Mad about You by Mhairi McFarlane

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

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

Having recently enjoyed reading Kevin Kwan’s A Room With A View re-telling, I was seriously expecting to love Crazy Rich Asians. I went into it hoping for a light-hearted and fun read but was instead met with a snooze-inducing story, a horrid cast of poorly developed characters, and an abundance of crass humor. I grew to hate all of the characters as well as the so-called plot and the tacky dialogues. Whereas I found Sex & Vanity to be a funny comedy of manners, Crazy Rich Asians struck me as garish and grating.
Rachel Chu, our supposed heroine, joins her boyfriend Nicholas Young as he travels to Singapore to be the best man at his best friend’s wedding. Nicholas has not informed Rachel of his family, who happen to be ‘crazy rich’. Because of this Rachel isn’t prepared to contend with his relatives’ opulent lifestyles nor is she expecting to encounter such cut-throat people, whose weapon of choice is malicious gossip. Although Rachel was raised in America her mother is from mainland China. Both of these things make her ‘undesirable’ to the older people in Nicholas’ family. His mother and grandmother in particular are set against her, so much so that they are willing to sabotage their relationship by any means necessary.
I probably wouldn’t have minded the story as much if it had focused on the conflict between Rachel and Nicholas’ mother. But, alas, hundreds of pages are dedicated to Nicholas’ horrid relations: there is Astrid, a spoiled yet self-pitying woman who will spend hundred of thousands on jewellery only to then bemoan how extravagant young people are. Her husband has a huge chip on his shoulder because he feels that her family treats him like a servant. She eventually comes across her first love who materializes from nowhere only to play the role of self-sacrificing cupid and gives Astrid some ‘advice’ on how to salvage her marriage, because he ‘knows’ men. There is Eddie, who is even more spoiled and obnoxious than Astrid. The narrative goes out of its way to paint him as a vulgar idiot who has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. There are plenty of additional characters who seem to share the same personality: they are mean, wasteful, vain, stupid, back-stabbing…the list goes on. I don’t have a problem with unlikeable characters. Some of my favourite novels, such as Madame Bovary or White Ivy, focus on less-than-likeable characters. However, the ones in Crazy Rich Asians are so painfully one-dimensional as to be utterly ridiculous. This slapdash satire is lazy and worst of all, painfully unfunny. All the husbands were dicks in the same way: they are cowards, weak, and possible cheaters. The women were divided into four categories: Rachel, who is Not Like Other Women, in that she uses her brain, she’s intelligent, she has a job, she (allegedly) doesn’t know or care about fashion or money; the ‘not so bad’ rich women such as Astrid and Rachel’s friend whose characters nevertheless revolve around what they wear or the fact that they like to spend money; the nasty set, which includes almost all of the women invited to the wedding, and these ones, well, they are Mean Girls who bully Rachel because they are jealous, and for all their love of fashion they do not possess Rachel’s innate simple yet elegant fashion sense; and the older women, which includes Nicholas’ mother, his aunts, and his grandmother who are also horrible and scheming (but are meant to be more ‘classy’ than the Mean Girls).

