My Heart Is a Chainsaw by Stephen Graham Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

The Trees by Percival Everett

“Money, Mississippi, looks exactly like it sounds. Named in that persistent Southern tradition of irony and with the attendant tradition of nescience, the name becomes slightly sad, a marker of self-conscious ignorance that might as well be embraced because, let’s face it, it isn’t going away.”


Percival Everett is an author that has been on my radar for a while now. And in many ways, The Trees does showcase the hand of a talented writer, as the book showcases plenty of quick-witted dialogues and clever descriptions, all topped by an unsparing yet humorous social commentary. It did take me a while to adjust to the tone and direction of his story as I thought that The Trees would be something in the realms of something by Dennis Lehane, Walter Mosley, or S.A. Cosby. I was surprised when I was confronted by an almost absurdist tone, one that brought to mind certain films by the Coen brothers, which usually abound with minor yet memorable side characters. The satirical way in which Everett depicts small towns and small-town ‘mentalities’ reminded me of certain books by Stephen King, as they both succeed in bringing to life—often more for the worse than the better—those who inhabit smaller communities in rural America. For the first few pages in fact I believed that The Trees had a historical setting, given the opinions and behaviours voiced and showcased by the family appearing in that opening sequence. It is only when more modern things are mentioned or make an appearance that I realized that the story had a contemporary setting.
Everett effectively renders how insular, bigoted, and reactionary the people of Money, Mississippi are. They are a rural community, one that is teeming with poorly educated racist white-nationalist who struggle to find employement and fulfilment. Their bubble of insularity is burst when their town becomes the setting for a series of mind-boggling murders. The white murdered men appear to share an ‘unpleasant’ (this is an understatement of course) connection and at each crime scene, there is also another body, that of a Black man who eerily resembles Emmett Till, the victim of a lynching. Another odd detail is that the white men are castrated (which of course gives way to a repetitive verging on the homophobic gag which i frankly could have done without).
Two detectives from the Bureau of Investigation and the local authorities, who are both inept and racist, attempt to get in their way. As more men die in the same peculiar circumstances the detectives find themselves looking for answers in the past. Are these murders an act of retribution? If so, by the hands of whom? The disappearing body of Emmett Till adds a dimension of surreality to the murders, so much so that I started to wonder whether Everett would go the route King did in The Outsider.
Everett favours no perspective and throughout the book, he switches between the townspeople of Money to the detectives. I, like other readers, of course, preferred those sections that focused on the detectives and their investigation. They had a good if slightly cliched dynamic but their banter was entertaining and they play off each other quite well. If anything I found myself wanting to spend more time with them and less with the often cartoonish people of Money. That is not me saying or suggesting that people such as the ones we encounter in Money do not exist. I have come across Jordan Klepper’s videos (where he interviews trump supporters) and boy oh boy…still, Everett is quite heavy-handed in his use of satire, so much so that most of the characters populating his novel are closer to caricatures than fully-dimensional individuals. There were many instances where I found the humour crass and distracting as it took away from otherwise poignant or important scenes where characters discuss lynching, racism, and police brutality. I also did not like how the author writes about fat people, it reminded me of Family Guy tbh. So not my kind of ‘humor’. I could have also done without the very cliched female characters we get in this novel, in particular, the detectives’ no-nonsense strong-willed ‘ally’. This is the type of character often penned by male authors, with good intentions I’m sure, but I just find this type of characterisation lazy.
The pacing was somewhat uneven. There were several instances where I found my attention drifting away or where I found myself growing weary of the unrelenting satire, especially in those instances where it takes on a sillier tone. There are several storylines that do eventually come together but in a not quite satisfying manner. There are some loose ends or certain parts that just did not feel that convincing or well-executed. The ending in particular didn’t really work for me. Maybe if we’d been given insight into that part of the story from the get-go I could have adjusted more to it but we don’t so I was really sold on it. Still, I can recognise that just because I thought that the content of the story was at odds with the narrative tone does not mean that you will feel the same way so if you are curious about this book I recommend you also check out some 4 or 5-star reviews. This was less of a crime/thriller than a dark occasionally OTT satire which I wasn’t quite in the mood for. Still, I’ll definitely check out more books by this author. I appreciated the issues he tackles in The Trees, in particular on addressing racist violence both in the past and in the present. Ultimately however the tone of his narration eroded much of my interest in his story so that I found myself reading less out of a desire to do so and more so out of a sense of misplaced duty (on the lines of, i am already halfway there, might as well finish this).

