thoughts of him. Cee’s sections also included some really purply phrases (her thoughts ‘jellify’, she feels the ‘muchness’ and ‘littleness’). Although the writing was for the most part okay, there were a few too many clichéd phrases (“Sometimes [she] felt like a stranger in her own skin”, “[she] did not belong–here or anywhere”) and even the dialogues were full of platitudes and done to death lines such as “What could we achieve, if we worked together?”
→the world-building left too much unexplored. There was so much that did not make sense or did not convince me and yet, I was supposed to just buy into it? The few half-delivered explanations we get did little in terms of answering my questions or making sense.
→the characters….Cee and Kasey are the classic YA sisters. One is attractive, charming, everyone loves her. The other is quiet, logical, not driven by her feelings but by FACTS, and she just does not ‘fit in’. I felt nothing for them, which sounds harsh, but it is the truth. They were painfully one-dimensional, and, the longer I read, the less I believed in them. Not only is this kind of dynamic old but I just did not feel that Kasey and Cee’s relationship was particularly nuanced. They also seemed to have no thoughts about their childhood, their parents (the dad is meant to be this powerful big guy but because he is 99% of the time off-page…well, he was pretty superfluous).
→insta-love, of the worst kind. The whole love storyline did not work for me. There are some dodgy scenes that would have definitely not been included if we were to reverse the characters’ genders (and I was not a fan of those scenes).
→plot…it has its twists, I will give it that. But I just could not bring myself to believe in Kasey’s arc (that they would just let her do what she wanted).
→the themes had potential but He sacrifices potentially interesting conversations/scenes that touch upon ethics & morality in favour of drama.

Sadly, the novel had very little to offer me. By the end of the novel (around the 80% mark) I was so bored and irritated by what I was reading that I ended up skim-reading the rest. There were too many lacunae (in both the world-building and storyline) and I never felt engaged by the characters or the author’s style. I was hoping for something more compelling, and yes, the comparison to Ghibli definitely feels misleading.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Pretty as a Picture by Elizabeth Little

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

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★★★½

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Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

This novel proved to be the perfect ‘escape’ read. While I may not have been enamoured by every single book I’ve read by Libba Bray (the finales to her series left me a wee bit unsatisfied) I do consider her to be an amazing writer and a favourite of mine. Usually, however, her books are in the realms of the ‘historical’, so I wasn’t sure what to except from Beauty Queens, I just knew that after watching a certain series I fancied a Lord of the Flies kind of tale (with a female ensemble). And wow…Bray sure delivered. Beauty Queens was everything I didn’t know I wanted. This is the kind of satirical teen comedy that will definitely appeal to fans of classics such as Heathers, But I’m a Cheerleader, and Mean Girls. The story, writing, and characters are all over the top in the best possible of ways. This is the funniest book I’ve read in 2020.

