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

Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuire

Where the Drowned Girls Go is a relatively compelling if inoffensive addition to the Wayward Children series. Once again Seanan McGuire sticks to the same formula: we have a focus on aesthetics, a fairy-talesque atmosphere, and a story revolving around a girl who is either lonely or made to feel different or insecure about something. Like its predecessors, Where the Drowned Girls Go critiques individuals and institutions that seek to impose conformity on those they deem ‘different’. Here the good/bad binary feels particularly lacking in nuance, and I miss the ambivalence that permeated the first few instalments. Still, McGuire’s prose has is always a delight to read. While here she goes a bit heavy-handed on metaphors involving smiles (we have, to name a few, wan smiles, bland smiles, terrible smiles, terrifying smiles…the list goes on), her hypnotic style is rich with tantalising descriptions and lush imagery. I also appreciate her darker take on fairy tales and magical worlds. As we can see, those who go through magical doors do not always make it ‘home’ unscathed. They carry physical and psychological scars from their time there and struggle to integrate themselves back into ‘reality’.

In Where the Drowned Girls Go we are reunited with Cora who we previously followed on a rescue mission to Confection in Beneath the Sugar Sky. She’s haunted by the Trenches, the world she fell into, and fears that she will once more be transported to that world. She believes that at Eleanor’s school she won’t be able to resist the Trenches so she decides to enrol at the Whitethorn Institute. But, she soon discovers, Whitethorn is not kind to ‘wayward children’ like her. The school instils fear in its students, punishing those who mention their experiences in other worlds and rewarding those who come to view magical doors as the product of a delusion. Cora is bullied by some of her roommates who make fun of her appearance and such. Eventually, Sumi comes to her rescue and Cora has to decide whether she does want to leave Whitethorn. There are a few moral lessons about friendship, not being mean, or not letting others dictate who you are.

While there were fantastical elements woven into the story and setting this volume lacked that magic spark that made the first few books into such spellbinding reads. I also found Cora to be a meh protagonist. Her defining characteristic seemed to be her body, which wasn’t great. Sumi was a welcome addition to the cast of characters as I found the girls at Whitethorn to be rather samey (which perhaps was intentional). I don’t entirely get why Cora got another book. She was the main character in Beneath the Sugar Sky. Her insecurities etc. were already explored in that book…and this feels like an unnecessary continuation to her arc. Still, I love the aesthetics of this series and the wicked/virtue & nonsense/logical world compass.
Hopefully, the next volume will be about Kade…

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You: Stories by Maurice Carlos Ruffin

The Ones Who Don’t Say They Love You: Stories is a humorous yet unsparing ode to New Orleans. In this polyphonic collection Maurice Carlos Ruffin presents his readers with an unforgettable portrayal of New Orleans, from its unique culture that separates it from other American cities to its people. These stories tap into contemporary issues so that more than one is actually set during the still-ongoing pandemic. The author also touches on BLM, lgbtq+ themes, as well as issues related to unemployment, connection, and loneliness.

What I most appreciated in this collection, other than its strong sense of place, was that the author doesn’t try to moralise nor condemn his characters’ behaviour. The conversational nature of many of these stories makes it so that the character in question is simply recounting the events and or circumstances that led them to make certain choices. They are simply trying to survive or to cope with a certain situation. The dialogues rang true to life and so did the scenarios the characters are in. I appreciated the openness of these stories and the author’s realistic approach to serious and contemporary issues. While I still feel weird when I read a book that acknowledges COVID, it also, weirdly enough, helps me somehow (learning of how these ‘fictional’ characters cope with it etc.). Many of the stories focus on characters who are caught at a crossroad and discover, for better and worse, that the line between right and wrong is a fine one.
Sadly, a major drawback of this collection was the relatively short length of these stories. I would have preferred longer stories, as that would have allowed me to feel more immersed by the characters and their experiences.
Still, I really liked the author’s prose and I’m curious to read his debut novel, We Cast a Shadow.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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The Human Zoo by Sabina Murray

The Human Zoo will appeal to readers who prefer their books to focus on setting and social commentary more than say plot or character development. Sabina Murray writes with confidence and at first, I found myself quite immersed in her storytelling. The novel is narrated by Tin, a Filipino-American journalist whose marriage is close to collapse. Ting travels to Manila, both to escape her current predicament and to research Timicheg, an Igorot man who in the early 20th century was displayed in one of the last ‘human zoos’ in America. Since her last visit Procopio Gumboc has become the country’s president and his rule is bloody indeed.

