Circa by Devi S. Laskar

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Dove in the Belly by Jim Grimsley

in The Dove in the Belly, it’s all about the 𝔂𝓮𝓪𝓻𝓷𝓲𝓷𝓰

“A moment of happiness could feel almost like a wound.”

The Dove in the Belly is a work of startling beauty that presents its readers with a piercing exploration of male intimacy and a mesmerizing study of queer desire that beautifully elaborates the many gradations of love. Jim Grimsley captures the pain of longing, articulating with exacting precision love’s double-edged nature, from its capacity to hurt and anguish us, to its ability to transfigure and revive us. The Dove in the Belly is a romance that is equal parts tender and brutal, one that is permeated by ambivalence and angst, but also affinity and ardor. As my boy Lacan would say, it’s all about the jouissance, that ‘backhanded enjoyment’ that ‘begins with a tickle and ends with blaze of petrol’. The love story that is at the heart of this narrative, which is as tender as it is fraught, is characterized by an exhilarating sense of impermanence. It is admirable that the author is able to breathe new life into what could easily be seen as a tired dynamic, that between the ‘straight’ jock and the more introverted intellectual. Perhaps the setting, mid-1970s, made me more amenable to become invested in these characters, despite their behaviour and attitudes, or maybe it is thanks to Grimsley’s unrelentingly gorgeous prose. Fact is, I fell in love with this book.

Most of the narrative takes place on the campus of the University of North Carolina, where both Ronny and Ben are enrolled. Ronny is studying English literature and journalism whereas Ben is there on a football scholarship. In many ways two are very much opposites, however, they form an unlikely camaraderie one that eventually sparks into a more meaningful friendship. Ronny’s attraction to Ben soon leads to a harder to shake infatuation, one that Ben is not only aware of but he seems to relish the power he has over Ronny. Of course, this kind of dynamic is not a healthy one, and Grimsley renders the confusing and contradictory jumble of emotions experienced by Ronny, the anguish and titillation he feels at being ‘seen’. While Ben’s unsparing words often hurt Ronny, we also see how often his cruelty is undercut by genuine affection. We also glimpse in his actions an ache that hints at something ‘more’…

Over the course of the summer holidays, their relationship transforms into something more charged, and the moments of playfulness and banter give way to a more (in)tense if tentative connection, one that is made all the more fragile by Ben’s deep-seated homophobia and by having to cope with his mother’s rapidly deteriorating health. Ronny, who is becoming more comfortable with his sexuality, struggles to maintain their relationship afloat, especially with Ben’s unwieldy temper. While the possibility of violence threatens many of their moments together, we also see the comfort they can give one another. Although I don’t like the word ‘frisson’ (i can’t explain it, it just makes me wanna exit the chat) it is a rather apt word to describe the current underlining many of Ben and Ronny’s interactions.

My heart went out to Ronny. While some may find his fixation and devotion to Ben strange or frustrating, I understood it all too well. I loved how quiet, sensitive, and contemplative he was, as well as the way he observes the people and environments around him. While initially Ben stands in stark contrast against Ronny, as more of his character is ‘unveiled’ to us, I found myself softening to him. Make no mistake, Ben was still capable of upsetting me (he has a temper on him, he’s possessive, and when confronting things he doesn’t want to he goes into fight/flight mode) but, and this is a testament to Grimsley’s storytelling, I found myself unable and or unwilling to dismiss him as ‘toxic’ or ‘bad’.

Grimsley populates his novel with fully-formed individuals, who have lives, fears, and wishes, of their own (as opposed to serving as mere background ‘props’ to our main characters). I loved the rhythm of his dialogues, which reveal moments of discordance, whether a pause in the conversation is a sign of unease or contentment, the difficulties in expressing feelings that are ‘off limits’, and the feelings of desperation that sometimes motivate us to speak with seeming cruelty or indifference. I appreciated how empathic the author was, in not condemning his characters for their mistakes, and in his compassionate treatment of characters outside of Ronny and Ben.
The prose is something to behold. It had the capacity to move me to tears, surprise me with its delicate touch, inspire me with its elegantly turned phrases, and lacerate me with its fiercely observed insights into love, grief, desire, and heartache.
Grimsley’s prose brought to mind An Ocean Without a Shore by Scott Spencer, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, and authors such as John Boyne. The all-consuming relationship between Ronny and Ben brought to mind These Violent Delights, Apartment, Carol, and especially the work of Brandon Taylor, who simply excels at portraying uneasy relationships and unclear feelings.