The plot goes in a circle forever. We see no meaningful interactions between Nicholas and his family, in fact, he gets less page time than most characters. He is Not Like Other Men in that he doesn’t care about money or status. Puh-lease. I found his denial of his wealth truly off-putting. I get that he was (somehow) the only one to be raised to be modest about the family fortune but the man has lived abroad and on his own, surely he must have gained some sort of perspective when it comes to his family’s wealth. But no! Time and again he denies that his family is rich, and I hated that. It made me want to reach into the page and slap him. This fake modesty is not pretty. I feel a similar type of rage when I think of those celebrities making videos where they say things along the lines ‘we are all in this pandemic together’. Bleargh. Fuck off, really. And Rachel, what a disappointing character. She was bland, painfully so. She never stands up to anyone, which, fair enough, given that maybe she doesn’t want to be disrespectful or aggravate certain situations but I found her passivity infuriating in the long run. Especially when it came to those Mean Girls. She also lacked ‘history’. It seemed that before her name appeared on the page she did not exist. With the exception of that one friend and her bf she has formed no other meaningful relationship…which is saying something given that she’s not a child.
Characters keep saying offensive things and no one really challenges their comments or views. If anything, the story goes to prove them ‘right’. Take the whole Kitty thing for example. At one point one of the female characters says that shopping can solve any problem a woman is having and I wanted to gouge my eyes out. The amount of girl-hate also drove me up the walls. I hate when male authors do this. It is as if they are compelled to write women as ‘catty’ and ‘competitive’ (whereas their male characters aren’t).
The book consists of characters gossiping, bicker, and bitching about one another. He said that she said that they said…etc. The one gay-coded character is portrayed as a snake (kwan, wtf? what is this, downton abbey?). The book exalts the characters’ extravagant lifestyles without anything meaningful to say about it. In fact, it just glorifies the ways of rich people. The constant name-dropping of fashion brands threatened to turn my brain to slush.
Anyway, this book has no redeeming qualities (for me of course). Rachel and Nicholas’ relationship felt like an afterthought almost. I never believed that they cared for each other and I think that Rachel should have not forgiven a man who lied by omission (about his past, his family, etc.). The last act was pure soap-opera. To use a possibly problematic term, that ‘twist’ was demented. Seriously so. That we don’t get any real scenes between Nicholas and his mother or even Rachel and his mother made their whole conflict bathetic.
This was meant to be an entertaining and escapist read but I was certainly not diverted. Maybe if you like shows like Gossip Girl you will find this more rewarding than I did. I, for one, do not care for this mindless glorification of the rich. Their ‘antics’, such as xenophobic, classist, and sexist comments as well as their ostentatious tastes and their constant need to travel by jet (who cares about the global carbon emissions!), are played up for laughs. This kind of mindless and gaudy satire achieves nothing. Bah. Maybe the film is more tolerable but this book is the definition of banal.

my rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan

In many ways Sex and Vanity was exactly the pulpy light-hearted read I was in dire need of. Kevin Kwan’s engrossing and entertaining storytelling made me speed through his book and I ended up finishing it in less than a day. As retellings go, this manages to be both (fairly) faithful and rather refreshing. What kept me from wholly loving this book was Lucie, the book’s central character. She’s the kind of self-absorbed, self-pitying, and milquetoast type of heroine that I have come to abhor, so much so that I actively root against them (especially since they are presented to us as likeable/good heroines who are not wholly responsible for their ‘bad’ actions).

Kwan’s reimagining of Forster’s A Room With A View features a contemporary setting and focuses on Lucie Churchill, a Chinese American young woman who is tired of feeling like the odd one out in her social circle. Her deceased father’s relatives are insufferably wealthy WASPs who see and treat her like an ‘oddity’ (the grandmother repeatedly refers to her as a ‘China doll’…yikes). To avoid being the subject of further gossip Lucie, now aged 19, has cultivated a good-girl image. Whereas A Room With A View opens in Florence, Sex and Vanity transports us to Capri where Lucie is staying to attend the wedding of her friend Isabel Chiu. Lucie’s chaperone is the snobbish and fussy Charlotte, her older cousin on her father’s side, who both in name and character is very faithful to her original counterpart. The wedding is decidedly over-the-top and Kwang certainly seems to have fun in envisioning the opulent foods & beverages and extravagant activities that would seem like musts to filthy rich ppl like Isabel and her cohort. As with the original, the two cousins end up in a hotel room with no view and are offered to trade for one with a view on the Tyrrhenian Sea by two other guests, George Zao and his mother (in the original it was George and his father). Lucie dislikes Gergeo on sight. She tells herself it’s because he’s too handsome and too un-American, but, over the course of the wedding celebrations, she finds herself growing intrigued by him.
As with the original something happens between Lucie and George that could very well lead to a ‘scandal’. This is witnessed by Charlotte who makes it her business to separate the ‘lovers’.