Ting returns to her family home where she easily slips back into a comfortable existence with the house staff taking care of her every need and with evenings spent with other socialites. Ting is reunited with her close friends and her former lover Chet, a rich businessman now married to someone else and with ties to Gumboc’s regime.
Ting is also meant to keep an eye on Laird, the American fiance of one of her cousin’s. But when Laird begins showing up at every event and family occasion Ting attends and asking a lot of questions. Ting grows suspicious of Laird and, when he seemingly vanishes, fears the worst.
This novel is certainly informative. Through Ting’s narration, we learn about the Philippines’ history, its fraught political past and present, as well as its contemporary class dynamics. While we do witness just how oppressing its regime is, we also hear the perspective of those who regard it as the lesser evil or even as a solution to the issues affecting their society. Ting is very much opposed and critical of Gumboc’s rein, but not many are willing to listen to her concerns.
Towards the end, the story changes track slightly, in a way that wasn’t entirely seamless. I found some of the events that happen to be rushed and not entirely credible. I also found myself growing bored by how exposition-heavy the narrative was. Ting tells us all of these things about her country and its history and its present but, personally, I would have preferred to have less telling and more showing.

The characters themselves never truly feel like actual people. Ting is a vehicle through which the Philippines can be ‘explained’ to, I’ll hazard, a predominantly non-Filipino audience and she lacked both history and motivations. Her relationship with the characters around them was similarly satisfying and seemed to exist only in order to illustrate a certain type of person who is part of Manila’s upper crust. Her romance with Chet, for instance, was flat and strangely artificial.
I wanted more of Ting’s family and more of her actual research on Timicheg, and less about Gumboc, Laird, or Chet.

Lastly, I found it weird that Ting kept describing Inchoy, her friend, as being gay when he seems to be in a loving relationship with a transwoman. Inchoy, as far as I recall, does not describe himself as lgbtq+. He’s a cis man who is in love with a woman. Yet, because the woman he is in love with is trans Ting claims more than once that he’s gay.

While this novel certainly paints a detailed picture of contemporary Manila, in particular the lifestyle of the upper classes, it failed to leave a strong impression on me. In-depth examination and discussion of politics aside, The Human Zoo doesn’t have much to offer. Ting is a blank page of a protagonist and so are the characters around her. The story ambles on in a fairly predictable and uneventful fashion, but it lacked direction and urgency.
If you are interested in reading this novel I recommend you check out more positive reviews.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Razorblade Tears by S.A. Cosby

aaaand Cosby’s done it again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

In the last few weeks I’ve read two works by Oyeyemi (Peaces and What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours) and what I liked most about them was how funny, inventive, and unapologetically queer they were. So, naturally, I was somewhat surprised and saddened to discover that Boy, Snow, Bird lacks any of those qualities. I can’t honestly say that Boy, Snow, Bird has any real strengths. There are far more superior books out there examining race in the 1950s and 1960s America, such as ReginaPorter’s The Travelers, and to call this novel a Snow White retelling seems overarching. While Oyeyemi does incorporate within her narrative certain recognizable fairy tale motifs—mean stepmothers who hate their angelic stepdaughters, magical mirrors and or reflections—the story she recounts struck me as painfully prosaic. We have a vague, and unconvincing, historical setting, cardboard characters, and an uneventful storyline that drags on too long.

The novel is divided into three parts. Part one and three are narrated by Boy. She’s white and the daughter of a pest exterminator who she often refers to as ‘the rat catcher’. In a manner reminiscent of Dickens and She Who Shall Not Be Named, Oyeyemi gives her characters names, or nicknames, that convey their personality or profession. I may sound overly critical here but why do characters whose professions are often openly looked down upon—janitors, cleaners, pest exterminators, etc.—are so frequently cast in the role of sinister and/or obsessive creeps? I mean, just because someone whose job requires them to kill rats doesn’t mean they have to be ‘unstable’ and rat-obsessed (this guy makes rat noises and is apt to go off on anti-rat rants). Anyhow, this rat catcher is horrible through-and-through. He treats Boy in a rather appalling way and understandably she decides to run off once she’s done with high school. She ends up finding a job (what that was i cannot recall) and eventually becomes involved with a man named Arturo who is entirely void of a personality. This man has a daughter called Snow who is biracial, and Boy decides to exile her. Why? I can’t say for sure. It seemed that Boy found Snow’s ‘goodness’ grating or felt threatened by her.
Boy and Arturo have a child together, Bird. Part two is narrated by her and it mostly consists of a series of boring episodes. She exchanged letters with Snow, who she has never met. Whether they got on or not, I have no idea. Their responses to each other’s letters were almost jarring. There is an attempt at exploring doubleness but the story never has anything interesting on this matter.
We then return to Boy who has nothing really interesting to say.

