The Dragon’s Promise by Elizabeth Lim

why are all my most anticipated 2022 releases so disappointing 😭

Please, let there be no love triangle

If you’ve read my review for Six Crimson Cranes you know just how much I loved that book. While I was concerned that the sequel would include a wholly unnecessary love triangle angle, I wasn’t at all preoccupied with the possibility of not liking it. And of course, 2022 being my underwhelming reading year, it turns out that plot twist I low-key disliked almost everything about this book. With a few modifications, Six Crimson Cranes could have easily been a stand-alone novel, and I actually think it would have resulted in an even stronger book. Alas, as this is a duology, we get The Dragon’s Promise, a lukewarm finale that came across as boring and repetitive. Characters I previously enjoyed reading came across as very one-dimensional, the villain was far less compelling than the (apparent) one from Six Crimson Cranes, and the meandering plot failed to grab my attention. One too many chapters end with Shiori falling and or possibly facing some other type of danger (being attacked etc.). While the story doesn’t include an actual love triangle it teases one, something that I almost found more annoying than having to put up with a proper love triangle.
If you, like me, loved Six Crimson Cranes I’d still recommend you check out this sequel as you might find it a more captivating read than I did.

If you don’t mind reading minor spoilers here is my more in-depth(ish) review:

The Dragon’s Promise picks up right after the cliffhanger Six Crimson Cranes. Shiori and Seryu have gone to the kingdom of dragons so Shiori can give the dragon’s pearl to the king of dragons, Seryu’s grandfather. But, Shiori doesn’t really plan on handing him the pearl as she promised her stepmother on her deathbed that she would return the pearl to its true owner. How she planned on escaping the consequences of not doing what she said she would is a mystery to me. Of course, the king is not pleased with her refusal to hand the pearl over to him and this results in a lot of back-and-forths where Shiori repeatedly believes that her newfound allies may or may not have betrayed her. Shiori is imprisoned, freed, imprisoned, freed, and so on. She comes across a character that will quite clearly play a role later on in the story but I didn’t find him as amusing as the narrative tried to make him into. Seryu’s character becomes rather unlikable and his bond to Shiori didn’t feel particularly believable. He confesses to having feelings for her (or something to that effect) but Shiori loves Takkan so she turns him down. She does now and again seem to entertain the possibility of being with Seryu but not in any serious capacity. For plot reasons, the two are of course forced into an engagement. It would have been far more refreshing to have their relationship as strictly platonic as I am tired of these YA novels where we have these two hot guys falling in love with the spunky clumsy heroine who has only very superficial and off-page friendships (here there is a weak attempt at giving her a positive relationship with a girl her age but funnily enough this friendship is mostly relegated off-page because of plot reasons).
After what felt like forever Shiori returns home and reunites with her beloved and her own family. Her brothers, who felt like such a crucial element from 1, are given very few lines and the remainder of the book sees Shiori and Takkan travel from place to place in an attempt to defeat the Bad Guy and are later on aided by a witty side character we met earlier in the book. I didn’t feel the stakes, the Bad Guy was very cartoonish, and the plot was just repetitive. In no time Shiori’s act-now-think-never attitude started to irritate me and while the story seems intent on portraying her as extremely special or whatever I didn’t feel that she was a particularly memorable or unique character. I missed the atmosphere of the first book as here that spellbinding magic is lost to samey action sequences.
Additionally, the dialogue was distractingly anachronistic. I don’t understand why the author randomly dropped archaic words into the characters’ dialogues as they merely stood out and consequently took me out of the story.
This was a deeply disappointing sequel. Not only did it make me fall out of love with the characters and setting of its predecessor but it was just a painfully ‘meh’ read. The content struck me as boorishly vanilla and Disneyesque (not in a good way as, so far as i remember, there were no lgbtq+ characters…).
I wish I could have loved it but as things stand the only reason why I gave The Dragon’s Promise a 3-star rating is out of my love for Six Crimson Cranes.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Ophelia After All by Racquel Marie

While Ophelia After All wasn’t quite the cute & wholesome read I wanted it to be it still made for a better than okay read. The in-group drama, avoidable miscommunication, and one too many love triangles detracted from an otherwise compelling coming-of-age. If you are reading this expecting it to be a HEA romance, I recommend you adjust your expectations as Ophelia After All was more focused on Ophelia’s character arc and her coming to terms with her sexuality.

