Rachel reviews Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens

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Nell Stevens’s debut novel, Briefly, A Delicious Life (2022), is a stunning historical novel about a centuries-old ghost who falls in love with one of history’s most infamous writers.

The novel is told from the perspective of Blanca, a ghost who has been fourteen for hundreds of years by the time the novel begins in the 1830s. After dying in childbirth in a hilltop monastery in Mallorca in 1473, Blanca spends her (after)life watching over the monastery and haunting those who harm others. When George Sand (1804-1876), a nineteenth century French author famous for both her novels and her penchant for wearing men’s clothes, arrives at the monastery with her two children and her lover, composer Frédéric Chopin, for an extended stay in Mallorca, Blanca falls instantly in love with George, although George has no idea Blanca exists. The novel narrates Blanca’s desire and devotion to George, as well as George’s writerly and motherly struggles in the present and in the past. Blanca quickly becomes an unseen part of the family’s life, and the novel unfolds against the backdrop of nineteenth-century Mallorca.

Stevens is a prominent memoirist, with her memoirs Bleaker House (2017), Mrs. Gaskell and Me / The Victorian and the Romantic (2018) winning multiple awards. With Briefly, A Delicious Life, Stevens’ first attempt at fiction, she does not disappoint. This novel is full of the emotional and intellectual vigour of the best historical fiction. Stevens’ novel is poetic without being overwrought, and full of humour and delight as much as it is of sadness and female rage. Although Stevens adapts an episode in the lives of real individuals, she does so with postmodern humour, and Blanca’s perspective was unique and refreshing.

This is a novel to linger over, and it’s one that I was thinking about long after I’d finished it. With this text, Stevens promises to become one of the most prominent authors of queer historical fiction. Briefly, a Delicious Life is unlike any ghost story I’ve read before, and it is a novel of hope, renewal, and the female voice.

I highly recommend this book to fans of Sarah Waters’s or Emma Donoghue’s fiction, or of Emily M. Danforth’s Plain Bad Heroines.

Please add Briefly, A Delicious Life to your TBR on Goodreads.

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.

Danika reviews Florida Woman by Deb Rogers

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Jamie has always lived a bit of a bumpy life. Her dad left when she was young, and her mom took off with a new boyfriend not long afterwards. She and her brother weathered the foster care system together until he was arrested for dealing drugs. Since then, she’s been working minimum wages jobs with very few connections, just scraping by.

But one strange night changed her life forever, and not for the better. A combination of bad decisions and unlikely circumstances turned her into Twitter’s main character of the day: A “Florida Woman” headline. All she wants to do is put her head down, serve her time in community service, and wait for it to blow over.

In this worst time in her life, though, she’s stumbled on some luck: a lawyer who’s taking her on pro bono, and a sweet community service opportunity that seems more like voluntourism than something comparable to jail time. Her lawyer has arranged for her to volunteer for a macaque monkey sanctuary. She’ll have her room and board paid for, and she’ll serve out her time in the Florida jungle helping prepare the monkey’s food, clean up after them, and generally be helpful.

Jamie was fully expecting to spend time behind bars, so this is an incredible opportunity, even if she does have to wear an ankle monitor. When she arrives at the sanctuary, Atlas, she finds the three full-time staff members are a very close-knit group of women. They’re definitely hippie types, and they believe the monkeys have spiritual wisdom to share with them. Jamie can’t help but be envious of the way they move through life, and she yearns to belong in this community.

Meanwhile, interspersed with Jamie’s chapters are excerpts from the sanctuary’s website, which include ominous lines like “We are a supportive circle, but remember: circles are closed for safety and wholeness. You are either with us or against us. There is no other way.” Jamie sleeps in her own hut deep in the jungle, away from the other women. She swears she can hear the monkeys screaming at night, but she’s told she’s dreaming it or confusing it with other noises.

