Summer Sons by Lee Mandelo

Summer Sons is very much a vibes-driven novel that would not exist without Maggie Stiefvater’s The Dream Thieves. From the aesthetics permeating the story to the combative & codependent character dynamics, Summer Sons share a lot of similarities with that book. Lee Mandelo’s older cast of characters however allow for them to employ an edgier tone, one that at times reminded me a bit of Leigh Bardugo’s Ninth House (both mcs have spend most of their respective narratives chasing paranormal shit, to the detriment of their academic, getting repeatedly emotionally and physically bruised and pissing off ppl left and right). The first time I approach Summer Sons I ended up dnfing it. While I do agree with some of my initial criticisms I think this second time around I was able to just ignore the few bumps along the way and just let Summer Sons take me for a ride.

Written in snappy prose Summer Sons follows Andrew, who is in his early twenties and is about to begin a graduate program at Vanderbilt where he will be joining his best friend and (adopted) brother Eddie. Their bond is very much of the codependent variety, as the two were irrevocably bound together by a traumatizing childhood experience that has left them with, in the case of Andrew, some unwanted abilities. But then, just before their long-awaited reunion, Eddie commits suicide leaving behind a grief-stricken and confused Andrew. Eddie left everything to him, including a ridiculous amount of money and a house in Nashville (roommate included). Andrew moves there, but he couldn’t really care less about his studies. He is determined to find out what happened to Eddie. He is immediately suspicious of and antagonistic towards Eddie’s former roommate, Riley, and his cousin, Sam. Andrew is jealous of the time they spent with Eddie and is reluctant to reveal anything about his past or his intentions to them.

The first half of the novel has very little if no plot going on. I mean, things are happening but they mostly consist of Andrew feeling unwell, hitting someone, getting hit, getting drunk, getting high, ignoring his uni inbox, and making wild speculations about what happened to Eddie. He does have a few meetings with his advisor and tutor, but for the majority of the first half of the novel it’s more about the very charged dynamics between Andrew and Sam, and to a lesser extent, Andrew and Riley. There is a party or two, some drag races, and buckets of toxic masculinity. The chemistry between the various characters more than makes up for the lack of, shall we say, plot. The author also explores Andrew’s very intense relationship with Eddy, capturing the duo’s power dynamics.
I appreciated how thorny Andrew is. He is so careless about his own well-being that he engages in some pretty self-destructive behaviours. He is also repressed af, and struggles to reconcile himself with the possibility that his love for Eddy may have not been strictly platonic. And of course, his attraction to Sam complicates matters. And yeah, there was something about them that definitely reminded me of Ronan & Kavinsky, except not quite as messed up, as here both Andrew and Sam embody what I can best describe as an exceedingly Ronan-esque chaotic energy. I liked the realistic way Andrew responds to the queerness of this group of friends, and that it takes him time to truly allow himself the possibility of being attracted to men.
To exacerbate his alienation are recurring nightmarish visions of death and rot. Eddie’s phantom is stalking him, resulting in periods of dangerous dissociation. Riley and Sam claim they want to help but Andrew. being the hard-ass he is, is not so sure about letting anyone in.
The latter half of the novel has more to do with his amateurish sleuthing, as Andrew is forced to confront the likely possibility that what occurred to him and Eddie as children has something to do with Eddie’s death.
We have old family curses and blood rituals, eerie visions, and disturbing occurrences. Additionally, Mandelo dedicates time to critiquing how insular colleges are as well as the elitism and racism that pervade the academic world.
I liked the uneasy relationships the characters have with one another, and that Mandelo holds their main characters accountable for their past and present actions without writing them off as ‘bad’.