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Old Woman with the Knife by Gu Byeong-mo

The Old Woman with the Knife follows Hornclaw a 65-year-old assassin in South Korea who is noticing that she is no longer as fit as she used to be. She makes a few slips up on the job and wonders when her company is going to force her into retirement. Due to the nature of her job Hornclaw leads a solitary lifestyle, her only companion is an old dog whose presence she endures more than she enjoys. She is shown to be fairly apathetic and efficient even if the people around her are quick to dismiss her based on her gender and age. Not only does Hornclaw have to contend with the possibility of her motor and cognitive skills deteriorating but a young male colleague of hers seems eager to embarrass her, talking down to her and making jabs at her techniques. Although mildly annoyed by this Hornclaw doesn’t seem particularly bothered by him however when it seems that his dislike of her may be deeper than what their superficial colleague-relationship entails, Hornclaw can no longer be passive. When he begins to interfere with her jobs and her private life Hornclaw has no choice but to confront him.
I was hoping for the story to be more about Hornclaw’s profession rather than the cat/mouse game between her and her colleague. That man is fairly one-dimensional and the way he is portrayed often veers into the cartoonish so I never took him as a serious threat. While we do get glimpses into Hornclaw’s past, in particular the circumstances that led to her entering this line of work and her relationship with her mentor, the narrative relies too much on the ‘telling’ of things. I would have preferred to read more scenes actually showing Hornclaw working, either on her first jobs or her most memorable killings. Hornclaw’s characterisation also seemed a tad uneven. It seemed to me that the author couldn’t quite bring themselves to portray Hornclaw as a ruthless and self-serving killer so we end up with a character who demonstrates very inconsistent characteristics that don’t quite add up. Also, we are told that at one point or another she has cared for two individuals but I didn’t quite believe that as the first instance is the cliched mentee has feelings for mentor shebang and the other was just kind of weird. Lastly, while for much of the narrative we are told about how remorseless and cold-hearted Hornclaw is she actually comes across as frustratingly unassertive and not incredibly good at her job. It would have been more refreshing to see a character of her age and gender be outspoken or even aggressive and arrogant. Hornclaw ascribes her ‘softening’ to her ageing but that seemed a bit of a cop-out. I’m sure that frailty or the possibility of frailty could make one feel more vulnerable or more perceptive and sympathetic of the vulnerabilities of others but it does end up making Hornclaw into a rather corny character. Still, I can’t think of another book that is centred on a female assassin in her mid-60s so if you are interested in this kind of premise you should definitely check this one out for yourself.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Honor by Thrity Umrigar

Previously to reading Thrity Umrigar’s Honor I’d read another novel with the same title and subject matter. Both books make for harrowing reads, however, whereas I found Elif Shafak’s more thoughtful tone to be more appropriate to the subject fitting, here, well, Umrigar’s undermines her social commentary by throwing into the mix a rushed romantic subplot, a series of blatant plot points and coincidences, an abundance of mawkish metaphors, and one too many cartoonish side characters.

