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: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Lakewood by Megan Giddings

“America is only routinely good to women, especially Black women, when it wants something from them.”

Having recently read Megan Giddings’ intriguing sophomore novel, The Women Could Fly, I decided to revisit Lakewood, a book that I have picked up and put back down on and off since August 2020. Each reading attempt saw me lose interest during Lena’s first ‘interactions’ with Lakewood. Whereas The Women Could Fly drew me in from the very first pages, I had a much harder time becoming invested in Lena’s story. The writing was solid enough but lacked the polish of the prose that I encountered in The Women Could Fly. Still, this time around I was determined to finish what I’d started, and so I persevered reading, despite my waning interest. Now that I have finally ‘made it’, I can definitely pinpoint why this book didn’t really grab me like The Women Could Fly: whereas in that novel Giddings maintains a delicate balance between her subject matters (authoritarian & patriarchal regimes, female bodily autonomy) and her character development, here Lena never comes into her own, she sadly remains fairly one-dimensional, and her character often struck me as a vehicle through which the author could explore a horrifyingly unethical human experimentation.

I will begin with the positives: I think Giddings excels at atmosphere, and most of the narrative is permeated by a subtle yet unshakeable sense of unease, one that morphs from a feeling of not-rightness into downright horror. Lena’s story also retains an ambiguous quality, one that blurs the line between what’s real and what’s not. Many of her experiences at Lakewood appear to us as fragments, with no clear chronological order, certain events or memories are distorted. The people involved with the Lakewood project and the people of Lakewood themselves remain opaque figures, their names and faces a blur. Their perturbing vagueness exacerbated the narrative’s eerie atmosphere, their perpetual unfamiliarity a source of unease and potential danger. So, in terms of ambience, Lakewood certainly succeeds in making for an alienating and murky read. There were also some very clever descriptions (“Inside, a white woman with a haircut that looked as if she had shown her stylist an image of a motorcycle helmet and said, “That’s the look,” was waiting.”), and I appreciated the narrative’s discourse on sacrifice & freedom.

“Maybe the hypothesis is how much do people value money over themselves?

Where this book lets me down however was the way the Lakewood project is presented to us. Much of the narrative, most of the narrative it seemed, consists of the questions Lena has to answer as part of this experiment. And these questions were by turns weird, seemingly arbitrary, and intrusive. Yet, they bored me. I would have preferred the narrative to be heavier on introspection, as Lena was in much need of, well, a personality (besides being a dutiful daughter). She responds to her environments as you would expect: at first she’s perturbed, then disturbed, and finally horrified. But her responding to the questions and the experiments at Lakewood in this manner did not make her come across as a rounded character. The third-person perspective makes her feel further at a remote, which lessened the impact of her narrative. While we do understand the circumstances that lead Lena to ‘participate’ in this project, I did find her initial compliance odd. I would have liked to see more of an internal monologue on her part, rather than having to see her function as a mere plot device through which the author can show how dehumanizing medical experimentation can be. I mean, you could read an article discussing actual unethical medical experimentations, if I have to read about a fictional take on these, I would like for these to be explored through nuanced characters (or a compelling main character at least). Still, the author is able to address the type of circumstances that might lead someone to take part in medical experimentation, and the difficulties in extracting oneself from it. Lena is never quite certain of what is happening to her, and is very much restricted by nda she has signed. She does now and again ask why certain questions are being asked to her, the point behind her answers, but she receives no replies or unsatisfying ones. With the exception of one person, we don’t learn much about the other people in the experiment, and the time Lena spends at Lakewood acquires a blurry, almost feverish quality, one that makes it often difficult to grasp how much time has passed from one scene to the next and determine Lena’s reactions to what she is subjected to and witnesses there. There is a lot f*cked up stuff that happens there that is just glossed over, and in a way, I get that the author was showing that the participants in this experiment had been desensitized to the weirdness of the questions and rules there, but I would have wanted the author to expand some more on Lena’s feelings about a lot of stuff, to be honest.
There seemed to be neither a lot of telling nor showing bizarrely enough. What we do get is a lot of question-and-answer scenes which are profoundly repetitive and dull. I would have liked for the narrative to incorporate more portions of Lena’s life prior to Lakewood, as I believe that her relationship with her now-deceased grandmother, her chronically ill mother, and her best friend, would have added an emotional layer to the story. Again, maybe the cold, detached, somewhat clinical tone was intentional given the focus on Lakewood, however, I personally would have preferred some more depth from Lena.
Still, the author does focus on the way racial minorities, in particular Black people, and disadvantaged groups, such as poor and/or disabled individuals, are often the targets of these experiments, and how they are lied to, abused, and ultimately treated as ‘disposable’. The author also shows the hypocrisy of institutions and corporations that perpetuate physical and psychological violence in the name of ‘progress’.
The denouement was anticlimactic and in some ways predictable. That whole last section, which is presented as a letter if I recall correctly, in some ways ruined the surreal atmosphere so far established by the narrative.

