Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Compared to My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Eileen just ain’t it.

“I was like Joan of Arc, or Hamlet, but born into the wrong life—the life of a nobody, a waif, invisible. There’s no better way to say it: I was not myself back then. I was someone else. I was Eileen.”

Vile, vulgar, grotesque, sensationalistic, morbid, dismal, gratuitous, self-indulgent. These are some of the words that come to mind when I think of Eileen. The first I read it was back in 2018 I wasn’t particularly impressed by it, and in my original review I wrote that I found many elements within its story ‘excessive’ and that overall I found the narrative ‘flat’. I picked Eileen up again hoping that, as was the case with other novels that I originally ‘didn’t really get’ (an example would be hangsaman, a book i consider to be an all-time fave now), a re-read would improve my opinion of it. Alas, in this instance, a re-read failed to make me a fan of Eileen. Maybe it’s because I can’t help but compare this unfavourably to Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest of Relaxation. Now that one slaps. Eileen, does not. Here Moshfegh is much too heavy-handed when it comes to the ‘gross’ stuff, and every paragraph, or so it seemed, tried to be as repulsive and ‘shocking’ as possible. But I did not find Eileen’s obsession with bodily fluids, her abject view of her body (and those around her), her stalking and OTT creepiness to be that disturbing. Sure, her abhorrent behaviour and thoughts are ‘subversive’ because she’s a woman. How very refreshing. I’m sure gross girls are feeling very seen by this novel. While I found the dark humor in My Year of Rest and Relaxation to be funny, here, it seems non-existent. Is Eileen’s insanity supposed to amuse me? Her narration, compared to that of the nameless protagonist of MYORAR, drags. She’s so bloody repetitive and her various speculations, which quite clearly point to her solipsistic view of the world and paranoia, seemed not only predictable and uninteresting but very derivative of the ones had by Shirley Jackson’s heroines (they usually begin describing a what-if scenario that is wholly ridiculous in minute detail, seem to believe that the people around them are very interested in them, perform puzzling ‘little’ every-day rituals, equate normalcy with dullness, and have a hard time interacting with others). The novel’s inciting incident, Eileen’s meeting of Rebecca, happens far too late in the narrative, around the 35% mark. Before that it’s just Eileen being her gross-ass self, peeping on underage boy encroached at the prison where she works, perving on a prison guard, and enabling her alcoholic father who is as repulsive as she is. Most of the narrative is dedicated to Eileen’s navel-gazing. Her dysmorphic view of her body has led her to severe food restriction and the use of laxatives. While the story is set in winter in 1964 Massachusetts, the setting feels more often than not generically historical. The use of certain old-fashioned words seemed to be the author’s greatest attempt at rendering her setting That and the way the prison is run. Eileen begins her tale a week before her last Christmas in her hometown, before she ‘disappeared’. Now, as she often likes to remind us, she’s an ‘old’ woman. ‘Back then’ she repeats time and again, things were different. Anyway, the narrative is all about how gross and disgusting and alienated Eileen is. Her house is dank too and her father is a mean alcoholic. Is it nurture or nature that has made Eileen into such a myopic & maladaptive individual? I for one, do not care. As I said, Eileen struck me as a far less compelling character than MYORAR or, for that matter, Jackson’s anti-heroine. She eventually meets Rebecca who is, of course, beautiful but a cypher. The two supposedly feel a connection, or Eileen is made to feel as if they are connected, and then the event that finally pushes Eileen into driving off from her life & hometown happens. And boy did it lack oomph. It seemed as if Moshfegh had thought of this ‘incident’ on the spot. Which made it rather anticlimactic and not at all convincing.

