Gallant by V.E. Schwab

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

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

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

The first time I read Coraline I was 10 or so and I won’t lie, it scared the bejesus out of me. I mean, the Other Mother has buttons for eyes. Buttons. And she wants to sew buttons into Coraline’s eyes. Wtf.
Anyway, this is a great piece of fiction. The story revolves around Coraline, a young girl who, alongside her distracted and workaholic parents, has recently moved into a big house divided into flats. As Coraline is out of school at the moment she grows increasingly bored and restless. After visiting her neighbours, who are rather peculiar, she ends up exploring her home and coming across a small locked door. The door, once unlocked, reveals a bricked wall.

One day, after a sort of argument with her mother, Coraline finds herself alone at home and decides to open the door once again. This time it leads into a corridor that takes her into a flat that is almost identical to her own. Here we meet Coraline’s Other Mother and Other Father who seem eager to bestow their love and attention on her. While Coraline is momentarily swept away by the delicious food she’s being served and by this ‘other’ version of her parents, she can’t help but feel slightly put-off by their appearance. Her Other Parents happen to have black buttons for her eyes. As the story continues we see just how terrifying the Other Mother is.
As I said, this is a creepy, even unsettling book. Coraline is such a likeable and sympathetic character that I found myself immediately invested in her and her wellbeing. I’m also a sucker for dark fairy tales, and while this book isn’t quite as dark as say Pan’s Labyrinth, the two definitely share their similarities. Coraline is tempted into accepting a seemingly perfect vision of her life and family. But, she can’t quite make herself forget and or stop loving her real parents, however imperfect they may be. The Other Mother’s love is not love, not really, and her behaviour towards Coraline, and her other ‘subjects’, can be seen as echoing the ones of an emotionally abusive parent. Ultimately the story takes a cat-and-mouse turn where Coraline has to outsmart the Other Mother.
I absolutely love Gaiman’s storytelling, and here he really outdoes himself. He has written something that is accessible to younger readers without sacrificing depth or dumbing down his narrative. And of course, the cat steals the show.
The film adaptation is great too. A favourite of mine even if does add Wybie into the story (he’s very much a comedic-relief type of character). If you have time I also recommend you check out The Eldritch Horror of Coraline by CJ The X (it’s a chaotic & funny analysis of the character of the Other Mother).

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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Version Control by Dexter Palmer

Version Control is going to be tough to review as I have never felt so conflicted about a book. There were some scenes in Part I that were pure genius. But once I delved into Part II I was forced to reevaluate my first impressions of this book.
Imagine walking into some art gallery and coming across a piece of art that just blows your mind. Later on, when you walk past it again, you actually stop and read the artist’s statement, which consists in the usual meaningless art-speak. And you look back to that work and think “this is so fucking pretentious”. That’s how I feel about Version Control which is all flash and no substance.
Once I finally slogged my way through this 500+ page book I felt cheated. It had so much potential and Dexter Palmer clearly had some great ideas…sadly these were lost in the midst of inconsistent world-building, poor characterisation (the female characters are atrocious), and a surprisingly uninspiring storyline (I mean, how could you manage to make travelling be boring?).
Palmer took every opportunity to satirise every single one of his characters, in what basically amounted to satire for the sake of satire, which, if you ask me, fell flat as it had nothing smart to say. I’m not sure at what point exactly I became aware of it but Palmer clearly loves taking the piss out of millennials. And he does it in a way that brought to mind those segments on Ellen where she makes fun of millennials because they don’t know how to use a typewriter or a rotary phone (quality humor, not).
At first the dialogue in this novel rang true to life. There were tense or awkward pauses, character misunderstanding someone else’s choice of words, conversations could lead to nothing or suddenly escalate into arguments. But then I couldn’t help but to notice how frequently characters would just have these very long monologues in which they ranted about everything and nothing. Which, yeah, some people do go on (I am doing so right now), or end up having longwinded and heated rants…but every-single character? And that’s when I realised that the characters in this novels were like the characters in a film by Woody Allen (they all speak like Woody Allen regardless of their age/gender/personality). And that kind of killed any enjoyment I had left for this book.
The rant-y to of my review reflects the many rants that are in this book.

