Circa by Devi S. Laskar

Circa had the potential of being an immersive and compelling read. Sadly, the structure and length of the narrative do the story no favors, as the final product ultimately struck me as formulaic in a-MFA-program type of way. Sure, Devi S. Laskar quite effectively utilizes a 2nd pov, which is no easy feat. Beyond this stylistic choice, the novel doesn’t have a lot to offer. This is the kind of narrative that strikes me as being more interested in presenting its readers with a certain evocative style than introducing us to dimensional characters. The structure of the novel struck me as somewhat inconsistent. At first, it brought to mind books like All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running, Friends & Dark Shapes, and Another Brooklyn, in that it honed in on specific moments of Heera’s youth, but as the story progresses the narrative loses its atmosphere as it switches to a telling mode where it covers large swathes of time with little fanfare so that I felt at a remove by what Heera had experienced.

Circa is centred on Heera, ‘you’, an Indian American teenager who is coming of age in Raleigh, North Carolina during the late 80s. Heera hangs out a lot with siblings Marie and Marco, often in secrecy as her parents do not approve of her friendship with the Grimaldi children. Together they rebel the way some teenagers do, disobeying their parents, and sneaking behind their parents’ backs. Sometimes they steal from their parents or strangers, other times they do edgy eff society type of graffiti. Anyway, Heera is smitten with Marco, kind of. Eventually, something bad happens that changes their dynamic, and Marco reinvents himself as Crash, while Heera finds herself having to grapple between her sense of self-fulfilment and her parents’ desires. Should she go to college? Marry? Can she or does she want to do both? The author does highlight the limited possibilities available to a woman, specifically a woc, at the time, juxtaposing her path to Crash’s one. Sure, the author does provide an all too relevant commentary on the American Dream, stressing its elusiveness, and a poignant enough portrait of a family caught between generational and cultural differences, however, the whole Crash/Heera dynamic really was deeply underwhelming. Marie is very much a plot device, someone who is used as a source of trauma for Heera and Crash, someone who is supposedly meant to make their bond all the more complex…but she was so one-dimensional and served such a disposable function in the story that I really felt like she wasn’t a character, let alone a rounded person. Crash seemed the male version of a pixie girl, not quite as extra ‘that’s literary me’ type of guy (who is thinks he is the narrator from fight club or the joker), more of a vanilla sad-meets-bad boi. Heera in many ways is rather a passive presence, and I was unable to understand her obsession with Crash, let alone believe that the two shared an intimate bond. I think the story is at its best when it hones in on domestic moments, in particular in Heera’s interactions with her parents or when exploring the tension between her family and the Grimaldi. I think I would have liked this story to have solely focused on familial and platonic relationships, rather than going for this wattpad type of romance (‘i can fix him’…come no). The latter half of the novel strays into melodrama, with quite a few characters disappearing because of actual reasons and or no reasons. A whole portion of Heera’s story is delivered in such a rushed and dispassionate way that it really pulled me out of her story.

Given the premise, I was hoping for something with more oomph. The ‘crucial’ event isn’t all that important in the end, as the distance between Crash and Heera could have easily happened without that having to occur. The ‘betrayals’ mentioned in the summary lead me to believe in a story with more conflict, whereas here the will-they-won’t-they relationship between Crash and Heera brought to mind the milquetoast straights-miscommunicating-or-having-0-communication that dominated in much of Normal People. I think it would have been more effective if the author had either opted for a longer and slower-paced storyline (which would have allowed her to expand certain scenes, rather than just relating important moments in a couple of sentences, and made the characters more rounded) or if she had fully committed to a snappier snapshot-like narrative (a la What We Lose or Ghost Forest). I mean, this wasn’t a bad read but it is the type of book I will forget about in a few weeks or so.

If this book is on your radar I suggest you check out more positive reviews out.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

DISCLAIMER: as I did not like Velvet Was the Night my review will be, alas, a negative one. If you are a fan of SMG or you happen to love this novel, congratulazioni. Please, don’t @ me just because I don’t feel the same way as you do, I get it, YMMV. If you are interested in reading this novel I recommend you check out more positive reviews.

I think this novel is confirmation that SMG’s books are not for me. I want to love what she writes but so far, I find her books to be a source of great frustration. Her female characters strike me as an amalgamation of Not Like Other Girls/Mary Sues/Cinderella-like-figures, there tends to be a total lack of female solidarity (in the case of mexican gothic we barely get any scenes featuring the two female characters who are supposedly meant to be close), and, out of the three books I’ve read by her, there have been no queer characters.

After seeing that Velvet Was the Night was going to be a noir novel I found myself actually looking forward to reading it as I happen to enjoy noir books, such as the ones penned by Walter Mosley. The cover, title, and premise of Velvet Was the Night were certainly alluring. I mean, covers like this one are pretty much my Achilles’ heel. My expectations weren’t that high given my history with SMG’s works…and yet, even so, I still ended up being fairly disappointed by Velvet Was the Night.

