Gallant by V.E. Schwab

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

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

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

Originally published in 1946 The Honjin Murders is a locked-room murder mystery. Throughout the course of the novel, the author pays homage to Golden Age detective novels, by alluding directly to authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and their works and by being quite self-aware when it comes to the conventions that characterise this genre. Sadly, despite my being a fan of detective novels and classic whodunits, The Honjin Murders failed to catch my interest nor I was impressed by its intertextuality. The narrative doesn’t really subvert any of the tropes it mentions, in fact, it seemed to me that it follows too closely in the steps of those classic detective novels. The way the whole murder is related to us also distanced me somewhat. The narrative is very heavy on the telling, with the same events being recapitulated one time too many. The narrator, I’ve forgotten what, if any, role he plays in the case, begins by mentioning this very ‘interesting’ case and relates the day of the murders and the subsequent investigation in an almost matter-of-fact manner. He’s somehow able to recount conversations and interactions that he had no way of witnessing and keeps foreshadowing what is to come in a way that didn’t add any intrigue or suspense to the story. The characters were one-note, dull even.

The murder takes place in the village of Okamura during the winter of 1937. The oldest son of the Ichiyanagi, a family of repute, is set to marry a teacher. Many of his family members aren’t keen on his marrying ‘down’, but he refuses to budge. The wedding takes place and on that very same night, the newlywed couple is found dead in a locked room. The evidence seems to point to a stranger who was sighted in the village earlier in the day. A relative of the bride reaches out to Kosuke Kindaichi, a sort-of-kid detective who, much like Poirot and his ‘little grey cells’, uses ‘logic’ to figure out the culprit and their motives.
I figured out the murderer pretty early on in the narrative which definitely decreased my engagement in the murder investigation.
Predictable and kind of dry (maybe this is due to my having read a translation) The Honjin Murders may appeal to those who haven’t read a lot of detective novels or perhaps those who aren’t seeking anything particularly riveting or complex.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

As riveting as watching paint dry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★★½

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A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske

“I am nothing like you, and yet I feel more myself with you.”

Part cute/steamy romance, part historical fantasy romp, A Marvellous Light is a delightful debut novel.

A Marvellous Light is likely one of the best romances to come out in 2021. I really had a blast with this novel! While Freya Marske’s historical setting and the magical system is not quite as detailed & complex as Susanna Clarke’s in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell or Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal series, its setting is vibrantly rendered and the fantasy aspect was a lot of fun and gave me some serious Diana Wynne Jones/Ghibli vibes. The main characters make the novel, and I found them incredibly endearing. The plot itself is fairly conventional, and it is Marske’s engaging style and her compelling protagonists that steal the show.

“You woke me up. You’re incredibly brave. You’re not kind, but you care deeply. And I think you know how much I want you, in whatever way I can have you.”

Set in Edwardian England, A Marvellous Light follows Robin Blyth and Edwin Courcey. Recently orphaned Robin is in his late twenties and despite his newly inherited title, he’s in urgent need of an income. A clerical mishap lands him in the position of ‘Assistant in the office of Special Domestic Affairs and Complaints’, his predecessor, a certain Reginald Gatling having gone suddenly MIA. On his first day on the job, Robin meets Edwin Courcey, who is the special liaison to the Chief Minister of the Magical Assembly. Robin, baffled by the discovery that magic is indeed real, is sure that someone more suitable should be taking his place. While Robin and Edwin are not keen on working together, after a certain altercation with some dubious individuals, the two decide to join forces in their effort to find out what happened to Reginald. Much of the narrative takes place in Edwin’s family home, where we learn more about how magic works and we see the bond between the two men solidify in something resembling a friendship.

The narrative’s scope remains rather narrow, and the story is very much focused on the blossoming romance between Edwin and Robin. The growing sexual tension between them complicates their ‘mission’, as the two men will be forced to confront the magnitude of their feelings for each other.
The dynamic between Edwin and Robin is truly charming. By switching between their perspectives we learn more about their personal histories, their relationship with their family members, and their previous romantic ‘exploits’. Edwin is a brilliant scholar, and he possesses vast magical knowledge. However, he does not possess much magic, and this has made his family treat him with open contempt. His older brother, who has a lot of magic, is a horrid bully, and his sister and parents have always turned a blind eye to his relentless tormenting of Edwin. Because of this Edwin is slow to trust, guarded to the point of rudeness. While Robin was never particularly close to his parents, who were not nearly as charitable and selfless as they liked to pretend, he is far more open and carefree. Of course, after a certain ‘event’, Robin too begins to have a lot on his mind. At Edwin’s family home the two grow closer, and as they attempt to find the truth behind Reginald’s disappearance they find themselves growing attached to one another.

