The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some quotes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼


Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok

Despite the many moments of poignancy that appear throughout the course of Searching for Sylvie Lee, the novel is ultimately diminished by unnecessary melodrama and convoluted (yet predictable) soap-opera-ish twists.

At its heart Searching for Sylvie Lee is a family drama about long-held family secrets. The narrative switches between three points of view: a mother and her two daughters. On the surface, Sylvie Lee, the eldest daughter, is the more successful and accomplished of the two Lee daughters. She’s married to a wealthy man and has a solid career. Unlike her younger sister, Sylvie did not spend her first years with her parents and in fact, grew up in the Netherlands with her grandmother and some cousins of her mother. At age nine she finally joins her parents and younger sister in America. While Sylvie shows open affection towards Amy, not seeming to resent her for being the one who got to stay with their parents, she is unable and or unwilling to grow closer to either her mother or her father, in fact, her relationship with her father is fraught indeed. When news that her beloved grandmother is dying reaches her Sylvie rushes to the Netherlands. Weeks after Amy receives a worrying call from the son of her mother’s cousins (the people who Sylvie was raised by). Sylvie has vanished.
Overcome by anxiety Amy too flies to the Netherlands where she stays with her cousins. Here she picks up on the weird atmosphere that suggests that not everyone was as in awe of Sylvie as she was. Her mother’s cousin is hostile and contemptuous about anything concerning Sylvie and her husband is rather creepy. Their son, Sylvie’s best friend, is also being somewhat cagey.
As time goes by Amy’s image of Sylvie as this perfectly put-together adult begins to shatter as more of her secrets come to the light. Apparently, both her marriage and her work life were far from idyllic.

Sylvie’s chapters reveal her month in the Netherlands and give us insight into her childhood there. Her bond with her cousin and another man also play way too much of a role in the story. There is a quasi-love triangle that feels kind of icky and unconvincing. The reveals we get at the end were entirely too predictable and yet the way these are disclosed struck me as profoundly anticlimactic. There is also way too much time spent on Sylvie’s trip to Venice alongside these two men and a friend of theirs (Sylvie is not much a friend to her tbh given that she goes behind her back and shows little remorse about doing so). Here the author goes out of her way to describe the classic lightning trip to Venice, name-checking the various sites etc. Yet, here she also makes a big gaffe by writing in cursive what she must have thought was orange juice in Italian but it was in fact, French. This small detail irked me as to why then spend so much time showcasing how ‘knowledged’ you are about Venice? And then you just try to make the setting more ‘vivid’ by throwing unnecessary untranslated terms in italic? And getting them wrong? Orange juice is also not really a Venetian speciality. This is the North of Italy…not exactly orangeville. Anyway, this whole trip lacked tension and the argument(s) between the male characters felt very rehearsed. I also did not appreciate how the one gay character is portrayed (unhappily married and in love with his straight possibly homophobic friend who will never reciprocate his feelings and is willing to sabotage his friend’s relationship because of jealousy).
I would have liked less time spent on the shitty men orbiting Sylvie’s life and more time on her bond with Amy and her relationship with her mother. I also could have done without the over the top dodgy cousins. It would have been nice if Amy had been given more of her own personal arc. Nevertheless, the author does incorporate compelling themes within her narrative: she describes the experiences of immigrant families both in America and in the Netherlands, and how class plays into it, emphasizing the fallacy of the American dream. Another key aspect of the novel is how appearances can be deceptive and how one’s image of someone (for example Amy seeing her sister as perfect) can stop you from truly seeing that person.
All in all, this was a rather mixed bag. If there had been less melodrama and more moments of introspection I would have probably liked this one better. Still, I would probably read more by this author.