At first, I found Umrigar’s Honor to be a rather gripping read as it promised to be an unflinching story tackling honor killings, Islamophobia, discrimination, and misogyny. The novel switches between two perspectives: Smita, an Indian American journalist who left India at a young age after a traumatic experience, and Meena, a Hindu woman who married a Muslim man. Meena has survived an attack that her husband did not. Her brothers, alongside other men from their community, tried to burn her alive. Now Meena and her newborn live with her mother-in-law who is resentful of her, blaming her for her son’s horrific death. Smita is given this story after her colleague is hospitalized. Initially, Smita isn’t too keen on this as she’s very uneasy about returning to India. A friend of her colleague becomes her travel companion. While she’s initially reluctant about his presence she quickly discovers that travelling alone is inadvisable.
Smita interviews Meena and learns the details of her vicious attack. She later on also interviews her brothers and a powerful man in their Hindu community. While they deny their involvement it is clear that they were not only responsible but have no remorse about having murdered their sister’s husband and disfigured her. Smita’s feelings towards India are repeatedly challenged by her companion who forces her not to dismiss a whole country on the basis of the actions of some. As Smita witnesses how Meena is treated by her mother-in-law and learns of how she was treated by her brothers, she becomes aware of her the privilege she carries being Indian American. Still, as a woman, she’s also exposed to the misogyny that is rampant in Meena’s community. Umrigar doesn’t paint Smita as a hero and I appreciated that sometimes, even when she’s trying to help someone, her actions do not have the desired consequences. In this way, I was reminded of The Far Field, another novel that is very much about privilege and guilt.
I did find Meena’s chapters to be a bit…condescending of her? Her vocabulary also struck me as inconsistent. Her chapters are in English for our eyes only, in reality, she’s speaking a dialect of Marathi, right? So why do her chapters occasionally seem to play up that she’s not well-spoken? Only for then to use complex sentences or allegories that really stood out in comparison to the rest of her narration? I don’t know…it seemed to me that the author was going to great lengths to portray Meena as this ‘simple’ village girl and it kind of annoyed me.
Smita also had her fair share of incongruities. For one, she claims to be good at her job yet she behaves really unprofessional. She tells off her companion, Mohan, for getting ‘emotional’ during one interview but she repeatedly does the same thing. She makes some really poor decisions and her line of questioning struck me ineffective.
For the majority of the narrative, the author does demonstrate her knowledge and insight into her story’s various subject matters (honor killings, religious conflicts, cultural and class divides). However, I did find her execution soap-operasish. At times her language, as well as her imagery, struck me as hackneyed, for example, “Smita could see the awful, irregular geometry of Meena’s face as past and present, normalcy and deformity, beauty and monstrosity, collided.” I also found it a bit predictable that Smita’s ‘past’, which has made her feel so conflicted about India, echoes in some ways Meena’s situation.
The pacing is fairly slow and I did not entirely understand why Meena’s chapters were even included given that, if anything, they made her relationship with her husband seem very rushed and random. The guy basically sees her once or twice while they are working and declares his undying love for her. His naivete about the fact that she’s Hindu and he is Muslim also struck me as a bit…unconvincing. I mean, he isn’t a child nor a hermit who is wholly unaware of his country’s political or social climate.
While the hearing’s result did strike me as sadly believable, I did find that section of the narrative somewhat rushed and illogical. Smita’s decision not to do something seemed a clear choice on the author’s part to force her character to feel guilty and haunted, indebted to stay in India. Smita’s relationship with Mohan also rubbed me the wrong way. It seemed a bit insensitive to have it so soon after yet another horrific plot point. The whole finale was corny, extremely so, and I hated how illogical it all was. Even if you have the character point out how ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ they are by believing that they have just been given a ‘sign’ from above, it still doesn’t make it believable to have that character uphold their lives because of that random sign. The secondary characters were very one-note, the majority of them are horrible, ignorant, or a combination of the two things. Most of the Indian female characters, with the exception of Meena, are really nasty to Smita for no good reason. I didn’t understand the point of her American colleague, Shannon, either. Her translator, Nandini, also served no purpose other than having scenes where Smita thinks her devotion to Shannon is’ weird’, and in a very childish manner wonders whether she’s in love with her. Grow up Smita, ffs.
Sadly, while I appreciate that the author has tackled such important issues, I found her storytelling to be too…shall I say, ‘book-clubby’ for my taste. I did like that at the end she makes a point of stating how absurd it is that ‘honor’ killings are referred to as such when there is truly nothing honorable about them.

my rating: ★★½

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

“Every time I was around them, they acted like I was a monster. So I said goddamnit, I’ll be the worst monster you ever saw!”

