Bunny – Review

 ‘I clap along with them, and they all smile at me as if I’m a many-headed beast who is at last letting them put bows in its tentacles, braid its mange.’

I haven’t posted a review in a long time – my excuse is that I started a new job three weeks ago, and thus haven’t had time to read as much. That, and what I have read I haven’t felt strongly enough about to review – either I disliked it but didn’t hate it, or it was OK but I didn’t love it. I wouldn’t recommend any of these recent reads.

Then Bunny came along.

‘They look as out of place in the diner as two pieces of Easter confection in the apocalypse.’

I was through in Edinburgh for the day, and only had thirty pages left of my current book at the time – The Mars Room. While I had found the book easy to read, the writing style meant I felt distant from the protagonist, and this distance was not helped by changing POVs, nor the fact the story was not as interesting as I had thought it would be. Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought to bring another book with me. Whoops, looks like I’ll have to go to a bookshop, I have no choice!

Since this trip to the bookshop was unplanned I decided that I would be sensible and good and only buy a book if it was on my current Want To Read list – bad enough that I hadn’t brought another book and needed to go to the bookshop, I really should buy something I know I’d actually read, rather than picking something up on a whim. Unfortunately, none of the titles on my list jumped out at me. I found the books, I read a couple of pages, but they just didn’t grab me. I resorted to picking up books purely based on their titles and the design of their spines, seeing if any of them would spark an interest. Bunny‘s spine stuck out, as did its cover. Then there was the blurb.

Samantha Heather Mackey couldn’t be more of an outsider in her small, highly selective MFA program at New England’s Warren University. A scholarship student who prefers the company of her dark imagination to that of most people, she is utterly repelled by the rest of her fiction writing cohort – a clique of unbearably twee rich girls who call each other ‘Bunny’, and are often found entangled in a group hug so tight they become one.

But everything changes when Samantha receives an invitation to the Bunnies’ fabled ‘Smut Salon’, and finds herself inexplicably drawn to their front door. As Samantha plunges deeper and deeper into the sinister yet saccharine world of the Bunnies, the boundary between fiction and reality begins to blur.

A spellbinding, down-the-rabbit-hole tale of loneliness and belonging, creativity and agency, and friendship and desire, Bunny is the dazzlingly original second book from the author of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl.

As one of the characters in Bunny says ”Well, I hope you find your book […] Maybe it will find you. Sometimes, you know, that happens’. I read the first couple of pages and I was hooked, cliche as that statement is. The writing style was darkly comic, from the description of the ‘Bunnies’ to the protagonist Samantha’s wish to destroy them: ‘They always came apart from these embraces intact and unwounded despite the ill will that poured forth from my staring eyes like so much comic-book-villain venom’. Although the book appeared to be a mix between Heathers, Mean Girls, and The Secret History, an already-been-done exploration of the darker side of a privileged university setting, I didn’t mind. I wanted to read more. This was the sort of book I needed at the moment, a book that had comedy within its darkness, a book that would (hopefully) be more entertaining than depressing, something to easily dip in and out of on my lunch break-

I’ll stop right there. I read this book (all 373 pages of it, apart from the few pages I read in the bookshop) in a day. I know it’s another cliche but I couldn’t put it down. Not because it was what I expected, but because it was the opposite. The writing style was still brilliant, and I enjoyed the characters and the plot, but around page 100… well… I don’t want to spoil this book but things take a very bizzare, unexpected twist. For the rest of the book I found myself questioning what was really happening and what was happening in Samantha’s mind. Whatever you think this twist is, I can promise you that your guess isn’t it. All I can tell you is that you’ll have to read the book to find out.

‘My words are far away. The words I need are high and floating in the sky like so many out-of-reach balloons. […] Why can’t I pull these words down from the sky?’

Bunny appears to be one thing, at first, then it quickly spirals into something far more sinister. It will certainly not be to everyone’s taste, and I will admit I did consider putting the book down when this twist occurred – but it was just so unexpected, I had to see what lay further down the rabbit hole. The book goes from making fun of pretentious creative types (The poets brace themselves for imminent, overeducated poverty […] fake poor and fashionably deranged’) to imitating their style of writing, just as Samantha is drawn into the Bunnies – one chapter where she speaks with them as a hive-mind, narrating as us, saying we did this and we did that, was particularly unnerving. I realise I’ve spent most of this review talking about how unusual this book is, how strange and disconcerting it is rather than the actual plot, but that’s only because I don’t want to spoil it for you. This book was unexpected for me in more ways than one, and I’m so glad I decided to pick it up.

“What do you think, Samantha?” Fosco asks me.

That it’s a piece of pretentious shit. That it says nothing, gives nothing. That I don’t understand it, that probably no-one does and no-one ever will. That not being understood is a privilege I can’t afford. That I can’t believe this woman got paid to come here. That I think she should apologise to trees. Spend a whole day on her knees in the forest, looking up at the trembling aspens and oaks and whatever other trees paper is made of with tears in her languid eyes and say, ‘I’m fucking sorry. I’m sorry that I think I’m so goddamned interesting when it is clear that I am not interesting. Here’s what I am: I’m a boring tree murderess.’