Up to this point, it was safe to say that I did not care for this novel. The characters were dull, poorly developed. Our mains were very one-note and their voices failed to elicit any strong emotions in me. The secondary characters are barely there, and most of the male characters—regardless of their age—blurred together. We also have that one Italian character who just has to say ‘cara’ this and ‘cara’ that. Ffs. Still, I would not have discouraged others from attempting to read it as this could have easily been one of those ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ cases but then Oyeyemi drops a rather unpleasant surprise near the end.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Turns out that the ‘rat catcher’, turns out his name is Frank, who up to now has been portrayed as this abusive possibly ‘deranged’ villain, is a trans man. Frank is Boy’s mother. Frank used to be a gay woman who was raped and became pregnant with Boy. After this traumatic experience Frank ‘became’ trans: “You know how Frank says he became Frank? He says he looked in the mirror one morning when he was still Frances, and this man she’d never seen before was just standing there, looking back. ”
Leaving aside the fact that Frank’s ‘story’ is recounted by someone who keeps misgendering and deadnaming them (this story is set in the 50s and 60s after all), I find this whole ‘reveal’ to be a poor choice indeed. Not only does the story imply that victims of sexual abuse cannot ever recover (which, unfortunately, sometimes happens to be true but here it struck me as intentionally sensational) but they will inevitably become abusers themselves. Which, yikes. Can we not? And don’t get me started on the whole ‘woman wanting to escape womanhood by becoming a man + lesbians becoming men because of trauma and the patriarchy’ terfy combo. Fuck sake. And to make your one trans character into an unhinged abuser is decidedly questionable.

To prospective readers of this book: I would like to dissuade you. Give this one a wide berth. Oyeyemi has written far better, and certainly a lot less dubious, things, so I recommend you check those out instead.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Our Dreams at Dusk: Shimanami Tasogare, Vol. 1 by Yuhki Kamatani

Ever since reading Nabari No Ou back in the early 2010s I have been a huge fan of Yuhki Kamatani. To call Nabari No Ou my favourite series ever doesn’t convey just how much it means to me. Our Dreams at Dusk boasts Kamatani’s beautiful artwork and storytelling. Once again Kamatani provides some wonderful platonic relationship that will make you feel all the feels. While the issues the narrative touches upon, namely the realities of being lgbtq+ in Japan, are certainly realistic Kamatani does add a fantastical touch to this story through a character knows as ‘Anonymous’. If you’ve read and liked this series I 100% recommend you check out Nabari No Ou (it has ninjas, one of the best non-romantic relationship in the history of manga, some laugh out loud moments and plenty of my-heart-is-breaking scenes). Our Dreams at Dusk is such a breath of fresh air considering how many manga out there fetishise same-sex relationship or portray wildly unrealistic queer characters.


my rating: ★★★★☆

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The Sky Blues by Robbie Couch

The Sky Blues is a wonderfully wholesome YA coming of age that makes for the perfect summer read. The novel is narrated by Sky who is in his last year of high school. After coming out as gay Sky finds himself living with his best friend, Bree, and her supportive family as his own mother and brother aren’t accepting of his sexuality. At his school, Sky tries not to act too ‘gay’ but even when he lies low he’s still subjected to other student’s taunts. Sky and Bree pour their energy into coming up with ideas for his promposal to his crush Ali. Most of their ideas are silly but that makes the experience all the more fun. Until someone leaks a photo of these plans at his school. Humiliated Sky struggles to come to terms with this huge invasion of his privacy. But when his best friends and other classmates reach out to him, showing their support and love, Sky decides to find out the culprit.

