The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka

The first two chapters of The Swimmers, ‘The Underground Pool’ and ‘The Crack’ are highly reminiscent of the author’s acclaimed The Buddha in the Attic. Like that novel The Swimmers at first seems to implement a playful choral ‘we’ as our perspective. The ‘we’ in question are the people who regularly swim at a local pool in an unnamed town. Otsuka details the swimmers’ relationship to the pool and swimming, often poking (gentle) fun at them. While she does often differentiate between the swimmers, contrasting their routines etc., they remain a united entity for much of these chapters. The pool becomes a microcosm of the real world and Otsuka’s satire is particularly effective when a mysterious ‘crack’ appears in the pool, causing confusion and uncertainty among the pool-goers. Some panic and flee, some quit swimming altogether, some begin spreading conspiracy theories about who is behind the crack, some keep on swimming and refuse to look at the crack, and so forth.
The tone is definitely the defining characteristic of these two chapters as the characters are beside the point. They serve a comedic function and their personalities are intentionally kept off the page. Repetition is of course a consequence of employing a choral point of view, especially one that at times comes across as a joke that has gone on too long. These two chapters/stories could have easily been condensed into one and I think it would have made for a more effective and engaging read.

The following chapters/stories revolve around one of the swimmers, but once again the author implements more indirect narrative devices (often there is the ‘you’). The character in question is Alice, a Japanese American woman who shows signs of dementia. While the author does give us an overview of her life and background, by referring to her as ‘you’ or by avoiding using her name she effectively makes Alice into a blank-slate, or perhaps, less of a blank-slate and more of the ‘every-elderly-woman’, ie. the epitome of the elderly person experiencing memory loss, confusion, and an increased lack of motor skills. Her daughter, who happens to be a writer, too was very much a non-character, as she is often referred to as ‘you’. There was a lack of intimacy and depth in these characters (and their relationship to one another) that diluted the impact of what could have been a potentially poignant story. There is even one chapter from the point of ‘Belavista’ a ‘memory residence’ where Alice is eventually taken to. Here the author wryly points to the way elderly people who are no longer able to live independently and need more help than what their relatives can provide them with are treated by these places (eg the patronizing language).

The specificity with which Otsuka writes about Alice’s ‘dementia’ definitely rang true to life as I am temporarily living with someone who has dementia and boy oh boy it is definitely not a walk in the park watching someone slowly lose their physical and mental capacity. Still, while many moments struck me for their realism, Otsuka’s playful tone became a bit jarring and repetitive. I would have liked for this book to have more emotional depth and for characters (any of the characters really) to be more than names on a page. Nevertheless, I encourage prospective readers to make up their own minds about this one!

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running by Elias Rodriques

Written in an exceedingly lyrical prose All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running is a subtle and ultimately moving debut novel about friendship, grief, and reconciliation. While All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running will not necessarily appeal to those who are looking for a story-driven read, if you are looking for a quiet yet scintillating character study, you should consider picking this one up. Elias Rodriques’ stirring meditations on loss and identity, as well as his ability to capture in startling detail the landscapes his characters inhabit, make for an evocative read. The narrative has this almost-cinematic quality to it that gave me some serious A24 coming-of-age film vibes. Rodriques’ elegiac style brought to mind authors such as Ocean Vuong, Tomasz Jedrowski, Philippe Besson, and Dantiel W. Moniz, so if you enjoy any of their work chances are you will enjoy All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running. Whereas I loved Rodriques’ language, his ability to capture with crystal clarity the scenes or moments he writes of, I did feel that his novel was missing a certain je ne se quoi, and I think that it had to do with the relationship that is meant to be at the very heart of its narrative.