The latter half of the story takes place 5 years later in New York. Lucie is engaged to Cecil, who is ‘new money’ and therefore not wholly accepted by Lucie’s set. We are introduced to Lucie’s mother and her brother, who due to his gender and possibly his ‘WASP’ appearance, isn’t as scrutinized as Lucie herself is. Lucie’s future is jeopardized when George and his mother arrive in town. Lucie is horrified at the discovery that George knows her fiance and that the two will be forced to be in each other’s proximity at the various social gatherings they attend. Of course, even as Lucie tells herself she’s not interested in George and that he and his mother represent everything she does not want to be (the gal sure has a lot of internalized racism to deal with) she can’t stop obsessing over him.
Whereas the tone and atmosphere of Forster’s original struck me as gentle, idyllic even, Kwan’s brand of satire is far louder and sensationalistic. This suits the kind of people he’s satirizing, their obsession with status, brands, and reputation, as well as their lack of self-awareness. The rarefied world he depicts is certainly an insular one and while Lucie does experience prejudice, for the most part, the problems his characters face are very much rich people problems.
Given that this novel is far lengthier than Forster’s one I hoped that George would get his time to shine, or that his romance with Lucie could be depicted more openly. But Kwang prioritizes gossipy dialogues over character development.
Most of the conversations and scenes in this novel are of a humorous nature, and Kwang is certainly not afraid to poke fun at his characters (their hypocritical behaviour, their sense of entitlement, their privilege). Still, he keeps things fairly light, and there were even a few instances where the narrative veers in the realms of the ridiculous.
While there is no strictly likeable character, Lucie was perhaps the most grating of the lot. Whereas I excepted Cecil to be a conceited, condescending, wannabe-aesthete (kwang and forester’s cecils pale in comparison to daniel day-lewis’ cecil), I wasn’t prepared for such as wishy-washy heroine. While I could buy into the motivations of Forester’s Lucy (her self-denial, her inability and or unwillingness to articulate her feelings towards george), I could not bring myself to believe in Kwang’s Lucie’s ‘reasonings’. She acts like a child experiencing their first crush, not someone in their mid-twenties. Her antipathy towards George and his mother also made her into an extremely unlikable character. Her actions towards the latter, which as far as I can recall were not inspired from the original, made me detest her. Not only was her ‘plan’ was completely inane but inexcusable. She struck me as bratty, self-involved, superficial, vapid. At times she acts like a complete cretin. I could not see how other people could stand her, let alone how someone like George could fall in love with her.
Even if her character lowered my overall opinion of this novel, I nevertheless had a blast with Sex and Vanity. I liked how Kwang adapted certain plot elements to fit with his modern setting (instead of a book revealing that ‘scandalous’ moment, it’s a film; instead of the carriages there are golf carts). Part of me would have preferred it if Kwang had not made George and his mother ultra-rich given that in the original George and his father are certainly not well off. I also liked that in the original Lucy refuses Cecil twice, whereas here (as far as my memory serves) Lucie immediately accepts Cecil’s request.
Sex and Vanity is a gleefully ‘trashy’ comedy of manners. Kwang’s droll prose and drama-driven narrative make for the perfect escapist read.

my rating: ★★★½

Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw


and this was supposed to be a horror story? the only unsettling thing about this novella is that cover.