This is a story that has a creeping sense of unease, which pairs well with the oppressive, dizzying heat and humidity of Jamie’s surroundings. Atlas feels a little cult-like, but Jamie is completely bought in. She’s vulnerable on multiple levels, and she desperately wants to be part of this community who seem to accept her and value her, even knowing her embarrassing headlines. She devotes herself to them and Atlas, ignoring the red flag that pop up, and as readers, we’re just waiting for this house of cards to come down.

I feel like with slow burn suspense like this in a story, it can turn out a couple of ways. One is that you get exactly what you were anticipating the entire time, and it feels like they were just dragging out the few plot points they had. Or, as is the cast for this book, it can slowly keep gathering steam towards an explosion at the end. While this book start off fairly slow-moving, it is effective in building tension, and that is definitely paid off.

I will also say this has a sapphic main character, but it’s far from a romance.

I wasn’t sure exactly what genre this was going into it: horror? Litfic? Thriller? And to be honest, I’m still not sure by the end. I’d say thriller meets litfic would probably be the closest to accurate.

This was a compelling read, especially with the fascinating setting. And I was invested in Jamie, who is so hungry for connection that she’s willing to overlook a lot to find it. This is a thriller, so I recommend looking up content warnings, because some of them would be spoilers for specific reveals.

Rachel reviews Devotion by Hannah Kent

the cover of devotion

From the highly acclaimed author of Burial Rites and The Good People comes Hannah Kent’s latest novel, Devotion (2021), a historical lesbian fiction set in 1830s Prussia that has quickly become one of my favourite reads of the year.

Beginning in Prussia in 1836, the novel is the bildungsroman of Hanne, a fifteen-year-old girl who quickly finds herself pulled further and further into the social and domestic rules dictated by her gender and her class. But Hanne is more drawn to nature and the world around her than her domestic life dictates, unlike the other girls in her village. When she meets Thea, however, Hanne feels as though she has finally found someone who understands her. As Old Lutherans whose faith is threatened in Prussia, Hanne’s family is secretly devout. When they are granted passage to Australia to begin a new life, Hanne departs along with her family, Thea’s family, and much of her village to start fresh in a new land. However, the journey does not go as smoothly as planned, and Thea and Hanne will be forced to hold onto one another through life, loss, and time.

When I initially heard about this book, I was immediately interested. Hannah Kent’s fiction is always beautifully written and well-researched, and Devotion is no exception. In this novel, however, Kent’s lesbian characters take center stage in a gorgeously poetic and heart-wrenching novel. This book is Kent’s best work yet, and no one who picks this book up—whether they are lovers of historical fiction, literary fiction, lesbian literature, or all three—will be disappointed.  

I was unable to put this down and read it in about a day, with plans to read it again as soon as possible! Kent’s writing strikes a balance between literary and plot-driven prose, and there is a twist around the halfway point of this novel that had me gasping aloud! This book is exactly the kind of fiction I wish I could read all the time. In the style of writers like Sarah Waters with the haunting twists of Emily M. Danforth, Devotion is an unmissable novel.

My hope is that Kent will continue to write queer stories set in historical time periods, because her voice in this novel is so unique and poignant. As an avid fan of her fiction to date, this novel is one of the best books I’ve read this year and I highly recommend.  

Please add Devotion on your TBR on Goodreads.

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.

Rachel reviews When We Lost Our Heads by Heather O’Neill

the cover of When We Lost Our Heads

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A totally surprising, whimsical, and powerful new novel, When We Lost Our Heads by Heather O’Neill (HarperCollins 2022), is a queer historical fiction that is a must-read this summer!

The novel focuses on the complicated friendship between Marie Antoine, the wealthy heiress to her father’s Montreal sugar factory, and Sadie Arnett, a clever and unnerving girl whose family moves to Marie’s neighbourhood with her politically ambitious family. The two girls become fast friends, drawn to each other through their mutual intellect and intensity, until one day one of their games ends in tragedy, and in an effort to save the reputations of everyone involved, the two girls are separated. What follows in the novel is a long winding narrative of the two women’s lives together and apart across time and across a city that loves, hates, and loves to hate them. Complete with a cast of characters that enrich the narrative, O’Neill paints a fantastical portrait of nineteenth-century Montreal in all of its tragedy, glamour, grit, and delight.