While we don’t learn much about the Magical Assembly or of the history of magic in England (other than a snippet here and there), the author does a fairly decent job when it comes to world-building, avoiding info-dumps and overly complicated explanations. The mystery storyline is perhaps the novel’s weakest element. There is an attempt at a twist villain but I’m afraid that it was fairly obvious that that person was indeed a ‘baddie’. The last 30% is slightly repetitive, and maybe I would have found it more gripping if the villains had been more fleshed out (we also get the uber cliched line: “Come on board, you’ll have the power you’ve always wanted”). Speaking of secondary characters, they are somewhat one-dimensional. I kept confusing the people at Edwin’s house, as they all have ridiculously posh sounding nicknames and behaved in varying degrees of obnoxiousness.
I did however like Miss Morrisey and her sister, I mean: “And we are but feeble women,” said Miss Morrisey. “Woe.” They were a fun addition and I wish they had played a bigger role in the story (hopefully we will see more of them in the sequel!).

The romance between Edwin and Robin is the cherry on the cake. Their chemistry, banter, and flirting make for some thoroughly enjoyable and surprisingly sweet passages. I wasn’t really expecting the story to be quite this smutty and I have to say that the sex scenes did feel a bit overlong. I don’t mind sex scenes but smut…eeh, it does nothing for me. I either find it unintentionally funny or boring. But this is clearly a ‘me thing’ so I’m sure other readers out there will be ahem more appreciative of these scenes.

While the plotline is somewhat predictable (we have those fairly obvious twists, the usual misunderstanding that occurs around the 70% mark in romances) Marske does have a few tricks up her sleeves and she leaves quite a few questions unanswered (hopefully the sequel will resolve some of these).

Overall this was a very entertaining read. It has humour, mystery, plenty of magical hijinks, and a lively Edwardian backdrop. Robin and Edwin are guaranteed to give you ‘the feels’, and I really liked their character arcs. And, last but not least, their romance. While I could have done with fewer sex scenes and more plot, Robin and Edwin’s relationship was great. The author doesn’t rush it, so we have quite a decent amount of longing/yearning….which I have always been a sucker for (especially in historical fiction). I am super excited to read the sequel and I thoroughly recommend this, especially to those who are looking for a sweet-turned-sexy queer romance + the perfect blend of fantasy and historical fiction.

my rating: ★★★½

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Before the Ruins by Victoria Gosling

“To sleep on? Or to wake? This was the question facing me. To sleep, or to wake and face the reckoning, to find out what had been lost.”

Although by no means an incompetent debut Before the Ruins does not offer a particularly innovative take on this subgenre (usually we have big houses, a group of friends, something bad happens, years later something happens that makes our protagonist look back to this period of their life). The blurb for Before the Ruins does no favors to the actual contents of the novel. The diamond necklace functions as a MacGuffin, the ‘Game’ happens largely off the page, Andy’s “destructive behavior” does not seem all that destructive, and David is by no means ‘magnetic’. Maybe if I had not read any novels by Barbara Vine I would have been able to enjoy this more but while I was reading it I found myself more than once wishing I was reading Vine instead.

