My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

“Horror’s not a symptom, it’s a love affair.”

My Heart Is a Chainsaw is a magnificently chaotic ode to slasher, one that demonstrates an unparalleled knowledge of the genre, its logic & tropes. I saw quite a lot of reviews describing this as a slow burner, and sì, in some ways Stephen Graham Jones withholds a lot of the chaos & gore for the finale however, Jade’s antics and internal monologue are very much adrenaline-fueled, so much so that I struggled to keep with up with her. Jade’s awareness of and excitement at being in a slasher gives the narrative a strong meta angle, one that results in a surprisingly playful tone, one that belies the gruesome nature of these killings.

Jade Daniels, a teenage girl of Blackfoot descent who lives in Proofrock, Idaho, is in her senior year of high school but has no real plans or aspirations besides obsessing over slashers. She’s the town’s resident loner goth, who lives with her dad, an abusive alcoholic. Jade is angry: at her ne’er-do-well dad, at his friend(s), for being creeps, at authority figures, who don’t really listen to her, at her mum, for bailing on her, and almost everyone & everything Proofrock-related. The only things keeping her going are slashers, and she dedicates her every waking moment to them, to the point that her recollections of their plots, characters, and tropes, become an inextricable part of who she is. Jade has no friends to speak of and is regarded by most of the townspeople as being a bit of a joke and a total ‘weirdo’. The only people who keep an eye out for her are her history teacher, Mr Holmes, and Sheriff Hardy. Jade spends most of her time lurking in the shadows, dying her hair emo colours, creeping around Indian Lake and Camp Blood, the town’s local haunts.

When some magnates from out of town begin developing a piece of land across the lake, Jade senses a change and is proven correct when a body count begins…what’s more, the daughter of one of these uber-wealthy developers, would make the perfect final girl. Jade knows that a slasher cycle is about to begin. Rather than being alarmed by the realization that her reality is now that of a slasher, Jade is freaking excited. She has no plans to stop the slasher but wants to see the story unfold, so she does a lot more lurking about, hoping to figure out the identity of the slasher and witness the slasher cycle from up close. Her obsession with Letha does lead her to reach out to her, but her ‘you are a final girl’ prep talk doesn’t go down well. As I said, Jade’s exhilarated inner monologue is hard to keep up with, however, I was also so taken by her that I was more than happy to follow in her chaotic steps. Jade makes full use of her encyclopaedic knowledge of the slasher (sub)genre, and provides a myriad of references and asides that link what is happening in her town to existing slasher flicks, comparing the slasher’s modus operandi, speculating about their identity and their next victims. Meanwhile Mr Holmes, Sheriff Hardy, and Letha are quite concerned about her and despite the brutal deaths that are happening don’t believe Jade’s slasher theory. Things of course escalate, and Jade finds herself in the middle of a blood bath…

The plot is very much heavy on Jade’s internal, and often inchoate, musings and ramblings about slashers. Having spent most of her life venerating slashers, and hating everything and everyone around her, she’s positively thrilled by the prospect of a slasher going on a killing spree in Proofrock. Sure, her eagerness at other people’s violent and bloody deaths certainly raises a few questions, and people like Letha & co believe that her obsession with slashers and her conviction that a slasher is responsible for the deaths and freaky occurrences that are happening in Proofrock is just a deflection…while they are not wrong Jade isn’t ready to go there, throwing herself into her analysis of ‘her’ slasher.

There were so many elements that I loved in this novel. Despite my almost perpetual confusion at Jade’s references (I went through a horror movie phase aeons ago but have grown out of it since and never really delved into the slasher subgenre) and the breakneck speed of her internal monologue, I was utterly engrossed by her voice. Sure, she’s not what I would call a good or likeable person, however, her penchant for morbidity and her unrelenting slasher enthusiasm made for an endearingly offbeat character. She very much makes the novel. This is how you execute the Not Like Other Girls trope. Readers are made aware of Jade’s striving to be different: her botched hair-dyeing, her trying-hard-to-be-edgy-but-is-actually-just-grubby look, her commitment to playing the town’s goth girl, her sometimes willful and sometimes unintentional disregard of social niceties and norms…Jade really seems to make an effort to be perceived this way, to be seen as the slasher-obsessed girl and a ‘weirdo’. The end result is that Jade is different, not better than others, just different. Now, for all her self-dramatizing we can also clearly see that Jade’s edgy girl persona has become an inextricable aspect of who she is. Whether she became this way due to trauma, or whether her commitment to the role was such that she eventually became that person, it’s up to the readers’ interpretation. I for one read Jade as being a mix of those things. She grew up in a very unstable environment, with no support system to speak of, one of her parental figures is an abusive drunkard, the other was not only complicit in said abuse but eventually left Jade to fend for herself. Understandably, given her lack of control in her life, the violent logic that operates in slashers would appeal to her. However, similarly to Shirley Jackson’s alienated and alienating (anti)-heroines I wonder whether different circumstances would really have made a difference for Jade…
Anyway, her very presence in the story is fantastic for a number of reasons. She knows that her ‘existing’ in this slasher is an ‘aberration’: not only does she know too much about slashers but people like her do not usually feature in these movies. She flits between wanting to see sh*t hit the fan and wanting the slasher to well…slash her. One way or another, she’s hyped for it and not quite the screaming and scared side character that usually gets killed off in these films. Also, Jade’s intensity and morbidity reminded me of Merricat and Wednesday Addams, and similarly to them, she finds that other people are put out by what they perceive to be her strange behaviour and demeanour. When Jade begins talking or thinking about slashers and revisiting local horror lore, she seems wholly unaware of other people and the world around her. Yet, the other characters react in a very realistic wtf is her deal way that results in many surprisingly funny scenes. Jade’s zealousness over slashers also brought to mind, I kid you not, Patrick Bateman, specifically that scene with the card (where his overreaction is so extreme that he begins to sweat) and his music monologues. The conversational tone of the narrative adds a level of immediacy to the story and really work in capturing Jade’s wry voice. There were elements of absurdism that brought to mind The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher.

As things get bloodier and bloodier we do see a shift in Jade, but I appreciated that her character development ultimately remains very subtle and she remains her slasher-obsessed self. Learning more about her past and her trauma does ‘contextualize’ some of her behaviours, however, but we can’t quite reason away her slasher-mania as being the inevitable result of that trauma. Her ambiguousness made her all the more interesting to read about. While we learn all about what she thinks of slashers—its precursors & incarnations, its hits and flops, its tropes—much about her remains inaccessible to us. I didn’t understand her most of the time, and incongruently enough that made me like her even more.

The writing and atmosphere in My Heart Is a Chainsaw super solid. The writing has this snappy, energetic quality to it that not only really amplifies Jade’s slasher-obsession but it really adds to the action & otherwise murder-y sequences. The prose was also very effective when it came to pacing, as Jones’ rapid sentences really add fuel to the storyline. The atmosphere too is great. The narrative’s self-referential nature actually ends up adding to the story’s slasher ambience, as Jones’ is able to not only pay homage to slashers through his storyline (through’s jade’s non-stop references and asides about slashers to the actual implementation of the genre’s conventions) but he also makes this slasher his own, repeatedly subverting our expectations.