This novella takes place in 1920s New York. Charles Thomas Tester is a bit of a ‘hustler’ who sings and plays his guitar on the streets even if he isn’t a particularly talented musician. Still, he gives it a go trying to earn some money to support himself and his father. Whenever he ventures outside of Harlem he’s subjected to racist slurs, stared/glared at by white people, and harassed by the cops. He eventually finds himself coming into contact with a mysterious tome, a sorceress, and a wealthy white man who may be dabbling in the occult.

Nobody ever thinks of himself as a villain, does he? Even monsters hold high opinions of themselves.

While the premise did intrigue me I had a hard time following the story. The first few pages are straightforward enough but once Tom comes into contact with that old man (i’ve forgotten his name) I just had a hard time understanding what was going and the characters’ motivations. It didn’t help that the narrative tone is slightly at a remove from the characters, which was a pity as we don’t get to delve into Tom’s character. He makes a few puzzling choices or says a few odd things that just…I’m not sure, I just didn’t fully comprehend what was going with his character. I also disliked that that cop, Malone or whatever his name was, gets so much page time. Towards the end, he seems to have more scenes than Tom himself. The narrative had already established that he’s racist and a genuinely abhorrent human being. So no, I didn’t feel particularly keen on spending time alongside him, especially when that time could have served to make Tom into less of a puzzling character. That wealthy decrypt white guy also…I didn’t buy into him. I get that his attempts to awaken whatever evil supernatural forces he wanted to awaken were meant to be OTP, however, I still found him to be a plot device more than a character (even calling him a caricature seems too generous).
Still, I did for the most part like the author’s style. The story has a strong sense of place and there are some clever descriptions. However, I can’t say that, on the whole, I found this novella particularly gripping or insightful. If you happen to like modern takes on Lovecraftian/cosmic horror this may be the right read for you.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby

aaaand Cosby’s done it again!

“Tears ran from his eyes and stung his cheeks. Tears for his son. Tears for his wife. Tears for the little girl they had to raise. Tears for who they were and what they all had lost. Each drop felt like it was slicing his face open like a razorblade.”

S. A. Cosby’s sophomore novel is just as gritty and gripping as his adrenaline-fueled debut, Blacktop Wasteland. Once again Cosby pairs unrelenting action with a razor-sharp social commentary, but instead of heists and drag races, this time around he presents his readers with an unputdownable tale of revenge.
In Razorblade Tears we follow ex-cons Ike and Buddy Lee. After their sons, a married couple, are murdered and the police’s investigation leads to no arrests or even suspects, these two fathers decide to take justice into their own hands. Ike, who is Black, has worked hard to leave his criminal past behind him, however, the grief and guilt he feels at his son’s murder push him to take up those ways again. Ike’s strained relationship with his son intensifies his need to make things right, or in this case, to find and kill those responsible for his murder. Buddy Lee, who is white and a wildcard, also had a difficult relationship with his boy, Derek. Despite their differences, Ike and Buddy Lee are united by this. Both men refused to accept their sons’ sexualities, and while they did not entirely break contact with them they refused to see them or when they did resorted to homophobic slurs or remarks.
It is certainly impressive that Cosby can make you care for and root for Ike and Buddy Lee. These two men have blood on their hands and a body count. In trying to ascertain who knows what about their sons’ deaths, they readily resort to violence and threats. Ike’s homophobia seems deeply ingrained and the way he thinks about his son’s ‘gayness’ is alarming indeed. Buddy Lee at times seems very much a ‘red-neck’, whose vocabulary is offensive indeed. And yet Cosby succeeded in making me feel 100% invested in them and their quest for vengeance. Part of it is that they are nuanced. They are not reduced to their negative characteristics, nor are their actions idealised or condoned.
Their dynamic was truly entertaining. To begin with, they don’t get on all that much but the closer they come to discovering the truth behind their sons’ murders, the more they grow accustomed to each other. While their banter is certainly amusing I found their more sombre exchanges to be even more compelling. For different reasons, they both pushed their sons away, and their shared guilt creates a sense of camaraderie between the two.