Beauty Queens begins with ‘the Corporation’ addressing us readers, “This story is brought to you by The Corporation: Because Your Life Can Always Be Better™. We at The Corporation would like you to enjoy this story, but please be vigilant while reading”. We are also told to keep vigilant as the story we are about to read may have some ‘subversive’ content. Throughout the novel there are footnotes by ‘the Corporation’, sometimes advertising ridiculous products and sometimes professing distaste or disapproval over a certain scene.
The novel mainly follows nine beauty queens contestants who after surviving a plane crash that killed the majority of the other contestants (one for each state) find themselves on a seemingly deserted island. Rather than focusing on two or three contestants, Bray gives each of these nine beauty queens a backstory (I think only three contestants do not receive this treatment). We start with Adina, Miss New Hampshire, an aspiring journalist who joined the contest only to expose how misogynistic it is. At first Adina is snarky and not a great team player. Although she calls herself a feminist she has very ‘fixed’ notion of feminism, and her relationship with the other contestants will slowly challenge her previous views (on the contest itself, on liking thinks deemed ‘girly’,etc.). She immediately takes against Taylor, Miss Texas, the ‘leader’ of the surviving beauty queens. Taylor insists that they should keep practicing their routines for the contest as she believes that help is on the way. Taylor is badass, and I definitely enjoyed her character arc (which definitely took her down an unexpected path). We then have many other entertaining and compelling beauty queens: Mary Lou, who becomes fast friends with Adina in spite of their seemingly opposing views when it comes to sex; Nicole, the only black contestant, who wants to be a doctor but has been time and again been pressured into contests by her mother; participating as the only black contestant faces racism from the contest itself and the her peers; Shanti, an Indian American girl from California, who initially sees Nicole as ‘competition’ but as time goes by finds that she is only who understands how challenging it can be to navigate predominately white spaces; Petra, a level-headed girl who faces a different kind of prejudice; Jennifer, a queer girl who loves comics and has often been deemed a ‘troubled kid’; Sosie, who is deaf and always feels that she has to be happy in order to make others feel more ‘comfortable’; and, last but not least, Tiara, who at first seems like a comedic character, the ditzy or dumb blonde, but who soon proves that she is a very empathetic girl.
The girls don’t always get on with one another. In spite of their different backgrounds, interests, and temperaments, they have all been made to feel inadequate or ‘too much’.
As if surviving a deserted island wasn’t difficult enough a certain corporation is running some secret operation not far from the girls’ camp. Throw in some pirates/reality show contestants and there you have it.
Bray satirises everything under the sun: reality shows, beauty contests, pop culture, beauty products, corporations. While some of her story’s elements may be a bit ‘problematic’ in 2020, her satire never came across as mean spirited. In the end this is a story about acceptance and female solidarity. Bray shows all the ways in which society pressures and controls teenage girls, allowing for diverse perspectives and voices. Most of all, this novel is hilarious. Bray handles her over the top storyline and characters perfectly.
What more can I say (or write)? I loved it. This is the kind of uplifting read I would happily re-read.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

“Loving a country besides the one you lived in was a recipe for disaster.”

The Star Side of Bird Hill is an enjoyable coming-of-age novel about two sisters, Dionne and Phaedra, who are sent off by their mother to spend their summer with their grandmother, Hyacinth, in a small town in Barbados. The girls’ aren’t too happy to leave Brooklyn, even if their homelife hasn’t been great given that their mother, who is suffering from depression and no longer works, can’t look after them (or herself for the matter). In Bird Hill they are forced to acclimatise to a different culture, and are often treated as foreign by their grandmother’s community. Although Phaedra, who is 10, misses her mum, she soon grows attached to Hyacinth, especially once she learns how vital a role she plays in the community. Fifteen-year-old Dionne on the other hand, repeatedly clashes with Hyacinth and her rules. Even if she resents her mother, for having sent her away and for forcing her to take care of both her and Phaedra, she’s clearly hurting.
As the summer goes by the two sisters adapt to life in Bird Hill. Phaedra, who is made fun of by other young girls for being a bit of a tomboy, finds fulfilment in learning more of her family’s history and of her grandmother’s job as a midwife. Dionne takes far longer to adjust to Bird Hill and their grandmother’s presence. She flaunts her rules and seems intent on being as difficult as possible. After certain events happen, she too begins to reconcile herself with her life in Bird Hill and Hyacinth.
Throughout the course of the novel we are given flashbacks into the girls’ childhood as well as the start and end of their mother’s relationship with their father.

“You practice being one kind of thing too long, and soon enough that’s who you become.”