Ophelia Rojas is a Cuban-American teen who is known as the girl with the green thumb and a propensity for crushing on cute boys. The novel follows her during her last year of high school as she has to reckon with ongoing and new drama changing the dynamics of her friendship group and the possibility that she is not solely attracted to cute boys. Cute and shy Talia, the best friend of one of her friends, has caught her eye. Ophelia tries to fight her feelings, fearing the ‘ramifications’ of what this means. How will her friends and parents react if she ceases to be the ‘boy crazy’ girl they know and love? Initially, this line of thinking seems a bit questionable but as the story progresses her anxiety becomes better articulated. People have an idea of who she is, and Ophelia fears the possibility of not being the person they think she is. It was a bit odd that she would truly believe that her friends and parents (whom she is very close to) would see her just in terms of her crushes on guys but I could relate to her apprehension about ‘coming out’ and how that would lead her to make certain assumptions about the people around her.
There are a few ‘key’ events that change the dynamics between the characters. Ophelia and her mother are for a long part of the book at odds with each other after the former does something very uncharacteristic and refuses to tell her mother why (but tells her dad). The guy who causes this was a throwaway one-dimensional bigot who…I mean, he was a bit on the nose (not that people like that do not exist but that he was in a very short scene and managed to tick all of these unsavoury boxes…given that he was a college student it seemed weird that he would be so public about his trash opinions especially since he surrounded by faculty and adults). Ophelia was 100% valid in what she did (the whole being ‘the bigger person’ is overrated if you ask me) but I found her treatment of her mother frustrating. Ragazza mia, just talk to your mum!
In addition to the story’s focus on Ophelia struggling to reconcile herself with her attraction and feelings for Talia the story is also sadly very much about the drama going on in her friendship group. Her neighbour and best friend are in love with another friend. Talia’s best friend, who also happens to be a friend of Ophelia, is in love with that same girl. That girl is portrayed as kind of a bitch but she happens to have a best friend who isn’t (i can’t remember her name but if you’ve read this you know, she’s the most sensible and decent character in this whole book…i wish that she’d been given more page time). Anyhow, things are obviously awkward and tense. I found the miscommunication within their group stupid and not always believable. It also annoyed me that Ophelia called her bf and that girl he is in love with ‘promiscuous’ and implied that this made them less nice than that other guy who is also in love with her.
Still, I loved that we get so many lgbtq+ characters, even if the ‘reveals’ at the end were cheesy (but i am all for it at the same time so there ya go). Some of the discussions around being queer and or part of the lgbtq+ community did feel a bit…patronising? They were vaguely… at one point I felt like I was watching an instructional 101 lgbtq+ video. There was this scene with Ophelia asking this other character why people used ‘queer’ when she heard it was a controversial term and something about it felt very studied. At one point a character starts rattling off different labels and identities and I felt that I was scrolling on the lgbtq+ wiki. The narrative in these sections seemed more intent on being informative and unproblematic than ‘real’.
Some of the characters struck me as one-dimensional, especially the ‘unlikeable’ ones such as Talia’s relatives, Ophelia’s ex and her mother’s dick of a student. I did not find the love polygon interesting and in fact, it was tiring, especially since much of it hinged on a character that is for most of the narrative portrayed as having exclusively bad traits.
Still, I liked that the author didn’t make Ophelia immediately accept her queerness and that her self-denial leads her to make quite a few bad choices. Her treatment of Talia was kind of horrible if you think about it but she owns up to it (which doesn’t cancel out what she did but it results in some solid character growth on her part). I also liked that her mother isn’t depicted as being horrible, which I feared she would be for a good portion of the book. Her talk with Ophelia towards the end was very touching.
I just wish the story had focused less on the drama and fights between Ophelia’s ‘friends’. Her best friend in particular is done a bit of a disservice as his character seems reduced to him taunting his love rival. But I did appreciate how inclusive this group was. I would have liked for them to have more distinctive personalities (rather than a few chosen traits) but it isn’t that kind of novel so it worked all the same.
There were some compelling discussions on Ophelia’s dual heritage and her struggle for self-knowledge in a society that is very either/or in its view of identity and sexuality. I also appreciated that Ophelia dismisses the idea of a monolithic Latin American culture, however, later mentions of her heritage do at times risk doing exactly that.
While some of the discussions did feel a tad too American for my liking in that they simplified certain issues (i can’t explain but if you know you know), I did enjoy Ophelia reflections of Lacan and the nature of desire.
Anyway, although I didn’t quite love Ophelia as a character and I didn’t particularly care for her in-group melodrama, Ophelia After All makes for a refreshing YA in that it prioritizes Ophelia’s coming of age over any potential romance she may or may not have along the way (more of this please and less of the ‘i met my OTL in high school’). This story managed to subvert romance conventions which were unexpected in the best way possible. Still, other aspects were more predictable. Similarly to other contemporary YA novels Ophelia After All tries to be more self-aware of the cliches of the ‘teen coming of age’ genre but then they end up incorporating those tropes anyways.