After graduating from high school, Daniel, our narrator and protagonist, is all-too-eager to leave Florida behind. As the mixed-race queer son of Jamaican immigrants, Daniel’s childhood and teenage years were underscored by a sense of otherness. Years later, Daniel lives and works as a teacher in New York, barely keeping in touch with his mother, who has returned to Jamaica, or any of his old friends. When he learns that Aubrey, his high-school best friend, died in a car crash, Daniel feels the urge to return to Palm Coast. There he spends a few days with his former crowd but he’s unsure whether he wants them to learn about his sexuality. As he reconnects with them he finds himself looking back to his time with Aubrey. We learn that Aubrey, who was white and often described herself as a ‘redneck’ or a ‘cracker’, could be cruel and impulsive. She was also quite capable of saying offensive, racist, and/or generally insensitive things. Others provide their own recollections of Aubrey and of their salad days, giving us some insight into the dynamics that were at play at their high school. While the flashbacks don’t reveal anything truly significant or earth-shattering they do provide us with snapshots of an important period of Daniel’s life. Rodriques conveys the loneliness and longing that come about when you feel or are made to feel different from those around you. During these flashbacks, we also learn of Daniel’s difficult childhood, in particular of his time with his father.

The story doesn’t drop any huge bombs. Once back in Palm Coast Daniel questions some of his friends about Aubrey, as he lost touch with her soon after high school and now that she is dead he’s filled with guilt (for not including her in his ‘new’ life) and sadness (he doesn’t know what she’s experienced over the last few years, whether she’d changed, and if so, how).
Most of the scenes within this novel brought to mind long tracking shots. For instance, we have this scene in which Daniel is in the car with Desmond, who used to be one of his track-team buddies, that probably takes up over 10% of the overall narrative. Daniel observes the passing landscapes and talks off-and-on to Desmond. Interspersed throughout this extended car drive are also some flashbacks in which we read about some of their shared history.
While Daniel’s uneasy relationship with his family is alluded to, the narrative never truly delves that deeply into it. He tells us that his mother has only just recounted to him some of her family history…but we don’t really learn much about it. This felt like a wasted opportunity as I think it would have made Daniel and his family more believable and multi-dimensional.
While the conversations and arguments that occur within this novel always struck me as authentic, the personalities of these characters never come into real focus. We are given brief glimpses into their high school experiences that simply paint them as being rather generic teens (boyhood 101). In the ‘present’ they mainly discuss Aubrey, revealing little about themselves. Funnily enough, Aubrey, who is meant to be this charismatic sort of figure, felt more like an idea of a certain type of high school girl than an actual person. I did not care for her and I had a hard time understanding what drew her and Daniel together other than the fact that they both have ‘troubled’ families (which is not all that rare sadly…). Although Daniel claims that he loves her, I just didn’t ‘feel’ that love (again we are being ‘told’ things). Aubrey seems to function as a plot device through which Daniel can embark on this long retrospective that makes him reassess what he wants and who he was/is.
The last chapter in this novel felt really unnecessary (mild-spoilers ahead i guess): after a whole novel being narrated by Daniel himself we suddenly switch to a different perspective, that of a character that had up to that point played up to that point a minor, one could say even inconsequential, role in Daniel’s story.

While I may not have felt particularly invested in the characters, and I did find Daniel’s characterisation to be vague, I liked Rodriques’ prose, the realistic rhythm of his dialogues, and his sharp eye for description (one could really picture the places/environments he writes of). I believe that this is a promising debut and I look forward to read whatever Rodriques writes next.

ARC provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


my rating: ★★★¼

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Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson

“Names have power. This is the fundamental principle of magic everywhere. Call out the name of a supernatural being, and you will have its instant and undivided attention in the same way that your lost toddler will have yours the second it calls your name.”