BRIEF OVERVIEW
In this foray into the noir genre, SMG once again transports her readers to 20th Mexico. This time around the action takes place in Mexico City during the 1970s, aka during Mexico’s ‘Dirty War’, a period of civil unrest, with student demonstrators and civilians clashing against and being persecuted/disappeared/massacred by the government.
30-something Maite is a plain, dowdy, and downtrodden secretary who dreams of adventure and romance. Not only does her family care zilch for her (because , of course, ), but everyone seems to overlook her. Her one joy is reading Secret Romance comics. Through these, she can briefly escape her ‘miserable’ existence. She spends most of her time fantasizing about the kind of romance, passion, drama that fills those stories & playing her own teensy-tiny violin. She occasionally gets a thrill by stealing people’s belongings (such a bad girl), but for the most part, she’s a quiet, bookish, plain jane. When her beautiful neighbour, artsy student Leonora, disappears Maite sets out to find her. Not out of concern, but because she was tasked with cat-sitting Leonora’s cat and she isn’t planning on doing so gratis (this line…“Maite would be damned if she was going to also be paying for meow-meow’s cuisine.” meow-meow? wow, sick burn maite). Her ‘detective’ skills leave a lot to be desired. She spends the remainder of her narrative going on about how plain and pathetic she is, how much she loves Secret Romance, how every other woman has it better than she does (i mean, she can’t afford to get her car repaired!) and imagining herself being with the two guys who happen to have been involved with the missing neighbour. One of them is more handsome than the other. That’s it.
We also get chapters following Elvis, a thug who isn’t like other thugs. You see, whereas his fellow goons enjoy beating people up, he doesn’t. He’s part of an enforcer group with ties to the government. As suggested by his nickname Elvis adores ‘the King’, rock ’n’ roll. He also likes old-timey movies. He’s just a nice guy really. His boss tells him to find Leonora as she may have some incriminating photos. As he’s looking for her, Elvis also observes Maite, and eventually becomes vaguely infatuated with her.

(MINOR SPOILERS BELOW)

Before I move to the reasons why I did not vibe with this, I will try and mention a few positive-ish things:
✓ the cover and title get top marks
✓ I do admire SMG for switching between genres rather than sticking to one and for bringing her own style to said genre
✓ the atmosphere at times was on point (even if it did try too hard to be gritty and edgy)
✓ the music (SMG included a playlist with some really solid choices)
✓ some of the descriptions were actually pretty great and certainly fitted in with the noir aesthetic
✓ the sense of place & time were fairly strong
✓ the political commentary
✓ the ending’s open-ended nature

Now, for the things that were no good to me:

storyline
I’m all for slow-burn narratives but here the pacing never really took off. The plot consists of a series of incredibly repetitive scenes. Maite is with man numero 1 or man numero 2. She’s irritated by him, no, wait, she actually wants him. She comes across activists and grows slightly more aware of the world around her. That’s it. Elvis spends his portion of the story tailing Maite or others and dissing his ‘colleagues’ (who unlike him, a heart of gold do not have). While the author does address how fraught this period of time was in Mexico, I wanted more out of the story. I would have liked more interesting characters and more diverse interactions between them (instead of getting the same two characters speaking to each other).
The narrative is also repetitive when it comes to reiterating the same information about the characters. SMG already established early on what Maite and Elvis are like: Maite is plain and Elvis kind of wants out of the crime life. Yet, time and time again we read the same stuff about them. Maite goes on and on and on about how much she likes Secret Romance and how unsatisfied she is by her lamentably unromantic existence. Elvis just wants someone who shares his musical taste and maybe also a way out of his rather lonely lifestyle. I got this in the very first 20% of the book. Yet, I was confronted with this same info throughout my reading of this novel. I found them to be really insipid. They were, for the most part, passive. Things happen to them. Their arcs were as flat as their personalities.
The missing woman aspect of the storyline was similarly underwhelming. Leonora’s disappearance lacked oomph. I never felt any apprehension on her behalf because Maite doesn’t give two shits about her (so why should i bring myself to care?). She was also portrayed in such a snidey way….
Sadly, overall, I found this story to be dull & predictable. Nothing of note truly happens and I felt little to no suspense. I would have liked it more if the story had had a more tangible air of mystery. The story also felt vaguely vanilla? There is some violence and some swearing but other than that…eh, the tone of the story seemed rather juvenile. The narrative is very much intent on impressing upon us that tis’ noir. Sometimes, this works, but, sometimes it just struck me as a tad overdone and distracting almost.