My Heart Is a Chainsaw was a riot. We have a gritty storyline, plenty of humour (from those ah-ah-that’s-funny moments to humor that is more on the lines of that’s-kind-of-fcked-up-so-why-am-i-laughing), and a protagonist whose flabbergasting antics I was equal parts obsessed and appalled by. Jones’ really captures Jade’s loneliness and anger, the long-lasting consequences of abuse, the complex ways trauma manifests into one’s behavior & personality…and of course, given the book’s focus on slashers and on being a slasher, Jade’s story heavily deals with revenge and violence…
I’m really looking forward to the next instalments…(am i the only one who read jade as queer-coded?)

ps the first time i tried reading this i wasn’t feeling it and dnfed it early on so i can see why the book’s overall ratings aren’t sky high…still, if you are in the mood to read extensively about slashers or don’t mind a morbid and chaotic af protagonist, i think you should definitely give this one a chance.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Lakewood by Megan Giddings

“America is only routinely good to women, especially Black women, when it wants something from them.”

Having recently read Megan Giddings’ intriguing sophomore novel, The Women Could Fly, I decided to revisit Lakewood, a book that I have picked up and put back down on and off since August 2020. Each reading attempt saw me lose interest during Lena’s first ‘interactions’ with Lakewood. Whereas The Women Could Fly drew me in from the very first pages, I had a much harder time becoming invested in Lena’s story. The writing was solid enough but lacked the polish of the prose that I encountered in The Women Could Fly. Still, this time around I was determined to finish what I’d started, and so I persevered reading, despite my waning interest. Now that I have finally ‘made it’, I can definitely pinpoint why this book didn’t really grab me like The Women Could Fly: whereas in that novel Giddings maintains a delicate balance between her subject matters (authoritarian & patriarchal regimes, female bodily autonomy) and her character development, here Lena never comes into her own, she sadly remains fairly one-dimensional, and her character often struck me as a vehicle through which the author could explore a horrifyingly unethical human experimentation.

I will begin with the positives: I think Giddings excels at atmosphere, and most of the narrative is permeated by a subtle yet unshakeable sense of unease, one that morphs from a feeling of not-rightness into downright horror. Lena’s story also retains an ambiguous quality, one that blurs the line between what’s real and what’s not. Many of her experiences at Lakewood appear to us as fragments, with no clear chronological order, certain events or memories are distorted. The people involved with the Lakewood project and the people of Lakewood themselves remain opaque figures, their names and faces a blur. Their perturbing vagueness exacerbated the narrative’s eerie atmosphere, their perpetual unfamiliarity a source of unease and potential danger. So, in terms of ambience, Lakewood certainly succeeds in making for an alienating and murky read. There were also some very clever descriptions (“Inside, a white woman with a haircut that looked as if she had shown her stylist an image of a motorcycle helmet and said, “That’s the look,” was waiting.”), and I appreciated the narrative’s discourse on sacrifice & freedom.

“Maybe the hypothesis is how much do people value money over themselves?

Where this book lets me down however was the way the Lakewood project is presented to us. Much of the narrative, most of the narrative it seemed, consists of the questions Lena has to answer as part of this experiment. And these questions were by turns weird, seemingly arbitrary, and intrusive. Yet, they bored me. I would have preferred the narrative to be heavier on introspection, as Lena was in much need of, well, a personality (besides being a dutiful daughter). She responds to her environments as you would expect: at first she’s perturbed, then disturbed, and finally horrified. But her responding to the questions and the experiments at Lakewood in this manner did not make her come across as a rounded character. The third-person perspective makes her feel further at a remote, which lessened the impact of her narrative. While we do understand the circumstances that lead Lena to ‘participate’ in this project, I did find her initial compliance odd. I would have liked to see more of an internal monologue on her part, rather than having to see her function as a mere plot device through which the author can show how dehumanizing medical experimentation can be. I mean, you could read an article discussing actual unethical medical experimentations, if I have to read about a fictional take on these, I would like for these to be explored through nuanced characters (or a compelling main character at least). Still, the author is able to address the type of circumstances that might lead someone to take part in medical experimentation, and the difficulties in extracting oneself from it. Lena is never quite certain of what is happening to her, and is very much restricted by nda she has signed. She does now and again ask why certain questions are being asked to her, the point behind her answers, but she receives no replies or unsatisfying ones. With the exception of one person, we don’t learn much about the other people in the experiment, and the time Lena spends at Lakewood acquires a blurry, almost feverish quality, one that makes it often difficult to grasp how much time has passed from one scene to the next and determine Lena’s reactions to what she is subjected to and witnesses there. There is a lot f*cked up stuff that happens there that is just glossed over, and in a way, I get that the author was showing that the participants in this experiment had been desensitized to the weirdness of the questions and rules there, but I would have wanted the author to expand some more on Lena’s feelings about a lot of stuff, to be honest.
There seemed to be neither a lot of telling nor showing bizarrely enough. What we do get is a lot of question-and-answer scenes which are profoundly repetitive and dull. I would have liked for the narrative to incorporate more portions of Lena’s life prior to Lakewood, as I believe that her relationship with her now-deceased grandmother, her chronically ill mother, and her best friend, would have added an emotional layer to the story. Again, maybe the cold, detached, somewhat clinical tone was intentional given the focus on Lakewood, however, I personally would have preferred some more depth from Lena.
Still, the author does focus on the way racial minorities, in particular Black people, and disadvantaged groups, such as poor and/or disabled individuals, are often the targets of these experiments, and how they are lied to, abused, and ultimately treated as ‘disposable’. The author also shows the hypocrisy of institutions and corporations that perpetuate physical and psychological violence in the name of ‘progress’.
The denouement was anticlimactic and in some ways predictable. That whole last section, which is presented as a letter if I recall correctly, in some ways ruined the surreal atmosphere so far established by the narrative.

I would have liked more. More from the story, the plot, and especially Lena. The premise was certainly intriguing but the execution left a lot to be desired. I went into this excepting something along the lines of Yorgos Lanthimos or Get Out, and while the book does have Black Mirror and even some Severance vibes, the storyline ultimately feels incomplete and it severely lacked in oomph.

Still, just because I didn’t find this to be as gripping a read as I’d hoped does not mean it was a bad book. If you are interested in it I recommend you check out more positive reviews.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf

“But life, like Scrabble, is like that—you get the rack you get, and you just have to figure out how to make do.”

Queen of the Tiles is an entertaining mystery romp that belongs to that subgenre of YA books that combines a whodunnit type of storyline with the kind of teen dynamics at play in Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars. Similarly to a lot of these books, Queen of the Tiles takes place in a ‘confined’ setting, but rather than going for the usual prep school/high school type of backdrop, Hanna Alkaf freshens things up by having her story take place during the World Warrior Weekend, an annual Scrabble competition. This tournament takes place in a hotel in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, a setting that, you must admit, we don’t get to see often in YA. Additionally, our lead is Muslim, and we also get a very casual non-binary rep with Shuba. The story definitely has some strong The Queen’s Gambit vibes and the author depicts the various Scrabble games in a really fun and dynamic way (so that they are anything but boring) and we can see just how devoted and ambitious some of the competitors are.
Najwa Bakri, our narrator, is taking part in this tournament, the first one she’s done since the very sudden death of her best friend.

“Every player knows that words can be twisted to suit your purpose, if the board allows it, and Trina knows this better than most. She is fantastic; she ignites fantasies. She is spectacular; she attracts spectacle.”

