BOOK REVIEW: THE PARISIAN by ISABELLA HAMMAD


The Parisian by Isabella Hammad - Penguin Books Australia

First, I just want to say that Isabella Hammad’s writing is beautiful. It has the timeless elegance of a classic: poised, graceful, measured. It’s precise and unsentimental, but in its directness is able to bring a strong and affecting emotional force to the novel’s key moments. I found this to be especially the case in the novel’s more contemplative first section, where nineteen-year-old Midhat, fresh out of school in Constantinople, tries to find his place as both a student and a young man in France. This was the section of the novel I enjoyed the most, and it’s very clear to me why: the story’s scope is much more limited, and so there is a much stronger emphasis on character psyche and dynamics. Many chapters in this section are so impressive in the ways that they give you such keen insight into Midhat’s internal monologue, the minute and increasingly intricate webs of meaning that he creates in order to try to ascertain his place in this new environment he’s found himself in. It’s a section that really homes in on the intricacies of Midhat’s psychology, and for that I loved it.

From the second section onwards, though, the novel just falls apart. The scope of the story gets increasingly larger, and the character work suffers–because the character work is simply not there. Some chapters–and long ones, mind you–follow characters that we literally never hear from again. And as the number of characters increases, the focus of the novel strays from Midhat, the character that the novel has, thus far, invested a significant amount of time in developing. Every time I got to a chapter that followed some seemingly random character who was not Midhat, a part of me just died. I wanted to get back to Midhat’s story because Midhat was, by all accounts, the only developed character in this novel. Increasingly, it felt as though the novel had done all this excellent character-building work in the first section only to invalidate it in its second and third sections; making you invested in Midhat, only to then take the narrative focus away from him (and where we do get Midhat’s story afterwards it’s frankly just kind of boring and stale…).

The presence of these random peripheral characters, though, is symptomatic of a much larger issue with this novel, which is that it wants to be both a novel and a work of nonfiction. I don’t mind reading a novel that takes as its basis a key historical event or events. What I do mind is that novel simply telling me that historical event without weaving it into its narrative. And that is by far my biggest frustration with The ParisianLarge swathes of its story are preoccupied with recounting various developments in the history of the Middle East and its relationship to–and rule by–the colonial powers of Britain and France. Where these developments are incorporated into the story, they are virtually impossible to follow (at least for me they were); the historical scope is just too broad, and despite my attempts to try to understand what was going on, I quickly lost the thread of the story. More often than not, though, we just get paragraphs and paragraphs recounting what we’d missed out on in terms of developments in Nablus, or Beirut, or Damascus. And the paragraphs are so utterly dry to read. If I wanted to read a work of nonfiction, I would’ve read a work of nonfiction. What I wanted, here, was a story, and I felt like so much of what I got was not that.

The Parisian wanted to have both the psychological precision of a character-focused novel and the sweeping scope of a historical novel–what it had, in the end, was neither, because it wasn’t able to successfully execute either of those things. Reading its character-focused parts just highlighted how little I cared for its historical parts by contrast; and reading its historical parts just absolutely marred my enjoyment of its character-focused parts. It was like the worst of both worlds. In addition to all of this, the historical emphasis of the novel made the pace of the novel glacial, which ultimately meant that when you did get to those rare, significant character moments (i.e. the good parts; the parts the Hammad writes really well), you were just frustrated more than anything else because you had to wade through so many dry, bloated chapters to get to them.

My overwhelming feeling about The Parisian is frustration–frustration not because I can write it off as a completely bad novel, but precisely because I can’t. Because this novel had so much potential, and it could’ve been so much better than it was, but it just wasn’t. I feel like I invested so much time and effort into a narrative that didn’t give me much payoff, or any payoff at all in some ways. The more I read this novel, the more I could feel my patience for it running out. And by the end what little I had enjoyed about it in the beginning was just completely snuffed out.