Sky’s story was the perfect mix of fun and affecting. There were many moving moments (between him and his friends or him and Bree’s parents) that truly make this book well worth a read. Sky’s voice is incredibly authentic and compelling, and I truly appreciated the narrative’s focus on his personal growth. He isn’t perfect and as the prom approaches, he comes to realise that the people closest to him are also facing their own struggles. His character arc was truly satisfying and I loved that he learns from his mistakes. The novel also doesn’t sugar-coat certain subjects or realities.
While the novel is very much about Sky and him navigating this particular period of his life, there is the lightest of romantic subplots that added a sweet note to Sky’s story.
This was a truly engaging and heart-warming novel, one that I would definitely recommend to readers wanting a great lgbtq+ YA read. The Sky Blues was such a welcome surprise and I will for sure be checking out whatever Robbie Couch writes next!

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Sarahland by Sam Cohen

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

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

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

my rating: ★★★

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Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

This novel proved to be the perfect ‘escape’ read. While I may not have been enamoured by every single book I’ve read by Libba Bray (the finales to her series left me a wee bit unsatisfied) I do consider her to be an amazing writer and a favourite of mine. Usually, however, her books are in the realms of the ‘historical’, so I wasn’t sure what to except from Beauty Queens, I just knew that after watching a certain series I fancied a Lord of the Flies kind of tale (with a female ensemble). And wow…Bray sure delivered. Beauty Queens was everything I didn’t know I wanted. This is the kind of satirical teen comedy that will definitely appeal to fans of classics such as Heathers, But I’m a Cheerleader, and Mean Girls. The story, writing, and characters are all over the top in the best possible of ways. This is the funniest book I’ve read in 2020.

Beauty Queens begins with ‘the Corporation’ addressing us readers, “This story is brought to you by The Corporation: Because Your Life Can Always Be Better™. We at The Corporation would like you to enjoy this story, but please be vigilant while reading”. We are also told to keep vigilant as the story we are about to read may have some ‘subversive’ content. Throughout the novel there are footnotes by ‘the Corporation’, sometimes advertising ridiculous products and sometimes professing distaste or disapproval over a certain scene.
The novel mainly follows nine beauty queens contestants who after surviving a plane crash that killed the majority of the other contestants (one for each state) find themselves on a seemingly deserted island. Rather than focusing on two or three contestants, Bray gives each of these nine beauty queens a backstory (I think only three contestants do not receive this treatment). We start with Adina, Miss New Hampshire, an aspiring journalist who joined the contest only to expose how misogynistic it is. At first Adina is snarky and not a great team player. Although she calls herself a feminist she has very ‘fixed’ notion of feminism, and her relationship with the other contestants will slowly challenge her previous views (on the contest itself, on liking thinks deemed ‘girly’,etc.). She immediately takes against Taylor, Miss Texas, the ‘leader’ of the surviving beauty queens. Taylor insists that they should keep practicing their routines for the contest as she believes that help is on the way. Taylor is badass, and I definitely enjoyed her character arc (which definitely took her down an unexpected path). We then have many other entertaining and compelling beauty queens: Mary Lou, who becomes fast friends with Adina in spite of their seemingly opposing views when it comes to sex; Nicole, the only black contestant, who wants to be a doctor but has been time and again been pressured into contests by her mother; participating as the only black contestant faces racism from the contest itself and the her peers; Shanti, an Indian American girl from California, who initially sees Nicole as ‘competition’ but as time goes by finds that she is only who understands how challenging it can be to navigate predominately white spaces; Petra, a level-headed girl who faces a different kind of prejudice; Jennifer, a queer girl who loves comics and has often been deemed a ‘troubled kid’; Sosie, who is deaf and always feels that she has to be happy in order to make others feel more ‘comfortable’; and, last but not least, Tiara, who at first seems like a comedic character, the ditzy or dumb blonde, but who soon proves that she is a very empathetic girl.
The girls don’t always get on with one another. In spite of their different backgrounds, interests, and temperaments, they have all been made to feel inadequate or ‘too much’.
As if surviving a deserted island wasn’t difficult enough a certain corporation is running some secret operation not far from the girls’ camp. Throw in some pirates/reality show contestants and there you have it.
Bray satirises everything under the sun: reality shows, beauty contests, pop culture, beauty products, corporations. While some of her story’s elements may be a bit ‘problematic’ in 2020, her satire never came across as mean spirited. In the end this is a story about acceptance and female solidarity. Bray shows all the ways in which society pressures and controls teenage girls, allowing for diverse perspectives and voices. Most of all, this novel is hilarious. Bray handles her over the top storyline and characters perfectly.
What more can I say (or write)? I loved it. This is the kind of uplifting read I would happily re-read.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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