characters
Maite maite maite….why why why did you have to be such a woe-is-me whinging whiner? Her character actually had potential I believe. I was hoping that the author would subvert this trope of the ‘plain and lonely secretary dreaming of romance’ but she sadly does not. The cover made me think that along the way Maite would slowly or drastically transform into a femme fatale or would become more self-assured and proactive behaviours. She does neither of these things. She remains very much the same by the end. She doesn’t grow or regress. To me, she was still recognisably the same Maite we met on the very first pages (note: emphasis on the ‘to me’). Very early in the narrative SMG establishes that Maite is overlooked by her family with a very ‘subtle’ scene in which her mother bakes or buys a chocolate cake for her birthday even if she knows that Maite doesn’t like chocolate. She’s served for last (if i recall) and given a small slice or something. Her mother also doesn’t care about helping her out with her car repair payments and compares her unfavourably to ‘your sister’ (who is married & with children). These scenes were meant to make us feel sympathetic towards Maite but they just succeeded in irritating me.
Maite isn’t beautiful or charismatic, nor does she have any friends (because of course). She spends most of her time envying other women, making judgy comments about their appearance (often implying that they lead easier lives than she does or have more luck). Other women are sexy, slim, provocative, without a care in the world. Maite isn’t that interested in politics and prefers reading comics or romance books. Someone describes them as syrupy or sappy or whatnot and she gets all flustered saying that they aren’t. Look, I’m all for escapist reads. But, there is no denying that the stuff she reads is sappy. Why pretend otherwise? It would have been more satisfying if in her defence of these comics/books Maite had pointed out how horrible and violent the ‘real’ world is, and why shouldn’t she wish to ‘escape’ it? And so what if she likes sappy love stories?
The fact of the matter is: I disliked her. She was that special brand of annoying that always acts like a victim. Everyone else is mean to her. They are either taking advantage of her (like leonora and her ‘men’) or mistreating her (her family). I would have loved her if she had been explicitly written as unlikeable. She could have been a modern Emma Bovary. Someone who is so determined to make her daydreams into her reality that she’s ready to sabotage her own marriage and reputation to do so. Emma is a bitch, but I love her. The narrative is quite clear in pointing out that she’s selfish and vain. Emma’s nastiness was quite subversive & refreshing. But here, well, Maite is just a crybaby, a nonentity. She claims that she’s pathetic and boring but then we have Elvis pointing out how ‘interesting’ she seems. The narrative seemed intent on making her seem ‘different’ and ‘more relatable’ than other women.
Maite did not strike me (again, emphasis on ‘me’) as a deep or fleshed out character. Yet, she was presented as being this complex woman who is caught in a ‘dangerous’ web. I wish she’d been written as being a wholly superficial and self-serving individual. Someone who is only concerned in making her fantasies into her reality. Or, as I said above, as someone who goes from being a tremulous meek & mousy woman who is unsure of herself, to a femme fatale type of figure. In scenes of ‘tension’ (when she is fighting with that guy) she either makes petulant remarks (which were frankly cringy given that he’s still a student and she’s in her 30s) or acts like the classic ‘fragile’ and ‘hysterical’ woman who can’t defend herself or speak up or use her brain to figure out stuff.
Elvis…I don’t have much to say about him. I could not take him seriously for the most part. Suffice it to say that he struck me as the type of male character female authors write. He isn’t particularly smart or kind, but really, he isn’t all that bad given that, unlike his ‘mates’, he doesn’t love violence. Also, he’s into music…clearly, that makes him deep…right?
The secondary characters are very much cardboard cutouts. The women are all horrible and catty. The men are either thick, douchebags, or fuckbois.

writing
While at times I liked SMG’s prose, her style strikes me as passive. That is to say that when she recounts something I feel very much at a distance from what she’s recounting (even if that thing is happening there and then).

good vs. evil/morality
Clearly bad characters are revealed to be in fact bad. While our good characters have one or two ‘reasonable’ flaws (she steals now and again, he’s working for the ‘baddies’) that are meant to humanise them, said flaws don’t change the fact that they are very much the good ones. Our MCs were not the morally grey characters I’d hoped they’d be (esp. given that the noir genre lends itself well to ambiguous characters).

All in all, this novel was a vexing read. The story was boring and clichéd and the characters thinly rendered caricatures. As mentioned early on, the lack of female solidarity and lgbtq+ characters also frustrated me (can we stop pitting women against each other?).

I give up with SMG’s books. I wish the author nothing but the best and I’m happy to see that many other readers can appreciate her work in a way I’ve so far been unable to. Her novels are just not for me.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

Leda and the Swan by Anna Caritj

Alas, campus novels are my achilles heel (when will i learn?).

“Perhaps this not knowing was the thrill of it: the mystery, the risk.”

Leda and the Swan is an ambitious debut novel that sadly misses the mark.
From its tired premise to its one-note characters, Leda and the Swan feels like a wasted opportunity. Not only does the novel sacrifice character and plot in favour of subject matter but the author’s commentary on sexual assault feels at best simplified, at worst, well, let me just say that it does it no favours.
If you are looking for some thought-provoking, nuanced and unflinching accounts of sexual assault I would recommend you give this novel a pass and try instead Lacy Crawford’s memoir on her experiences of sexual assault at an elite boarding school in New Hampshire or Michaela Coel’s heart-wrenching series, I May Destroy You (words cannot describe how i feel about this series). If you are instead happy to read a frustratingly patronizing narrative that succeeds in evoking and criticising the sorority lifestyle, well, you might be able to appreciate Leda and the Swan more than I did (be warned, the book is basically all filler and no, i would not describe this as dark academia).

Leda and the Swan opens with a long party-sequence. It’s Halloween and Leda, a third-year student and member of the Psi Delta sorority, is off to a party. She’s kind of looking forward to seeing her new crush Ian but a few drinks in finds herself just going with the flow of the party. She talks with strangers, feels kind of sick, and ends up having what seems like a ‘moment’ with a girl wearing a swan costume (get it? Leda and the swan? Ah.) who claims to know her from somewhere. When Leda wakes up on Monday she can’t recall how the night ended: did she sleep with Ian? Why is her lip busted? Then Leda learns that the girl she spoke to has gone missing and (as these missing-girls stories tend to go) she becomes increasingly obsessed by her ‘disappearance’.

