The Dove in the Belly by Jim Grimsley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★


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If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga

…a big fat nope from me.

DISCLAIMER: Like with any other negative review that I write I feel the need to remind ppl that my opinions/thoughts/impressions of a book are entirely subjective (mind-blowing i know) and that if you are interested/curious about said book you should definitely check out more positive reviews.

If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English implements many trendy literary devices. The two central characters remain unnamed and are referred to as the ‘boy/man from Shobrakheit’ and the ‘American girl’, there is a lack of quotations marks (although, although most dialogues appear in italics), and the narrative is structured in a supposedly experimental way so that when the pov switches between ‘him’ and ‘her’ we get a question that is somewhat related to the content of their chapter. As you can tell from my tone I was not a fan of these devices. They can work but here the sheer combination of all of them struck me as deeply affected and not even that innovative. The story, in broad strokes, could be summarized as: an alienated millennial Egyptian American woman goes to Cairo in an attempt at reinvention. Her shaved head and ‘western ways’ however make her feel like an outsider. She questions the way she is perceived in America, and how being in Cairo challenges her long-held identity and beliefs. We are never given too many specifics about her stay but the author does give us an impression of the ‘mood’ permeating her days in Cairo. Her navel-gazing does provide the occasional pearl of wisdom, but more often than not we are given the usual platitudes about belonging and its opposites. While the author does succeed in articulating her struggles with her dual heritage and her efforts and frustration to ‘master’ Arabic, I found her speculations to be, more often than not, all-flash and not substance. There are attempts at being edgy which come across as somewhat cringey and fairly prosaic.
‘His’ chapters are far worse. The man is a talking, breathing, living red flag. His traumatic experiences and drug addiction do not make him a nuanced character. While I appreciated that ‘she’ understands that his upbringing informs his misogynistic beliefs, which leads him to objectify women and much worse, I could not understand why she remains with him. She tells us that the man in question is a multifaceted individual, but we never see these ‘facets’ on the page. His sections, if anything, only show us his ‘vices’. His exaggeratedly perverted point of view also struck me as not entirely believable. He often refers to ‘her’ lips as genital-like or sees her lips and wonders what color her labia will be. The man is incredibly possessive, sexist, offensive, you name it…this results in a rather one-note cartoonish character. Their chemistry wasn’t there and their arguments left me feeling quite unmoved. The ending of their ‘troubled’ relationship feels rather anticlimactic. Maybe if the author had spent less time pursuing metaphysical questions and dedicated more time to fleshing out the voices of her two central characters I would have ‘felt’ more but since we get a recap of a relationship more than the actual relationship itself, I just could not bring myself to care. The occasional vulgar language was not thought-provoking or subversive and the author’s experimental structure and style were fairly banal. It’s a pity as I found the subject matter interesting (languages, identity, dual-heritage, cultural dissonance, etc..). I did not care for the way the author discusses queerness. She allows (as far as i remember of course) a page to the matter. The girl says she’s queer, but the context in which she says this is weird as she seems to equate her shaved head and desire to move in queer spaces as being queer. I would have liked for the author to spend more page time on this subject. That then we have the ‘lesbian’ character in love with ‘her’ frustrated me somewhat as she only seems to be mentioned to emphasize ‘her’ desirability and to fuel ‘his’ jealousy. That ‘she’ only shows interest/pursues a relationship with toxic men was a bit tiring. Maybe if the author had spent more time articulating the motivations/feelings that lead ‘her’ to self-sabotage, like Zaina Arafat does in You Exist Too Much, maybe then I would have those relationships more realistic.
There is also a mini-rant against cancel culture and its brevity does it a disservice as the author delivers a rather surface-level and rushed commentary on the dangers of this ‘practice’.

SPOILERS
Here comes the cherry on the poorly baked cake. When the climax happens, we are taken out of the novel and into a writing workshop of some sort. The people there are discussing the novel, while the author remains silent. We learn that the novel is based on her experiences and the people who have also just finished it give their various opinions. Many of them are celebrating her achievement and giving her some truly fantastic feedback. The few dissident voices point out all of the book’s flaws (the experimental style, the ending, the use of dual perspectives to tell what should have been just ‘her’ story) but it just so happens that said ppl are shitty so their critique is made moot. This supposedly self-aware wannabe meta chapter pissed me off. It seemed a preemptive attempt at rebutting any criticism, and in this way, it reminded me of a certain passage from Mona Awad’s Bunny, where we have awful people give some valid criticism to the narrator’s book which happens to be stylistically and thematically similar to Bunny. I am all for autofiction, and some of my favourite books are inspired by the author’s own experiences (the idiot, you exist too much, caucasia) but here I question the author’s choice to add the pov of the man she was in an abusive relationship with. The people in the workshop argue that this is an empowering move and that she has the right to tell her own story etc etc, and while I don’t necessarily disagree with that, I found the way she chooses to portray him and his inner monologue during ‘his’ chapters to be at best lazy, at worst, of poor taste. The florid metaphors that dominate his pov ultimately amount to a caricature of a man (“her water breasts slipping to the sides of her rib cage like raw eggs”). I couldn’t help but to unfavourably compare this to the jaw-dropping finale episode of I May Destroy You or the section in Wayétu Moore’s memoir where she convincingly captures her mother’s perspective.
I dunno, I felt this last section was smugly self-congratulatory and for no reason tbh. Nothing really stood about this ‘novel’: the structure was uninspired, the prose was mannered, and the characters were flimsy at best. The issues and themes had potential, and as I said, the author does on occasion proffer some keenly observed passages on American and Egyptian social mores, on cultural and linguistic barriers, on occupying a female body in contemporary Cairo, on being ‘othered’, on the ‘desirability’ of whiteness (for example she notes how in america her mother has recently ‘reinvented’ herself as white), on the privileges that come with being America (by emphasizing the opportunities that are available to ‘her’ and not ‘him’), and on the dangers of self-victimization (with ‘him’ trying to gaslight ‘her’ for his emotionally abusive behaviour by painting himself as a victim).