Other than the occasionally effective line (that is just the right amount of fucked up), I found Eileen a chore to re-read. Eileen was a simplistic character whose horrid inner-monologue wasn’t particularly captivating or ultimately subversive, the language was often repetitive (“back then”/”old woman”/”you see”), side characters were one-note caricatures (the portrayal of eileen’s “drunken” father left a lot to be desired…), and the relationship between Eileen & Rebecca was a flop.
If you are interested in reading something by Moshfegh I recommend you bypass Eileen in favour of MYORAR.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au

“Maybe it’s good, I said, to stop sometimes and reflect upon the things that have happened, maybe thinking about sadness can actually end up making you happy.”

Cold Enough for Snow is a slight novella narrated and characterized by a crisp prose. Despite the introspective nature of this work (there are no dialogues and the few conversations that occur are summarized by our narrator), I felt a certain distance from the narrator and her musings had a remoteness to them that I was never quite able to immerse myself into her story. That is not to say that this was not an enjoyable read. It brought to mind authors such as and Rachel Cusk as well as María Gainza (Optic Nerve is a personal favourite of mine). These kinds of books are not plot or necessarily character driven but they present us with a series of observations regarding art, travel, places/spaces, memory, connection, and human nature. Similarly to Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts, the people that our nameless narrator speaks of remain unnamed, and the vagueness surrounding her and others struck me as very much intentional. The narrator, who lives in, you guessed it, an unnamed country, and her mother, who is based in Hong Kong, meet up in Tokyo for a holiday.

“It was strange at once to be so familiar and yet so separated. I wondered how I could feel so at home in a place that was not mine.”

The narrator describes the various landscapes and locales she visits, all the while thinking back to her and her mother’s pasts. We are given brief glimpses into their lives that are often somehow connected to their present journey. This is the kind of novella that is more about creating and sustaining a certain nostalgic mood than of presenting us with a particularly immersive story. While I did appreciate the narrative’s melancholic and reflective atmosphere, I did find my attention wandering away from our protagonist’s contemplations and introspections. Her relationship with her mother often fades into the background, sidelined in favour of eloquent observations that don’t really leave a lasting impression. The title in many ways is rather apt as this novella is in many ways like snow. At first, you are taken in by how beautiful it is but within a couple of hours (or days), well, the snow has melted. That is to say, the beauty of Cold Enough for Snow is of a temporary nature.
Still, if you are a fan of travel journals or the authors I mentioned above you may find this to be your kind of read.

“I had wanted every moment to count for something. I had become addicted to the tearing of my thoughts, that rent in the fabric of the atmosphere. If nothing seemed to be working towards this effect, I grew impatient, bored. Much later, I realised how insufferable this was: the need to make every moment pointed, to read meaning into everything. ”

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A Castle in the Clouds by Kerstin Gier — book review

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“One thing was for sure: This Christmas was going to be anything but boring.”

A Castle in the Clouds is the book equivalent of cotton candy. Fluffy, sickly sweet, and somewhat insubstantial. Nevertheless, with its Clue meets Scooby Doo story this latest novel by Kerstin Gier makes for an entertaining, if silly, read.

A Castle in the Clouds follows the misadventures of Sophie Spark, a high-school drop out who is working as an intern at a grand hotel in the Swiss mountains. The hotel is no longer considered the luxury location it used to be. Many finds its traditional decor to be outdated and the general lack of modernity to be a nuisance. Sophie however enjoys the atmosphere of the place and it is only when she is assigned the role of babysitter that she begins to feel discontented. In preparation of the Christmas holidays the owners have also hired a lot of additional staff which includes three girls who enjoy bullying and belittling Sophie. It is the arrival of two handsome boys (one of which happens to be son of one of the owner’s) and some possibly mysterious guests that enliven Sophie’s life.
We have oligarchs, missing diamonds, possible kidnappers, some possible spies, a best-selling author, a bodyguard, and a lot of secrets.
Sophie embarks on a Nancy Drew type of investigation which sees her spying on staff, guests, and trying her best to prevent any shenanigans from ruining the hotel’s reputation and/or possibly risking both her job and life.

