With my (current) partner’s children running around, it’s been difficult to write anything. Between the noise of absurd fights over nothing (as an only child, I honestly don’t think I’ll ever understand sibling fights over trivial nonsense) and just feeling generally uncomfortable because of a severe lack of time alone, I pretty much gave up writing anything; I couldn’t hear myself think most days. So I’m going to do a quick round-up of some of the books I’ve read. It might take a while!

The Vintner's Luck by Elizabeth Knox

The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox

The Vintner’s Luck by Elizabeth Knox
Knox’s novel has an interesting concept that is poorly executed: The story is about a man, a vintner named Sobran, who meets an angel called Xas who changes his luck. He leads a prosperous life that is helped by this angel’s intervention, but he ends up falling in love with him. Throughout the course of their friendship, Sobran learns that Xas is not a heavenly angel but one from hell and is thrown into a state of grieving and confusion. Some of this is related to the views on queerness and the struggle to understand both their mutual and individual feelings for each other.

The first half of that is interesting; I was expecting the novel to be much more intriguing, but it started off far too slowly and tries far too hard to do … well, anything at all. It’s as if the author is trying their best to do something different and ‘more elegant’ than other stories in the same genre. Most of the characters are entirely forgettable, which sadly applies to every single person who isn’t either Sobran or Xas; I often found myself confusing some people for others, either having to search for them in prior pages to remember what their role was or hoping there would be a reminder somewhere in future passages. There is such a lack of depth for the stories that weave the characters together that you could delete much of this novel and be left with a short story that achieves the same goal.

Regarding the queer relationship, I was initially excited about it. I’d read multiple reviews that described the ‘gay’ relationship, but it seems that every single person who described the relationship as gay is from a world where Bisexuality Isn’t A Thing. As a bisexual woman, that is entirely frustrating. It’s quite clear that Sobran is not a gay man, especially with regards to modern terminology. He’d once been happily engaged in a relationship with his wife Celeste, producing multiple children (which the reader has to keep straight or just shrug off because none of them have personalities), but his history with another man known as Baptiste Kalmann is sometimes mentioned; though he was engaged in a relationship with Xas, it was later shown that Sobran had a deep relationship with a Aurora, a woman for whom he worked.

But these relationships lack depth, especially that of Xas and Sobran. There are far too many things that are completely glossed over, which leaves a lot of it feeling completely unfinished and needlessly confusing. I can’t say that I’d recommend it happily, even with the complete dearth of novels specifically about bisexual people.

The Accidental After Life of Thomas Marsden by Emma Trevayne

The Accidental After Life of Thomas Marsden by Emma Trevayne

The Accidental After Life of Thomas Marsden by Emma Trevayne
I was so looking forward to reading this novel after having finished Coda; I loved the way that Trevayne had written that novel so much that I was expecting something similar from this one. I was rather let down.

This novel is about a boy, Thomas, who finds a corpse that looks a lot like him while he’s looting graves searching for valuables with his family to hock in order to survive. During that time, he learns that he’s actually a faery with a special power that could potentially save all of the others. It’s a story concept that I was rather intrigued by, as I thought it would deal quite a bit with minor areas of classism; it would’ve been nice to see that, especially as it’s written for a younger teenage audience, and that seems to be a theme that’s often overlooked for that particular demographic.

The biggest let down was that it was such a slow story and so repetitive. It often felt as if Trevayne believed her readers have the memory of a goldfish with the amount of times she reminded us of what she’d written merely pages before. I couldn’t forget Thomas’s fear of helping the faeries and losing himself because she kept giving me slightly reworded complaints about how he didn’t know if he’d die; I couldn’t forget the faeries being hurt by metal because it seemed that one would flinch away from the ‘feeling’ of iron every other sentence.

It was just… boring, which is unfortunate because there was a nice backbone that could’ve been better utilised.

