The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina by Zoraida Córdova


When she left Ecuador for good, she learned how to leave pieces of herself behind. Pieces that her descendants would one day try to collect to put her back together.

In The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, Zoraida Córdova combines an intergenerational family drama with magical realism, and the end result will certainly appeal to fans of Alice Hoffman and Isabel Allende. Not only does Córdova’s dazzling storytelling complement the fantastical elements within her story but her prose often brought to mind the language you encounter in fairy tales.

The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina follows a dual timeline. The one in the present opens with the formidable matriarch Orquídea Divina Montoya inviting her progeny to her funeral. Over the years her children and grandchildren have left her house in Four Rivers, and many of them have not returned since their departure. When they flock back to her home they find out that Orquídea has undergone a drastic change. In this part we are introduced to a lot of characters, many of them don’t even get a speaking line. The house is very crowded and arguments and disagreements inevitably come to pass. No one knows about Orquídea’s past, and some have come to resent her for it. Odd and inexplicable things have always happened to the Montoyas, and maybe, now, on her ‘deathbed’ Orquídea will finally reveal some of her secrets…except that she doesn’t. The narrative jumps seven years ahead where we learn that many of the Montoyas have been dying sudden and bizarre deaths. Someone, or something, maybe after them, but why?
The other timeline gives a glimpse into Orquídea’s Cinderellaesque childhood in Ecuador. Told from birth that she would have bad luck Orquídea finds herself growing apart from her mother once she remarries. Her stepsiblings bully her, her stepfather shows her no kindness. Additionally, Orquídea is tasked with various house chores and with looking after her youngest sibling. One day she goes to the circus and finds herself falling in love. The following chapters of her story follow her ill-fated romance.

I liked the first chapters, in which we are introduced to the various Montoyas (some more in-depth than others) and see their reactions to Orquídea’s ‘transformation’. The prose is gorgeous, the magical realism on point, and the mystery around Orquídea’s past intriguing. We then get a time-skip of 7+ and I’m afraid that I wasn’t particularly keen on it. We never get to properly know the majority of the Montoyas nor do we truly delve into the experiences of Marimar and Rey, our main characters. I think that much of this novel, especially once we’ve passed Orquídea’s death, relied too much on telling. Marimar was a bit of a generic lead while Rey very much existed for comic relief and many of his lines did seem to make him sound a bit like a stereotype (‘bitchy’, man-obsessed, etc.). He’s basically the gay best friend. The chapters set in the past were somewhat disappointing as I thought they would give us an overview of Orquídea’s life, as opposed to just focusing on her late teens/early 20s. I think her journey and early years in America had the potential of being quite interesting. I mean, she had several husbands and they barely get mentioned. Orquídea herself was hard to like. Having a Cinderella-like sob backstory doesn’t necessarily make you into a sympathetic or complex character. Still, I did find her intriguing and by the end, I did feel on her behalf (kind of). As I said, I wish that more of the Montoyas had been fleshed out. There were some deaths in the story and they had little to no impact because we didn’t know that characters who die all that much (they basically were included to be killed off). The ‘big bad’ was disappointing and at times the story gave me Disney vibes. At one point Córdova describes curls as ‘worm-like’ and that gets a minus from me.
In spite of these things (story+characters being kind of meh) I still thought that this was a good novel. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to those who are looking for character-driven stories or nuanced family sagas, however, if you happen to be a fan of the authors I mentioned above or of the magical realism genre, well, you should definitely consider giving this novel a go. The story is fairly compelling, the author’s prose is lovely, and the fantasy elements were great. Atmospheric and spellbinding The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina is an engaging story about love, family, heartache, and fate.

ps: while the cover is by no means ugly I do think that it doesn’t really suit the tone of the story. Additionally, it is the kind of cover that would be better suited to YA novel, not an adult one.

my rating: ★★★½

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The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

“My American adolescence was filled with tales of woe like this, all of them proof of what my mother said, that we did not belong here. In a country where possessions counted for everything, we had no belongings except our stories.”