Brutal, raw, ultimately heart-rendering Razorblade Tears presents its readers with a tale that is propelled by grief, guilt, and revenge. In their pursuit for retribution, this unlikely duo comes head-to-head with a biker gang made up of white supremacists who may be involved in their sons’ murders.
Their investigation, which starts mildly enough before taking a sharp turn into edge-of-your-seat territory is punctuated by bullet-riddled showdowns and tense confrontations. Along the way, the two fathers are repeatedly made to confront their past—and current—actions, in an impossible attempt to reconcile themselves with their dead sons. I appreciated how unflinching Cosby is when addressing Ike and Buddy Lee homophobia and that their sons’ sudden deaths doesn’t immediately result in them saying ‘mea culpa I did wrong’. When questioning the people close to their sons or scouting their local hangouts, the duo comes face-to-face with lgbtq+ people and culture, which forces them to further interrogate their relationships with their sons, specifically the harm brought about by their own prejudices and unwillingness to accept them.

Cosby’s writing is phenomenal. His dialogues are snappy, his metaphors slick (and often surprisingly funny in a fucked up kind of way), his descriptions on point. The sense of place and atmosphere too are incredibly strong and perfectly complement the narrative’s gritty tone.

The one thing that kept this from a 5-star rating was the on-the-page presence of lgbtq+ characters. The boys are dead, the people our pair interrogates early on do not appear later on in the narrative, and the one character who could have had more of an actual role, well, when she finally does make an appearance this is a rushed one and she’s soon sidelined (with a cis character speaking on her behalf). Still I thought that his commentary and portrayal of marginalised people was spot on.

Razorblade Tears has consolidated my already high opinion of this author. His debut was no fluke and Cosby delivers an exhilarating tale that on one hand is violent and brutal, and on the other, well, it will break your heart. Cosby highlights so, if you are looking for a thriller with a bite, look no more.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao

“But I have no faith in love. Love cannot save me.
I choose vengeance.”

Xiran Jay Zhao has written an ambitious debut novel that should definitely appeal to fans of Pacific Rim & The Hunger Games. Iron Widow is likely one of the most creative books that I’ve read this year (which is saying something given that atm my read count is around 150+) as it presents readers with a unique blend of genres and concepts: fantasy and sci-fi elements are incorporated in a dystopian yet recognizably historical Chinese-inspired setting. Alas, while I liked the commentary and ideas that are at play in this novel, its execution left me wanting. The Not Like Other Girls mc and girl-hate got to me too.

“It takes a monster to slay a monster.”

Way back when I used to be quite a fan of mecha anime (fyi my faves were: macross, code geass & eureka 7) so I was rather looking forward to seeing this subgenre translated into book form. The robots in this novel are called Chrysalises and operated by a psychically linked male/female duo in order to fend off aliens invaders called Hunduns. The male fighters are celebrities, their fights broadcasted to the whole of Huaxia. The female fighters, ‘concubines’, often do not survive these battles, as the boys more or less use them as their own energy bars. The way the girl fighters are treated definitely brought to mind the tributes from The Hunger Games. They are sacrificed without any care or regard, their certain death is deemed necessary for the ‘greater good’, an honour even.

“If we want something, we have to push back against everything around us and take it by force.”