First published in 2000 Monkey Beach is a deeply evocative and multilayered coming of age. Monkey Beach transports its readers to Northwest British Columbia, to Kitamaat, home to the Haisla people. After her younger brother Jimmy goes missing during a fishing expedition, twenty-year-old Lisamarie Hill is overwhelmed by grief. As she makes her way to the place he was last seen, Lisa looks back to her childhood and teenage years. Lisa recollections ring incredibly true to life. The author captures the way children think and speak, celebrating moments of silliness and happiness that occur between siblings and childhood friends. While there are many moments of lightness in Lisa’s childhood, the author doesn’t shy away from portraying the many injustices and struggles experienced by indigenous people. Lisa’s relationships with her family members—in particular, her loving uncle Mick and her resilient Ma-ma-oo—are as powerful as they are moving.
As a child, Lisa is very much a ‘tomboy’. She doesn’t back down from a fight, has a bit of a temper, enjoys getting into scrapes that frequently land her into trouble. Her uncle is her biggest fan and their interactions are simply a joy to read. I also liked that although Lisa does exhibit some of those ‘Not Like Other Girls’ traits, the narrative ultimately subverts this, introducing us to multiple tough girls and by not dismissing those girls Lisa had a falling out with.
The author depicts the realities of growing up indigenous and female, emphasizing the importance of family ties, however knotty these may be, and Haisla beliefs and customs. The narrative also delves into magical realism territories as throughout her youth Lisa is visited by a strange if ominous figure. Lisa’s premonitions and her ability to see ghosts are a terrible weight as she is often unable to stop tragedies from unfolding.

This novel has easily some of the most realistic dialogues and interactions that I have ever come across in a book. The setting is as vividly rendered as the characters, and there are many stunning descriptions of the landscapes surrounding Lisa.
While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to lovers of plot or fast-moving narratives, Monkey Beach will definitely resonate with those readers who are looking for a nuanced family portrait. I truly appreciated that while the author manages to convey with crystal-clear clarity Lisa’s childhood, some things in her story retain a sense of ambiguity.
While the first half of this novel is brimming with more light-hearted moments, the latter half is heartbreaking and unexpectedly dark. Lisa’s voice and character arc were truly compelling and I found myself not wanting to reach the end (as that would mean saying goodbye to her).
I came across an interview in which Emily St. John Mandel says that Monkey Read is her favourite book to re-read, and I actually think that this novel would indeed appeal to fans of Mandel (the remote & atmospheric setting, the magical realism). Readers who enjoyed Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley should also consider giving Monkey Beach a shot as the two share a similar ‘feel’.
Monkey Beach was a truly absorbing read, one that I am already looking forward to reading again.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar

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

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★★★¾

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Blood Grove by Walter Mosley

“Life is one long side street with about a million crossroads, Sorry used to tell me when I was a boy. Every hour, sometimes every minute, you got to make the choice which way to go. Some of them turns don’t matter but don’t let that fool ya. The minute you start to think that one way is just like t’other, that’s when the shit come down.”

Blood Grove is hard-boiled crime at its best. Walter Mosley’s smooth and level-headed narrator is a Black private investigator in 1960s LA. Easy is, excuse my pun, easy to root for. While Easy is close friends with some not so morally upright individuals, his integrity and empathy set him apart from other hard-boiled PI. The mystery is intriguing if labyrinthine, and I enjoyed seeing how things would unravel. Easy’s latest case is a knotty one. A young white veteran clearly suffering from PTSD claims he may or may have not killed a man who was attacking a young woman. Easy, who fought in WWII, feels sympathy towards this clearly traumatized young man and so begins his investigation.

Throughout the course of the novel, we encounter big and small crime bosses, racist and incompetent policemen, prostitutes with hearts of gold, and Femme Fatales. Mosley’s commentary on race, sexism, inequality, corruption, war, and violence felt at times all too pertinent to our own times (showing how some things change, and some things don’t). I found Easy’s unflappability reassuring and the inclusion of his home life (such as his bond with his daughter) made him all the more endearing.
Not only does Easy’s narration have style but the crackling dialogues and vivid descriptions (“If a smile had a sound his would have been a death knell.”) make for some spectacular reading material. Also, for those wondering whether you have to read the previous novels in order to be able to appreciate this one, I, personally, did not have any trouble ‘catching’ on to things. Mosley doesn’t reiterate the events that occurred in the previous novels but he gives us an idea of who’s who.
If you are a fan of Raymond Chandler, Dennis Lehane, or if you, like me, loved S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland you should definitely read this.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion

“That summer when I so desperately tried to reel us all in, I didn’t understand the forces spinning us apart.”