PS: for some spoilery discussion of this novel, check out the spoiler tag in my Goodreads review of it ๐Ÿ‘€


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SOME ROMANCE BOOK REVIEWS (ft. some favs and some not-so-favs)


LOVED

Hang the Moon by Alexandria Bellefleur (โ˜…โ˜…โ˜…โ˜…)

Alexandria Bellefleur has quickly become one of my favourite contemporary romance authors, and this book (and the next one) is such a clear example of why. Our main characters here are Annie, who comes to Seattle to visit her best friend, Darcy; and Brendon, who’s Darcy’s brother, and who just so happened to have a big crush on Annie when they were kids. And listen: Annie and Brendon are just so cute. ๐Ÿฅบ First of all, I just loved Brendon, who really reminded me of Gideon Prewitt from Emma Mills’s Foolish Hearts (a rare YA favourite of mine); he’s a total sunshine character, an optimist and a hopeless romantic, all traits which I rarely see in male characters, so it was especially refreshing to see them here. I also found Annie and Brendon’s interactions so sweet — Bellefleur excels at writing moments, whether big or small, that really show you how much these characters care about each other. Also, the third act conflict felt really believable to me, which is a major plus since that’s where a lot of romances tend to go wrong.


Count Your Lucky Stars by Alexandria Bellefleur (โ˜…โ˜…โ˜…โ˜…)

Basically everything I said about Hang the Moon applies to Count Your Lucky Stars. I think I preferred this book more, though, because it’s just so deliciously ANGSTY. Our main characters in this one are Margot, who’s Darcy and Brendon’s friend, and Olivia, Darcy’s best friend from high school that Margot sort of got together with/was very much in love with. When Olivia is hired to plan Annie and Brendon’s wedding, her and Margot meet for the first time since high school, and the novel’s plot takes off. ๐Ÿ‘€ And, like I said, ANGST. I adore any kind of estrangement-then-reconciliation plot/second-chance romance, and this was just a really well-executed example of that. I loved getting to see how the history between Margot and Olivia played out in their current interactions, especially because that history made their relationship feel a lot more grounded and believable than if they had just met. Just a really, really great romance. I will absolutely be reading anything that Alexandria Bellelfleur comes out with next (so excited for her 2023 novel!!).


Bombshell by Sarah MacLean (โ˜…โ˜…โ˜….5)

2021 was the year that I got into Sarah MacLean, and I’m so glad that I did. I have no problem finding contemporary romances that I love, but when it comes to historical romances, I just always feel very underwhelmed. Not the case with Sarah MacLean’s historical romances. I’ve read 3 of her novels so far–Bombshell, and also Daring the Duke and The Day of the Duchess–and have figured out what it is that I like so much about her novels. First, the characters really have to earn their romance; there are believable obstacles as to why they aren’t/can’t be together in the beginning, and so over the course of the novel you follow them trying to navigate those obstacles so that they can actually be together. We see this in Bombshell, where Caleb is reticent to engage romantically with Cecily for ~Mysterious Reasons~, reasons which make for a lot of–here it is again–ANGST that helps move the story forward. Another thing is that emotions are always turned up to like 1000000 in Sarah MacLean’s novels; sometimes it gets to be a little much, but on the whole I find it works for me because, like I said, the characters really work to get to a point where they can actually communicate their feelings to each other. Overall, really enjoyable, and I am definitely planning on reading MacLean’s entire backlist (also super excited for the next novel in this series!).

MIDDLE OF THE ROAD

The Good Girl’s Guide to Rakes by Eva Leigh (โ˜…โ˜…โ˜…)

The Good Girl’s Guide to Rakes was an enjoyable historical romance for me, but not necessarily a memorable one. There’s some fun plot stuff in this, and I didn’t think the romance between the hero and the heroine was bad, necessarily; they had some noteworthy and, I thought, meaningful scenes together. My main problem with this novel is that, unlike MacLean’s, the romance didn’t feel very earned. At least, it didn’t feel like it merited the kind of reactions that we got at the end of the book. The romance here develops pretty quickly, which I don’t always mind, except that by the end of the novel the characters are confessing their deep and everlasting love for each other–“I was made to love you”-type confessions–in a way that made the whole novel feel sappy rather than romantic. Those sorts of confessions really undermined all the work that the novel had been doing to develop the romance, and ultimately they kind of soured the reading experience for me. This definitely wasn’t a bad novel, but I felt like its last third needed more work.


Weather Girl by Rachel Lynn Solomon (โ˜…โ˜…โ˜….5)

Weather Girl falls under the category of “perfectly serviceable” for me. I gave it a 3.5 stars, which means that I did enjoy it, but like The Good Girl’s Guide to Rakes, it was not particularly memorable. Rachel Lynn Solomon clearly does the work of developing the romance in this novel: we get plenty of interactions between Ari and Russell, and we see them learn to trust and confide in each other over the course of the novel. My issue is that the relationship didn’t feel super substantial to me; like it was definitely developed, but I never felt like I needed Ari and Russell to be together or that I was super invested in their relationship working out. All this novel got out of me was a lukewarm “it’s nice they got together,” which is not really the reaction I want from a romance. Rachel Lynn Solomon does write well, but I wanted some angst or drama in this one just so the romance could feel a bit more earned.