Before the Ruins is narrated by Andy who is her late thirties and works/lives in London. When the mother of her childhood best friend Peter calls her asking about his whereabouts Andy finds herself thinking back to that ‘fateful’ time in her life, when she was eighteen or so and alongisde Peter, and Marcus, Andy’s boyfriend, sneaked into ‘the manor’. Here they play ‘the game’, looking for a diamond necklace reputed to have been lost decades before. The arrival of David changes their group dynamics as both Andy and Peter fall for him. I thought that this would be the focus of the novel but in reality it is not. There two or three scenes depicting this ‘mythical summer’ and soon the focus of the story switches to the present day. We still get a few chapters relating past events, but these are fairly summative in nature.
Which brings me to my biggest criticism towards Before the Ruins : too much telling, not enough showing. Andy gives us recaps of these supposedly pivotal moments of her life. We do not see enough interactions between the members of the group, I wanted more of Peter and David, or at least more of Em and Andy. But what we get is a lot of pages emphasising that Andy was the ‘wild one’ from a difficult home, while everyone else seemed to have wonderful home environments. While Andy concedes that being gay in a small village in the 1990s was not easy for Peter the narrative will often stress Andy’s struggles. Em was portrayed as almost opposite to Andy’s tough-girl personality: she is ‘elfin’, an artist, more feminine, less in your face. Marcus was also painfully one-dimensional, as the not-so-nice-nice-guy. Peter…I really wanted to read more about it. But when Andy revisits the past she often skims over their time together, making their relationship seem not all that complex. He reminded me of other characters from this group of friends/something bad happens’ genre so I found myself almost superimposing my memory of those characters over him.
The setting of Marlborough was familiar to me, so I could easily envision the places that Andy was discussing but for readers who have never been to Marlborough or other villages in Wiltshire, well, they may find that the setting is at times a bit generic ‘countryside’. There are too few descriptions of Andy and her surroundings, especially once we get to the present. And, I would have loved to have more detailed descriptions of the manor (we get some at the start but I would have liked some more…I don’t expect Vine levels of architectural details but…).
Still, I did eventually warm up to the characters and story in the latter half of the novel. There are some beautiful and insightful observations about accountability, trauma, love, and grief. While the revelations towards the end did not come as surprise that is largely due to the fact that I have come across a lot of books that tread similar grounds (most of Vine’s novel, The Truants, The Secret History, The Lessons, If We Were Villains, The Likeness, The Sisters Mortland, Tell Me Everything….).
It frustrated me that Gosling either kept the most interesting encounters or exchanges off-page or simply rushed them. Expanding that ‘mythical summer’ would have given the overall story more tension (we could have seen with more clarity how David’s presence disrupted the group’s established dynamics). The story about the missing diamonds is delivered in a somewhat clumsy way, and I wish that the whole ‘game’ had been depicted in a different way. The novel is still engaging and suspenseful but I was often aware of where the story would go next.

Nevertheless, for all my criticism, I recognize that Gosling can write well, and even if Andy was not my kind of protagonist, I appreciated her character arc. Gosling is talented, of this there is no doubt, but I do wish that she had written a more original story.

my rating: ★★★¼

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The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

 

“There is no time in our lives when we are so conspicuously without mercy as in adolescence.”

I don’t think I would ever picked up this ‘obscure’ and forgotten novel if it hadn’t been for the ‘crime fiction’ module I took during my second year of uni. Thanks to that module, which was in every other respect a huge waste of time (lecturer on Tom Ripley: “he does bad things because he wants more stuff”…truly illuminating), I was able to ‘discover’ Barbara Vine’s work.
Since then I’ve read a few other novels by Vine (which happens to Ruth Rendell’s nom de plume) and while I can safely say that she is an excellent writer, The House of Stairs remains my favourite of hers. Perhaps it is because of its sapphic undertones, or maybe I’m just a sucker for unrequited love stories.

“It felt like a passion, it felt like being in love, it was being in love, it was the kind of thing you delude yourself that, if all goes well, will last a lifetime. Things, of course, didn’t go well. When do they?”

The House of Stairs tells a dizzying tale of tale of psychological suspense. Like other novels by Vine it employ two timelines and explores the haunting effects of the past on the present. ‘The present’ features characters whose lives have been altered by an often unspecified accident and or crime. The second timeline, narrated from the retrospective, focuses on their past, and in particular on the events leading to that ‘one big event’. Vine does not limit herself to recounting past occurrences, instead she allows her characters to re-examine their own actions, as well as attempting to understand the motivations behind those of others. The past and present flow into each other, and throughout her narratives Vine traces both a crime’s roots and its subsequent ramifications.
Set in London The House of Stairs London opens in 1980s when Elizabeth—protagonist and narrator—glimpses Bell, a woman who has been recently released from prison. Seeing Bell is the catalyst that makes Elizabeth recount her story (transporting us to the late 60s and early 70s) but even if she knows the identity of Bell’s victim she does not share the details of this fateful event with the readers, preferring instead to play her cards close to her chest. This dual storyline creates an apparent juxtaposition of past and present. We can hazard guesses through brief glimpses of her present, her ambiguous remarks, such as ‘Bell’s motive for asking those questions was outside the bounds of my imagings’ and ‘[A]s they wished me to do, I was seeing everything inside-out’, and through her carefully paced recounting of those events.
By re-living that particular time of her life, Elizabeth—alongside the reader—acquires a better understanding of the circumstances that lead Bell to commit murder. Her narration is a far from passive relay of what happened for Elizabeth in the present seems actively involved in this scrutiny of past events.