In short, this novel is one of the cleverest texts I have ever read. O’Neill takes many of the principal characters from the French Revolution and transports them to nineteenth-century Montreal. Oh, and she genders all of them female. And the majority of them are queer. Although the novel is a fictional and magical realist text, When We Lost Our Heads is well-researched and full of compelling easter eggs that reveal the historical depth of the novel’s construction.

Furthermore, there really is nothing like O’Neill’s prose. I was anticipating this novel’s release after reading her other books, such as Daydreams of Angels (2015), The Lonely Hearts Hotel (2017), and Lullabies for Little Criminals (2006), and I wasn’t disappointed. O’Neill’s writing is immersive and full of intensity, with hints of magical realism. The relationships, connections, and twists in this novel kept me engaged. I have never encountered a book like this one, and I’ve already read it twice since its release this February.

When We Lost Our Heads is queer historical fiction at its finest, and Heather O’Neill is one of the most prolific voices currently writing in Canada.

Please follow Heather O’Neill on Twitter and put When We Lost Our Heads on your TBR on Goodreads.

Content warnings: sexual assault, violence against women

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.

Rachel reviews Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield

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Stunning, poignant, and totally unputdownable, Julia Armfield’s debut novel Our Wives Under the Sea (Picador 2022) is one of my favourite queer novels of 2022!

Our Wives Under the Sea is a dual-perspective narrative that follows both Miri and her wife Leah. Miri’s chapters narrate Leah’s return from a deep-sea mission that culminated in tragedy and unanswered questions, leaving Leah missing for months. Although Miri has Leah back now, Leah is not the woman Miri married. With the events of Leah’s mission shrouded in mystery, Miri only knows that whatever Leah encountered while she was stranded on the ocean floor, she’s brought some of it back with her. As Leah begins to change, and as Miri attempts to hold onto the shreds of their normal life together, it becomes more and more clear that this may be something the two women can never come back from.

As soon as I read about this book’s release, I ordered it from the UK to avoid waiting for the North American release. This was a beautiful novel, full of romantic sensibility and gothic undertones, as queer as it is literary. I knew that I would finish this novel in one sitting, and indeed, I was unable to put it down. The structure of the narrative, framed in alternating chapters from Miri and Leah’s perspectives, helped to establish a sentence of dual time and mystery in the novel, and Leah’s narrative refuses to answer many of our questions right away and Miri has a difficult time explaining what she’s seeing. The novel’s alternating chapters are also stark because they go some way to reflect the isolation and breakdown communication that the two women endure, allowing the reader to anticipate the convergence of perspectives at the very end. The perspectives in this novel are unique and individual, each rendered with the kind of poetic literary voice I so love to read.  

Armfield’s novel is a contemporary queer gothic that links a love between two women with a love for the sea. Connections between lesbians and the ocean—or women and water more generally—are pervasive in queer writing, but Armfield manages to do something entirely new within the genre. I was drawn into the poetic and careful writing I found so compelling in Armfield’s collection salt slow (2019) and the careful pacing of this novel allowed me to both luxuriate in the language and be drawn in by the plot.

Our Wives Under the Sea is one of the best queer novels of the year and is a perfect example of the dynamic and tremendously beautiful qualities I look for in queer fiction. I can’t recommend this novel enough.

 Please follow Julia Armfield on Twitter and put Our Wives Under the Sea on your TBR on Goodreads.

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.

Danika reviews Acts of Service by Lillian Fishman

the cover of Acts of Service

I think that first I have to get the thing I want, and maybe then I can figure out why I wanted it, or whether it’s good.

This was a frustrating reading experience.