Despite my mixed feelings, I liked Ophelia After All more than not. It has its flaws sure and the tone was a bit juvenile and moralistic at times but I could tell that the author had good intentions and the story she tells does have heart.
I would definitely recommend this to younger audiences and or YA devotees.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

“I remember looking out at all those people, most of whom I’d seen or known over months or years—several of whom I loved. Everybody was yelling or cowering or sneering, angry or afraid.”

My Monticello is a suspenseful novella that presents us with a scarily imaginable scenario (given all the alt-right & neo-nazi rallies that have happened in the last couple of years & the Capitol assault) where a group of violent white supremacists engulf Charlottesville. Our narrator, Da’Naisha Love, escapes the violence and finds a momentary refugee in Monticello, which happens to be Thomas Jefferson’s historic plantation. Alongside her are strangers, her white boyfriend, her elderly grandmother, and other people from her neighbourhood. Over the course of nineteen days, this cobbled group tries to carry on. Their fear is palpable, and more than once they find themselves faced with possible threats from the outside. Tensions run high and various members within the group inevitably find themselves disagreeing over what to do.

Da’Naisha also happens to be a descendant of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and her ancestry makes her view Monticello through a very specific lens. Throughout the course of the novella, Da’Naisha also reflects on racism in America, slavery, white supremacy, and interracial relationship. Also, that this group has found refuge from white supremacists in a former plantation adds further complexity to their circumstances.

“But mostly I knew my lineage the way most families know theirs: I knew because Momma told me, because MaViolet told her.”

While I appreciated Da’Naisha’s piercing commentary, I did find her, and every other character, to be very paper-thin. So much so that they didn’t really strike me as characters but names on a page. The narrative is not particularly concerned or interested in fleshing them out but in addressing issues related to race and American history. Which, as I said above, I did find compelling, however, at heart, I am drawn to character-driven stories, and in this regard, this novella just wasn’t it. There is also some attempt at drama involving Da’Naisha, her bf, and the man she, unbeknownst to him, cheated on him with (who of course happens to be there as well).
Lastly, the lack of quotation marks…ugh. It just put me off reading, to be honest. This stylistic choice didn’t seem particularly necessary/fitting for this kind of novella.
While I wasn’t blown away by My Monticello, I am curious to read this author’s other stories (which were sadly not included in my arc copy) and I would probably still recommend this to other readers.

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Intimacies by Katie Kitamura

On paper, Intimacies is my kind of read. In actuality, well, turns out it is anything but. While it ticks all the ‘in’ boxes (an unnamed narrator, ambiguous storyline, no quotation marks), the ‘story’ and characters were dusty, dull, done-to-death. Our narrator is an interpreter who lives and works in The Hague and works for the International Court where her latest assignment sees her interpreting for a former president, much beloved by his people, who stands accused of many atrocious war crimes. She’s in a lukewarm relationship with Adriaan, a man who can be best described as being as interesting as Wonder Bread. The guy’s wife left him but they are still married and that’s about it. Our protagonist thinks about this woman in a wannabe-Rebecca kind of way.

