Sarahland by Sam Cohen

Kinky, offbeat, and playful, Sarahland is a madcap story collection. Most of the stories focus on queer Jewish young women who are named or rename themselves Sarah. Their quest for identity and love leads them astray from traditional notions of femininity and adulthood. They become entangled in parasitic relationships, lose and regain their sense of self, use fanfiction to cope with heartbreak and alienation, indulge in their fetishes, and decide to become trees in order to transcend their human bodies.
These narratives are smutty, experimental, and surreal. The characters are fluent in internet-speak and fandom culture, they blur the lines between fantasy and reality, use films/tv shows/musicians as a way of exploring their identities or to reflect on their relationships.

In the first story, which is aptly named ‘Sarahland’, we follow a Sarah who is a university student in an all Jewish dorm. She has become part of a clique of Sarahs, with Sarah A. and Sarah B., and the three function almost as a multi-conscious entity (which of course brought to mind Mona Awad’s Bunny). Cohen’s take on the Jewish American Princess in this story, while not particularly subversive, is playful and self-aware. The story shows how our Sarah is forced into adopting a lifestyle she doesn’t particularly care for, but breaking away from it isn’t an easy process. In the second, ‘Naked Furniture’, we have a Sarah who begins working at a brothel, where she finds contentment by being spanked or by playing dead for a client with a necrophiliac streak. She begins to have sex with another girl from the brothel and the two engage in some kinky slightly-fucked-up shit (baby play). In the third story, ‘Exorcising, Or Eating My Twin’, a Sarah comes across her ‘twin’ which she renames Tegan in honour of Tegan & Sarah. But as time goes by Tegan doesn’t seem keen on sharing an identity/life with Sarah. Later in the collection, we get a Bible retelling of Sarah’s story (Abraham wife/sister) where Cohen juxtaposes a historical setting with modern colloquialism.

After the first couple of stories, these narratives did tend to blur together as they all revolved around Sarahs with the same type of personality. They are alternative, obsessive, and clingy. They are not thin or straight. Their attempts at counterculture were a bit…so what?
I don’t know but the more stories I read the less entertaining I found Cohen’s style. Her treacly prose, which brought to mind authors like Awad, is best handled in small doses, otherwise, its stickiness feels sickening almost. At the end of the day, the collection seemed more about sex and not much else. While the Sarahs’ narratives are laced with a ribald sense of humor, Cohen is not quite in the same league as Ottessa Moshfegh or Jen Beagin. There were certain descriptions (such as labia=snails…), scenes, and elements that tried too hard to be ‘subversive’ and ‘zany’. Out of the 10 stories we get I actually only ended up liking the first one, the rest were all flash and no substance. The humor too was very hit or miss for me (many of ‘ah-ah’ moments relied on the use of the word patriarchy or ‘cis white male’ jokes which were not particularly original).
Still, if you are a fan of Awad or Melissa Broder you might find Sarahland to be a more satisfying collection than I did. While to begin with I appreciated how weird and campy these stories were ultimately too samey. Cohen is nonetheless a promising writer and I look forward to reading her future works.

my rating: ★★★

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Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

For a work that was first published in 1998 Daughter of Fortune strikes me as something more suited to the 1970s. Don’t get me wrong, I love Isabel Allende’s work and she is one of my favourite authors, however, at the risk of coming across as an oversensitive zillennial, her mystification of China struck me as rather old-fashioned. The way Allende portrays other cultures and groups relies on clichés. Yes, some of these characters were, for the most part, ‘harmless’ stereotypes, but nonetheless, they did induce an eye-roll or two on my part (for instance, every indigenous woman from Chile is cuvacious and passionate).