“It is interesting how such reputations are built. They come about through confusing the two kinds of truth telling: the declaration of opinion and principle and the recounting of history.”

One of Vine’s motifs is in fact to include a house which is the locus of her story, functioning as a Gothic element within her storylines. In this novel the house (nicknamed—you guessed it—’the house of stairs’) is purchased by Cosette—a relation of Elizabeth’s—soon after the death of her husband, and becomes home to a group of bohemians, hippies, and outsiders of sorts. The house become an experimental ground: it is an escape from traditional social norms, a possibility for Cosette to make her own makeshift family.
The house creates an almost disquieting atmosphere: those who live there are exploiting Cosette, and tensions gradually emerge between its tenants. The house can be a place of secrecy—doors shut, people do not leave their rooms, stairs creak—and of jealousy, for Elizabeth comes to view the other guests as depriving her of Cosette’s affection.


Elizabeth, plagued by the possibility of having inherited a family disease, finds comfort in Bell, a beautiful and alluring woman. Elizabeth comes to idolize Bell (comparisons to the portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi abound), and finds herself increasingly obsessed by her. Bell’s arrival into the house, however, will have violent consequences.
As Elizabeth is examining this time in her life, she, once again, finds herself falling under Bell’s spell.

“I found her exciting in a disturbing way, a soul-shacking way, without knowing in the least what I wanted of her.”

Like many other Vine novels The House of Stairs is a deeply intertextual work. Henry James, in particular, plays a significant role in Elizabeth’s narration.
Guilt, culpability, love, obsession, desire, greed, past tragedies, and family legacies are recurring themes in Elizabeth’s story. Vine, however, doesn’t offer an easy answer as she problematises notions of normalcy and evil.
There are many reasons why I love this novel so much: Vine’s elegantly discerning prose, her examination of class and gender roles in the 1960s-70s, the way she renders Elizabeth’s yearning for Bell…while I can see that some readers my age may find this novel to be a bit outdated, I would definitely recommend it to those who enjoy reading authors such as Donna Tartt, Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Magda Szabó.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The Sundial by Shirley Jackson — book review

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“I mean, why should I figure I’m so special, the world is going to end while I’m around?”

In The Sundial, perhaps Shirley Jackson’s most comical novel, twelve rather disagreeable individuals are cooped together in a mansion waiting for the end of the world.

“The house would be guarded during the night of destruction and at its end they would emerge safe and pure. They were charged with the future of humanity; when they came forth from the house it would be into a world clean and silent, their inheritance.”

When Aunt Fanny, a rather ditsy spinster whose passive aggressive martyr act brought to mind E. M. Forster’s Miss Bartlett, is threatened out of her family home by her megalomaniac sister-in-law, she is quite rightfully distressed. Lucky for Aunt Fanny, on that very same day she happens to hear the disembodied voice of her deceased father. He warns Aunt Fanny of an impending apocalypse, and tells her not to leave the Halloran estate: “Tell them in the house that they will be saved. Do not let them leave the house.”
When Aunt Fanny reports her father’s warning, her brother’s wife, Orianna, although not entirely convinced, decides that if there is to be a new world, she wants in. More people join their ranks, some by chance, such as Orianna’s friend and her two daughters, while others, such as a random stranger, are more or less coerced into remaining.
Aunt Fanny is perhaps the only character who actively tries to prepare for ‘life’ after doomsday: she buys a Boy Scout handbook and other books that have “practical information on primitive living”, as well as stocking up the house with food and other essentials (her bulk-buying puts to shame today’s panic buyers). In the meantime the solipsistic and conniving Orianna ensures her authority, punishing those who dare to defy her and her rules.

The Sundial offers its readers some brilliantly absurd scenes. For instance, when Aunt Fanny picks up a stranger in the village and decides to name him “Captain Scarabombardon”, or when the residents of Halloran house come into contact with the True Believers. The dialogues in this novel demonstrate Jackson’s wicked sense of humour, as she’s unafraid of ridiculing her own characters.
Make no mistake though, this darkly comedic novel has its disturbing moments, and a sense of unease pervades much of the narrative.

