Swimming Lessons

Yesterday (or rather, the day before, since it is now past midnight), I walked into the most beautiful bookstore in Tribeca, with floor-to-ceiling shelves, gleaming brass ladders, and the kind of muffling carpet that belongs to grand hotels of old. It was called The Mysterious Bookshop.

Feeling quite overwhelmed, I simply plucked the first pretty cover I saw and sank into the burgundy leather sofa. The book was Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller. It began beautifully – the prose was limpid, like running water. The words tumbled and pooled into Southend Pier summer snapshots – pastels, sunshine, bubbling laughter. I was hooked.

But it quickly dissolved into a love-hate relationship, though thankfully not quite as tempestuous as Ingrid and Gil’s. Flora was the generic self-centred, sexually assured, ‘screwed up’ millennial younger sister. Nan was the generic Bert to her Ernie. And Gil was the generic smooth-as-silk seductive English professor. The only character that had any flesh was Ingrid, the vanished mother we only meet in hidden letters. Her voice was a lucid dream, and I was rooting for her from her very first page. Sadly – and I suppose it was already clear from the novel’s premise – everything only spirals downwards. I only became more and more frustrated by her complete inability to turn back. To properly process how disastrous her relationship is and to run the hell out of there.

Even with the countless affairs, illegitimate children, and betrayals by almost everyone around her, she continued to just let her life crumble into precisely what she had sworn she would never let it come to. Back when she was young and had dreams and did not know Gil Coleman (Get it? Gil? Gill? Swimming lessons? Hah.). Come to think of it, we never learn her dreams. Details of her life before Gil were disconcertingly absent. Her identity was wholly built on her relationship with her husband. Gil was infuriating too. He had the nerve to think, as he fell, that he wanted to tell Ingrid how much he loved her. Pah! If he had ever loved her, he would never have caused her such relentless humiliation and emotional torture. He loved her body and he loved how he managed to catch and tame her mermaid soul. He did not love her. I was even frustrated by Flora and her infantile frustration at Nan, just because she was more responsible. Basically, I was frustrated a lot.

But what was the most frustrating was the epilogue. After going through the maddening lows of Ingrid and Gil’s marriage and their daughters’ present-day unresolved grief, we were given no answers. At all. Which would have been a little more bearable if the novel had ended at the final chapter. In some ways, Swimming Lessons was about being okay with not knowing. Flora finally accepted that her mother had drowned, and tentatively began to move on. Yet Fuller completely unravelled her own arguments by throwing in the epilogue, which implied that Ingrid was, indeed, alive. Now what? Was she there because she needed closure too? Was she there to reveal herself to her daughters after eleven years? Was she there to see if Gil had missed her? Or was it a random woman after all? But by then, I’m not even sure I care anymore.

The entire book was a fine dining restaurant well past its glory days, presenting an exasperating parade of amuse-bouches and never managing to make the entrée. No amount of mesmerising prose can ever make up for the perplexing mess Fuller somehow managed to spin out of nothing.

Rating: 2/5

I Can’t Be the Only One

There are contemporary books so lauded or so popular, they are cultural pillars in our collective consciousness (at least, my generation’s): Harry Potter, Twilight, and to lesser extents, The Hunger Games and Percy Jackson. And because these series have transcended into such phenomena, there is luxurious room for justified disappointment, apathy and even loathing.

There are also books, though not Herculean triumphs like the aforementioned, that are popular enough to have seemingly achieved omnipresence across social media platforms and in prime window displays in bricks-and-mortar stores (yes, those still exist). Many of these are adored enough to have scored an average 4.0+ on Goodreads. To the uninitiated bibliophile, that may not sound impressive, but with a community numbering more than 55 million members and books often receiving more than 100,000 ratings each, such a high average is actually no easy feat. For the typical book, it would mean almost 50,000 deeming it perfect enough to merit the elusive five stars. From my personal experience, the rating system really is quite reliable, and I do agree with the vast majority of the 4.0+ ratings for the books I have read.

Anyway, I digress. The point of this post is, I have been increasingly frequently boggled by certain books, which either received rave reviews or were otherwise simply commercially successful enough to have sold-out sequels etc. Here is a list of those books, and why I did not enjoy them.