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

It would be safe to say that I do have a bit of an uneasy relationship with Murakami’s work. I read and was not blown away by it. Over the last couple of months, I have picked up several of his short story collections but never felt compelled to finish them. The main reason why I do not get on with his work is that, well, his women are on a league of their own when it comes to female characters written by male authors. I cringed many times while reading Sputnik Sweetheart: his portrayal of the romantic/sexual relationship between Sumire and Miu, the two women at the centre of the narrative, was yikes. It often went from being slightly ridiculous to straight-up ludicrous. That he chooses to tell their story through ‘K’, our male straight narrator, is also somewhat iffy. While K acknowledges that it may be unusual for him to tell Sumire’s love story, he doesn’t provide a particularly satisfying answer. I mean, I honestly think this could have been a much stronger novel if the narrative had alternated between Sumire and Miu. Anyway, we are stuck with K and his creepy male gaze. When we first meet him he is a college student who has fallen in love with Sumire, who is very much the classic Murakami female character, in that she’s Not Like Other Girls. She’s messy and in the throes of an existentialist crisis. She often confides in K about her fears and desire, and he takes on the role of listener, never revealing anything particularly substantial about himself, keeping readers and Sumire at arm’s length. He often recounts Sumire’s experiences from her point of view, which obviously necessitates our suspension of disbelief, given that he would really have no way of being able to provide such detailed descriptions of her experiences, let alone her inner feelings. Anyway, K gives us an impression of what kind of person Sumire is, her somewhat skewed worldview, and speaks of her writerly aspirations. Eventually, Sumire reveals to him that for the first time in her life she has fallen in love. K is disappointed to learn that he is not the person in question and that Sumire has fallen for Miu, an older businesswoman of Korean heritage. Sumire begins to act in a way that Miu approves of, changing her style etc. to earn Miu’s favor. As Sumire begins to work for Miu, her feelings intensify to the point where she is no longer able to contain her emotions. During a work trip to an island on the coast of Greece Sumire disappears. Miu contacts K and he travels there. Although Miu tells him of the events that led to Sumire’s ‘vanishing’, the two struggle to make sense of what led Sumire to just disappear. Here in classic Murakami fashion things take a surreal route, as the line between dreams and reality becomes increasingly blurry. There are feverish visions that lead to life-altering consequences, hypnotic dreams, and, of course, inexplicable disappearances. The ‘intimate’ cast of characters does result in fairly charged dynamics between Sumire, Miu, and K. K, of course, did serve a somewhat unnecessary role but by the end, I could see why someone as lonely as Sumire would find comfort in his continued presence. They have bizarre conversations about human nature, love, sex, and so forth, and some of these were fairly engaging. Overall, Murakami certainly succeeds in creating and maintaining a dreamlike atmosphere and a melancholy mood. The late 90s setting casts a nostalgic haze over the events being recounted by K. I just wish that Murakami’s depiction of women and lesbians wasn’t so corny. From the way he describes women’s pubic hair to his strongly held belief that women are obsessed by their breasts (particularly nipples), to his dubious comments and takes on same-sex love….well, it was not for me. I found his language turgid in these instances, either funny in a that’s-idiotic-kind-of-way or just plain gross.

There are other classic Murakami elements: characters who love talking about literature, jazz bars, and classical music. While K is more mysterious than his usual male characters he was not exactly an improvement model. He has some rapey thoughts and instincts that were definitely off-putting. Miu’s strange ‘affliction’ is also quite out there and I found Sumire’s attempts at a ‘declaration’ to be problematic indeed as it bordered on sexual assault. But if you can put up with dated and frequently icky content Sputnik Sweetheart does present readers with an immersive tale of yearning and loneliness. I appreciated the storyline’s unresolved nature and the sense of surreality that permeates it. I will probably read more by Murakami but I will do so when I am in the right state of mind to put up with his peculiar sexism.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

that sex scene was 💀


Having enjoyed two of Mosley’s latest novels (Trouble Is What I Do and Blood Grove) I was looking forward to delving into his earlier work. Devil in a Blue Dress is the first book in his Easy Rawlins series and, while it has many of Mosley’s best traits, overall it isn’t quite as compelling or complex as say the #15th book of this series. Set in the 1940s Los Angeles Easy is in his late twenties and has recently been fired from his job at a defence plant. A white man offers him money if he can find Daphne Monet, a young woman who often hangs out in Black locales. Easy accepts and soon finds himself in over his head. His employer is a clearly dangerous man and he isn’t the only one wanting to find Daphne.
What follows is very much a classic noir detective story populated by seedy characters and nighttime landscapes. In his line of questioning, Easy ruffles a few feathers and makes an enemy or two, all the while trying to locate Daphne, a beautiful woman who has clearly been up to something.
Mosley’s social commentary was the most interesting part of this story. He depicts the everyday racism and injustices Easy experiences and has experienced, from his run-ins with two racist policemen out to ‘get him’, to the condescending way he is treated by white strangers and acquaintances alike. Mosley also depicts the PTSD that Easy and other characters who fought in WWII experience, referring more than once to the violence and brutality of war.
While I liked his use of tropes in his other novels, here they lacked subtlety. Take Daphne. The woman is this Femme Fatale who acts like an angel but soon enough reveals what a ‘vixen’ she is. There was this horrid sex scene which made me want to scratch my eyes out and could only have been written by a man (if you know, you know) and I did not entirely like how Mosley resorting to the ‘Tragic Mulatto’ archetype (doomed because of who she ‘really’ is). His female characters in general left a lot to be desired, they are very much objects (sex objects more often than not).
If anything this proves just what a long way Mosley has come as a writer. His storytelling and characterisation are much more accomplished in his most recent work, however, even here you can clearly see signs of his talent (his crackling dialogues, his exaggerated yet wholly effective metaphors, his story’s strong sense of place, and his piercing commentary). Still, if you haven’t read anything by him, I encourage you to give his newest novels a go before venturing into his older stuff.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith

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

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

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

my rating: ★★½

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The Herd by Andrea Bartz

Having really enjoyed Andrea Bartz’s debut novel, The Lost Night, I had rather high hopes for The Herd. Sadly, not only is The Herd populated by simultaneously unrealistic and detestable characters but it also tells a rather derivative story.

The summary seemed to promise a tantalising story, one that would depict the complicated and shifting dynamics in an all-female co-working space. What we actually get is the usual cliched storyline that focuses on a group of friends, one of whom happens to be more successful/famous than the others.
The plot is predictable and boring, most of the suspense is created by our not knowing the narrators’ secrets. There was no real tension or atmosphere. The HERD centre is never the focal point of the story but a mere prop, one that led to scenes in which this group of friends can go on and talk about ‘the male gaze’ and the ‘patriarchy’.

“The one way to win, the one fucking way to be a woman and do well in this world is to stomp on other women’s backs.”

While originality wasn’t The Lost Night’s strongest point, it more than made up for it by having a striking sense of place and time. In The Herd however New York and the HERD centre fade into the background.
Eleanor Walsh is the classic female character who appears in this type of so-called ‘psychological’ novels. We are told that she is the basic embodiment of the perfect modern woman: beautiful, intelligent, charismatic, a feminist. Being told that she is alluring or interesting doesn’t actually make her those things.
Her disappearance unfolds in a predictable way: her closest friends decide to embark on their own investigation even if there is a detective working the case. Katie and Hana are sisters and both were close to Eleanor. In alternating chapters we read of their amateurish attempts at finding out what Eleanor was hiding. They are also hiding things from one another and they are both trying to forget about a ‘traumatising’ incident from their pasts.
They spend most chapters getting scared by their own ringtones, wondering whether Eleanor is dead, receiving help by their conveniently gifted friends (such as a hacker), and feeling sorry for themselves.
That’s more or less it.
Add two or three attractive and possibly guilty of something or other male characters and there ya have it: The Herd.

The novel tries to critique a certain brand of feminism by portraying how hypocritical certain female entrepreneurs are: in spite of their ‘empowering’ agendas they still encourage their female associates to spend hours on end on their appearances or they are actually profiteering from other women’s insecurities.
If the HERD centre had actually been the focal point of this novel I think that the story could have been a lot more engaging as well as providing us with a more cutting commentary on certain facets of contemporary feminism. What we have instead is a predictable narrative about two sisters, both of whom think that the other one has it better than they do.