As with many other novels by Allende Daughter of Fortune is very heavy on the telling. There are very few, if any, dialogues, which did occasionally distance me from the events Allende narrated. Still, her storytelling, for the most part, kept me engaged in the characters and their stories.
The novel begins in Chile during the 1840s. Eliza Sommers, a Chilean girl and the novel’s central character, is adopted by Rose Sommers, an unmarried Briton. Rose lives with her strict older brother and tries to raise Eliza as a ‘proper’ Victorian lady. Eliza, however, goes on to fall head-over-heels in love with a Chilean man of ‘dubious’ character. When her beloved is struck by gold fever and leaves for California, a bereft Eliza will risk her own life to be reunited with him.
The story definitely takes its time, and, the first few chapters are less focused on Eliza than a tertiary character, a certain Jacob Todd who travels to Chile after making a bet. He falls for Rose but she clearly does return his affection. We also read about his friends, Feliciano Rodriguez de Santa Cruz and his wife, whose role in the novel feels rather superfluous. During Part I we also learn more about Rose and her brothers and of Eliza’s childhood with them.
The remainder of the novel details Eliza’s epic journey to find the man she loves. During this time Eliza becomes acquainted with Tao Chi’en, a shanghaied physician who for a time worked as a cook on a ship captained by Rose’s other brother, John. Across two lengthy chapters, Allende recounts Tao’s life, from his early days to his marriage and, after his wife’s death, of his eventual disillusionment. Once in California Eliza and Tao grow closer and it is their bond that truly makes this novel. Allende, quite clearly, shows that Eliza’s feelings towards her paramour lead her to idealize this poco di buono man. Yet, her devotion towards him is such that she is willing to spend years of her life in search of him, passing as a young man in order to travel with more freedom.
The novel is certainly full of drama and Allende frequently falls prey to sappy platitudes (about love, destiny, desire, womanhood).
But whereas I could easily overlook Allende’s tendency towards the melodramatic, I had a harder time looking past her clichéd portrayal of China, its culture, and people. When the narrative is relating Tao’s youth, Allende, quite out of the blue, feels the obligation of using a metaphor involving rice (when describing a Chinese mother’s grief: “the little girl’s accident was like the grain of rice that makes the bowl overflow.”). Tao, who is in his thirties, is described looking as sometimes looking like a teenager, and, “ancient as a turtle”, so that “it was easy then to believe that he had lived many centuries”. Whyyyyyy do we have to compare the one Chinese character to a turtle?! And of course, because he is an East Asian man he has to have “delicate ” hands.
Allende includes many other stereotypes about China, and I just have very little patience for this sort of stuff. It didn’t help that Allende includes a plethora of clichés (such as prostitutes with hearts of gold, or Eliza ‘rescuing’ a Native American boy….come on Allende!).
Yes, there were many beautiful descriptions and Allende clearly researched this period of history but I had a hard time getting to like or care for her characters (who are racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, judgemental, anti-abortion). While it made sense, given that the story takes place during the 1840s, it made it difficult for me to actually relate or sympathize with the characters. Eliza was beautiful (in an unconventional way, of course), kind, and clever. The classic heroine. Her love for this guy was definitely of the insta-love variety, and while the narrative does point this out, I struggled to understand what possessed her to follow this guy whose blandness is such that I cannot recollect his name.
I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the development between Tao and Eliza, and it was refreshing to see a Chinese man be not only one of the main characters but the heroine’s love interest. I wish the novel had focused exclusively on them, with less of the ‘will they won’t they’ subplot.
Overall, the novel is kind of cheesy and rather dated. Still, fans of Allende who are less ‘sensitive’ than I am will probably enjoy this a lot more than I did.