1. Freakonomics (averaging 3.9 stars)

I wrote a full review for this ‘groundbreaking’ introduction to economics a little while back. Steven D. Levitt certainly thinks of himself as some ‘woke’ academic with (gasp) controversial answers to some big questions. But too often, the crucial intermediate steps between his bold hypotheses and conclusions were missing. Some statistics were quoted from unreliable sources. His deductions were no more than superficial appeals to intuitive logic. And the black-and-white explanations were too simplistic to be convincing or even evaluable.

The titles for most chapters were overworked and sensationalist. His tone was unpalatably dismissive, stamped with an all-too-familiar oh look at you less educated souls, how cute! strain of superiority. Yes, I was uncharacteristically generous when I gave this three stars. But be assured that it was for wholly unrelated reasons to the educational value of this book. If you want to learn some economics, look somewhere else instead.

2. Heartless (4.1 stars)

Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles was deserving of praise. The retellings stood on inventive premises that worked, had compelling and complicated characterisations both familiar and fresh, and were different enough from previous reworkings to make them feel like completely new stories. Heartless (a ‘prequel’ to Alice in Wonderland) was not this.

The protagonist, Cath, was insufferable – the archetypal fortunate-in-all respects girl blessed with wealth, a good family, attractiveness, and purported ‘intelligence’, who was woefully stuck in an oh-so-original ‘unfortunate’ circumstance (catching the eye of the king). If the problem were just the premise, I would have been willing to set it aside. But she could not seem to do anything but whine. Whine and precipitate the very disaster she was warned about repeatedly throughout the novel. Oh, and inexplicably turn mad and start chopping heads off left, right and centre.

I mean, I get it. [Highlight to show spoiler] Her lover died. (Her fault.) But it was all so sudden. The final few chapters felt like Meyer was desperately rushing to turn Cath into the villain we all know so well from the original stories, knowing that she was already running out of steam. Not to mention how clichéd it all was. True, clichés are clichés for a reason – they can still be powerful when spun well. This was not spun well.

3. The Wrath and the Dawn (4.2 stars)

I also wrote a full review for this duology, the first four paragraphs of which discuss the sheer ludicrousness of the plot and characterisations (or lack thereof). But if you cannot be bothered to scan a few more hundred words, the gaping flaws were as follows:

  • Girl’s best friend is murdered by the caliph.
  • Said girl has few charms to recommend her (at least, none uniquely able to catch the caliph’s attention when 70+ just as beautiful and much more talented girls have failed) but decides to seduce and murder the caliph.
  • Girl thinks she’s all that but it’s a Hong Kong summer-ful of hot air. 90% of her qualities are tell-not-show.
  • Caliph is seduced. Don’t ask me.
  • On day two, girl becomes all butterflies and lust for her best friend’s murderer because he’s frickin’ hot.
  • Some corny lines.
  • More corny lines.
  • She finally finds out why he has been murdering a girl every dawn and stuff actually goes down but it’s already the last few chapters.

I really have no clue why the two books were considered to be amongst the best fantasy novels published in their respective years. Nor why readers swooned from the ridiculous patchwork of clichés that was the central ‘romance’. I did end up giving the second book four stars, precisely for the same reasons most readers enjoyed it less – the eye-rolling romance became less important, towns were razed, a war declared, basically some actual action happened.

4. The Sword of Summer (4.3 stars)

I know, I know, this is a Middle Grade book, so I was not the intended audience. While I staunchly believe books written for younger audiences should never automatically be held to lower critical standards (read The Little Prince, Harry Potter, even picture books like The Giving Tree and The Paper Bag Princess), another spin-off series is just one too many. There are only so many times you can rehash the exact same concept, and for Riordan, third time was sadly not the charm.

With The Sword of Summer, you can tell he was trying too hard. His wit was a little thinner, his characters flatter, his twists more formulaic. Magnus Chase might as well have been Percy Jackson 2.0 – take Percy Jackson’s voice and personality traits, truss them up into a younger blond, and you have our latest demigod hero. I was so uninterested I gave up after the first quarter. Maybe it’s time to get back to some actual creativity.