In some ways this novel is decidedly Jackson-esque. First of all, we have the setting:

“The character of the house is perhaps of interest. It stood upon a small rise in ground, and all the land it surveyed belonged to the Halloran family. The Halloran land was distinguished from the rest of the world by a stone wall, which went completely around the estate, so that all inside the wall was Halloran, all outside was not.”

This is yet another novel by Jackson explores the double function of houses: the Halloran mansion is both a fortress—a place of safety—and a prison.
We also have tensions between an aristocratic family and the ‘small minded’ villagers (who are often described as belonging to an inferior species), toxic and possibly murderous relatives, creepy young girls (who are far more perceptive than others think), and mind-wandering wheelchair bound old men.

Jackson’s writing is as clever as always. Not a word is out of place. From her scintillating descriptions (“a lady of indeterminate shape, but vigorous presence,”) to the careful yet impactful way in which she arranges her phrases. And of course, her dialogues are a pure delight to read:

“Humanity, as an experiment, has failed.”
“Well, I’m sure I did the best I could,” Maryjane said.
“Do you understand that this world will be destroyed? Soon?”
“I just couldn’t care less,” Maryjane said.

This being a novel by Jackson, most of the characters hate other people and the rest of the world. Aunt Fanny’s ‘prophecy’ gives them the possibility of entertaining a future in which they are different. Yet, they are so occupied with their future as to completely ignore the people around them, so that meaningful heart-to-hearts inevitably fail.

“But there aren’t any good people,” Gloria said helplessly. “No one is anything but tired and ugly and mean.”

The ambiguous nature of Jackson’s story and her characters may not appeal to those who dislike when things happen off-stage. Personally, I love that Jackson doesn’t always provide answers to the mysteries within her stories.
I would definitely recommend this to fans of Jackson, or to those are interested in a satirical ‘pre-doomsday’ story populated by an Addams type of family.

Some of my favourite quotes:

“Now, she thought; I may go mad, but at least I look like a lady.”

“You, sir,” the man said, addressing Essex. “Do you atone?”
“Daily,” said Essex.
“Sin?”
“When I can,” said Essex manfully.”

“I will not have space ships landing on my lawn. Those people are perfectly capable of sending their saucers just anywhere, with no respect for private property.”

“Can you cook?”
“Admirably.”
“You would have to cook poorly, to meet my ideal. I want the kind of dismal future only possible in this world. ”

“I personally deplore this evidence of frayed nerves; we do not have much longer to wait, after all, and perhaps if we cannot contain ourselves we had better remain decently apart.”

“If my lunacy takes the form of desiring to wear a crown, will you deny me? May I not look foolish in tolerant peace? ”

“There’s no denying, for instance, that my clever Julia is a fool and my lovely Arabella is a—”
“Flirt,” Mrs. Halloran said.
“Well, I was going to say tart, but it’s your house, after all.”

“We must try to think of ourselves,” Mrs. Halloran went on, “as absolutely isolated. We are on a tiny island in a raging sea; we are a point of safety in a world of ruin.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton — book review


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Whodunnits, Agatha Christie, mysteries, and puzzles are all favourites of mine…so I was pretty excited to read The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle as it promised to combine all of these things together.

“I suddenly have the sense of taking part in a play in which everybody knows their lines but me.”

With a fascinating premise and unique structure I was expecting The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle to be an amazing read…and while it certainly did succeeded in grabbing my attention, I was ultimately unconvinced by much of its narrative, which struck me as confusing for the sole sake of being confusing.35967101.jpg

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is the type of book that will make you want to scratch your head in confusion and start taking notes. The story maintains its momentum through a blend of action and detection. To start with, I enjoyed how complex the story seemed to be. It definitely kept me guessing and wondering what would happen next. After the half-way point however it seemed to me that all of the different threads were becoming knotted together in a rather tangled mess.

A few of my gripes

➜The Groundhog Day scenario would have been interesting enough…and yet Stuart Turton seems to have felt the need to make his story all the more convoluted by adding weird rules (view spoiler) or using the ‘time-loop’ excuse to make things go a certain way.

