Kayla Bell reviews Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Kayla Bell Reviews Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan cover

In the bookish community, there is a divide between people who are character readers versus plot readers. Character readers need to read detailed, nuanced characters, while plot readers focus on an interesting, intricate plot. For the longest time, I thought I was a character reader. I’ve read plenty of books where the plot takes a backseat to a character’s journey of self-discovery and really enjoyed them. Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan made me really rethink this aspect of my reading life, and I now know that I actually do need even just a little bit of a plot in order for a book to keep my attention.

Exciting Times is the story of Ava, an Irish twentysomething who moves to Hong Kong to teach English. While she’s there, she becomes entangled with a rich, aloof, English banker named Julian and, later, a vibrant, interesting lawyer from Hong Kong named Edith. The book deals with her differing relationships with both of them, and Ava trying to figure her life out. Aside from that, there is not much of a plot. It’s definitely a character-driven book.

Even that description I just gave reveals why this book fell a little flat for me. To me, it seemed that Ava was so clearly happier with Edith, who actually cared about her and called her out on her self-sabotage. This fact made it hard to understand the choices she was making to continually go back to Julian, who was so cold to her but offered her financial security. I wish that there had been more of an external conflict that would force Ava to really confront her dilemma and choose one or the other. Without it, in my opinion, the book basically became Ava’s internal monologue, which made it drag in the middle. This story structure also made the ending feel kind of rushed. I had a hard time understanding why Ava made the choices she made.

With that, there was also plenty to like about this novel. I can’t speak to the Asian representation in this book, but to me, Edith was a very interesting and compelling character, albeit less so seeing her through Ava’s eyes. I wish we had gotten more time with her and learned more about who she is outside of her relationship with Ava. I also really enjoyed how the book played with language. Ava’s English lessons were weaved through the writing in a really unique way. The voice of the book felt very raw and honest, and that’s what kept me reading even through the parts I found a little tedious. The setting of Hong Kong was also utilized very well, in my opinion, and made the book’s imagery feel vivid and interesting.

I saw a lot of comparisons between Naoise Dolan’s and Sally Rooney’s writing when reading reviews of this book and I can understand that. For me personally, Rooney’s books worked in a way that this one didn’t quite achieve. That being said, I enjoyed Exciting Times although it wasn’t quite my cup of tea and the ending frustrated me. I am always glad to see more queer representation from Irish authors and characters, though, and would encourage you to pick it up and see for yourself.

Carolina reviews We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman

We Play Ourselves by Jen Silverman

Jen Silverman’s debut, We Play Ourselves, satirizes the contemporary art scene through the eyes of Cass, an embittered former drama wunderkind turned hapless millennial, as she uncovers the secrets behind an up-and-coming feminist documentary. However, behind that beautiful cover and biting wit, We Play Ourselves fails to balance criticism and nuance, and falls prey to the very structures that it pokes fun at.

After being #cancelled in the fray of a viral scandal and Off-Broadway flop, 30-something playwright Cass retreats to the sleepy suburbs of LA to stay with her friend and his on-the-rocks boyfriend. After a listless lull at the house, Cass is approached by a prominent filmmaker, Caroline, whose new project, a subversive, feminist Fight Club starring a feral pack of teenage girls, draws Cass in. After meeting the cast and starting the project, Cass begins to recognize that Caroline’s draw towards these girls crosses the line between muse and manipulator, and must reckon with her place at the heart of an exploitative art piece.

Silverman is an incredibly talented author, whose word choice is always sharp and necessary, and whose sentences string together in poignant prose. She brilliantly constructs the mindset of someone trying to rebuild themselves once they’re stripped to their most vulnerable state. Cass is an unlikable narrator: she’s catty, unempathetic and pretentious. However, your eyes are glued to her every move, and hungry for her backstory. I also found Silverman’s comparison of the limitations of artistic mediums incredibly interesting: theatre is a completely different animal than film, as this juxtaposition is made clear by the alternative perspectives in New York and Los Angeles.