The opening of A Crooked Tree is certainly chilling. Libby, our fifteen-year old narrator, is in the car with her siblings. When their squabbling gets too much their mother dumps twelve-year old Ellen on the side of the road. Hours pass, and to Libby’s increasing concern Ellen has yet to arrive. When Ellen finally makes an appearance, something has clearly happened to her.

Sadly, the suspenseful atmosphere that is so palpable at the start of this novel gives way to a slightly more predictable coming-of-age. The premise made me think that A Crooked Tree would be something in the realms of Winter’s Bone (we have the rural setting, the dysfunctional family, the bond between the siblings). But A Crooked Tree tells a far more conventional story: a summer of revelations (from the realisations that the adults around you have their own secrets to the having to say goodbye to the innocence of childhood). While what happened to Ellen certainly has an impact on the storyline, A Crooked Tree is not a mystery or thriller. We follow Libby as she fights and makes peace with her best friend and siblings, we learn of her less than stellar home-life, and, most of all, of her dislike of the neighbourhood’s bad boy (this last tread was pretty annoying). I did appreciate how vivid the setting was, from the references to 80s culture to Libby’s environment (she is particularly attuned to nature). I also really enjoyed the family dynamics and the unease that permeated many of the scenes. The author succeeds particularly in capturing that period of transition, from childhood to adolescence, without being sentimental.

What ultimately did not work for me was Libby herself. She’s hella bland. Love for trees aside there was little to her character. While her siblings, bff, and adults around her were fully fleshed out, Libby’s personality remains largely unexplored. Her obsession with the ‘bad boy’ was also really grating and her refusal to see him as anything but bad news didn’t ring entirely true. A lot of the observations she makes about the people around her seemed to originate from someone far more mature and insightful that she was (as in, they did not really seem to stem from the mind of a particularly naive 15-year old girl). Elle, although younger, would have made for a more convincing and interesting narrator. Libby…is painfully vanilla.

Still, Libby aside, I did find this novel to be engaging, occasionally unsettling, and exceedingly nostalgic.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★ ¼

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My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

“Sleep felt productive. Something was getting sorted out. I knew in my heart—this was, perhaps, the only thing my heart knew back then—that when I’d slept enough, I’d be okay. I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories. My past life would be but a dream, and I could start over without regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation.”

I listened to the audiobook of My Year of Rest and Relaxation over the course of 4 days. During this period of time I was sleeping very little (the joys of work and uni assessment). And maybe that’s why I really felt this book. That and the fact that 2021 is proving to be just as delirious a year as 2020. Although My Year of Rest and Relaxation was by no means a breezy read (or listen) it was funny in the most fucked up kind of way. It made me laugh and cringe, it disgusted me and amused me.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation is a novel that has been in my periphery ever since its publication back in 2018. I even picked it up at one point, but didn’t get past the 10% mark. I have noticed that lately there have been quite a few publications narrated by ‘perplexingly alienated’ young American women (here you can read an excellent article on this trend) and I these tend to be very hit or miss for me (I loved Luster, enjoyed Severance and Pizza Girl, did not think very highly of Exciting Times, Milk Fed, or The New Me). Finally, nearly three years after its release, I thought why not give My Year of Rest and Relaxation another chance? And this time around, once I started reading (listening) I did not want to stop. As I said above, this novel is by no means ‘light’, but boy was it entertaining (and it took my mind off my own need for sleep).