Some people may say this sort of thing about this book and I would honestly understand why they would, even though I personally enjoyed it. It is a bit pretentious, and it is difficult to get your head around but, unlike the vignettes and poems of the ‘Bunnies’, this is a book that I will remember for a very long time.

Chernobyl – Reading About Disaster

I have not posted on this blog for a few weeks, partly because I read two books on Chernobyl back to back before beginning to read a book about fictional events taking place at Scotland’s Secret Bunker. I had thought to do one huge post with mini reviews of all three books – but I gave up on the bunker book due to its overly simplistic narration, disjointed narrative of chapters within chapters, lack of proper characterisation (one character was not named until sixty pages in), and constant repitition of established facts. Instead of writing these mini-reviews, therefore, I’ll be briefly discussing something that came up in discussion with my dear friend Mon yesterday, when I had just finished reading Chernobyl Prayer.

Why did I do this?

Why did I deliberately read two books about the worst nuclear disaster in history back to back? I have no plans to watch the TV series. The play I’m planning to write is set in the 1930s, not the 1980s, so this doesn’t count as research. Yes, I have read another book by Alexievich and was interested to read another but… why Chernobyl? What is it about the infamous nuclear disaster that continues to horrify and fascinate, whether in fact or fiction? As mentioned, there’s a very popular series airing just now. Serhii Ploky’s book was published very recently, and won a number of awards. I understand this fascination – how could this have been allowed to happen? What actually happened when the reactor exploded? – as so many of the details have been classified for so long, and there has been so much misinformation and speculation. Chernobyl is now so much more than the name of the power plant near the city of Pripyat. The exclusion zone is the setting of horror films, violent mutant-killing video games, and you can even visit the zone as a tourist. What actually happened in 1986 is overtaken in the popular consciousness by images of mutant animals and people, horror stories of the dangers lurking within the abandoned city.

Reading these two books back to back helped me to gain a clearer and less sensationalist understanding of what occurred, both in terms of the history and what actually happened, and the effect the disaster had on people living near the reactor. These stories are often shocking and horrifying, it is true, but that is because they are real. There are no cows with three heads here, instead there are soldiers being ordered to shoot all the pets citizens left behind during the evacuation, cats and dogs who eagerly approached them upon recognising human voices. There are no stories of zombies glowing with radition, instead there are clean-up workers who had to move radioactive material with their bare hands, later dying gruesome deaths from radiation sickness. Plokhy’s book is clearly written and deals with the facts yet it reads like a thriller, while the interviews Alexievich has conducted range from optimism to hopelessness to anger – but perhaps the most enduring emotion was confusion. Why did this happen? Why was this kept from us? Why did no one tell us…?

These books, and others like them which look into the truth of what happened, are incredibly important. They need to be read, to dispell the falsehoods and the overdramatic exagerrations. The real stories of the workers, teachers, scientists, young and old – they need to be remembered.

But with that being said, I’m still questioning my decision of reading these books back to back. Wasn’t one book about a nuclear disaster enough? Clearly two wasn’t either, since I then started reading about a secret nuclear bunker in Scotland. Granted, I had recentley visited the bunker, that’s where I bought the book, but my point still stands – the world is a dark and frightening place, but must the entertainment I consume, the books I choose to read to get away from the world for a bit… why must they be frightening too? It took me a long time to read Chernobyl Prayer in particular as what these people had to endure was so horrifying, and when I finished reading it I had to just sit there for around half an hour, in order to try and process what I had read. What had really happened.

Our world is sadly not one of sunshine and rainbows and unicorns, no matter how much I wish it was sometimes. I understand that not all stories end happily. But I do know that the next book I read will be of a much sunnier disposition than these.

Normal People – Review

Whatever there is between him and Marianne, nothing good has ever come of it. It has only ever caused confusion and misery for everyone.

You don’t say…

Normal People has won numerous awards, been nominated for more, and has received rave reviews. There will be a TV series based on it coming out in 2020. It has been called ‘a future classic’ by The Guardian, and ‘the best novel published this year’ by The Times.

I have absolutely no idea why.

Normal People follows the on-again-off-again relationship of Connell and Marianne from their high school years to university and beyond. I say a relationship, but they never actually seem to be together. It’s more a case of they admit they like each other, they have sex, they can’t tell anyone, they feel they’re too different to make it as a couple, they break up, they’re seeing other people, they’re sad, being a twenty-something is so difficult, they have sex again… repeat for two hundred and sixty six pages and that pretty accurately sums up the book. I considered giving up only a few pages in, when Marianne says this about watching Connell play in a football match: ‘It occurred to Marianne how much she wanted to see him having sex with someone; it didn’t have to be her, it could be anybody. It would be beautiful just to watch him’. But I persevered, if only to see where the multi-award winning writing came in. Instead, all I found was a toxic relationship, or lack thereof, or who even cares honestly, with one-dimensional characters, a non-existent plot, wooden dialogue and confusing chronology.

We were never together.
You were seeing each other, I thought.
Casually, he replied.
Young people these days. I can’t get my head around your relationships. […] When I was in school, she said, either you were going out with someone or you weren’t.