Lousy story and characters aside there are a few other things about this novel that really frustrated me:
✖ This group of friends lacks chemistry. Where they even friends to begin with? Why should I care about ‘backstabbing’ and ‘lies’ when they seem to sort of dislike each other from the get go?
✖ The ‘twist’ is almost identical to the one in The Lost Night so I saw it from miles away. Isn’t that a bit of a cheap trick? The reveal and final face-off are incredibly reminiscent of the ones in The Lost Night.
✖ The sisters’ ‘secrets’…one seemed recycled from similar novels while the other one was laughable (view spoiler)[(a husband walks in on his wife cheating with him with another woman and he has a heart attack?! Come on!) (hide spoiler)].
✖ The writing…in The Lost Night there were a few phrases which struck me as very debut-like (examples being “a new thought, opening like an umbrella” and “happiness rushing up through me like froth”). I wasn’t expecting the writing in The Herd to be so much more aggravating. Most pages in this novel have to do with what Katie and Hana feel and think. But they never simply feel or think things. Their feelings and thoughts blossom, billow, plume, or fan out:
-“I said it without thinking, the idea booming out of me like a cannonball.”
-“Fear was fanning out inside of me, working outward from my gut.”
-“The realization that I knew almost nothing about this guy resurfaced like something bobbing up from the bottom of a lake.”
-“It rose through me without warning: a plume of anxiety, neon and strong”
-“The awkwardness plumed, filling up the room like smoke.”
-“Then, pushing through the fug of my worry for Eleanor, a heady sadness that billowed like incense,”
-“The idea bloomed in my skull as if someone else had whispered it to me.”
-“I watched her cry, feeling my impression of her shifting like tectonic plates inside my skull.”
-“A thought like a whisper”
-“sadness billowed in me, threatened to burst out from behind my face.”
This novel is basically pages and pages of purply phrases accentuating the special way in which the narrators think or feel.
✖ Overdramatic. As I’ve mentioned before characters are constantly overacting. They get scared by their phones (“My phone exploded with sound; I jumped so high, I practically bonked my head on the ceiling.”), they think that drums sound like gunfire (“We were looping scarves and tugging on hats when a sudden round of gunfire made us freeze. It started again. Not gunfire—drums, a drum line.”), they gasp at the silliest things in very dramatic fashion (“My mouth gaped open, an oval of shock.”), they are fumbling in their attempts not to let others know that they are actually trying to find Eleanor. A lot of ordinary actions were given a forced sense of urgency: “I was a human whirlwind, somehow whipping out a digital recorder, accepting the call, and putting her on speakerphone all in one scrambling swoop”.
✖ The narrators try really hard to come across as SERIOUS feminists so that as soon as a male character talks they think or say stuff like ‘he can’t understand what is like to be a woman’…more laughable still are phrases such as: “Samantha was washing silverware with the furious concentration of a frat guy playing flip cup” and “I futzed and fumbled, jabbing at the keyhole like an awkward teen during his first sexual encounter, until finally the door clicked open”.
✖ The way these female characters are portrayed promotes a rather one dimensional image of a feminist. While I could get behind the critique of this new wave of feminism, the story never truly delves into the complexities of female friendships or of an all-female workplace. The villain’s final monologue, however cheesy, actually had something interesting to say about the nature of certain female friendships….but that hardly makes up for the novel’s general lack of insight into these ‘female’ dynamics.

The ‘herd’ analogy appeared now and again but for the most part was largely underused. This novel wasn’t fascinating or chilling, it just was. If you haven’t read Bartz’s debut novel and you don’t happen to have a low tolerance for cringe-y proses, you might actually find The Herd to be entertaining.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆


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And Now She’s Gone by Rachel Howzell Hall — book review

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“Boyfriends and husbands, baby daddies and one-night stands were always madly, deeply, truly in love. Bloody love. Crazy love. Love-you-to-death kind of love.”

Last year I read the first book in Rachel Howzell Hall’s ‘Detective Elouise Norton’ series. It had a great sense of place and a brilliant main character. And Now She’s Gone shares many of its strengths. Once again Hall brings Los Angeles life and culture to life. From its more bourgeois or hipster-y venues to its neighbourhoods with their different identities. While And Now She’s Gone lacks some of Land of Shadows‘ grit, the narrative does touch upon sensitive topics.
Grayson Sykes, who goes by Gray, works at a P.I. firm, founded by an old friend of hers, and she’s just been assigned her very first ‘big’ case (previously she was tracing missing dogs).
Ian O’Donnell’s girlfriend and his dog have seemingly vanished without a trace. In spite of Ian’s seeming respectability, he’s white, wealthy, a successful doctor, Gray soon begins to question his relationship to his missing girlfriend. Isabel Lincoln, the missing woman, has an elusive past and her disappearance is anything but a straightforward affair.
Interspersed throughout the narrative are fragments from Gray’s own traumatic past. Her experiences inform her investigation, and she soon begins to question whether she wants to unite Ian with Isabel.
The novel juggles quite a few storylines. At times I did feel more invested in Gray’s story than in Isabel’s disappearance. Perhaps because the case becomes a rather thorny affair, and there were certain revelations that seemed a bit convenient. Still, I really liked Gray and her character arc. Hall pays attention to the smaller, and often overlooked, moments that make up a P.I’s investigation (such as non-functioning pens or dying batteries). Gray’s was an admirable and relatable protagonist. I do wish that some of those ‘then’ scenes were cut, merely because I would have preferred more time with Gray in the ‘now’.
Gray’s circle of friends were entertaining and served to lighten the overall mood. In spite of its serious themes, the story did have a breezy tone (a more modern Janet Evanovich?) and I definitely liked Gray’s sense of humour: “The Armed Forces Career was steps away from Panda Express. From broccoli beef lover to proud marine in less than twenty yards.”
The romance subplot kind of irritated me. While the sexual tension between these two was clear, and I wanted Gray to be happy, I did found the whole ‘you’re not ready for a relationship’ line to be rather presumptuous (who is he to decide whether Gray is read or not?). While there were some twists that I didn’t see coming, I wasn’t entirely convinced by the story’s resolution. It felt a bit too fantastical.
Still, I did find this novel to be entertaining. Hall’s descriptions managed to be colourfully amusing:
“Las Vegas in the morning was like the hot guy in a dark club who, in the light, had buck teeth, hair plugs, and smelled like a fifties-era bowling. Morning Vegas needed to stay in bed until dusk, until the neon and the glass and full-on commitment to the illusion worked best.”
I liked how aware the narrative is of certain tropes (Gone Girl is indeed mentioned). There were quite a few nasty individuals in this novel. Ian was a repulsive guy (more than once he comes out with ‘I’m a nice guy’ and says racist shit along the lines of ‘I don’t see colour’). We also have an abusive man who does come out with non-to-credible lines: “We could’ve ruled the world”.
Another minor thing that annoyed was Gray’s necessity for ‘bottled’ water (if you don’t like tap water just buy one of those water filters!).
And Now She’s Gone would probably make a great summer read. It has compelling protagonist, a fast-paced narrative, and a vividly rendered setting.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey — book review