Our narrator, Zetian, has grown up in this extremely misogynistic world. She has been mistreated by her family her whole life, her feet were broken and bound at a young age, and she basically has no freedoms whatsoever. When her older sister dies after being forced into becoming a ‘concubine’ Zetian seeks revenge. She wants to kill the male pilot responsible for her death.
Zetian does indeed succeed but in doing so reveals to the world just how powerful she is. After earning the title of ‘Iron Widow’ she’s paired with Li Shimin, ‘Iron Demon’, a male pilot with a dangerous reputation. Forced into working together Zetian and her new partner discover more about their abilities and the Chrysalises themselves.

The story is very action-driven and has an ‘edgy’ feel to it that will definitely appeal to many other readers. While I did enjoy the author’s take on mecha, their take on Yin/Yang, as well as the issues & realties they touch upon (because of her bound feet our mc’s has difficulties walking and often experiences pain), I would be lying if I said that I enjoyed this novel.
This is one of those rare cases where I genuinely feel shitty for not liking a book as much as I wanted to (the last time it happened was with lindsay ellis’ axiom’s end).
Because I really love the author’s content on youtube I am not too happy about critiquing their debut novel so I will just list the things that prevented me from liking their book without going into that much detail and without spoiling anything for anyone. Also, I feel the need to say (or write) that I don’t want to dissuade anyone from reading this book. I wish the author the best and I do think that they have the potential of becoming a really good writer. They are definitely creative and throughout their novel there are some visually stunning scenes that attest to this (this is the kind of book that should be adapted to the ‘big screen’) as well as some neat-sounding lines that brought to mind the work of Rebecca Roanhorse.

But, alas, here are the things that did not work for me:
the writing felt simplistic and certain words/expressions (‘ugh’, ‘duh’, ‘wow’, ‘yup’) pulled me out of the story; quite a few phrases had this ‘edgy YA’ tone to them that didn’t really do it for me either; personally, I would have preferred it if the story had implemented multiple povs or at least had been told through a 3rd person perspective as Zetian’s inner monologue struck me as extremely simple and the constant questions she asks herself got grating, fast, (“what’s happening? how did i get here? who am i?” “how could i have forgotten him? what does he mean to me?” ); I would have loved more detailed descriptions about the characters’ surroundings or their different environments (and maybe less about their clothes/hair styles); I also think that the world-building would have benefitted from being more firmly established earlier on…we get some crucial lore way too late in the narrative & quite a few aspects remain unexplored; the romance (something i was rather looking forward to) also did nothing for me…the relationship between the boys seemed rushed and it struck me as…I don’t know, I just would have believe in their relationship more if we’d been given their perspectives (their relationship to mc also was kind of meh); while the story was certainly fast-paced my interest waned early on in the story (there were a lot of repetitive and not-so-clear-cut sequences); all of the characters would have benefitted from some more depth; last, but not least, Zetian…I hoped she would be someone a la Zhu from She Who Became the Sun or like Lada Dracul from the And I Darken series (ruthless, knows what they want, may not be ‘physically strong’ but they are certainly intelligent)…but Zetian was low-key stupid and annoying, she had this vague OP/Chosen One/Not Like Other Girls/Badass Girlboss quality to her that I find really off-putting…also, for all her talk of girls supporting girls, the majority of the interactions that she has with other women (there are very few) gave me girls-hating-girls vibes (she has one token female friend).

There are a few other things that I didn’t like but I won’t go into them. I think this novel has a lot of heart and I’m sure that over time the author will hone their writing skills.
If you want to read this novel I recommend you give it a shot regardless of my review because I’ve been known to have shitty opinions (some people on this wonderful site have called me a ‘hater’, ‘dumb’, and ‘illiterate’, so do read my reviews with a pinch of salt).

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

my rating: ★★

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Build Your House Around My Body by Violet Kupersmith

As per usual I was swayed by a pretty cover. I mean, just look at it!