5. Deathless (4.1 stars)

Valente’s lemony prose first captivated me in her Fairyland series (reviews here, here and here), with its sumptuous verbal illustrations weaving allusive treasure troves for literature lovers and seasoned readers. Deathless boasts the same meandering descriptions, but in this case, the leaden-footed build-up was an unfortunate detriment instead. The narration was too verbose, bordering on pretentiously philosophical, and I was constantly tempted to skip entire chapters.

It suited Fairyland, where there was a deliberate absence of urgency or any overarching tasks, so the reader was able to feel like she had all the time in the world to be enamoured by the wondrous, witty marvels of Valente’s unique, well, fairyland. I am sure her extensive knowledge of Russian folklore was incredibly impressive. I am sure she transformed well-loved stories (as she did with Fairyland) into a poignant, heart-wrenching, witty, intricate mural of war and love – if you ever manage to slog through it first. But no amount of genius or incandescent language can make up for the total lack of direction. If this novel were 100 pages shorter, perhaps I would have been able to finish it.

So?

So there you have it, why I cannot comprehend, for the life of me, why these books receive such inflated hype. Are there any popular books that you just could not enjoy? Comment them below, I would love to hear!

The Bird and the Sword

I loved the beginning-of-the-world myth Harmon’s medieval kingdom was built from, which had an intriguing biblical base note. I loved the premise of an emotionally shuttered young woman fighting for her voice, wings and people. I also loved the final twist, even though it was not the most unpredictable development in the world. But something about Lark and Tiras’ relationship just left an uncomfortable aftertaste.

I have only seen this mentioned in one other review (many reviews were five-star), so maybe I have quite an individual interpretation. Personally, I failed to see Tiras’ ‘love’ mature much from its possessive origins. Maybe Harmon thought the whole “I think I will keep you” thing was romantic. Maybe it could have been, in the right circumstances, with the right characters, and with the right context. But Tiras himself admitted that he had kidnapped and imprisoned Lark to “kill two birds with one stone” – (1) because he thought she could ‘cure’ him and (2) to threaten her father into submission (and dissuade him from plotting too hard to steal his throne).

And he only continues to use her to keep his lords in check and to help his army slaughter the Volgar. Even his lovemaking was largely to ensure there is an heir. Yes, he teaches her to read and shows a little care and patience, but it far from negates how much he based Lark’s worth on her ability to protect his city. Love (even if we call it love) should never be the endgame, you should love for the right reasons. And I have a feeling Tiras’ were not the right reasons.

“You are of great use to me. I will put a child in your belly. A son who will be king.”

“Why do I have to be taught?”
“Because you said you know nothing about being a queen. Because I am king. And because it is your duty to please me.”

“You said I chose you because you are of use to me. And I did.”

Otherwise, I found the prose and pacing quite enjoyable; 350 pages was the perfect length. There were no frilly descriptions (the bane of fantasy literature), few sentences felt aesthetically pretentious (you know, those blunt phrases tacked onto the end of some observation or revelation that the author thinks sound ‘deep’ and ‘poetic’) and I was only tempted to skim a handful of passages. Deep-rooted hate and hysteria (likely inspired by the Salem witch trials) pervaded the atmosphere in an unusually adept demonstration of ‘showing, not telling’. While the plot was relatively straightforward and somewhat predictable (the typical a kingdom faces a mysterious threat and its king falls in love with its unlikely liberator concoction), Harmon’s particular blend of fantasy elements was fresh enough to make a quick, agreeable read.