I’m sure other readers will be able to appreciate this more than I was. Sadly, I was not a fan of the overall tone of the novel nor did I like how the author portrays her story’s only lesbian character. Lastly, that meta chapter pissed me off. I didn’t think it was half as clever as it wanted to be, and it had the same energy as those successful authors who bemoan their book’s few negative reviews on Twitter.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆


Nothing Burns as Bright as You by Ashley Woodfolk

If you like lyrical love stories such as Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson, or books that give serious A24 coming-of-age film vibes such as All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running by Elias Rodriques, don’t sleep on Nothing Burns as Bright as You. The author captures how all-consuming first love can be through the unnamed narrator’s non-linear recollection of her relationship with another girl who she addresses as ‘you’. We know their relationship ends in flame, but what has caused them to play with fire? There is an attempt at a countdown and a timeline, so each ‘chapter/section’ begins with x days before the fire. While giving specific dates in non-linear narratives can work, such as in the case of A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar(which actually has some similar vibes to this book so if you liked that one definitely check this one out), here it felt superfluous as the narrator doesn’t stick to the memories/experiences from that specific day. Anyway, we learn that these two girls share a really intense bond, one that causes some adults around them to worry they may be too ‘close’. They feel rebellious and seem to find their daily existence untenable. While their friendship does evolve into a more sexual relationship, ‘you’, and to a certain degree the narrator as well, seem unwilling to label themselves. Their love and affection for each other is clear, and the narrative zeroes in on the meaningful moments that make up their ‘history’ together.

While I appreciated that the author did not paint either as the ‘bad’ influence, as they are both shown to feel ‘other’, different from their peers, unable and or unwilling to fit in at school and pretend at ‘normal’, here well, it just made their eventual conflict kind of forced. Also, their whole ‘we are so toxic for each other but’ thing they had going on reminded me a bit of new adult books such as the one penned by Anna Todd and Colleen Hoover, and I am not keen on those. While I could believe in the narrator’s internal monologue brimming with flowery and grandiose metaphors about love, girlhood, and ‘you’, there were instances where she describes her relationship with ‘you’ to others and she uses such lyrical yet the overwrought language that I had a hard time believing in those scenes. Even if she were a poet it seemed unlikely that she would just come out with such ott allegories on the spot. Maybe fans of allegedly ‘realistic’ teen shows like Euphoria won’t mind but I did. Anyway, while I did find this to be the kind of book that prioritizes language over character/story (the two girls have no distinct personalities, just vibes), I would be lying if I said I didn’t like this book. It was atmospheric, full of gorgeous scenes honing in on some sapphic moments with some vivid and sensual imagery. At times, as I said, I did find the writing to be trying too much, and in this way, I was reminded of the poetry of Ocean Vuong. I know there is an audience that will find these types of metaphors stunning, so do not let my criticism of this book dissuade you from giving it a read.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Anything But Fine by Tobias Madden

I had quite hopes for Anything But Fine and the first few chapters promised a ya coming-of-age in the realms of The Sky Blues, Fifteen Hundred Miles from the Sun, and You Should See Me in a Crown. As the story progresses however I found myself growing weary of the unnecessary miscommunication. If you are a fan of Netflix teen comedies/dramas, Anything But Fine will likely be your next favourite read however, if you prefer more nuanced characters and more realistic scenarios/dynamics well, this may not deliver.

Set in Australia Luca Mason, our 16-teen-yr-old narrator has dedicated his life to ballet. His hopes of being accepted into the Australian Ballet School are thwarted after a bad fall results in a broken foot. After his doctors tell him that he is unlikely to ever be able to dance again Luca is more-or-less booted out of his fancy private high school. A lost and confused Luca distances himself from his ballet friends, three girls who do not seem to truly understand the irreversible consequences of his fall. At his new high school, Luca is befriended by Amina, an affectionate, dorky, genius. Luca also falls hard for Jordan Tanaka-Jones, the school’s handsome, popular and allegedly straight jock.
While the novel does rely on insta-love Luca’s crush/obsession with Jordan did strike me as fairly believable. Luca is a horny teenager whose life has recently experienced an unwelcome drastic change so he decides to focus his attention on the seemingly unattainable Jordan. Luca’s dad, who is still grieving the death of his wife, Luca’s mother, tries to reach out to Luca and talk about how his ballet-less life is affecting him but Luca is quick to shut down this conversation. He spends most of his time daydreaming about Jordan and only on occasion allows himself to think about ‘what-ifs’ where he is able to dance again or has never fallen in the first place.