Nothing But Blackened Teeth was probably my most anticipated October 2021 release, and boy, did it disappoint. I mean, given that N.K. Jemisin called it “Brutally delicious!” I went into this novella with high expectations. After getting through this novella’s opening scene, my expectations were quashed. There is an argument of sorts between 4 generic people that was as realistic-sounding as, say, any line of dialogue from Riverdale (“Besides, my money is your money. Brothers to the end, you know?” / “You nearly cost me everything,” Talia said, still staccato in her rage.”).
Our narrator is at this allegedly creepy mansion in Japan that will serve as a wedding venue because the bride happens to be in haunted places. Our narrator doesn’t get on with the bride, there is beef between them because of whatever. They bicker and swear a lot (so edgy of them). Nothing much happens. Characters think the place is creepy, they hear something, and then towards the latter half of the novella, the story gives a half-hearted attempt at horror. There were 0 stakes, the 4 or 5 characters in this novella were different degrees of bitchy and hysterical. Their reactions/responses and the way they interacted with one another struck me as unbearably fake and unconvincing. The narrator’s edgy descriptions of their hands, faces, and voices did nothing to make their words or actions credible. I made the mistake of listening to this audiobook as I was re-reading The Haunting of Hill House and let me just say that Nothing But Blackened Teeth ain’t it. This novella is devoid of nuance and seems to believe that it is being a lot grittier and more subversive than it actually is. The characters are paper-thin and the mc’s narration is so self-dramatising as to be unbearable. In addition to weak dialogues and non-existent characterisation, this novella fails at atmosphere and tone. The haunted house is described so vaguely that it never struck me as a real place. The ghost is cheesy. While the novella tries to be more self-aware of horror tropes it ends up dishing out the same tired clichéd and ‘twists’. The narrator is bi but she only shares romantic/sexual tension with the 3 male characters (she dislikes and is disliked by the bride-to-be). Also, as you may have by now realised, I have already forgotten all of these characters’ names. Our narrator is a bitch, the bride-to-be is a fake, the groom exists, there is a character who is supposed to be a joker but comes across as plain rude and unfunny, and, lastly, there is a white guy who tries hard to be the golden boy. That’s all I remember about them. And they all like to get into really inane arguments that serve as mere page-filler.
While Nothing But Blackened Teeth is by no means the worst thing I’ve read this year, it is a truly banal horror story.
If you liked it, fair enough. If you are interested in reading it I suggest you check out more positive reviews as I have nothing good to say about it (wait, i lie, that cover is relatively disturbing, so there you go).

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

Originally published in 1946 The Honjin Murders is a locked-room murder mystery. Throughout the course of the novel, the author pays homage to Golden Age detective novels, by alluding directly to authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and their works and by being quite self-aware when it comes to the conventions that characterise this genre. Sadly, despite my being a fan of detective novels and classic whodunits, The Honjin Murders failed to catch my interest nor I was impressed by its intertextuality. The narrative doesn’t really subvert any of the tropes it mentions, in fact, it seemed to me that it follows too closely in the steps of those classic detective novels. The way the whole murder is related to us also distanced me somewhat. The narrative is very heavy on the telling, with the same events being recapitulated one time too many. The narrator, I’ve forgotten what, if any, role he plays in the case, begins by mentioning this very ‘interesting’ case and relates the day of the murders and the subsequent investigation in an almost matter-of-fact manner. He’s somehow able to recount conversations and interactions that he had no way of witnessing and keeps foreshadowing what is to come in a way that didn’t add any intrigue or suspense to the story. The characters were one-note, dull even.

The murder takes place in the village of Okamura during the winter of 1937. The oldest son of the Ichiyanagi, a family of repute, is set to marry a teacher. Many of his family members aren’t keen on his marrying ‘down’, but he refuses to budge. The wedding takes place and on that very same night, the newlywed couple is found dead in a locked room. The evidence seems to point to a stranger who was sighted in the village earlier in the day. A relative of the bride reaches out to Kosuke Kindaichi, a sort-of-kid detective who, much like Poirot and his ‘little grey cells’, uses ‘logic’ to figure out the culprit and their motives.
I figured out the murderer pretty early on in the narrative which definitely decreased my engagement in the murder investigation.
Predictable and kind of dry (maybe this is due to my having read a translation) The Honjin Murders may appeal to those who haven’t read a lot of detective novels or perhaps those who aren’t seeking anything particularly riveting or complex.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry

Perhaps I should not have requested an arc for People We Meet on Vacation as I was one of the few people who last was not particularly enamoured by Beach Read (i know, i know, the audacity). I actually ended up enjoying this more as I found it to be both funnier and a lot less angsty than Beach Read. Was People We Meet on Vacation particularly original? No.
Memorable? N o p e.
It was cute, silly, a tad cheesy, and a bit too clichèd for my taste (i get it, the romcom is a genre that thrives on tropes but there are limits: opposites attract, will they won’t they, female leads falls and has to be carried by the male lead, one of them is sick so the other has to play ‘nurse’, the list goes on).