Favourite quote: “Often-times, grass was more useful than gold. Man was more desirable than beast. Chance was more seductive than knowledge, and eternal life was completely meaningless without love.”
Rating: 3/5

The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger

It is all fine and dandy for the central romance to be some inexplicable instantaneous affair if the focus of the novel were the impending war or palace politics or honestly anything else. But The Wrath and the Dawn is, unfortunately, essentially a love story. The (gasp) forbidden kind with a broken boy and a murderous girl (or a girl who wants to think she can be murderous). So when, after eleven chapters of brazen loathing, Shazi wanted to kiss her best friend’s murderer just three days into their marriage, I almost stopped reading then and there. No reason was given for this sudden, ridiculous change, unless her observations that oh, he’s so broken, and oh, he’s so handsome count.1

Even in those eleven preceding chapters, I was filling with dread. Her bravado was swelling to an eye-rolling intensity, and I was already wincing for the classic wow, she’s so defiant, she’s so special moment. But I still had this pathetic hope that it was all only to identify her as a formidable force the caliphate’s enemies would have to reckon with. And not another “charm” to ensnare Khalid. In all honesty, besides her ‘sylph-like’ beauty, I saw few charms in her. At least, none striking enough to make a caliph throw the safety of his city to the wind and say, damn all, I want her to destroy me.

Why Khalid even decided to go to her chamber at all2, I can never say. He mentioned how she glared at him on their wedding night, as if that was explanation enough. And as if most of the other brides would not have so frankly shown their hatred as well, knowing that their husband would order their deaths the dawn after. Was it really because her arrogance made her seem “limitless”? In my experience, arrogance is far too common in this world, not too rare. I am sure there was, at the very least, a handful of brides who had sheltered the same blind hope they would be the ones to break the cycle. So this ‘romance’ was all very sudden and superficial.

Yes, many readers will find the lush Middle Eastern landscape “sumptuous”. Honestly, it was just good research. Maybe more authors should try that when they attempt to set their stories in distinctive historical periods. I am glad, however, that Ahdieh rarely let her lists of palace ornaments or traditional foods waylay the pacing of the plot. There was a surprisingly tolerable ratio of descriptions to actual action, given the “exotic” location. For that alone, I raised this duology from two stars to three.

What finally tipped it to four was the onslaught of subterfuge and intrigue. This became especially engrossing in The Rose and the Dagger, where impending war had forced Shazi and Khalid’s relationship to mature at lightning speed. We see much less of the ‘roiling tension’ (which was never that compelling to begin with) and more of the cunning and stalwart strategising that defined our protagonists. Seeing them work in tandem to raze their enemies to the ground was far more fun to read about. (Too many young adult authors forget to let their characters mature over sequels; many more forget to let relationships between characters to mature over sequels; many many more forget to let characters and relationships mature exponentially in times of war.)

A good deal of reveals left my mind whirring. Some loyalties were better shrouded than others, but I was still kept on edge waiting to see the ultimate goals of the characters’ machinations – and just how far those machinations would go. I almost wished [highlight to reveal spoiler] Despina was nothing more than her father’s spy – it would have been the single most unpredictable and jaw-dropping twist. All of the side characters were delightfully despicable or fatally flawed. And best of all, most took some time to fully figure out. There were men committing evil in the name of twisted love and intellectual fools who could trade a death for a thousand more. There were men as courageous as they were dense, and sisters as strong as they were weak. And enough stubbornness to go around and still have seven basketfuls left over.

So while the romance can be infuriating, if you can cope with some insta-love, The Wrath and the Dawn and The Rose and the Dagger make a light, enthralling and often witty read. Most importantly, they belong to the few fiction books you can rest assured you will not have to trudge through pages of purple prose to enjoy.

Favourite quotes: “For without a measure of arrogance, how can one attempt the impossible?”

“Beauty fades. But a pain in the ass is forever.”

“Tonight is a night to turn heads. Make them remember you. Make sure they never forget. You are the Calipha of Khorasan, and you have the ear of a king.” Despina put her hand on Shahrzad’s shoulder and grinned at their shared reflection. “More important, you have his heart.” She bent forward and lowered her voice. “And, most important, you are a fearsome thing to behold in your own right.”

“The more a person pushes others away, the clearer it becomes he is in need of love the most.”

Rating: 4/5 for both

For my review of a prequel, The Moth and the Flame, please click here.


1Oh wait, she was already falling in love on the second night. Two words, and suddenly she drops from abhorrence to butterflies and whimpers.

2Shazi was the first bride whom Khalid visited after their wedding.