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen is a collection of short stories centring on the experiences of Vietnamese refugees & immigrants as well as Vietnamese-Americans. With one or two exceptions most of the stories in this collection take place in America, some soon after the Vietnam War. Through different voices, the author presents us with a nuanced depiction of the realities and difficulties faced by those who are either forced to or choose to leave their home country. In America they are confronted with prejudice and racism, treated as objects of fascination or pity, at times they are separated from their loved ones or find themselves growing apart from their families as well as the language and values of their early childhoods. I appreciated the author’s frank style, the humor that permeated much of his narratives, and his nonmoral approach to his characters, their struggles, fears, and desires. The stories that resonated the most with me happened to be the very first two in the collection: ‘Black-Eyed Women’, which is about a haunted ghostwriter, and ‘The Other Man’, which is set in San Francisco and follows Liem, a young refugee who staying with a gay couple. Many of these stories emphasize the linguistic and cultural barriers experienced by immigrants. Most of these stories, such as ‘I’d Love You To Want Me’, a story about an ageing couple, make for rather bittersweet reads.

Like many collections of short stories, The Refugees was a bit of a mixed bag. None of the stories was bad but a few stood out. Something that dampened my reading experience was the weird way the author would write about breasts: we have “doleful areolas”, breasts that “sway like anemones under shallow water”, and breasts that “undulate” like “the heads of eels”. Like, what gives Nguyen? Why be so weird about breasts? I guess they were meant to be humorous but I happen not to have the sense of humor of an 8-year-old boy so, they didn’t quite do it for me. Also, it would be fairer than to have weird metaphors about other body parts.
All in all, this was a fairly solid collection and I look forward to finally giving Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning novel a go.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King

You become a creature I can’t understand, my mother sometimes said to me.”



Having loved Lily King’s Writers & Lovers I was looking forward to reading more of her work and I can happily say (or write) that her first-ever collection of short stories did not disappoint. More often than not I find short story collections to be a mixed bag (with some good ones, some meh ones, and even a bad egg or two). But, I found myself drawn to all of the stories in Five Tuesdays in Winter. While the stories focus on characters who don’t always have much in common (be it their age, the time when and/or place where they are living, their fears or desires) their narratives are characterised by a bittersweet tone that will elicit feelings of nostalgia in the reader (regardless of whether they have experienced what the characters are experiencing). Despite the title of this collection many of these stories are set during the summer and easily transport us right there alongside the characters so that we too are experiencing the heat, elation, and almost-surreality of their summer holidays (that feeling of being free from the usual routines etc). King captures with unsparing clarity the thoughts and feelings of her characters, and conveys their wide range of emotions, honing in on the longing, unease, giddiness, and sadness they experience over the course of their stories. Some are in love with someone who may or may not reciprocate their feelings, others are in a phase of transition, for example, from childhood to adulthood, or mired in the confusion of adolescence.

In the first story, ‘Creature’, Cara, a fourteen-year-girl, is employed by a well-off family as a babysitter for the summer holidays. During the time she spends at this family’s house she becomes infatuated with Hugh, her employer’s son, who is much older than her. Our narrator is an aspiring author who likes to envision herself as a Jane Eyre sort of figure but, one thing is to daydream about Hugh, another is realising that Hugh has no compunction about making a move on her (when she’s very much underage).
In ‘Five Tuesdays in Winter’ a single-father and bookseller falls for his employer who is also tutoring his daughter in Spanish. Mitchell is however unable to express his feelings and spends much of his time longing to confess his love to her. In ‘When in the Dordogne’ the son of two professors bonds with the two college students who have been hired to housesit his home and keep an eye on him. In ‘North Sea’ a mother and daughter are on vacation together but their strained relationship results in a less than idyllic time. While the following stories also present us with different perspectives and scenarios they explore similar themes (hope, connection, love). I liked how King manages to be both a gentle and an unflinching storyteller, that is able to make you happy one moment and sad the next. I also appreciated that the stories didn’t have neat endings or ‘valuable’ life lessons but often read like a slice-of-life that is providing us with a glimpse into a specific period of her characters’ lives. King captures how confusing feelings can be sometimes, so that we have characters both longing for something or someone while at the same time feeling uneasy at the possibility of attaining what, or who, they’d thought they desired.
My favourites were ‘Creature’, ‘When in the Dordogne’, ‘Timeline’, and ‘Hotel Seattle’.
King’s understated prose is a marvel to read and I had a wonderful time with this collection. If you were a fan of Writers & Lovers you should definitely pick this one up. Moving and wistful Five Tuesdays in Winter is a scintillating collection!