The story is narrated by Poppy (who i could not help but compare to another romcom poppy) who is the classic relatable 30ish female lead: she is short, bubbly, quirky, doesn’t like sports. Poppy’s bbf is Alex, who is very much her polar opposite. He is more of a quiet composed kind of guy. They met at university and ever since then they spend their summer holidays together, travelling around America and even venturing abroad. Things change after their trip Croatia (i wonder what could have possibly happened…) and they are no longer in touch.
Two years after their fallout Poppy finds herself reaching out to him. Although she has her dream job, which allows her to do what she loves most (travel), an apartment in New York, and friends, she has become listless. After they reconnect Poppy and Alex go on another vacation together. Poppy wants their old friendship back even if her feelings towards Alex may be less than platonic. Interspersed throughout the ‘now’ are chapter recounting their previous holidays together.

Alex and Poppy’s banter was funny, and most of the narrative focuses on their bond. Their conversations and clowning around often emphasised their ‘opposing’ personalities. Poppy is loud and quirky, Alex is a bit of an old man. Ahah ensues.
The places they visit are mere backdrops to their banter, and in many ways, they embody the worst type of tourist (their idea of a vacation = my idea of hell). They also have 0 tolerance for heat and don’t tend to focus on the sceneries and cultures they are in (the only thing i remember from their trip to italy is that they eat parmiggiano). On these vacations, they come across funny, eccentric, downright odd people whose function is that of comedic relief.

I might have enjoyed this more if Poppy and Alex had been a bit more interesting. Poppy was just the quintessential romcom female lead and I while she did make me laugh now and then I can’t say that I particularly liked her. And I am tired of these stories where the male lead always has to have abs while the female lead is curvy or normal (the other woman instead is ‘fit’). Why can’ the male lead have an ‘average body? Why can’t the female lead be really into running or weightlifting?

Anyway, I did like their dynamic and inside jokes. I also appreciated that the male lead wasn’t the classic ‘i am no good for you’ type and we also get some lgbtq+ side characters.
The vacations do get repetitive, and I could have probably done without reading all of them (focusing instead of the ‘now). Poppy keeps referring to Croatia without actually saying what has happened but we all already can guess what ‘went down’ so why drag it on so long? It added no suspense whatsoever, if anything it detracted from the story. Towards the end, I found myself a bit unconvinced by the story’s so called conflict.

All in all, it wasn’t a bad read and I am sure that it will appeal to diehard romcom fans. I for one found this a relatively entertaining read even if I found some of the lingo (anything poppy’s friend rachel says) to be incredibly grating (i have nothing against americans but when i hear ‘wine dates’ i cannot help but to cringe).

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Chain of Iron by Cassandra Clare

“So many secrets between them. So many lies.”

That’s it. That’s the book.

(i am only half joking)

Actual review:

Although Chain of Iron is one of Cassandra Clare’s least action/mystery driven books the drama between the various characters is sure to keep you turning pages. Chain of Iron picks up 4 months after its predecessor, and we mainly follow Cordelia, James, and Lucie, with the occasional scenes from the povs of Grace, Ariadne, Anna, Thomas, and even, lo and behold, Alastair. Everyone, with the exception of Alastair and Christopher, is hiding or angsting over something. Cordelia loves James, James believes he is in love with Grace, Matthew is drinking more than ever, Lucie has teamed up with Grace to bring Jessie back to life. Lot’s of drama. Much angst. The historical setting makes the romance all the more engrossing, as we get a lot of repressed feelings and heaps of longing. The mystery aspect involving a Shadowhunter murderer and Cortana burning Cordelia’s hands kicks in nearly half-way the novel. But, as I said, miscommunication is what drives this novel. And, usually, I hate narratives that rely so much on characters not communicating with one another, or misunderstanding a certain situation, but when it is Clare who does it, I don’t know, I just eat that shit up. The characters are young and going through a lot so most of the time it did make sense for them to keep so many secrets.
I loved Clare’s sumptuous descriptions, her humour, the banter between the characters, the setting (Edwardian London), the chemistry and tension between the characters.