 

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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After Dark by Haruki Murakami

 

Having heard a lot about the genius of Murakami over the years I was excepting something a bit more out of After Dark, a novel which, at the risk of incurring the wrath of Murakami aficionados, failed to captivate me. Credit where credit’s due, Murakami certainly knows how to create and maintain a certain ambience. Set in Tokyo, this slight novel takes place over the course of a single night, rotating between four characters: we have Mari Asai, who is Not Like Other Girls™, who is spending her night reading at Denny’s, a restaurant chain, Takahashi Tetsuya, trombone player who is as dull as a brick and prone to spouting sexist comments (A girl is reading? A girl knows what a trombone is? MADNESS!), Eri, Mari’s beautiful sister who seems trapped in a realm between dreams and reality, and Shirakawa, a man who beats up a Chinese prostitute in a love hotel nearby Mari.
Takahashi recognises Mari and approaches her, the two talk about fake-deep things. Takahashi goes on to play at some club or whatnot and Mari, who is studying Chinese, ends up helping the Chinese prostitute beaten by Shirakawa. Eri meanwhile is sleeping, but her sleep is disturbed by an ominous presence.
Murakami seems under the belief that women are obsessed by their own breasts (if you think you are dreaming wouldn’t you pinch yourself? Slap yourself? Apparently, if you are a woman, you would likely grab your breasts). I disliked the way Murakami portrayed Mari and Eri is opposites of each other. Mari is intelligent and overlooked, Eri is beautiful and beloved by everyone (yet her beauty is also, alas, a curse). Characters chat about Jazz, Mari complains about her sister, Takahashi says dull things, Shirakawa is emotionless, and the clock ticks away.
The novel ends with an incestuous scenes that exist only because Mari and Eri are girls.
This novel was surprisingly forgettable and having now read some articles and Reddit posts about the way Murakami portrays women…well, I am unsure whether I hate myself enough to read more of sexist stuff.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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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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Crime And Punishment: A Novel in Six Parts with Epilogue by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot is a favourite of mine so I was expecting Crime And Punishment be right up my street…aaaaand I hated it.

Many consider Crime And Punishment to be one of the most influential books of all time…and I have to wonder…how? The Idiot, although certainly flawed, tells a far more cohesive and compelling narrative. The central figure of Crime And Punishment is an angsty and hypocritical wanker. I do not have to like a character to ‘root’ for them but Dostoyevsky, man, you gotta give me something…anything! Instead we have this appealing main character who for reasons unknown to me manages to captivate everybody’s attention.

Crime And Punishment is divided in six parts. In the first one—which I actually kind of liked—we are introduced to Rodion Raskolnikov an impoverished young man who dropped out of university and is now forced to go to a pawnbroker for funds. He believes that his financial circumstances are the only thing standing in the way of a ‘good’ life so he decides to kill the pawnbroker, telling himself that she is a callous old woman who sort of deserves to meet a violent end. In this first part Raskolnikov has various monologues, in which he argues with himself. A letter from his mother, informing him that his sister is engaged to an older man of affluence, he kind of looses it. He also meets another ‘tormented’ soul, Marmeladov, an alcoholic ne’er-do-well, who basically tells Raskolnikov his life story (his incoherent ramblings go on for pages and pages and pages).
Raskolnikov uses an axe to kill the pawnbroker but things, predictably, don’t go quite as he had planned.

The follow five parts haven’t all that much to do with this murder or with the detective who is pursuing Raskolnikov. After committing this crime Raskolnikov falls ill, he faints more often than Harry Potter and Frodo combined. Lots of people try to help him but he remains an asshole. Razumíkhin, who was also forced to drop out of university due to his finances, is utterly loyal to him. And…why? Even prior his ‘madness’ it seems that Raskolnikov was a noxious mix of moody and unpleasant. Then these two are joined by Raskolnikov’s sister and mother, and by the two ‘bad’ men who are interested in his sister. And of course, we also get some more of Marmeladov and his family, in particular his daughter, a beautiful prostitute whose childlike appearance (insert puking sounds here) and inherent purity make Raskolnikov besotted with her.

Everyone goes on a tirade, no one makes any bloody sense. Ramblings here, ramblings there, ramblings every fucking where. The dialogues are repetitive, the plot makes no sense (convenient coincidences aside it seems odd that Raskolnikov would not think back to his article on ‘extraordinary’ and ‘ordinary’ criminals just once in part one or two given what he wanted to and what he ended up doing), and I have 0 tolerance for grown ass men finding women attractive because they have ‘childlike’ physiques, temperaments, or features. And of course, here we have women who tremble like leaves.