There were a few things that I wish could have developed differently. The paranormal element had potential but was implemented in an inconsistent and in some places sparse way that ultimately does it a disservice. I liked how it remains largely ambiguous but it could have been amped up in quite a few instances. Also, in the scenes where this paranormal element comes to the fore the descriptions could have been more vivid. It would have been nice to learn more about haunts/revenants or other spooky occurrences that Andrew & Eddie may have experienced after ‘it’ happened. Similarly, it would also have been nice to have more of a background about their childhood and teenage years (their relationship with Andrew’s parents, their high school days, etc..). We know about their tattoo and their ‘shared’ gf (who thankfully speaks up about being used and tossed aside like a toy) but very little about anything else. In some ways it makes sense since they were each other’s worlds, so everything else would barely register, however the complete lack of presence of Andrew’s parents was felt.
The resolution to Eddie’s death was too derivative, especially within the urban fantasy genre. She who shall not be named did that a few times in her series. Maggie Stiefvater subverts this trope by making readers, but not our main characters, aware of who the ‘antagonists’ are. Barudgo also does it in Ninth House, but in a far more twisty way than Mandelo. Here instead that finale seemed vaguely formulaic and entirely too predictable. That the ‘villains’ lacked a certain ‘oomph’ factor also made that last action rather lacklustre. I do think that at the end Andrew gets a bit too much of the blame for how things went down with the villain. The boy is an asshole sure. But he was just trying to find out the truth and how could he have possibly predicted that things would go down that way?!

The writing had a certain fanfiction-y quality but I found myself really enjoying it (so we have a lot of growling, flashing teeth, dangerous expressions, an overuse of ‘the boy’ instead of the characters’ names). The prose was snappy and intentionally edgy which makes for highly engrossing storytelling. I do wish that the author had reigned in on the more anatomical descriptions of his characters. There are whole paragraphs dedicated to describing whose leg is on whose ankle or how someone’s hand is dangling or touching somebody else’s body part). Yeah, in a way these add a certain sensual element that makes these scenes really pop, but there were moments where they ended up sidelining the actual storyline or drawing attention from the dialogue. There were also way too many random highfalutin words dropped in for no reason (such as ‘cadre’) and they had the same energy as me during my first year as an undergraduate student using archaic terms for no reason other than to make what I was writing sound clever (but i just ended up with some seriously jarring phrases).

Despite these criticisms, I did like Summer Sons. Andrew is a tortured and somewhat impenetrable character that is equal parts frustrating and lovable. Mandelo articulates Andrew’s inner conflict without resorting to cliches or moralisms. The interactions between the characters seamlessly alternate from being funny and entertaining banter to more heated and tense confrontations. The friendships and the romance we see develop between Andrew and others really make the book. I loved how the author is able to dedicate a lot of page time to Andrew’s unresolved and complicated relationship with his sexuality but also present us with some very casual lgbtq+ rep (we have a trans character, a positive portrayal of polyamory, and a character who uses they/them pronouns makes has a cameo appearance). The pining and sexual tension between Andrew and Sam were chief’s kiss.

I’d love to read more by this author (maybe something with wlw characters…? or just more girls in general cause i don’t think this book would pass the bechdel test test..at least in trc we have the women of 300 fox way).
If you like spooky summer ya novels, like Beware the Wild, The Wicker King, Wonders of the Invisible World, or the gritty aesthetics of urban fantasy series like Holly Black’s The Modern Faerie Tales, Summer Sons should definitely make it onto your tbr pile. I look forward to whatever Mandelo publishes next and I can definitely see myself re-reading Summer Sons.

ps: i did think it would have been nice for mandelo to mention in their acknowledgements stiefvater as her series clearly inspired this book.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ½

These Precious Days: Essays by Ann Patchett

“As it turned out, Sooki and I needed the same thing: to find someone who could see us as our best and most complete selves. Astonishing to come across such a friendship at this point in life. At any point in life.”

Ann Patchett is easily one of my favourite authors of all time. The Dutch House and The Magician’s Assistant are absolute favourites of mine and I’ve also loved her previous collection of essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, which managed to bring me hope during one of my ‘down in the doldrums’ phases. This is all to say that I will read anything by Patchett. These Precious Days, her latest, is yet another winning addition to her already impressive oeuvre. While many of these essays are preoccupied with death and mortality they ultimately struck me as life-affirming. In some of these essays, Patchett writes about her family, in particular of her relationship with her three fathers. There are also essays in which she looks back to her ‘youthful’ days, for example, of that time when she and a friend were so taken by the tattoos of a Parisian waitress that they were determined to also get tattooed. Patchett also gives us insight into her married life, writes of her love for dogs, of her relationship to Catholicism, of that year she gave up shopping, and of authors, she admires such as Eudora Welty and Kate DiCamillo. It is difficult for me to articulate just how much comfort I find in Patchett’s ‘voice’ but within a few pages of her first essay, I found myself immersed in that which she was recounting. Patchett has a knack for rendering both people and space and it was easy to be transported by her writing. Of course, the ‘These Precious Days’ essay is this collection’s crowning glory. In this essay, Patchett writes of her friendship with Sooki, Tom Hanks’ assistant. This was such a moving and thoughtful essay, one I look forward to revisiting again.
Patchett’s meditations on death, mortality, family, friendship, and creativity definitely struck a chord with me. I loved learning about her childhood and I appreciated those glimpses into her everyday life.
Reading this inspiring and beautifully written collection of essays was a balm for my soul.