2022 has not been a great reading year for me. With the exception of re-reads, I have only given a single 5 star rating (to Elif Batuman’s Either/Or) so I am so thankful to have come across this unforgettable book. It may have singlehandedly saved my reading year. The Dove in the Belly explores a messy love story between two young people who are by turns the ones being hurt and the ones doing the hurting as well as rendering the nuanced connections between family members, friends, and acquaintances. This is a remarkable and layered novel, one that struck me for its prose, its sense of place and time, its characters, and its themes. The Dove in the Belly is a heart-wrenching yet ultimately luminous novel, one that I can’t wait to re-experience.

ɴʙ if I had to use one word to describe this book it would be ‘struggente’, which can be translated as 1. entailing or revealing an inner torment; melting, tender, moving, aching, painful, heart-rending. Or if I had to describe this book with a quote I would turn to Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia: “And so that was what love led to. To wound and be wounded ”

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★


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The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb

“And none of that mattered. No matter how nice the suit, no matter how educated his speech or how strong the handshake, no matter how much muscle he packed on, no matter how friendly or how smart he was, none of it mattered at all. He was just a Black person. That’s all they saw and that’s all he was.”

While I did find The Violin Conspiracy to be a bit all over the place the author’s acknowledgements hit hard. The book opens in medias res with Ray McMillian, our main character, discovering that his Stradivarius has been stolen. Ray is preparing for the international Tchaikovsky Competition and without his fiddle, he feels unmoored. The narrative then jumps back in time where we meet Ray in his teens and learn more about his family situation. His mother wants him to drop school so he can work full time and so she can buy a new tv. When Ray begins to earn good money by playing at various events she quietens down somewhat but she still clearly disapproves of his violin playing and often ridicules him and his belief that he could pursue a career as a violinist. The only supportive member of his family is Ray’s beloved grandmother who loves him to bits. She also wants him to play and gifts him her grandpa’s fiddle. Ray eventually ends up getting a scholarship for a prestigious college. His mother doesn’t want him to go but Ray is determined to follow his path. He eventually learns that his violin is a Stradivarius. His family wants him to sell it and claim that it was never his, to begin with. To keep them at bay Ray begins to send them large sums of money but they never seem satisfied. He also begins to receive thinly threatening letters from a family that claims to be the righteous owners of the violin, and it turns out that they are descendants of the people who had once enslaved Ray’s great-grandfather. Eventually, the narrative reaches the beginning, where Ray’s beloved violin has been stolen and the competition is just around the corner.
Throughout the narrative, the author highlights just how racist and elitist the classical music world is. From when he played as a teenager at venues to his time as a teacher and a professional violinist, Ray experiences racism. Classical music is something that is often associated with whiteness and because of this Ray has to fight to be accepted into this world. No matter how hard he proves himself he will be confronted with people dismissing his skills, claiming that he is a ‘diversity token’ or diminishing his talent. There are many harrowing scenes where Ray is mistreated and abused, and the realism of these scenes made it clear that these episodes had likely been experienced by the author himself (such as the wedding one early on). From outright racist remarks to more ‘veiled’ ones, Ray has to fight tooth and nail to claim a space in this extremely white elitist world. That he has no support from his family certainly doesn’t help as with the exception of his grandmother and an aunt, they are all keen on him selling his violin.
The novel tries to combine a Bildungsroman novel with a more suspenseful storyline but the two don’t quite mesh together. The flashbacks into Ray’s teenage years do add context to his life and the violin but they fail to make him into a more rounded character. I found him rather flat, at times a little more than a vehicle to move the story forward. I would have liked for him to have a more defined personality and a more developed characterisation. Other characters were similarly one-dimensional, Ray’s mother in particular. She’s portrayed as a horrible person: every scene she is in she says something awful. She has no redeeming qualities whatsoever and I could not understand why Ray would bother with her at all. He also has siblings but we never see him interact with them. His other relatives, with the exception of that one aunt, are all greedy and nasty to him. The bad characters in this book are also extremely one-note. This is fair enough, a simplistic approach could have worked but I found it annoying that the author would describe these characters as physically ‘ugly’ and are often ‘fat’. The woman who claims that the violin belongs to her family for instance has ‘jowls’ covered by ‘downy hair’. All of the policemen are of the doughnut-eating variety, but this, I didn’t mind as much given my less than warm feelings towards them.
Anyway, the story suggests that either Ray’s family or this white family are behind his missing violin. The novel then takes a weird turn by making someone else responsible and forgetting almost entirely of Ray’s family or that other one. It just seemed an odd choice and a predictable one at that.
I also did not care for the way Ray spoke about or describes women (“the tawny-haired woman with the tight dress running her fingers suggestively around her wineglass”; “The attractive women who seemed to take an interest in him were mostly in the look-but-don’t-touch category”; “A young athletic woman was crossing in front of them, her toned ass bouncing with every step in her black leggings.”).
The writing too could be quite cheesy, especially in its efforts to tie everything back to classical music (“He tried to breathe but his ribs had been wrapped in piano wire”; “Why was he so terrible at talking to this woman? She was violin-shaped, right? So why was this so hard?”).
Still, while I wasn’t a huge fan of the writing or the characters, the story was relatively engaging. If you are interested in this novel I recommend that you check it out yourself.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