It concerns me slightly that I identify more with the mother of one of our protagonists than the characters who are my own age, though I realise that saying that makes me sound pretentious. But that’s all the Connell and Marianne seem to do, apart from navel-gazing, never communicating clearly and constantly questioning their friendship/relationship/whatever this is. Not only are the pair of them not relatable or particularly likeable, but Connell is incredibly possessive of Marianne, to the point where he talks about her like a piece of meat – ‘Her body is just an item of property, and though it has been handed around and misused in various ways, it has somehow always belonged to him, and she feels like returning it to him now’ – and Marianne, apart from all her other problems, seems perfectly content to be treated that way – ‘The barman looks frankly at her breasts while she’s talking. Marianne had no idea men really did such things outside of films and TV, and the experience gives her a little thrill of femininity’. She is also very possessive, crying uncontrollably when Connell tells her he has been seeing someone else, despite the fact she has had a number of boyfriends herself and their relationship has never been clearly defined – ‘In the time they’ve been friends he had never had a girlfriend. She’s never even given much thought to the idea that he might want one’. They’re both ridiculous, self-absorbed and ultimately horrible people, and I really don’t understand why their story took over two hundred pages to tell.

This being said, the secondary characters aren’t any better, barely fleshed out at all apart from a name and a couple of distinguishing features, such as their hair colour or clothes they’re wearing on one particular occasion. Rooney’s style focusses a great deal on minute, precise details of mundane tasks, from washing dishes to making a cup of tea, with simple sentences and a weighty, deadpan style. This is not literary or ‘astonishing’, as The Independent called it. This is dull, dull, dull.

Marianne goes inside and comes back out again with another bottle of sparkling wine, and one bottle of red. Niall starts unwrapping the wire on the first bottle and Marianne hands Connell a corkscrew. Peggy starts clearing people’s plates. Connell unpeels the foil from the top of a bottle as Jamie leans over and says something to Marianne. He sinks the screw into the cork and twists it downwards. Peggy takes his plate away and stacks it with the others.

Although the simplistic prose makes the novel easy to read – I read it in just a few hours – that does not make it a satisfying read. Not only is the vocabulary simplistic but alternating points of view are combined with a confusing authorial presence, the free style and lack of punctuation in the dialogue means that characters are difficult to differentiate from one another, and the tense shifts from the past to the present constantly, for no apparent reason. This sometimes happens within a paragraph. At one moment its ‘Marianne says’, and a couple of sentences later its ‘Marianne said’ – and this confusion happens with the chronology too. In one paragraph we’re in the present, then we’re in the past for a couple of paragraphs before being back in the present again. At one point early in the novel Connell is ‘sloppy drunk but hypocritically disgusted by the drunkenness of everyone around him’ – and, to me, that paints a fairly accurate picture of this book. Its a sloppy mess that thinks of itself as high art, as being above other books when, in reality, its nothing special.

Normal People: a boring title for a boring book. If this is normality, I don’t want any part of it.

Metamorphosis – Review

‘As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.’

It has been a month now since I last wrote a review and so I thought it fitting that, when I returned to writing, I did so with a review for a book I have been meaning to read for a long time. I say a book but I really mean a short story – Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. It is one of those stories that everyone knows the premise of, and it is probably Kafka’s best known work. As such, I felt rather intimidated at the prospect of reviewing it. What could I possible say about this story that hasn’t already been said in a more eloquent and scholarly way? Well, I can begin by saying that this story surprised me. Of course, waking up and finding oneself transformed into an insect would be a surprise to anyone, but it was the way in which Kafka told his story – the deft, precise prose, the minute details, the fusion of humour and horror – was what most caught my attention while reading. Perhaps this is because of the often misused and misinterpreted phrase ‘Kafkaesque’, or due to my limited knowledge of Kafka’s own biography, but I had expected the story to be complicated, perhaps even impenetrable, like so much red tape. What I found instead was a darkly comic story, sparsely told from a small premise, proving the point Adam Thirlwell, who wrote the Introduction to this collection, makes – ‘so much less [is] necessary to create a story than people [think]’. 

In his Introduction, Thirlwell also states that ‘Often, these are the funniest jokes of all – the ones that are not really funny. They are often slightly sad.’, and this is definitely true of Metamorphosis. Gregor’s transformation is grotesque and frightening but, at the same time, the image of him struggling to get out of bed on his tiny new legs, or that of his father shooing him away with the insect Gregor looking pleadingly back at him – these images are amusing in spite of their sadness. But the story’s humour begins even before Gregor attempts to get out of bed, as his immediate concern is not that he has become a giant insect, but that he has overslept.

The next train was at seven o’clock; to catch that he would need to hurry like mad and his samples weren’t even packed up, and he himself wasn’t feeling particularly fresh and active.

As the story builds throughout its fifty one pages, we see Gregor face a series of different challenges, from attempting to communicate with his family to being pelted with apples by his father, to his mother and sister attempting to move furniture from his room which he wants to keep to retain some sense of his human self. Although these situations are often comic, because the characters of Gregor’s family, the servants, and the eventual lodgers are only shown through a few details, we sympathise the most with Gregor as his situation worsens. His situation – and, indeed, the plot of Metamorphosis – is very simple, with his transformation beginning a series of interactions and inconveniences that build towards a climax, and so it is the execution, the details, that really make it gripping. From the description of Gregor’s father – ‘his father leaned against the door, the right hand thrust between two buttons of his livery coat, which was formally buttoned up’ – to his sister’s various efforts to find him food that he will enjoy, the details are small but help to paint a fuller picture of the family and their surroundings, so much so that it comes as a shock when Gregor’s formerly sympathetic sister states ‘…we must try to get rid of it. We’ve tried to look after it and to put up with it as far as humanly possible, and I don’t think anyone could reproach us in the slightest.’