The Story
Even if the premise for Version Control reminded me of What If, a novel I didn’t particularly care for, I was intrigued by it. The story is set in the near-future (more on that later) and follows five main characters: we have Rebecca Wright, a recovering alcoholic who is now in her late thirties and works “part-time as a customer service representative for Lovability, the online dating service where, eleven years ago, she’d actually met the man who was now her husband”; Philip, said husband, who is a brilliant scientist devoted to his work on the ‘causality violation device’ (which, in a running gag, and much to the scientists’ annoyance, gets called ‘time machine’); there is Rebecca’s BFF from college, Kate, who is a superficial bimbo (more on that later); Carson, a scientist who works under Philip and is on-and-off again dating Kate; and Alicia, “the only female post-doc in Philip’s lab” who is Not Like Other Women. There are some minor recurring characters, most of whom we get to see only in certain environments (like the two security men working in the lab) so that we never really learn about them.
Rebecca and Philip have lost their son, but they don’t speak of him or how he died. Philip spends most of his time working or talking about the ‘causality violation device’ (CVD) while Rebecca mopes a lot around the house thinking of how much she wants to drink. I was expecting this to be a story that blurred the line between reality and fantasy, one that would make you question whether the ‘strange’ sensation felt by Rebecca was a sign of her spiraling mental health or something of a more fantastical nature. But this wasn’t that kind of novel. And, as I previously mentioned, at first I didn’t mind. The story was more intent on creating some realistically awkward or fraught encounters between the various characters. Rebecca’s marriage is in trouble and her relationship with Philip isn’t great. She doesn’t get particularly along with Alicia while Philip gets into a heated argument with Rebecca’s dad (who is a Unitarian minister). Kate’s derisive comments about ribs and watermelons force Carson, who is black, to question whether she’s racist. Carson is also getting pretty pissed off at one of the security guards, who keeps calling him Carlton (“acting white”). No one gets along with anyone, and the story is very much about that. Palmer seems to delight in putting his characters in the most uncomfortable situations possible. Philip’s work is repeatedly made fun by the media and one snooty potential investor, Rebecca’s knows very little about anything so is frequently made to appear dumb, Kate acts like the Basic White Chick, and Alicia is openly rude to others, especially other women (but it’s okay, cause she’s driven and Not Like Other Girls). Now and again Palmer remembers to mention that some people feel that there is something ‘wrong’ with their reality, but this is a minor thread in a story that is much more concerned with ridiculing its characters and with giving really detailed descriptions or explanations about minor aspects of this ‘near future’. The main ingredients of Palmer’s story are 1) useless millenials 2) women who don’t care or don’t have what it takes to have a career 3) unfunny caricatures.
He had a lot to say on a myriad of other topics, but this often came about when two characters were having a discussion or argument about this (sexism, racism, conflict between religion and science). He dedicates many passages to modern dating, seeming to lose himself in his own ‘hilarious’ vision of the future of dating (which isn’t as original as he seems to be suggesting: “the whole idea of meeting someone in a physical place, to talk to them in real time, was so twentieth century”) or in unnecessarily long digressions about automated ‘autonomous cars’ or of how in schools kids no longer need to interact with teachers but they get taught via tablet (and Palmer spends a chapter on the “Daily Pre-School-Day Diagnostic” kids have to complete each morning).
We are only given a flashback into Rebecac’s life, and rather than reading about her childhood or learning more of her relationship with her parents, we read of a period in her twenties which she aptly describes as ‘Blackout Season’. We never get why she chose to study English or what future she envisioned after her completing degree, what we get instead are scenes featuring Rebecca and her college ‘friends’, all of whom are jobless or doing temporary or part-time jobs they don’t care for, and they spend their time going to bars and clubs, getting drunk and loud, flirting and sleeping with guys that are ‘no good’. After a few years one of them meets the ‘right’ kind of man and soon the girls disband their friendship group (because if a woman is ‘seriously’ dating someone she can’t keep her friends, duh). Rebecca has a few mishaps on online dating sites, meets Philip, and the two get married even if they have nothing in common or no chemistry. Their son dies, and things start going a bit sour between the two of them. And of course, eventually, the CVD does play a role in the story.
As I said, or wrote, Palmer mostly writes scenes in which his characters have awkward encounters and exchanges with each other. And, while I initially liked this aspect of his narrative as I am a fan of hysterical realism, by the halfway mark I was no longer impressed by them, in fact, they struck me as forced and unfunny. Sometimes I like reading scenes that verge on the surreal (I’m very basic, I like Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers) but there were moments in Version Control that were just jarring and poorly written (I’m talking about that scene with Alicia and the magazine…it wasn’t funny, it didn’t make sense, it was out-of-character, the tone was just off).
The second half was very much a rehash of similar scenarios and exchanges, and the ‘wrongness’ felt by Rebecca never amounted to anything substantial. I was expecting a twist at some point or some reveal a la Black Mirror but nada. The story remains concerned with exploring boring and tired dynamics between characters that were little other than dull caricatures.
What was the point in the story? An excuse for Palmer to write about ‘what ifs’ or detail minor aspects of everyday life in a future America ? Did this story require 500+ pages?
Time travelling is picked up now again, but for all Philip’s & co talk about the CVD, they spent far too little time talking concretely about what would happen if their machine were to work. Instead they use a lot of scientific language that seemed more intent on confusing non-sciencey readers.
Maybe I could have overlooked plot-holes and never-ending diversions if Palmer’s narrative had offered us some character interiority, but this third pov remains never delves into character motivations. Giving us a glimpse into Rebecca’s mind would have made her into a far less one-dimensional and incomprehensible character (it was frustrating not knowing why she acted the way she did).
As stories about time travel go, Version Control offers nothing new.