Trina Low died during the previous year’s World Warrior Weekend. Since her death, Najwa has distanced herself from the Scrabble world, but she finds herself going back to claim Trina’s former title, that of the Queen of the Tiles. She knows that people who didn’t like Trina, and who were in turn not liked by her, are also vying for that title, and Najwa isn’t ready to give them the satisfaction of winning. Competing again however proves harder than it used to be now that Najwa is struggling with anxiety and trauma caused by Trina’s premature death. The author is really thoughtful in the way she articulates Najwa’s grieving process, capturing just how suddenly grief can engulf you, regardless of how much time has passed since the person you cared for died. Alkaf also shows how grief manifests differently in different people.

Things get harder when new posts appear on Trina’s long inactive insta. Cryptic posts hinting that her death may have been very much not an accident. Joining a long tradition of kid-turned-detectives such as Nancy Drew and the Scooby-Doo gang (both of which get mentioned in the story), Najwa begins solving the posts’ ominous word puzzles and starts questioning the other competitors, most of whom were foes of Trina. There is the pompous boy she was competing against when she died, who seemed less concerned by her dropping dead than verifying whether her death meant he’d automatically won that final round. There is Trina’s ‘other’ best-friend, an ostensibly nice and obsequious girl whose subservience to Trina definitely gives off sycophantic vibes. There is that girl who was caught in a cheating scandal, and Trina may have been responsible for stoking those cheating rumours. And, of course, Trina’s off-and-on again boyfriend Mark, a possessive type who may have grown tired of Trina’s and what he perceived to be as her ‘blasé’ attitude. While Najwa has always been aware of Trina’s thorny character, and her need to prove herself and to one-up others, during the course of her ‘amateur’ investigation she will be forced to really confront the kind of person Trina was.

“That’s just how she was; she saw something she wanted and she went for it with a laser-sharp intensity that could border on the obsessive. All or nothing, perfection or perish.”

I liked the drama, the secrecy, the rumours and gossip. The Scrabble element was really well delivered and it worked really well for the mystery clues. My only quibbles are 1) throughout the story Najwa links words that are being used or were used in a game to her past or present situation. Sometimes this was effective, but the more this device was used, the less impactful it became, and at times I found the connection between word and situation to be a bit far-fetched 2) Najwa’s ‘tells’ got pretty annoying.
The characters weren’t particularly fleshed out or memorable, some were verged on being rather silly but this subgenre isn’t exactly known for having uber nuanced characters so it didn’t really negatively impact my reading experience. I would have however liked for Trina to have been portrayed in a slightly different light, as she ultimately seems a bit of a mean queen-bee cliché. I liked the lack of romance and Najwa made for a rather endearing protagonist. Their resolution to the mystery was a bit of a letdown, as I found the identity of the person behind those posts far too obvious. It would have been more satisfying to make someone else the culprit. There was also a metaphor about Mark being “a conquistador, trying to impose his will on Trina, colonize her spirit and reap her charms for himself, bend her to his definition of what a girlfriend ought to be” which struck me as a rather unhappy comparison to make.
In general, I did like the references we get, especially when they added a dose of humor and levity to the story’s ongoings (“Honestly. Murder. What do you think this is, an episode of Riverdale?”).
Still, I found this engrossing and fun read. If you are looking for a light-hearted whodunnit that focuses on a group of ambitious and possibly backstabby professional scrabblers, look no further.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼


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Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution by R.F. Kuang

“Languages aren’t just made of words. They’re modes of looking at the world. They’re the keys to civilization. And that’s knowledge worth killing for.”

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence: An Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution is an fierce indictment against colonialism. Within this superbly written slow-burner of a bildungsroman, R.F. Kuang presents her readers with an extensive critique of eurocentrism, scientific racism, white supremacy, elitist institutions and the hoarding of knowledge, and British imperialism that is by turns didactic and impassioned. If you are a reader who isn’t particularly into nonfiction but you are keen on familiarizing yourself with discourses on colonialism, decolonization, and postcolonialism, or are interested in linguistics (translation, interpretation, language contact), or learning more about the circumstances that led to the First Opium War, you should definitely consider picking Babel up.

Babel is a rare example of how—in the right hands—telling can be just as effective a storytelling method as ‘showing’. Kuang’s storytelling is quite frankly superb. And not only is the narration immersive and encompassing, but it is also informative and thought-provoking. Undoubtedly readers will feel angry by what they will read, and the unrelenting racism, discrimination, physical and emotional violence experienced by the story’s protagonist, Robin. This is a decidedly heavy-going story. And yet, thanks to Kuang’s bravura display of storytelling, readers will find themselves persevering, despite the foreshadowing that presages worse is to come…

The majority of the novel takes place in an alternate 1830s Oxford where Babel, the University’s Royal Institute of Translation, is the ‘pioneering’ centre of translation and ‘silver-working’, an act that catches what is lost in translation and manifests it into being. After cholera decimated his family, Robin, a boy from Canton, is whisked away from China to London by the imperious Professor Lovell, who happens to be a renowned professor at Babel. Robin has no choice but to follow and obey Professor Lovell’s strict study regimens. Not only does Professor Lovell impose a punitive lifestyle on Robin, forcing him to dedicate his every waking moment to the study and learning of languages, but he devests him of his ‘former’ name and makes him relinquish any remembrances of his former life. Additionally, Professor Lovell subjects Robin to many forms of abuse: from spewing ethnocentric and white supremacist speeches, to physically ‘punishing’ Robin. Growing up in this environment Robin grows to resent his ‘mentor’, and yet, even so he is desperate to belong. Besides his tutors and Professor Lovell, Robin only really interacts with his mentor’s housekeeper, who, despite being the only person to show him any tenderness, is nevertheless complicit in Professor Lovell’s continued abuse of him. Robin’s childhood is not a happy one, in fact, it is not really a childhood at all. The setting combined with the misery of it all brought to mind the work of Charles Dickens. Unlike Dickens’ heroes, Robin is not only disadvantaged by his being an orphan but by not being white, something that ultimately makes him a very un-Dickensian character. Professor Lovell’s oppressive ‘rule’ instils in Robin a sense of fear: while he does have a lot of questions (how did the professor find him? why him? why is he ‘bestowing’ on him such an education? what will await him at babel?) he is weary about disobeying him. Moving to Oxford opens Robin up to a world that is both awe-inspiring and terrible. At Babel he can master languages in even more depth, he can be surrounded by hundreds of years of knowledge, and by (supposedly) like-minded individuals.

“They’d been chosen for privileges they couldn’t have ever imagined, funded by powerful and wealthy men whose motives they did not fully understand, and they were acutely aware these could be lost at any moment. That precariousness made them simultaneously bold and terrified. They had the keys to the kingdom; they did not want to give them”

But even Babel has its own set of hierarchies, which prioritize whiteness and European cultures and languages. While Babel, unlike other colleges at Oxford, admits a more diverse student body, compared to his white peers, Robin is treated with a mixture of fascination and disdain. The older students seem unwilling to mingle with first-years so inevitably Robin becomes close to his cohort: Ramy, Victoire, and Letty.
Robin and Ramy become particularly close, and their bond is one of the novel’s strengths. It isn’t a particularly straightforward relationship but their similar experiences and circumstances intensify their kinship. There is a chapter relatively early in the novel that focuses on their early days getting to know each other which was immeasurably bittersweet.

