Reviews of Books

Am I an artist now? Because reading the ending of this book was torture.

After being diagnosed with cancer, a media mogul regrets the terrible influence his cheap and dumb entertainment has had on culture. With the goal of creating intelligent and influential entertainment he founds New Renaissance. This new company is supposed to train artists from a very young age.

Failed music critic Harlan is assigned to to 7 year old Vincent as a manager. Eventually that will entail selling Vincent's art, but right now it means that he should foster Vincent's creative output and shape him into a great artist. And—as the title suggests—this involves torturing Vincent. Harlan kills Vincent's dog, he sabotages his relationships and later even gets him addicted to drugs.

This glorious premise immediately had me hooked! Does hardship breed creative inspiration? Can we make a cost-benefit calculation on a tortured artist and their impact on society? Did the mainstream entertainment become so idiotic because that's what the entertainment industry produces or because that's what the consumers want?

The beginning of the novel gives much food for thought on these questions. It's also executed much better than my summary. The moral ambiguity around “torturing” Vincent, for example, is maintained by the fact that his life before Harlan's intervention was already going very poorly. Under New Renaissance's contract he's also enjoying a lot of benefits that would have been unattainable otherwise, like free education and a very competitive financial compensation.

I can't pinpoint exactly where the novel lost me, but it was somewhere in the middle. The plot began to become boring, as Harlan's “torture” became pretty much limited to sabotaging various relationships of Vincent, paying off a girl here, writing anonymous threats there, etc. It also stopped exploring the interesting questions I mentioned above, it got lazy.

There's two points where, in order to sell Vincent's works, Harlan rants about the current state of entertainment to prospective buyers. He switches between different radio channels and complains, “an ad ... pop song by a guy who can't sing ... song where the same phrase is repeated over and over ... another ad ... classic rock station with a playlist of 15 songs ... another guy who can't sing.” While I share the sentiment, the problem is that this is the most surface level critique of pop culture. It's fair enough to have a character be this simple and shallow, but neither does the rest of the book provide much more depth.

Towards the end there is a jarring with the introduction of a thriller plot line and heightened stakes. This section, in my eyes, runs completely counter to the message of the book up to that point and while the resolution at the very end was pretty clever it wasn't clever enough to save this book as a whole.

I was disappointed at what little was done with such a great premise and with how simple and under-complex the ideas and commentary were. I sadly can't recommend it.

Note on the German translation: I generally don't feel the need to comment on translations, but the German one of this book was exceptionally bad. This book often references films and TV shows the titles of which were only sometimes translated into German and sometimes not. Either would have been fine, but half and half was not the way to go. Also, some turns of phrase were translated literally even though they don't work the same in German.

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Should've been a film

After watching Anna Biller's masterpiece of a film The Love Witch I was excited to find that she had recently released a novel. Bluebeard's Castle was originally intended as a film as well, but turned into a novel instead. As the title and the text on the inside cover flap of the book suggest this is a story of a woman that finds herself in a toxic relationship with a Bluebeard character.

The novel is a feminist piece deconstructing tropes of romance novels and Gothic fiction. While that is all very well and good it fails to do that in an engaging way. As a reader we are given the very worst perspective. We do not take the protagonists point of view where we ourselves are enamoured with the Bluebeard character, taken in by his spell and manipulated. Instead, we plainly see him for the warehouse-full-of-wandering-red-flags he is. The way it is written made me exasperatedly shout at the protagonist for her choice to stay with or return to her abuser.

In any other novel this wouldn't be a problem, but it does run completely counter to the whole point of this one. How can it deconstruct and explain how anyone can become the victim of abuse and manipulation when it's so difficult to sympathize with the victim and understand her motivations? Later in the book there was one instance where it I got it.

Minor Spoiler At one point the protagonist completely flips her opinion towards her Bluebeard from doubt to devotion. This switch was so ridiculous that I finally got how much she had already lost her grip on reality and wasn't thinking straight at all. Up until this point all her terrible decisions had seemed like she had just reached the wrong conclusions due to stupidity, not madness.
Disappointingly, this one instance remained the exception and the narrative subsequently fell back into its old patterns.

Another choice that did not work for me at all was at the end of the book when the narrator addresses the audience directly to explain the moral of the story. That might be a bit of a fairy tale trope, but the way it was done felt condescending and inelegant.

In the end I am very sad to say that I did not enjoy this book. I'd recommend instead to check out her film The Love Witch and buy its soundtrack on bandcamp.

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Wintersmith | Terry Pratchett

Will entertain you through the cold winter season

A natural continuation of the “Tiffany Aching” series which started with the excellent The Wee Free Men and was followed by the less-excellent-but-still-good A Hat Full of Sky.

This time Tiffany has gotten herself into trouble by dancing with the Wintersmith, the personification of the winter season. And like a good witch she has to take full responsibility and deal with the problem of having the Wintersmith have a full on crush on her and wanting to make her his bride.

This time themes of romance and sexuality get explored—and of course the theme of taking responsibility. For my tastes the threat could have felt more immediate as it often leaves room for a subplot around Annagramma, but the last third wouldn't let me put the book down as it had me completely hooked.

Like the other novels in this series this one is completely dripping with empathy and compassionate life lessons that it's very much a joy to read for teens as well as adults. And, of course, it's very funny:

She did, eventually, find a staircase that went up (unless, of course, you started at the top).

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Not born of Paradise, but still worthwhile.

This autobiographical novel tells the story of Amélie returning to Japan where she decides to teach French as a way for herself to learn Japanese. Her student Rinri is the same age as her, one thing leads to another, and they end up dating. We are taken on a trip through Japan, atop Mount Fuji, until Rinri finally proposes to Amélie. She is not ready for marriage yet, but she also can't say no to Rinri as she truly is in love with him.