Our narrator has a friend Jana whose characterisation is risible. Nothing she said rang true (to me of course, feel free to disagree and nay at this review), nor did it succeed in being absurd, if that even was what it was going for. Jana mentions to our mc that she saw someone being attacked in her neighbourhood and for some reason, our mc goes on to find this man’s workplace and goes there because of reasons unknown.
Nothing seems to happen. We have stilted interactions between the same two or three characters, some uninspired comments about violence, the judicial system, language, and the tricky nature of interpretation. I was particularly disappointed by the language aspect of this narrative. I am bilingual (and i am taken for a foreigner in both of the languages i speak…go figure) and my mother has been a translator for…well, all my life. So, naturally, I am interested in languages and translation, and I am keen on reading books that explore these fields. Intimacies regurgitates the same tired ideas on these topics, and even the interpretation angle felt poorly explored. The scenes taking place at the Court were odd, particularly for the way they were executed.
There is no plot as such. The mc wastes some time navel-gazing, thinking not so deep thoughts. She has a few repetitive and inauthentic encounters and exchanges with the same group of not so believable characters ….and that’s it. The whole relationship between her and this married man was bah. Who cares? Not me! I am tired of reading this same type of heterosexual sort-of-love-triangle. Jana seemed forgotten by the narrative and sidelined to make space for that man who was attacked. This guy goes on to deliver a stilted monologue that sounded so insincere.
In short, Intimacies was a vexing read. I recommend you check out more positive reviews before you decide whether to read this or not (on the plus size, it’s a short read).

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto

“That feeling of security, that sweetness, that pain, that gentleness. I felt sure that every time I saw the green of the trees in my garden awash in light from the street, I’d be struck by a sudden flicker of remembrance—the tail of that soft melody—and I’d chase along behind it, as if sniffing my way forward in pursuit of a pleasant scent.”

There is something about Banana Yoshimoto’s storytelling that I find really comforting.
Whenever I am in a reading slump, or simply unsure of what to read next, I find myself turning to Yoshimoto. Having read 10 of her works, I have grown familiar with her style, themes, and tone. I can see why some may find her stories uneventful or frustratingly dreamy, but I find her distinctive yet simple prose and her naive characters to be reassuring. Asleep, alongside Kitchen, is probably one of my favourites by her. This collection contains three stories, each one centred on a young woman navigating the death of a loved one. Yoshimoto’s characters seem to exist in a liminal space between wakefulness and sleep, their grief, sadness, and melancholia tinge the way they view and interact with the rest of the world.

While these narratives explore death and loss, they are marked by a light and peaceful tone. I was captivated by the protagonist’s winning voices and the Yoshimoto-esque way they perceive themselves and those around them. I loved the first two stories, ‘Night & Night’s Travelers’ and ‘Love Songs’. The former is narrated by Shibami, a young woman who is grieving the recent death of her brother. The brother was involved in a love triangle of sorts, and we see how each woman has been affected by his death. The latter story too seems to revolve around a love triangle in which two women vie for the attention of the same man. We soon realise that the bond between these women runs much deeper. When one of them dies the other seeks to understand the true nature of her feelings for her. ‘Asleep’, the final story in the collection, also presents us with a ‘triangle’, but I found the dynamics here to be slightly less compelling.

Yoshimoto’s meditations on love and death struck me both for their simplicity and their originality. She maintains this perfect balance between realism and surrealism, which results in a fittingly dreamy reading experience. I was lulled by the gentle pacing of her stories. Her storytelling strikes me as particularly suited to the summer season. If you are a fan of Yoshimoto I would definitely recommend this.

my rating: ★★★½

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Writers & Lovers by Lily King

“I don’t write because I think I have something to say. I write because if I don’t, everything feels even worse.”

In Writers & Lovers, Lily King portrays an intimate and profoundly heartfelt slice of life that brims with wry humor and precise observations on grief, loneliness, identity, and creativity. This is truly a gem of a novel, a wonderful display of bravura. King seamlessly blends together realism and romanticism, capturing with humor and tenderness Casey’s everyday experiences and struggles.

“[I] think about how you get trained early on as a woman to perceive how others are perceiving you, at the great expense of what you yourself are feeling about them. Sometimes you mix the two up in a terrible tangle that’s hard to unravel.”