“[This] circle of people he loved so fiercely his chest hurt when he thought about them. A family. He felt a crush of guilt then for loving them, and Oxford, as much as he did. He adored it here; he really did. For all the daily slights he suffered, walking through campus delighted him.”

You feel such relief for Robin to have found someone who just gets what it means to be seen as ‘other’, to be treated as ‘inferior’, ‘un-English’, and to have been deracinated from their homelands and to feel such contrasting emotions at being at Oxford, an institution that upholds racist ideologies. In this ‘alternate’ setting this contrition is even more felt given the role that Babel plays in silver-working and of how silver bars are enabling the British empire to amass even more power and wealth and to further ‘expand’. Robin believes that by staying at Babel, he is surviving. Ramy however is more openly critical of Britain. The duo is later joined by Letty and Victoire, who, being girls are also subjected to discrimination. Like the boys, Victoire, who is Black and was born in Haiti, has an extremely fraught relationship with Babel. Letty, who is white and was born and raised in Britain in a relatively well off family, is in some ways the odd one out. Yet, she seems intent on portraying herself as a victim, in any circumstance really, often referring to her own experience with misogyny to negate Robin, Ramy, and Victoire’s experiences with racism and colonialism. Additionally, her brother died, which Lety, we are both told and shown this, uses to earn her ‘friends’ sympathy. We are meant to hate her, and hate her I did. Imagine the most annoying aspects of Hermione Granger’s character and you have Letty (stubborn, sanctimonious, a stickler for rules). She is a colonialist apologist who, despite being ‘exposed’ to the perspectives/realities of people who have been colonized or have experienced violence at the hands of the British empire, remains firm in her stance (we learn this quite early on so i don’t think it’s that much of a spoiler). I recently came across this quote by Oksana Zabuzhko, a Ukrainian writer, that very much applies to people like Letty: “This is what power really is: the privilege of ignoring anything you might find distasteful.’ Certainly, we can see why at first Robin, Victoire, and Ramy would not oppose Letty’s presence in their group. These opinions have been instilled in her by her upbringing. But, when the months and years go by and Letty’s belief in the British empire remains unwavering…well…her presence in the group didn’t make much sense. I couldn’t fathom why the others would keep her around. I get that she existed to make a point, and sadly I know people like her (who resort to self-victimization whenever confronted with anything resembling criticism, who believe themselves to be ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ but only have empathy for themselves) but I just found her beyond irritating and obnoxious. She has no redeeming qualities. And it annoyed me that she took the center stage in many of the group interactions and took away page-time from characters like Ramy and Victoire. I wish she could have been pushed to the sidelines more, and maybe for her then to take more of a role when sh*t starts going down. But I digress.

At Babel Robin finally learns more about silver bars and dio mio, it isn’t good. He learns just how powerful language can be and has to reconcile himself with the knowledge that he is contributing to the enrichment of the British empire. Robin is approached by a member of a secret organization, Hermes Society, whose aim is to sabotage the silver-working that goes on at Babel and disrupt the status quo. Robin feels at a crossroad, damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t. While he does still experience racism and discrimination at Babel, it is there that he can access knowledge that would otherwise not be accessible to him. And, of course, it is there that he was able to meet Ramy and Victoire (i should really include letty because robin does care for her but i cannot bring myself to). Babel also has shielded him away from Professor Lovell, who he now sees only on rare occasions, and given him the kind an opportunity that many others will never have…but that doesn’t make him unaware of how, beneath its ‘enlightened’ veneer, Babel is rotten. Can he help Hermes Society if their acts of sabotage include or result in violence? Is violence inevitable in a revolution? And by choosing not to act does he become a cog that keeps the British empire running?

“He hated this place. He loved it. He resented how it treated him. He still wanted to be a part of it – because it felt so good to be a part of it, to speak to its professors as an intellectual equal, to be in on the great game.”

Robin is torn between his hatred for the British empire and the safety he believes he can only experience at Babel. Kuang renders his inner conflict with painful accuracy and extreme empathy. While other characters may be critical of Robin’s unwillingness to ‘choose’, readers won’t be as ready, and in fact, they will find themselves unable to judge him. He tries to help but inevitably his indecision leads the Hermes Society to decide for him. It is only when Robin is forced to confront the consequences of the opium trade—on China, on the Chinese population, and on the Indian farmers who harvested it—that he finds himself ready to act. But, things do not exactly pan out as the story takes us on a The Secret History kind of detour that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of whydunnits and dark academia. While the atmosphere prior to this event was by no means light-hearted after this happens Kuang ups the tension all the way up. The shifting dynamics within and outside of Robin’s group also change, and not necessarily for the better. And the stakes are just sky-high.

Like the summary says, Babel ‘grapples with student revolutions, colonial resistance, and the use of translation as a tool of empire’. We witness the many forms that power takes, and one of them is in fact language. Language can be in fact a tool of oppression. Kuang’s interrogation of the act of translation is utterly compelling. My mum is a translator and I am bilingual (yet have a foreign accent in both italian & english insert tiny violin here) and have recently started studying two other languages. Suffice to say, whenever I see a book exploring linguistics, I am interested (be it sci-fi like Arkady Martine’s Teixcalaan series, literary fiction such as Batuman’s The Idiot, or nonfiction like Lahiri’s In Other Words). And Kuang really presents us with so many interesting facts and insights into translation and untranslatability. Kuang pays incredible attention to words and their various meanings, which truly enriches Robin’s story and his experiences at Babel. Kuang discusses contact-induced change (which sometimes results in language death) and reading about it even feel guilty about having neglected my ‘mother-tongue’ (on a side note: i have noticed that here in england people seem less interested in learning languages as they rely on english being the most widely spoken language worldwide…). While Kuang does acknowledge Morse code, braille and sign language and other nonverbal forms of communication do not really get a mention which is a pity. Nevertheless, Kuang presents us with such nuanced discussions around language and translation, I loved the attention she pays to the etymology of words, double meanings, doublespeak, and the ambiguity of language and interpretation…

“In Classical Chinese, the characters 二心 referred to disloyal or traitorous intentions; literally, they translated as ‘two hearts’. And Robin found himself in the impossible position of loving that which he betrayed, twice.”

Like I said early on, the writing sometimes shifts into a telling mode, so we have swaths of time which are summarized into a few lines, or certain events or arguments are related to us indirectly. But, Kuang storytelling is such that what we are being told feels incredibly vivid and—for the better and worse—immersive. Some of the lectures Robin attends may occasionally seem a bit too long or pedantic, and I wasn’t always keen on the footnotes (more on that later), but I was never bored. Robin is such a compelling narrator and my heart went out to him. This povero ragazzo really can’t catch a break. And when he finds some solace, with Ramy and Victoire, we have Letty to stir things up or spoil the group’s rare moments of contentment. He hates Professor Lowell who is just so f*cking despicable and full of vitriol but also ‘perversely’ wants to earn his approval. He is also burdened by the realization that as the years go by he struggles to recall his mother and his early years in China. Once in England and under Professor Lowell’s ‘tutelage’ Robin feels caught in a constant state of alterity: while the story mentions that there are occasions where he can ‘pass’, he experiences overt racism, disenfranchisement, and microaggressions on the daily. And he isn’t given the tools or words to express this profound sense of injustice and alienation. Ramy and Victoire become his lifelines as he is finally given the chance to try to name the difficult thoughts and feelings he experiences living in a country that sees him and those like him as ‘barbarians’. Speaking of barbarians, I really appreciated how Kuang highlights the irony and hypocrisy of those British people who will claim that the people they are colonizing or waging war against are ‘violent’, ‘savages’, and ‘uncivilized’ and therefore deserving of being colonized, oppressed, and killed.