In spite of this missing person angle, this novel is by no means suspenseful or even captivating. First things firsts: this kind of missing girl storyline has been done to death (A Prayer for Travelers, Please See Us, Restoration Heights, All the Missing Girls and many more;here you can read an interesting article on this trend). While I don’t think that this trope is bad per se I am not keen on books that do nothing new with it. And Leda and the Swan repeatedly failed to subvert my expectations. This is the classic story that is less about the girl gone missing than about our main character projecting whatever is going on with her onto that missing girl. And I wouldn’t have minded if Leda had actually come out of this novel feeling like a multi-dimensional person rather than say a sounding board.
She’s so woefully naive that any kind of doubt or idea that goes through her head has to be inspected, dissected, examined, and reexamined because she just doesn’t know things. And rather than presenting us with piercing observations, we get a series of simplified quasi-rhetorical questions (“Had Charlotte sensed it happening? Had Charlotte known?” or “Who was she expecting? Mary, shaking her head? Carly, making some lewd hand gesture? Was she expecting Ian to be there, rushing up the stairs after her?” or “Why shouldn’t she have made a scene? she thought. If she didn’t like something, why shouldn’t she scream?” or “Was it possible? Leda asked herself.”).
Not only did I find this pattern of questions repetitive but the kind of questions they pose are very basic. It gave me the impression that the author was addressing the kind of audience that needed to be gently convinced that Leda’s reactions & fears are valid. I also grew tired by the huge quantiles of ‘maybes’ and ‘perhapses’ that are implemented by the narrative (“Maybe she had been wrong. Wrong to assume that all her friends wanted was gossip. Maybe they would face the monster with her.” or “Maybe knowing yourself wasn’t as easy as it sounded.” or “Perhaps her “true” voice was so low that even she couldn’t hear it.”). Certain ‘important’ phrases are also repeated ad nauseam (the author doesn’t go for subtlety nor does she trust her readers to actually remember what was said a few pages prior). The author also has to repeatedly remind us that her ringtone is ‘Dancing Queen’.

The narrative uses Leda’s blackout as a source of tension. Did she have sex with Ian or did he force himself on her? Which, is not exactly great. Especially when we eventually learn what happened. Even if it takes Leda forever to bring herself to ask Ian what went down between them, I, and probably many other readers, already know. Which made much of her narrative moot. She remains a one-dimensional character, a generic stand-in for a ‘regular gal’ who just wants to fit in. She’s given a Sad Backstory™ which is really poorly developed. Her mother died, and she is still grieving her loss. Yet, we never really learn anything substantial about Leda’s mother or the bond they shared. The narrative portrays Leda as this ‘lost’ and complex character but she is just one of those things. She doesn’t know what she wants, she gives really mixed signals, and she does some straight-up questionable things. Something about the way she behaved towards her sisters was particularly grating as she whines that they don’t care enough about her to check on her but she doesn’t really check on them either. Pot kettle much?

Her misreading of the people around her, Ian especially, was so fucking frustrating. Speaking of Ian, the guy was also severely lacking in depth. He is a mere plot device in Leda’s narrative. His characterization was both vague and inconsistent.
Going back to Leda, the only interesting thing about her, well, that would be her name. That’s it. Other than that she is just a vehicle through which the author can address serious topics in an oversimplified & condescending manner. Her supposed ‘connection’ with the missing girl is bollocks. Charlotte never emerges as a fully realised being either, but her disappearance allows Leda to ‘realise’ how easy it is for girls to be assaulted and or killed (because you need someone actually disappearing to understand that).

The story doesn’t really present us with a nuanced discussion about sexual assault and consent, let alone victim-blaming or slut-shaming, focusing instead on depicting these very long scenes in which Leda interacts with her horrible ‘sisters’, or angsts over Ian, or talks to rando college students who aren’t particularly memorable or realistic but convey a certain type of ‘personality (so we have the mean girls, the hippy lot, the alternative girls, the frat bros).

Leda’s navel-gazing (she spend much of the narrative wondering whether the word ‘disappeared’ should be used to describe Charlotte’s, you guessed it, ‘disappearance’). The novel ends up also doing the classic ‘girls like Leda’ are just more genuine than say her Barbie sisters. Case in point, the only ‘sister’ who is portrayed in a favourable light is Mary, who is deemed ‘weird’ by the others. Puh-lease. Not this Not Like Other Girls bullshit again. I am so done with this kind of narrative. While Leda’s ‘concern’ for Charlotte is made to seem as ‘genuine’, her sisters’ activism is far more performative in nature. The story is not even particularly satisfying in showing how herd mentality works, or why Leda is so eager to be part of this collective.

The story is possibly set in the late 2000s but I can’t be too sure. I only suppose so because of the way they spoke (a lot of non-pc stuff), the music they listen to (eminem, amy winehouse), and someone has a flip phone. The novel doesn’t really address how privileged Leda and most of her sisters are. At the beginning the narrative offhandedly remarks that Leda’s sorority favours white girls, but the story doesn’t really go into this. It also bugged me that one of two of the characters of color, who happens to be Pakistani, is portrayed as basically a ‘princess’ (her life outside school is described as ‘regal’ and she once wore a bikini made of actual gold…). Also, this character dismisses the fact that Charlotte is Chinese-American, saying that “Charlotte’s white, basically” and no one (Leda nor any characters in the narrative) challenges this.
Anyway, Leda is made to seem as if she is this walking tragedy but I really really really wanted her to once acknowledge her privilege (she’s white, straight, cis, and has at least more than one person who clearly cares for her).