We Play Ourselves takes major media buzzwords, and cultural revolutions, such as the MeToo Movement, conversations of media inclusion and representation and cancel culture, and breaks them down to their core through her sardonic wit. However, this satire can be read as tokenizing or dismissive to real life issues. For example, Cass’s nemesis, Tara-Jean Slater, is a self-proclaimed “turned asexual” after being assaulted by her uncle as a child, who then channels her trauma in a best-selling play and up-coming Netflix show, starring Cate Blanchett and Morgan Freeman as different iterations of her uncle. It’s quite obvious that Silverman is poking fun of the use of big celebrity names to sell products, but it instead comes across as acephobic and ignorant of the real trauma and mental health issues faced by CSA survivors, as Cass is “jealous” of Tara’s “selling point” as a CSA survivor.

This facetiousness is present throught the novel: Silverman pokes fun at tokenism by criticizing Caroline’s “diverse” film with only two non-white leads, but is guilty of the same crime, as no other non-white characters are present in the narrative. Caroline also fetishizes queer women, as she forces BB, the lesbian teenage girl, to fake a coming out to Cass, the only queer person on the film set, in order to garner attention from LGBT movie audiences. However, BB and Cass’s relationship is awkward and forced, contrived by BB’s crush on Cass, and the uncomfortable age gap between the two characters. The film storyline is extremely fraught with these problematic elements, and does little to reckon with them: I much preferred the New York theatre scenes to the Los Angeles film scenes, and would have preferred a narrative without the film aspect. We Play Ourselves is a narrative journey through the lens of a disillusioned young adult in the pretentious art scene, but does little to critique the issues at its core.

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for an advance copy

Warnings: homophobia, substance abuse, cheating, violence, racism, sexual assault, child abuse, disordered eating

Meagan Kimberly reviews You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

You Exist Too Much by Zaina Arafat

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Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much follows an unnamed narrator as she struggles with her love addiction. The protagonist moves from one toxic relationship to another, and when she finds something that could be solid, she self-sabotages. Told through a series of vignettes, the novel spins the tale of an imperfect and complicated human.

The main character is not likable. She’s messy and self-destructive. Her infidelity could read as playing into the stereotype that bisexual people are cheaters. But Arafat does an adept job in showcasing that she’s unfaithful because that’s part of her personality overall, not a result of her bisexuality.

As the book unravels, we learn about the protagonist’s past and childhood, including her mother’s history. This all comes together to create a whole picture of why she engages in such toxic behavior and relationships. It never necessarily makes her likable, but it does make you understand her better as a person.

The protagonist has a strained relationship with her mother, who was emotionally and physically abusive to her as a child. It’s this lack of maternal warmth and love that leads her to act out as she craves that unconditional love her mother never gave her.

She enrolls in a rehabilitation program for love addiction, but she’s skeptical in the beginning. She feels her issues aren’t comparable to problems like drug, alcohol, or sex addiction. But as she progresses through the program, she finds a sense of camaraderie with her peers and even confronts some of her emotional trauma.

It’s interesting that the protagonist explicitly states her physical attraction to men and women, but asserts she only sees herself romantically happy with a woman. It brings up the idea of a broader spectrum, with bisexuality combined with homoromantic orientation. And none of it is ever easy. She encounters a lot of biphobia, especially from her mother, who thinks she’s just a closeted lesbian.

I can’t speak to it as it’s not an experience I’m familiar with, but I did want to mention a content/trigger warning in the novel for eating disorders. The main character often discusses her anorexia as part of her issues with seeking control in place of love. It’s a subject that is mentioned casually throughout the novel, not playing a central role but clearly having an influence on her character.

[Spoiler warning]

Once she leaves the clinic, she falls back into old habits, adding to her unlikability. But by the very end of the novel, she comes to have a sense of closure with her relationship with her mother. And that alone feels like she’s grown so much from where she started, making it a satisfactory ending.