What’s Mine and Yours by Naima Coster

Riding the coattails of Little Fires Everywhere and The Vanishing Half, What’s Mine and Yours not only tells a blow-by-blow predictable tale but one that failed to entertain or elicit any feeling other than frustration in this particular reader. What’s Mine and Yours, ya basic.

To call the writing in this novel ‘prose’ seems misleading as this is some of the most lifeless writing that I have ever come across. That is not to say that it is bad or terrible but dio mio, does it lack heart (if someone had told me that this book was written by an ai i would have believed them). Anyway, as you might have already guessed, I did not like this book. In fact, it really really really irritated me. The only reason why I persevered was that I listened to the audiobook which is superbly narrated by the one and only Bahni Turpin (had it not been for her i would have dnfed this).

As with any other of my negative reviews, I encourage those who want to read this book to check out some more positive opinions. Do keep in mind that the summary is extremely misleading. The school integration is not the focus of the novel, merely a plot device to further the drama between the characters and create some tension for our star-crossed lovers.

SPOILERS BELOW

Positives
✓The opening chapter. It has the most fleshed-out character in the whole novel who for reasons does not make a single appearance after that.

Negatives
✕ Story & Structure
This novel gives a halfhearted attempt at a non-linear/multiple perspectives kind of narrative but unlike The Travellers it clearly favours certain povs and timelines over others. So while the summary will have you think that the story pivots around in particular on the school integration, well it does not. The chapters set in 2018, years after the integration has taken place, are the real focus of this novel, and jeez, how dull they were. There present readers with some dull family drama, three cardboard cut sisters (the gay one, the wannabe celebrity one, and the one who is having marriage problems and wants children). There is an attempt to make a character’s identity into a big reveal but it was obvious who they were from the very start. So, structure-wise, this novel sucks. Why implement multiperspectives’ if you are mainly sticking with two characters? The non-linear timeline adds nothing to the story, as it fails to build suspense or give a sense of mystery to certain events. The story attempts to touch upon topical & serious issues but it ultimately fails to deliver a substantial exploration of race, class, identity, and motherhood, opting instead for a very superficial social commentary that is chock full of platitudes.