Metamorphosis may be a small story, but it packs a powerful punch, and is a fantastic introduction of Kafka’s unique style. It has certainly piqued my interest in reading more of his work in the future – especially since his characters’ attempts to understand the logic of the nightmarish world in which they find themselves seems particularly relevant these days.

‘Books are a uniquely portable magic’ – especially if you have a huge backpack

Thanks for that quote, Stephen King.

Let’s be honest, this is why we’re all really here. I went to the book fair in Edinburgh, and filled a huge backpack with books. There were so many books that I had to transfer some of them to a canvas bag I brought with me, in order that I wouldn’t collapse and end up like an upside down turtle.

So, without further ado, in no particular order…

Me, obsessed with Russian history? Only fourteen of the twenty books I bought had anything to do with Russia…

I’ve read this book a few times, and was even in a play version a couple of years ago, but I didn’t actually own a copy until yesterday. I played a pigeon if you’re wondering – now that’s a dream role right there.

This book is huge – the largest book I bought yesterday – epic both in size and the scope of its subject matter. It was also the most expensive, at £4 – shock, horror!

I can’t speak, read, or write Russian. Why I bought parallel texts is anyone’s guess. I was intruiged by the fact these were specifically Soviet stories, rather than simply Russian stories, or older folk or fairy tales – so of course I had to buy them both!

I will be completely honest here – I bought this one as much for the cover as for the plot about a writer dealing with the red tape (ha, red tape) of the Soviet regime.

I am a playwright, and I love Russian history, yet I haven’t actually read any Chekov plays. Sacrilege, I know. I intend to rectify that ASAP.

My other current historical period of interest – Ancient Rome. Emperors? Check. Death? Check. Book? Purchased.

I would have bought this for the cover alone – that picture of Hamlet is gorgeous!

I have read and was fascinated by One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by the same author, so thought I would give one of his longer works a try. Also, got to love that cover…

More parallel texts, oops. But since I’m in the planning stages of a play set in Russia, I want to explore the sort of stories and folk tales my characters would realistically have grown up with… these sort of books seemed like a good place to start.

This was bought for the same reason…

As were these… a chance to experience the work of these writers without diving headfirst into something as intense as War & Peace. That, and the fact I was able to buy all three together for £6.

A serial killer in the Vatican? With echoes of one of my all time favourites, Robert Harris’ Conclave, I knew I had to buy this one when I found it.

I have read and studied a couple of Kane’s plays as part of my MSc, and so was thrilled to pick up a complete collection of all her scripts for just £2!

The first book I bought – it has mediaeval in the title, I’m sold. Also, I feel these lyrics will come in handy for future history plays…

For those days when I don’t want to wade through a huge historical tome when I’m writing my play, a slim textbook will be ideal.

One of my favourite historians also writes fiction? Sign me up!

A script that is influenced by Shakespeare, but also involves Soviet Russia? The first book I picked up inside the actual building at the fair – and, as you can see, it wasn’t my last.

I will not be reviewing all of these, but I will be reviewing some of them for sure! Now, which one to read first?

‘Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were inscribed in a book!’ (Job 19:23)

Also known as My Blog Post About The Christian Aid Book Sale, which itself shall hencefoth be also known as One of the Most Amazing Book Sales I Have Ever Had The Pleasure to Attend. You can find out more official information about it here:
https://www.christianaid.org.uk/events/st-andrews-and-st-georges-west-book-sale
but as for why it was so amazing for myself in particular, allow me to explain.

My story begins with my dear friend Mon (alias monicaburns_art on Instagram). For years her Dad had told her about an amazing book sale in Edinburgh in May but, as this was always around exam time at school and university, she had never been able to go herself. This year, she decided, would be the year she finally travelled through to Edinburgh to see what all the fuss was about, and invited me to join her on this journey. I warned her that this was a mistake, as my bank balance would surely not recover.

We went anyway, of course. The book sale ended up being a five minute walk, if that, from the bus station, which turned out to be incredibly useful considering the number of books we ended up buying. We had come prepared though, with our giant backpacks on and wielding an empty suitcase – better the book sale break our bank balances than our backs!

When we arrived it Edinburgh it was absolutely glorious, and I don’t just mean the weather – though that was pretty brilliant too.

There were boxes of books everywhere, and I mean everywhere. On both sides of the church, on tables, under tables, inside the church, in pews, even upstairs on the balcony. Here are a few photos, all credit to the wonderful Mon, to give a sense of the scale on the inside of the church:

And that was only the inside of the building. Outside there were boxes upon boxes of books, from vintage and out of print books, to an entire box of purely orange Penguin classics, from books on history from ancient times to the present, and an entirely seperate section specifically for military history. These photographs are my own – I would have taken more had I not had my arms full of books for the best part of three hours.