Onto the characters:
→Cordelia is definitely a favourite of mine. I really appreciate that she is not restricted to the role of love interest and that much of her arc has to do with her wanting to be a hero in her own right.
→James, this poor boy. Although he is still under Grace’s influence we really get to see how much he cares for Cordelia.
→Matthew…well, he wasn’t my favourite in the 1st book and I have mixed feelings towards him. I do find him amusing, and I do feel bad for him, but, I am tired of him blaming his own actions on Alastair (I get that it is a coping mechanism but he is so petty every time Alastair gets a mention or makes an appearance). By the end of the novel he definitely grew on him, and I am curious to see where Clare takes his character next.
→Lucy really surprised me. I was not excepting her to do the things she did but once again, I have faith in Clare. I did like the fact that we are presented with a central character whose actions begin to blur the lines between good and bad.
→Grace, whom I hated in COG, definitely appealed to me more this time around. We get flashbacks into her rather miserable childhood under Tatiana and her scenes with Christopher revealed a new side to her character.
→similarly, I became quite fond of Ariadne and, to my surprise, ended feeling rather miffed at Anna (the opposite of what I felt in COG).
→the Italian Shadowhunter was the kind of Italian character only a non-Italian author would create. She was a cliché to the point that I found her genuinely amusing.
→Thomas is such a pure and kind-hearted character (even if he at times sees these things as a weakness). We don’t get a lot from him in this novel but what we do get just strengthen my feelings towards him.
→and of course, last but not least, Alastair, my absolute fave. Look, I have a weakness for prickly characters. It was so sad to see him trying so hard to be better. Yet, for all of his efforts, most of the characters treat him like the plague. His arc in this instalment truly hit me in the so called ‘feels’. The boy deserves a moment of respite.

What I would like from Chain of Thorns:
→more of Cordelia & Lucie. Their friendship was very much on the sidelines throughout COI.
→for characters to actually TALK with one another.
→more of Alastair.
→I would also love to read more about Christopher.

my rating: ★★★★★


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The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff

“When I think back on that it’s always with a sense of having lost something fragile and fleeting, something I can’t quite name.”

I loved every single page of The Great Godden. This is one of those rare novels that is simultaneously simple and mesmerising: an unmanned narrator recounts the summer in which they fell in love.
Within this slim volume, Meg Rosoff conjures up that holiday feeling, with mornings of idleness giving way to nights charged with possibilities.

“This year is going to be the best ever—the best weather, the best food, the best fun. The actors assembled, the summer begins.”

During the summer holidays, a family is staying in their house by the sea. Here they reconnect with the young couple—soon to be wed—who live close by. Their dynamics change with the arrival of the Godden siblings, the sons of an American actress. The narrator, alongside their gorgeous sister, falls for Kit Godden, who is as beautiful as he is charismatic. Kit’s sullen younger brother, Hugo, is largely ignored by the narrator’s family.
As the young couple’s wedding approaches, allegiances shift, and more than one person will be left heartbroken.

Although this does include a love story, one should not approach this novel expecting a romance. If anything, this is an anti-romance, showing us how devastating, all-consuming, and deceptive love can be. The love Rosoff depicts is deeply ambivalent. The narrator, alongside others, is blinded by their feelings. Kit, the seemingly golden boy, is no angel, and yet, like the narrator, we wind up falling for his act.

“In my memory he seems to glow. I can shut my eyes and see how he looked to us then, skin lit from within as if he’d spent hours absorbing sunlight only to slow-release it back into the world.”

Rosoff’s writes of a summer that is heady with change, love, and yearning. This is a deeply atmospheric read, one that captivated me from the opening page. The narrator’s voice lured me in, and I found myself absorbed by their observations about the people around them. I liked the author’s sly sense of humor, their ability to convey the chaotic energy of holidaying with your family. Rosoff also succeeds in capturing how powerful first love is as well as the confusing thoughts & emotions that overtake us when we are in that particular period of transition between adolescence and adulthood.

“Tempted? Me? That was like asking if I was tempted to get wet in a rainstorm. By the time you finished the question I was already soaked.”

my rating: ★★★★★

Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner — book review

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“It’s almost religious, that belief, that faith that a piece of silk or denim or cotton jersey could disguise your flaws and amplify your assets and make you both invisible and seen, just another normal woman in the world; a woman who deserves to get what she wants.”