✕ Characters
The characters were either lazy caricatures or reduced to one single characteristic. While I was reading I asked someone what they envisioned when I said ‘Lacey May’ and they made a face. And that’s basically it. Lacey May is the kind of character you are not meant to like. Fair enough, as I am more than able to enjoy books with dislikable characters….as long as they are given some nuance or depth. Lacey May…is portrayed as a shrill, bigoted, ‘i’m not a racist but’, self-centred white woman who is so OTT she gave me a bloody headache. Do people like her exist? Probably yes. Do I want to read pages and pages from her perspective that kind of try to humanise her but not really? No. Fuck no. How about no fucking thanks. I found Noelle to be just as unsympathetic (so you have a deadbeat father, boohoo, join the club). She has no real personality and is mainly defined by the fact that she is Lacey May’s daughter. Gee, who is Black and one of the students who ends up at Noelle’s mostly white fancy high school, is very much sidelined in favour of drama between Noelle and her mother.

✕ Sex scenes
There was an odd amount of sex scenes that…why? They were either incredibly cheesy or just plain wtf: “He was still her husband, she his wife. They moved together for a short time. It was all liquid and soft muscle, a warm mess. ” Give me a break. We even get a scene in which Gee is masturbating and…what did that add to his story? The guy already doesn’t get enough page time and you are wasting what little he has on a scene where he masturbates? Because of course, that’s what teen boys do!

✕ Low-key problematic
I am so sick of stories that punish characters who have abortions. Here that character later in life has a miscarriage and wants children but can’t have them. She eventually does have a child but with another man and after a period of cheesy self-reflection in which she confronts the ‘ghosts’ from her past.
I was also not a fan of the gay rep in this book. It had a vague hint of ‘the token gay’.

This is the book equivalent of a soap opera. It was full of clichés (married man goes to france eats croissants and has an affair with a younger woman), unnecessary melodrama involving Lacey May and her daughters, and it felt vaguely moralistic (especially the way the abortion/miscarriage were handled). The uber generic writing, as previously mentioned, was not to my taste.
This is the kind of novel that seems to have been ‘made’ with book clubs in mind. So, if you are a fan of Jojo Moyes and Kristin Hannah, chances are you’ll like it more than I did.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆


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The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

The Hollow Places is a thoroughly entertaining novel that plays around with parallel worlds, portal fantasy and cosmic horror. When our narrator, Kara, moves back to her hometown (Hog Chapel, North Carolina) she is still reeling from her divorce. To avoid sharing a house with her mother she volunteers to work in her uncle’s peculiar museum (Glory to God Museum of Natural Wonders, Curiosity, and Taxidermy). She decides to catalogue the many curios and bizarre objects that live there. After her uncle is forced to take a break from the museum due to some health problems, she offers to look after it. Things however take a creepy turn when a hole in one of the museum’s walls leads to her bunker and that this in turn is connected to a rather horrifying reality which often defeats human comprehension. Simon, the gay barman who works next door to the museum and believes that he devoured his twin in the womb, is Kara’s offbeat companion. The two get in over their heads when they decide to the bunker.
Kara and Simon are immediately endearing. Kara, who is down-to-earth and incredibly witty (ranging from caustic to silly), is a likeable and diverting narrator while Simon is such a weird yet genuinely nice guy (capable of coming out with or believing in some seriously bizarre things). Their banter made the novel, and it was really refreshing for the main relationship in a book to be a platonic one.
While readers will probably feel some sense of anxiety or apprehension now and again, I would not classify this novel as a horror one. It certainly has horror elements, but ultimately, it seems more of an adventure/weird fiction type of thing (Stephen King by way of Terry Pratchett with some Jeff VanderMeer). Moments that have the potential of being disturbing (such as those scenes in which certain things appear to be ‘inside out’) and the willow trees were kind of creepy are alleviated by Kara’s humour. While I enjoyed the meta aspect of this novel and I do think that T. Kingfisher showcases some pretty impressive creative talent, part of me did find the latter part of the story to be a bit repetitive.
Overall I would probably recommend it to those who are looking for a fun read with some horror undertones.

my rating: ★★★ ½ stars


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Only Mostly Devastated by Sophie Gonzales — book review

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“It was late afternoon, on the very last Wednesday of August, when I realized Disney had been lying to me for quite some time about Happily Ever Afters.”

Only Mostly Devastated tells a cute but extremely formulaic story that is as memorable as a teen coming-of-age movie (possibly of Netflix variety). I really wanted to enjoy this but I found the story to be unimaginative, the plot is uneventful and, with the exception of Ollie and Will, every single character struck me as being little more than a stand-in for a certain issue.

