Review: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Since I read this as an audiobook, the lovely picture used above is from Jenna M. Be sure to also check out her review of the book too!

Reading this was a unique experience for me: it was my first time listening to an audiobook! I found myself working at the same time, mind caught between the book and something else, not really enjoying either. But a book like this deserves better. It took me by surprise, delivered a few well-aimed and deliberate plot twists, and left me reeling.

“I have long operated under the idea that civility is subservience. But it hasn’t gotten me very far, that type of kindness. The world respects people who think they should be running it.”

Taylor Jenkins Reid

What worked for me

Glitz and grit of Old Hollywood: I believe that a fundamental human want is to know what celebrities get up to – whether they’re people, just like us, or whether our awe of them is justified. This book in no small way illustrates both the luxury of wealth, and its limitations. The characters attend the Oscars, go to lavish restaurants, and wear stunningly-described clothes. But none of it protects them from abuse, heartbreak or death. In fact, you get a sense of the pressure that a reputation like that of Evelyn Hugo (aka fictional Marilyn Monroe) would entail: a life under the spotlights means one with no perceivable flaws.

The real love interest: as would be expected, this story’s through line comes in romance. This is a story full of love, and yet you still unabashedly root for this one in particular to work out. It is another aspect not romanticised – the relationship has flaws that could signal its end, but wouldn’t necessarily onein real life. It keeps you on your toes, unabashedly hopeful and yet unsure if they ever will get their happy ending. Evelyn’s story has such an air of melancholy that you really do wonder if she’ll be left with a broken heart – and if you’ll end up with one on her behalf.

“Sometimes reality comes crashing down on you. Other times reality simply waits, patiently, for you to run out of the energy it takes to deny it.” 

Taylor Jenkins Reid

And… what didn’t

Repetitiveness: in a book with no fewer than seven love interests, and a main character consistently willing to marry for personal gain, the plot often became repetitive. The author asks you to suspend your disbelief and think ‘this time will be different’ a few many times; I found myself snoozing through the portions of the book where I can already tell what the ending would be. The writing was simply not captivating enough to pull you through those gaping filler stories.

Character development de Monique: I shouldn’t have been surprised that Evelyn Hugo was undoubtedly the main character of the story. Somehow, I was though – perhaps because it’s quickly revealed that she is not its narrator. The plot line revolving around narrator Monique, with Evelyn as an inspiration to be bold and act fiercely, serves as another uninspiring backdrop. This is to be expected, of course: comparing the highlights of a more than sixty years of life to a few weeks, one is bounded to not compare. I only wish the writer had realised the same.

Final review: 3.5/5 stars

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Review: The Shadow and Bone series by Leigh Bardugo

As an avid fan of Leigh Bardugo’s subversive ‘Six of Crows’ duology, I was thrilled to delve deeper into her ‘Grishaverse’. It was a no-brainer new favourite, yet I still stopped reading before finishing the first chapter. I was shocked to see I could already guess its plot: girl meets boy; boy introduces girl to a magical new world; girl falls in love; and girl powers up to defeat the big bad. It was only when I finally picked it up again that I realised how much of that is inverted here.

“Fine,” he said with a weary shrug. “Make me your villain.” 

Leigh Bardugo, Shadow and Bone

What worked for me

The villain: I’d argue that the protagonist gang of ‘Six of Crows’ is the closest in-universe comparison of this villain – emphasising the empathetic writing. An antagonist who’s both unlikable and ruthless, and strangely understandable in his loneliness, he is the key to keeping the series fascinating. There’s an interesting parallel too – a character foil – with another enterprising main character. This suggests how noble qualities such as ambition and a desire to protect can just as easily become flaws, depending on how far you would go to achieve your ideals. Perhaps a good person is simply one whose limits haven’t yet been tested.

Magic system: of everything I’ve read, the ‘Grishaverse’ has to have one of my favourite representations of magic. Grisha magic begins as a hard magic system, with definite categories of powers. Throughout the series, these ideas are subtly eroded to suggest that certain limitations to power may be self-defined, and therefore overcome. A certain character straddles the line between two orders of Grisha, and her powers are one of the most interesting of the bunch. In addition to this, magic is shown to have a profound and well-thought-out impact on religion, politics and culture. Bardugo’s world-building in this sense is unparalleled.