‘How strange,’ said Ramy. ‘To love the stuff and the language, but to hate the country.’
‘Not as odd as you’d think,’ said Victoire. ‘There are people, after all, and then there are things.’

I found Robin to be such an endearing character. Kuang captures the disorientation of living somewhere where you are and will always be perceived as a perpetual foreigner. His longing for a place to belong to is truly heart-wrenching. He is not flawless but I genuinely believe that he always tries his hardest to do good by others. Sometimes self-preservation kicks in and he finds himself at a standstill. He feels a moral obligation to help the Hermes Society but is not quite ready to be responsible for the destruction of Babel. Yet, when he realizes that he is becoming complicit in the injustices perpetrated by Babel..well, he has to question whether his loyalties can even align with those responsible for maintaining unjust systems of power.

“Yet didn’t he have a right to be happy? He had never felt such warmth in his chest until now, had never looked forward to getting up in the morning as he did now. Babel, his friends, and Oxford – they had unlocked a part of him, a place of sunshine and belonging, that he never thought he’d feel again. The world felt less dark now. He was a child starved of affection, which he now had in abundance – and was it so wrong for him to cling to what he had? He was not ready to commit fully to Hermes. But by God, he would have killed for any of his cohort.”

Ramy, who is more impassioned and outspoken, balances Robin perfectly. Their shared moments together do have certain undercurrents but these remain largely unspoken. And in some ways, it is this elision that made it all the more obvious.
Letty…I have said enough about her. She, similarly to Professor Lovell, remains unchanged throughout the course of the narrative. We know the kind of people they are from the very first and I am afraid that in some ways Letty is worse than Professor Lovell. Her acts of self-dramatization and victim playing drove me up the walls.
Victoire was sadly underused. Her characterization sometimes relied too much on opposing Letty’s one (we will have letty responding in a sh*tty way to something and then we will get a different response from victoire who usually acts as a pacifier). I just would have liked less page-time spent on Letty—who, however believable she is, is neither an interesting nor compelling character—and more on Victoire. In the latter half of the novel, Victoire is given more room to breathe but due to the pace of the plot, the storyline can’t really focus on her.
I liked how many secondary characters come into play in the latter half of the novel and I was surprised by the role some of them play in the story.
Reading about Britain’s ‘past exploits’ is by no means fun. Yet, somehow, Kuang is able to make Robin’s story wholly captivating and hard to put down. The anxiety I felt for him, and later on Ramy and Victoire, made me go through this nearly 500+ pages tome of a book at a relatively fast speed.

There is much to be admired in Babel. There were a few minor things that kept me from giving this a 5 star. At times Kuang could be a bit heavy-handed when elucidating certain points, and part of me wishes she could have trusted her readers more to reach certain conclusions without having our hands held all the way there. Letty, well, she stole too much time away from Robin, Ramy, and Victoire. I would also have loved to see some confirmed queer characters…but alas. While I appreciated that Kuang does take into consideration the experiences of working-class people, without condemning or condoning their behaviour towards our group, there was this one scene where a mob of mill workers are shouting at Babel students and their northern accent is described as ‘rough and incomprehensible’…which…wasn’t great. We already know that they are ‘snarling’ so these descriptors seemed unnecessary and play into existing negative stereotypes about regional accents. Kuang was spot on about British food though…
The tragic denouement also left me feeling rather bereft.

This was intentional no doubt but still despite the inevitability of it all I felt betrayed having become so invested in the story and its characters. But these things are very minor and kind of inconsequential given the scope and the depth of the narrative. Additionally, I really liked the intersectional and dialectical approach Kuang takes in her condemnation and deconstruction of eurocentric and white historical narratives.

“History isn’t a premade tapestry that we’ve got to suffer, a closed world with no exit. We can form it. Make it. We just have to choose to make it.’”

​​The realization that the author is my age makes me feel a mixture of befuddlement and intimidation. I mean, despite a few minor criticisms, this novel is a literary Achievement with a capital A.

‘But what is the opposite of fidelity?’ asked Professor Playfair. He was approaching the end of this dialectic; now he needed only to draw it to a close with a punch. ‘Betrayal. Translation means doing violence upon the original, means warping and distorting it for foreign, unintended eyes. So then where does that leave us? How can we conclude, except by acknowledging that an act of translation is then necessarily always an act of betrayal?’

When I approached this I did so under the impression that it would be something in the vein of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer Royal Series, and, like I said earlier on, Charles Dickens. And while there were brief instances within Babel where those comparisons rang true, for various reasons and to different degrees I was also reminded of Cornelia Funke, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer and books by Natasha Pulley (letty is for sure a very pulley-like female character). And yes, superficially Babel also carries echoes of a certain series by you-know-who. Babel is also in clear conversation with postcolonial discourses such as ones written by Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism and Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of The Earth.
However, make no mistake, Babel is an ultimately unique and imaginative work like no other. Maybe if you expect this to be heavy on the fantasy, like Cho and Clarke’s books are, well, you may find the magical element in Babel to be rather subdued. Despite its fantastical nature the narrative grounds silver-working in realism, and I thought it really fitted the solemn tone of the story. Whereas Cho and Clarke’s proses are bombastic and playful, Babel is more sombre and precise. It is also moving and clever, and Kuang’s commentary is razor-sharp and brilliant.
Both thematically and genre-wise Babel packs a lot. We have a bildungsroman set in an ‘alternate’ 1830s Oxford with the addition of a fantasy element. Through Robin’s story Kuang carries out an unflinching and urgent interrogation of colonialism and colonial resistance, knowledge and power, language and translation, privilege, racial science and systemic racism, xenophobia, ‘otherness’ and alienation, industrialization, gender and class-based discrimination, history and historical revisionism, and much more. Friendship, loyalty, hatred, betrayal, morality, longing and belonging, all of these also come into play in Robin’s gripping story. I would go more into detail about certain plot points or character dynamics but I don’t want to spoil anything…suffice to say there are a lot interesting and fraught character dynamics that add a layer of tension to Robin’s story. Like I said, the boy had my heart, and so did Ramy. I can’t wait to re-read this as I’m sure I was so engrossed by the story and worried about Robin’s wellbeing that I’m sure certain things went over my head.

“The origins of the word anger were tied closely to physical suffering. Anger was first an ‘affliction’, as meant by the Old Icelandic angr, and then a ‘painful, cruel, narrow’state, as meant by the Old English enge, which in turn came from the Latin angor, which meant ‘strangling, anguish, distress’. Anger was a chokehold. Anger did not empower you. It sat on your chest; it squeezed your ribs until you felt trapped, suffocated, out of options. Anger simmered, then exploded. Anger was constriction, and the consequent rage a desperate attempt to breathe. And rage, of course, came from madness.”