American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men by David McConnell

American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men by David McConnell

American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men by David McConnell
I was looking forward to reading this particular book, especially since I received it after the news broke about the Pulse Night Club Shooting in Orlando. It seemed strangely appropriate because of the amount of homophobic sentiment that was taking place (not to mention the amount of racist rhetoric that was simultaneously occurring), and I was hoping there would be adequate discussion about toxic masculinity and how it often results in what we’ve annoyingly termed as Gay Panic.

It didn’t do that at all, and there were far too many questionable elements to even make it feel like a decent discussion regarding how sexuality and masculinity interact.

In particular, there was the discussion of Steven “Scooby” Parrish‘s murder, which took place because he was believed to be ‘gay’ after his murderers discovered ‘gay’ text messages on his phone. The biggest problematic aspect of McConnell’s retelling of that story is that he’s neglecting the intersections with race; he barely mentions the fact that Parrish was a Black man, and he barely touches on how queer people of colour are often treated much differently than queer white people.

That difference in treatment is made even more clear when Deray Mckesson, known for his activism with Black Lives Matter and his mayoral campaign in Baltimore, came out as gay and many Black men stopped standing with him; it’s been seen with the unnecessary questioning of Odell Beckham Jr‘s sexuality. It isn’t to say that this only happens within the Black community; it doesn’t, but it does take shape in different ways that need to be discussed in order to adequately address the issue that happened in Parrish’s murder. He needed only to include someone who could provide him with first-hand information on how race and sexuality intersect to address that issue.

When it came to the other murders, they were described a lot differently. Those focused a lot more on Gay Panic, which was especially true when he discussed the murder of Scott Amedure. It felt as if there were similar messages written about the murders of Gary Matson and Winfield Mowder, which was slightly more awkward as the primary theme running through that story was related to how fanatical religion could potentially cause violence towards people it refuses to understand. It seemed to be a major part of Steven Domer‘s murder, even when a larger theme that kept running through his narrative was that being forced to keep your identity hidden could lead to creating potential danger without obvious motives. The same could even be said of the description of George Weber‘s murder, which also included aspects of the ‘closeted’ narrative without discussing the reasons for why a person might hide their sexuality.

Overall, there were so many aspects that could’ve been discussed about each case study that McConnell chose that he completely neglected. There are so many things about the combination of masculinity and heteronormativity that can potentially lead toward this violence, and he misses so many of them.

Options for a new game.

Options for a new game.

In hopes of being a so-called “better influence” on my (current) partner’s video game-playing son, I decided to spend a lot of time playing Banished. This was largely because it was something that his father approved of, as it “required strategic planning” in order to achieve whatever goal you decided upon (unless, of course, it was to decimate your villages – that was fairly easy to do within the first few seconds by total accident). I can’t really remember how long I’ve had this game, but I recently realised that it was available in my Steam collection so I figured that I should give it a try and see if it was as amusing as the reviews I’ve read for it have said it was (or if it was actually “well thought out”). Unfortunately, I think I may’ve ended up with a game by the same name that wasn’t anything like how I’d imagined it would be.

A basic map with a town.

A basic map with town and citizen stats.

Banished is a city-building strategy game where you’re in control of a bunch of people who have been exiled and forced to start over in a new land, though I’m not really sure why they’ve been exiled; I’m assuming that they’re debtors and other minor criminals who were being shipped away from their former land in hopes of establishing a colony (you know, like Australia), but there’s not really any back-story available for what they’ve done and how you’re supposed to feel toward your newly settled group of colonisers.

Really, I ought to start with the more positive aspects of this game: It’s a city-builder. This is probably more of a positive to me because I quite enjoy playing those when I want to think a little bit but be able to just mindlessly do something else because there’s a lot of waiting involved. There are a few interesting challenges for in-game achievements, such as trying to get the achievement for Mountain Men (maintaining a population of 50 or more on a small, mountainous map with a harsh climate for 20 years); these make the game more interesting than just idly creating cities, though there are some that cannot be done simultaneously.