Beach read meets mystery in Jennifer Weiner Big Summer. Daphne Berg is a plus-sized ‘influencer’ (I have a hard time using this word unironically) who after years of being subjected to all sorts of body-shaming (from strangers on the internet to her own friends and relatives) has finally started to become more confident in her body. While in many ways she loves her ‘community’, since it encourages her and others to love themselves and their bodies, the influencer lifestyle isn’t all its cracked up to be.

“The trick of the Internet, I had learned, was not being unapologetically yourself or completely unfiltered; it was mastering the trick of appearing that way.”

The first of the novel focuses in particular on Daphne’s relationship with her body over the years by giving us some snapshots from her childhood (her grandmother is monstrous towards her). There are many painful moments in which readers become intimate with Daphne’s most innermost thoughts and fears. We’re also introduced to her former best friend. Drue is conventionally beautiful and comes from an incredibly wealthy family. Their friendship is not an easy one as Drue toys around with Daphne’s feelings, treating her as her closest confidant one moment and pretending she doesn’t exist the next. Unsurprisingly, after a particularly cruel night, Daphne finally calls out Drue on her behaviour and cuts ties with her.
Years later, when Daphne’s is a successful influencer, Drue shows up again in her life and asks her (begs her really) to be her bridesmaid. In Cape Cod, the wedding location, the novel shifts gears. (view spoiler)
While I appreciated the complexities of Daphne and Drue friendship, and the way in which Drue wasn’t painted in an entirely negative way, as well as the novel’s early discussions around body positivity, I just did not care for the mystery (which was predictable at every turn). The love interest was a very dull character indeed (did we really need him in the story?).

While for the most part I enjoyed Weiner’s prose I did find the constant descriptions of her characters’ physical appearance to be tiring. Even characters who make small cameos are described within an inch of their life (their eyes, teeth, skin, legs, arms, stomachs). While I could accept that Daphne has an eye for other people’s clothes (due to her job), the detailed, and often exaggerated, accounts of random people’s appearances added little to the story.
Still Big Summer is far more thoughtful than other ‘light’ reads.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Inheritance Series Review (Alexander Chee, Jennifer Haigh, Anthony Marra, Alice Hoffman)

Inheritance is a collection of five stories about secrets, unspoken desires, and dangerous revelations between loved ones. Each piece can be read or listened to in a single setting. By yourself, behind closed doors, or shared with someone you trust.
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The Weddings by Alexander Chee

Why am I here? he asks himself. What am I doing?”

In just under fifty pages Alexander Chee examines a man’s changing relationship to his old college friend. The weddings of the title are the backdrop to our protagonists’ personal crisis.
Jack Cho is a forty-something man in a committed relationship with Caleb. When they are invited to attend the wedding of a friend of Caleb’s, Jack finds himself, for the very first time, wondering if he too will marry. Soon after the couple is invited to the wedding of Scott, Jack’s college ‘friend’.
Jack is forced to confront his own repressed feelings for Scott. As certain details come to light, he becomes aware of having idealised this past relationship.
There were many realistically awkward moments and some great commentary regarding marriage (the pressure to marry, the way weddings become displays of the couple’s love).
Jack’s self-analysis was detailed in a poignant prose that conveyed his hurt and unwillingness to see Scott for who he truly is.
This short story also touches upon: fetishisation (naive as I am, I had no idea what ‘rice queen’ and ‘rice king’ meant), the double ‘rejection’ that Jack often feels being Korean American (Koreans will not view him as truly Korean and white Americans will question his nationality).
My only ‘complaint’ is that there was the occasional twee phrase:

Scott was so much trouble, whatever the reason was. A beautiful disaster.”

Overall however this was a short yet intelligent story that pays careful attention to those awkward pauses and heavy silences that can fill a conversation. It reminded me a bit of Come Rain or Come Shine: Faber Stories by Kazuo Ishiguro and certain short stories by Jhumpa Lahiri.

“Even then, ha he would endlessly be a curiosity and not a person. He would forget this was true and then be reminded this way, this he most recent in the jarring series of moments that threaded thorough his whole life in America. When did it end? When would they all just get used to him—to all of them?”

Rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars


48581928.jpgZenith Man
by Jennifer Haigh

“Had Harold Pardee killed his wife? In hair salons, at lunch counters, the question was posed. Such a death, in Bakerton, was without precedent.”

This being the first work I’ve read by Jennifer Haigh, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’m not sure if this story fits in the Inheritance collection. While others authors who have contributed to this series have focused on themes of reconciliation: Alice Hoffman and Anthony Marra, respectively in Everything My Mother Taught Me and The Lion’s Den, focus on the fraught dynamics between a children and their parents, while in The Weddings Alexander Chee turns towards a complicated ‘friendship/first love’.
Zenith Man has a very different tone that sets it apart from the rest these stories. It seems closer to a work of Souther Gothic or Noir. Similarly to Shirley Jackson Haigh’s presents us with a slightly unsettling depiction of on an ‘ordinary’ town and its people. There is a sense of unease as well as a good dose of dark humour.
Haigh’s is a good storyteller who creates and maintains this uneasy atmosphere, one that makes us pay attention to the specific language she uses.

“In Bakerton a murder would not have been forgotten. The local memory was a powerful tool, an instrument so sensitive it recalled events that hadn’t actually occurred.
Conscious of its new status as a place where things happened Bakerton cleared its throat and commenced speculating.”

So while Haigh’ writing style is definitely enjoyable, I wasn’t as taken by the story itself. It was okay, but I was expecting a more interesting storyline.

Rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Lion’s Den by Anthony Marra

“I won’t introduce you to my father, not personally, not yet. Changes are you already know him.”

This Inheritance collection is turning out to be a rather good one. Anthony Marra’s contribution adds a bit of humour to this series.
The narrator’s father was responsible for a leak of classified documents, landing his own family in the spotlight. Some thought him a hero, others a traitor.
Years later, after publishing a memoir on his childhood, our narrator tries to reconcile himself with his now ill father.
The tone of this short story is somewhat satirical and it definitely provides its readers with quite a few amusing lines: “His Bluetooth is so firmly rooted in his ear that may, technically, qualify as a cyborg. .”
There is a realistic awkwardness between the various characters’ interactions which made all the more realistic.

“Honesty comes in an infinite variety, none crueler than a teenager’s tedium.”

The narrator quotes Natalia Ginzburg, so yes, this story definitely a plus fo that. However, the nitpicker in me couldn’t help but notice that our narrator (someone who can quote Ginzburg) fell for the classic Frankenstein slip (where instead of saying that someone looks like Frankenstein’s monster, he refers to them as looking like Frankenstein): “Father Carlson’s student have that Frankenstein look of being assembled from different limbs that don’t quite fit together.”

Anyway, this was an entertaining short story. It may focus on self-involved individuals (who seem rather disconnected from everyday life) but it also manages to explore compassion and acceptance in very natural (non schmaltzy) way.

Rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars


48582002.jpgEverything My Mother Taught Me
by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman is an exceptional writer. This was a short yet striking tale that captivated me from its very opening lines:

“There are those who insist that mothers are born with love for their children and place them before all other things, including their own needs and desires. This was not the case with us.”

As per usual Hoffman showcases the way in which her insightful prose beautifully lends itself to the subjects of her story. The narrator paints an uneasy picture of her relationship with her mother. There is some recurring ‘Hoffman imagery’ (red shoes, sailors, the sea) which made the story all the more enthralling. I particularly liked the way the landscape mirrors the narrator’s feelings.

“The sea was a dangerous enemy, and we were surrounded by it. But I remembered what my father had told me. You could grow to love something so strong and elemental, but you’d have to value the beauty of it more than you did your own life.”

I definitely recommend this to fans of Hoffman. While her latest novel,
The World That We Knew
is a triumph of motherhood, in this short story, we are confronted with a mother who is unwilling or unable to love anyone but herself. Hoffman conveys the resentment and hurt of this ultimate rejection though the daughter’s perspective.
Quick and atmospheric Everything My Mother Taught Me is not to be missed.

“I closed my eyes and went through a list of everything I wished I could thank him for giving me. Patience, loyalty, trust, and hopefully, in time, kindness.”

Rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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