Because I’ve been struggling to find gainful employment, I’ve found myself hiding under a pile of books. One of them is a book that I fell absolutely and entirely in love with, and it might be difficult to find something to surpass my adoration for it. But it’s been nice to finally have the time to read things that I want to read instead of forcing myself to study things that I honestly have little interest in (courtesy of my former job believing an Environmental Management degree qualified me as a science teacher – that is a topic of an entirely different post for the future).
Far From You by Tess Sharpe
I’m starting with probably my absolute favourite novel read this year. (And yes, I’m aware it’s only April, so I have a lot more time left to find something else to love as much as I did this book.) It was such a wonderful experience that I was able to finish it within the day, and it had so much going on that it kept me interested in pretty much every character in the novel. Seriously, there’s not much that I can even be negative about; I’m struggling to think of what I could possibly critique, and nothing’s really coming to mind.
The story is told in alternating timelines that follow Sophie, a recovering addict, as she tries to understand what happened to the girl that she loves, Mina. Originally thought to have been a drug deal gone wrong, Mina is murdered and Sophie is left to pick up the pieces. She makes it her goal to find out exactly what happened, both to bring justice to Mina and redeem herself. The former is the most important reason, though.
As each chapter explains their past, you learn more about Sophie’s difficult relationship with Mina. But you also come to learn about the struggles that she’s going through in her own life. Having a relationship with Mina was never easy, particularly as Mina was frightened for anyone to know that she was a lesbian; even though the reader is aware, Sophie’s bisexuality isn’t openly discussed until much later. Other aspects of the complexity of their relationship include the fact that Mina actively engaged in trying to make Sophie pair off with her brother, Trevor; it’s also shown in the fact that Mina would ‘date’ guys to appear ‘normal’, which often left both girls entirely frustrated. One of these guys, Kyle, actively tries to assist Sophie in understanding what happened to Mina; he is also one of the few people to know about Mina and Sophie’s feelings for each other.
The handling of their sexualities was amazing; I haven’t seen a positive version of an identity that I myself am part of in something in such a long time. When it comes to bisexual people, we’re rarely seen as anything other than a joke; we’re always told that we’re “confused.” We’re not, and this book handles that aspect in ways that are realistic; Sophie’s very clear about not being confused about who she loves and why she loves them. She knows that, while she says that she could have loved Trevor, she would always love Mina more.
I also enjoy the fact that Sharpe tackles two others aspects that are often portrayed negatively in media: addiction and disability. Sophie’s left leg is left disabled from an accident, which is also what leads her to an addiction to pain medication. Sharpe portrays the reality of both situations, showing that these are not aspects of a person’s life that will forever break them; she allows Sophie to have agency and not be broken, even if she sometimes feels like she is. Sophie isn’t made into inspiration porn or a burden to the characters around her, and that is fantastic. This should be far more common in the media we consume.
The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith
Short stories are always hard for me to get into. This is largely because I’m always interested in more, and it frequently feels as if there isn’t any functional content to the story; they feel vague and without any point, and that annoys me. I assume that might be due to the fact that my mandatory schooling always provided us with the worst possible short stories. This book, which is a book of short stories, did not do that; I enjoyed so many of them, and all of their characters and plots felt fleshed out and enjoyable.
Many of the stories involve aspects of Vietnamese stories and issues. There are a variety of tales from a young grandchild asking his grandmother how their family made it to America to the after-effects of Vietnamese immigrants in the United States and people who remained in Vietnam who have been displaced by the war. Almost all of the stories include some aspect of the supernatural, such as the tale about a family who owns the Frangipani Hotel where the spirit of the lake comes to life and kills an American businessman.