TANGENT BELOW:
If you aren’t keen on books that are very much making a point and include several scenes & characters that are there to drive said point home maybe Babel will not hold a lot of appeal to you. But, even so, I would urge you to nevertheless give this one a shot as usually, I am that type of reader, someone who prefers ambiguous storylines & characters and doesn’t like narratives that leave very little room for interpretation…but here it just fits? Yeah, on the one hand, I get that some of these ‘omniscient’ footnotes—which usually clarify misinformation or challenge white historical narratives—may feel a bit patronizing (colonialism & british empire = bad, slavery didn’t magically end overnight with the 1833 abolition act), but, on the other, I realize that scenes and dialogues that seem self-explanatory to some won’t be to other readers.
Kuang’s commentary on colonialism and racism feel necessary and sadly relevant. While she doesn’t label any specific country or community as good or bad she also doesn’t shy away from confronting the many atrocities and injustices perpetuated by the British empire. That Kuang is able to balance such a piercing critique with a compulsive and deeply affecting coming of age tale is awe inspiring.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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


Lightseekers by Femi Kayode

Lightseeker is a propulsive thriller that combines a who/whydunnit with a thought-provoking social commentary. Set in Nigeria, Lightseeker is predominantly narrated by Dr. Philip Taiwo, an investigative psychologist who has recently returned to Nigeria after having spent years in the United States. A husband and a father of two, Philip struggles to readjust to Nigeria’s sociopolitical climate. When he becomes convinced that his wife is cheating on him, he finds himself giving in to his father’s request to investigate the mob killing of three university students that occurred a few years beforehand. Their deaths were linked to their being members of a confraternity, but one of the victims’ fathers, who is connected to Philip’s own father, is adamant in his belief that his son would never join a cult. Philip takes the opportunity to get away from his marriage troubles and finds himself travelling to a village near Port Harcourt. Here he is aided by his driver and guide Chika, who is employed by the victim’s father, and who seems to have many hidden skills. The two soon pick up on the hostility that locals harbor against outsiders, especially those who are seeking to unearth a recent and tragic occurrence. Not only are the local authorities unwilling to help them, but they seem intent on obstructing their investigation. The locals instead see them as a threat, often refusing to talk to them. The students at the university seem more open to discussing the killing but it is only when the rapport between Philip and the locals worsens, to the point where his well being is at stake, that he begins to understand what occurred.
Not only did the story have a strongly rendered setting but the author was able to incorporate diverse and numerous issues within Philip’s investigation. Religious tensions between the town’s Christian and Muslim communities, class and educational disparities, cultism and herd mentality, politics and corruption, as well as the long-lasting consequences of colonialism. Because Philip is not from this town and has yet to fully readjust to Nigeria, we mostly glimpse and understand things through his ‘naive’ eyes, which makes for an immersive experience. The shifting dynamic between Philip and Chika was compelling and I appreciated the way their bond develops.

Now, on the things that didn’t quite convince me. One, well, it’s a crucial one. Once Philip decides to accept this request to investigate the Okriki Three he never seems to really doubt that their deaths were not ‘simply’ the horrific result of a mob killing. And the thing is, he believes this with no substantial proof. The locals’ unwillingness to discuss it or the police’s general shadiness can be understood as a sign of their guilt over their role in the mob killing. Yet, he ‘knows’ that something else is going on…and I didn’t really buy it. Early on he really had nothing to consolidate this belief and yet throughout the course of the narrative, he operates under that assumption. The narrative also shifts to a different point of view, and these chapters are very brief and intentionally ambiguous…and I found them cheap. I have never been a fan of mysteries that provide us with short, and corny usually, chapters from the ‘bad guy’s’ perspective. That the bad guy in question here is clearly experiencing a severe mental disorder was also…dodgy. True, this time around the person is not a psychopath but their (likely) disorder is still routinely stigmatized in the media and popular culture.

My last issue has to do with the female characters in the novel. On his flight to Port Harcourt Philip just happens to be seated near an attractive girlboss who, quelle surprise, is somehow connected to his case. He seems to entertain the possibility of cheating on his wife because this woman is such a girlboss. Fair enough, I don’t particularly mind reading about characters who behave badly or have bad thoughts. However, the language he uses to describe her and refer to her combined with the story’s running gag (Philip declaring that a happy marriage can be achieved by never contradicting your wife in an argument/discussions because “women be like”…especially ‘nagging’ wives who are often mad about nothing…and the thing is, his wife seems far more reasonable and clear-eyed that he is. She barely has any ‘page-time’, but I wondered why Philip would brag about his ‘tactics’ when the only conflict in his marriage seems a result of him having (recently) seen something that has led him to jump to certain conclusions. I hated that he is not quite ‘proven’ right but that what he had seen had escalated into something to be concerned about. Even more frustrating, she blames herself! Like wtf! Also, how could Philip, an investigative psychologist who is shown to be fairly intuitive, be so ready to believe the worst about his wife? Especially given the fairly banal nature of what he’d seen? The woman who helps Philip in the investigation serves the function of a plot device: adding further tension to the troubled marriage subplot and aiding Philip in his investigation when the story needs it.

While the resolution to the mystery was a bit dragged and not particularly satisfying, I did find the majority of this story gripping and I look forward to whatever the author writes next.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo

Summer Sons is very much a vibes-driven novel that would not exist without Maggie Stiefvater’s The Dream Thieves. From the aesthetics permeating the story to the combative & codependent character dynamics, Summer Sons share a lot of similarities with that book. Lee Mandelo’s older cast of characters however allow for them to employ an edgier tone, one that at times reminded me a bit of Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House (both mcs have spend most of their respective narratives chasing paranormal shit, to the detriment of their academic, getting repeatedly emotionally and physically bruised and pissing off ppl left and right). The first time I approach Summer Sons I ended up dnfing it. While I do agree with some of my initial criticisms I think this second time around I was able to just ignore the few bumps along the way and just let Summer Sons take me for a ride.

Written in snappy prose Summer Sons follows Andrew, who is in his early twenties and is about to begin a graduate program at Vanderbilt where he will be joining his best friend and (adopted) brother Eddie. Their bond is very much of the codependent variety, as the two were irrevocably bound together by a traumatizing childhood experience that has left them with, in the case of Andrew, some unwanted abilities. But then, just before their long-awaited reunion, Eddie commits suicide leaving behind a grief-stricken and confused Andrew. Eddie left everything to him, including a ridiculous amount of money and a house in Nashville (roommate included). Andrew moves there, but he couldn’t really care less about his studies. He is determined to find out what happened to Eddie. He is immediately suspicious of and antagonistic towards Eddie’s former roommate, Riley, and his cousin, Sam. Andrew is jealous of the time they spent with Eddie and is reluctant to reveal anything about his past or his intentions to them.