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

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Dead and the Dark by Courtney Gould

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★★★½

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Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby

aaaand Cosby’s done it again!

“Tears ran from his eyes and stung his cheeks. Tears for his son. Tears for his wife. Tears for the little girl they had to raise. Tears for who they were and what they all had lost. Each drop felt like it was slicing his face open like a razorblade.”

S. A. Cosby’s sophomore novel is just as gritty and gripping as his adrenaline-fueled debut, Blacktop Wasteland. Once again Cosby pairs unrelenting action with a razor-sharp social commentary, but instead of heists and drag races, this time around he presents his readers with an unputdownable tale of revenge.
In Razorblade Tears we follow ex-cons Ike and Buddy Lee. After their sons, a married couple, are murdered and the police’s investigation leads to no arrests or even suspects, these two fathers decide to take justice into their own hands. Ike, who is Black, has worked hard to leave his criminal past behind him, however, the grief and guilt he feels at his son’s murder push him to take up those ways again. Ike’s strained relationship with his son intensifies his need to make things right, or in this case, to find and kill those responsible for his murder. Buddy Lee, who is white and a wildcard, also had a difficult relationship with his boy, Derek. Despite their differences, Ike and Buddy Lee are united by this. Both men refused to accept their sons’ sexualities, and while they did not entirely break contact with them they refused to see them or when they did resorted to homophobic slurs or remarks.
It is certainly impressive that Cosby can make you care for and root for Ike and Buddy Lee. These two men have blood on their hands and a body count. In trying to ascertain who knows what about their sons’ deaths, they readily resort to violence and threats. Ike’s homophobia seems deeply ingrained and the way he thinks about his son’s ‘gayness’ is alarming indeed. Buddy Lee at times seems very much a ‘red-neck’, whose vocabulary is offensive indeed. And yet Cosby succeeded in making me feel 100% invested in them and their quest for vengeance. Part of it is that they are nuanced. They are not reduced to their negative characteristics, nor are their actions idealised or condoned.
Their dynamic was truly entertaining. To begin with, they don’t get on all that much but the closer they come to discovering the truth behind their sons’ murders, the more they grow accustomed to each other. While their banter is certainly amusing I found their more sombre exchanges to be even more compelling. For different reasons, they both pushed their sons away, and their shared guilt creates a sense of camaraderie between the two.

Brutal, raw, ultimately heart-rendering Razorblade Tears presents its readers with a tale that is propelled by grief, guilt, and revenge. In their pursuit for retribution, this unlikely duo comes head-to-head with a biker gang made up of white supremacists who may be involved in their sons’ murders.
Their investigation, which starts mildly enough before taking a sharp turn into edge-of-your-seat territory is punctuated by bullet-riddled showdowns and tense confrontations. Along the way, the two fathers are repeatedly made to confront their past—and current—actions, in an impossible attempt to reconcile themselves with their dead sons. I appreciated how unflinching Cosby is when addressing Ike and Buddy Lee homophobia and that their sons’ sudden deaths doesn’t immediately result in them saying ‘mea culpa I did wrong’. When questioning the people close to their sons or scouting their local hangouts, the duo comes face-to-face with lgbtq+ people and culture, which forces them to further interrogate their relationships with their sons, specifically the harm brought about by their own prejudices and unwillingness to accept them.

Cosby’s writing is phenomenal. His dialogues are snappy, his metaphors slick (and often surprisingly funny in a fucked up kind of way), his descriptions on point. The sense of place and atmosphere too are incredibly strong and perfectly complement the narrative’s gritty tone.