While the storyline is somewhat conventional of this ‘coming-of-age’ genre, the author injects vitality into her story thanks to the character of Hyacinth and the vividly rendered setting of Bird Hill. Hyacinth was a force of nature (and funny too: “Oh Lord, please deliver me from these Yankee children”). I loved her no-nonsense attitude and the many wisdoms she imparts on her granddaughters. Phaedra too was a likeable character (who likes reading Jamaica Kincaid, always a plus in my books), who had a clear personality from the get-go. Dionne, in comparison, was a far weaker character. She’s very much the epitome of rebellious and angsty teenager who spends most of her time disrespecting her elders and thinking about sex. Which is fair enough, but because Hyacinth and Phaedra weren’t relegated to their ‘grandmother’ or ‘young child’ role, Dionne’s poor characterisation—which hinges on her being a teenager—stood out.
The writing was heavy on the ‘telling’ and light on the ‘showing’. Conversations are summarised rather than being ‘played’ on the page, and because the third-person narrative switches from character-to-charcater the same events or information would be repeated over the course of a few pages. The flashbacks could have been better integrated within the narrative, as they often broke the flow of the story, and gave us chunks of backstory that could have been portioned out more uniformly.
Still, I liked reading about Bird Hill, Hyacinth, and Phaedra. And even if the story touches on topics such as mental illnesses, it did so without delving too deep in them, so that it maintained an overall lighthearted, if bittersweet, tone.
I would probably recommend it to readers who enjoyed Frying Plantain or other novel that focus on family relationships between women (mother/daughters, granddaughters/grandmothers).

MY RATING 3 / 5 stars

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V

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

“That’s the problem with summoning demons, you see. Sooner or later somebody else raises them against you.”

Readers who enjoyed Stuart Turton’s previous novel will probably find The Devil and the Dark Water to be a far more captivating read than I did. While I personally was not enamoured by The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, I was willing to give Turton another try.
The first quarter of The Devil and the Dark Water had me intrigued. The narrative opens in Batavia (Jakarta) in 1634. Our protagonist, Arent Hayes, a former mercenary turner bodyguard, is accompanying his employer and friend, Samuel Pipps, on a voyage to Amsterdam. This trip is not for pleasure as Samuel, a famous detective, has been convicted of a ‘mysterious’ crime and is under arrest. Arent wants to prove his innocence, but not knowing the crime Samuel has been accused of obstructs his attempts to free him. Still, he’s determined to protect him and decides to go alongside him to Amsterdam. As the passengers and crew embark this ship however, they are intercepted by a leper who perishes after pronouncing an ominous threat.
Before Samuel is taken to his cell in the ship, he tasks Arent with finding out more about the leper, believing that his threat was not empty one, and that someone means harm to the ship.
There are quite a few characters, but the 3rd person narrative tends to focus on Arent, the Governor General Jan Haan, and his wife, Sara Wessel. Sara, who happens to be very forward-thinking and in possession of some fine detective skills, joins Arent, and the two try to question the less-than-friendly crew and investigate the ship in order to find out whether something is truly haunting it.
Sinister occurrences seem to confirm our characters’ fears: someone or something is set on stopping the ship from reaching its destination.