There were so many over the top moments and whereas I found this fantastical realism amusing in The Idiot here they just annoyed me. Raskolnikov is dumb, he isn’t a brilliant criminal, or a genius, or master manipulator, or even charming…he just is. He makes so many avoidable mistakes, which made me wonder why it took the detective so long to finally confront him. Speaking of the deceive, his scenes with Raskolnikov had this very ‘anime’ feel to them (which works in parodies such as Love is War) and I could not for the life of me take them seriously.

What kind of point was this book trying to make? I have no clue. I did not enjoy the discussions on ‘extraordinary’ and ‘ordinary’ men, which seem to suggest that the reason why the detective is so in awe of Raskolnikov is that he considers him to be an ‘extraordinary’ individual, one who should not be punished as hard as ‘ordinary’ individual should. Yikes.

To quote Nabokov: Dostoyevsky’s “sensitive murderers and soulful prostitutes are not to be endured for one moment—by this reader anyway”.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Less Dead by Denise Mina — book review

The Less Dead is a gripping, if bleak, piece of tartan noir. When sex workers, drug addicts, migrant workers, and otherwise marginalised groups are victims of murder, they are called the ‘less dead’. Their deaths are less important, not as ‘impactful’. Denise Mina’s novel, in a similar vein to recent releases such as Long Bright River, is less interested in its ‘serial killer’ storyline and more concerned with depicting the realities and experiences of women whose lives have been punctuated by sexual abuse, violence, and addiction.
Set in Glasgow, the novel introduces to thirty-something Margot Dunlop, a doctor still grieving the recent death of her mother. Margot is struggling to cope, with her break up from Joe, her longterm boyfriend, and with her pregnancy. She finds herself wanting to learn more about her birth mother, Susan, only to learn that she was brutally killed years before. Susan’s was one of the nine victims of a serial killer who preyed on sex workers. Since Susan’s death Nikki, Susan’s older sister, has received a string of menacing letters who could only have been written by the murderer. While Nikki seems eager to get to know her niece, a disbelieving Margot is hesitant to venture into a ‘world’ she thinks little of. When Margot also starts to receive crude letters, she’s forced to reconsider.
As Margot learns more of Susan, a young woman who refused to labelled as a victim, and her birth family, she finds herself challenging her own biases.
Mina presents her readers with a thought-provoking interrogation of class. The women she writes of, their struggles and traumas, are rendered with striking empathy. Margot, however, comes across as a far less nuanced character. Her remoteness seemed unwarranted and unexplained. She’s curt to the point of being brusque, she makes a few decision that aren’t truly delved into, making her seem out of character for the sake of the plot. Nikki, by comparison, not only felt truly real, but she’s really admirable. Margot’s relationship with her ‘problematic’ best friend and her ex detracted from the overall the story. These two characters didn’t seem all that believable.
While the third person present tense narration did add a sense of immediacy, or urgency if you will, to the novel, it did occasionally did frustrate me. There are certain conversations that don’t have quotations marks and they also became a bit gimmicky (it made sense in certain scenes, but the more this happened the less ‘meaningful’ it became). Another pet peeve of mine were the sections from the ‘culprits’ perspective. These were brief and struck me as salacious, as in ‘glimpse the thoughts of a deviant mind’ (as if this individual’s letters didn’t convey their state of mind).
Mina’s story is certainly evocative and gritty. The scenes focused on Nikki were easily my favourite. Margot’s ‘personal’ struggles, on the other hand, just didn’t grab my interest. Perhaps this is because I didn’t particularly warm to her character, whose wooden personality reminded me of the narrator of Long Bright River.
Nevertheless, I did find Mina’s examination of the way in which women such as Nikki and Susan are treated by their society to be both incisive and affecting. While Mina doesn’t shy away from portraying the stark realities and daily horrors of addiction and prostitution, she doesn’t make her characters into ‘pitiable’ stereotypes. The thriller elements give the narrative an element of suspense, and the tension between Margot and those connected to Susan did gave the story a certain ‘edge’.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz — book review

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“Can you tell me what happened on the night of the murder? I asked and even as I uttered the words I felt slightly ridiculous. They sounded so old-fashioned, so clichéd. If I’d seen them in a novel, I’d have edited them out.”