Strange the Dreamer

sathaz (SAH·thahz) noun

The desire to possess that which can never be yours.
Archaic; from the Tale of Sathaz, who fell in love with the moon.

I can see why some readers gave this book one or two stars; I can also see why others lamented the far-flung heavens, whose infinite stars they can never pluck and give. Laini Taylor spins luminous descriptions, but she can, at times, be in want of some direction.

Strange the Dreamer has faint echoes of her best-known trilogy, with beautiful monsters and razor-sharp vengeance. But the thakrar (to use her conjured word) she inspires – her breath-catching capacity to dream up myths and worlds – surpasses even Eretz1 and its two moons. And not only dream up, but interweave the two into glittering motifs, resurfacing only at the most heartwarming and heart-wrenching moments. Like Sathaz, and his moon that broke into a thousand pieces. And Sarai, and her mind that breaks into a thousand pieces.

thakrar (THAH·krahr) noun

The precise point on the spectrum of awe at which wonder turns to dread, or dread to wonder.

Weep is truly alive under her pen; the characters’ hearts (plural) beat softly against the pages, against your fingertips. But Taylor’s talent for the whimsical is a double-edged sword. Strange the Dreamer is a slow burn, with verbal illustrations that slip too often into purple prose. I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at several passages, and skimming many more. A shame, because the first two Daughter of Smoke and Bone novels had shown much more balance, and my inability to trudge through the final one had almost stopped me from reading this.

The characters, at least, were expertly crafted from tangles of raw emotions. My heart broke multiple times even for Minya, the most stubborn and sadistic of them all. And for Eril-Fane, who had slain a part of his soul on the day he had slain the gods. I certainly felt like Sarai, whose days were drowned in lull potions; I had gone to bed at 5 a.m. to finish the book first, and when I’d finally woken up, I’d looked like living death.

So you can imagine the sense of utter betrayal when [highlight to reveal spoiler] it all ended with a cliffhanger. Thank goodness this will only be a duology (unless Taylor pulls a Jenny Han), because I’m not sure I’d be able to cope with more tantalisation like that.

Pick up Strange the Dreamer if you want vibrant and tragic and fairy-tale and yes, bewitchingly strange. Only a truly gifted storyteller can reveal the end in her prologue and still manage to ensnare her readers so completely until they are released by her very last word, excessive descriptions and all. A gorgeous new series to rival her first.

Favourite quote: “A man should have squint lines from looking at the horizon,” the old librarian had said, “not just from reading in dim light.”
Rating:
4/5


1A universe in Daughter of Smoke and Bone.

Wives and Daughters

Wives and Daughters is a leisurely, meandering forest path, with dappled sunlight pooling in the occasional fairy-tale glades – an expansive bildungsroman canvassing the untheatrical lives of Molly Gibson and her county neighbours, from the aristocracy to the servants.

To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl.

Mrs Gaskell’s final novel may lack the grit of my beloved North and South, focusing instead on the “old worn grooves of… the South”. It takes a certain mood for the lengthy examination of those grooves, and Mrs Gaskell’s voice has a beautiful, lulling, motherly tone. But potential readers are sorely mistaken if they think this novel is dull or blandly expository. No, Mrs Gaskell paints with her characteristic sensitive strokes, colouring her characters so convincingly that the stepmother and villain are sympathetic, if they cannot be likeable. As vain and manipulative as Mrs Gibson may be, she vows to be an impartial stepmother, and to love Molly as much as she does her own daughter. (That is to say, less than she loves herself, but we cannot expect too much from such a silly, self-involved creature.) The secondary characters are as charming; I especially love Lady Harriet, who used her rank to champion poor Molly when her conduct was unfairly subjected to the scandalous gossip of Hollingford. The squire too, although prone to tempestuous tantrums and exasperating pride, is as tender-hearted a friend to Molly as a higher ranked middle-aged man can be.

Osborne ransacked the hothouses for flowers for her; Roger had chosen her out books of every kind. The squire himself kept shaking her hand, without being able to speak his gratitude, till at last he had taken her in his arms, and kissed her as he would have done a daughter.