I would have liked more. More from the story, the plot, and especially Lena. The premise was certainly intriguing but the execution left a lot to be desired. I went into this excepting something along the lines of Yorgos Lanthimos or Get Out, and while the book does have Black Mirror and even some Severance vibes, the storyline ultimately feels incomplete and it severely lacked in oomph.

Still, just because I didn’t find this to be as gripping a read as I’d hoped does not mean it was a bad book. If you are interested in it I recommend you check out more positive reviews.

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: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Like a Sister by Kellye Garrett

Like a Sister is an engrossing novel that will definitely appeal to fans of Rachel Howzell Hall. Solid pacing, a likeable and engaging narrator, plenty of compelling dialogues, and a well-rendered suspenseful atmosphere. I won’t lie, the main reason why I picked this one up was because I came across the audiobook version while perusing Bahni Turpin’s audios . As per usual, she gives a brilliant performance which no doubt enhanced my reading/listening experience with Like a Sister.

Our main character is Lena Scott, a graduate student at Columbia who is in her late twenties. After her grandmother passes away she inherits her house in the Bronx, which she now shares with her aunt. Her mother is dead, and Mel, her father, a big shot music producer with a don’t-mess-with-me reputation, has shown little interest in Lena. After their ‘messy’ separation he went on to marry and have a child with a former close friend of her mother. Despite the animosity between their parents, Lena and Desiree were ‘like sisters’. Despite their different home environments, with Desiree enjoying Mel’s wealth, Lena leads a more sheltered existence, focusing on her studies. Eventually, Desiree gains certain popularity, having taken part in a reality show and hanging out with ‘it’ crowds. Her partying lifestyle becomes a wedge in the sisters’ relationship, as Lena can’t condone Desiree’s careless ‘misdemeanours’. After years of not talking to each other Lena learns that Desiree has been found dead the morning after her 25th birthday. The media and police are quick to dismiss her death as an accidental ‘overdose’, but Lena is more x. Why was her sister found in the Bronx? Was she on her way to see her? Mel and Lena’s stepmother do not seem as troubled as she is by the inconsistencies of Desiree’s death. Lena feels guilty over her fallout with Desiree and is determined to find the truth. As she reaches out to Desiree’s ex and her friends she begins to suspect that her death may have something to do with the ‘event’ that led to their fallout. Reluctantly Lena is aided by Desiree’s bff, a white rich girl who serves as a source of humor for much of the early narrative.

I liked the dynamic between Lena and the people she interacts with. I think the story would have benefited from giving her more of a backstory. She seems to have only one acquaintance and 0 friends. I kept forgetting what her profession/subject of study was because her character is very much all about Desiree and Mel. That is not to say that she doesn’t have a clear-cut personality. She is loyal, sensible, and funny. Some of the jokes she makes did come across as more in line with someone older than her (rather than 29, someone closer to if not over 40). Still, that didn’t ruin her narration, and I found her old-fashioned quaint and endearing. Her voice is certainly engaging as I was thoroughly absorbed by her narration.
I would have liked for one of the side characters to be less of an ‘Inventing Anna’ type of figure as it was fairly predictable and the misdirection takes up a lot of the story for no reason. The mystery was interesting but the resolution was painfully anticlimactic. The culprit was painfully obvious and I really hoped that the author would subvert my expectations by not making them the killer. Their motivations are…kind of missing? I didn’t buy into their ‘reasons’, as it seemed a huge leap to go from ‘that’ to murder. The ending did feel rushed to the point that it lessened my overall enjoyment of the novel. We also get chapters that are the equivalent of insta posts or lives about Desiree and they did absolutely 0 for the story. I wish we could have had chapters giving us glimpses into the sisters’ childhoods as that would have added depth and nuance to their relationship.
Still, I did have a fairly fun time with this as it was a quick and gripping read/listen. I would definitely read more by this author!