The pacing of this novel was much slower than both Cosmétique de l'ennemi and Antéchrista. It's also less entertaining and gripping. But it still is a touching story with interesting themes of home, independence, romance and parting. The ending is strong enough to make it a worthwhile read, but not such a great joy as her two novels mentioned above.

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Skip the meat and go straight to this.

After a dream Yeong-hye decides to become vegetarian and throws out all the meat of her and her husband's fridge. He is not amused. He tells her. But when she doesn't listen he escalates by calling her mom and sister and telling on her. There he finds the support he needs and they unite against her. Yeong-hye won't give up on her diet, even when it later lands her in a hospital due to malnutrition. Eventually her brother-in-law is inspired to produce a film of her naked body and the hospital staff will run into trouble force feeding her to keep her alive.

Yes, this plot is going places. But it finds very natural ways to take the reader along and experience this wild series of events in a believable way. It's divided into three parts that place focus on slightly different themes, but ultimately present a compelling arc.

Although this book is about vegetarianism (or veganism) on the surface any other minority group will identify familiar patterns and recognize themselves in the protagonist's social expulsion.

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Devilishly great!

Blanche, 16 years old, finally finds a friend, Christa. But very soon she discovers that Christa is using her. Getting rid of her turns out to be quite difficult now though, as Christa has moved in with her and Blanche's parents like Christa more than their own daughter.

In Antéchrista embedded are themes of shame, puberty, love, and friendship. They are approached with much empathy and in novel ways. The plot is entertaining and has a very satisfying conclusion. Much like Cosmétique de l'ennemi this novel barrels through at quite the pace. It's incredibly gripping and entertaining and over before you know it.

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This belongs on your bookshelf like the Stepford wives belong in the kitchen.

Joanna, her husband and their two children move to Stepford. Right off the bat the couple is suspicious of the men's association, the most important political institution of the town. While Joanna's husband tries to change it from within Joanna tries to rally the other women in the neighbourhood. But they seem more interested in keeping their households clean and running.

Obviously something sinister is going on in this horror satire. But what's most surprising is the cleverness and nuance in its feminist critique. What the terrible film adaptations from 1975 and 2004 completely fail to capture is the novel's critique of an ideology rather than of individuals. Feminist fiction often boils down to getting rid of the one bad guy at the top and optionally replacing him with a woman. This is of course much too simple and takes focus from systems onto individuals.

That's why I was so elated to discover that the “evil” in this book was not contained in any particular person or group of people, but rather an ideology or thought pattern that was made almost as tangible and clear in this excellently woven narrative.

With the current popularity of the “tradwife” this novel is very much still worth reading. And even if you know or suspect the twist the execution makes it a worthwhile read.

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This book makes me decide to die

After a failed suicide attempt Veronika is put into a mental hospital for supervision. But she won't be there long as doctors predict her damaged heart to fail within seven days.

After that everything goes downhill. Not for Veronika, but for the reader. Every character in the mental hospital gets a monologue where they lecture Veronika—and the reader!—about madness and sanity, and what it means to lead a good life. These page long rants never say anything actually profound, instead sticking to banalities like “Life ain't so bad” and “Maybe the so-called sane people are actually the mad ones. You ever thought about that?”

Anyone who has thought about the meaning and value of life for more than two seconds will have already generated more insight than this book could ever inspire. Also, anyone who has ever struggled with actual mental health issues will be appalled by its flat depiction in this book.

Apart from the subject matter the plot is also lacking in depth. Events in the story don't seem to follow naturally from each other and instead seem only to serve the didactic mission of the author. Characters are introduced only to monologue about their perspective and then take a backseat in the story. The ending is an unbelievable twist (as in I did not believe it) where the smugness and self-satisfaction of the author drips from in between the lines.

I derived no pleasure from reading this and felt patronized and not the least bit enriched after finishing this book.

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Gripping story at an incredible pace

Jerome's flight is delayed and as if that wasn't enough an annoying man shows up that won't stop talking to him even after he's made it clear that he's not in the mood. The stranger, who later introduces himself as Textor Texel, will not let up and has a snappy comeback for anything Jerome tries or says.

This short novella flies by not only because of its length, but also because of the incredible pace the snappy dialogue between Jerome and Textor provides. Textor's calm and witty remarks do much to entertain until the story takes a turn when he admits to two murders.

Definitely worth what little time it takes to read.

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Every One Should Be Reading This

Ah yes, the internet memes of 2016: Fidget spinners, a dead pet bee, America's dictator, and Harambe (rest in peace). Every single tweet, vine, and tumbler post that we obsessed over back then has only grown in relevancy. Oh wait, it hasn't.

The first half of this book describes every single post that the protagonist scrolls through daily. Often these are just a couple of sentences until the paragraph breaks and the next post begins. In that style it perfectly encapsulates the speed of our social media feeds.

But the feed is from 2016. Does that mean the book is out of date? The book was published in 2021. The outdated feed is part of the point. As such the experience of reading it will warp over time, but it will not lose it's relevancy. While reading about all these memes the reader will recognize a few or even most of them depending on the amount of time they themselves spent online in 2016. But at least some will be foreign, but still embedded in the feed with all the others. And you will be forced to evaluate whether this unknown post about some woman screaming in some store and that then-important post about the cultural origin of fidget spinners might both have never been relevant to your life at all.

This first “internet” half of the book is excellent in itself. But in the second half the narrator experiences a tragedy in her own personal life and is violently jerked into reality where she needs to (wants to?) confront this situation.

An empathetic critique of social media obsession and an exploration of grief in a fast moving age.

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