The whole mystery storyline is obsolete and I really hated how Leda is made into the person who figures it out (when in reality someone just explains things to her). The postcards she steals early on from Charlotte’s home (yeah, talk about crossing the line) were ludicrous and sounded as if they were generated by a Tumblr bot and we also get an obvious Chekhov’s gun…

I can safely say that this novel could have been easily cut in half. The ‘best’ thing about this novel is that it has a strong sense of place and that it does capture college culture (the parties & drinking, the pressure to belong to a group & or to be a fun person). But other than that, yeah…I don’t have many positive things to say about it. The author’s storytelling is flat and I think that those long sequences would have suited a tv series/film more.
I was actually tempted to DNF this early on and I wish I’d trusted my instincts.

my rating: ★★½

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House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland

“Dark, dangerous things happened around the Hollow sisters.”

Brimming with beauty and danger House of Hollow is a spellbinding modern fairy tale. Written in a tantalising prose that seems to echo traditional fairy tales House of Hollow presents its readers with a beguiling tale about sisters and monsters.

“We were taken. We came back. None of us knew what happened, and none of us ever would. We were the miracle that parents of all missing children dreamed of. Spat back from the abyss, unharmed and whole.”

When they were children the Hollow sisters went missing. And then, a month later, they came back. Ever since their return, the Hollow sisters have become undeniably strange. Their hair has turned white, their eyes black, they have matching scars on their throats, and they seem to have unquenchable appetites without ever gaining weight. Something about them makes those around them feel intoxicated, as if under a spell.

“Strangeness only bred strangeness, and it felt dangerous to tempt fate, to invite in the darkness that seemed already naturally drawn us.”

At seventeen Iris Hollow desperately craves normalcy. Her older sisters left the nest years before and, unlike Iris, have no interest in playing normal. Grey, the eldest, is a supermodel and fashion designer, while Vivi is leading a sex & roll kind of lifestyle while touring with her band. After months without seeing them the Hollow sisters make plans to meet up….and Grey doesn’t show up. Fearing the worst, Iris and Vivi try to make sense of Grey’s disappearance and soon come across some disconcerting clues. Someone, or something, else is also after Grey, and it is up to Iris and Vivi to untangle the mystery of their sister’s disappearance.

“What you don’t understand,” she said to me once when I told her how dangerous it was, “is that I am the thing in the dark.”

There is so much that I loved about this novel. Sutherland’s prose is lush. Flowery descriptions give way to ones that are almost grotesque in nature. The fairy-talesque rhythm of her prose makes Iris’ story all the more alluring. The atmosphere is in this novel is as exquisite as it is eerie. We also get some exceedingly lavish descriptions about the characters’ appearances, clothes, and environments, which made the story all the more vivid.

I don’t want to reveal too much in terms of plot but things get dark. ‘The Halfway’ reminded me a bit of The Hollow Places while the supernatural elements brought to mind Natalie C. Parker’s Beware The Wild duology and Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tales series.
The magic in House of Hollow is as beautiful as it is dangerous and Sutherland is not afraid to reveal the rot that lies beneath a beautiful veneer.
The relationship between the Hollow sisters is utterly captivating, low-key co-dependent, and one of the novel’s biggest strength. Iris’ voice was compelling and I immediately felt drawn to her. Vivi and Tyler provided some lovely moments of lightness and I loved them from the get-go. Grey was a fascinating if sinister kind of character. The casual queer rep was a welcome surprise and made me fall even more in love with the story. And, I can’t begin to describe how refreshing it was to read a YA novel that isn’t about the romance!

House of Hollow is an enthralling and subversive fairy tale, one that combines a missing person story with a creepy tale about scary places and dangerous girls. Sutherland’s writing is breathtakingly gorgeous, her characters alluring, her storyline entrancing. I am more or less in awe with House of Hollow, so much so that I would love it if Sutherland would grace us with a sequel.

my rating: ★★★★★

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A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar

“How do you explain the unique physiology of girlhood friendships, the telepathy formed fast and fierce between hometown strangers?”

In A Prayer for Travelers Ruchika Tomar disrupts the traditional coming-of-age story by rearranging the chronological order of her narrative, so that the novel’s opening chapter is actually chapter number 31. The non-chronological chapter order takes some getting used to, and there were times when I struggled to keep track of ‘when’ we were or the context of a certain scene. But, this structure, which swings readers back and forth in time, propels A Prayer for Travelers, adding a layer of tension to Cale’s story.

A Prayer for Travelers transports readers to a small and isolated town in Nevada. After being abandoned by her mother Cale lives with her grandfather Lamb and grows up to become a solitary girl who spends most of her time reading. Rather than making friends, she watches from afar others, in particular, three other girls who are a year or so older than her. At times Cale seems to yearn to be part of their clique, but more often than not seems satisfied in observing them at a distance. It is magnetic and freewheeling Penélope Reyes who Cale is fascinated by the most.

After Lamb, Cale’s only point of reference, is diagnosed with cancer Cale feels lost. It is Penny who Cale clings to. The two form a tentative friendship while waitressing at the same diner. Over the course of the summer, the two spend most of their time together, yet Penny remains a cypher of sorts. After one of their escapades ends in act of horrific violence, the bond between the two is tested. The morning after, Penny goes missing and no one but Cale seems interested in knowing what happened to her.