Food producers who died of starvation.

Food producers who died of starvation.

There are, for me, quite a lot of downsides to this game. The biggest problem I have with it is that there is a lot of awkward AI. I can have an adequate (but not superb) food supply and people will still manage to starve to death; the people who are most often starving to death are, ironically, the same people who are employed in food production. Rarely do I see my labourers, builders, stonecutters, woodcutters, or miners dying from lack of food. It was always my gatherers, hunters, fishermen, farmers, and herdsmen who failed to procure rations. It’s a bit awkward that the game would have them deliver food to the storage barn or market and then, for whatever reason, walk off to do something else entirely despite starving. I frequently watched citizens who were “searching for food” walk up to a barn that was at 60% capacity with items like roots, onions, berries, venison, and mushrooms only to turn around and go search for food somewhere else, though I don’t quite know where; the whole process never made sense to me.

Along with strange AI that starves citizens to death, the builders can’t build too much at once because they’ll just… wander off somewhere else entirely for no obvious reason. You can employ a full crew and have more than enough resources in storage to make a set of buildings, plop down four locations to be built, and watch them be neglected for approximately a full in-game year or longer. This especially becomes frustrating when the game’s yelling at you that your food supply is too low, but your builder-citizens won’t even build the fisheries, gathering huts, or hunting stations that you’ve requested. I cannot count the amount of times I’ve screamed “If you’d have built that fucking thing when I told you to, you wouldn’t have this problem” at my citizens.

Citizens’ inventory is something that I can’t quite wrap my head around, either. They seemingly set things down or neglect to pick things up, regardless of what their job is. Some time after you command them to, labourers will go collect resources such as stone, iron, or logs; rather than picking them up and taking them along to the stock pile, they just leave them in the middle of a forest to be acquired later. This happens even when you have a very open stock pile, which makes it even more infuriating. You’re more likely to run out of stone and iron before you are logs, and it’s annoying for the citizens to just leave things anywhere they please on the map without actually doing what they’re programmed to.

Other things that I didn’t like included storage buildings. Specifically, the trading posts don’t show numbers for items stored in a way that is more useful to players; they show the number of currently in-house items, but they really should show what the capacity is using the numbers of items the player wishes to store in them. For instance, say I want to have 1000 logs and 1000 firewood in my trading post; regardless of how much of either is currently there, the capacity shown to me should be the capacity of the total amount. What you’re actually given is the capacity of what the trader-citizens have moved there, so it could be the capacity for 589 logs and 352 firewood; that doesn’t help me organise my surplus items because I could be over capacity with what’s currently there and having to constantly readjust it to figure out the best possible storage options.

The capacity also impacts trade, which is a bit annoying. Considering most of the items that you’re trading for are not staying in the trading post, counting them among the trading post’s capacity makes little sense. They’re not staying in the trading post, and it causes unnecessary difficulty in trying to calculate where the trade you’re trying to make is “over-capacity.” There are moments where capacity clearly doesn’t matter: You can trade for cattle, sheep, or chickens with no issue. None of these items, though they’ll stay in the fenced area of the trading post until a pasture is built or has space for them, count toward storage. Similarly, the various orchard and crop seeds have no impact on trade capacity and are stored in a town hall (or, if you don’t have one, are perhaps in town memory to be conjured whenever they seem appropriate).

Some of the amusing loading screen captions.

Some of the amusing loading screen captions.

I really must mention a caption on the loading screen that keeps catching my attention every time I see it; it makes me feel quite uncomfortable, especially since I can’t tell what the context is for the joke. Overwhelmingly, most of the captions are quite harmless and semi-witty quips related to establishing a town, surviving in an environment, or generally playing a game: Creating unique snowflakes, Restricting camera angles, Generating names for townsfolk, Hiding chicken eggs, Checking random number generator. I was amused by most of these.