➜I know that this is the type of novel that requires one to suspend their disbelief…and I was willing to do so for the seven-days-in-one thing but I struggled to believe in the historical setting. The period was chosen as an homage to Agatha Christie…which is fair enough. There are certain 1930s aesthetics that lend themselves quite nicely to a whodunnit. In Turton’s novel however we have a murky image of this period…the dialogue felt gimmicky and the narrative never gave a clear impression of what year the party was actually taking place in. Just a vague ‘after the War’ sort of setting. The guests attending the party acted in a very impolite manner. Customs and conventions are often forgotten in favour of creating some drama between characters. Everybody seems ready to shoot one another (these type of people usually prefer to shoot pigeons and whatnot) and they are so openly aggressive and rude as to seem completely unconvincing. Turton’s portrayal of the class divide is frankly misleading (so that we will have servants act with open hostility towards the guests).
This cast of characters would have been better suited to a story in the Old Wild West.

➜The whodunnit should have been the heart of the novel. Yet, it is often obscured by a series of weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird nonsense that is there only to confuse the reader. If I were to take the whodunnit out of this ‘context’ it would just seem over-the-top. If you’ve read a few novels by Christie—or any other Golden Age Detective novel—you are bound to find the whole thing derivative. The other mystery is rendered in such a backhanded sort of way as not to be all that compelling.

➜The twists were mildly annoying. (view spoiler)

With so much focus on the structure of his story Turton ends up neglecting the characterisations of his characters so that most of them appear as little more than thinly rendered caricatures. Some of Aiden’s hosts possessed similarly unpleasant and interchangeable personalities while a lot of the men at this party acted in the same blustering way. None of the characters affected me on an emotional level as they seemed closer to cardboard cutouts than real people. The footman is such a laughably one-dimensional villain (seriously, he hunts Aiden singing “Run, rabbit, run”) and so is the main culprit.

➜Turton’s writing could occasionally resort to eye-roll worthy descriptions such as “Blakheath shrinks around me, shrivelling like a spider touched to the flame” and “our entire future’s written in the creases around her eyes; that pale white face is a crystal ball with only horrors in the fog”. Phrases such as these made Aiden’s narration seem rather theatrical.

Overall
The story is so focused on eluding its readers as to leave a lot to be desired. From the poorly rendered time period to the cartoonish characters…this novel was a bit of mess. Still, I did stick to it so it was obviously doing at least something right.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë — book review

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“Who blames me? Many, no doubt; and I shall be called discontented. I could not help it: the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes.”

Jane Eyre is not only considered a classic (if not the classic) in feminist literature, but an exemplary piece of Romantic Gothic literature. Personally, I view Jane Eyre as a Bildungsroman novel, one that wonderfully dramatises a woman’s quest for self-realisation and personal freedom. Throughout the course of the narrative, the eponymous heroine of this novel undergoes an organic growth that allows her to find and develop her own individuality and to become, not only independent, but socially integrated.

If I had to be perfectly honest however I will admit that I enjoyed Jane Eyre more the first time I read it. This second time round I felt vaguely disenchanted by its story and baffled by its romance (which I will discuss further ahead). This may be because in the years between these re-readings I read and fell in love with Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (which happens to be an extremely underrated novel). Jane Eyre feels a lot ‘safer’ by comparison. The storyline is fairly straightforward, whereas Villette has a rather labyrinthine plot, and Jane—unlike the dark horse Lucy Snowe—carries her heart on her sleeve. Nevertheless, there is much to be appreciated in Jane Eyre.
Brontë’s writing is captivating and beautifully eloquent. Readers are likely to become fond of Jane and her many ‘plights’ within the very first pages. Jane is such a genuine character, and Brontë perfectly renders the workings of her mind.
There are also an abundance of insightful passages regarding questions of gender, class, and freedom. Sometimes these subjects are actively spoken about or discussed between the novel’s characters. At times it is Jane who turns these issues over in her mind, questioning her motives, aspirations, and feelings.
The friendship Jane develops with another girl early on in the narrative is quite touching. We can see the way in which this connection enables Jane to self-improve and to survive Lowood.
Jane also finds a constant companion in nature. As a child she escapes her painful existence by reading Bewick’s History of British Birds. Whereas as an adult she finds it soothing to go outside for walks, often projecting her own states of mind onto the landscape surrounding her. Throughout the course of her story the image of the moon takes on an almost maternal role.