25746685.jpgWays to Disappear tries hard to evoke the absurd and surreal atmosphere that is often associated with Latin American magical realism, the end result makes for a rather dismal homage. The lack of quotations marks and the inclusion of word definitions hardly make Ways to Disappear innovative. A nondescript American translator flies to Brazil after Beatriz Yagoda, a ‘brilliant’ writer, disappears having been last spotted climbing into a tree. The translator’s relationship to Beatriz is opaque at best. Their relationship was clearly no ordinary author/translator relationship but I never got an impression that Emma (aka the American) was concerned for Beatriz. She wants a reason to leave her unmemorable fiancée. In Brazil ruffles the feathers of Beatriz’s daughter (who quite rightfully wonders why Emma has inserted herself in her mother’s life) and predictably ends up entangled with the author’s ‘sexy’ son (his one defining quality is that he is ‘smooth’, a ‘lover’….which is kind of stereotypical). The plot goes nowhere, the characters fight amongst themselves, and make skin-deep realisations.
The only redeeming quality of this novel is its short length. Other than that…it offers little (if anything): the characters are unfunny caricatures, Brazil is simplistically painted as being hot and corrupt, and the story, if we can call it such, was a combination of meaningless and slapdash.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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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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Lock Every Door : Book Review

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Lock Every Door
 by Riley Sager
★★★✰✰ 3 stars

This is the book equivalent of popcorn. If you are looking for a gripping plot-driven story, look no further.

I think that the best thing about Lock Every Door is that it is an entertaining read. The action takes place over the course of a few days which gives the plot a really engrossing edge.
That being said (or written) I don’t think that this book is a deep or thought-provoking mystery/thriller. I thought it was a lot of fun and I did find the story suspenseful but the writing itself was rather sparse…most of the scenes are there to further the plot and they don’t really give you much insight in the main character’s mind (she is the classic ‘traumatic past+quiet’ type that is all the rage in these new thrillers) and a few of her observations regarding her finances seemed aimed towards readers who aren’t aware of what being poor means. If not disingenuous they seemed simplistic and a bit contrived.
The rest of the characters were cartoonish, but hey, I actually love the old Scooby-doo series so… I didn’t much mind. They are not believable, they do not talk like realistic individuals but the story doesn’t dwell on these side-characters too much.
There are a few things that happen which make little sense in hindsight and I think that they were there only to keep up the ‘suspense’ : (view spoiler)
The reveal was a bit over-the-top but I enjoyed seeing how things unfolded. Again, ultimately, I wasn’t fond of the blatant portrayal of the divide between rich and poor. The discourse on wealth seemed to me oversimplified and exaggeratedly dichotomous. Having the MC think of herself as ‘frugal’ for ordering a salad doesn’t quite cut it…(especially since salads tend to be more expensive and less filling that many other dishes…)
Also, there is this side-story involving the MC’s parents which (view spoiler)

A few positives: I liked the building (its history, the MC’s apartment—with its creepy wallpaper and stunning view—and the gargoyles, they all stood out), I was intrigued by long list of ‘tragedies’ connected to it and by the mystery behind Ingrid’s disappearance.

Overall, this makes for a great edge-of-your-seat book. If you try to make sense of the things that happen…well you might have a hard time buying into any it.

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