Mon and I were like the proverbial kids in a candy store, moving hither and thither as hurriedly as our unweildy bags would allow, near to bursting with excitement at the prospect of filling them with inexpensive books – and yes, we did manage to fill both backpacks and the suitcase. We first explored outside the venue, where we found the history books, biographies, sci-fi, hardback fiction, crime and romance. Having begun in the same place by virtue of it not being too busy, we soon seperated as we looked for books to suit our particular interests, from Scottish history and fiction to plays and basically anything I could get my hands on concerning twentieth century Russia. Occasionally we would phone each other when we found a book we thought the other may be interested in, since it got to the point where we couldn’t see each other for the crowds, and the boxes of books on every avaliable surface.

Eventually, three hours and several bank notes later, we reunited outside the church. We would have continued to browse the sale were it not for the fact we were starting to get rather hungry – that, and our backpacks were complaining that they were full. Having popped into a nearby restaurant for a well-deserved late lunch/early dinner we began the long trek back home, before promptly spending the rest of our evening admiring our piles of books, and starting to work our way through them.

I am incredibly grateful to Mon and her Dad for introducing me to this amazing book fair – the UK’s largest fundraising event, which has raised over £2000,000 since it began in the mid-1970s. Part of the reason for that is probably because this isn’t the only venue – there are also connected book sales in two other locations in Edinburgh this week…

Needless to say, Mon and I will be back – and, as of yesterday, this is now our annual tradition.

Recent Reads I’m Reluctant To Review

Here are a list of some of the books I have read over the last couple of months that I haven’t written reviews for, in no particular order:

Educated – Tara Westover
Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler
Lullaby – Leïla Slimani
Enron – Lucy Prebble
The Last Days of Stalin – Joshua Rubenstein
The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul – Eleanor Herman
The Humans – Matt Haig

This list is incomplete.

But why haven’t I reviewed these books? What makes them different to the ones I have written reviews for?

Some of them, such as The Humans and Enron were shorter books that I read having just finished a larger book, and put a great deal of work into the review. I just wanted a book to read for fun, to have a break before diving into another book to examine critically.

Others, like Darkness at Noon and The Last Days of Stalin are books I read for research purposes, as the next play I plan to write is set during the Soviet era in Russia. As I was more focussed on specific facts or ideas from these books, I did not think it would be right for me to give them a proper full review.

Some other books, such as The Royal Art of Poison, were read on and off at the same time as another book I was reviewing – if that book was especially difficult to get through I would reward myself with a chapter or two of the book I preferred when I had read a certain amount, therefore I didn’t feel I had read these books deeply enough to review them properly.

I realise that this sounds like a bunch of excuses for not posting more reviews, or posting them more regularly, but I felt it was something I wanted to let my readers know. I don’t review every single book that I read – otherwise I’d be doing that full-time instead of working on my script. Speaking of which, that Word document is looking at me rather accusingly… Draft Three, let’s do this.

My Sister, The Serial Killer – Review

“We need to move the body,” I tell her.
“Are you angry at me?”
Perhaps a normal person would be angry, but what I feel now is a pressing need to dispose of the body.

Korede and Ayoola are two sisters living in Lagos, Nigeria. Korede works as a nurse in a local hospital, and Ayoola is a serial killer. This is a book which grips you from the very beginning and refuses to let go – I read it all in one sitting. Granted, it’s only 225 pages and the pacing is brisk, but the story itself is so unusual and darkly comic that I had to keep reading to find out how Korede was going to help Ayoola out of her latest scrape. The prose is sharp and minimalistic, allowing the cleverly crafted characters to come to the fore, and the narrative continues to take unexpected turns throughout, from the comatose patient who regains conciousness to Ayoola’s final victim.

That’s how it has always been. Ayoola would break a glass, and I would recieve the blame for giving her the drink. Ayoola would fail a class, and I would be blamed for not coaching her. Ayoola would take an apple and leave the store without paying for it, and I would be blamed for letting her get hungry.

In spite of its brevity, Braithwaite fills her book with complicated characters. From the kooky, beautiful and remorseless Ayoola, to her antisocial, germaphobic sister through whose perspective the story is told, from the doctor she fancies that Ayoola begins dating and the girls’ abusive father – even the book’s more minor characters really hold your interest. Both sisters are flawed and yet they manage to elicit sympathy, even when they’re wiping away blood or hiding a body. Braithwaite deftly explores the ideas of familial obligation, the bond that exists between siblings, and making choices between family and other relationships all through the framework of Ayoola’s murdering of her boyfriends – which she always claims are in self-defense yet she never has any visible injuries.

Although for the most part the story was darkly comic and disturbing, and established a creeping sense of dread throughout, the brevity of the chapters – some only a couple of sentences long – often meant that the narrative was a choppy, especially when moving from the past to the present. You get a sense of where Ayoola’s murderous tendencies originate when reading about her father, especially when he polishes his knife – ‘I used to watch as he squeezed a few drops of oil out, gently rubbing it along the blade with his finger in soft circular motions. This was the only time I ever witnessed tenderness from him. […] When he got up to rinse the oil from the blade I would take my leave. It was by no means the end of the cleaning regimen, but it seemed best to be gone before it was over, in case his mood shifted during the process.’ – and you gain a deeper understanding of the sisters’ need to stand together and stand up for each other in the face of horrifying and violent circumstances. Yet as soon as you’re learning more about their background you’re back in the present, with Korede convincing Ayoola not to post a picture of her dinner on Instagram since she’s still meant to be in mourning for the last boyfriend she murdered. The development of the two sisters’ relationship swiftly builds to an unexpected conclusion – “It’s him or me, Korede […] You can’t sit on the fence forever.” – and, despite the jerky narrative, the story overall was well crafted and their sibling relationship, despite the whole serial killer angle, was believable.

