Woman, Eating by Claire Kohda

“I feel like giving up, lying down on this wall and closing my eyes and just doing nothing – not bothering to try to fit into the human world, not bothering to make friends and art, not bothering to source blood and feed myself.”


Woman, Eating is a great example of a good concept being let down by a rather lacklustre execution…it lacked bite (ba dum tss).

“I realised that demon is a subjective term, and the splitting of my identity between devil and god, between impure and pure, was something that my mum did to me rather than the reality of my existence.”

Woman, Eating is yet another addition to what I have come to think of as the ‘sad, strange, miserable young women’ subgenre. Kohda however does try to spice things up a bit by bringing into the mix vampirism: Lydia, our narrator, is in fact a vampire.

Lydia is not doing so well. Her mother is a Malaysian/British vampire, her father was a human. Lydia grew up with her mother and knows very little about her father (other than that he was Japanese and a famous artist). Her mother hates what they are and has tried to instil this same self-hatred into Lydia. But now her mother is in a hospice and no longer remembers who and what they are.
Lydia, alone for the first time in her life, moves into a studio space for young artists in London and begins working as an intern at an art gallery. In addition to navigating these new spaces and circumstances, Lydia has her hunger to preoccupy her. For some reason, she can’t find a way to get any pig blood and as the days go by she becomes increasingly hungry. She develops a sort of crush on Ben, a fellow artist in her building, but she isn’t sure whether it’s because she’s starved (and wants him as a snack) or whether it’s something more genuine. She can’t seem to bring herself to produce any more art and at the gallery is either mistreated or ignored. Worse still, the director of the gallery, Gideon, is also giving her some serious creepy predatory vibes.
Lydia is fascinated by human food and spends a lot of her time watching mukbangs, reading food recipes, and wondering how different food tastes. She reflects on her nature, if she has any of her father’s humanity or whether her mother is right and they are monsters. Her vampirism, which leads her to be obsessed with and averse towards human food, does read like a metaphor for an eating disorder. And the vampire trope does indeed lend itself to exploring alienation, as well as things such as EDs.

In an interview, Anne Rice described ‘the vampire’ as being ‘outside of life’, thus ‘the greatest metaphor for the outsider in all of us’. And Lydia struggles with her otherness, interrogating her own monstrosity and humanity. Additionally, Lydia is experiencing the fears and doubts that many people in their 20s do: what do you want to do with your life? What kind of job do you want? Where do you want to live? Are the things you want even an option to you? Lydia’s mixed ethnic heritage further exacerbates her sense of being ‘other’. Kohda addresses the kind of stereotypes and assumptions people make about those of whom are of East Asian descent. For example, a fellow artist in her building, and coincidentally Ben’s girlfriend, points out that because she’s Japanese people assume her work is ‘delicate’ (even when it is anything but). I would have actually liked more conversation on art than what we were given but still there are some thoughtful asides on modern art.

Lydia spends most of her narrative in a state of misery. Her self-hatred and hunger occupy her every thought…until she finds something (or something) to eat.
This was a relatable if depressing read. While a lot of other books from this ‘disconnected young women’ literary trend are characterized by a wry sense of humor, Lydia’s narration is devoid of any lightness. Her narration is unrelentingly miserable. This made her interior monologue, which makes up the majority of the novel, a bit of a chore to read through. Her navel-gazing was dreary and I often found myself losing interest in her introspections. The narrative felt oppressive, which in some ways does mirror Lydia’s lonely existence but it also makes her story repetitive. There were only three recognizable side characters, the others being little more than names on a page, and they all felt vague. Lydia’s mother was perhaps the most interesting figure but she mostly appears in flashbacks where she is preaching about their monstrosity and the danger of being discovered. Ben was a generic boy who came across as an only half-formed character (he only said things along the lines of “i don’t know..”). The gallery director…I appreciated how the author is able to articulate that specific type of unease (of an older man, possibly your colleague or superior, being ‘off’ towards you) that I am sure many young women (sadly) know. But then the role he plays was somewhat forgettable? He is there, to begin with, and then fades into the background only to appear at the very end.

The storyline lacked focus. It meandered without any clear direction. And this can work if your narrator is engaging or compelling enough but Lydia wasn’t. She was potable but pitying a character has never made me feel inclined to ‘read’ on to find out what happens to them.
Still, the author’s prose was fairly solid and certain passages even reminded of Hilary Leichter and Sayaka Murata (very matter of fact yet incredibly peculiar, especially when it comes to the ‘body’ or bodily functions: “My mum’s brain, which sits in a body just metres away from me now, must contain the memory of eating whole meals, of the feel of her body processing those meals, of tasting different flavours.” ).
The way vampirism operates in this world is not clear-cut and I think that really suited this type of story. I did question whether pig blood would be truly so hard to get ahold of and why Lydia didn’t try to get ahold of some other source of food sooner…

This novel did not make for a satisfying meal. I never felt quite sure whether I liked what I was being offered and then once it was over I found that I was still hungry. While I liked certain elements and the central idea, the story, plotline, and characters were different shades of average. More than once I found myself thinking that Lydia’s story would have been better suited to a shorter format (as opposed to a full-length novel). Still, even if this novel failed to leave a mark on me I look forward to whatever Kohda writes next).