Set in 2000s New York This novel is narrated by a nameless narrator (because duh, narrators with names are passé) a woman in her twenties. She’s attractive, skinny, and blonde. She can even afford not to work and has her own flat in New York. Aaaaand she is an orphan, having lost both parents in quick succession. Still, she has plenty of reasons to be happy…right? Except she isn’t. This girl is pretty fucking miserable. She’s extremely self-centred, extremely misanthropic, cruel, delusional…the list goes on. But our narrator has a plan. As she finds her life unbearable she decides—you guessed it—to have a year of rest and relaxation. In other words, she is going to be eating sleeping tables and other medications as if they were tic tacs (or smarties or popcorn…take your pick). She wants to sleep life away, believing that by the end of the year she will be ‘restored’ to health. Once a month she sees a psychiatrist, Dr. Tuttle, someone who is very much a menace to society let alone her patients. Our protagonist’s sleep schedule is also interrupted by her best friend, Reva, who she can hardly stand: “I loved Reva, but I didn’t like her anymore”. To our narrator’s annoyance Reva seems to revel in her own victimhood. Reva is also painfully insecure, bulimic, possibly alcoholic, and her mother terminally ill. Our narrator has little time for Reva, ignoring her pleas for help or affection, and tries to remain focused on her ‘rest & relaxation’. As the narrative progresses we learn more about her family life, her tense relationship with her mother (a real piece of work) and her on again off again boyfriend (a massive bellend). Some of the medications our protagonist begin to influence her state of mind during her waking hours, so she often seems to operate under a trance.

In spite of its relatively short length Moshfegh achieves so much within this novel. This is a brilliant work of satire. The narrator’s inner-monologue is as fascinating as it is repulsive (the girl has a sick sense of humour). And while I found most of the characters horrible, and at times intentionally absurd, this novel is disconcertingly realistic (especially in the portrayal of the relationship between the mc and her best friend….which was a weird flavour of codependency). Alienation is at the root of this story and Moshfegh demonstrates a cunning understanding of this subject.
Subversive, grotesque, surreal, shockingly funny, and surprisingly insightful My Year of Rest and Relaxation is fucked up in the best way possible.

my rating: ★★★★½

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Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

edit: it hasn’t even been a year and I have already re-read this. This book slaps.

Ninth House can be best described as: “talented, brilliant, incredible, amazing, show stopping, spectacular, never the same, totally unique, completely not ever been done before…”

Leigh Bardugo sure showed me. I went in to this expecting the worst (most of my GR friends panned this book, and their less-than-impressed reviews are hilarious) and soon found myself amazed by how much I was vibing with it.
Ninth House‘s campus setting brought to mind urban fantasy series such as Richelle Mead’s Bloodlines and Rachel Caine’s The Morganville Vampires but with the kind of magical elements and aesthetics from The Raven Cycle, or even Holly Black ‘s Modern Faerie Tales, and the dark tone of Vita Nostra. In brief, Ninth House was 100% up my lane.

“There were always excuses for why girls died.”

It took me a few chapters to familiarise myself with the story and its protagonist as when we are first introduced to Yale student Galaxy “Alex” Stern its early spring and shit has already hit the fan (ie she has clearly been through a lot). Thankfully the narrative takes us back to the autumn and winter terms, and we get to read of the events that lead to that prologue.
Alex’s ability to see ghosts (called ‘grays’) has caught the attention of Lethe (aka the Ninth House) a secret society that keeps in check the occult activities of the Yale’s eight secret societies (if you are wondering, yes, they do exist in real-world Yale…). She’s offered a place at Yale, for a price: Alex is to be Lethe’s ‘Dante’, who under the guidance of ‘Virgil’, ensures that the eight houses are obeying Yale’s rules. Each house practices a different kind of ‘magic’, but, it becomes quite apparent that magic, of whatever form or type, in this novel is not an easy or strictly ethical endeavour.
Alex, is just trying to survive. She run away from home as a teenager, started using downers to suppress her ability, lived with a man who abused her, and was the sole survivor of a multiple homicide. The girl is dealing with a lot of trauma and she’s kind of mess. Her mentor, Darlington, comes from a drastically different background. He’s white, wealthy, educated. Yet, in a manner very reminiscent to Gansey from TRC, he feels mundane and wants more. The two had a great chemistry (not in the romantic sense, at least, not in this first novel) and I appreciated the way in which Bardugo doesn’t present any of them as being ‘good’ or ‘heroes’ of some sort. If it wasn’t hard enough to adapt to Yale and Lethe, the societies may have had something to do with the murder of a ‘townie’. While almost every person she encounters tries to wave away her suspicions, Alex knows that the societies had something to do with it.