Anthony Horowitz has written yet another labyrinthine whodunnit that pays homage to Golden Age Detective fiction. In Moonflower Murders readers will be reunited with Susan Ryeland, a former editor who now runs a small hotel in Crete with her partner Andreas. Running a hotel is exhausting and Susan, nostalgic about her old life, years for a break. It just so happens that she’s approached by a couple, the Trehearnes, own a five-star hotel, Branlow Hall, in Suffolk. Eight years previously a guest was brutally murdered in his room. Susan just so happens to have edited a book that was inspired by this murder (Alan Conway’s Atticus Pünd Takes the Case). The Trehearnes’ daughter, Cecily, disappeared after telling them that Alan’s novel holds the truth behind the 2008 murder. The Trehearnes hire Susan, hoping that her knowledge of the book and her ties to the now deceased Alan will shed light on Cecily’s disappearance. Similarly to Magpie Murders the novel is divided between Susan’s narrative and Alan’s novel.
While it does take a stretch of the imagination to believe that the Trehearnes would hire Susan and not a private detective to find what happened to their daughter, I soon fell into the flow of story. Susan’s presence at Branlow Hall ruffles quite a few feathers. There is Cecily’s icy sister, the various hotel employees, Cecily’s husband and their nanny…we have quite a large cast. Some of them hold Susan accountable for Alan’s novel, others simply don’t like the idea of her ‘snooping’ around. Yet Susan, who is determined to find out what happened to Cecily, knows that her disappearance is tied up to that fateful night in 2008.
While I did like the story-within-the-story technique in Magpie Murders, in this novel I was far more invested in Susan’s ‘reality’ than Alan’s book. In fact, as much as I like I Horowitz’s writing, I did dislike Alan’s. I found myself agreeing with Susan’s comments about Atticus Pünd Takes the Case: Alan’s narrative is populated by cruel caricatures of the ‘real’ people from Branlow Hall. I just didn’t particularly care for Pünd and his investigation. Alan’s novel seems a clumsy attempt at imitating Agatha Christie. His dialogues lack her wit and his detective is forgettable. I wish that Horowitz had also included a few relevant chapters from Alan’s novel, rather than giving us the whole thing.
While many of the easter eggs and allusions in Alan’s novel went over my head (was all that kerfuffle with the names truly necessary?), I knew the identity of the killer early on…which is perhaps inevitable given that Alan tries so hard to emulate the Queen of Crime (view spoiler). While I do understand that much of what I disliked in Atticus Pünd Takes the Case was intentional (as characters from Susan’s narrative point out its many flaws), I still don’t understand why readers should have to read the whole thing. Also, Alan’s novel takes us away from the more interesting whodunnit.
For the most part I liked Susan’s investigation. There were so many subplots and red-herrings that it was hard to keep all the facts straight but for the most part I was intrigued by the unfolding of her investigation.
Sadly, I couldn’t help but noticing that Horowitz has written yet another book that casts homosexuality in a negative light. This is the third book by him (the other ones being Magpie Murders and The House of Silk) in which gay men are portrayed as morally corrupt (they are sadistic, pedophiles, liars, manipulative). Which…what gives Horowitz? Throughout Moonflower Murders characters make comments about ‘what can and what can’t be said’ nowadays, which suggests some sort of awareness towards ‘modern’ sensibilities’. While I do not except, nor desire, for characters to be models of virtue, it seems odd to make your 3 gay characters either horrible, such as with Alan and Frank, or a former prostitute who leads an unhealthy and unfulfilling existence. Great representation…not. While there aren’t any extremely likeable characters, Alan and Frank are perhaps the worst of the whole lot. When talking about Alan and Frank, other characters conflate their sexual orientation with their morally reprehensible behaviour. They will say ‘I have nothing against gay men’ and go on to say something that equates being gay with perversion. This is the second novel by Horowitz in which his main character doesn’t challenge other characters’ homophobic remarks (Susan…you’ve let me down).
In Horowitz’s novels being gay makes you undesirable.
This whole thing bugged me so much that I was unable to become truly invested in the story. Still, I did like Horowitz’s depiction of the publishing industry, and I was interested in Susan’s observations about the editing process or writing in general.