Rachel reviews The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

The Pull of Stars by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue’s newest novel, The Pull of the Stars (Harper Avenue 2020), is perhaps one of her most compelling historical fictions to date. A fast-paced, stunning novel, I was unable to put down The Pull of the Stars until the early hours of the morning. It drew me into its world in a way that was so riveting and unexpected. I highly recommend this novel.

Shockingly serendipitous, The Pull of the Stars is set in Ireland during the 1918 flu pandemic. Already torn apart by war and struggling to fight this new and deadly disease, the novel is told from the perspective of Nurse Julia Power. Julia works in an understaffed and over-full hospital in Dublin in a cramped Maternity-Fever ward full of ill expectant mothers who must be quarantined together. Over a period of three days, Julia must attempt to save the lives of these women and their babies, even as the flu threatens to take them from her. As she works, two other women walk into Julia’s ward (and into her life): Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a Rebel with a complicated past attempting to care for patients while dodging the police, and a young volunteer who has seemingly appeared out of thin air, Bridie Sweeney. In a novel that takes place over three harrowing days, the lives of these women and their patients will become irrevocably intertwined. Birth, death, love, and loss all conflict and persevere in this novel.

The Pull of the Stars could not have been more wonderful. I was captivated by the breakneck speed that Donoghue affects in her writing. Moment to moment, life for Julia Power on this ward is intense and deeply moving. While a pandemic rages on alongside war and political unrest, Donoghue focuses in on the microcosmic relationship between three women and three beds over three days. In a hospital full of othered bodies—queer bodies and disabled bodies—all ravaged by war in different and equally traumatic ways, the novel juxtaposes the weight of war abroad with the war on disease at home, fought by valiant people who have perhaps been forgotten in the wider scheme of the war effort.

Donoghue’s choice to focus on obstetrics is fascinating. She highlights through the figure of Julia, a queer woman working tirelessly to save the lives of her expectant patients—all of whom come from different socio-economic backgrounds and who are equalized by their pregnancies and this disease—and not always succeeding. The tragedy of death and the miracle of life happen all around Julia in this novel and repeatedly astound her. The compelling and mysterious presence of Bridie Sweeney and the grounding force of Doctor Lynn widen Julia’s perspective of the world in different ways as she attempts to navigate an entirely changed global landscape.

The research and the writing in this novel were stunning and so carefully crafted. This book’s links with the pandemic aside, I think this novel has a lot to say about women’s health, knowledge, and incredible power during the 1918 pandemic and today. The book has the effect of reading like a play—much of the action takes place in one room and involves a small cast of characters. However, this ‘slice of life’ setting often moves beyond the narrow confines of the ward to delve into the three very different and very telling backstories of each of these three women. The structure of the book has an ominous bent to it, and I was compelled to read without pausing until the very end. This book runs the gambit of feelings and it will definitely leave you experiencing the full force of a measure of the emotional whiplash Julia repeatedly encounters in herself and her patients in this novel.

Donoghue integrates lesbian life in her novels so expertly that it seems to occur almost organically. There are some gorgeous scenes here that really did warm my heart, and there is something so powerful about placing lesbian characters in a maternity ward—especially a historical one.

I cannot recommend The Pull of the Stars enough to anyone who is a fan of lesbian fiction, historical fiction, or of Emma Donoghue. It is a triumph.

Please visit Emma Donoghue on Twitter or on her Website, and put The Pull of the Stars on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content Warnings: Violence, death, infant death, trauma.

Rachel Friars is a writer and academic living in Canada, dividing her time between Ontario and New Brunswick. When she’s not writing short fiction, she’s reading every lesbian novel she can find. Rachel holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a PhD in nineteenth-century lesbian literature and history.

You can find Rachel on Twitter @RachelMFriars or on Goodreads @Rachel Friars.