There was a fun mix of characters. Perhaps some of them should have been introduced at different times rather than bombarding with a lost list of names with no clear indication on who’s-who. While some of them were definitely cartoonish, it was interesting to see that there were quite a few who were not quite what they seemed.
Sophie perhaps encountered a few too many mishaps in her ‘investigation’. She was ‘act first, think later’ type of narrator. I appreciated the fact that she was a high-school drop out (in that so often YA books are all about the importance of high school and college) and that she was unsure on what exactly she wants to do in the future. She was naive, a bit clumsy, and fairly amusing.
The other teenage girls were….to be honest, I am a bit tired of this type of girl-on-girl hate. Only the quiet introverted teenage guest is nice to Sophie. Her new colleagues and the other rich American girls are awful. They are catty, coquettish, cruel, and vapid (really?!). There could have been a bit more variety in their personality and in their behaviour towards Sophie.
The two love interests were…okay. They were the least interesting characters in the story. They were good-looking and sort of nice to Sophie. To be honest, the romance felt very insta-lovey and this whole love triangle was unnecessary.
I also could have done without the creepy child with psychopathic tendencies (I forgot his name, but if you’ve read this you know who I mean). He was annoying and unrealistic.

The setting was the most interesting aspect of this book. Hotels have this ‘holiday/unreal’ quality that makes them the ideal locations of mysteries and romances. I liked reading about the staff and their routines. That this story takes place in the winter holidays adds a certain atmosphere to whole narrative.
The tone of this book was a bit weird in that it constantly switches from being rather juvenile to a more YA type of story. Still, for the most part I did enjoy the novel’s humour and surprising self-awareness (there were even some metafictional moments).
All in all, in spite of its flaws A Castle in the Clouds makes for a cozy winter read.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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Winterhouse by Ben Guterson — book review

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“She was good at all sorts of puzzles—word searches, hangman, acrostics, cryptograms, any puzzle with words.”

Although I am not part of Winterhouse’s target audience, I do enjoy reading the occasional book aimed towards younger readers as they can be quite uplifting and entertaining reads. In fact, I picked Winterhouse up hoping for a light and amusing read…which it was…occasionally, and the artwork was very cute, I’m not sure Winterhouse lives up to its summary. It has plenty of clever puzzles and word-plays but it lacked…oomph.

Winterhouse has an intriguing yet familiar premise. Elizabeth Somers is an orphan, who is raised by uncaring relatives and who doesn’t have any friends. She is a precocious bibliophile (she does bring up some childhood favourites such as Inkheart, The Golden Compass, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) who is a fan of puzzles, especially anagrams—and of using long or clever words (not always successfully). One Christmas her aunt and uncle decide to go on a holiday without her and so without any explanation or apology they send to the Winterhouse hotel. Once there Elizabeth meets Winterhouse’s eccentric owner, the kind librarian, a boy who happens to be as bespectacled and puzzle-lover as she is, and a sinister couple.
While there was a lot to like, once at Winterhouse Elizabeth’s behaviour becomes increasingly annoying. She is bossy towards her new friend and repeatedly jumps to silly conclusions. The mystery of Winterhouse is weakened by the incredibly cartoonish villains and by a general lack of atmosphere. The rather obvious connection between two characters did not in fact come across as a surprise.
The setting, which had so much potential, never came to life. It remained rather nondescript.

All in all this was an okay MG read. The simple writing style and story reminded me of The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood. At times it seemed that the narrative was trying to be as quirky and clever as a book by Lemony Snicket but it doesn’t quite succeed.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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ONCE UPON A RIVER: BOOK REVIEW

“ Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, the past and the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen. Did the solstice have anything to do with the strange events at the Swan? You will have to judge for yourself.
Now you know everything you need to know, the story can begin.”