“Every writer is different,” I said. “But they don’t steal, exactly. They absorb. It’s such a strange profession, really, living in a sort of twilight between the world they belong to and the world they create.”

This was far from a ‘bad’ whodunnit. While I was disappointed by the way gay characters were portrayed, Horowitz’s writing is nevertheless engaging (and his quintessentially British humour gets to me). Atticus Pünd Takes the Case on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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The Adventures of Isabel: An Epitome Apartments Mystery by Candas Jane Dorsey — book review

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“I spend my days staring at the wall and fantasising about disembowelling my cat as an offering to whatever bitch goddess has been organising my life lately. I am so depressed that if I could motivate myself to it I’d commit suicide, but it’s too proactive for me.”

The subtitle of this novel is quite apt: ‘A Postmodern Mystery’. The Adventures of Isabel is to detective/mystery fiction what Picasso is to Turner. Candas Jane Dorsey has written an absorbing and extremely metafictional (the narrator frequently ‘breaks’ the fourth wall) mystery that feels very much of ‘the now’. The novel’s unmanned narrator, single, ambisexual, in her late thirties, a downsized social worker, is down on her luck. Her life takes an interesting turn when Maddy, the granddaughter of one her closest friends, is found murdered. Because of Maddy’s line of work, Hep (aka her grandmother) believes that the police won’t be solve her case.

“Hep then named an hourly rate which made even my overinflated self-indulgent subconscious blink, and between the emotional blackmail of being reminded how much I owed Denis, the memory of my empty cupboard, evocations of the pitiful dead kid, and greed, I was persuaded—provisionally, with confirmation to be given once I sobered up—to give up my career as a call girl and become a detective.”

Our protagonist begrudgingly takes on the role of ‘detective’, using her knowledge of the city’s underbelly she uses a police connection and her extensive social network to solve Maddy’s murderer. Her investigation is anything but straightforward, and often falls into the absurd a la Alice in Wonderland. The novel is less interested in the plot than it is with ‘style’. The spotlight remains on the protagonist’s meta narration. Dorsey’s tongue-in-cheek portrayal of a ‘contemporary’ society is delightfully humorous.
The cast of characters are as entertaining as our narrator, and often their conversations spiral into the nonsensical. I particularly liked the narrator’s relationship with her religious cousin and Jian (who is beyond cool). There are some running gags (Bunnywit’s ‘original’ name, the fish sticks) that make the narrator’s reality feel familiar.
As much as I loved the narrator’s metafictional asides, or her ramblings on other characters’ word-choices, it did seem that the ‘murder story’ was lost in all this postmodern cacophony. Amidst the characters’ digressing discussions and our mc’s various monologues, I often lost sight of the actual investigation. Still, I liked Dorsey’s original approach to this genre, and I really ‘clicked’ with her protagonist. Without loosing the lighthearted tone of her narrative, Dorsey manages to directly address issues such as gender, sexuality, and race.
The novel’s strength is in its energetic narrative and in the protagonist’s dark humour. I will quite happily read another novel about this main character as I would like to learn more of her backstory.