The one thing that kept this from a 5-star rating was the on-the-page presence of lgbtq+ characters. The boys are dead, the people our pair interrogates early on do not appear later on in the narrative, and the one character who could have had more of an actual role, well, when she finally does make an appearance this is a rushed one and she’s soon sidelined (with a cis character speaking on her behalf). Still I thought that his commentary and portrayal of marginalised people was spot on.

Razorblade Tears has consolidated my already high opinion of this author. His debut was no fluke and Cosby delivers an exhilarating tale that on one hand is violent and brutal, and on the other, well, it will break your heart. Cosby highlights so, if you are looking for a thriller with a bite, look no more.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo

“He wanted something agreeable, something sweeter around the edges, but I was never very good at sweet.”

This is one of those rare cases where I ended up preferring a retelling to the original. I’ve only read The Great Gatsby once and at the risk of incurring the wrath & contempt of Fitzgerald aficionados, I did not much care for it. Not only does Nghi Vo’s The Chosen and the Beautiful give new dimensions to Fitzgerald’s characters but she also brings magic into the picture. In Vo’s retelling Jordan Baker is Vietnamese American, queer, and can dabble with magic. While she does move in the same rarefied circles as her friends, she knows that many doors are not open to her. She’s often treated as an ‘exotic’ attraction or made to feel as if she’s one of ‘good ones’. Jordan spends her days partying, drinking, visiting supernatural locales where she can make out with boys and girls alike. As with the original Jordan becomes embroiled in Gatsby and Daisy’s ‘doomed’ love affair.

“He had come to Gatsby’s party, he had eaten the food, he had fallen under Gatsby’s spell. It was already too late.”

While Vo imbues her version of this classic with plenty of original elements (which in my eyes improve the original), the storyline itself does stick to the one from The Great Gatsby. Personally, I wish Vo had strayed away from the original source more as I believe that this could have made the story more surprising (especially for those who are already familiar with this story). While at first, I did enjoy the magical aspect too it felt a bit shoehorned in, at times seeming largely forgotten by the narrative (so that when demons or whatnot are mentioned i would be like, say what now?).
These ‘criticisms’ aside I was dazzled by Vo’s utterly gorgeous writing. Her style reflects the glittering spaces in which these characters move in, but through Jordan’s eyes—someone who only superficially shares the privileges that the people she socialises with take so much for granted—we only glimpse it for what it truly is, a pretty facade. Vo’s descriptions about this society are certainly sumptuous. Readers will be able to picture with ease the dresses, people, and environments that populate Jordan’s world. I loved the almost palpable tension between the various characters, their shifting alliances and small betrayals will make us wonder who is exactly playing who. Vo’s Jordan is far more nuanced than Fitzgerald’s one, and I appreciated her insights into the so-called 1920s American elite.

“What a broken, brittle people, I thought”

I actually found Vo’s Nick and Daisy far more sympathetic in this retelling. While Vo doesn’t sugarcoat their behaviour or attitudes, she’s also willing to be empathetic towards them.
The novel’s biggest strength lies in Vo’s writing. I know I have already said so but it is truly beguiling. There was something really aesthetically pleasing about her prose.
The ending felt a wee bit rushed and I think that this novel could have been easily longer. Anyway, if I ever think of Gatsby & Co. again I won’t be thinking of Fitzgerald’s ones (sorry, not sorry). Vo’s portrayal of obsessive love is truly on point. I can’t wait to read whatever Vo writes next. If you enjoy books by Libba Bray, Catherynne M. Valente, and or Cat Winters, you should definitely give The Chosen and the Beautiful. There is drama, one or two heartbreaks, bedazzling parties, and a sprinkle of magic. Vo’s characters are a perfect blend of charming and unappealing (one second you will find yourself liking them, the next you will want to throttle them) and her writing is next levels of morgeous.

my rating: ★★★½

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What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi

“A library at night is full of sounds: The unread books can’t stand it any longer and announce their contents, some boasting, some shy, some devious.”