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

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: ★★★☆☆

The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb

“And none of that mattered. No matter how nice the suit, no matter how educated his speech or how strong the handshake, no matter how much muscle he packed on, no matter how friendly or how smart he was, none of it mattered at all. He was just a Black person. That’s all they saw and that’s all he was.”

While I did find The Violin Conspiracy to be a bit all over the place the author’s acknowledgements hit hard. The book opens in medias res with Ray McMillian, our main character, discovering that his Stradivarius has been stolen. Ray is preparing for the international Tchaikovsky Competition and without his fiddle, he feels unmoored. The narrative then jumps back in time where we meet Ray in his teens and learn more about his family situation. His mother wants him to drop school so he can work full time and so she can buy a new tv. When Ray begins to earn good money by playing at various events she quietens down somewhat but she still clearly disapproves of his violin playing and often ridicules him and his belief that he could pursue a career as a violinist. The only supportive member of his family is Ray’s beloved grandmother who loves him to bits. She also wants him to play and gifts him her grandpa’s fiddle. Ray eventually ends up getting a scholarship for a prestigious college. His mother doesn’t want him to go but Ray is determined to follow his path. He eventually learns that his violin is a Stradivarius. His family wants him to sell it and claim that it was never his, to begin with. To keep them at bay Ray begins to send them large sums of money but they never seem satisfied. He also begins to receive thinly threatening letters from a family that claims to be the righteous owners of the violin, and it turns out that they are descendants of the people who had once enslaved Ray’s great-grandfather. Eventually, the narrative reaches the beginning, where Ray’s beloved violin has been stolen and the competition is just around the corner.
Throughout the narrative, the author highlights just how racist and elitist the classical music world is. From when he played as a teenager at venues to his time as a teacher and a professional violinist, Ray experiences racism. Classical music is something that is often associated with whiteness and because of this Ray has to fight to be accepted into this world. No matter how hard he proves himself he will be confronted with people dismissing his skills, claiming that he is a ‘diversity token’ or diminishing his talent. There are many harrowing scenes where Ray is mistreated and abused, and the realism of these scenes made it clear that these episodes had likely been experienced by the author himself (such as the wedding one early on). From outright racist remarks to more ‘veiled’ ones, Ray has to fight tooth and nail to claim a space in this extremely white elitist world. That he has no support from his family certainly doesn’t help as with the exception of his grandmother and an aunt, they are all keen on him selling his violin.
The novel tries to combine a Bildungsroman novel with a more suspenseful storyline but the two don’t quite mesh together. The flashbacks into Ray’s teenage years do add context to his life and the violin but they fail to make him into a more rounded character. I found him rather flat, at times a little more than a vehicle to move the story forward. I would have liked for him to have a more defined personality and a more developed characterisation. Other characters were similarly one-dimensional, Ray’s mother in particular. She’s portrayed as a horrible person: every scene she is in she says something awful. She has no redeeming qualities whatsoever and I could not understand why Ray would bother with her at all. He also has siblings but we never see him interact with them. His other relatives, with the exception of that one aunt, are all greedy and nasty to him. The bad characters in this book are also extremely one-note. This is fair enough, a simplistic approach could have worked but I found it annoying that the author would describe these characters as physically ‘ugly’ and are often ‘fat’. The woman who claims that the violin belongs to her family for instance has ‘jowls’ covered by ‘downy hair’. All of the policemen are of the doughnut-eating variety, but this, I didn’t mind as much given my less than warm feelings towards them.
Anyway, the story suggests that either Ray’s family or this white family are behind his missing violin. The novel then takes a weird turn by making someone else responsible and forgetting almost entirely of Ray’s family or that other one. It just seemed an odd choice and a predictable one at that.
I also did not care for the way Ray spoke about or describes women (“the tawny-haired woman with the tight dress running her fingers suggestively around her wineglass”; “The attractive women who seemed to take an interest in him were mostly in the look-but-don’t-touch category”; “A young athletic woman was crossing in front of them, her toned ass bouncing with every step in her black leggings.”).
The writing too could be quite cheesy, especially in its efforts to tie everything back to classical music (“He tried to breathe but his ribs had been wrapped in piano wire”; “Why was he so terrible at talking to this woman? She was violin-shaped, right? So why was this so hard?”).
Still, while I wasn’t a huge fan of the writing or the characters, the story was relatively engaging. If you are interested in this novel I recommend that you check it out yourself.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The World Cannot Give by Tara Isabella Burton