Some positives: the writing was fairly engaging and there were even some well-delivered moments of humor. I appreciated that Luca was portrayed as flawed. He makes mistakes, he is rather self-involved, a bit desperate when it comes to Jordan, and could be a more attentive friend/son. The author also shows that while he is often at the receiving end of homophobic ‘jokes’ and verbal abuse, he has a lot to learn about other people’s experiences. He does grow aware of this and works to improve himself, which was nice to see. Amina, for 70% of the novel, was a very sweet lovable character. Yeah, she had the type of personality that is often given to secondary characters in teen movies, so some of the stuff she does/say is a bit ott but overall it kind of worked (or at least it did until that scene…). She had her own arc, which made her character more rounded.

And the negatives (spoilers ahoy): we are told that Luca’s raison d’etre is ballet and while he does now and on occasion think about I didn’t really buy into this aspect of his character. Look, I get that he would avoid thinking about it too much but surely he would notice how different his everyday life is now. He only comments on this once or twice which isn’t entirely credible. Like, the guy dedicated most of his life to ballet, something that requires a certain amount of devotion. He would have been performing/practising daily and followed a strict diet etc., yet he seemingly adapts to his new life with no problem. Also, while he does one time acknowledge to his father that he is in pain due to his foot, the author seems to gloss over his physical recovery. He has physio but those scenes are all about developing his romance. I just would have liked for ballet (or lack of ballet) to play more of a role in his story. As things stand, we are told he love(d) it but there were few scenes showing this. His former ballet friends are portrayed in a very mean girl way. And sure, there are girls who behave like they do but I did not appreciate that Lucas is dismissive of them from the start. He uses certain terms that were low-key sexist and the story doesn’t challenge any of them. Even the popular girls at his new school receive a similar treatment, and even Jordan and Amina dismiss them and imply that ‘popular’ girls are promiscuous/bitchy/and-other-negative-descriptors-almost-exclusively-used-for-women which seemed a bit out of character if I’m honest. Also, while I am a fan of media that falls under cringe comedy, and I am aware that one’s teen years may be filled with plenty of embarrassing/awkward moments, here there were several scenes that just seemed gratuitous. I am not keen on adult authors going out of their way to embarrass their teenage characters. And here we have a major plot point involving a character doing something very unbelievable and utterly embarrassing themselves and the people around them. Amina has a crush on Jordan and suspects that Lucas is hiding something from her, possibly something that has to do with Jordan. Lucas tells her he has a girlfriend but Amina doesn’t seem to believe him and decides to declare her feelings to Jordan in front of his teammates who have bullied her and Lucas. Why…why would she ever do such a thing? While I am willing to believe that she would confess her feelings to Jordan despite Lucas’ attempts to stop her, I didn’t believe that she would do it publicly and seemingly on the spur of the moment. Her refusal to listen to Lucas’ pleas not to go ahead with her plan also struck me as inconsistent with her characterization so far. Sure, she is shown to be a tad naive and very wholesome, her fangirling over one direction comes across as a tad childlike at times but she is also portrayed as empathetic and in many ways more mature than her peers. I struggled to reconcile her actions at that party with her character. She’s obviously turned down and made fun of by the one-dimensional-jock-goons. Both Jordan and Amina take it out on Lucas, which wasn’t entirely fair. In fact, this whole section strings together scene after scene where Lucas is made out to be an ‘awful’ guy. The boy is not perfect sure but I didn’t think it was fair that he was blamed for so many things and rather than communicating/explaining himself to Amina, Jordan, or his dad, he just chooses not to. After being blamed by Amina and Jordan for making her embarrass herself, he inadvertently outs Jordan to his homophobic teammate. In an attempt to warn Jordan about this he forgets that he and his dad are meant to be celebrating his mother’s birthday (i think it was her birthday). Rather than explaining what was going on, he lets his dad think he is simply ‘boy obsessed’ and too busy to care. The dad also insinuates that Lucas ditched his old ballet friends, and the boy doesn’t think of telling him that said friends mistreated him and were racist to Amina.
Now, onto the romance. Jordan was a slightly one-note character, and I am a bit tired of lgbtq+ YA novels where the lead falls for the popular and ‘totally straight’ person who isn’t ready/or sure they want to come out. But rather than discussing this with our protagonists, they make them feel ashamed of who they are. While Lucas does call Jordan out, he is ultimately made into the bad guy because hey ho he outs him!!! Like…ugh. I am not a fan of that plot point, at all. It would have been more suited to a show like Glee or something. But here it just comes across as totally unnecessary. While I do acknowledge that the author does allow both Jordan and Lucas to have valid opinions on the whole being ‘out’ and dating someone who is not ‘out’, towards the end he seems to just dunk on Lucas. Amina too after that whole confession-gone-wrong thing is angry at Lucas. Surely, the following day or whatnot, once she learns that the two were in a secret relationship, she would understand why Lucas couldn’t tell her? Best friends or not, Jordan told him he wasn’t ready to be out, so Lucas respected that. And Lucas even tries to stop her from making a fool of herself…and she blames him? Argh. The drama and miscommunication really annoyed me.
I would have liked for this book to be less focused on the romance with Jordan and more on Lucas’ character growth. His personality was not particularly well-defined, and I would have liked some moments of introspection where he truly thinks about ballet, what it means to him, etc. His character instead is more or less defined by his crush on Jordan, which ultimately does his storyline a disservice.