My rating: 3.25 of 5 stars

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Long Bright River by Liz Moore — book review

Untitled drawing (4).jpgSet against the opioid crisis in Philadelphia Liz Moore’s thought-provoking novel portrays the long-lasting and devastating effects that addiction have on an individual, on a family, and on an entire neighbourhood.

“These girls, he says. He looks at me and puts one finger to his right temple, taps it twice. Stupid, is what he means. No sense.”

In Long Bright River Moore focuses her narrative on the fraught relationship between two sisters, showing the circumstances that can lead to or result in addiction, parental negligence, and crime. Sadly, what had the potential of being a captivating tale is somewhat let down by an uneven structure and an undeveloped murder storyline.

The Good
The setting of this novel is strikingly rendered. Moore has done an amazing job in depicting both Philadelphia. The neighbourhood of Kensington, the area in which much of the story’s action takes place, comes alive on Moore’s pages. Kensington is reputed has having the highest rates of heroin use in the United States. On its streets there is crime, addiction, and prostitution. While Moore does capture its desperation, she also introduces us to some of its compassionate inhabitants. Readers get a nuanced yet unflinching look at this neighbourhood. There are entire families that fall into drugs. One’s parents, one’s uncles and aunts, and one’s cousin. We understand how difficult it is to break this cycle. Nature and nurture are both to blame for the way in which many children follow the same pattern as their parents and lead a life of crime and addiction. Rather than just presenting us with a Hollywood version of an addict or a prostitute, Moore digs deeper. The people who Mickey encounters on her patrol come across as real people. So much so that readers are bound to feel a mixture of heartbreak and horror over them. Unsurprisingly Dennis Lehane has praised this novel. In many ways Moore’s strong sense of place reminded me of his novels.
Another refreshing thing about Long Bright River is that it subverts the ‘good sister/bad sister0 trope that has been oh-so-popular in recent years. The dynamic between Mickey and Kacey was complex and painfully believable. I certainly felt invested in their relationship and its outcome. The choices they make aren’t always easy to understand but we are fully aware of the circumstances that have shaped them in such a way. Through flashbacks we see the way in which they slowly yet irrevocably drift apart and their past closeness becomes a thing of the past. Yet, in spite of their painful history, the two are bound to each other.
Having a family in Long Bright River is not an easy thing. Mickey’s career path in the police department has made her into a persona non grata to most of her blood relatives. But, as readers soon will realise, this familial uneasiness runs both ways. Connections can be formed with unexpected people, such as Mickey does with her elderly neighbour (who was perhaps my favourite character in the entire novel).
I liked the ambivalence of Moore’s story. There are no easy answers or solutions. People capable of violence or malice can also be capable of kindness.

The Could-Have-Been-Better Things
Mickey’s staccato narration takes some getting used to. While I do understand that if her internal monologue or descriptions occasionally sounded robotic it was because she is a somewhat aloof and logical individual, I wish her narrative hadn’t been so wooden. The ‘then’ sections—aka the flashbacks—would have had a much more emotional impact if they’d been narrated by Kacey. Mickey’s perspective has its limitation. The story would benefitted from having her as the narrator as it would have allowed a more balanced portrayal of their relationship. Kacey was a much more interesting and compelling character, and I do think that having her as a narrator would have made me care more for her.
The pacing isn’t great. There are many instances in which the plot loose itself and doesn’t really advance Mickey’s investigation. Mickey herself makes a lot of dumb decisions, and some of them do seem a bit outlandish. For me, the murder investigation was the novel’s weakest point. While it does show the way in which vulnerable people are used or disregarded by the system that is supposed to help them, it also resorts to cheap, and occasionally predictable, ‘twists’. At times this murder-storyline seems forgotten, only to be later picked up at a too convenient moment.