Delilah Green Doesn’t Care by Ashley Herring Blake (โ˜…โ˜…โ˜…)

I was so excited to read this. Alas, I may have overhyped it a bit too much in my mind, because ultimately this was a disappointment for me. Again, it wasn’t bad, but I wanted it to be much better than it was. As with Weather Girl, the romance between Delilah and Claire didn’t feel very substantial; this is all the more evident in this novel because the romance happens over the course of, like, 10 days, which is definitely not enough time to make the relationship feel earned. (Then again Act Your Age, Eve Brown happens over the course of about 2 weeks and I absolutely adored the romance in it, so maybe it’s more a matter of execution.) Another thing that didn’t work for me in this novel was the dialogue. Dialogue is one of the most important things to me in a romance. If the dialogue between the love interests is great, then that’s already a huge chunk of the work of the romance taken care of. Sadly, this wasn’t the case here. This is very much a matter of personal taste, so take it with a grain of salt, but the humour in this book didn’t work for me at all; it felt forced, like it was trying to be fun and banter-y when it actually wasn’t. Sad I didn’t love this one, but what can you do. ยฏ\_(ใƒ„)_/ยฏ


IT’S A NO FROM ME

It Happened One Summer by Tessa Bailey (โ˜…โ˜….5)

Prior to reading this novel, I had zero interest in reading anything by Tessa Bailey. I’d heard plenty of negative reviews of her work, and could very much tell that her novels weren’t going to be for me. Alas, I succumbed to the hype around this novel–and now that I’ve read it, I should’ve just trusted my gut and moved on lol. This novel does two of my least favourite romance things. First, the alpha male love interest, which I despise. Apparently the love interest in this novel wasn’t even that alpha compared to Bailey’s other books, but even here it was too much for me. I cannot stand male love interests who are possessive, or who get jealous if a man so much as breathes around the female love interest. It’s an instant no from me (“immediately no,” in TikTok parlance). Another huge problem with this book–and, from what I’ve been able to gather from Twitter discussions, Bailey’s novels in general–is the gender essentialism. Oh my god, literally every single thing in this novel feels like it’s gendered. We have Brendan’s “male vulnerability” and Piper’s “feminine message,” and, at one point, a “feminine chair” ??? like ??? Methinks this novel has a fundamental problem when it comes to its depiction of gender dynamics and I was not about it. Will definitely not be reading anything else by Tessa Bailey in the future.


Thank you so much to HarperCollins Canada and Berkley for providing me with eARCs of these books via Edelweiss!


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BOOK REVIEW: THE BLOOD MIRACLES by LISA McINERNEY


The Blood Miracles by Lisa McInerney - Books - Hachette Australia

Genuinely upset over how disappointing this was.

Where The Glorious Heresies had so much life, The Blood Miracles had almost none. And this novel’s lifelessness is its most fundamental problem. Ryan goes through so much shit throughout the course of its narrative, and yet we never really see him deal with any of it. There are the occasional glimmers of depth and insight, but other than that, it felt like he was just going from one fuck-up to another, with no time for him–or us–to properly process the psychological or emotional repercussions of those fuck-ups. Like, I can maybe buy that that’s part of Ryan’s character, that the point is precisely that he’s unable to grapple with his decisions and their consequences, but I don’t think it makes for very compelling reading to have so little insight into a character who is making the most infuriatingly frustrating and idiotic decisions possible. And of course, Ryan made bad decisions in The Glorious Heresies, but that novel worked because we got to see his pain, his anguish, his awareness that he was constantly letting himself and the people he cared about down. The Ryan of The Blood Miracles is not subdued so much as he is hollow. He fucks up and you’re like okay, I guess that’s another shitty decision out of the 29037129371 shitty decisions he’s already made… It was truly the most frustrating reading experience I’ve had all year.

I don’t know what happened between The Glorious Heresies and The Blood Miracles, but something got lost along the way. The wit, the spirit, the energy of the first book is nowhere to be found here, and the result is a novel that feels like such a drag–depressing in a way that invites irritation rather than understanding from the reader (at least this reader). I was so ready to love this book; I would’ve forgiven it so much, and it still let me down.

(Also if I have to hear about Natalie in the next book I am going to SCREAM. OH MY GODDDDD I have never cared less about a character.)


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