I’m sure a lot of readers will love this but I am just not a fan of the latter half of the novel.


my rating:★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Right Where I Left You by Julian Winters

This is yet another one of my most anticipated 2022 releases that ended up missing the mark. Having read and enjoyed Julian Winters’ The Summer of Everything I went into this expecting something cute & wholesome only to be confronted with a generic coming of age ya about characters who are just out of high school and went to spend one more summer together. Miscommunication and the possibility of a love triangle drive the narrative, but these elements lacked oomph, and I found my attention wavering more than once. This kind of novel should make for a breezy read but my reading experience seemed closer to a chore. I debated DNFing this but decided against it hoping to see some character growth or for the story to pick up a bit but those things didn’t really happen. We get a lot of samey scenes that are angsty but in a rather vanilla way. The banter and chemistry between the various characters came across as forced, and sometimes even out of touch (despite its attempts The writing was okay, in a fanfiction-y sort of way but sometimes we get these subpar metaphors or lines of dialogues that really took me out (“I know she’s unaware that her words cut sharper than one of those handcrafted swords forged by Hattori Hanzō in Kill Bill.” / “Imaginary Isaac is a boss. But that’s not who I am.” / “My organs shift, realigning under my skin. ” / “Queer people don’t have to prove anything. We are who we are.” / “Little wrinkles like on the surface of Memorial Park’s lake crease his brow. ” / “We’re quiet for so long. Alix grabs her phone and starts typing. Holy Nightwing ” / “We’re not friends, but maybe we’re not really enemies either.” / “My mouth opens, then closes. I’m confused and sad and oddly relieved. Maybe Diego is my first Crush Syndrome. Maybe he’s my One True Disaster.”).

Right Where I Left You follows Isaac Martin an avid fan of a superhero comic a la young avengers. He ardently ships two characters (in a way that reminded me of the mc from rainbow rowell’s fangirl…which uhm…not my kind of character) and is very much a self-identifying nerd with social anxiety. He happens to have one single friend, Diego. They’ve been bff for the longest time and they spend most of their time together. Although Diego is more outgoing and is really into gaming the two always find stuff to talk about. But their paths will divide once summer is over, with Isaac going to college and Diego taking a gap year. An oversight on Isaac’s part results in them not getting tickets to go to Legends Con. Isaac feels guilty about it and plans to make it up to Diego. Here I thought that the story would follow Isaac finding a way into Legends Con but it doesn’t. We have a few scenes strung together featuring this very generic group of ‘friends’, most of whom are friends of Diego really. While I appreciated how inclusive this group was they ultimately seemed very much the embodiment of that meme (‘every friend group should include…’). They deliver these lines that were pure cringe in that they were trying desperately to make the characters sound cool and unproblematic but just made them sound inauthentic ( (ppl who talk like that exist only on tumblr and possibly certain twitter spaces. it’s not quite live-action-powerpuff-girls levels of bad but…). I can see these characters working for fans of Casey McQuiston, and I just happen to prefer messier young adults, such as the ones by Mary H.K. Choi. It didn’t help that what drove the story was this milquetoast jealousy subplot (as opposed to the legends con plot) where Isaac becomes sort of involved with Davi and Diego, for some ‘bizarre’ reason, starts to avoid him. It annoyed me that Isaac uses more the once the term mansplaining…as if he was ever on the receiving end of that.
There is an attempt at giving Isaac daddy issues because his dad cheated on his mom or something but that whole subplot is handled in such a daytime tv kind of way as to be utterly risible.
The humor and banter were painfully cringey, and Isaac was such an annoying main character. He was very much a clichè, and I become tired of the constant references to comic books…we get it, the boy is a nerd, we don’t need to be reminded every page or so, especially when said reminders come across as contrived. Diego is a boring friend and meh love interest. I couldn’t help but compare their dynamic to the one Felix has with Ezra in Felix Ever After. These two books share quite a few similarities (friends to lovers, summer setting, pride) and Right Where I Left You lacked the character growth and engaging storytelling that made Felix Ever After into such a compelling read. Even Winters’ The Summer of Everything (which is also a coming-of-age/friends to lovers type of affair) is far more enjoyable and nuanced than Right Where I Left You. Here the characters are so one-note as to be wholly uninspiring.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ stars