Each chapter takes readers to a different period in Cale’s life so that it is only by the end of the novel that we gain a full picture of her childhood, her time with Penny, and the events leading to and after Penny’s disappearance. This unorthodox structure lends an air of mystery both to Cale’s life and to the people around her. Early on we are given hints of what is to come or what has gone before, but it is only around the halfway mark that readers will be able to really catch up with Cale’s story.
In addition to this clever structure, Tomar succeeds in bringing to life Cale’s stultifying environment. From the desert that surrounding her dead-end town to the heat that makes people take cover indoors. It is no place for young people, as there are few if any jobs going and one is always under scrutiny. Things are done a certain way and anyone who tries to ‘upset’ the system incurs the risk of angering the wrong kind of people. As Cale is quick to discover, the police are of little help.
Cale’s interactions with others, from the detectives to Penny’s old friends and a classmate of theirs, are underlined by a sense of unease. This adds to the story’s already atmospheric setting, as we see just how isolating and brutal Cale’s town is, especially for girls like her and Penny.
Although the relationship between Cale and Penny is the undoubted core of the novel, their feelings towards each other are not always easy to discern. In many ways, their bond remains elusive just like the girls themselves. Both Cale and Penny are difficult to pin down yet Tomar captivates many of their anxieties and desires.
Their experiences are not easy to read. Cale’s secluded childhood with her grandfather leaves her in many ways unprepared for ‘life’. Most of the time she doesn’t know what she wants from the future and spends her time obsessing over Penny.
Both Cale and Penny go through traumatic experiences, each reacting in a different way. Tomar shows how the victim of a sexual assault will often blame themselves and how blind others can be to someone’s despair and trauma.
The ‘resolution’ to the mystery felt almost anticlimactic. Then, perhaps I was so focused on keeping track of ‘when’ I was that I may not have been able to fully appreciate those chapters.
Other than the ‘ending’ and the inclusion of visuals chapters (which just had an image or one/two words) I found this novel be truly engrossing. A teensy part of me wished that Cale’s feelings towards Penny had been explored in more depth (her fixation on Penny is quite something).

I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as this kind of structure will not be everyone’s cup of tea. But, if you are looking for a coming-of-age/suspense story in a similar vein to Winter’s Bone and A Crooked Tree, you might want to give A Prayer for Travelers a try. I will be definitely re-reading this as I loved Tomar’s piercing writing and seesaw storyline as well as her story’s focus on female friendships, trauma, and survival.

my rating: ★★★¾

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All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O’Donoghue

Caroline O’Donoghue’s foray into YA will definitely appeal to fans of the genre. Although I do have a few criticisms I can safely say that I found All Our Hidden Gifts to be an entertaining read.

Set in Ireland, our narrator and protagonist is sixteen-year old Maeve Chambers, the youngest in a big family. She has quite a chip on her shoulder when it comes to her ‘brilliant’ sisters and brothers. Unlike them she isn’t academically gifted and for a period of time she was put in a slow-learning class. Maeve now attends an all-girls Catholic school and in trying to impress her peers lands herself in trouble. It just so happens that her detention includes cleaning out a cupboard know as the ‘Chokey’ where she finds a set of tarot cards…and it turns out that she has a skill when it comes to reading the cards.

The story takes a Labyrinth turn when Maeve’s new talent results in the disappearance of her former best friend, Lily, who she’d ditched in order to climb the social ladder. Was I expecting the Goblin King to be responsible for Lily’s disappearance? Maybe…
Anyhow, when the police gets involved and things get serious Maeve’s life becomes quite messy. Maeve believes that a mysterious card from her deck may have stolen Lily away so she decides to deepen her knowledge of magic. Along the way she becomes close with another girl from her school and with Lily’s older brother, Roe.
As the kids investigate Lily’s disappearance they become increasingly suspicious of a cult-like Christian group that is very vocal in opposing LGBTQ+ rights.
I appreciated the issues O’Donoghue incorporates throughout her narrative. We have characters who are discriminated against for not being white or for not conforming to one gender. Lily wears a hearing aid, which is probably another reason why her classmates bully or exclude her, Maeve’s sister is gay, Roe is exploring his gender expression (and possibly his gender identity?). As inclusivity goes, this novel is beautifully inclusive. Maeve, who is white, cis, straight (?), and from a possibly middle-class family, is called out for being insensitive or naive when it comes to discrimination. She’s also somewhat self-centred, in an angsty sort of way, and this too is pointed out by other characters. Fiona also makes a point of reminding Maeve not to make other people’s oppression all about herself.

While I appreciated her growth, I still struggled to sympathise or like her. I found Roe and Fiona to be much more likeable and interesting characters. Maeve was the classic ‘I’m not beautiful like x or intelligent like y’ self-pitying kind of gall. She was boring and sounded much younger than her allegedly sixteen years of life. Which brings to my next ‘criticism’: there is a discrepancy between the tone and content of this novel. The tone, which is mainly created by Maeve’s direct narration, would have been more suited to a middle-grade book while her narrative’s content—the issues and discussions that came up in the story—are more tailored towards a YA audience. Both Maeve and the other sixteen-year olds sounded like they were twelve a lot of the time. Which made it weird when things like sex came up.
The bad American dude was somewhat cartoonish, and that whole side-plot felt rather undeveloped.
Lily was a promising character who might have been more fleshed out with some more flashbacks. And, to be honest, I would preferred this to be a friendship-focused kind of story. The romance between Maeve and Roe did not convince me, at all. She crushes on him from the get-go of the novel, but I could not for the life of me understand or see why he reciprocated her feelings. She says some pretty shitty things now and again to him and acts in a possessive way which irked me. I get she’s insecure but still….she knows she may have been responsible for his sister’s disappearance…and all she can think about are his lips?