“I’m in danger, she wanted to say. Someone hurt me and I don’t think they’re finished. Help me. But what good had that ever done?”

If you ever craved a dark academia novel with a paranormal twist, this is it. But, as pointed out in many other reviews, this novel is Dark with a capital D. There are explicit scenes depicting sexual assault, rape, abuse, death, and other unpleasant, if not downright gory, things. It never struck me as gratuitous, anymore than I would call a novel by Stephen King gratuitous. The mystery kept me on the edge of my seat, the different timelines piqued my interest, the setting—of New Haven and Yale—was vividly rendered, the tone was gritty and real, the atmosphere was ‘edgy’ (in the best possible way), and the paranormal elements were hella innovative. I loved the descriptions of Alex’s environment, the attention paid to the architecture, the tension between her and the other characters, the momentum of her investigation. Yale is a haunted place, in more than one way. Bardugo combines fantasy elements with a sharp commentary on privilege, corruption, accountability. The story’s is an indictment against abuse of power and against violence (towards women, minorities, those deemed ‘expandable’). Trauma is not pretty, and Bardugo does not romanticise it in Alex. Speaking of Alex, she was a memorable character. I loved her for her strength and her vulnerability. Her cutting humour provided a few moments of respite from the novel’s otherwise dark tone.

Prior reading this novel I wouldn’t have called myself a ‘fan’ of Bardugo. I liked her YA stuff but I was never ‘blown’ away by it. Her foray into adult fiction has changed that.

my rating: ★★★★★

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When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole

When No One is Watching is a gripping read, think Hitchcock by way of Liane Moriarty.
The novel is set in a predominantly black neighbourhood in Brooklyn. After her divorce Sydney Green, who is her 30s, returns to her old neighbourhood in order to take care of her ailing mother. Soon Sydney can’t help but notice that her beloved neighbourhood is changing, and not for the better. Her friends and neighbours are disappearing, only to be replaced by white and well-off couples and families. After taking part in a walking tour of the neighbourhood Sydney is understandably frustrated by its selective approach to history so she decides to create her own ‘revisionist’ tour, one that will delve into the city’s colonial past. She reluctantly lets her new white neighbour, Theo, help her in her research. Theo is in a rocky relationship with his obnoxious white girlfriend, a woman who has a framed portrait of Michelle Obama in her living room and is more than capable of threatening to call 911 on her new black neighbours, just for kicks. And if anyone calls her out on her racism, let the tear-ducts open.
Sydney grows increasingly paranoid as more of her neighbours disappear, seemingly overnight. She knows that something is wrong, and that her community is under siege.

I really liked the premise for this novel. Alyssa Cole touches upon many serious and relevant issues (racism, racial economic inequality, racial profiling, police brutality, gentrification, colonialism, ‘white tears’, performative allyship).
From the very first pages Cole creates this air unease as Sydney rightfully alienated by her changing neighbourhood. Soon enough she’s made to feel like an outsider in her own neighbourhood by the new white arrivals. Her anxiety is exacerbated by her fraught marriage with her now ex-husband which has caused her to doubt-herself and others. She feels watched, but by whom?
Although there were some really creepy moments that brought to mind Rear Window, we also had a few scenes that were kind of silly and had a more jokey tone. These mostly happened during Theo’s pov. Which brings me to the romance subplot…why?