"Banishing native people from their land."

“Banishing native people from their land.”

But when I saw “Banishing people from their native land,” it immediately made me feel conflicted. I can’t tell if it’s attempting to poke fun at colonialism and colonial history, pointing out what colonial governments have done and been doing for centuries; I can’t tell if it’s meant to be just a snide joke at the expense of indigenous peoples. There’s no context for it, especially on a tiny loading screen. As a result of seeing a lot of other aspects about mainstream gaming culture, I find it hard to believe that it would be a quick commentary about colonisation; I feel like it was something that was just tossed in there because it sounded, to someone who may not be willing to put forth the energy to understand and learn the history of colonisation and how in impacted indigenous peoples, like a funny and harmless little joke.

It may do one good thing for some people: It might remind them to be more conscious of the impacts of colonisation and to be willing to learn about it. However, I don’t think it’s something that most people would be paying attention to because there is nothing else to evoke the messages that you’re essentially playing a game about colonialism. It’s essentially a non-violent colonisation simulator. There are no obvious indigenous peoples to push out of the land (either through assimilation or violent removal), as it is inherently empty, which has been the history perpetuated by the governments that colonised lands of many indigenous peoples. I’m glad that doesn’t exist in the game, but it makes it quite weird that this one caption exists in the loading screen; there’s nothing to further discuss it in any way.

Overall, it’s a pretty decent time-killer for a city-builder, but it feels like it also has quite a few flaws that could be addressed to make it more enjoyable (and less awkward). Most of the AI could be tweaked to be more responsive or logical, and there are a lot of aspects that probably could be made more obvious to players rather than having an irritating learning curve or hunting for information.

Sometimes I forget to write up the books I’ve read, even with short reviews. Sometimes I remember to review them on Goodreads, but I otherwise forget to mention them here. It’s often difficult because I don’t have much to say about them, especially when I absolutely love them; it’s hard to say more than “This book is amazing, please start reading it now.” For now, I’m going to do some catching up on my most recent completions.

The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent

The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent

The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent
As much as I love historical fiction, I often find that I hate stories that are set during the Salem Witch Trial; there’s often far too much focus on the possibility that the entire situation could’ve been the result of ergotism. This is particularly true for one of the most studied period pieces that also happens to be an allegory to McCarthyism, though many people seem to forget that: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

Which is why this novel is refreshing. It’s a mixture of fiction and of family history, as Kathleen Kent is writing from the perspective of her ancestor: Sarah Carrier. The novel starts off feeling so slow, but that slowness builds the whole environment. It sets the scenes, it develops the characters, and it creates the motives; it turns the whole situation into a relatable moment that people can understand, showing how people can antagonise each other to the point that they’re driven to murder.

It’s startling in that way because we often don’t want to admit that jealousy can lead us to murdering someone; we want to claim it’s some other excuse – that a person is a witch and is, through spectres, harming us – so that we don’t have to admit that we’re upset that specific traditions weren’t strictly followed, that someone wasn’t religious enough in the right ways, or that certain people might have stepped beyond their determined “place” in society.

Perhaps because it is so personal but so far away, Kent is more capable of making the whole period interesting all over again.

The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor

The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor

The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor
As before with Zahrah the Windseeker, Okorafor creates an atmosphere that is so compelling and beautiful; it comes to life with every detail she gives. While I love this book somewhat less than the other, it is still such a beautiful coming-of-age story that’s mixed with aspects of questioning the morality of a situation.

You follow Ejii as she develops into a fully-fledged shadow speaker who is destined to change the world, meeting many people who come from backgrounds where they’re constantly battling with their own issues and conflicting beliefs. Starting with Ejii, who witnessed Jaa murdering her father after he usurped power in her absence, feeling both upset and happy at his death; you see everyone grappling with their own issues including her mother, her friends, her half-siblings, and everyone else you meet throughout the story.