Positives
✓ Sophie Gonzales’ simple writing style effectively conveys Ollie’s various thoughts and experiences. Rather than loosing herself in a purply metaphors Gonzales has opted for a more direct and plain prose and this first-person narrative is perhaps the most accomplished aspect of Only Mostly Devastated. Ollie hooks readers in, right from his opening lines, and keeps us entertained and engaged throughout the majority of the novel.

“Thankfully, Mom and Dad raised me to aim low, to encourage a healthy contentment in hitting par.”

Ollie’s is an amusing narrator. He is fairly awkward, very sweet, and has a lovely sense of humour. He shows self-awareness and self-respect (two things that are often MIA in a YA main character). While he does use acronyms (I had to google D and M) and makes plenty of references to popular culture, these were well incorporated into the narrative (they didn’t come across as just random insertions). If anything they made him into a believable teenager.

“A week later, and I was still getting lost more often than the girl in the Labyrinth movie, except I didn’t even have David Bowie in tights as a reward for my efforts.”

✓ The Grease-inspired story had potential. This ‘Will isn’t the same after the summer’ scenario created a good amount of tension and angst. Ollie is confused and hurt by Will’s change of character (from a sweet and sensitive boy into an obnoxious class clown who doesn’t want to be seen with Ollie).
The relationship between Ollie and Will was well developed. While Ollie doesn’t excuse Will’s behaviour (“I’m a dick because I’ve always been a dick around my friends wasn’t really an excuse.”) he doesn’t pressure him to make their summer romance public knowledge. Ollie, quite rightfully, finds it intolerable to be someone’s ‘dirty secret’, yet he also understands the difficult position Will is in (“No one deserves to be outed against their will.”). In spite of their disagreements and different attitudes, readers can see just how much they care for each other. They share many tender moments and I thought that their ups-and-downs were very realistic.

Negatives
✗ The storyline starts well enough but soon fell into a predictable path. We have a certain number of subplots following Ollie’s friends and his aunt which were so thinly rendered as to have little impact on the overall story.
Ollie’s friends and his aunt seemed to exist only so that the novel could address certain hot topics. Sadly these characters were reduced to the issues they were contending with. Take Ollie’s new friends: they just happen to be the three people he gets to know on the first day. One is there so the novel can include a hurried, and extremely superficial, discussion on body positivity. She has few lines and they mostly have to do with her appearance/body/diets+exercise regime…her personality was mostly non-existent. She was defined by this subject matter. Another one of his new friends (the girl who decides to nickname our protagonist Ollie-oop on the very first day…who does that?! Someone from Riverdale?) exists so the story can include an ‘its okay to fail/keep trying’ message. And then we have the girl who had the potential to have a more defined personality (not a good one but still) ended up being portrayed as a rather clichéd bully-with-a-heart. These three girls were poorly developed and rather unbelievable. Ollie’s aunt (and her illness) seem to have been included only as an inciting plot-device…which isn’t great as it is a cheap way to try to make your readers feel sorry or sympathise with Ollie (he didn’t need this extra dose of sad).
Ollie’s parents are so unimportant and ‘unwritten’ as to be closer to two nebulous entities than to two human individuals. In her first appearance Ollie’s mother tells him that they will be moving to a new state and he can’t complain because she has a lot on her plate. Which…yeah. After that she has a few lines about ‘energy’ and such. Ollie’s father makes his first appearance around the 40% mark and tells him off because he is stressed. After that I’m not sure he does or says anything of notice. They were like the adults in Tom and Jerry..cut off from Ollie’s story, barely in the picture.
✗ Ollie’s ‘old’ friends disappear after one video call…clearly they had a very meaningful relationship with Ollie.
✗ Will’s two ‘dude friends’ were as poorly developed as the rest…
✗ That ending was way too cheesy (even by rom-com standards).

Teens who haven’t read a lot of YA might find more enjoyable than I did…but readers who aren’t keen on plots that rehash tired elements from high-school dramas might be better off skipping this one.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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