Once Upon a River
by Diane Setterfield
★★★★✰ 4 of 5 stars

Having loved The Thirteenth Tale I had quite high expectations for Once Upon a River. While this novel is a bit of a departure from The Thirteenth Tale, Setterfield explores similar themes.
The act/art of storytelling plays a huge role in Once Upon a River, and I would go as far as to say that storytelling is the real protagonist of this novel. From its title and its very first pages, the novel addresses the importance of storytelling. The narration feels as belonging to a teller of tales. The way in which certain things are revealed to the reader and the careful rhythm created by stressing certain words or phrases really echoes that of a fairy tale or folktale.
This novel is a homage to these types of tales, conjuring up lore whilst remaining faithful to its own story. Once Upon a River is a modern addition to a long beloved tradition and it provides readers with a more expressive and eloquent tale.

This novel is a bit of a slow burn. To start with, I didn’t know that it was going to be an actual ‘tale’, so I wasn’t sure of the direction of the narramaxresdefaulttive. I wondered at the large cast of characters, the to-and-fro between them, and the seemingly trivial details that take up so much of the narrative…and then, before I begun to realise it, I found myself completely absorbed by the world and the characters depicted by Setterfield. The little girl herself doesn’t have a voice as such

, which was a bit of a pity, and the novel seems to focus on the parents rather than the children. Nevertheless, there are many lovely and moving scenes between various family members, especially between husbands and wives.

My only issue in regards of these characters is that although the main characters felt nuanced, the ‘bad guys’ of the story are merely ‘villains’ and are to blame for all the horrible and or sad things that happe

n within the narrative. The novel seemed rather simplistic in its portrayal of good vs. bad. We get very few glimpses of the thoughts and motivations of the ‘bad guys’ and by the end it seemed a bit too easy to make them in such villainous figures. I know that fairy tales have such ‘bad’ figures but still, given that Setterfield has created a more complex sort of tale, I was hoping that all of the characters would be given the same sort of attention.

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There are a lot of small mysteries peppered throughout the narrative. Some might be easy to guess but it is the way in which the narrative reveals these ‘mysteries’ that makes them worth having. I was fascinated by the gossip and rumours surrounding the little girl, and it was interesting to see what various characters believed to be the truth:
Overall, I enjoyed it. It might be slow going at first but as the characters and their lives take shape, and lulled by the wistful and spellbinding narrative, I soon realised that Once Upon a River is not only a tale worth reading but a tale worth revisiting.

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The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

“All this time, Dad had taught Leni how dangerous the outside world was. The truth was that the biggest danger of all was in her own home.”

A strong beginning leads the way into an increasingly exasperating storyline.
I’m not going to deny that Hannah is a talented writer, because she is. However, her story and her characters walk the line between being convincible and non. The latter part of this novel is full of scarcely credible scenarios which frustrated me and considerably reduced my overall opinion of the book.

In 1974 thirteen year old Leni and her parents relocate to Alaska. Leni’s father Ernt is a former POW who is now suffering from PTSD and is looking for someplace different, away from the troubles he perceives in the bigger cities. We are immediately made aware of his temper and of his intense relationship with his wife and Leni’s mother Cora.

“She loved her parents, both of them. She had known, without being told, that the darkness in her dad was bad and the things he did were wrong, but she believed her mama’s explanations, too: that Dad was sick and sorry, that if they loved him enough, he would get better and it would be like Before.
Only Leni didn’t believe that anymore.”