The knife was for her protection. You never knew with men, they wanted what they wanted when they wanted it. She didn’t mean to kill him; she wanted to warn him off but he wasn’t scared of her weapon. He was over six feet tall and she must have looked like a doll to him, with her small frame, long eyelashes and rosy, full lips.
(Her description, not mine.)

From Korede’s self-deprecating humour to the book’s scathing commentary on our present day culture – ‘Two packets of pocket tissue, one 30-centileter bottle of water, one first aid kit, one packet of wipes, one wallet, one tube of hand cream, one lip balm, one phone, one tampon, one rape whistle. Basically, the essentials for every woman.’ – My Sister, The Serial Killer was an amusing and twisted treat. I look forward to reading more of Oyinkan Braithwaite’s work in the future!

The Circle – Review

‘All the kids get a chip embedded in them, for safety, when they’re infants. And yes, it’ll save lives. But then, what, you think they suddenly remove them when they’re eighteen? No. In the interest of education and safety, everything they’ve done will be recorded, tracked, logged, analyzed – it’s permenant. Then, when they’re old enough to vote, to participate, their membership is mandatory. That’s where the Circle closes. Everyone will be tracked, cradle to grave, with no possibility of escape.’

The Circle was first published in 2014, with a film adaptation appearing in 2017, but it is perhaps even more relevant today. The titular tech company, not unlike Google or Facebook, now controls everyone’s social media, payment, email accounts, passwords, usernames and preferences, all through one account. No more remembering lots of passwords, no more needing to send a verification code to confirm your identity to your phone when you try to send someone money via online banking. So far, so good… right? Of course not. This company eventually aims to control every aspect of people’s lives, from the mundane to the vitally important, online dating to voting in elections… but will The Circle ever be complete?

I must confess I did not read the book when I first came out, and I had heard of the film before but never watched it, so I was going into this unsure what to expect. All I knew was that the book shows the development of the company and its control through the eyes of new employee Mae, and that everything at the company wasn’t what it seemed. Initially, I was as drawn into the world of The Circle as Mae was, fascinated by its campus and all the technology they were developing. It reminded me a little of Black Mirror, which I love, and also gave me vague Enron vibes – I recently re-read Lucy Prebble’s play Enron, and read Enron: Anatomy of Greed –there was a lot of similarities in how Mae and Brian felt upon starting work at these seemingly incredible companies. ‘No robots work here,’ one of Mae’s co-workers tells her. ‘We never want the customer to think they’re dealing with a faceless entity, so you should always be sure to inject humanity into the process.’ That sounds like a good idea, and yet, as Mae becomes more involved in the company, she sacrifices more of her humanity as her online presence becomes increasingly integral to her work.

‘an even more blasphemous notion that her brain contained too much. That the volume of information, of data, of judgements, of measurements, was too much, and there were too many people, and too much pain from too many people, and having it all constantly collated, collected, added and aggregated, and presented to her as if that all made it tidier and more manageable – it was too much.’

When she’s being trained she is told, having been given four different screens to keep track of: ‘So those are the priorities, with your fourth priority your own OuterCircle participation. Which is just as important as anything else, because we value your work-life balance, you know, the calibration between your online life here at the company and outside it.’ On a number of occasions she is called to speak to her boss, or to HR, because she isn’t sufficiently integrated into the community, either because she wanted to spend time with her parents – ‘Listen. It totally makes sense you’d want to spend time with your parents. They’re your parents! It’s totally honourable of you. Like I said: very, very cool. I’m just saying that we like you a lot, too, and want to know you better.’ – or because she just wanted some time alone – ‘Mae, I’m looking at your profile, I’m finding nothing about you and kayaking. No smiles, no ratings, no posts, nothing. And now you’re telling me you kayak once every few weeks?’. This increasing pressure to share everything, to constantly be avaliable, the whole attitude of ‘if you don’t post about it, then did it really happen?’ that’s so pervasive these days, and has been for years… all of this became gradually creepier, and I felt for Mae as she tried to keep some aspects of her life private. The fact that one co-worker ratted her out to her boss because she didn’t attend one of his events is proof of that. He has searched the company database for anyone who had been to Portgual, took pictures there, or had mentioned it at all, ever, and invited them to his Portugese themed event. Mae was only invited because she went on a trip to Lisbon five years prior, and the photos on her laptop were in the Cloud, so this co-worker could see them.