my rating: ★★★★½

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The Travelers by Regina Porter

The cast of characters and locations at the start of Regina Porter’s The Travelers is a tiny bit daunting as they promise to cover a far wider scope than your usual family saga. The Travelers explores the lives of characters who are either related, sometimes distantly, or connected in less obvious ways. Porter’s switches between perspectives and modes of writing, always maintaining authority over her prose and subjects. The Traveler provides its readers with a captivating look into Americans lives, chronicling the discrimination black Americans were subjected during the Jim Crow era, the experiences of black soldiers and female operators in the Vietnam war, the civil rights protests in the 1960s, and America under Obama. Porter combines the nation’s history with the personal history of her characters, who we see at different times in their lives. Sometimes we read directly of their experiences, at times they are related through the eyes of their parents, their children, or their lovers. Rather than presenting us with a neat and linear version of her characters’ lives, Porter gives us glimpses into specific moments of their lives. At times what she recounts has clearly shaped a character’s life (such as with an early scene featuring two white policemen), at times she provides details that may seem insignificant, but these still contribute to the larger picture.
Porter provides insights into racial inequality, discrimination, domestic abuse, parental neglect, PTSD, and many other subjects. Although she never succumbs to a saccharine tone, she’s always empathetic, even in her portrayal of characters who are not extremely ‘likeable’ in a conventional way. Sprinkles of humour balance out the more somber scenes, and her dialogues crackle with energy and realism. The settings too were rendered in vivid detail, regardless of when or where a chapter was taking place.
Porter’s sprawling narrative achieves many things. While it certainly is not ‘plot’ oriented, I was definitely invested in her characters. Within moments of her introducing use to a new character I found myself drawn to them and I cared to read more of them. Part of me wishes that the novel could have been even longer, so that it could provide us with even more perspectives. I appreciated how Porter brings seemingly periphery characters into the foreground, giving a voice to those who would usually be sidelined.
Her sharp commentary (on race, class, gender) and observations (on love, freedom, dignity) were a pleasure to read. I loved the way in which in spite of the many tragedies and injustices she chronicles in her narrative moments that emphasise human connection or show compassion appear time and again.
An intelligent and ambitious novel, one that at times brought to mind authors such as Ann Patchett (in particular, Commonwealth) and one I would definitely recommend to my fellow readers.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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American Gods by Neil Gaiman — book review

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“Gods die. And when they truly die they are unmourned and unremembered. Ideas are more difficult to kill than people, but they can be killed, in the end.”

It isn’t surprising that American Gods is regarded as one of the genre-bending novels of all time.
Over the course of 500 pages Neil Gaiman deftly blends together fantasy, sci-fi, horror, noir, myths, history, theology, as well as physical, spiritual, and emotional road-trip. The end result is an incredibly imaginative novel, on that is quite unlike anything else I’ve read.

In the preface to the tenth anniversary edition Gaiman describes his novel as ‘meandering’: “I wanted it to be a number of things. I wanted to write a book that was big and odd and meandering, and I did and it was.” It is indeed meandering, wonderfully so. Gaiman’s consistently entertaining storytelling more than makes up for it. Also, given how many different storylines and characters there are in American Gods, it’s safe to say that I was never bored.

“We do not always remember the things that do no credit to us. We justify them, cover them in bright lies or with the thick dust of forgetfulness.”

Summarising this novel isn’t easy. The first time I read it I didn’t know much about it so I found myself experiencing a lot of ‘what the f*ck is going’ moments. This second time, even if I knew what was coming and where Shadow’s story was headed, I still managed to get lost in Gaiman’s heady prose.
The novel’s protagonist, Shadow, gets out of prison and is hired by the mysterious and relentlessly charismatic Mr. Wednesday. We soon realise that Shadow’s new boss is an endlessly scheming conman, and not quite human.