Theo is a dullish character who is made to seem ‘human’ or flawed but ends up being straight up annoying as. His faux pas weren’t always convincing, and if anything they just made him a really bad match for Sydney. Sydney I liked. She was passionate and righteously angry. Her insecurities did get slightly irritating, especially when they lead to the predictable and avoidable misunderstanding that always happen in romance novels (usually 3/4 of the way through), but I rooted for her nonetheless. Could she have been a better friend to Drea? For sure. But given the less than ideal circumstances it made sense for Sydney to feel alienated and mistrustful. What I couldn’t get past was her supposed attraction to Theo. As mentioned above, the man was dull and kind of dense.

The ending seemed lacked the oopmh of Get Out, and perhaps it tries to follow it too closely. At the end things take a wild turn and I wasn’t convinced by the main revelations. The story, which so far had been suspenseful, spirals into violence…and it felt tacky. Scenes that should have been horrifying are delivered in a slapstick kind of way. I wasn’t against the violence per se (don’t @ me, I’ve been reading Frantz Fanon) but the way it is handled here was questionable indeed.
Another thing I didn’t like was that for 70% of the novel both narrators, Sydney and Theo, refer obliquely to ‘something’ bad and mysterious they have done. Why prolong the reveal ? By then I’d already kind of guessed what their ‘secrets’ where, and I didn’t really feel all that affected or shocked by their confessions.

As much as I appreciated the topics Cole discusses, as well the story’s earlier atmosphere, I was let down by the romance, the story’s inconsistent tone, and the finale. Theo made for a terrible character, and I really did not want him to be with Sydney…sadly we get this very out-of-place ‘sexy’ scene that would have been more suited to a book by Talia Hibbert or Helen Hoang.
Still, this was an absorbing read, and Cole is clearly informed on the issues she tackles throughout the course of the story. There are some illuminating, if sobering, discussions on New York’s history and those alone are worth a read.

MY RATING: 3 out of 5 stars


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The Dutch House by Ann Patchett — book review

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“I was still at a point in my life when the house was the hero of every story, our lost and beloved country.”

Not Quite a Review, More of an Ode to Ann Patchett:

Usually I tend to post my reviews a couple of days after I’ve finished reading a book. With The Dutch House it took me nearly two weeks to work up the ‘courage’ to review it. The fact is that I loved The Dutch House so much that I find hard to see it as a ‘mere’ work of fiction.
This is the eight novel that I’ve read by Ann Patchett and she has yet to disappoint. It is difficult to ‘pick’ a favourite, even if I can see that throughout the course of her writing career she has really honed her craft. Yet, I wholeheartedly loved her early books (especially her unjustly underrated 1997 novel, The Magician’s Assistant), so to imply that she ‘keeps getting better’ would be doing her a disservice. Regardless of the scope of her stories (whether they take place in a short period of time in a particular city, such as in Run, or move us between two ‘extremes’, in The Magician’s Assistant we move between Los Angeles and Nebraska, or take us on even longer journey, for instance in State of Wonder we follow Dr. Marina Singh’s as she leaves Minnesota for the Amazon Rainforest) Patchett tends to explore the same themes: there is a focus on familial relationships, especially between siblings, and these established dynamics are often changed due to some ‘major’ event (often the death of a loved one/relative/colleague). Although The Dutch House is written in Patchett’s signature prose, which can be described as being deceptively simple it features a first-person perspective, which is a departure from her usual third-person point of view. Being inside Danny Conroy’s head makes for an immersive experience and within the first pages I was captivated by his story.
Through an act of retrospection Danny looks back to the past and what follows is a narrative that could be described as a bildungsroman. Danny’s childhood in the Dutch House—a large, if not incongruous, mansion in a prosperous suburb of Philadelphia—is clouded by the absence of his mother (a woman he cannot clearly recall but whose absence he nonetheless feels) and by his relationship with his remote father. It is Maeve, Danny’s older sister, who takes on the role of ‘parental’ figure, and their relationship is very much the underlying thread of the story.