Overall thoughts
Long Bright River is a mournful novel as Mickey’s search for her sister is not an easy one. The story shows the in interplay between addiction, poverty, and crime in a stark manner without resorting to pulpy stereotypes. It presents with the devastating reality of the opioid crisis, the way in which can destroy entire families and neighbourhoods, by focusing on the individual rather than the statistics.
Although it has its flaws (the pacing, structure, and protagonist had their weaknesses) I would still recommend it as I could see how much work Moore has put into it.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton — book review

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“A person’s fortune always changes in the telling of it.”

Turns out that reading The Luminaries was a phenomenal waste of my time. Eleanor Catton writes well, and the concept behind her novel had the potential of being interesting, but on the whole The Luminaries seems to be little more than a dull rehash of Wilkie Collins’ Sensation novels. What is worse is tat Catton treats her characters as if they were disposable accessories, seeming far more focused on weaving into her storyline vague allusion to astrological signs rather than of creating memorable characters or an intriguing mystery.
At the end of the day a polished prose—which seems to merely mimic the language of nineteenth century fiction—doesn’t make up for the fact that over the course of nearly 900 pages Catton tells a story that isn’t worth reading.

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The novel’s astrology-based structure—which is made apparent from the character chart and the various charts which are interspersed throughout this tome of a book—amounts to little more than a clever gimmick. The all-knowing narrator tries to inject the many events recounted by the narrative with some sort of mystical meaning which came across as being both contrived and banal.

The story’s opening chapters are promising enough.On a stormy January night in 1866 Walter Moody, one of the book’s central figures, takes shelter in the Crown Hotel (Hokitika, New Zealand) and, unbeknownst to him, interrupts a secret meeting between twelve men. Over the course of the next 400 pages or so each man gives his account (directly and not) regarding the suspicious death of a hermit named Crosbie Wells, the possible suicide of Anna Wetherell (a prostitute often referred by 90% of the characters as ‘the whore’), and Francis Carver, a captain of ill-repute. Each has played a different role in these strange events, and naturally they all have an incomplete picture of these odd occurrences and coincidences. With the help of Moody they try to put the various pieces of this puzzle together. So far…so good, right?
Sadly, I soon realised that these characters were of secondary importance to the very structure of the novel. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded as much if these characters weren’t so easily forgotten and swept aside by the narrative which around at the 70% mark ends up focusing on two of the most weakly drawn characters of the entire novel. One was largely MIA, the other one possessed a personality that was defined by her profession…and all of a sudden I’m 1) supposed to care for these two, 2) take them seriously. S-u-r-e thing.
The twelve men were stereotypes but they had the potential of being interesting. Yet the narrative doesn’t really do anything with them (I was particularly frustrated by Ah Sook’s character arc).710V6t8+AGL.jpg
In spite of the emphasis that our omniscient narrator puts on faith and the converging paths of these various characters, it all seemed so random and inconsequential.
Hundreds and hundreds of pages and there is no pay off.
The setting of the story lacks ambience. The narrative does ‘tells’ a lot and ‘shows’ very little. While Eleanor Catton’s writing does accurately convey the historical period in which her story is set, it also struck me as cold.
Her prose lacks Wilkie Collins’ humour. Her story and structure seem far too dull and contrived to be part of the Sensation genre. There may be certain elements (stolen identities, secret marriages, forged documents, an evil woman) but there is no passion, no spark. The characters are unfunny stereotypes that have no real impact on the narrative. If the story doesn’t care for its characters, why should I?
There are so many descriptions about their behaviours and values that don’t really amount to anything. Their personalities are almost interchangeable. At times these descriptions of their beliefs and conducts seemed to be little more than results of Catton’s logorrhoea. They sounded clever but they didn’t really go towards making that character (and his motivations) more vivid or realistic.
There is a lot of repetition. Some was intentional (given that these men are discussing the same events time and again) a lot was empty prattle. Much of the dialogue consisted in characters asking the same question twice or three times, giving the same reply twice or three times, or not understanding each other (and having to repeated themselves twice or thee times).
While I can’t deny that Catton can write very eloquently indeed, I was only able to enjoy the first 200 pages or so of her novel.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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