Confusion galore! What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours is a relentlessly inventive and delightfully playful collection of interlocked short stories. These intentionally bewildering fabulist stories are inhabited by off-kilter characters who find themselves in increasingly fantastical scenarios. Magical keys, doors, puppets, and houses populate their lives, and Oyeyemi treats these elements with little fanfare. While readers will find her characters’ circumstances and misadventures to be bizarre to the extreme, they seem relatively nonplussed by how weird and absurd their lives are. While I loved that these stories celebrated books and creativity, and I found the quirky dialogues and character responses to be amusing, I did have a hard time figuring out what the hell was happening. The stories begin with little ceremony, plunging straight into bizarroland. It isn’t often clear where or when we are but we are made to accept these stories offbeat premises. Rather than having straightforward plotlines, these stories seem to be composed of eccentric vignettes that aren’t going in any particular direction. The stories seem to end randomly, providing no real closure or insight into whatever these characters were going through.
leaving me feeling rather The carnivalesque elements embedded in these narratives brought to mind la commedia dell’arte (i believe pulcinella gets a mention). These stories are so profoundly perplexing that I struggled to follow whatever was happening. While I’m sure this was intentional, it did work against my being able to feel involved in whatever was going on. Still, I did appreciate Oyeyemi’s British humor. I also loved how casually queer these stories are.
If you are a fan of absurdist tales, this may be a collection worth checking out.

my rating: ★★★

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People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry

Perhaps I should not have requested an arc for People We Meet on Vacation as I was one of the few people who last was not particularly enamoured by Beach Read (i know, i know, the audacity). I actually ended up enjoying this more as I found it to be both funnier and a lot less angsty than Beach Read. Was People We Meet on Vacation particularly original? No.
Memorable? N o p e.
It was cute, silly, a tad cheesy, and a bit too clichèd for my taste (i get it, the romcom is a genre that thrives on tropes but there are limits: opposites attract, will they won’t they, female leads falls and has to be carried by the male lead, one of them is sick so the other has to play ‘nurse’, the list goes on).

The story is narrated by Poppy (who i could not help but compare to another romcom poppy) who is the classic relatable 30ish female lead: she is short, bubbly, quirky, doesn’t like sports. Poppy’s bbf is Alex, who is very much her polar opposite. He is more of a quiet composed kind of guy. They met at university and ever since then they spend their summer holidays together, travelling around America and even venturing abroad. Things change after their trip Croatia (i wonder what could have possibly happened…) and they are no longer in touch.
Two years after their fallout Poppy finds herself reaching out to him. Although she has her dream job, which allows her to do what she loves most (travel), an apartment in New York, and friends, she has become listless. After they reconnect Poppy and Alex go on another vacation together. Poppy wants their old friendship back even if her feelings towards Alex may be less than platonic. Interspersed throughout the ‘now’ are chapter recounting their previous holidays together.

Alex and Poppy’s banter was funny, and most of the narrative focuses on their bond. Their conversations and clowning around often emphasised their ‘opposing’ personalities. Poppy is loud and quirky, Alex is a bit of an old man. Ahah ensues.
The places they visit are mere backdrops to their banter, and in many ways, they embody the worst type of tourist (their idea of a vacation = my idea of hell). They also have 0 tolerance for heat and don’t tend to focus on the sceneries and cultures they are in (the only thing i remember from their trip to italy is that they eat parmiggiano). On these vacations, they come across funny, eccentric, downright odd people whose function is that of comedic relief.

I might have enjoyed this more if Poppy and Alex had been a bit more interesting. Poppy was just the quintessential romcom female lead and I while she did make me laugh now and then I can’t say that I particularly liked her. And I am tired of these stories where the male lead always has to have abs while the female lead is curvy or normal (the other woman instead is ‘fit’). Why can’ the male lead have an ‘average body? Why can’t the female lead be really into running or weightlifting?