What follows is an epic journey in which Shadow meets many disgruntled and modernity weary gods and deities, some of whom share snippets of their history or lore with Shadow, while others remain far more unknowable. Interspersed throughout the novel are chapters recounting their arrival to America. From heroic battles and bloody sacrifices to tales of worship and faith that span centuries and cultures, these sections were thoroughly interesting.

Over the course of his road trip Shadow comes across a lot of weird stuff. We have the sense that these encounters are leading to something far more big. Yet, Gaiman keeps his cards close to his chest, and it is only after many many pages that we start to understand where the story is leading Shadow, and us, towards.
There are plenty of things that will keep us engaged in Shadow’s story. A dead wife, coin tricks, cons, sex (with divine beings…so things get pretty freaky), some horrific scenes (of slavery, of war, of death), satire, a small town which gives some serious Twin Peaks vibe, a hubbub of different cultures and voices…and so much more. There is also an ongoing juxtaposition between the past and present, ancient customs and modernity, old lore and modern believes which provided some serious food for thought.

Gaiman presents us with a narrative that is wickedly funny, frequently mischievous, and always brimming with energy. I loved the way he writes about myths and how distinctive and morally ambiguous his characters are. As interesting and beguiling as the various gods and deities are, once again I found myself caring the most for Shadow.
Gaiman’s dialogues and scenes too are memorable and compelling. And while his narrative does wander into obscure and mystical terrains, it always held my undivided attention.
American Gods gives its readers a bonanza of flavours. It is funny, moving, clever, and constantly surprising.

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson — book review

“I had the children. They caught on fire. I had to keep them from catching on fire.”

As soon as I read Kevin Wilson’s dedication (“for Ann Patchett”) I had a feeling that I was in for a treat (and I was right).
There was something about Wilson’s surrealism that reminded me a bit of Charlie Kaufman’s films (in Synecdoche, New York a character moves into a house that is permanently on fire). Comparisons to Wes Anderson would also not be amiss (dysfunctional families + parental abandonment + quirky protagonist). And, in its unapologetic eccentricity it reminded me of The Sundial by Shirley Jackson. Yet, Nothing to See Here also struck me as being a wholly original tale.
Equal parts funny and heart-warming , Wilson’s touching novel can be read as an oddly realistic fairy-tale in which children catch fire.

Wilson injects a plausible scenario with a dose of the surreal: in the late spring of 1995 Lillian Breaker, a rather aimless twenty-eight year old, receives a letter from Madison Roberts, her former boarding school roommate. Madison, now married to a senator, has a job opportunity for Lillian: for the course of the summer she is to move into their estate to look after the senator’s ten-year old twins (from his previous marriage). The catch? Having recently lost their mother the twins are going through a bit of rough patch…and when angry or upset they burst into flames.
Like any good fable, Nothing to See Here has plenty layers. The children’s spontaneous combustions can be seen as a metaphor for ‘undesirability’, since due to their propensity to catch fire they are regarded by their father, and by Madison too, as unfit for the public, a source of embarrassment, and as potential dangerous (as their fire may not harm them, but it can burn the people and objects around them). In order to avoid a scandal, one that could put an end to the senator’s promising career, the twins are to stay under Lillian’s constant supervision.
In spite of her complicated feelings towards Madison, Lillian agrees.

The driving force of this novel is its brilliantly matter-of-fact narrator. Lillian is uninhibited, she says what she wants, doesn’t seem to care much about most things (whatever is one of her favourite words), some of her actions make her come across as a bit thick, and she leads a rather aimless existence. She isn’t all that concerned about her future or interested in taking care of herself. Yet, once she becomes responsible for the senator’s twins, she finds herself wanting to do good by them. There was something gratifying about her frankness…I immediately liked her and both understood and sympathised with some of her hang ups (about money, her education, her parents, Madison).

“I don’t know why, but I had just assumed that the kids would one day appear at the estate, maybe stuffed inside a giant wooden crate, packing peanuts pressed against their rickety bodies. I thought I’d just take them in my arms and place them in our new home like dolls in a dollhouse. ”

In spite of their bizarre condition Bessie and Roland are just like any other children: they are funny, easily bored, and perpetually hungry. After experiencing a tragic loss however the twins find themselves struggling to trust others. Realising that their father is ashamed of them only cements their mistrust of adults. Quite naturally then hey experience some difficulties acclimatising to their new circumstances.