Again, the books take a lot from cultures in Western Africa and mesh it together with those of other regions. This is something I love because it makes her worlds that much more vivid and believable; there are so many different people, different traditions, different values that it feels exactly like our own world despite the fantasy elements.

The biggest issue I would’ve had is that this story is not as fleshed out as it could be; the ending felt rushed to completion. Despite this, it was still an enjoyable and easily imaginable world to delve into.

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang
This is one of the few non-fiction books I’ve read recently, and it answered a lot of the questions I’ve had regarding Chinese cities ever since moving to one. Though it was published in 2009, you can still see how the cities today came from the histories and personal stories that Chang describes in her work. For me, it was fairly eye-opening without being too presumptive.

That’s what I liked most about this book, though: She openly states that these are the stories of the girls and women who would talk to her, that she lost touch with many of them because of how they shifted through their own lives, how they simply moved to new jobs, and how they could lose contact with everyone if someone lost their phone.

It was also intriguing because of how empathetic it was. Chang openly states in the book’s discussion pages that she wanted to write it because of how many times Chinese workers were written about as objects rather than people; we constantly see articles written about Chinese workers and how we perceive their lives without giving them a chance to talk about how they feel. Their voices are rarely heard, and we only see them through the eyes of how Westerners talk about them. That makes this so much more compelling, as these are their (translated) words and feelings.

But it is repetitive at times. Sometimes you feel as if you’re rereading pages that you’ve already read. And it’s sometimes disconnected, as she’s telling the stories of her mostly male family members – her great-grandfather, her grandfather, her father, male cousins, a man who was a friend of the family – in parallel with those of these rural girls and women who are working in factories in Chinese cities. While it gives large chunks of needed historical context, it’s sometimes confusing how it relates to these women’s lives.

Cracks by Sheila Kohler

Cracks by Sheila Kohler

There are so many things that I want in young adult fiction. I want more discussion about sexual abuse; I want more discuss about sexual predators. I want to see girls having healthy and supportive friendships with each other. I want to see people who are capable of compassion for individuals who are mentally ill. I want to see characters have more empathy for individuals who are abused. And I really want to see young adult novels leave behind the disgusting trend of glorifying unhealthy relationships.

Cracks by Sheila Kohler meets none of these standards, though it very well could have if only she had tried. In just 176 pages, this novel manages to be disgusting and uncomfortable, while only having a single good quality: the writing seeming more similar to a hivemind or cult, never knowing which of the characters is the protagonist but only knowing for sure who isn’t.

The book is essentially a story told in flashbacks about events that took place at an all-girls boarding school in South Africa. It details the girls’ relationship with a teacher (Miss G) and how the school seemed to change the moment a new student (Fiamma) arrived on campus. Many people compared it to Lord of the Flies, but I’m certain that those individuals never actually read that novel and see it purely as a book about a group of kids that turns against one and kills him. It was also compared to novels such Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; I’ve never read those, so I can’t even begin to comment on the likeness (which I can only assume is just as incorrect as the one I do know).

There are many issues that I take with this book. Some are minor, such as the fact that she managed to write herself into the book as one of the weird cultish girls, making it confusing when you come across her full name and swear you’ve seen it before only to check the cover of the book. But the overwhelming majority of the issues I have are severe, and it largely focuses on one character: Miss G.

Throughout the entirety of the novel, there is never once an explanation for why the girls would ever be obsessed with Miss G. She is given absolutely zero redeeming qualities, and it’s just stated as a fact that all of the girls in the school are obsessed with their teacher; it’s just stated repeatedly that they would do anything for her or to receive her approval, and every girl wanted nothing more than to be on Miss G’s swim team.

The only hint about what could possibly be alluring about her is that she allows the girls to sit in her room after curfew and drink wine, which I cannot even consider being enough to warrant that kind of devotion from her students. Considering my full-time job is a teacher, I can safely say that allowing kids to break certain rules that I believed to be ridiculous has not really made them cling to me in that fashion; yes, they saw me in a more positive light, but they never once were willing to do anything for my affection and attention.