this is my fault. i should know by now that titles claiming to have dark academia or sapphic vibes should be approached with extreme caution.

DISCLAIMER: I did not like this book and my review reflects of that. I will be brutally honest about my thoughts on this novel so if you want to read this or if this book happens to be on your ‘radar’ I recommend you check out more positive reviews. If you loved this book, I am happy for you but please don’t tell me I’m wrong for disagreeing with you.


Affected and self-important The World Cannot Give makes for a singularly insipid read. Its biggest ‘sin’ is that it tries to be the dark academia equivalent of Not Like Other Girls. For all its attempts at being ‘not like’ other dark academia books, The World Cannot Give was one of the most generic books I’ve read in a very long time. From its poorly rendered setting to its wafer-thin characters, The World Cannot Give reads like a been-there-done-that boarding school novel. This is the kind of novel that thinks it is a lot smarter than it is (in reality it is as intellectually deep as a puddle, of the shallow variety). For all its attempts at intertextuality and self-awareness (we have few throwaway lines on the dangers of romanticizing elitist institutions and idealizing the past and historical figures), it has nothing substantial or new to say. The author’s writing style and the tone of her narrative brought to mind two novels that I am not fond of, The Silent Patient and An Anonymous Girl. If you liked them chances are you will have a more positive reading experience with The World Cannot Give than I was.
If you like cheesy shows such as Riverdale or self-dramatizing books such as Plain Bad Heroines ,Belladonna, A Lesson in Vengeance, Vicious Little Darlings, Good Girls Lie (where characters are prone to angsty theatricals) you may be able to actually enjoy The World Cannot Give.
As I warned above, this review is going to be harsh so if you aren’t keen on reading negative reviews you should really give this review a miss.