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

The Fell of Dark by Caleb Roehrig

…and I thought that vampires were passé.
The Fell of Dark is a fun take that on vampires and ‘the chosen one’ trope. Usually, I’m a nitpicking reader but with The Fell of Dark I was happy to suspend my disbelief.
Is this novel perfect? Definitely not. Is it entertaining? Hell yes!
Our narrator and protagonist, sixteen-year-old August Pfeiffer, lives in Fulton Heights, Illinois. This small town happens to be a nexus for mystical and supernatural energies which is why it attracts so many vampires. August, the only ‘out’ gay boy in his school, isn’t particularly fond of his hometown (mostly due to its vampire populace). In spite of the vampires prowling his town at night, his biggest concern is algebra…until he receives a cryptic and ominous message from a distractingly cute-looking vampire (who happens to have an English accent). Things became increasingly bizarre as August finds himself at the centre of a feud between different vampire sects, an order of mortal knights, and a coven.
This is a very plot-driven book and August can’t seem to catch a break. For ‘reasons’ however he’s the chosen ones, and the whole world depends on him.
August’s narration is the strongest aspect of this book. He’s a rather awkward and perpetually horny teen who also happens to be an incredibly funny narrator (laugh-out-loud kind of fun).
This novel’s plotline is kind of basic but Caleb Roehrig makes it work. There is a certain self-awareness that makes up for the derivativeness of some of the storyline’s components (for example, the fact that no one seems to be telling August the truth because almost a running gag).
Those expecting this to be a love story of sorts will probably be disappointed as this novel has more of a lust/attraction-subplot than a romantic one.
With the exception of August, the characters are somewhat one-dimensional (also, it seemed that every single character was connected with one of these cult-ish groups). Still, the role they come to play in August’s story did hold my attention.
The world in this novel isn’t all that detailed. A few characters occasionally give some exposition about vampires and their history, but that’s about it.
This is an absorbing book. It has a lot of silly moments but I never found these to be ridiculous or unfunny. If you are a fan of Buffy or Carry On you will probably enjoy it as much as I did.

ps: I spent my day off work listening to the audiobook edition (which lasted about 12 hours) which…yeah. That was a new record for me. But once I started listening to it I couldn’t stop (Michael Crouch is an amazing narrator).

My rating: 3 ¾ stars

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Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire — book review

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Although occasionally entertaining, Come Tumbling Down struck me as a rather unnecessary and insubstantial addition to the Wayward Children series.

“Once a wayward child, always a wayward child.”

Don’t get me wrong: Seanan McGuire’s writing style is as lush as ever. Her prose, with its use rhythm and repetition, echoes that of fairy-tale, lending a certain allure to her narrative. As with the previous instalments McGuire weaves real issues into her fantastical setting (such as body dysmorphia, gender dysphoria, anxiety, OCD, trauma) however in this case not all of them were seamlessly woven into her story. Some—such as body dysmorphia—were just rushed through and consequently seemed to lack depth.

“No one should have to sit and suffer and pretend to be someone they’re not because it’s easier, or because no one wants to help them fix it.”

The story sadly feels like a rehash of the previous volumes. Part of me doesn’t think that we needed another chapter that focused on Jack and Jill…the dynamics between Jack and Miss West’s students—old and new—weren’t all that compelling. I wish we could have had more of Christopher or Kade instead. The exchanges between the characters felt repetitive and aimless.
The humour felt forced. Sumi was very much the ‘clown’ character who eased the tension of a scene by saying something silly/absurd. The quest itself felt unfocused and made Jill into a rather one-sided character.
On the one hand I really love McGuire’s writing…but here her storyline and characters lacked depth.There were some clever phrases and some ‘aesthetic’ character descriptions but they never amounted to anything truly substantial. Pretty words aside, Come Tumbling Down doesn’t really add anything new to this series.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova — book review

What could have been the perfect historical mystery for bibliophiles ended up being an unnecessarily long-winded and frequently dull novel.

“Looking up from my work, I suddenly realized that someone had left a book whose spine I had never seen before among my own textbooks, which sat on a shelf above my desk. The spine of this new book showed an elegant little dragon, green on pale leather.”