Alaska however isn’t as idyllic as Ernt believed. Thankfully, their newfound close-knitted community is more than willing to help Leni’s family survive their first Alaskan winter. Ernt forms a close relationship to Mad Earl. These two men fuel each other’s hatred towards the ‘Other’, that is everything outside of Alaska. Ernt’s mounting paranoia of the ‘outside world’ manifests itself in a series of ‘night drills’ and ‘shooting lessons’ for both Cora and Leni. While hunting comes in handy in the wilderness being forced to endure constant drills and ‘rants’ about how society has become ‘sick’ and that soon TSHTF (or will hit the fan…) isn’t as needed. Ernt’s pride and jealousy cloud his judgement and he would rather refuse his neighbours help than admit that he hadn’t fully prepared for an Alaskan winter.
Leni’s becomes friends with the only other thirteen year old in ‘town’. Sadly, because Matthew – her new friend – is the son of a man despised by Ernt complicates matters. Soon this ‘secretive friendship’ takes a bit of the story’s limelight.
Ernt seemingly grows into a one-dimensional ‘villainous’ figure, Cora remains stuck into the role of ‘submissive’ wife, who will wake up far too late, and Leni’s character is so in love with Matthew that she doesn’t truly really come into her own. The secondary characters too remain painfully ‘flat’…Matthew’s father was barely sketched out…Large Marge seemed the stereotypical ‘headstrong’ and robust woman…Matthew is the nice boy who offers little in way of characterisation that is excused by a conveniently placed absence.
Ernt and Cora become a clichéd portrait of a toxic relationship, well timed ‘accidents’ occur so to make story ‘sadder’ and to make Leni’s struggles even more emotionally difficult. Tragedy for the sake of tragedy…or in this case it seemed that by having a series of ‘unfortunate’ things happen could exempt the writer from writing a more thoughtful and realistic conclusion. It is as if halfway through the book Hannah had no idea how to complete Leni’s story so decided to throw in a bunch of ‘tragic’ plot devices as to bring her story to a close.
Hannah’s writing can beautifully describe landscapes and feelings. However, too often, she resorts to cheesy turns of phrases.

“She turned to Matthew, loving him so much, so desperately, it felt like she was being held underwater and needed oxygen.”

Leni’s relationship with Matthew was from the-get-go far too corny. Their scenes were soppy, their whole relationship was predictable and over-sentimental. It seemed that their ‘love’ was born out of them being the same age and sharing a love for Tolkien…
Hannah’s over-sentimental style combined with the story’s swerve into ‘soap-opera’ territory eroded the initially enjoyment I experienced in reading those first few chapters.
I much preferred Hannah’s The Nightingale which was also somewhat melodramatic but never seemed as sappy as this…

“Up here, in the vastness of Alaska, the words sounded infinitesimal and small. A fist shaken at the gods.”

My rating: 2 stars

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The Girl in The Tower by Katherine Arden

A very underwhelming follow up to the both magical and interesting The Bear and the Nightingale. The Girl in the Tower shares little with its predecessor. Yes, Arden’s writing style in undoubtedly gorgeous, made up by pretty phrases and vibrant descriptions. But, it didn’t make up for a slow story, one that involves a silly and overused plot-line as well as offering one-dimensional characters. What happened to the complex themes of the first novel? The tension between different believes? And Vasya’s own inner struggle? This sequel just abandons those elements which made the original story so intriguing. The plot revolves around the ‘gender-bender’ trope: Vasya dresses as a boy, many pages are wasted on her fearing to be discovered, as well as ‘near-discoveries’, and the final ‘reveal’. And Vasya…well. She was a rebel for the sake of being a rebel. There was nothing deep to her and or her behaviour. She becomes an exaggerated version of herself: certain aspects of her character take over completely and rendering her somewhat ridiculous. She was irksome and forgetful. Her ‘sort of romance’ with Morozko felt forced and ended up seeming like any other YA romance. Their scenes were eye-roll worthy. Vasya’s siblings act in such a predictable way that made most of their interactions forgetful.
The magic from The Bear and the Nightingale. The Girl in the Tower might be written in an enchanting style but it only offers an array of clichés. The uniqueness is gone. We are left with a dull novel that is set in an oversimplified Russia. Vasya’s ‘specialness’ is the limelight of the story and I did not care for it.
I was hoping that Arden had written something as compelling as The Bear and the Nightingale but…not in this case.

My rating: 3 stars

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The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

“They dare not follow, thought Vasya. They fear the forest after dark. And then, darkly: They are wise.”

The Bear and The Nightingale is an enchanting tale imbued with Russian folklore and traditions. Arden has crafted a story that abounds with fantastical creatures and mystical prophecies that will entice the reader from the very first pages:

“In Russian, Frost was called Morozko, the demon of winter. But long ago, the people called him Karachun, the death-god. Under that name, he was king of black midwinter who came for bad children and froze them in night. It was an ill-omened word, and unlucky to speak it while he still held the land in his grip.”