At first the story held my attention, and I did find the novel to be rather atmospheric. Turton has clearly done extensive research in the way ship’s operated (from its hierarchy to the mentality of those willing to lead such a life) giving plenty of specific details relating to its various parts and or levels. Now, sadly, I can’t say the same for the narrative’s historical accuracy. The characters spoke in a very modern way, with the occasional ‘mayhap’ to give some authenticity. While sometimes adding modern elements to historical films or books can work (such as with The Favourite), here it just took me out. Having Sara remind herself and be reminded by others, such as her maid, that she is a ‘noble-woman’ seemed odd. While I understand that Turton did so because he wanted to explain to his readers that because of her class Sara could and couldn’t do certain things (or should be addressed in a certain way by those belonging to a lower class) or , but surely he knows that his audience would be already aware of this? The interactions between the characters also struck me as modern, and it seemed weird that every woman on the ship was so ahead of her times (Sara’s daughter is a genius). Arent struck me as the typical ‘giant’ with a heart of gold, who may have done some bad things in his past, but has now turned a new leaf. Samuel plays a very minor role, and while it made sense given his imprisonment, as things escalate on the ship, I would have expected for Arent to seek his counsel more often.
The middle of his novel drags. Arent and Sara investigate by asking the same boring questions to the same people, they explore the ship some more, and that’s kind of that. The Governor, who is compared to a hawk and happens to have very sharp nails, acts like a Bad Guy, which is not a spoiler since within a few lines of being introduced to him we know that he beats his wife.
Arent and Sara were similarly ‘good’. Unlike most other people on the boat they do not approve of the United East Indian Company. Given their respective backgrounds their humanitarian awareness seemed a tad odd.
Also, the whole romantic subplot….puh-lease.
There were quite a few moments that were meant to ‘unnerve’ the reader but I personally found them comical.
When characters made a certain discovery or realised something (“It can’t be…” he said out loud, as the answers arrived in a dizzying rush. “It can’t be…”) we had these ‘cliff-hangers’ as the narrative would jump to another character and by the time we returned to that other character I no longer cared to learn of their discovery. The writing in general wasn’t to my taste : “she had so much life, it was bursting through the seams of her” / “he was coming apart at the seams” / “her daughter’s [eyes] glittered with life. Her husband’s were empty, like two dark holes his soul had long run out”.
Toward the ending things take a chaotic turn. There are a few twists, most of which I’d predicted (not bragging, I have merely read enough mystery novels to know how certain stories will unfold). The novel’s main twist was painfully clichéd and made very little sense (it was obsolete).
Long, boring, unconvincing, and with a vague ‘historicalness’ that is miles away from the likes of Sarah Dunant or Eleanor Catton.

MY RATING: 2 ½ stars

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Crossings by Alex Landragin

Alex Landragin has written an ambitious tale, one that begins with the following line: “I didn’t write this book. I stole it.”
This prologue, written by a bookbinder, tells us of how this manuscript has come to be in his hands. The manuscript in question comprises three seemingly separate books: ‘The Education of a Monster’ written and narrated by Charles Baudelaire, ‘City of Ghosts’ which consists in diary entries from Walter Benjamin, and ‘Tales of the Albatross’ which follows Alula, who lives on Oaeetee, a remote island in the Pacific.

Crossings can be read in the conventional way or the Baroness way (which gives page particular page numbers one has to jump to at the end of a chapter). I read it the Baroness way, and I believe I made the ‘right’ choice. The Baroness sequence, unlike the traditional one, intertwines chapters from each section (Alula’s, Charles’, Benjamin’s), making the connection between these three narratives much more clear.
To give more information on the plot (or maybe, I should say, many plots) would risk giving the novel away. I will try to be as vague as possible: the novel will take readers across time and space, combing genres and playing with tone and style.

As much as I enjoyed the labyrinthine and story-within-story structure of this novel, I was ultimately disappointed by its characters and the ‘star-crossed lovers’ theme that unifies these seemingly disparate narratives. Alula, someone I wanted to root for, commits a particularly heinous act, one that she quickly absolves herself of, reassuring herself that she did what she did ‘for the greater good’.
The personality of the two supposed main characters never truly came across. While it made sort of sense, given the conditions they are in, I wanted some more interiority on their part. Additionally, Alula sounded very much like a Western woman. This could be excused away, given the direction that her story takes her in, but her voice still lacked authenticity.
While the author renders in minute detail aspects of the time he writes of, I wonder why he brought two real-life figures into the folds of his story. After all, Baudelaire’s work isn’t exestively discussed, nor does it actually play a significant role in the story (a Baudelaire society appears now and again but it seemed more a prop than anything else). It seemed that by making Baudelaire and Benjamin into his protagonists the author was trying to spruce up his otherwise boring narrators.
The villain, who comes out with things ‘we are not so different you and I’, was painfully clichéd and not at all intimidating.
This novel will definitely appeal to fans of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or even Stuart Turton’s The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. A novel that reads like a puzzle, one that combines different styles and genres.
While I did enjoy the adventure-aspect of this novel, and its structure is certainly impressive, I can’t say that it left an impression on me.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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