minor spoilers below

STORY/PLOT
Contrary to what the blurb says, The World Cannot Give is no ‘The Girls meets Fight Club’. Nor is it a satisfying ‘coming-of-age novel about queer desire, religious zealotry, and the hunger for transcendence. And the only ‘shocking’ thing about it is that it is shockingly bad. On the lines of, how was this even published?
The first page is misleadingly promising. I liked the opening line and that whole first paragraph. Alas, with each new page, my high hopes dwindled.
Laura is on her way to St. Dunstan’s Academy in Maine. She’s ecstatic about attending this school because she hero-worships Sebastian Webster who used to go there in the 1930s. Angsty Webster wrote this book about the “sclerotic modern world” and the “shipwreck of the soul” and goes on and on about wanting to be “World-Historical”. Webster died at 19 fighting for Franco in the Spanish Civil War. Anyway, our sensitive Laura is enthralled by his writings and his fake-deep ideas so of course, she wants to study where he did. She gets to St. Dunstan goes to her room and meets two girls who from this scene onwards will not change. That is, this one scene establishes their one-note characters. There is Freddy who is a tertiary sort of character who just glares, snorts, scowls, and grimaces because that’s the kind of mean-ish one-dimensional sidekick she is. Then there is Bonnie who is all about her followers and using her boarding school as a prop for her dark academia inspired videos & photos. Laura eventually goes to the school’s chapel (Webster is buried there and there is a statue in his honour in that area) and she hears the choir. Her spirit is so moved by what she experiences at the chapel that she feels lifted to a higher plane of existence or something. But wait, the choir is rudely interrupted by a girl with a shaved head who is a queer feminist who is just like so done with the institution and wants to abolish mandatory church attendance. Laura, our innocent, is shooketh by her actions and somehow, despite her wishy-washy personality, ingratiates herself with the choir president, Virginia. We learn virtually nothing more about the school, nor do we get any real insight into how Laura’s classes are going, what she’s studying, her teachers, their methods…Laura joins the choir and what follows is a lot of scenes that are just filler leading up to the real ‘conflict’. The choir, this ‘clique’, did not make for interesting people, consequently, I was bored by the limited banter that didn’t reveal anything significant about them or their surroundings. Laura is Virginia’s lapdog, so she starts emulating whatever Virginia does (comparing herself to other literary sidekicks), Virginia spends her time ranting about the ‘sclerotic world’, her aversion towards matters of the flesh, and bemoaning the ye olden days and is mad that she has to be in the proximity of so many sinners. She also doesn’t want Brad, who is also in the choir, and Bonnie to be together. Brad is loyal to Virginia so he is conflicted. Bonnie is in love with Brad for reasons. And why the hell not at this point. The only ones in the choir who came across as devoted to Webster, his ‘insights’ into the ills of the modern world, were Laura and Virginia. But they just have the same conversations about this guy. They don’t expand on his views, they merely reiterate the term ‘World-Historical’ and his other catchphrases. Anyway, time goes by and eventually things come to head when Bonnie decides to encroach on Virginia’s territory (the chapel) as retaliation for her interfering in her love life (instead of taking issue with Brad…ugh). Isobel, the queer feminist, comes into play but her presence is very much kept off-page. Virginia becomes increasingly fanatical and decides to go all Old Testament God on the people who have betrayed her or revealed that they are not ‘virtuous’ (quelle surprise…).

TONE/WRITING
You see the cover, you read the blurb, you come across someone comparing this to Donna Tartt (comparing book such as this to the secret history should be made into a punishable offence…ahem, i’m jesting of course), you think, this is going to be DEEP and possibly even intellectual and emotionally stimulating. You are, of course, dead wrong. This book reads like a spoof. But not a fully committed one. It actually reminded me of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. There the narrative makes fun of the heroine for wanting to be in a Gothic novel and seeing the world through Gothic-tinted lenses and overdramatising everything. This is exactly it. Except, it also takes itself seriously…kind of? The writing and tone try to mirror the way Laura sees the world. She yearns for Webster and, like Virginia, finds the present-day intolerable. So the writing uses this exaggerated and self-dramatizing language reminiscent of historical novels. Some of these are actually decent. But then we get a lot of short sentences and exclamations marks. This kind of style can work. For instance, in Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia, which actually happens to be a far superior boarding-school book exploring queer desire. The language there is very high-flown but it worked because Strachey could write some truly beautiful and playful passages.
Here the writing verges on the ridiculous and more often than not it comes across as just plain bad. We had clumsy, inharmonious, and even cheesy sentences: “Barry Ng blushes at this. Virginia glares at him. Brad sighs a long and heavy sigh.”; “She looks from Brad to Bonnie and back again. Brad sighs a long and exhausted sigh.”; “Shame floods Laura’s face; she curdles it into fury.” (lol); ““One choir. One family.” Her smile twitches.” (twitching smiles? what is this? fanfic i wrote at 15?); “Her smile glints.” (ugh); “Virginia didn’t know. Virginia couldn’t have known. Virginia would never. Virginia always would. Of course, of course, Virginia would.”; “Isobel is wrong, Laura tells herself. Isobel has to be wrong. Isobel’s just jealous; Isobel has no sense of transcendence;”. And these are just a few examples…the writing & tone did nothing for me. Very few writers can make third person present tense work and Burton isn’t one of them I’m afraid…
I struggled to take it seriously and even if it was intentionally trying to be satirical, well, even then I would have found it ridiculous.