The protagonist girls, as the novel is narrated entirely in the pronoun ‘we’, glorify the rape and abuse that Fiamma receives from Miss G. They perceive Fiamma as being entirely cold toward Miss G, causing her to abuse them further; they pressure her to tolerate Miss G’s illicit affections because, for whatever reason, they want to be on the receiving end. The girls are not at all sympathetic to the abuse that Fiamma is receiving from her teacher. They’re envious of her in so many ways, even well into their adulthood. It’s completely unbelievable that none of them would have ever recognised the actions as being abusive, even upon later reflection. I find that troubling. What’s more, I find that it’s troubling that none of the other teachers even questioned what was going on before it was too late.

There is one exception: Fuzzie, a character who is later shown to have mental illness and/or cognitive disabilities. She’s described in some atrociously negative language. She’s described as being “always confused” as a teenager, coming from a family that has suicide and mental health issues, and having spent time in an asylum as an adult. None of her so-called friends are even remotely friendly to her, often making fun of her in most scenes.

The concept for this book could’ve been amazing if it utilised everything properly. Instead, it was a novel about how groups of catty girls can be just terrible and how everyone wants to be sexually assaulted by one of their teachers, so just deal with it. Rather than spending time on developing supportive relationships between the students and having just one person question what had happened as adults or later feeling guilty for their actions, Kohler wrote something that just was incredibly uncomfortable to read.

Edge of Eternity (The Century Trilogy #3) by Ken Follett

Edge of Eternity (The Century Trilogy #3) by Ken Follett

I have to preface everything with the following statement: I hate this book. I loathe this series.

Rarely does a novel make me wonder about the depravity of its author, but I found that I was left wondering about Follett’s feelings toward sex (or, as his poorly written trilogy makes it seem, the absolute lack of it in the real world). The Century Trilogy has left me feeling absolutely disgusted, especially after completing Edge of Eternity, by so many absurdities that range from inconsistent characterisation within a matter of pages to inaccurate and neglected historical details.

Overall, the writing in Edge of Eternity feels more like an excuse to constantly use “historically accurate language” (read: racial slurs) even when it’s not appropriate in the narration and would only fit in to make accurate dialogue. It’s as if this white man couldn’t stop himself from referring to black people in the manner of the ‘polite’ 1960s gentleman, even when his novel was published in 2014; he often uses words that, though homophobic, many readers would not recognise as being insults that explicitly refer to homosexuality because he does not make it clear that there has been a change in linguistic patterns. He’s so happy to fill his pages with irrelevant details that directly contradict his characters’ capabilities:

Rebecca did not know much about guns, but she thought it was a Walther P38.

Yet, he has no intention to explain the language of the time and the implied meaning of certain words, forgetting that they no longer retain them. He spends forever describing events that were obviously researched, and yet he can’t even take five seconds to figure out why some actions appear completely alien because he didn’t care to research hairstyles, food culture, or animals:

Larry cut into his grilled-cheese sandwich and George took a forkful of chili con carne.

On either side of the road were tall thickets of sugar cane. Turkey vultures floated above, hunting fat rats in the field.

George wrapped the washed lettuce in a towel and windmilled his arm to dry leaves. … He tipped the lettuce into a bowl.

Some of the young black men and women had grown it [their hair] into a huge fuzzy cloud that looked amazing.

If this is how you're making a salad, I'm pretty sure you're doing it wrong.

If this is how you’re making a salad, I’m pretty sure you’re doing it very, very wrong.