Set in a vividly rendered feudal Russia, The Bear and The Nightingale follows Vasilisa Petrovna the youngest child of a wealthy boyar, Pyotr Vladimirovich, in the north of Russia, who is predestined to be the heir of old magic. Vasilisa, who can see the spirits and creatures that crowd her house and neighbouring forest, grows into an untamed and fierce child feared by the villagers and loathed by her step-mother Anna, who is also able to see magical beings. Unlike her step-daughter, however, Anna fears these creatures and it is her religious zeal that will bring a new priest into the Vladimirovich household, Father Konstantin, who sees it as his duty to eradicate the locals paganistic customs. The strain generated by the clash of these diverse beliefs soon spirals out of control forcing Vasilisa into action.

Arden has created an endearing protagonist: Vasilisa’s resilience and bravery are shown throughout the novel. She will fight for her own freedom and to protect the ones around her. There is a focus on her struggle against the restrictions given by her gender, as well as, on the tension between duty and choice. Her relationship with her family is another vital aspect of her story, especially the bond she shares with her older brother Alyosha and her younger half-sister Irina. Arden depicts a realistic family portrait which sees a well-meaning father, a brusque yet kind grandmotherly nurse and a few protective older brothers who like teasing each other.

These interesting and relatable characters feature in a tangible medieval setting that is enriched by Arden’s graceful descriptions. Her expressive and poetical rendition of an unforgiving yet tantalizing landscape bring into being an incredibly atmospheric tale. Her lyrical prose and beautiful allegories, such as “the years slipped by like leaves,” and “the clouds lay like wet wool above trees”, are in resonance with her richly evocative world. The author has painted an immersive and magical tale redolent of old lore and populated by poignant characters. The Bear and The Nightingale is a lavishly written and alluring fairytale that entwines traditional motifs of the genre with an original and fascinating storyline.

I would definitely recommend this to fans of The Night Circus or The Golem and the Jinni which also combine accurate historical setting with the otherworldly. Or if you particularly enjoy fairy-tale-esque stories I would suggest writers such as Catherynne M. Valente – author of Deathless and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making – and Kate Forsyth. The clash between pagan traditions and non reminded me of The Witches of New York.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

“This is how sudden things happened that haunted forever.”

Equal parts poetic and stark, Winter’s Bone is a short and compelling read. It follows sixteen-year old Ree Dolly who, after her father skips his bail, risks losing her home.

“Fading light buttered the ridges until shadows licked them clean and they were lost to nightfall.”

Ree’s life is far from easy: not only does she live in an incredibly bleak and desolated area but she also has to take care of her two younger brothers and her heavily medicated mother. It is made soon apparent that above all else, Ree is a survivor. Still, things go from bad to worse, when she starts looking for her father in her family network.
Woodrell does not shy away from describing the harrowing conditions and treatment Ree receives. Despite this, it is not all gloom and doom. He also offers brief glimpses of hope, such as the touching friendship between Ree and her best friend, or Ree’s interactions Uncle Teardrop.
Woodrell’s realistic portrayal of such a harsh community paints frightfully convincing scenes and interaction; his characters offer many shades of gray: they are all – regardless of their roles – equally believable in that they are far more than ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Ree, for obvious reasons, was the character who shines the most: she was both tough and surprisingly witty. I really did ‘feel‘ for her, especially given the situation she is.

“She would never cry where her tears might be seen and counted against her.”

The writing itself is something perfectly fits the story and its setting: Woodrell’s prose offers multitude of beautiful metaphors and similitudes. He does not tell us how Ree feels, he shows us.
I could best describe this as being a lyrical portrayal of an especially brutal place.

“The heart’s in it then, spinning dreams, and torment is on the way. The heart makes dreams seem like ideas.”

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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