“We were a world unto ourselves, even though I knew it was temporary. Eventually we would have to figure something out, a way to integrate the children into the real world. I imagined a time when they sat at that huge dining room table in the mansion, eating eggs Benedict or whatever the fuck while their father read the paper and told them scores from the Braves game the day before.”

I could easily summarise the novel as: Lillian looks after the twins, together they spend time in the pool, they eat a few soggy sandwiches, and meditate. Yet, the uneventfulness of the story is somewhat misleading. We get to know Lillian and the children, and we see the way they slowly grow used to each other. We also read of how American aristocrats will try to pass make their selfish behaviour seem as a sacrifice on their part. In spite of their ‘friendship’ there is a clear divide between Madison and Lillian. Lillian’s acceptance, over her past and future, and of the bond she forms with the twins, never seemed forced or cheesy as the novel makes us aware of how imperfect families are.
Within the very first pages I became fascinated with the story’s peculiar characters and their entertaining conversations. While this novel is definitely brimming with humour, it also offers us many surprisingly tender, if not touching, moments. I soon came to love Lillian, for her witty observations and unfiltered narration, and her charges, who could be both chaotic and charming. The dynamics between the various characters are absorbing, the dialogue is engaging, and the characters are wonderfully dysfunctional.
Wilson is an ingenuous storyteller who makes the supernatural seem plausible, so much so that in spite of the children’s condition, this novel feels deeply rooted in realism. Lillian’s satire is funny but never cutting, while the story, in spite of how outlandish it might sound, remains deeply realistic.
It’s a brilliant novel about the imperfect nature of parenting, of how odd caring for others can be (especially if you are unaccustomed to having friends or a family), that has plenty of humour.

my rating: ★★★★★

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Killman Creek by Rachel Caine

Having enjoyed reading Stillhouse Lake, I was quite happy at the start of this sequel. Soon, sadly, I found myself skipping paragraphs, rolling my eyes, and wondering how I could have enjoyed the first instalment of this series. In Stillhouse Lake I liked Gwen and I found the fast-paced narrative to be rather gripping. Killman Creek does not bring forward the promising aspects of its predecessor. I think, my main issue with this novel is that it tries too hard to be edgy. To me, the story seemed somewhat corny, despite the author’s attempts to make it ‘dark’.

She’s talking the talk, but I can tell she’s not feeling it. She wants him super dead, so much that it makes her shake. But she’s making an effort not to raise me that way. I guess that’s good.

The style too was a big issue for me. It worked when the story was told through one point of view, put here, there quite a few different narrators, and they all sound the same. The only ‘differences’ are stated rather than shown, a rather banal attempt to differentiate the characters. Gwen’s daughter, Lanny, sounds like her mother except for the moments in which she reminds her that she is a ‘teenager’ so she will snap for no reason, put her headphones on, and ‘crank’ her music up. *ahem* sloppy *ahem*

“ It’s exhausting, and I put the music back on and try to drown it all out.”

The writing is so repetitive. Short sentences won’t make your story fast-paced. Here are a few examples:

➜“I dump the bag upside down, and stuff rains out on the bed. Makeup, mostly.”
➜“Mom puts her arms around me this time and hugs. Hard.”
➜“I give her The Look. It bounces off without effect.”
➜“I settle into one of the armchairs near the windows. I was right. Comfy.”

And all of the narrators had this overuse of short sentences/thoughts, which made them all sound like each other. I understand if they were having these concise thoughts during a chase or something of the like, but for every single thing? It doesn’t make up for a slow plotine.
They all seem to have the same emotional responses/reactions. They are incredibly aware and in tune with their feelings. There is a constant over-sentimentality that worked against the serious themes of the story:

➜“Not judging, but worrying. If this is going to work, I need to be sure that she’s up to it. I won’t blame her if she isn’t, but deep in my heart I know I have to go, with or without her.”
➜““I’ll call tonight,” she tells me, and I shrug, like it’s no big deal if she doesn’t. Except it is. We both know it.”

The ‘mature’ elements where lost in a sea of needless –and childish– angst. Gwen and Sam’s ‘hunt’ was laughable and the children’s storyline was incredibly clichèd.
All in all, there was little to be enjoyed. This sequel felt like a bad adaptation of Stillhouse Lake. One that overused all of the positives of the original, ending up with a monotonous and unbelievable story.
Pity.

My rating: 2 stars

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