The plot may seem mundane, but before the reader’s senses are so much as piqued, the narrative slips into a wry comedy of manners. It dissects Truth, family tensions, female adolescence, nationalism, religion and women’s position in Georgian society. Like North and South, profound power shifts are woven into the deceptively humdrum fabric of everyday life: the aggressive expansion of the middle class, the reinstatement of the South as the economic capital, “the emergence of a scientifically led intelligentsia”.

I only give four stars because at times, Molly and Cynthia are more akin to two halves than individual wholes. The latter is the fatherless, ‘bad’ counter to the motherless, ‘good’ former. Molly is the “steady sun”, and Cynthia the “inconstant moon”. I also almost wish Molly’s romantic hero were someone else. Their tacit understanding and easy friendship are heartwarming, but their relationship began when the hero took her under his wing and deemed her his favourite – but frail and ignorant – pupil, whom he must shelter and protect. Molly gradually steps away from her wide-eyed role as Telemachus, but readers are much less privy to the hero’s changing perception of his pupil, then his sister, then his love and equal (I assume there was this change – I cannot have him still considering her a frail young thing). Indeed, we are not sure exactly how he came to love her either, especially after his fervent infatuation with her sister. Perhaps Mrs Gaskell intended to reveal all this, but she sadly passed away before she could write the final chapters.

Wives and Daughters is a delicate union of humour and depth – a moving magnum opus, a cautionary fable, a penetrating illustration of the individual, inner life, inescapably entangled in the fine-spun web of perplexing relationships and outward appearances.

Favourite quote: “I won’t say she was silly, but I think one of us was silly, and it was not me.”
Rating: 4/5

One of my favourite reviews, most lovingly written by B0nnie in the form of a perfect extended metaphor.

Sylvester

Georgette Heyer may not have the most refined Regency prose (her sentimental language is rife with mannerisms quite out of place among the landed gentry, let alone the nobility), but dear Phoebe Marlow sparkles with such caustic wit and vivacity, that this historical romance (Heyer practically invented the historical romance) quite grew on me. I especially appreciated her defiant ambitions to be a spinster novelist – ‘unusual’ would have been a grave understatement for women more invested in their careers than their marital prospects, not that gentlewomen were expected to have careers at all! Even more laugh-out-loud hilarious than Austen’s most popular work, Sylvester is a delightful mélange of comedy, incredulity and biting banter, with an affably (if only because he was rather clueless, his poor grace) arrogant hero and unaffectedly charming heroine.

On Sylvester’s arrogance, it was a refreshingly nuanced strain – that is, he treated everyone with incredible civility, even the most unsympathetic and offensive characters. He was condescending (in the Regency sense of the word), generous and genuinely caring towards his servants and many of his inferiors. Instead, his pride manifested in his unconscious expectation to be obeyed without question, to take for granted that his personal comfort would be every present person’s utmost priority. So although I thoroughly enjoyed how Tom and Phoebe gave him much-needed ‘set-downs’, I could not fault him too harshly for his sometimes viciously severe ways.

Sylvester: ‘Don’t throw my rank in my face again! Good God, am I some money-grabbing Cit… decorated with a title for political ends, and crowing like a cock on its own dunghill?’

Tom: ‘Oh, don’t fall into a miff! I see precisely how it is! You are very like my father, [Sylvester]! It’s as natural for you to be a duke as it is for him to be the Squire, and the only time when either of you remembers what you are is when some impudent fellow don’t treat you with respect!

I will admit that towards the last quarter of the book, Ianthe’s wholly ridiculous plot developed at a slovenly pace, and I skimmed several chapters. But until that unfortunate speed bump, the characters’ steady stream of hysterical antics made an endearing, engrossing Regency read.

Side note: Before I started the book, I unfortunately glimpsed a review with a picture of Spock, and I never could get it out of my head whenever Sylvester’s ‘flying black brows’ were so distinctly described. Please, someone make an adaptation so I can safely imagine a less hysterical male lead!

Favourite quote: “The charm of your society, my Sparrow, lies in not knowing what you will say next – though one rapidly learns to expect the worst!”
Rating: 3/5