The Dragon’s Promise by Elizabeth Lim

why are all my most anticipated 2022 releases so disappointing 😭

Please, let there be no love triangle

If you’ve read my review for Six Crimson Cranes you know just how much I loved that book. While I was concerned that the sequel would include a wholly unnecessary love triangle angle, I wasn’t at all preoccupied with the possibility of not liking it. And of course, 2022 being my underwhelming reading year, it turns out that plot twist I low-key disliked almost everything about this book. With a few modifications, Six Crimson Cranes could have easily been a stand-alone novel, and I actually think it would have resulted in an even stronger book. Alas, as this is a duology, we get The Dragon’s Promise, a lukewarm finale that came across as boring and repetitive. Characters I previously enjoyed reading came across as very one-dimensional, the villain was far less compelling than the (apparent) one from Six Crimson Cranes, and the meandering plot failed to grab my attention. One too many chapters end with Shiori falling and or possibly facing some other type of danger (being attacked etc.). While the story doesn’t include an actual love triangle it teases one, something that I almost found more annoying than having to put up with a proper love triangle.
If you, like me, loved Six Crimson Cranes I’d still recommend you check out this sequel as you might find it a more captivating read than I did.

If you don’t mind reading minor spoilers here is my more in-depth(ish) review:

The Dragon’s Promise picks up right after the cliffhanger Six Crimson Cranes. Shiori and Seryu have gone to the kingdom of dragons so Shiori can give the dragon’s pearl to the king of dragons, Seryu’s grandfather. But, Shiori doesn’t really plan on handing him the pearl as she promised her stepmother on her deathbed that she would return the pearl to its true owner. How she planned on escaping the consequences of not doing what she said she would is a mystery to me. Of course, the king is not pleased with her refusal to hand the pearl over to him and this results in a lot of back-and-forths where Shiori repeatedly believes that her newfound allies may or may not have betrayed her. Shiori is imprisoned, freed, imprisoned, freed, and so on. She comes across a character that will quite clearly play a role later on in the story but I didn’t find him as amusing as the narrative tried to make him into. Seryu’s character becomes rather unlikable and his bond to Shiori didn’t feel particularly believable. He confesses to having feelings for her (or something to that effect) but Shiori loves Takkan so she turns him down. She does now and again seem to entertain the possibility of being with Seryu but not in any serious capacity. For plot reasons, the two are of course forced into an engagement. It would have been far more refreshing to have their relationship as strictly platonic as I am tired of these YA novels where we have these two hot guys falling in love with the spunky clumsy heroine who has only very superficial and off-page friendships (here there is a weak attempt at giving her a positive relationship with a girl her age but funnily enough this friendship is mostly relegated off-page because of plot reasons).
After what felt like forever Shiori returns home and reunites with her beloved and her own family. Her brothers, who felt like such a crucial element from 1, are given very few lines and the remainder of the book sees Shiori and Takkan travel from place to place in an attempt to defeat the Bad Guy and are later on aided by a witty side character we met earlier in the book. I didn’t feel the stakes, the Bad Guy was very cartoonish, and the plot was just repetitive. In no time Shiori’s act-now-think-never attitude started to irritate me and while the story seems intent on portraying her as extremely special or whatever I didn’t feel that she was a particularly memorable or unique character. I missed the atmosphere of the first book as here that spellbinding magic is lost to samey action sequences.
Additionally, the dialogue was distractingly anachronistic. I don’t understand why the author randomly dropped archaic words into the characters’ dialogues as they merely stood out and consequently took me out of the story.
This was a deeply disappointing sequel. Not only did it make me fall out of love with the characters and setting of its predecessor but it was just a painfully ‘meh’ read. The content struck me as boorishly vanilla and Disneyesque (not in a good way as, so far as i remember, there were no lgbtq+ characters…).
I wish I could have loved it but as things stand the only reason why I gave The Dragon’s Promise a 3-star rating is out of my love for Six Crimson Cranes.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Mad about You by Mhairi McFarlane