As in the last two books, though I sincerely hoped that he would entirely give up writing sex scenes, he fails to understand anything about cissexual women’s anatomy. Once more, he persists in writing scenes that make women’s unnamed vaginas – something that is only discussed using euphemisms for over 2000 pages of the series until he magically learns of their existence during mutual masturbation between a woman and her disabled husband – sound as if they’re similar to a coconut cream pie; I abhor the mental image of anyone burying their face into a woman’s vagina during oral sex, and I loathe the fact that the only anatomically correct word he seems to know is “penis.” He still hasn’t bothered to learn about vaginas, clitorises, or anything of the nature, unless he’s able to fit it into a failed exam to become a doctor.

These sex scenes also relate directly to the aforementioned character inconsistencies. When discussing one of the few black women in a book written during the Civil Rights Movement, he describes Maria Summers as a person who comes from a very conservative and religious family; Follett goes to great lengths to repeatedly mention that her grandfather is a preacher, attempting to poorly emphasise this fact. He also describes her relationship with a man during her time in law school:

She liked George more than any man she had met since she broke up with Frank Baker two years ago. She would have married Frank if he had asked her, but he wanted sex without marriage, a proposal she had rejected.

Even before that, Follett goes on to have two men – including George, who she’s supposed to rather like – discuss her prudishness during that same time:

It occurred to [George] that he might find out more about her from Mawhinney. “Did you date her at law school?”

“No. She only went out with colored guys, and not many of them. She was known as an iceberg.”

George did not take that remark at face value. Any girl who said no was an iceberg, to some men. “Did she have anyone special?”

“There was one guy she was seeing for about a year, but he dumped her because she wouldn’t put out.”

The two men later go up to Maria in a restaurant, where Mawhinney tells her how they  just were discussing her status as an iceberg at law school. George finally says something about how crass this statement is only after she’s been embarrassed by it, even though Follett could’ve written a far better response to this man’s intrusive nature about a woman’s sexuality (particularly the sexuality of a black woman) the moment that he had this jerk say anything.

But Maria changes suddenly when she meets President Kennedy! All of a sudden, she’s invited to his private quarters, set on a bed, and she’s more than willing to open her legs for this ‘powerful’ man. She’s done a complete 180 regarding her views about sex before marriage all because the president wants to sleep with her, and she’s had no significant character changes other than being introduced to JFK. There’s nothing that indicated her change in perspective; she’s simply gone from being frigid to being reliant on a relationship with a married man, which is frequently described in excruciatingly problematic statements that only show how incapable Follett is at understanding anyone who isn’t a heterosexual white male. One the statements that infuriates me the most, leaving aside the constant stereotyping about how Maria hates her supposedly fat ass and is frequently concerned with nothing other than her hair, is that if she were to lose the relationship with JFK, she would die. That is said more than once, despite her earlier characterisation and the knowledge that she’s sleeping with a married man.

The black women in this novel fit a lot of tropes: they’re hypersexualised within an inch of their life (going as far as having Verena directly telling George that she ‘sleeps around’ and ‘is a bad girl’, which makes him ‘too good for her’), they’re not too black, and most of them are rated on the Starbucks Skin Scale. Even George’s mother, who constantly only tells him to stay with Bobby Kennedy because he’s a black face, doesn’t seem to have much understanding of the struggles she’s had to endure for being both black and female. He also has Maria compare women to slaves, which is hyper-problematic for so many reasons. It’s weird because he’s turning black women into John Lennon and Yoko Ono, even though it would be highly uncharacteristic; according to Follett, black women swallow the most white feminism of any group.

Continuing with problematic scenes related to sex, there is a point where Evie, a 15-year old girl, suggests that her Ophelia should be nude in ‘the mad scene’ of Hamlet. This becomes unamusing once you read farther and discover two distinct passages:

The controversy about Evie’s mad scene went all around the school in a flash. The drama teacher, Jeremy Faulkner, a beardie in a striped college scarf, actually approved of the idea. However, the head teacher was not so foolish, and he stamped on it decisively.

Jeremy Faulkner appeared in his trademark college scarf. He was the only teacher who allowed pupils to call him by his first name. “That was fabulous!” he raved. “A peak moment!” His eyes were bright with excitement. The thought occurred to Cameron that Jeremy, too, was in love with Evie.