“What is infinite? The universe and the greed of men.” 

Leigh Bardugo, Siege and Storm

What almost worked

Debate on morality: With multiple characters with limitless, explosive power, ethics could’ve been the necessary puzzle piece to keep the books interesting even in its non-essential scenes. Though it is briefly debated, mostly characters seemed to see it as fairly black-and-white. An example of the ball being dropped in this is a monster type mentioned. They used to be people, and are implied to even still have some humanity; this could’ve led to a moral dilemma on whether killing them is acceptable. Yet, this is neatly glossed over and results in a plot thread with no conclusion.

“You are stronger, wiser, infinite in experience.” I leaned forward and whispered, my lips brushing the shell of his ear. “But I am an apt pupil.” 

Leigh Bardugo, Ruin and Rising

And… what didn’t

Undeveloped characters and romance: it’s been a long time since I couldn’t fully root for the main romance in a book like this. I found the main love interest intensely bland – especially when two other fascinating potentials are introduced. It’s told, rather than shown, that he’s cocky, and apart from his love, that truly seems his only defining quality. This may just be a symptom of a larger problem – unlike in Bardugo’s other books, the less important characters have no discernible spark of personality.

Lack of consequences: in a grave situation, and one later described as extremely bloody, almost every main character survives purely through the magic of plot armour. This is the risk of having multiple series following your book – most characters have to survive to continue it. The magic system comes close to being flat-out broken by being used for resurrection, raising a million plot holes. In all of this, it ends up with every character with two or less witty lines dead (in a failed attempt at emotional impact) with no fanfare, and every character with an emotional arc alive.

Final review: 4/5 stars

Review: The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

I must say – the original cover is far better, especially since the film cast doesn’t always match the book’s given character appearances!

On my first read of ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’, I didn’t understand the hype. It’s no understatement to say it’s considered a modern classic, one of those coming-of-age books that everyone is supposed to read – but I just couldn’t appreciate its appeal. Upon a reread, I think I finally see it.

“And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.” 

Stephen Chbosky

What worked for me

Feeling infinite: in all the teenage-centric books I’ve ever read, this had one of the most interesting views on memories. Instead of describing a so-called ‘perfect day’ , the author repeatedly shows how we remember specific moments in all their brilliance. I’ve certainly felt the same: memories where I forgot adolescence is fleeting, where every part of me lived in the moment. In addition, this method helped keep the book brief, and thereby impactful the whole read through. The moment of feeling infinite is both the book’s best scene, and a cementing moment of the central friendship.

Inconclusiveness: move aside, happy ending – this novel takes a unique stance on how best to conclude a coming-of-age story. Since it heavily features romance, I was expecting the classic ‘boy gets with girl and they ride off into the sunset together’ ending. I was pleasantly surprised in that: it’s clear that the main character is not only continuing to learn, but “both happy and sad at the same time“, come the end of the novel. It feels like we only saw an excerpt of a story; he feels like a real person, whose life existed before the novel, and will continue long after.

“We accept the love we think we deserve.” 

Stephen Chbosky

And… what didn’t

Abusive relationships: the above quote is used at a point in the book to explain why a character stayed in an abusive relationship. Beautiful as it is, this use of it is incredibly problematic. The main character, who this is explained to, is not a child. He’s fifteen years old at the time, and this is far too old to be limiting your understanding of intimate relationship abuse to something so glib and simplistic. If a book brings up such nuanced issues, they ought to be addressed with the suitable gravitas.

The idea of a wallflower: this one was such a glaring issue that it blinded me at first to the book’s virtues. Sadly, it’s not the first time I’ve seen a plot line revolve around an introvert ‘discovering themselves’ by becoming more social. This is simply not how the world works. Chbosky’s emphasis on ‘participating’ is certainly noble, but it’s implied to be done exclusively through parties and dances, dates and hang-outs. Instead, a single friendship scene could’ve been cut in order to show a more real experience: this shy student discovering new hobbies and talents, and coming into himself individually, and as a friend.

Final review: 3.5/5 stars

Review: The Folk of the Air series by Holly Black

Note: this post was written prior to the publication of The Queen
of Nothing, and reviews only previously released content.