2022 is proving to be an underwhelming reading year. With the exception of Either/Or by Elif Batuman and re-reads, I have only dished out 3, 2 and even a few 1 star ratings. So, when I got an arc for Mad About You I was convinced that McFarlane would be the one to break this cycle…regrettably that did not happen. Having loved her last two releases, If I Never Met You and Last Night, I was fully prepared to fall for Mad About You. After all, in my review for Last Night, I described McFarlane as a writer who outdoes herself with each new book. Sadly, Mad About You proved to be the exception to that rule as it felt very much like a step back rather than forward. It actually reminded me of McFarlane’s early releases (by no means bad but definitely not as good as her later ones). The pacing was rather meandering, Harriet was not a particularly memorable main character, and the romance was, to be quite frank, subpar.
Like most of McFarlane’s releases, the book begins with a breakup, this time initiated by our heroine rather than her partner. Harriet is a wedding photographer in her thirties who has no interest in getting married. She lives with her boyfriend, who is from a very posh and snobby family who have never shown her any warmth or genuine affection. We learn that Harriet is an orphan who was raised by her grandparents (who have also passed away). Additionally, early on in the narrative, there are hints that point to Harriet having had a traumatic experience in her 20s. She doesn’t really open up to her boyfriend and feels guilty about it. When he puts her on the spot however Harriet realizes that he isn’t the Nice Guy he tries so hard to make himself out to be. Harriet rushes to find somewhere else to live and ends up living with Cal Clarke. When they find out that they are exactly strangers to each other things get a little bit awkward and Harriet overhears Cal making some rather disparaging remarks about her.
Turns out they both have rather complicated relationship histories. Cal’s ex is very cartoonish and a lot of her inappropriate behaviours are played up for laughs. The story doesn’t take Harriet’s exes as lightly and much of the narrative delves into the repercussions of having been in an emotionally abusive relationship. Harriet eventually bonds with women who have experienced what she has and together they decide to confront their abuser. Things don’t go smoothly and the story also touches on the way internet mob mentality works. Harriet and Cal’s relationship didn’t entirely convince me as we get few ‘domestic’ scenes where we just them hanging out in the house or interacting while doing everyday things like cooking etc. That would have added realism to their living situation but we always seemed to get scenes where they are either confronting their exes or dealing with some other drama. I did find the way Harriet’s abusive relationship is handled to be a bit a la daytime tv. Usually, I love the way McFarlane portrays friendships but here Harriett’s friends amounted to nothing. There is the good-funny friend and the backstabbing-bad friend. There was no nuance to them and consequently, they did not come across as believable people. The love interest was such a non-person and consequently I never felt any chemistry between him and Harriet. It would be nice if McFarlane didn’t always go for a white handsome guy as her lead…
I found the pacing slow and repetitive. The story spends too much time on Harriett’s shitty exes and very little time on developing her character. Her relationships with Cal and her best friend felt very superficial.
Also, at one point someone references Netflix’s Bridgerton which came out in December 2020…and yet no mentions of covid (as far as i remember of course). Is this book set in an alternate reality? it was a minor thing but it took me out nonetheless.
I’m sorry to say that I found Mad About You to be a surprisingly disappointing read. Hopefully, McFarlane’s next book will see her going back to form.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea by Axie Oh

The YA genre seems saturated by heroines who are (allegedly) neither beautiful nor intelligent but they are spunky and clumsy and bursting with goodness. Well, I have had my fill of these girls.

Wholesome, vanilla, inoffensive, The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea is a relatively enjoyable YA read that tone-wise will definitely appeal to younger audiences (with very few alterations this could easily have been a middle-grade book). As usual, I was sold by the comparison, which in this case happens to be one of my all-time favorite films, Spirited Away. While The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea does present readers with some vivid descriptions of the Spirit Realm, the characters and world-building were not as nuanced as Miyazaki’s ones. Also, I couldn’t help but compare (unfavourably) this to other fairy-tale-esque YA books such as Daughter of the Forest and Six Crimson Cranes.
Anyway, the story is fairly plot-driven as we follow our ‘spunky’ heroine trying to put an end to the curse afflicting the Sea God, a god who once protected humans but for generations has been destroying her homeland by causing deadly storms. To appease him every year a beautiful maiden is thrown into the sea and becomes his bride. This year it will be someone from Mina’s village, the lovely Shim Cheong who happens to be the object of affection of Mina’s brother, Joon. Seeing how much they love each other Mina hijacks the ceremony and sacrifices herself instead. Once in the Spirit Realm, she discovers that the Sea God has been asleep for years and that only his ‘true bride’ can put an end to his curse. We don’t learn much about what happened to the previous brides, with the exception of one, and she doesn’t really get much page time. It would have been nice to know what these other brides got up to in the Spirit Realm but alas the plot is very much focused on Mina who is determined to save her people from future heartaches. She’s somewhat aided by the ‘mysterious’ Shin, and his two sidekicks, the funny one and the surly one. They do come into contact with other gods and spirits but these scenes are short-lived and rather rushed. Mina makes a few heedless choices because she just can’t bear not to do what’s right (le sigh), and she eventually develops feelings for someone.
Mina manages to make people help her left and right because her goodness is just that motivating. Eventually, we learn more about the Sea God and the identities of Mina’s newfound allies.
It would have been nice to have Mina think about her family more. She mostly thought of her grandmother when the plot needed it and it felt a bit unrealistic that she would so easily get over them. I was also tired of the narrative telling us that Mina was not beautiful or intelligent when it is quite obvious that she is the most special girl in the whole bloody book. The love interest was a bit bland and his sidekicks were rather cliched. The Sea God’s curse and the events that led to it were somewhat anticlimactic. The story tries to have Mina bring these gods and spirits to their senses by reminding them that there are humans who pray for them and need their help, but her arguments were so simplistic that it made it hard for me to believe that her words/actions would be so ‘touching’ to others. The ending could have easily been shorter as it came across as prolonged for no reason whatsoever. While there were certain elements that I liked and I did not find this to be an unpleasant story, well, it felt very mid. I guess I could see this book working for readers who enjoyed Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Gods of Jade and Shadow.
Sadly, I was rather disappointed by The Girl Who Fell Beneath the Sea, as I was looking for richer storytelling, a more developed cast of characters and world-building, and a less predictable plot. Overall this was an easy if forgettable read and I’m not sure whether I would read more by this author.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami

It would be safe to say that I do have a bit of an uneasy relationship with Murakami’s work. I read and was not blown away by it. Over the last couple of months, I have picked up several of his short story collections but never felt compelled to finish them. The main reason why I do not get on with his work is that, well, his women are on a league of their own when it comes to female characters written by male authors. I cringed many times while reading Sputnik Sweetheart: his portrayal of the romantic/sexual relationship between Sumire and Miu, the two women at the centre of the narrative, was yikes. It often went from being slightly ridiculous to straight-up ludicrous. That he chooses to tell their story through ‘K’, our male straight narrator, is also somewhat iffy. While K acknowledges that it may be unusual for him to tell Sumire’s love story, he doesn’t provide a particularly satisfying answer. I mean, I honestly think this could have been a much stronger novel if the narrative had alternated between Sumire and Miu. Anyway, we are stuck with K and his creepy male gaze. When we first meet him he is a college student who has fallen in love with Sumire, who is very much the classic Murakami female character, in that she’s Not Like Other Girls. She’s messy and in the throes of an existentialist crisis. She often confides in K about her fears and desire, and he takes on the role of listener, never revealing anything particularly substantial about himself, keeping readers and Sumire at arm’s length. He often recounts Sumire’s experiences from her point of view, which obviously necessitates our suspension of disbelief, given that he would really have no way of being able to provide such detailed descriptions of her experiences, let alone her inner feelings. Anyway, K gives us an impression of what kind of person Sumire is, her somewhat skewed worldview, and speaks of her writerly aspirations. Eventually, Sumire reveals to him that for the first time in her life she has fallen in love. K is disappointed to learn that he is not the person in question and that Sumire has fallen for Miu, an older businesswoman of Korean heritage. Sumire begins to act in a way that Miu approves of, changing her style etc. to earn Miu’s favor. As Sumire begins to work for Miu, her feelings intensify to the point where she is no longer able to contain her emotions. During a work trip to an island on the coast of Greece Sumire disappears. Miu contacts K and he travels there. Although Miu tells him of the events that led to Sumire’s ‘vanishing’, the two struggle to make sense of what led Sumire to just disappear. Here in classic Murakami fashion things take a surreal route, as the line between dreams and reality becomes increasingly blurry. There are feverish visions that lead to life-altering consequences, hypnotic dreams, and, of course, inexplicable disappearances. The ‘intimate’ cast of characters does result in fairly charged dynamics between Sumire, Miu, and K. K, of course, did serve a somewhat unnecessary role but by the end, I could see why someone as lonely as Sumire would find comfort in his continued presence. They have bizarre conversations about human nature, love, sex, and so forth, and some of these were fairly engaging. Overall, Murakami certainly succeeds in creating and maintaining a dreamlike atmosphere and a melancholy mood. The late 90s setting casts a nostalgic haze over the events being recounted by K. I just wish that Murakami’s depiction of women and lesbians wasn’t so corny. From the way he describes women’s pubic hair to his strongly held belief that women are obsessed by their breasts (particularly nipples), to his dubious comments and takes on same-sex love….well, it was not for me. I found his language turgid in these instances, either funny in a that’s-idiotic-kind-of-way or just plain gross.

There are other classic Murakami elements: characters who love talking about literature, jazz bars, and classical music. While K is more mysterious than his usual male characters he was not exactly an improvement model. He has some rapey thoughts and instincts that were definitely off-putting. Miu’s strange ‘affliction’ is also quite out there and I found Sumire’s attempts at a ‘declaration’ to be problematic indeed as it bordered on sexual assault. But if you can put up with dated and frequently icky content Sputnik Sweetheart does present readers with an immersive tale of yearning and loneliness. I appreciated the storyline’s unresolved nature and the sense of surreality that permeates it. I will probably read more by Murakami but I will do so when I am in the right state of mind to put up with his peculiar sexism.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Ophelia After All by Racquel Marie

While Ophelia After All wasn’t quite the cute & wholesome read I wanted it to be it still made for a better than okay read. The in-group drama, avoidable miscommunication, and one too many love triangles detracted from an otherwise compelling coming-of-age. If you are reading this expecting it to be a HEA romance, I recommend you adjust your expectations as Ophelia After All was more focused on Ophelia’s character arc and her coming to terms with her sexuality.