Unfortunately, as the book continued, my sympathy for Mae was quickly replaced by irritation and disgust, not only with her flippant attitude to the men she was seeing, having two to ‘choose from’, but with her behaviour towards her friends, family and co-workers as she became more and more involved with The Circle. I’m sure this was the author’s intention, to show how the company was consuming her, how it became more important to her than other aspects of her life, but because I didn’t care about her and actively disliked her it was difficult at times to stay engaged in the story, despite the good pacing and easy to read writing style. Mae describes having sex with a co-worker at work like this – ‘She wanted him to take her, in the stall, and she wanted to know she had been taken in the stall, at work, and that only the two of them would ever know.’ – then later she was ‘looking forward to the imminent gratitude’ from her parents for getting them on the company’s health insurance, and considers people voting against her in an online poll to be akin to murder – ‘…368 votes to kill her. Every one of them preferred her dead […] To frown at her, to stick their fingers at that button, to shoot her that way, it was a kind of murder.’ Eventually she comes to consider her parents as mad and ungrateful when they disconnect cameras set up by The Circle in their home, and begins to think this of the outside world: ‘Increasingly, she found it difficult to be off campus anyway. There were homeless people, and there were attendant and assaulting smells, and there were machines that didn’t work, and floors and seats that had not been cleaned, and there was, everywhere, the chaos of an orderless world […] seemed more and more like a Third World experience, with unnecessary filth, and unnecessary strife and unnecessary errors and inefficiencies’. I understand that as a newcomer to the company she’s intended to be a vehicle for the audience to experience it all, and see how The Circle continues to tighten its grip, but I found her to be an incredibly shallow and irritating character, and I was reading more for the descriptions of the technology and the environment than the protagonist. All she wants is to be liked, and she’s so easily consumed by the company that she doesn’t control her own life, or the narrative.

His fingers were typing furiously, fluidly, almost silently, as he simultaneously answered customer queries and survey questions. “No, no, smile, frown,” he said, nodding with a quick and effortless pace. “Yes, yes, no, Cancun, deep-sea diving, upscale resort, breakaway weekend, January, January, meh, three, two, smile, smile, meh, yes, Prada, Converse, no, frown, frown, smile, Paris.”

Although I initially enjoyed this book, as I read more and became increasingly irritated with the protagonist, I realised it wasn’t just her that was annoying me. The plot was predictable, as was the ending, and the overall tone of the book just didn’t work for me. It felt preachy, but as though it was preaching to the choir. We know the risks of living our lives online, we don’t need a nearly 500 page book to tell us that – The Circle brings nothing new to the discussion. But more than this is the way in which Eggers’ writing feels at once condescening and trite. ‘You comment on things, and that substitutes for doing them. You look at pictures of Nepal, push a smile button, and think that’s the same as going there.’, one of Mae’s friends tells her. Yes, and? Although Mae’s actions eventually lead to some extreme events – such as politicians going ‘transparent’ and having every moment of their lives filmed, or one character being driven to suicide – The Circle began with an interesting premise but fell flat.

Part way through the book, a conversation Mae has with her boss leads to the following being displayed on walls for the entire company to see:

SECRETS ARE LIES
SHARING IS CARING
PRIVACY IS THEFT

But a modern day 1984 this is not. I’m sure there’s a great thriller out there about the perils of the information age, but this wasn’t it.

My Last Duchess – Review (‘Come At Me, Books!’ Dare #2)

Cora found most novels hard to sympathise with – all those plain governesses – but this one had much to recommend it. The heroine was ‘handsome, clever and rich’, rather like Cora herself. Cora knew she was handsome – wasn’t she always referred to in the papers as ‘the divine Miss Cash’?

I did it. I survived my second ‘Come At Me, Books!’ dare. As I expected, it was a complete trainwreck – but this time with dukes and duchesses, rather than assassins. This did not make it any better. My first qualm with this book would be why it was even called My Last Duchess in the first place. I understand the reference to the Browning poem, but why make this reference? Cora becomes the latest Duchess of Wareham, certainly, but she is by no means the last – it feels to me as though the author was just trying to make her book seem more literary and interesting than it actually is. It’s like Cora herself once thinks ‘Perhaps she should change into something more interesing. Something that suggested that she could be fascinating as well as decorative’ – unfortunately, this book proved to be neither. It was very dull, with 500 pages of little to no plot, lots of descriptions of gowns ordered from Paris, and Cora complaining about everything under the sun, or lack thereof, because she’s in England now, and nothing could ever be as good as it was in America.

Apparently this book was published as The American Heiress at some point, and that makes so much more sense, not only as a title but because the book is all about Cora, a spoilt and irritating wealthy American socialite who travels to England in search of a titled husband. When she becomes engaged at just over 100 pages in, what follows are 400 more pages of banality – gossip, hunting, trying on dresses, moping about, and not listening when people try to confide important plot points to her. I say important plot points, but I’ve basically just told you the entire plot right there. Nothing happens. There are a lot of revelations in the last ten pages or so but they don’t come as a surprise at all, and everything is wrapped up far too quickly and tidily – that, and because I didn’t care for any of the characters, the revelation that so many of them had shady pasts did not come as a surprise. Everything was so clearly signposted from the start that the book plodded and lumbered about, trying to fill its pages with empty meaningless fluff before shoving in ‘drama’ right at the very end.