Writers & Lovers transports its readers to Massachusetts in the summer of 1997. Casey Peabody, our narrator, is in her thirties and attempting to navigate life after her mother’s sudden death. A recent heartbreak has made her feel all the more lonely and vulnerable, and Casey clearly longs to feel that she belongs and that she has not wasted the last years of her life writing a book that will never be published. While most of her friends have abandoned their creative pursuits—opting for more sensible careers and or starting their own families—Casey remains devoted to her writing and to the idea of one day becoming a published author. After her mother’s death, Casey feels even more unmoored and unsure of herself. She finds herself observing the customers who eat at the restaurant she works for, yearning for a connection of her own. Eventually, Casey grows close to two men, both of them writers, one is famous and a widowed father of two, the other is around her age.

“I have a problem with that sometimes, getting attached. Other people’s families are a weakness of mine.”

This novel gives us a glimpse into a particular period of Casey’s life. From her day-to-day activities and worries to the sorrow she feels at her mother’s death and the anxiety brought by her writing, her job, her college debt, and health concerns. The wry wit that characterises her inner-monologue mitigate the many trials and misadventures, Casey, experiences throughout the course of the novel. While the romantic relationships she forms along the way does play a role in Casey’s journey, this novel is first and foremost about her writing. From the process of creating a story to how it feels to write, Writers & Lovers is very much a love letter to writing. Casey’s reflections on writing reveal her relationship to this craft as well as the different ways in which the public and publishing industry view male and female authors. King’s meditations on life, grief, and creativity demonstrate extreme acuity and insight.

“What I have had for the past six years, what has been constant and steady in my life is the novel I’ve been writing. This has been my home, the place I could always retreat to. The place I could sometimes even feel powerful, I tell them. The place where I am most myself.”

Casey is the novel’s star and I found her voice to be hugely endearing. Despite her dalliances with melancholy, deep-down she remains hopeful that she will publish her novel. King captures Casey’s idiosyncrasies, her quirks, the way she thinks and expresses herself, in such vivid detail that she felt very much like a real person to me. The characters around her too came across as fully fleshed out individuals whose story doesn’t revolve around Casey herself. They are nuanced and multifaceted, regardless of how often they crop up in Casey’s narrative. The restaurant scenes were so realistic that they reminded me of my unfortunate time in F&D (it truly feels like a microcosm).

Writers & Lovers is a deeply affecting and ultimately hopeful story about a woman’s determination to pursue her dreams, in spite of societal pressure and of other people undermining her capabilities as an author or life choices. The author’s prose, the setting, the characters, the subject matter, all of these spoke to me. While reading Writers & Lovers I was struck by a sense of nostalgia while reading this, perhaps due to it being set in the 90s, which is still lingering over me as I write this. I found myself desperate to see how Casey’s story would conclude and unwilling to part ways with her.

“It’s a particular kind of pleasure, of intimacy, loving a book with someone.”

Inspiring, witty, delightfully intertextual, full of heart Writers & Lovers is a truly luminous novel that I can’t wait to read again and again.

PS: the first time I tried reading this I hated it so I can see why it wouldn’t appeal to everyone. At the time I was in the doldrums and took Casey’s romantic expression too seriously. My apologises to the people or so who liked my original review of this but I now love this book (what can i say, i’m a turncoat 🤡).

Translating Myself and Others by Jhumpa Lahiri

my rating: ★★★★★

Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith

As per usual I was swayed by a pretty cover. I mean, just look at it!

Anyway, as much as I wanted to like Build Your House Around My Body, it left me feeling rather underwhelmed. The narrative seems very much intent—hellbent even—on nauseating its readers, at times adopting a playful tone to do so. Ultimately, the story’s relentless efforts to be as abject as possible succeeded only in making me feel nothing for the characters.