Anyway, I did like their dynamic and inside jokes. I also appreciated that the male lead wasn’t the classic ‘i am no good for you’ type and we also get some lgbtq+ side characters.
The vacations do get repetitive, and I could have probably done without reading all of them (focusing instead of the ‘now). Poppy keeps referring to Croatia without actually saying what has happened but we all already can guess what ‘went down’ so why drag it on so long? It added no suspense whatsoever, if anything it detracted from the story. Towards the end, I found myself a bit unconvinced by the story’s so called conflict.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad read and I am sure that it will appeal to diehard romcom fans. I for one found this a relatively entertaining read even if I found some of the lingo (anything poppy’s friend rachel says) to be incredibly grating (i have nothing against americans but when i hear ‘wine dates’ i cannot help but to cringe).

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Chain of Iron by Cassandra Clare

“So many secrets between them. So many lies.”

That’s it. That’s the book.

(i am only half joking)

Actual review:

Although Chain of Iron is one of Cassandra Clare’s least action/mystery driven books the drama between the various characters is sure to keep you turning pages. Chain of Iron picks up 4 months after its predecessor, and we mainly follow Cordelia, James, and Lucie, with the occasional scenes from the povs of Grace, Ariadne, Anna, Thomas, and even, lo and behold, Alastair. Everyone, with the exception of Alastair and Christopher, is hiding or angsting over something. Cordelia loves James, James believes he is in love with Grace, Matthew is drinking more than ever, Lucie has teamed up with Grace to bring Jessie back to life. Lot’s of drama. Much angst. The historical setting makes the romance all the more engrossing, as we get a lot of repressed feelings and heaps of longing. The mystery aspect involving a Shadowhunter murderer and Cortana burning Cordelia’s hands kicks in nearly half-way the novel. But, as I said, miscommunication is what drives this novel. And, usually, I hate narratives that rely so much on characters not communicating with one another, or misunderstanding a certain situation, but when it is Clare who does it, I don’t know, I just eat that shit up. The characters are young and going through a lot so most of the time it did make sense for them to keep so many secrets.
I loved Clare’s sumptuous descriptions, her humour, the banter between the characters, the setting (Edwardian London), the chemistry and tension between the characters.

Onto the characters:
→Cordelia is definitely a favourite of mine. I really appreciate that she is not restricted to the role of love interest and that much of her arc has to do with her wanting to be a hero in her own right.
→James, this poor boy. Although he is still under Grace’s influence we really get to see how much he cares for Cordelia.
→Matthew…well, he wasn’t my favourite in the 1st book and I have mixed feelings towards him. I do find him amusing, and I do feel bad for him, but, I am tired of him blaming his own actions on Alastair (I get that it is a coping mechanism but he is so petty every time Alastair gets a mention or makes an appearance). By the end of the novel he definitely grew on him, and I am curious to see where Clare takes his character next.
→Lucy really surprised me. I was not excepting her to do the things she did but once again, I have faith in Clare. I did like the fact that we are presented with a central character whose actions begin to blur the lines between good and bad.
→Grace, whom I hated in COG, definitely appealed to me more this time around. We get flashbacks into her rather miserable childhood under Tatiana and her scenes with Christopher revealed a new side to her character.
→similarly, I became quite fond of Ariadne and, to my surprise, ended feeling rather miffed at Anna (the opposite of what I felt in COG).
→the Italian Shadowhunter was the kind of Italian character only a non-Italian author would create. She was a cliché to the point that I found her genuinely amusing.
→Thomas is such a pure and kind-hearted character (even if he at times sees these things as a weakness). We don’t get a lot from him in this novel but what we do get just strengthen my feelings towards him.
→and of course, last but not least, Alastair, my absolute fave. Look, I have a weakness for prickly characters. It was so sad to see him trying so hard to be better. Yet, for all of his efforts, most of the characters treat him like the plague. His arc in this instalment truly hit me in the so called ‘feels’. The boy deserves a moment of respite.

What I would like from Chain of Thorns:
→more of Cordelia & Lucie. Their friendship was very much on the sidelines throughout COI.
→for characters to actually TALK with one another.
→more of Alastair.
→I would also love to read more about Christopher.

my rating: ★★★★★


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