THEMES/ ‘IDEOLOGY’
Like I said above this book tries to be different from other boarding schools/dark academia books by referencing the rise in popularity that dark academia aesthetics & media have had in the last few years…but that doesn’t result automatically in a thought-provoking commentary on the dangers of romanticism elitist institutions such as universities and or private schools. One of the two only poc characters in the story has a few lines that highlight how institutions like St. Duncan are built on inequality and that we should be more critical about those Old White Men who likely committed Bad Things and should not be therefore uncritically revered. Yeah fair enough. But that’s it. Laura and Virginia spend the whole bloody book going on about the ‘sclerotic modern world’ and are contemptuous of anyone who isn’t in awe of Webster. They believe in God..sort of? For all their talk about sins and transcendence, I was not at all convinced that they even had a strong relationship to their faith. Virginia wants to be baptized, but her decision to do so is made sus because she’s portrayed as sort of unhinged so she truly isn’t ‘genuine’. Laura instead is more mellow about her faith so I don’t understand why she would Virginia’s fanatical rants to be of any appeal. You do you babe and all that but come on…Virginia wasn’t even a charismatic orator. Their ideology actually brought to mind the kids from The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. Like those lil creeps, Virginia and Laura find the modern world to be disgusting. They particularly don’t get why people are obsessed with sex. They merely want to transcend their bodies and reach a higher, more enlightened plane of existence. I think the author was trying to do her own version of “Beauty is terror” but yikes. It just came across as stagy. Additionally, I found it annoying that characters who could have been on the aroace spectrum are actually just ‘repressed’.
Anyway, this book had nothing interesting to say about faith, romanticizing the past, or the dangers of idealizing the ones you care for.
The story towards the end takes a weird route in that it becomes all about how boys/men exploit women and betray their trusts by sharing explicit photos and videos of their gf or sex partners with their male friends and this plotline worsened the already existing disconnect between the tone and the content of the book.

CHARACTERS/RELATIONSHIPS
I understand that people are incongruent but these characters did not make bloody sense. They were extremely one-note and then for plot-reasons they would do something really random. Laura is boring and annoying. I can cope with characters who are obsessed with a friend or who are introverted or even naive. But Laura was just embarrassing. Her devotion to Virginia lacked substance. Their dynamic was uneventful. Bonnie was depicted in a purposely grating way and grated my nerves. Isobel was gay and a feminist and stands against the bullshit Virginia and Laura believe in. That’s it. The boys are either milquetoast assholes who don’t see the problem in sharing nudes or doing whatever Virginia says because why not. There is this one guy in the choir who exists just to say ‘that’s cringe’ or ‘that’s completely cringe’.
Virginia was the worst offender. She had no redeeming qualities but we were meant to feel some degree of sympathy towards her. Come on. She wasn’t a convincing or compelling character. I didn’t find her an intriguing or cryptic mystery. She was nasty and I didn’t like that everything she does or says is basically chalked up to her being a total religious zealot. All of her reactions are so extreme as to make her into a caricature more than a person. I didn’t like the way her eating disorder was portrayed as it
The obsession and desire promised by the blurb were just not really there. I mean, yeah, the girl was obsessed but there was something perfunctory about it. The sapphic yearning I was hoping to find in these pages was largely absent. There is a f/f couple, but they had barely any scenes and they had 0 chemistry whatsoever. They came across as friends or sisters even. Then we are meant to believe that someone like Isobel would fall for Virginia because they shared a past? Surely Isobel, who is supposedly clever, would be a bit sus about Virginia’s sudden change of heart. Also, shouldn’t Virginia’s decline in her physical and mental health be a red flag of sorts? Shouldn’t Isobel have shown more concern over Virginia’s state of mind?

SETTING
0 sense of place. There are barely any descriptions of the school and very few passages detailing the nearby landscapes. The novel takes place nowadays I guess but there were barely any contemporary references. This could have worked if then we didn’t have a plotline involving Bonnie’s online following, sexting, or even certain terms (such as cringe) being used. It just took me out of the story as the majority of the narrative and dialogues were trying to conjure an ‘old’ timeless vibe. I think if the novel had had a historical setting it would have actually worked in its favour. Its modern social commentary after all is very half-arsed and had a vague tokenistic vibe to it (isobel existing just to oppose the establishment etc.).