“I watched her come—watched with the strangest anticipation; as though some word of doom were to be written on her disk. She broke forth as never moon yet burst from cloud: a hand first penetrated the sable folds and waved them away; then, not a moon, but a white human form shone in the azure, inclining a glorious brow earthward. It gazed and gazed on me. It spoke to my spirit: immeasurably distant was the tone, yet so near, it whispered in my heart—”

Like Villette, Jane Eyre demonstrates Brontë’s awareness to the harsh realities faced by women who lack financial, social, or familial support. As an orphan Jane is incredibly vulnerable as she is entirely responsible for her own survival. As ‘humble’ governess she does not believe that she could ever enter the marital marketplace. Jane occupies an awkward space: she is not a servant or working-class woman, yet she is repeatedly made to feel as socially inferior to her cousins and socialites such as Blanche Ingram.

“It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”

Jane herself merely wants to escape the oppression and starvation that she experienced at Gateshead and at Lowood. Yet, although Thornfield Hall is presented to us through a fairy-tale lens (early on Jane compares Mr. Rochester’s mansion to “Bluebeard’s castle”), it is by no means a safe haven. Still, Jane can see beyond its gloomy interiors, and in spite of whatever or whoever may roam inside its walls, she falls in love with Thornfield Hall. Its ground have a particularly soothing effect on her.
Jane’s pilgrimage however does not end at Thornfield and the depravations that follow her employment to Mr. Rochester strengthen her resolve to gain true independence.

What I love the most about Jane Eyre is steeped in solitariness. Jane is an outsider, a single woman without any concrete social aspirations (as an orphan Jane is wholly responsible for her own survival and independence), who as an adult is most at ease in the role of impassive observer. Yet, underneath her fixed demeanour lies a passionate soul. Throughout the course of the novel, as Jane grows from a “passionate child” into a solemn governess, she is negotiating contradictory forces: on the one hand she desperately craves independence so that she can positively and freely experience the world, on the other, she does not want to be ‘wicked’ or to stray away from a morally righteous path. She simultaneously fears and desires to be the type of woman that Victorian society would deem ‘unnatural’.
Jane’s self-divide is strikingly rendered by her interior monologue which emphasises the interplay of psychological and social forces have on one’s ‘formation’. The dialogue between Jane’s different selves occurs throughout the course of the narrative. Most of her decision are dictated by her simultaneous and conflicting desire for self-sacrifice and self-dependence.
An aspect of Jane’s personality that is present from her childhood to her adulthood is her integrity (which other characters—such as Mrs. Sarah Reed, St. John Eyre Rivers, and Mr. Rochester—mistake as pride). Jane’s coming of age is the focus of Jane Eyre. Sadly the romance within this novel has often eclipsed its actual heroine. And while I can understand that modern readers may not see think of Jane as rebellious, to focus on her forgiveness of Mr. Rochester would be somewhat dismissive of her her earlier actions.

Whereas in Villette Lucy was fully aware of her romantic interest(s) flaws, Jane is much less critical. She does not seem to resent Mr. Rochester for having repeatedly lied to her and for having manipulated her. To Jane, Mr. Rochester is a victim. To me, Mr. Rochester is literally and figuratively big-headed. He gaslights, threatens, and emotionally manipulates Jane. He is awful. Brooding Byronic hero…as if. Most of what he said frustrated me. His redemption is extremely cheesy.
Jane is also blind to St. John Eyre Rivers’ horrible personality. He is yet another man who tries to coerce Jane into doing something she does not want to do. He also acts as if his own desires have godly origins and therefore must be obeyed.
While I do understand that Jane no longer wished to be separated from the man she loves, part of me wishes that her story could have ended in a more unconventional way…

“Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to four)

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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier — book review

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Rebecca is a work of Gothic suspense that is told in a mesmerising prose and makes for an enthralling and evocative read.

“Colour and scent and sound, rain and the lapping of water, even the mists of autumn and the smell of the flood tide, these are memories of Manderley that will not be denied.”