Ophelia Rojas is a Cuban-American teen who is known as the girl with the green thumb and a propensity for crushing on cute boys. The novel follows her during her last year of high school as she has to reckon with ongoing and new drama changing the dynamics of her friendship group and the possibility that she is not solely attracted to cute boys. Cute and shy Talia, the best friend of one of her friends, has caught her eye. Ophelia tries to fight her feelings, fearing the ‘ramifications’ of what this means. How will her friends and parents react if she ceases to be the ‘boy crazy’ girl they know and love? Initially, this line of thinking seems a bit questionable but as the story progresses her anxiety becomes better articulated. People have an idea of who she is, and Ophelia fears the possibility of not being the person they think she is. It was a bit odd that she would truly believe that her friends and parents (whom she is very close to) would see her just in terms of her crushes on guys but I could relate to her apprehension about ‘coming out’ and how that would lead her to make certain assumptions about the people around her.
There are a few ‘key’ events that change the dynamics between the characters. Ophelia and her mother are for a long part of the book at odds with each other after the former does something very uncharacteristic and refuses to tell her mother why (but tells her dad). The guy who causes this was a throwaway one-dimensional bigot who…I mean, he was a bit on the nose (not that people like that do not exist but that he was in a very short scene and managed to tick all of these unsavoury boxes…given that he was a college student it seemed weird that he would be so public about his trash opinions especially since he surrounded by faculty and adults). Ophelia was 100% valid in what she did (the whole being ‘the bigger person’ is overrated if you ask me) but I found her treatment of her mother frustrating. Ragazza mia, just talk to your mum!
In addition to the story’s focus on Ophelia struggling to reconcile herself with her attraction and feelings for Talia the story is also sadly very much about the drama going on in her friendship group. Her neighbour and best friend are in love with another friend. Talia’s best friend, who also happens to be a friend of Ophelia, is in love with that same girl. That girl is portrayed as kind of a bitch but she happens to have a best friend who isn’t (i can’t remember her name but if you’ve read this you know, she’s the most sensible and decent character in this whole book…i wish that she’d been given more page time). Anyhow, things are obviously awkward and tense. I found the miscommunication within their group stupid and not always believable. It also annoyed me that Ophelia called her bf and that girl he is in love with ‘promiscuous’ and implied that this made them less nice than that other guy who is also in love with her.
Still, I loved that we get so many lgbtq+ characters, even if the ‘reveals’ at the end were cheesy (but i am all for it at the same time so there ya go). Some of the discussions around being queer and or part of the lgbtq+ community did feel a bit…patronising? They were vaguely… at one point I felt like I was watching an instructional 101 lgbtq+ video. There was this scene with Ophelia asking this other character why people used ‘queer’ when she heard it was a controversial term and something about it felt very studied. At one point a character starts rattling off different labels and identities and I felt that I was scrolling on the lgbtq+ wiki. The narrative in these sections seemed more intent on being informative and unproblematic than ‘real’.
Some of the characters struck me as one-dimensional, especially the ‘unlikeable’ ones such as Talia’s relatives, Ophelia’s ex and her mother’s dick of a student. I did not find the love polygon interesting and in fact, it was tiring, especially since much of it hinged on a character that is for most of the narrative portrayed as having exclusively bad traits.
Still, I liked that the author didn’t make Ophelia immediately accept her queerness and that her self-denial leads her to make quite a few bad choices. Her treatment of Talia was kind of horrible if you think about it but she owns up to it (which doesn’t cancel out what she did but it results in some solid character growth on her part). I also liked that her mother isn’t depicted as being horrible, which I feared she would be for a good portion of the book. Her talk with Ophelia towards the end was very touching.
I just wish the story had focused less on the drama and fights between Ophelia’s ‘friends’. Her best friend in particular is done a bit of a disservice as his character seems reduced to him taunting his love rival. But I did appreciate how inclusive this group was. I would have liked for them to have more distinctive personalities (rather than a few chosen traits) but it isn’t that kind of novel so it worked all the same.
There were some compelling discussions on Ophelia’s dual heritage and her struggle for self-knowledge in a society that is very either/or in its view of identity and sexuality. I also appreciated that Ophelia dismisses the idea of a monolithic Latin American culture, however, later mentions of her heritage do at times risk doing exactly that.
While some of the discussions did feel a tad too American for my liking in that they simplified certain issues (i can’t explain but if you know you know), I did enjoy Ophelia reflections of Lacan and the nature of desire.
Anyway, although I didn’t quite love Ophelia as a character and I didn’t particularly care for her in-group melodrama, Ophelia After All makes for a refreshing YA in that it prioritizes Ophelia’s coming of age over any potential romance she may or may not have along the way (more of this please and less of the ‘i met my OTL in high school’). This story managed to subvert romance conventions which were unexpected in the best way possible. Still, other aspects were more predictable. Similarly to other contemporary YA novels Ophelia After All tries to be more self-aware of the cliches of the ‘teen coming of age’ genre but then they end up incorporating those tropes anyways.

Despite my mixed feelings, I liked Ophelia After All more than not. It has its flaws sure and the tone was a bit juvenile and moralistic at times but I could tell that the author had good intentions and the story she tells does have heart.
I would definitely recommend this to younger audiences and or YA devotees.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