I’m going to recommend a few books that in my opinion do what this book tries to do a lot better: Frost in May (coming of age, all-girl school, Catholicism), Abigail (coming of age, WWII Hungary, all-girl school, fraught friendships), Old School (all-boys schools, jealousy, ambition, privilege, self-knowledge), Sweet Days of Discipline (queer desire, obsession, order vs. chaos, all-girl school), The Inseparables (all-girl school, obsession, queer desire, Catholicism),These Violent Delights (college, obsession, toxic relationships, queer desire), Olivia (all-girl school, France 1890s, unrequited love, queer desire), A Great and Terrible Beauty (fantasy, fraught friendships, all-girl schools, f/f side), Passing (jealousy, race, queer repressed desire), Ninth House (dark academia, Yale, urban fantasy, tackles privilege, corruption, misogyny), The Wicker King (dark academia vibes, queer desire, obsession, toxic relationships).

Maybe if this novel had gone truly committed to being a parody, and upped the camp factor, maybe then I would have found it a little bit amusing. But it didn’t so nope, this novel did not work for me at all. The story was stupid, the characters were either bland or neurotic (in a really exaggerated, possibly problematic, way), the themes were poorly developed and relied on the usage of a few certain key terms (without delving into what this term truly means), the sapphic element was largely absent…you get the gist by now. I actually wish I’d dnfed but I hoped that it would improve along the way. When will I learn the lesson? A beautiful cover doth not make for a good book.

my rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

The Maid by Nita Prose

edit: after some reflection i have decided to lower my rating as i am frustrated by the way autistic-coded Nina is presented as so exaggeratedly ‘quirky’ & ‘naive’, someone who we will inevitably find ‘endearing’

The Maid could have been a solid escapist read. This is less of a cozy whodunnit than a ‘trying hard too hard to be quirky’ character-driven tale about Molly Gray, a neurodivergent 25-year-old woman who works as a maid for a prestigious hotel. Molly’s grandmother, who was her sole carer and companion, died a few months before the novel’s events take place, and Molly is struggling to navigate the world without her.
Its many flaws ultimately soured my relationship with The Maid: there were some very cheesy/ridiculous moments, the author’s decision not to mention neurodivergency was frustrating, especially given the way she portrays Nina, and a character who is undocumented is depicted in an exceedingly clichéd way (of course, he is ‘rescued’ by the white characters).

While Molly does find her work as a maid deeply fulfilling, she’s very lonely without her Gran. Growing up she was always made to feel like a ‘weirdo’ and a ‘freak’, and even now her colleagues at the hotel regard her with a mixture of bemusement and condescension and are generally quite mean towards her. Because Molly struggles to read people’s body language, to ‘read’ their emotions, and to pick up on things like sarcasm etc, social interactions can become quite difficult, especially when others (mis)perceive her behaviour or responses as ‘odd’, ‘off’, and ‘not normal’.

Her life is upended when during a shift she comes across a guest’s dead body. The deceased, Mr. Black, was a wealthy man of dubious manners who died in dubious circumstances. His now widowed wife, Giselle, was one of the few people who made Molly feel seen, in a good way that is. Having watched a lot of Columbo Molly knows that Giselle will be the prime suspect for her husband’s murder, so she decides to help her out. It is Molly however who becomes suspect in the police’s eyes, as the people around her are quick to pile on her, painting her as being ‘antisocial’ and ‘standoffish’, someone who wouldn’t have a problem killing someone. Molly ends up trusting in the wrong people, and while most readers will be able to see beyond their ‘nice’ act, Molly herself doesn’t (and this is sort-of played up for laugh). She eventually becomes deeply embroiled in this murder case, and the lead detective seems determined to see Molly as the culprit. Thankfully for Molly, she does come across people who have her best interest at heart, and with their aid, she decides to take down those who had manipulated her.

While there are stakes, such as Molly being arrested for a crime she did not commit, the narrative maintains a very lighthearted tone.