While reading Rebecca I realised that I was already familiar with its opening lines and some of the novel’s key scenes. This may be because of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca film or thanks to the hilarious sketch by That Mitchell and Webb Look.
In many ways Rebecca—its story, its characters, its use of Gothic elements—is not incredibly original. Yet, rather than relying wholly on its precursors (such as Bluebeard and Jane Eyre) Rebecca presents us with a more self-aware take on these otherwise tired dynamics and scenarios.
While the cast of characters do have attributes that bring to mind Jane Eyre (not only is du Maurier’s narrator a ‘plain Jane’ but one of her few hobbies happens to be ‘drawing’) they also possess qualities that reflect their own period.

The narrator’s namelessness is incredibly effective. It suggests that this novel is indeed not about her, but about Rebecca (after all the novel is titled after her). Her namelessness also reinforces her sense of inadequacy—that is of being less, not enough, simply unequal to Rebecca—and her anxiety regarding herself and others.
Daphne du Maurier untangles the mystery at the heart of her novel in a slow yet utterly compelling way. During the ‘final’ explanation she details in incisive precision the motivations and circumstances that can lead ‘ordinary’ individuals to commit a major crime. More impressive still is that even after this ‘twisty’ revelation the narrative maintains its suspense.
Much of the narrative’s ‘tension’ arises from seemingly ordinary moments. Our narrator seems to find the conventions and traditions of the British upper class to be exhausting. In spite of her often reiterated wish to be a magnetic and socially accomplished woman, she shrinks away from her role as Manderley mistress (during ‘unpleasant’ or simply adult conversations she will lower her gaze and occupy herself with her hands or with petting the dog).
The narrator’s namelessness emphasises her disempowerment. While she refers to herself as Maxim’s wife, and others will address her as Mrs de Winter, our narrator feels unequal to her position and inferior in all aspects to the previous Mrs de Winter.
The narrator’s unwillingness and inability to fulfill Rebecca’s old duties or to partake in the daily runnings of Manderley, render her vulnerable to the creepy Mrs. Danvers (a woman who is as watchful as Madame Beck in Villette).
The second Mrs de Winter struggles to assert herself, so much so that she falls victim to Mrs. Danvers’ psychological attacks. It is because she is constantly undermined by Mrs. Danvers, timid towards Manderley’s staff, and painfully aware of being scrutinised, surveyed, and compared to Rebecca, that our narrator becomes convinced of her own inferiority.
While the premise and dynamics within this novel are far from unique, I enjoyed seeing how things played out. A naive young woman, her distant and secretive husband, his recently deceased achingly-beautiful-and-charming first wife, his Bluebeard-esque estate with its skull-faced servant…these are all exceedingly Gothic elements. Given the popularity of the ‘domestic thriller’ genre, it appears that readers have yet to grow tired of these type of stories. There are few authors however who have du Maurier’s sensual prose. There is a sensuality in the narrator’s obsession and jealousy towards Rebecca. While the second Mrs de Winter never sees a photo or portrait of Rebecca, she becomes familiar with everything about her. From her perfume and clothes to her calligraphy and daily routine. Other people’s impression of Rebecca shape the narrator’s own vision of her. Rebecca comes to embody all the characteristics that the present Mrs de Winter would like to possess. Her fascination is intermingled with a deeply felt hatred.

There is little romance in the love story within Rebecca. In spite of her naïveté, our narrator soon realises that Maxim is far from love-struck. His marriage proposal seems much closer to a business proposal, and later on, not only does he seem disinterested in our narrator but he is quick to dismiss her worries and anxieties (he will tell her not to be a little idiot).
Jealousy and paranoia soon begin to plague the second Mrs de Winter. She desires more than anything to be loved by Maxim, and fears that she will never live up to his first wife Rebecca. As she becomes more and more haunted by Rebecca, the narrator’s susceptible mind often lead her to distort and exaggerate simple conversations, and to observe in her surroundings Rebecca’s imprint (there were many moments in which she reminded me of Jane Austen’s incredibly impressionable heroine Catherine Morland). Through the narrator’s dreams and her moments of dissociation readers begin to see just how deep Rebecca’s presence is within her psyche and life.
The landscape alleviates our heroine’s mystification. The gardens and the sea mirror her state of minds, and allow her to examine and question her own feelings and circumstances. Manderley’s flora and fauna, as well as its weather, capture a sense of the sublime. The idyllic and haunted Manderley plays a central role in the story and constantly occupies the narrator’s mind.
Amidst love, jealousy, and feminine ideals, this beautifully written novel conveys with perfect clarity what it means to be young and inexperienced.

 

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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