The ‘Future’
Palmer’s near future is really unconvincing. He refers to things that in ten and twenty years will be outdated, he sticks to this running gag of the president interrupting people’s TV viewing or phone calls but we don’t know when he was elected, what kind of president he is, what America’s political landscape looks like. And Palmer seems wholly disinterred in anything remotely non-America (as in we have more or less no clue on what is going on in the rest of the world).
The story takes place in ten or possibly even twenty years and yet his future feels very ‘2010’. Yes, he imagines what shopping for clothes will be like, but what he envisions has already kind of been predicted (having one’s body scanned and being given an item of clothing that will fit you without needing to step in a fitting room). But what about other things? Rebecca is an alcoholic, will the future be able to provide more effective and long-term treatments ? What about cancer? Climate change? Wait, how come Palmer totally skims over climate change?
Palmer’s future offers nothing new. Futurama was far more innovative that this. And I couldn’t help but to notice that in this future one of the security guards who works at the lab was worried that he had to teach his daughter what same-sex love was….which, how likely is that? Unsurprisingly Palmer’s future struck me as very straight and gender normative.
Although Palmer has no qualms about using scientific language at length, I think he glosses over his CVD machine (which is funny considering how often this machine gets mentioned) as he’s more worried with detailing all the ways in which advancements in technology will strip erode any remaining notions of privacy (but millennials being dumb aren’t concerned by that).

The Characters
It’s kind of ironic that although Palmer writes about sexism (by having Alicia point out how hard it is to be treated like her other male colleagues rather than an ‘oddity’) his portrayal of female characters is kind of questionable (and in poor taste).
Rebecca: she’s our main character and is defined by three things. 1) she’s Philip’s wife 2) she was mother 3) she’s an alcoholic. While Philip is allowed to have a personality (not a nice one but still) and goals, Rebecca is made into this pathetic cliché of a woman, who isn’t intelligent or empathetic, she’s isn’t a great mother nor a great daughter not even a great wife or friend. She has 0 drive and 0 interests outside of alcohol and Philip. She doesn’t confront Katy when she notices that she’s being racist, even when Katy later on asks her whether she thought that she’d said anything offensive, she’s jealous of Alicia because women can’t like other women, she doesn’t care for her job (cause married women don’t really want to work and would rather be housewives who spend their time shopping, drinking wine, and trying to stay a size S. Which..yep, Palmer has given us some great representation here.
I didn’t care for Rebecca. We never know why she does the shit she does, she has no concrete history other than her ‘Blackout Season’ and her feelings for Philip just were largely MIA from the page.
Katy: she’s awful. She’s dumb and superficial, is a crappy friend and person, spouts racist shit and is obsessed by the fact that she’s dating a black guy. Why waste any time on her? I really got the feeling that Palmer wanted to show how insincere female friendships were (especially if one of these friends has blonde hair). Katy is just as passionless as Rebecca. She has no interest outside of men, gossip, and alcohol.
Alicia: she’s the kind of character that some (I said some not all) male authors believe to be ’empowering’. She loves what she does, she’s smart, straight-talking, tough. She takes no shit from anyone and most men in this novel are attracter to her. Women, on the other hand, hate her because they are clearly ‘intimidated’ by her. Rather than making Alicia into a likeable or sympathetic character Palmer decides to make her into a truly awful bitch who behaves appallingly and doesn’t understand why other women are not like her. She’s also reduced to who she sleeps with, rather than being allowed to be a character in her own right.
Philip and Carson: these two were stereotypes of the scientific guy who doesn’t understand social etiquette. Philip spoke in this really donnish way that just never rang true (and I happen to know quite a few pedantic men). But the things Philip talks about where just…really? And why did he have to be so socially inept ? Just because you are a scientistic doesn’t mean that you could never speak of something without using scientific jargon.
Other characters: caricatures. They had a static role, perhaps played a part in a running joke or something.