The novel’s first few chapters were intriguing in a Neil Gaiman kind of way but with each chapter this reminded me more and more of Mariana Enríquez (not my cup of tea).
Build Your House Around My Body takes place in Vietnam, shifting between a cast of interconnected characters, and moving from the 1940s to the early 2010s. In 2011 a Vietnamese American woman named Winnie living in Saigon goes missing, less than a year after arriving in Vietnam. Over the course of the novel, we learn of what led her to Saigon and of her stint as an English teacher. A section of the narrative follows the Saigon Spirit Eradication Co. who are called to investigate some ‘spooky’ ongoings at a Vietnamese farm, another introduces us to a Vietnamese French boy sent to a boarding school during colonial rule, and then there are chapters focusing on three childhood friends, Binh, a supposedly feisty young girl and two brothers, Tan and Long, who share the same kind of bland personality.
The setting is vividly rendered, that’s for sure. We feel the oppressive heat and humidity experienced by the characters and the author has a knack for bringing to life the environments in which her characters are (be it a cemetery, a forest, or a dingy bathroom). The various storylines however don’t really flow that well together. The author wastes too much time poking fun at secondary characters that she loses sight of her novel’s central figures. Take Winnie. She remains a half-formed character, and while some of her vagueness may be intentional she could have still been fleshed out more. But her chapters often detail the silly routines of her colleagues or try really hard to gross you out through unpleasant descriptions of bodily fluids. Each storyline seems punctuated by slime, sweat, and shit. Which…yeah. The supposed revenge storyline doesn’t really come into play until the very end of the novel and by the end, it was glaringly obvious what had taken place in the past. The only section that made me feel somewhat amused was the one featuring the Fortune Teller’s First Assistant, but she was at beat a minor character (more of a cameo appearance really).
I had the distinct impression that this it the type of novel that is confusing for the sake of being confusing and I never much cared for these types of stories. Not only did the characters feel flat but I felt at a remove from them. The narrative spends so much time ridiculing them or comparing their facial features or appendages to foods/animals that I never saw them as ‘real’.
To be perfectly honest I don’t think I entirely understood what this book was going for. As I said already the novel’s raison d’être seems to be that of repulsing the readers. The issues the narrative attempts to touch upon—female agency? maybe? I don’t really have a clue—are lost in a murky melange of disparate storylines that don’t really come together that well nor do they succeed in bringing the characters or their struggles to life. While the setting was rendered in startlingly detail. the characters—their experiences and their relationships to one another—remain painfully vague.

my rating: ★★½

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The Mothers by Brit Bennett

“Grief was not a line, carrying you infinitely further from loss. You never knew when you would be sling-shot backward into its grip.”

The first time I picked up The Mothers was back in 2017. After reading a few chapters I set aside thinking that it was not for me. And then came the advent of The Vanishing Half. To say that I like that novel would be an understatement. I’ve read it twice and twice I fell in love with it. After rereading it I found myself wondering whether this time around I would actually be able to appreciate The Mothers so I gave it another shot. If I only had to rate this novel in terms of its literary merits this would easily get a 5 stars. While I wasn’t overly keen the mother’s ‘chorus’, I remain in awe of Brit Bennett’s luminous prose. The reason why I cannot sing this book’s praises lies in its storyline, specifically in the way Nadia’s abortion is handled.

The book is set in a conservative and religious Black community in Southern California. ‘The mothers’ are an older group of church-going women and their Greek chorus is interspersed throughout the narrative. Their traditional values are reflected through the judgments they make about the rest of their community. They seem particularly disapproving of young people and their ‘inhibited’ ways. The actual story follows three people: Nadia Turner, who is seventeen and grieving the death of her mother (who committed suicide); the pastor’s son, Luke Sheppard, who is twenty-one and working in a diner after an injury ended his promising football career came to pastor’s son; Aubrey, a pious girl who is living with her older sister. Nadia and Luke begin sleeping together but their casual relationship is complicated when Nadia becomes pregnant. Nadia, who is desperate to leave her town behind and wants to college, decides to get an abortion and Luke comes up with the money for it. But, when he fails to collect from her after her appointment at the clinic Nadia is deeply hurt. The two no longer spend time together and Nadia becomes close to Aubrey. In spite of their different personalities, the two feel seemingly unmoored. Their bond at the beginning of the story is one of the highlights of the novel. Alas, all good things come to an end and Nadia goes off to college while Aubrey remains in their hometown. Over the next few years Luke and Aubrey fall in love and when Nadia returns home things get complicated.