Diving into this series felt like the most natural thing in the world – Young Adult fiction has its fair share of faerie novels. That being said, one of my favourite parts of it was that it feels like an acknowledgement of how most of us know much of this mythology already. For the unprepared, it may be a system shock if you haven’t previously heard of brughs, changelings or selkies.

“If I cannot be better than them, I will become so much worse.”

Holly Black, The Cruel Prince

What worked for me

The political side: expecting a love story with some beating around the bush, I was extremely surprised to find that major portions are dedicated to power – both the obtaining and maintaining of it. The books speak to its heady nature, so it’s no surprise that a major recurring theme is betrayal, and exploring characters would go to in order to rule. As someone who loves a good political drama, this was undeniably riveting.

The relationships: though side plots for the longest while, the two major relationships were incredibly interesting. With the elitist behaviour of faeries, it should be expected that power dynamics are common in relationships with mortals: this manifests in love that feels, to its core, both toxic and understandably hard to end. The series truly depicts couples who are fundamentally flawed, yet so addictive. One in particular is sure to have you alternately screaming at the page and jumping for joy.

“Kiss me again,” he says, drunk and foolish. “Kiss me until I am sick of it.”

Holly Black, The Wicked King

And… what didn’t

The pacing: though this issue wasn’t prominent in the Wicked King, the Cruel Prince read like two wildly different books, to the extent that a division within the book is labelled ‘Book Two’. Not only is the plot line much less gripping until this point, this first part takes up the vast majority of the book. The beginning feels unnecessarily drawn out, leading to a conclusion that you could blink and miss. Some of the key moments in the book come from explanations of previously unanswered questions; in her rush to end the book, the author seems to have foregone setting up a mystery, and instead given the seemingly

Underdeveloped characters: I want to take this moment to remind any budding YA authors out there that ‘feisty’ is not a nuanced character for a female character, nor is ‘snarky’ for a male. While the fleshed-out backstories give us some insight into character’s personalities, this series lacks the dialogue (think Six of Crows) and thought processes (à la Heroes of Olympus) that allow us to fully understand them. I’d go as far as to say you can predict that this will be an issue when you notice that the characters spend much of their time alone, rushed from one action scene to the next, with almost no time to play off each other.

Final review: 4/5 stars

Review: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

I thought long and hard about what book would receive my inaugural review, and it came down to this one. It was a tough one to finish, and is proving even harder to review. After all, it feels deeply personal: as a Keralite whose first language has always been English, I never grew up reading books about character anything like me. This was the first full novel I’d ever read by an Indian author in fact – and with that came the natural pressure to like it.

“If you’re happy in a dream, does that count?” 

Arundhati Roy

What worked for me

The culture: had you asked me 10 years ago, I doubt I could’ve imagined an English book so eloquently describing the minutiae that makes Kerala what it is. To see Indian history (the so-called ‘Love Laws’, from the outdated but still prevalent caste system) and Keralite politics (including the move towards communism) was both shocking and revealing. It reads beautifully as an ode to the state much in the same way ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ is a love letter to Colombia. I would recommend this without a doubt to a friend who wanted to get to know my country, as long as they’re willing to have Google on hand!

The writing style: though this one is undoubtedly subjective, I’d say the focus on description over plot or character works in this book’s favour. Even devastating experiences – like one child fearing losing love – expressed in Roy’s stunning prose become small marvels. Throughout my reading, I was sure that with a hot cup of chai, sitting on porch swing, I could’ve pored over my novel word-by-word and been delighted each time. Artfully crafted statements are why this book was recommended to me; on that front, it did not disappoint.

That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less.

Arundhati Roy

And… what didn’t

The sequence: I can admit that this book hit at a pet peeve of mine. I detest the common trope to include both perspective before and far after a murder. Books that fall in this all too common trap seem to me as if they wouldn’t be worth a read, were they in chronological order. It feels like a cheap emotional hook – but a good enough mystery will keep readers guessing without resorting to two confusing timelines. To make matters worse, ‘The God of Small Things’ follows three main timelines (before the murder, directly after, and several years in the future), as well as many main characters. Perhaps this is for some, but it was definitely not for me.

Final review: 2.5/5 stars