Perhaps my favourite story is one that is set in Houston. A young girl who is working the night shift at a supermarket meets an older Vietnamese immigrant who found himself naked and in a dumpster after he had transformed into a snake; he tells her the story of how he was forced to leave his village and move to another country after he had murdered someone. When he was a snake, he wasn’t aware of what he was doing and who he was harming. The tale is interesting because it seems to parallel the old man and his inability to know what he’s doing as a snake with the protagonist’s brother, who is presumably doing work that he knows is illegal in the same “dangerous” community that the old man lives. That might not be the intent of the story, but it was an interesting aspect of it.
It was a pretty easy read, and it was a lovely book to read when taking a break from novels; it definitely helped break up books that were frustrating to me, and it was definitely enjoyable.
Fall of Giants (The Century Trilogy #1) by Ken Follett
I have to get straight to the point of how I felt about this novel: This is probably the book I had the most complaints about because there were so many irrelevant details and badly written passages. So much research clearly went into this book for aspects of it to feel just wrong.
The book starts prior to World War I and tells the interwoven stories of different families. You have a poor Welsh family who interacts with a pair of poor Russian brothers and the aristocratic Welsh family that also contains a Russian princess; there is a German and Austrian family who is intertwined with the aristocratic Welsh and an American aid to the president. Though those are the primary links, the intertwined nature of the families is much like the treaties that helped produce World War I: confusing and interacting with everyone.
If I could delete scenes, the book would’ve been interesting. The actual story itself was quite intriguing, and it was nice to see the historical aspects included. That’s why I say there was a great deal of research that went into this novel only for irrelevant details to drag it down.
The number one issue I had was the treatment of sex in the book. If I never read the following lines again, it would still be too soon:
“He felt an obstruction. She was a virgin.”
“He felt something break, and she gave a sharp cry of pain; then the obstruction was gone.”
“He entered her cautiously, knowing how easy it was to hurt a girl there…”
“He felt the membrane of her virginity resist him briefly, then break easily, with only a little gasp from her, as a tinge of pain that went as quickly as it had come.”
This man clearly has never talked to a cissexual woman who, at one point, was a virgin. Not all people suffer pain during their first time, which means you might want to have some women who enjoyed their first time instead of feeling pained by it. They might feel discomfort from it, as it’s a relatively new experience; the pain could also be because a man was a bit too impatient and didn’t care to have enough lubricant (natural or artificial), which could also have been the case for the women in this book. The men did seem to just shove their penises into the women’s vaginas at the sheer sight of their minor excitement.
He also perpetuates this ridiculous hymen myth that has, for decades, frustrated many of us because it’s absolute rubbish. This allows for this absurd mythology to continue seeping into the minds of people to believe that women “should feel pain” during their first intercourse; this is entirely wrong. And I can pretty much guarantee this author never had sex with a woman and felt the hymen, whether it popped or tore. This continued fantasy of “what it’s like with virgins” continues to drive badly written love scenes that remain focused entirely on men’s enjoyment and that annoyingly pervasive fantasy of ‘having sex with a virgin’.
I also find it massively awkward that anyone would be groped by or jerk off their boyfriend only mere feet from their sibling while sitting in a theatre box; that entire scene is massively uncomfortable, and I feel like someone would’ve noticed the jerking movements of this particular man or the noises they might have made. It’s such close proximity, and I don’t feel like an opera is consistently that loud.
I’d also like to avoid euphemisms for women’s body parts when we can openly state that one character grabbed another’s penis; that’s a direct statement, while the men are “rubbing the soft mound of her sex” (which is a terrible phrase for so many reasons). We can say “penis,” but the word “vagina” is clearly forbidden. Wonderful!
If Follett had avoided any of his “I don’t actually know what a hymen is” sex scenes, I would’ve enjoyed this novel a whole lot more. They were distracting and terrible, and it really put me off; he did so much research regarding the history of the time period, but he conveniently neglected to even attempt to learn anything about women’s bodies to write functional sex scenes that would’ve taken place between two lovers of the time. For my sake, I hope he’s dropped them completely from the next two books or I might have to defenestrate them into a nearby pool to even halfway negate my frustration.