The Historian alludes to a variety of works, sometimes by means of subtle allusions, while in other cases Elizabeth Kostova seems to be emphasising her own novel’s intertextuality, such as its ostensible intertextual relationship to Stoker’s Dracula.
While Dracula has come to represent a turning point in vampire literature, hailing it as the ‘original vampire novel’ means disregarding the earlier encounters with vampires of other writers such as Goethe, Byron, Le Fanu, and Polidori. Although the ‘romantic’ and ‘seductive’ vampires populating today’s media don’t seem to owe much to Bram Stoker’s hairy-palmed Dracula, he has become an intrinsic part of vampire culture (if not a synonym of vampirism itself). While vampires are inherently intertextual beings (readers know more or less what to expect when reading a vampire novel) I was hoping that Elizabeth Kostova would not relegate her version of Dracula to the sidelines of her story…which sadly seems to be the case. Kostova, even more than Stoker, pushes Dracula, otherwise known as Vlad Țepeș, to the margins of her narrative.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of The Historian is its supernatural ambience and the stylistic strength of Kostova’s writing as she deftly weaves together folklore and history in what is neither a carbon-copy of nor a sequel to Dracula. Kostova’s story is an amalgamation of genres: a work of Gothic that largely relies on the epistolary form, a detective novel that is equal parts adventure, travelogue, and history lesson. Through these various styles Kostova examines the often conflictual relationship between Christian West and the Islamic East.
Kostova’s re-elaboration of the myths and stories established by works such as Dracula reflects a divided Europe. She examines themes of immortality, monstrosity, and otherness, against a backdrop of quiet social upheaval. Paul and Helen’s quest to find Dracula/Vlad’s tomb is often impeded by the political atmosphere of the countries they visit. Paul in particular, being American, is regarded with suspicion by these countries’ socialist regimes. This added another layer of secretiveness to their ‘adventures’, one that forces them to carry out their true research under a guise.

While we do get an overall biography of Vlad Țepeș, the ‘man’ himself does not recount his own experiences, we don’t see from his own point of view. His potential victims inform us of his misdeeds and history…which serve to make Vlad into a rather one-sided character. He is ‘evil’, and that seems to be that. I was expecting a far more nuanced portrayal of vampires and of this infamous historical figure. Terrible people/creatures can still be compelling subjects. Kostova’s novel however does not really allow this vilified figure the chance to speak his truth. I could have understood his motivations without necessarily agreeing with them. Sadly, Vlad seems evil for the sake of being evil. We learn of his monstrous actions but we never truly glimpse the mind behind those brutal deeds. Vlad is evil because of his transgression of the natural order…and that’s it. Vampirism aside Kostova’s depiction of Vlad does not really propose any new ‘reading’ of his rule.

While I really appreciated the use of different timelines in Kostova’s latest novel, The Shadow Land, here the various storylines were rather uneven: in the 1970s our narrator is a sixteen-year old girl who remains unnamed throughout the course of the novel, her father Paul (his story takes place in the 1950s), and Paul’s former mentor, Professor Bartholomew Rossi (most of his letters are dated from the 1930s). Initially I thought that the narrative would mainly switch between Paul and his daughter…so I was rather disappointed to discover that the daughter’s story is non-existent. She appears at the beginning of this bulky book and has a few chapters here and there…and that’s it. Paul’s story is the main focus of the narrative, and sadly I just wasn’t all that taken by him or his adventures. Him and Helen definitely travel through interesting cities and places (Turkey, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, France) and I did appreciate Kostova’s use of the sublime in these ‘travelogue’ sections: the way in which the landscapes inspires fear and awe in Paul (these sections reminded me of Ann Radcliffe).
Sadly Paul and Helen’s journey soon grew rather repetitive and predictable. They always seemed to encounter the right people and the right time which definitely struck me as a too coincidental. While I certainly enjoyed reading of the history of the cities they travel through, I wasn’t all that invested in them or their ‘quest’.
Perhaps I was hoping for a more emotionally involving story (such as the one in The Shadow Land) but here the characters were largely secondary, if not downright passive, and while there were plenty of opportunities to flesh them out, to give us an impression of their personalities, their ‘quest’ has far more importance.
The ‘quest’ largely relies on their finding documents or people who know something about Dracula’s existence. They gather information slowly, over the course of hundred and hundred of pages. A lot of what they ‘discover’ wasn’t all that surprising…the ending felt anti-climatic to the extreme.
Nevertheless, in spite of my not so great opinion of this novel, I did appreciate Kostova’s subject matter and her confluence of classicism and romanticism, of logic and emotion, of mysticism and faith. Last but not least, I have always loved descriptions of books and libraries…

“Besides, you can tell a great deal from a historian’s books.”

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu

Le Fanu, who to his own discontent was proclaimed as being ‘the Irish Wilkie Collins’, is celebrated for having written one of the first vampire stories. One of the most discussed aspect of ‘Carmilla’ is not the vampirism itself as much as the fact that both the vampire and the victims are female. I was expecting a Gothic and atmospheric tale but I found Carmilla to be a lacklustre story one that has not aged well. Modern readers are accustomed to the idea of ‘vampires’ and in Carmilla nothing comes as a surprise. Carmilla’s vampirism isn’t shocking or even amusing like it would have been if Collins had written it. The trope that Carmilla has created doesn’t do the original story any favours.
Carmilla, the eponymous ‘villainess’ of Le Fanu’s novella, should be the embodiment of female sexuality. She should be monstrous and powerful. But she simply comes across as needy and creepy. Her masculine attributes are overshadowed by her childlike mind. Her obsession with Laura was completely insipid.
Le Fanu’s characters are as bland as their background. His writing offers nothing remarkable.
A short and predictable tale.

My review: 2 stars

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