spoilers below

I was not a fan of this love triangle, which was at best unimaginative. Luke was a lustreless and often cowardly character. I genuinely thought that Nadia and Aubrey had more chemistry then either Luke/Nadia or Luke/Aubrey. But I could have looked past this rather clichèd love triangle (one girl is the wild and beautiful one, the other is the quiet plainer looking one) if it hadn’t been for the way both the characters and the narrative itself punish Nadia for her ‘sin’. Throughout the narrative abortion is associated with being a sin, a crime, an abhorrent act. None of the majors character challenge this view. There is not one voice of reason. Nadia, years later, is haunted by the ‘what if’. She ends her pregnancy early on yet she believes that she knows that the ‘baby’ was a boy and is wracked by guilt envisioning him growing up. I am not about to argue that abortions are not traumatic experiences or that the person who chooses to get an abortion does so lightheartedly but come on, having Nadia be haunted forever seems a tad too much. Who cares that she’s gone to college or soon to be a lawyer? Her life is forever defined by her abortion.
Luke is horrible about the whole thing (piling on the guilt by also going on about ‘our baby boy’). And you might say that of course every person in their community is going to shame Nadia or think her sinful. But, why does the narrative reinforces this? Nadia is ostracised and by the end of the novel it is implied that by she will never be happy or content or able to settle down.
Luke on the other hand is not punished. Nadia is made into the story’s villain as she not only gets an abortion but she also betrays her best friend (again we have the implication that the ‘type’ of woman who gets an abortion has loose morals). So ‘other woman’ and sinful Nadia is given a miserable ending while kind god-fearing Aubrey alongside Luke are blessed with a child. Puh-lease.

The thing is, I may have been more understanding if this novel had been set in the early 20th century. After all, I love Toni Morrison’s Sula which shares quite a few similarities with Bennett’s novel. But, Morrison never condemns Sula herself. She makes it quite clear that she becomes her community’s scapegoat. The complicated friendship between Sula and Nel remains the focus of the narrative, whereas here Luke takes the centre-stage.

In spite of my issues with the characters and their storylines I did find Bennett’s prose to be beautiful. There are some poignant observation on grief, loneliness, and friendship.

While I recognise that Bennett is a fantastic writer this novel’s not to subtle anti-abortion message did not sit well with me and because of this I cannot on a good conscience recommend it. Read Sula instead.

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Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust

Although I am no longer an avid YA reader, I do like to now and again pick up a YA title, especially if, like in the case of Girl, Serpent, Thorn, it promises to be sapphic. While Melissa Bashardoust’s prose is readable enough, even if it does occasionally veer into purple territories, her story and characters left a bit to be desired. The novel invests far too much time in a character that is not all that interesting and our protagonist spends most of her time in self-pity or playing the blame game.
Girl, Serpent, Thorn follows Soraya a princess who was cursed with a deathly touch (which reminded me of Rogue aka Anna Marie aka my all-time favourite Marvel character). Soraya’s curse is kept a secret from her family’s kingdom, and she has spent most of her days secluded from others. Around the time her brother’s wedding is announced two strangers arrive at the palace. One is a handsome young man who seems unperturbed by Soraya’s curse, and the other is a prisoner, a demon by the name of Pavenah.
I obviously approached this under the wrong impression as the first half of the story is centred upon the relationship between Soraya and this young man. The world is barely sketched out, the palace too remains largely undescribed, and the characters’ motivations weren’t always rendered in a convincing way. The romance(s) felt rushed and I would have much preferred the narrative to have a slow-burn romance between Soraya and Pavenah…but things don’t exactly pan out that way. Soraya spends the latter half of the story being plonked here and there, all the while going on about how she can’t trust the ones around her or having basic thoughts about who the real monster is…and I just…urgh. I did not like it. I found it repetitive and predictable. I am also so over the villain who tells the protagonist to “join them” because “together” they would be “unstoppable” and all. N-O.
The story took itself and its characters too seriously at times. The villain is cartoonish, Soraya is no antiheroine, merely an impulsive air-head, and
Pavenah…well, she could have been interesting but her presence is relegated to the latter half of the novel and by then I was sort of done with it all. And there are all these “betrayals” that had no real weight and the sheer abundance of them reminded me a bit of House of Flying Daggers.
All in all, this book was not for me. I doubt I would have finished it if it hadn’t been for the narrator of the audiobook version (she was great). But, I also recognise that maybe this is because I am no longer part of this book’s target demographic.

my rating: ★★½

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The Charioteer by Mary Renault — book review

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“He was filled with a vast sense of the momentous, of unknown mysteries. He did not know what he should demand of himself, nor did it seem to matter, for he had not chosen this music he moved to, it had chosen him.”