But back to Cora. I spoke to my friend Ellis who dared me to read this book as I began doing so, and I said ‘I’ve only known [Cora] for two pages and I want to punch her’. She considers herself to be so much better than everyone else, with her ninety dresses made in Paris in her trousseau, thinking someone is ‘quite good looking for an English girl, despite her dowdy clothes and miserable hair’, and complaining within the first couple of chapters that ‘It’s not my fault I’m richer than everyone else’. Over the top and vulgar, Cora’s only flaw, in the author’s mind, seems to be her short-sightedness – literally. She not only manages to not see things that are right in front of her within the world of the book, like a scandalous painting, but also the plot itself. She is childish, stomping her foot in frustration on a number of occasions, ripping items of clothing and breaking priceless necklaces in her impatience to get undressed, and constantly whinging about everything from the weather to the bathrooms to the other characters she interacts with. No wonder everything keeps going so horribly wrong for her as she tries to navigate English nobility – her failings are meant to make the reader pity her, poor little rich girl that she is, but I just found them alternately amusing and frustrating beyond measure. How can she be so stupid? She did not change at all over the course of the book – except for the fact that I kept finding new reasons to want to punch her.

Shame I can’t wear the bill around my neck. I would like to see their faces once they realise that I can spend more on one dress than they spend on their clothes in a year. They’re all so dowdy, and yet they dare to look down their dripping noses at me, even though they’re all desperate for me to marry one of their namby-pamby sons.

The other characters are no better. Cora’s mother manages to set herself on fire within the first couple of chapters because of her ridiculous fancy dress costume, and refers to the Duke of Wareham as ‘Duke’, rather than ‘Your Grace’ – she is always far too familiar and uncouth, and complains constantly about the standard of living in England not living up to her American standards. The Duke’s mother is no better. The ‘Double Duchess’ – as she is hilariously referred to throughout the book – has not only slept with the Prince of Wales but some of her own servants; apparently the stationmaster was ‘as discreet as he was muscular’ and had ‘spectacular’ calves. Charlotte, one of the English aristocrats, is catty and selfish – ‘Yes, you are his wife but I am the woman he loves. Sadly it’s not a position you can buy’. Bertha the maid is always stealing from her employers and sneaking off to kiss Jim, one of the Duke’s servants – and Jim’s only goal in life seems to be kissing Bertha and trying to get her to sleep with him. ‘You’re not cross, are you, that I kissed you? You just looked so fine standing there, I couldn’t help myself’, he says, having only met Bertha a couple of times before, referring to her as his ‘black pearl’ – while Bertha keeps getting herself into entanglements with him and doesn’t leave, even when she knows she should, such as when her mistress is giving birth. ‘She did not trust him to let her go willingly, and she knew it would take so very little to make her stay’, indeed. Then there is Cora’s initial love interest, Teddy, who insists on abandoning her to run off to Paris to paint, but when he finds out some of the scandal in Cora’s new life becomes determined to rescue her – he literally uses the word rescue – since ‘he loved the woman, not the heiress’.

You’ll notice how I have mentioned all of these characters, but I’ve yet to discuss Cora’s husband, the Duke, or do so by name. That’s because his name is Ivo. The names of the characters in this book are just so stupid. Cora Cash. Ivo. Odo. Mrs Softley. I could go on, but I really should tell you more about His Grace Ivo ‘I like you when you’ve been crying’ Maltravers. I think that was his last name though, to be honest, I don’t really care. He first meets Cora when she gets knocked off her horse by a tree branch – yes, really – and asks him ‘Would you like to kiss me? Most men want to, but I am just too rich’ before passing out. After hardly ever speaking and not knowing each other for very long at all they become engaged, but for most of the book he isn’t actually there – he’s off hunting, or travelling abroad – and when he is there, well, the already excruciating writing gets even worse: ‘When he finally reared up, giving a yelp of what was both pain and pleasure, she pushed herself towards him, willing him to continue. She wanted him to stay deep inside her forever – only by keeping him there would he be really hers.’ This was no Mills and Boon, whatever sexual references there were weren’t all that explicit, but nevertheless I felt a bit icky having read that. Pain, what pain? What sort of sex are they having? It turns out they’re having sufficient sex that Cora becomes pregnant and they have a baby – a son and heir, of course – but he isn’t even in the country when the child is born. There is so much build up as to why he’s been away so long, why he arrived back in secret, and there is no payoff until much later – he arrives home and all is well, and reveals where he was in his big speech at the end, which anyone with half a brain would have already figured out.

He and Charlotte had been sleeping together before he met Cora – Charlotte had fancied Ivo’s brother, Guy, and so Ivo had stolen her away from him. When Guy found them canoodling in the family chapel, the only place they could be together without being seen by the servants – and the first place Ivo and Cora kissed, and where he proposed to her, of course – he went off and killed himself by deliberately falling from his horse. The day after the funeral Charlotte asked Ivo when they could get married, as nothing now stood in their way, and throughout their marriage Ivo used Cora in a number of ways to try and get revenge on Charlotte, and prove their relationship was at an end. Cora, of course, had no idea about Charlotte and Ivo having been together, despite being told about it or its being hinted at several times, and when everything is revealed she just takes Ivo’s word for it, and they live happily every after. Of course they do. Because Cora is a complete moron.

A shameless rip off of shows like Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs, My Last Duchess is dull, repetitive, and unoriginal. I completely understand why this book pushed my dear friend Ellis away from reading for a year – if I had to read anything like this again, I would set my head on fire with a stupid battery-powered fancy-dress costume. If that sounds ridiculous to you, then avoid this – one of the most ridiculous books I have ever had the misfortune to read.