The first half of the novel has very little if no plot going on. I mean, things are happening but they mostly consist of Andrew feeling unwell, hitting someone, getting hit, getting drunk, getting high, ignoring his uni inbox, and making wild speculations about what happened to Eddie. He does have a few meetings with his advisor and tutor, but for the majority of the first half of the novel it’s more about the very charged dynamics between Andrew and Sam, and to a lesser extent, Andrew and Riley. There is a party or two, some drag races, and buckets of toxic masculinity. The chemistry between the various characters more than makes up for the lack of, shall we say, plot. The author also explores Andrew’s very intense relationship with Eddy, capturing the duo’s power dynamics.
I appreciated how thorny Andrew is. He is so careless about his own well-being that he engages in some pretty self-destructive behaviours. He is also repressed af, and struggles to reconcile himself with the possibility that his love for Eddy may have not been strictly platonic. And of course, his attraction to Sam complicates matters. And yeah, there was something about them that definitely reminded me of Ronan & Kavinsky, except not quite as messed up, as here both Andrew and Sam embody what I can best describe as an exceedingly Ronan-esque chaotic energy. I liked the realistic way Andrew responds to the queerness of this group of friends, and that it takes him time to truly allow himself the possibility of being attracted to men.
To exacerbate his alienation are recurring nightmarish visions of death and rot. Eddie’s phantom is stalking him, resulting in periods of dangerous dissociation. Riley and Sam claim they want to help but Andrew. being the hard-ass he is, is not so sure about letting anyone in.
The latter half of the novel has more to do with his amateurish sleuthing, as Andrew is forced to confront the likely possibility that what occurred to him and Eddie as children has something to do with Eddie’s death.
We have old family curses and blood rituals, eerie visions, and disturbing occurrences. Additionally, Mandelo dedicates time to critiquing how insular colleges are as well as the elitism and racism that pervade the academic world.
I liked the uneasy relationships the characters have with one another, and that Mandelo holds their main characters accountable for their past and present actions without writing them off as ‘bad’.

There were a few things that I wish could have developed differently. The paranormal element had potential but was implemented in an inconsistent and in some places sparse way that ultimately does it a disservice. I liked how it remains largely ambiguous but it could have been amped up in quite a few instances. Also, in the scenes where this paranormal element comes to the fore the descriptions could have been more vivid. It would have been nice to learn more about haunts/revenants or other spooky occurrences that Andrew & Eddie may have experienced after ‘it’ happened. Similarly, it would also have been nice to have more of a background about their childhood and teenage years (their relationship with Andrew’s parents, their high school days, etc..). We know about their tattoo and their ‘shared’ gf (who thankfully speaks up about being used and tossed aside like a toy) but very little about anything else. In some ways it makes sense since they were each other’s worlds, so everything else would barely register, however the complete lack of presence of Andrew’s parents was felt.
The resolution to Eddie’s death was too derivative, especially within the urban fantasy genre. She who shall not be named did that a few times in her series. Maggie Stiefvater subverts this trope by making readers, but not our main characters, aware of who the ‘antagonists’ are. Barudgo also does it in Ninth House, but in a far more twisty way than Mandelo. Here instead that finale seemed vaguely formulaic and entirely too predictable. That the ‘villains’ lacked a certain ‘oomph’ factor also made that last action rather lacklustre. I do think that at the end Andrew gets a bit too much of the blame for how things went down with the villain. The boy is an asshole sure. But he was just trying to find out the truth and how could he have possibly predicted that things would go down that way?!

The writing had a certain fanfiction-y quality but I found myself really enjoying it (so we have a lot of growling, flashing teeth, dangerous expressions, an overuse of ‘the boy’ instead of the characters’ names). The prose was snappy and intentionally edgy which makes for highly engrossing storytelling. I do wish that the author had reigned in on the more anatomical descriptions of his characters. There are whole paragraphs dedicated to describing whose leg is on whose ankle or how someone’s hand is dangling or touching somebody else’s body part). Yeah, in a way these add a certain sensual element that makes these scenes really pop, but there were moments where they ended up sidelining the actual storyline or drawing attention from the dialogue. There were also way too many random highfalutin words dropped in for no reason (such as ‘cadre’) and they had the same energy as me during my first year as an undergraduate student using archaic terms for no reason other than to make what I was writing sound clever (but i just ended up with some seriously jarring phrases).

Despite these criticisms, I did like Summer Sons. Andrew is a tortured and somewhat impenetrable character that is equal parts frustrating and lovable. Mandelo articulates Andrew’s inner conflict without resorting to cliches or moralisms. The interactions between the characters seamlessly alternate from being funny and entertaining banter to more heated and tense confrontations. The friendships and the romance we see develop between Andrew and others really make the book. I loved how the author is able to dedicate a lot of page time to Andrew’s unresolved and complicated relationship with his sexuality but also present us with some very casual lgbtq+ rep (we have a trans character, a positive portrayal of polyamory, and a character who uses they/them pronouns makes has a cameo appearance). The pining and sexual tension between Andrew and Sam were chief’s kiss.

I’d love to read more by this author (maybe something with wlw characters…? or just more girls in general cause i don’t think this book would pass the bechdel test test..at least in trc we have the women of 300 fox way).
If you like spooky summer ya novels, like Beware the Wild, The Wicker King, Wonders of the Invisible World, or the gritty aesthetics of urban fantasy series like Holly Black’s The Modern Faerie Tales, Summer Sons should definitely make it onto your tbr pile. I look forward to whatever Mandelo publishes next and I can definitely see myself re-reading Summer Sons.

ps: i did think it would have been nice for mandelo to mention in their acknowledgements stiefvater as her series clearly inspired this book.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

Like a Sister by Kellye Garrett

Like a Sister is an engrossing novel that will definitely appeal to fans of Rachel Howzell Hall. Solid pacing, a likeable and engaging narrator, plenty of compelling dialogues, and a well-rendered suspenseful atmosphere. I won’t lie, the main reason why I picked this one up was because I came across the audiobook version while perusing Bahni Turpin’s audios . As per usual, she gives a brilliant performance which no doubt enhanced my reading/listening experience with Like a Sister.

Our main character is Lena Scott, a graduate student at Columbia who is in her late twenties. After her grandmother passes away she inherits her house in the Bronx, which she now shares with her aunt. Her mother is dead, and Mel, her father, a big shot music producer with a don’t-mess-with-me reputation, has shown little interest in Lena. After their ‘messy’ separation he went on to marry and have a child with a former close friend of her mother. Despite the animosity between their parents, Lena and Desiree were ‘like sisters’. Despite their different home environments, with Desiree enjoying Mel’s wealth, Lena leads a more sheltered existence, focusing on her studies. Eventually, Desiree gains certain popularity, having taken part in a reality show and hanging out with ‘it’ crowds. Her partying lifestyle becomes a wedge in the sisters’ relationship, as Lena can’t condone Desiree’s careless ‘misdemeanours’. After years of not talking to each other Lena learns that Desiree has been found dead the morning after her 25th birthday. The media and police are quick to dismiss her death as an accidental ‘overdose’, but Lena is more x. Why was her sister found in the Bronx? Was she on her way to see her? Mel and Lena’s stepmother do not seem as troubled as she is by the inconsistencies of Desiree’s death. Lena feels guilty over her fallout with Desiree and is determined to find the truth. As she reaches out to Desiree’s ex and her friends she begins to suspect that her death may have something to do with the ‘event’ that led to their fallout. Reluctantly Lena is aided by Desiree’s bff, a white rich girl who serves as a source of humor for much of the early narrative.