Maybe it’s my fault for expecting a story with more speculative elements but dio mio! The whole dynamic between Rebecca and her genius scientist husband was so cliched and boring. And Palmer’s future would have been passable if it had been rendered in more detail or if it hadn’t been so intent on making fun of millennials. And 500 pages of this? I get it women who are not like Alicia (who of course posses traditionally ‘male’ personality traits) are bimbos who are incapable of forming meaningful relationships or saying meaningful things or having interests outside of men, diets, and gossip. Ah ah. So funny.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars
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The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

 

“You have as many lives as you have possibilities. There are lives where you make different choices. And those choices lead to different outcomes. If you had done just one thing differently, you would have a different life story. And they all exist in the Midnight Library. They are all as real as this life.”

Matt Haig presents his readers with a touching and ultimately life-affirming tale of second chances. The Midnight Library follows Nora, a lonely thirty-five-year-old woman from Bedford, who has just hit rock bottom. She’s single, her only maybe-friend lives in Australia, her brother seems to hate her or at least he makes a point of avoiding her, and she has just been fired from String Theory, the music shop she worked for the past twelve years. Nora is tired of being sad and miserable, of being eaten up regrets. She’s exhausted of living.
What awaits Nora is the Midnight Library, a place that sits “between life and death” and where “the shelves go on for ever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To see how things would be if you had made other choices”. Each book presents Nora with another version of her life. What if she had kept training as a swimmer? What if she had married her ex? What if she’d stayed in her brother’s band? What if she’d kept on studying?
The possibilities are infinite and Nora finds herself wanting to experiences them all. As she jumps from book to book Nora soon realises that there isn’t such a thing as the perfect life. Even in the life in which she has pursued swimming her relationship with her father isn’t great. By living all these different lives, Nora’s no longer feels guilty for not doing what others expected or pressured her to do. Happiness is a tricky thing, and it cannot be achieved by simply acquiescing to others desires.
Haig’s imbues Nora’s story with plenty of humour. Although the story touches on mental health (depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, panic attacks, addiction) the narrative maintains an underlining note of hope. Haig showcases great empathy, never condemning anyone as being responsible for another person’s unhappiness.
Although the novel isn’t too sentimental it did feel a bit too uplifting (I know, I am a grinch). Perhaps I wanted to story to delve in darker territories but Nora’s story is rather innocuous. Still, this was a heart-warming book, and the ‘what if’ scenarios could be very entertaining as I was never bored. Haig as a penchant for dialogues and discussing mental health related issues with both clarity and sensitivity. I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by Carey Mulligan, who does an exceptional job (I just really loved her narration).

My rating: 3 ½ stars of 5 stars

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If, Then : Book Review

Untitled drawing (5)
If, Then
by Kate Hope Day
★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

If, Then is yet another example of ‘great concept, poor execution‘. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded as much if the story had been told in a less uninvolved narrative.
The story features on a group of neighbours who begin seeing “what ifs“. One sees herself romantically involved with a woman who is currently only her colleague/friend, a woman who has just recently lost her mother starts seeing her dead mother, a man sees a version of himself that suggests some imminent catastrophe.
As I said, I liked the idea of these converging realities…however, I just found the writing to be incredibly frustrating. The writing made each character a mere empty vessel who acted under an inexplicable influence and for some unknown (and hardly credible) reason. They move from A to B, they decide to build bunkers or kiss their friend for no apparent reason! They just go on to do these things but we aren’t told what they feel or why the feel like they should replicate these ‘what-ifs’ they seem to see. We know little about what goes on inside these characters which created a huge disconnect between them, their story and the reader (me).
The writing was almost clinically detached from both the characters and their surroundings. There were a lot of pointlessly descriptive phrases which wouldn’t have bothered me if they had been interspersed in a more variegated prose. We are told when the characters are affect by physical things such as sweating or flushing but not if they are anxious, afraid or overwhelmed by an emotion of any sort. We are told that the characters wear ‘gloves’ on their ‘hands’ and ‘flip-flops’ on their ‘feet’, that their cheeks look flushed or red (I swear that ‘cheeks’ are mentioned one too many times…)…which soon grew tiring. There is an abundance of onomatopoeias that added little to the immediacy of the narrative. The story is told in the present tense and yet everything that happens seems so far away…
Their surroundings are also described in the same expository manner: the water that pours out of the tap, the furniture and house of a character who no impact on the story whats-over…the dispassionate way in which things are described would have been more fitting in an IKEA catalogue (for all I know, an IKEA catalogue might offer its readers a bit more enthusiasm).
The summary describes 90% of the storyline…which combined with the dull storytelling makes this relatively short read a slog to get through.

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