Anyway, as much as I wanted to like Build Your House Around My Body, it left me feeling rather underwhelmed. The narrative seems very much intent—hellbent even—on nauseating its readers, at times adopting a playful tone to do so. Ultimately, the story’s relentless efforts to be as abject as possible succeeded only in making me feel nothing for the characters.

The novel’s first few chapters were intriguing in a Neil Gaiman kind of way but with each chapter this reminded me more and more of Mariana Enríquez (not my cup of tea).
Build Your House Around My Body takes place in Vietnam, shifting between a cast of interconnected characters, and moving from the 1940s to the early 2010s. In 2011 a Vietnamese American woman named Winnie living in Saigon goes missing, less than a year after arriving in Vietnam. Over the course of the novel, we learn of what led her to Saigon and of her stint as an English teacher. A section of the narrative follows the Saigon Spirit Eradication Co. who are called to investigate some ‘spooky’ ongoings at a Vietnamese farm, another introduces us to a Vietnamese French boy sent to a boarding school during colonial rule, and then there are chapters focusing on three childhood friends, Binh, a supposedly feisty young girl and two brothers, Tan and Long, who share the same kind of bland personality.
The setting is vividly rendered, that’s for sure. We feel the oppressive heat and humidity experienced by the characters and the author has a knack for bringing to life the environments in which her characters are (be it a cemetery, a forest, or a dingy bathroom). The various storylines however don’t really flow that well together. The author wastes too much time poking fun at secondary characters that she loses sight of her novel’s central figures. Take Winnie. She remains a half-formed character, and while some of her vagueness may be intentional she could have still been fleshed out more. But her chapters often detail the silly routines of her colleagues or try really hard to gross you out through unpleasant descriptions of bodily fluids. Each storyline seems punctuated by slime, sweat, and shit. Which…yeah. The supposed revenge storyline doesn’t really come into play until the very end of the novel and by the end, it was glaringly obvious what had taken place in the past. The only section that made me feel somewhat amused was the one featuring the Fortune Teller’s First Assistant, but she was at beat a minor character (more of a cameo appearance really).
I had the distinct impression that this it the type of novel that is confusing for the sake of being confusing and I never much cared for these types of stories. Not only did the characters feel flat but I felt at a remove from them. The narrative spends so much time ridiculing them or comparing their facial features or appendages to foods/animals that I never saw them as ‘real’.
To be perfectly honest I don’t think I entirely understood what this book was going for. As I said already the novel’s raison d’être seems to be that of repulsing the readers. The issues the narrative attempts to touch upon—female agency? maybe? I don’t really have a clue—are lost in a murky melange of disparate storylines that don’t really come together that well nor do they succeed in bringing the characters or their struggles to life. While the setting was rendered in startlingly detail. the characters—their experiences and their relationships to one another—remain painfully vague.

my rating: ★★½

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All’s Well by Mona Awad

“I thought tests led to something. A diagnosis led to a plan, a cure. But tests, I know now, never lead us anywhere. Tests are dark roads with no destinations, just leading to more dark.”

All’s Well makes for an entertaining if somewhat flawed romp. The novel is narrated by Miranda, a theatre professor in her later thirties, who is not doing so well. After falling off a stage during her early acting career Miranda has been left in a state of perpetual pain. Bad surgeries, failed recoveries, inept physiotherapists have all left their mark on her body and Miranda now struggles to even move her right leg and suffers from chronic pain (her back, hip). She’s divorced and has no friends left.

“I was always busy. Doing what? Grace would ask. Getting divorced. Seeing another surgeon, another wellness charlatan. Gazing into the void of my life.”