Nevertheless, this was far from a bad or mediocre book. I like the way O’Donoghue writes and I appreciate her story’s themes and imagery so I would probably still recommend this. I, however, might stick to her adult fiction from now on.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Please See Us by Caitlin Mullen — book review

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“There is something bad in the air and in the water now, something rotten and wrong. A moral disease.”

While Please See Us gives its readers a slightly more innovative “missing women” type-of-story. Providing us with a panoramic of Atlantic City Caitlin Mullen’s novel follows Clara, a young psychic, and Lily who has only recently returned to the city. Between their first-person chapters we have those of Luis, a mute and deaf janitor who works at the same spa as Lily, and those of ‘the Janes’, victims of an unknown serial killer. The quasi-supernatural element gives this rather tired type of story a bit of an edge.
As more women are killed Clara and Lily find themselves embarking on an investigating of sorts.

What Mullen does best in this novel is render Atlantic City’s underbelly. The characters in the story feel stuck in what they rightly perceive to be a city in decline: addiction, prostitution, crime. Life in Atlantic City is not easy and ‘the Janes’ know this better than anyone. Mullen succinctly describes their fears and desires, as well as their circumstances. Some embrace their lifestyle, others believe that they deserve to be degraded and used by men, while some are battling against depression or addiction.

While Mullen manages to make ‘the Janes’ sympathetic without making them strictly likeable, her two main characters were pretty annoying.
Clara, who was raised by her aunt, has led a rather unsupervised life. Alongside her aunt she steals and cons people. Yet, her visions are no farce and she believes that a girl who recently went missing is in danger. Lily, who used to move in New York’s art sphere, finds herself working as a receptionist at a casino’s spa. Her breakup has given her quite a shock and she no longer feels as certain of herself as she used to.
Both Clara and Lily had very self-dramatising narratives. They seem constantly startled by the most ordinary things, and they both go around judging people in the same way…which struck me as weird. They see someone and they seem able to deduce that person’s character and story…Clara, for all her ‘street-smarts’ makes a ton of idiotic choices. Part of me wanted to give Lily a good shake. Much is made of the reason behind her breakup and when we get the details…well, it seemed very over the top. Her ex was hard believable as he was a mere caricature of the modern ‘artist’.
Clara and Lily’s chapters were aggravating and full of platitudes that made me roll my eyes. Mullen tries hard to make Lily have an artist’s worldview but to me these attempts seemed exaggerated: she tries to interact with Luis by making an obscure art reference, and she things stuff like this:
“That’s what I loved about portraiture—how it captured the way a person’s personality, their past, their secrets, their desires or disappointments, settled into their body, their face.”
Give me a break.
So many of Clara and Lily’s observations and inner monologues were pure cheese. One of them things this of Luis: “[His] personality was buried deep within his layers of silence”.
Speaking of Luis…what was the point in his character? For much of the novel Mullen makes these not so subtle hints that he is not quite ‘right’. He is repeatedly harassed and beaten up while the police stands by and does nothing (I mean, really?) and most people think he is a creep. Why is there this tendency to portray janitors this way? Let alone mute and deaf individuals?

The storyline takes its time to set off. What Clara and Lily do isn’t necessarily an investigation but a series of not always logical/organised attempts to discover where these missing women are.
There are quite a few female characters who said cringy stuff like ‘as a woman’ and things on those lines which…who speaks like that?
With the exception of two men who have very small cameos, all the guys in this book are basically the same: sadistic, predatory, violent, rapists, 100% vile.
The serial killer was the typical fanatic who stars in novels like these.
The way the ending unfolded irritated me. Shit finally hist the fan and then within a few pages its sort of over.
All in all there was a lot I did not like about this novel. Clara and Lily’s voices were pure cringe. The story was too slow and perhaps it would have benefited from being a tad more complex.

The Jane chapters and the portrayal of Atlantic City were the most absorbing aspects of Please See Us. Would I recommend this one? Not so sure…

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich — book review

Untitled drawing (4).jpgAfter reading many reviews praising The Night Watchman, I had quite high expectations for this novel. Having now read it, I can’t say that I found this to be either very good or bad.
Louise Erdrich’s own grandfather was the inspiration for the character of Thomas Wazhashk and for the events that transpire in The Night Watchman. Set in 1953 Thomas, like Erdrich’s grandfather, works as a night watchman. As a member of the Chippewa Council he loves and wants to protect his community. When he hears of Congress’ new “emancipation” bill, he knows that is the United States newest threat against his people.
The serious and inspirational subject matter captivated my attention. Sadly, I think I would preferred to read a non-fictionalised account of this important story. In The Night Watchman Thomas’ fight against Native dispossession is lost in a plodding narrative that follows an array of inconsequential characters. While I understand that shifting the focus on many different characters can give an impression of a certain family or community…here we also get entirely unnecessary segments on characters such as Barnes and two mormons.
Pixie Paranteau, a young woman who is beautiful, ‘spunky’, good at her job, different from other women, was a surprisingly grating character. The story tries so hard to make her into some sort of heroine that I just found her annoying. Her story didn’t have the same tone as Thomas and felt very meandering. The first quarter of her arc seems to promise one of those ‘my sister is missing’ narratives…but then it reverts to her back at the reservation where she seems to occupied feeling ‘righteously’ angry/jealous of her friends and deciding which guy she fancies (everyone seems in love with her).
Thomas and Pixie struck me as very one-dimensional. Thomas has only the outlines of a personality…but he is mostly presented as simply being ‘good’. Characters in general (regardless if ‘good’ or ‘bad’) lacked psychological complexity.
The prose often made characters sound silly. There is an overuse of exclamation marks. Some dialogues came across as stilted (as if two characters were being forced to interact for plot reasons) and there were one too may platitudes (such as “Women’s bodies make such miracles”).
There were few description of the characters’ environment, and because of this I never had a clear picture of their surroundings.
The magical realism that threads this story was perhaps one of the elements I most liked in the overall novel.
All in all, I’m afraid that this novel didn’t really inspire any strong feelings in me. I had a similar experience with Isabel Allende’s A Long Petal of the Sea (which also draws upon real events). Both of these books tell important stories through rather one-dimensional characters.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney — book review