The main problem I had was that the questions it raised were ones I’m invested in, and conversations I want to see more of in literature. But while there were glimmers of insight and memorable lines, ultimately it felt like these ideas meandered around in circles, eventually petering out without making any real statement.

At first, I was enthralled by this story. Eve is a messy, deeply flawed character, and we spend a lot of time inside her head as she processes. She had a girlfriend, but she feels unfulfilled. What she really wants, underneath any noble façade, is to be fucked. Preferably by a lot of people. She wants her body, which she knows meets beauty standards, to be admired. So she posts naked photos of herself on the internet, which leads to her having a tumultuous, confusing relationship with Nathan and Olivia.

She originally meets Olivia, and she’s who Eve is interested in—but then Olivia insists she needs to meet Nathan. Olivia adores Nathan, who is also her boss. Despite Eve’s reservations, she is pulled under his spell, and finds herself validated by how he treats her, how they both value sex in the same way. Even as she worries for Olivia, she can’t help but compete with her for Nathan’s attention (yes, while she keeps this from her girlfriend).

This is a deeply introspective novel, with Eve constantly questioning what she’s doing and how it fits into her supposed values—but she never seems to get much below the surface or come to any conclusions.

Most men seemed hardly to exist for me, except nebulously, as acquaintances or obstacles. And then, occasionally, in the presence of a man who exuded power, I would feel a kind of weightlessness; I could feel myself growing soft and dimpling amiably under even a light touch of his attention. This was a truth so inadmissible in my life that I insisted even to myself that it was not the case.

Early on in the novel, there were moments that felt uncomfortably as if it’s peeled part of me away as a reader, exposing a thought or feeling I’d rather not admit to, even if, oddly, I related more to Eve’s girlfriend Romi than her.

I enjoy reading about complicated, flawed female main characters, so I enjoyed this insight into Eve. She feels like she’s trying to hold back her true nature, the parts of her that are vain and petty and selfish, resulting in these thousand tiny sacrifices for some indistinct noble cause. She puts Romi on a pedestal, who “so often wanted exactly what it seemed she was supposed to want and then enjoyed it once she got it.” She values their relationship because she wants to be deserving of that or to aspire to being the kind of person Romi is—without really recognizing Romi as a complete, flawed human being in herself.

Queerness rose in my life like a faith: When I came to New York I found there were shared beliefs, shared systems, not among all queer people but among a set to whom queerness meant a specific type of ethical awareness. Here was how I would know what was good to want.

Eve spends a lot of time thinking about sexuality, and specifically the difference between being with a man and being with a woman, and honestly… I found a lot of it perplexing. For one thing, she seems to think being with only one gender is boring or means you’re not truly living, but because she’s so flawed, I’m not expecting to agree with her on a lot. But there are a few ideas that this novel returns to over and over that got under my skin.

One is the assertion that being with women is both natural—that’s who Eve is usually attracted to—and awkward. That women who date are always circling each other, waiting for someone else to make the first move. That it’s exhausting, that you’re always “wondering who will make the first move, what it means to make the first move, what it means to want something as a woman, let alone to want another girl.”

It’s a common sapphic joke that we have trouble making the first move, of course. But the idea that when dating another woman you are left wondering “what it means to want something as a woman” is puzzling to me. I admittedly haven’t dated many men, but I found it much easier and more intuitive to navigate dating women and non-binary people, personally. But this idea that it’s somehow tiring to date women is returned to several times in the book, including being echoed by Romi.

So I’m supposed to think I can’t damage myself, that things don’t hurt me, if I choose them, if I see them clearly?

Ultimately, I lost interest in this story about halfway through as it just rehashed the Olivia/Nathan/Eve dynamic, which didn’t change much throughout. Eve enjoys being dominated and then feels guilty about it, but keeps coming back to it.

I wanted more depth to the conversations about power dynamics in sex, but they never really went anywhere. While what all three of them are participating in is BDSM, Nathan is disdainful of BDSM practices like negotiations or safe words. He seems to think they ruin the fun and mystery, and that he’s above all that.