Excuse me, what? No, this is not something you write about without writing something that explains how paedophilia is wrong and why older men shouldn’t take advantage of young girls. This is a failure to point out anything that negates these terrible scenes, and this happens so often in Follett’s writing. He wrongfully utilises genuine social issues in order to write rubbish, attempting to create something of shock value without actually creating social commentary. Without evena hint of irony, Follett included a character who sounds like every white male libertarian I’ve ever met (‘can’t date her, she’s a social justice warrior’):

Evie no longer had a schoolgirl crush on Jasper. He was relieved. She was sixteen now, and beautiful in a pale, ethereal way; but she was too solemn and intense for his taste. Anyone who dated her would have to share her passionate commitment to a wide range of campaigns against cruelty and injustice, from apartheid in South Africa to experiments on animals. Jasper had no commitment to anything, and anyway he preferred girls like the impish Beep Dewar, who even at the age of thirteen had put her tongue in his mouth and rubbed herself against his erection.

One also should note that Beep (a horrible nickname) was thirteen, but Jasper was eighteen and in university. Again, we’re having some really questionable nonsense being written by Follett, who doesn’t seem to want to discuss how these are issues at all. This sort of writing is further problematic when Dave, who is somewhere between 16- and 17-years old, ends up screwing around with a 30-year old veteran singer during a TV show performance; there is no commentary about how this is a problem, even though this nauseating trope continues to exist in our media and perpetuate the myth that older women taking advantage of young boys is positive rather than seeing it for the abuse that it actually is.

The only foreshadowing he seems to do is related to who has sex with whom, and any time a man and woman are alone – regardless of their relationship status or former characterisation – they’re having obligatory sex. His other aspects of foreshadowing exist in his ability to use tropes, including one of many infertility tropes that result in an unplanned pregnancy, which is something that the mother had done purely for her own ambitions. He pushes her farther by having her sleep around with men more powerful than her husband just for a summer house.

He has men trying to dictate the relationships of women. At one point, Dimka seems to think he can decide for either Nina or Natalya what their relationship status will be with him, forgetting that he has no say in their decisions. Though he does write that Dimka believes he had “deluded himself into thinking the choice was his,” Follett seems to forget that he should discuss how that is a commonly held belief, even today. I mean, women have been and are still being murdered for the sake of rejecting a man, and Follett seems to have forgotten that completely. This is more than simple delusion; it is part of the patriarchal culture we still endure.

Overall, the entire series feels ridiciulously verbose, as if Follett was being paid per word. Rather than write in a concise fashion, he’s frequently over-writing passages to the point of being annoying. Rather than use the more common parlance of acronyms, he consistently writes about the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People even after telling the audience they’re also known as the NAACP; he also does the same for the most well-known American hate group, the KKK. Even more frustratingly, he often does it within mere pages of each other:

He tried to talk to Cameron, who was two years older than Beep and already studying at the University of California at Berkeley, just outside of San Francisco. (p. 667)

Both Cameron and Beep Dewar were students at Berkeley, the San Francisco branch of the University of California. (p. 691)

It’s exhausting and makes his novels unnecessarily lengthy. He also dedicates far too many lines to attempting to say that a character is dyslexic while also proving that he did no research into any form of dyslexia other than the mainstream “switches the letters b and d” and “is unintelligent” or “academically incapable.” Being a dyslexic person, I can tell you that there are other ways that it presents.

The only praise I can offer for this novel – rather, for this entire trilogy – is that in the form of a quote from my friend when we were discussing it: “It is a book. It is made out of paper. It could be an effective murder weapon if thrown.” It’s also a wonderful tool for finding bigots, as it seems the only negative reviews for it anywhere are complaints that it is “too liberal.” I’m pretty sure we’ve read very different books.

‹ previous · next ›