Not only are her colleagues disbelieving of her pain but even her doctors treat Miranda’s ‘failed’ attempts to improve as something she ought to be blamed for. She decides that her class should stage Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well since not only did she herself act in that play years previously (giving a brilliant performance) but elements within its story (such as helena’s ‘cure’) appeal to her. Alas, her students are not so keen, wanting instead to stage Macbeth. Briana, who always gets parts not because she is talented but because her parents’ generous donations to the college, seems particularly intent on making Miranda’s life difficult. When Briana ‘mutiny’ succeeds Miranda is equal parts furious and despairing. Not only does she have to deal with her body being in constant pain but now she feels that her life has reached its lowest point, with no one believing her about her chronic pain or even respecting her.
At the local pub, she comes across three mysterious men in suits who not only know all about her professional and personal life but they also seem eager to help her. One golden drink later and Miranda blacks out. Wondering whether she is really losing it Miranda goes to rehearsals where after an ‘altercation’ with Briana she finds herself feeling increasingly better. Not only is her pain gone but she can once again move her body with ease. And, it just so happens that she can stage All’s Well That Ends Well after all. So what if Briana has fallen gravely ill? Not all gifts have to come at a price….right?

“Still sick, so we hear. So sad. We are all terribly sad about it, turly. Truly, truly.”

In a similar fashion to Bunny, All’s Well present its readers with an increasingly surreal narrative. From the start, Miranda’s voice is characterised by a note of hysteria, and as the story’s events unfold, her narration becomes increasingly frenzied. She’s paranoid and obsessive, one could even say unhinged. Yet, even after she’s crossed, leapt over even, the line I found myself still rooting for Miranda. I loved that detail about her ‘asides’ being overheard by others.
The latter half of the novel does fall into the same pitfalls as Bunny. The language gets repetitive, the weirdness feels contrived, and we get this surreal sequence that could have been cut short (a joke that goes on for too long ends up being not all that funny).

The narrative’s dark, sometimes offensive, humor brought to mind Ottessa Moshfegh, Jen Beagin, and Melissa Broder. The side characters were a bit unmemorable, Miranda’s colleagues in particular, and I wish more time had spent on getting to know the students (we only learn a bit about three of them) or to see them rehearsing the play. My favourite scenes were the ones with the three suited men, I really loved the way they are presented to us. They gave some serious David Lynch and Shirley Jackson vibes.
I wish that Miranda’s visit to that sadistic doctor could have been left out of the novel as they felt a bit heavy-handed. Then again, this not a nuanced or complex novel. It is absurd, occasionally funny, and mostly entertaining. The novel’s exploration of chronic pain did not feel particularly thought-provoking but there were instances that I could relate to (i happen to suffer from a seasonal autoimmune disease and i’ve had to put up with patronising doctors dismissing the severity of my symptoms). It seemed a bit weird that no one believed Miranda (or that crutches and walking sticks do not exist in this universe so characters are constantly ‘hobbling’ with their leg dragging behind them). Still, we do get spot-on passages like this:

“But not too much pain, am I right? Not too much, never too much. If it was too much, you wouldn’t know what to do with me, would you? Too much would make you uncomfortable. Bored. My crying would leave a bad taste. That would just be bad theatre, wouldn’t it? A bad show. You want a good show. They all do. A few pretty tears on my cheeks that you can brush away. Just a delicate little bit of ouch so you know there’s someone in there. So you don’t get too scared of me, am I right? So you know I’m still a vulnerable thing. That I can be brought down if I need be.”

I appreciate Miranda’s journey, from being the who is wronged to being the one who wrongs others, and I liked her hectic OTT narration. Yes, Awad’s style has this sticky extra quality to it that I am still not 100% fond of but here I found myself buying into it more. If unlike me, you were a fan ofBunny you will probably find All’s Well to be a pretty entertaining read. Those who weren’t keen on Bunny may be better off sampling a few pages before committing to All’s Well (some may find it irritating or unpleasant: “all of them gazing up at my body, lump foul of deformity”). Personally, I found All’s Well to be far more well-executed than Bunny and Miranda makes for a fascinating protagonist.

Side note: I don’t want to nitpick but Italians use ‘primavera’ to say ‘spring’ (if you want to argue about the etymology of ‘primavera’ ‘first spring’ would not be incorrect but Awad does not make that distinction so…).

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

my rating: ★★★¼

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