The Dutch House, weighed down by its history, inspires fascination in Andrea, the woman who will go on to become Danny and Maeve’s step-mother. The novel begins in fact with Danny’s memory of his first meeting with Andrea, one that seems to have almost a fairy-tale-esque quality in that it was the day where ‘everything’ seemed to change.
Throughout Danny’s narrative we will also see the way in which the Conroy siblings remain drawn to the house, a house which seems to acquire an emblematic role in the lives of those who have lived in: it represents their childhoods, their father—his career, his marriage(s)—and the rather unfortunate VanHoebeeks. Patchett renders this house without loosing herself in extensive architectural descriptions, rather she brings to the foreground some of its features (Maeve’s windowseat) and some of its objects. The paintings within the house (Maeve’s portrait and those of the VanHoebeeks) also seem to hold a certain function in Danny’s recollection of his past.

“Maybe it was neoclassical, though with a simplicity in the lines that came closer to Mediterranean or French, and while it was not Dutch, the blue delft mantels in the drawing room, library, and master bedroom were said to have been pried out of a castle in Utrecht and sold to the VanHoebeeks to pay a prince’s gambling debts. The house, complete with mantels, had been finished in 1922.”

In his remembrance Danny frequently makes vague, if not downright oblique, allusions to later events or revelations, which in turn creates tension between his past and present. Also framing Danny’s recollection of his youth are a series of scenes in which alongside Maeve, he sits in her car outside the Dutch House.
Danny also questions the veracity of his memories: “But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.” He reassess certain moments and figures of his past, finding hidden complexities in what had at first appeared to be seemingly unremarkable occurrences.

“Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?”

While the novel is narrated by Danny he never paints himself as the ‘hero’ of his own story. He often wonders whether he should have acted in a different way towards someone or something, trying to understand why things unfurled the way that they did. While the motivations of other characters might escape him, and possibly us, they are never reduced to a certain role/function. The each have a story even if we are not always made privy to it. An although there is an awareness of the limitations provided by Danny’s narration, the story never feels restricted to his experiences and worldview.

“Whatever romantic notions I might have harbored, whatever excuses or allowances my heart had ever made on her behalf, blew out like a match.”

My edition of this novel includes an essay in which Ann Patchett says that “for a long time I had planned to call the book Maeve as it was her story.” The novel, in fact, very much pivots around Maeve but it is her brother who is telling her tale.
We see the way in which their experiences in the Dutch House makes them determined to fulfil their desires or to take a certain path in their life: for Danny that is to become, as his father before him, a real-estate developer, while Maeve wants to carry on working a job she loves even if many consider her to be overqualified to do. While to some degree Danny’s vision of Maeve influences our perception of her, we are always aware that she may have hidden qualities. What is certainly undeniable is her love for her brother. Their bond is portrayed with such frankness and poignancy as to become vividly real in the reader’s mind.
This a story full of beauty and sorrow. There are regrets, wonderful reflections on memory, moments that are brimming with love or sadness…Patchett spins a tale in which families fall apart or come together. It is an intimate depiction of the bond between two siblings. Time and again Danny draws strength from his relationship to his sister, and even when he begins to feel unmoored from his own life, and as he struggles trying to reconcile himself with his past, Maeve provides him with a sense of belonging.
Patchett’s sense of place is as detailed and evocative as ever. She seamlessly renders midcentury America through Danny’s narration, evoking within me a sense of nostalgia for a country I’ve never even been to. And while Danny’s story spans decades, it maintains its focus on the same group of people, painting an intimate portrait of Danny’s friends and family.
…to put it simply I fell in love with it. Patchett’s harmonious prose made the experience all the more beautiful, and I was so enthralled by her story and her characters that to I struggled to think of them as works of fiction.
What more can I say? I think this is a masterpiece.

“We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it. I was sickened to realize we’d kept it going for so long, not that we had decided to stop.”

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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