I will say that I didn’t like how no one, as far as I can recall, mentions words such as autism, neurodivergent, or neuroatypical. Almost every character mentions that Molly is ‘different’, or ‘odd’, or ‘weird’, or a ‘freak’. But no one ever acknowledges that she’s on the spectrum. Molly, herself doesn’t. Given that this novel has a contemporary setting this seemed a bit unlikely. I mean, maybe I would have believed it if this book was set during the 90s in a country like the one where I was brought up in, but 21st century North America? I also think that the way the author portrayed Molly was fairly stereotypical as she does seem to exhibit all the classic signs associated with autism & is kind of infantilised.
Juan’s character was also depicted in a questionable way. The man is made to seem gullible and somewhat childlike. I didn’t care for the way the author infantilised him (i guess she wanted to stress that undocumented men do not pose a threat…but making him come across as ‘simple’ is not great). Additionally, the other maids were portrayed in a way that verged on the offensive.

The mystery storyline did have a few predictable twists & turns, not only when it came to the people who were clearly scheming against Molly, but the identity of the murderer and Molly’s ‘unreliability/evasions’.
This could have made for a quick, entertaining, and rather charming read, but I cannot in good faith describe it as such…The Maid may have had a well-meaning message, but the author portrays autism in such a clichéd way (without ever acknowledging it) that I feel very uneasy about recommending it to other readers…

my rating: ★ ★

A Separation by Katie Kitamura

Given its abysmal overall rating, it should not come as a surprise that A Separation is not the type of novel that will/to have a large appeal. While it bears many of the same elements and stylistic qualities as Intimacies, Katie Kitamura’s latest novel which I happen not to like, here, well, they kind of work. Similarly to Intimacies, A Separation is narrated by a nameless and nondescript female character. We never learn anything substantial about their backstories and their personalities remain blank. For some reason, in A Separation, this narrating choice works. Whereas reading Intimacies felt to me like an utter waste of my time, A Separation proved to be a much more thought-provoking novel.

A Separation follows a woman who is separated from her husband, a serial cheater. They have not officialized their separation and not only are they legally still married but his parents still believe they are together. When he goes missing on a research trip in Greece his mother pressures our narrator to go find him. Our narrator, who is now in a new relationship, acquiesces hoping that she will be able to get her husband to agree to a divorce. Once there however she realizes that he has truly vanished. She obverses the staff in the hotel, speculating on the whereabouts of her husband, wondering how and why he has seemingly disappeared, leaving his possessions behind.
I was transfixed by the descriptions of the landscapes and people encountered by our main character. The uneasy scenario our mc is in resulted in a taut atmosphere. Her ambiguous narration proved hypnotic and I felt transported alongside her to this remote region in Greece. While the uncertain nature of her journey and her husband’s unknown whereabouts resulted in a gripping storyline, this was not a fast-paced or plot-driven story. This is a very introspective and reflective work that explores themes of unity and separation, absence and presence, longing and loss, foreignness and belonging, deception and clarity.
I loved the mood of this story. The drawn-out waiting for our mc does may bore some but I found this wait to be enthralling. The tension between her and the other characters (the employees, the husband, her mother-in-law) captivated me. Her piercing narration was particularly rewarding. Not only does she express herself in such an adroit, articulate, and alert way but I found her speculations and observations to be razor-sharp. The author juxtaposes her clarity of vision with her intrinsic vagueness. We learn virtually nothing about her history or who she is. Her crystal-clear narration is in fact rather deceptive as all the while she keeps herself hidden. This ambivalence certainly complemented the precarious atmosphere of her stay in Greece.
While I did find much to be admired in this novel it is not the type of reading that will leave a long-lasting impression on me. It did succeed in making me a fan of this author even if I did not care for her latest novel. I can see why many gave A Separation a low rating. Nothing much happens and for all her navel-gazing the narrator remains a stranger to us. It is the type of novel that at the end may very well make you say “what was the point of all that?”. But, if you are in the right mood for a more muggy exploration of a fractured marriage and the limits of language, that succeeds in being both elusive and incisive, well, look no further. Subtle, erudite, and meditative, A Separation will certainly appeal to fans of psychological fiction.

my rating: ★★★½

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