“That was Wyatt’s philosophy when it came to the past: Stay out of it. ”

The Long and Faraway Gone is a well written if somewhat uneven novel.

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I can definitely see why it has drawn comparisons to books by Dennis Lehane. Both authors render a strong sense of place, so much so that the settings of their stories transcend the role of backdrop, becoming an active character into their narratives, one that can—and will—sway the direction of the story.

One of the links between two apparently unrelated storylines in The Long and Faraway Gone is that they both take place in Oklahoma City. In the summer of 1986 two young individuals experienced tragic and traumatic losses: Wyatt was the only survivor in an armer robbery while Julianna’s alluring—and troubled—older sister Genevieve went missing during the annual State Fair.
Years later Wyatt—now a private investigator—and Julianna—a nurse—grow increasingly preoccupied over the past . Soon their obsessions will derail the course of their everyday lives as they jeopardise personal relationships, and their careers, by undertaking investigations of their own.

Wyatt’s humour and emphatic nature made him into a compelling protagonist. His story seemed a lot more fleshed out and coherent than Julianna’s. While I was willing to look past Wyatt’s mistakes, and understood why his stay in Oklahoma City affects him so much, I was unable to reconcile myself with Julianna’s appalling behaviour. Her narrative seemed to have a lot more padding, and while her ‘investigation’ definitely had some tense moments, I was always looking forward to return to Wyatt’s story.
It was interesting to see how their storylines occasionally mirrored one another, yet Lou Berney never resorted to throw an unlikely connection between the two as a way of linking these two stories together.

Berney, similarly to Lehane, is skilled in giving each of his characters—regardless of their role—a convincing personality. With a few clever descriptions, and by articulating those idiosyncrasy relating to an individual’s mannerisms or their way of speaking, Berney creates realistic and memorable characters. Regardless if we like them or not, his characterisation is such that they do not fall neatly into a ‘good person’ or ‘bad person’ category. Because his characters are rendered in such vivid detail, his dialogues crackle with energy. There are so many great lines and exchanges that make The Long and Faraway Gone into such an engaging novel.
The resolution to the main characters’ interrogation of their past, although unexpected, is surprisingly mundane. Berney doesn’t try to make the characters’ tragedy into part of larger and unlikely plot, providing instead solutions that are far more realistic.

In spite of a few minor quibbles—mostly relating to Julianna’s narrative—I thought that The Long and Faraway Gone was an engaging read and I am eager to read more by Berney.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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Run Away: Book Review

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Run Away
by Harlan Coben
★★★★✰ 4 stars

“I’ve seen some strange shit. And bad stays. Bad doesn’t go away. You bury bad, it digs itself out. You throw bad in the middle of the ocean, it comes back at you like a tidal wave.”

I find Harlan Coben’s books to be a great source of diversion and Run Away exhibits all of his best trademarks: a suspenseful and fast-paced story, humour, action, and an array of believable and sympathetic characters.
I found Run Away to be completely engaging. I was entertained throughout, unable to leave Simon Greene and his search for his daughter. His love for Paige—his daughter—propels this story and, while there are plenty of interesting side-characters, this book is ultimately about Simon. Throughout this book Coben examines and tests the concepts—and limits—of parenthood (and especially ‘fatherhood’). What is Simon willing to do to find Paige? Can he reconcile himself with her disappearance? Is he to blame for Paige’s drug addiction? Is Paige beyond his help?
Amidst the action characters face heartbreak, grief, and guilt. There a few moments of calm in which we see Simon (as well as other characters) question his choices and actions but for the most part this is a go-go-go sort of story.
Coben’s style is filled with humour. Often it is the narrative itself which provides us with witty descriptions (“Thorpe’s office was decorated in Early American Douchebag”). He also has this ability to instil personality into seemingly ordinary things: “The suite didn’t look so much tailored as birthed, created, cultivated for him and only him”. And he has a real ear for the way in which people speak and move. In a few lines he captures the essence of a certain character (his or her personality). There a few characters who have only brief appearances and yet they are rendered in such a memorable manner that they remained vivid in my mind.
And this being a Coben novel….well, there are plenty of twists. As the paths of different characters come together, the tension rises to a crescendo, and Coben starts dropping all of these ‘wtf-no-way’ bombs. Things that I thought could never happen…they do (yes, I am still upset over that). I do feel that the conclusion was a bit hastened. After this slow build up we get a very short time to adjust to various major revelations/events.

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