There’s also something embarrassing about watching these two women obsess over what felt like a boring character. Nathan is just a rich, arrogant white guy. He doesn’t really seem to have any other personality traits. Both Eve and Olivia seem to treat what he’s offering them as something precious and rare, but power play is not unusual. There are many, many people who will fulfill sexual desires for humiliation, domination, and power play, but with bonuses like aftercare! Conversation! Respect for you as a multifaceted human being!

The more the story went on, the more frustrated I was at these rich people acting as if their awkward sex life was somehow novel or profound or… well, not boring. Yes, it’s easy to replicate gender norms, and it can even feel natural, because you’ve been trained into it from birth. That’s not particularly insightful or interesting.

It’s not just that Nathan is an asshole, of course: they’re all meant to be messy, deeply flawed people. It’s that I don’t see the appeal in any way. The things he says are so transparent that I don’t understand why Eve—who does occasionally challenge him and does ask questions about other details—doesn’t see through them.

For example, Nathan tells Eve, “I’ve always respected what you wanted—not just respected it but intuited it, discovered it, given it to you, in fact. Isn’t that true?” But “intuiting” is not above “respecting,” it’s below it. “Intuiting” is guessing what people want and doing that. You might be right. But you could be wrong. And just because you’ve successfully guessed before doesn’t mean your intuition of someone else’s desires should be valued above what they’re stating about what they want.

I found this book so frustrating because I was invested. I was interested in what it was doing. I just felt let down by where it ended up. It had moments of insight, but those didn’t feel worth reading a whole novel about two women idolizing this insufferable guy.

This is one of those books that leaves me feeling like I must be missing something. It feels like this is a novel that has something to say about sex and gender and queerness, but I could not tell you what it is. That sexual desire doesn’t always align with politics? Well, sure. That gender norms are easy to fall into? Can’t argue with that. That we can find pleasure even in unhealthy relationships? Yep.

I just wanted something more, and I kept waiting for it to end in a way that brought meaning to the experience, but it felt more like it fizzled out. I fully accept that I may just be missing the point entirely, and if you’ve read this book, I’d love to hear what you thought.

Danika reviews The Very Nice Box by Laura Blackett and Eve Gleichman

The Very Nice Box cover

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I will say I think this book works best if you go in without a ton of information, so if you’re up for a kind of weird slowly unfolding character-based queer story, I highly recommend checking this out sight unseen. I listened to it as an audiobook and thought it worked really well in that format!

If you’re still reading this, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Ava is a designer who works for STÄDA (which is pretty much Ikea), designing boxes. She is devoted to her job, and her life is very neatly regimented. She’s isolated, with basically her only social interaction being a standing lunch date with a coworker, where they talk about a reality show they both watch.

Some of this is her personality — when she’s stressed, she imagines a hex wrench perfectly fitting into a bolt to calm herself down — but the isolation is because she’s still reeling from trauma. She was in a car accident that killed both her parents as well as her fiancée. Since then, she’s buried herself in her work, keeping a strict schedule to keep the anxiety from creeping in. All of this order is upended when her new manager Mat arrives, who offers her a ride when her car breaks down and pries open all her defenses.

Mat is charismatic, transforming STÄDA with his solutions-oriented style and big personality. Doors seems to open for him, and Ava finds herself falling for him and how she feels when she’s with him. She’s finally moving on from the accident and feels like a different person. Then, this character-centric story that has been slowly unfolding turns out to be a different story.

(Vague spoilers) I was having trouble going to sleep, so I decided to listen to this literary fiction, slow-paced story to relax. Then I hit That Chapter and bolted up in bed. (True story.) (spoilers end)

I loved reading about Ava, who is such a distinct character. I can understand people who don’t appreciate her point of view — for instance, she identifies everything around her by brand, and she really is passionate about the Very Nice Box she’s designing. But I appreciated getting to know her, including the walls she’s built up and her vulnerabilities. She dislikes Mat at first, but once she’s fallen for him, she’s defensive against anyone who doesn’t.