This is the fifth time I’ve read The Charioteer and once again I’ve been swept away by it. The Charioteer is quite likely my favourite novel of all time as there are few books that I care as much about.
There is something comforting about The Charioteer, which is strange given that Mary Renault’s impenetrable prose demands her readers’ full attention. There are the coded conversations, thoughts and feelings are often only obliquely hinted at, the pages are full of 40s slang, and there are constant allusions to the ancient classics. Yet, her writing also has a languid quality, perhaps reflective of her protagonist’s convalescence, which I found truly enthralling.
In an almost Bildungsroman fashion The Charioteer introduces us to Laurie as a child. This first chapter recounts a significant moment of his childhood and is followed by a chapter of him at school where he has a memorable encounter with the Head of the School, Ralph Lanyon. The subsequent chapters follow Laurie as he’s recovering from a war injury at a hospital. Here he meets and falls for Andrew, a conscientious objector who is now working as an orderly.
While Laurie is aware of his sexuality, and believes that Andrew reciprocates his feelings, he’s unwilling to reveal to Andrew the true depth of his emotions. By chance Laurie ends up re-connecting with Ralph. As the title of the novel suggests, Laurie’s story can be likened to the myth of the charioteer from Phaedrus.
Now, I know that my summary doesn’t do this novel justice. I don’t wish to reveal too much about the story or its characters. Still, I can say that The Charioteer presents us with a beautiful narrative, one that captures a particular moment in time. The characters’ days are punctuated by Imminent Danger sirens, air raids, shortages. Laurie, alongside other patients, has to obey the hospital’s strict rules. Under Renault’s hand, the war seems almost ‘normal’, and characters will often discuss it as they would any other topic.
Renault’s portrayal of the gay community feels both intimate and compelling. While Laurie himself feels uneasy towards those he deems as ‘flamboyant’ or ‘effeminate’, the narrative doesn’t share his prejudices. Renault’s characters often engage themselves in conversations relating to their role in society, often professing contrasting beliefs. The views they express may ruffle some readers, as they often speak about their sexuality as a limitation or they seem dismissive towards other gay men (partly because both Laurie and Ralph are private individuals and do not wish to be a source of gossip). Their discussion on ethics and morality were riveting, and I soon lost myself in the rhythm of their back and forth.
The novel is as interested in what the characters say as it is with what they don’t say, whether this is due to self-censoring or self-denial. Although Laurie is the story’s protagonist, much of what he feels remains off page. Renault will often only allude to Laurie’s most innermost feelings. Because of this Laurie, and other characters, often seem like unsolvable puzzles. This is quite fitting given that self-knowledge and self-deception are central themes within this narrative.
Laurie’s story is also one that is concerned with connection. Although he becomes fast friends with another patient, he fears being ‘known’. Yet, in spite of this sense of loneliness, he is reticent about ‘embracing’ his community (“He kept telling me I was queer, and I’d never heard it called that before and didn’t like it. The word, I mean. Shutting you away, somehow; roping you off with a lot of people you don’t feel much in common with […]”).
Miscommunications abound in this novel. At times the characters make tentative attempts to form more meaningful relationships but they often betray themselves by not saying what they want to say or by saying the wrong things.

Renault captures with poignancy sadness, anxiety, self-divide, awkwardness, tenderness, longing, ambiguity, confusion, honour, passion, and hope. Her characters reveal her piercing understanding of human nature. Through her expressive and elegant writing Renault demonstrates her inside knowledge of the society she depicted (Renault was both a lesbian and a nurse, which is possibly why she can so conjure up both queer parties and the daily routines of a hospital).
I love everything about this novel. Laurie’s quest for identity, the struggle between his desires and his ideals, is as moving as it is thought-provoking.
A truly complex and multi-layered masterpiece that is both heart-rending and intelligent.
Impenetrable, subtle, beautiful, touching. I can’t recommend this novel strongly enough.
If you are a fan of gay classics (such as MauriceCarolGiovanni’s Room, and the underrated Olivia ), you should definitely give Renault a try. I don’t think I will ever get tired of re-reading this novel. Each time my understanding for the characters, their inner-struggles and relationships, deepens (although i own a copy of this, this time around i read a kindle copy from overdrive…and i ended up making nearly 500 highlights….which, yeah, that’s how much i love this story).

ps: if you have anything negative so say about Ralph, I will fight you
(i’m only half-jesting)

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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