I liked the dynamic between Lena and the people she interacts with. I think the story would have benefited from giving her more of a backstory. She seems to have only one acquaintance and 0 friends. I kept forgetting what her profession/subject of study was because her character is very much all about Desiree and Mel. That is not to say that she doesn’t have a clear-cut personality. She is loyal, sensible, and funny. Some of the jokes she makes did come across as more in line with someone older than her (rather than 29, someone closer to if not over 40). Still, that didn’t ruin her narration, and I found her old-fashioned quaint and endearing. Her voice is certainly engaging as I was thoroughly absorbed by her narration.
I would have liked for one of the side characters to be less of an ‘Inventing Anna’ type of figure as it was fairly predictable and the misdirection takes up a lot of the story for no reason. The mystery was interesting but the resolution was painfully anticlimactic. The culprit was painfully obvious and I really hoped that the author would subvert my expectations by not making them the killer. Their motivations are…kind of missing? I didn’t buy into their ‘reasons’, as it seemed a huge leap to go from ‘that’ to murder. The ending did feel rushed to the point that it lessened my overall enjoyment of the novel. We also get chapters that are the equivalent of insta posts or lives about Desiree and they did absolutely 0 for the story. I wish we could have had chapters giving us glimpses into the sisters’ childhoods as that would have added depth and nuance to their relationship.
Still, I did have a fairly fun time with this as it was a quick and gripping read/listen. I would definitely read more by this author!

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan

Midnight at Malabar House presents its readers with a fairly promising start to a new sleuthing series. As you may or may not know I am a big fan of whodunnits and golden detective fiction and ever since finishing Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries I have been on the lookout for a historical mystery with a female lead. Midnight at Malabar House starts off in Bombay on New Year’s Eve, 1949. Inspector Persis Wadia, our main character, happens to be India’s first female inspector. Persis is fairly ‘fresh’ on the force and is keen to prove her worth. Yet, her passionate and driven attitude seems to have only antagonized her peers who are quick to dismiss her on the basis of her gender and her age. It just so happens that she’s the first on the scene of Sir James Herriot, a ‘distinguished’ English diplomat. Persis knows that his death is not a result of a robbery gone wrong and is prepared to pursue avenues that might make her a persona non grata in the force as the wealthy and well-connected guests of Herriot’s party are not happy to be seen as suspects. Her superior too seems to show little concern over the apprehension of the true killer, seemingly satisfied with attributing his death to the most convenient and ‘expandable’ person. As Persis investigates Herriot’s not-so-straight-and-narrow affairs and the various members of his household she is forced to reassess her idea of justice. Persis is assisted by Archie Blackfinch, a Scotland Yard criminalist who becomes her unlikely ally.
The aspect I enjoyed the most was the historical setting. Vaseem Khan demonstrates an admirable ability to render specific time periods and places: from his dialogues to the way the characters comport themselves, Khan shows an understanding of the social mores existing in this period of time. Because of this many characters express unsavoury opinions, and Persis is often at the sharp end of these remarks. I appreciated that Persis was portrayed as a very determined individual. Her characterization does fall a bit into the clichèd territory as she’s the ‘green’ young investigator keen to prove herself and the, allegedly, ‘stubborn’ woman in a male-dominated field. Her stubbornness is made out to be her ‘main’ flaw, something that frustrated me a little. At times this aspect of her character was a tad overdone as if the author wanted to stress that she wasn’t a perfect lead and/or to explain how she has ‘made it’ onto the force. It just so happens that before reading this I’d read another male-authored book with a ‘headstrong’ female investigator/agent/whatever and part of me realizes that may very well be realistic but I’d like more complexity in their characterization. The male investigators are battling inner demons/recovering from traumas/clever-yet-super-flawed or whatever else and the women are ‘stubborn’ and ‘spunky’….then again, this is only the first instalment in a series that will probably go on to make Persis into a more rounded character, so I look forward to that (khan, do not disappoint me pls).
The case is fairly engaging and I liked the plot’s momentum. We have red herrings, some false leads, some interesting dialogues with possible suspects etc. Backdropping this investigation are some thought-provoking discussions on the long-lasting consequences of colonialism, the partition, class-based inequalities, and corruption. This landscape of political and social turmoil adds a layer of tension and urgency to Persis’ investigation, and overall I liked the author’s nuanced approach to these topics. I particularly appreciated how he challenges simplistic ‘good/evil’ binaries. Persis does undergo some promising character growth, as she learns that good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes and that her ambition sometimes clouds her judgment. While she does show empathy for others, there are instances where she is so focused on the big picture, in this case, the identity of the killer, that she can come across as callous. There is a hint of a romance subplot which I am not wholly sold on yet…but maybe the follow-up will make said romance a bit more credible.

While this whodunnit doesn’t quite fall into the cozy mystery genre it ultimately had a feel-good vibe to it. It was very rewarding to see Persis challenge the people who oppose her or who proudly & loudly share their misogynistic views. If you are an Agatha Christie fan you should definitely check this one out.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

Portrait of an Unknown Lady by María Gainza

“Strange: It has come to me that one doesn’t write to remember, or to forget, or to find relief, or to cure oneself of some pain. One writes to plumb one’s own depths, to understand what’s inside.”

Having found Optic Nerve to be a puzzling yet thoroughly compelling book I was very much eager to sink my teeth into Portrait of an Unknown Lady. Whereas Optic Nerve loosely ties together the unnamed narrator’s meditations on history and art, in Portrait of an Unknown Lady Gainza contains the narrator’s reflections and inquiries into these subjects into what appears to be more of a semblance of a plot. This by no means results in a plot-driven narrative, as there is no urgency to the protagonist’s introspections. Her ruminations are given a freewheeling tempo, one that reminded me of lazy summer days from my childhood. In spite of her philosophical speculations, the narrator’s internal meanderings had a buoyancy to them that saved them from coming across as verbose or laboured.
Set in Buenos Aires the narrator of Portrait of an Unknown Lady is an auction house employee who follows her mentor into the more shady recesses of the art world. When her mentor dies our narrator feels lost, lacking purpose, and direction. She eventually finds solace in rejoining the world she’d left behind, as she begins to search for the identity of a forger, best known for their Mariette Lydis forgeries. In her investigation of this unknown person, the narrator finds herself considering just what a forgery is and whether there is a thing as ‘authenticity’. The first quarter of this slim volume was certainly engrossing as I found the narrator’s recollections of her early days on her job and her relationship with her mentor interesting indeed. As the book progresses however I found myself bored at times. The narrative at times seemed to stray away from its original plot so I found myself forgetting that there was a plot in the first place. I would have probably preferred a more experimental and unconfined narrative, In Optic Nerve, for example, each chapter was very much self-contained, whereas here we have this overarching storyline that never comes to the fore. Still, I always love reading about art, and Gainza demonstrates a vast knowledge of this subject. I liked reading her impressions of certain artists or art movements and the insight she gives into the more administrative aspects of the art world. Gainza is as adroit and insightful as ever but overall Portrait of an Unknown Lady left me wanting more. The snapshot-like stories that make-up Optic Nerve stayed with me longer, as they captured in vivid detail the life of an artist and a moment from the narrator’s own life. The parallelism between her experiences and those of the people she discusses gave the narrative further dimension. Here instead we lack that very specific comparative element, and even if identity, loneliness, and authenticity are central themes, both to the protagonist and her subject, well, it resulted in a far looser comparison.
Still, I can see myself returning to this book as a re-read may result in a newfound appreciation for its story. If you are a fan of Gainza or authors such as Rachel Cusk or Jessica Au, I recommend you check out this one for yourself.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