I’ve been in an office job (though work from home) for a year now, but before that, I worked retail for more than a decade (and briefly taught), so it still feels like a foreign world to me. My particular job is the best place I’ve ever worked, but now I can see the mechanics behind working a desk job, and I have new appreciation for stories like this that feature office politics.

Before this title came out, I had trouble finding any information about whether it was queer, which is frustrating, because it definitely is. Ava dates mostly women and was engaged to a woman. There’s one scene where she joins a dating app and it asks her which genders she wants to see. She selects all genders, then unchecks men, then checks men again — which is highly relatable. Her best work friend (and really, only friend) is also queer, but they both chafe against the company Spirit Team’s attempts at inclusion with a gaudy rainbow tree put up in the office. I love stories with queer friendships, and this one does a great job.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but suffice to say, this ended up being a great commentary about Nice Guys and male entitlement. It also wraps up in a way I hadn’t expected but was very satisfying. (Spoilers, highlight to read: I love that the Very Nice Box was Chekhov’s gun in this story: as soon as the dimensions were described, I thought it reminiscent of a coffin, but I thought it just symbolized how death was haunting her through her PTSD and grief. The matter of fact way Ava and her friend both shrug at Mat’s fate is amazing, and it’s fits with the ambiguously satirical tone. Also, that the happy ending is Ava adopting that ugly dog is *chef’s kiss* amazing and a perfect queer conclusion. (end spoilers)

Danika reviews A Dream of a Woman: Stories by Casey Plett

A Dream of a Woman cover

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Casey Plett is the kind of author I love and dread reading, because she so skillfully can break your heart. Her stories are beautiful, bittersweet, and achingly honest about the little ways we support and fail each other. My first experience reading Plett’s work was in chapbook form: Lizzy and Annie (review), which I highly recommend if you can get your hands on it, because it’s accompanied by gorgeous watercolour illustrations. I loved it so much that I immediately bought her next book, A Safe Girl To Love (review), which I honestly still feel like I’m processing.

Her stories generally (always?) have trans women main characters, and they all deal with the daily struggle of surviving in a world that constantly questions their existence and value. In A Safe Girl To Love, one of the characters described it as being like a “light case of mono that never goes away. I don’t want to brave. I want us to be okay.”

A Dream of a Woman also centres trans women and deals with transmisogyny, but it also feels much more about relationships–family, friendship, and romantic ones–than her previous collection. It begins with an absolute gut punch of a story, “Hazel and Christopher,” that left me staring at a wall for a while after reading the ending to try to emotionally process it, and I mean that in the best possible way.

There is a similar melancholic tone to these stories as I got from her previous works, but there also felt like a little more hope in this one, more moments of joy glittering throughout, leaving a bittersweet impression.

I’m in awe of the way Plett paints these characters. They feel so real and multifaceted. They are deeply flawed, but sympathetically drawn. When a character makes a decision I disagree with, when they hurt someone, I felt for both of them. They all feel like they could walk off the page and into your life–maybe especially for me because there are quite a few stories that take place in Canadian cities that aren’t quite my home but feel very familiar.

One story, “Obsolution,” continues throughout the collection. I guess it’s actually a novella, with the chapters interspersed with the other stories. I thought this format worked really well, and I was always interested to return to this character, but each story/chapter feels complete enough that I wasn’t skipping or rushing through the stories in between. (The novella and one of the short stories both have sapphic main characters.)

I highly recommend this collection for anyone who wants to feel bruise-tender about the world.

Content warnings for rape, addiction, and transphobia.

Every now and then you get offered an exit, something you didn’t plan for, something you don’t deserve, and something you don’t believe you can rely on. So you don’t take it. Eventually, I realized: it doesn’t matter. No one deserves anything, really. I was on a plane a year later.

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