Book Review ~ The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

Synopsis of The Incendiaries

Phoebe Lin and Will Kendall meet their first month at prestigious Edwards University. Phoebe is a glamorous girl who doesn’t tell anyone she blames herself for her mother’s recent death. Will is a misfit scholarship boy who transfers to Edwards from Bible college, waiting tables to get by. What he knows for sure is that he loves Phoebe.

Grieving and guilt-ridden, Phoebe is increasingly drawn into a religious group—a secretive extremist cult—founded by a charismatic former student, John Leal. He has an enigmatic past that involves North Korea and Phoebe’s Korean American family. Meanwhile, Will struggles to confront the fundamentalism he’s tried to escape, and the obsession consuming the one he loves. When the group bombs several buildings in the name of faith, killing five people, Phoebe disappears. Will devotes himself to finding her, tilting into obsession himself, seeking answers to what happened to Phoebe and if she could have been responsible for this violent act.

The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon

The Incendiaries is the debut novel of R.O. Kwon, and when I was offered a copy of the book to review, I was immediately drawn in by the synopsis. Handled with the right amount of care, terrorism can be a rich theme for novelists to explore in stories, with the additional lure that this is not your run of the mill story about Islamic extremism, but a story that explores fundamentalism of a different kind. I’m also trying to make it a point to read more diversely, so a story about a young Korean-American woman fits into that perfectly.

This is an extremely compelling story, and at just over 200 pages, makes for a short read too. I managed to get through it in a couple of sittings, something that isn’t always a given, no matter how long the book is. The story is one that I wanted to get to the end of, especially as the acts of terrorism were not kept a secret to the end of the novel, and I wanted to find out more; it’s not about what happened, it’s about why it happened.

I don’t read an awful lot of literary fiction, and so every time I do, I have to re-adjust to the style; The Incendiaries doesn’t use dialogue, preferring reported speech, and this isn’t something that I’m used to. But a couple of chapters is all it took adjust, and it’s clear why this choice is made; the novel is split into the narrative of the three main characters (Phoebe, Will and John Leal), but the sense is that we’re hearing someone give us the details of the events, rather than us getting every single last detail.  Phoebe is presented to us through the lens of Will, while John Leal is not fully revealed to us, and he remains a mysterious character throughout the novel.

Phoebe is the character who is the most polarising, because it is so easy to identify with her, while at the same time wanting to distance ourselves from her actions. It’s terrifying to watch her fall under Leal’s spell, further away from Will’s attempts to save her, and it did make me wonder how quickly a cult leader could work his magic on me. Though I consider myself a fairly strong character, if I was as vulnerable as Phoebe, trying to escape from a tragic past, would I be able to resist?

This is a wonderful debut, and though the story and the short length propel the narrative making it a quick read, it’s anything but an easy book. It’s a thought-provoking story that I’m sure will stay with me.

The Incendiaries
Publication Date: 6th September 2018
Virago
Provided by publisher

Dear Rachel Robinson

In a new series that I will inevitably forget about after two or so posts, I thought I’d write letters to fictional characters. The first is to Rachel Robinson, of Here’s to you Rachel Robinson fame.

Rachel Robinson

Dear Rachel Robinson,

I’m writing to you now, as you turn 38, to check in with you. The last I heard of you, you were finishing seventh grade, and about to head to music camp to relax after a stressful few months.

So what’s happened in the intervening years? First of all, I hope you have managed to find a way to relax, and realise that happiness does not necessarily lay in perfection. As a thirteen year old, you imagined that anything other than an A was a failing grade and that you had to say yes to everything that your teachers asked you to do. Who knows why they thought that you’d be a good candidate for Natural Helpers? You were (and I’m sure are) brilliant at a good many things, but a natural peer counsellor? Possibly not.

In your biography you mapped out three distinct careers for yourself, something that seems perfectly feasible aged 13, but entirely impossible once you have a little perspective. I imagine that you probably graduated top of your college class, and went on to practice law, like your mum or, more likely in my opinion, medicine. Maybe, given the difficulties your brother Charles had, you went into psychology and became a therapist. Or maybe you became a world-famous cardio-thoracic surgeon.

Talking of Charles, I wonder what happened. There did seem to be a chink of light at the end of the tunnel; it felt that by the end of your story, you were starting to discover ways to deal with him, that you might be able to connect with him in a way that wasn’t instantly antagonistic. I hope that he got the help he needed, and you were able to enjoy your teenage years without the constant worry of the havoc he was wreaking on your family. It’s hard to realise when you are so close to something, but hopefully time has given you the perspective you need to realise that he was a kid who was hurting, and lashing out was the only way he knew how to deal with that.

And what about your best friends? Stephanie and Alison both had their own issues at home, and you seemed so different from them, that I have to wonder if your friendship survived into high school. I’ve been there with people that I grew up with that I suddenly had nothing in common with at 14, so if this happened to you, I hope it was an amicable break and that you found other people to share your high school experiences with. Of course, there’s every possibility that you remained best friends with them, and now you are older, and possibly living in different parts of the country, you see each other infrequently, but it’s just like old times when you do catch up. I bet you still reminisce about the time that Jeremy Dragon kissed you, and discuss what happened when you saw him again after music camp (what did happen?!).

Most of all, Rachel, I hope you’re happy. I hope you realised that your parents would still love you if you weren’t at the top of all of your classes, or if you decided to skip a club or a programme to just have fun with your friends. I hope that as you got older, you stayed true to your belief that ‘normal’ and ‘average’ aren’t the same thing, and that it’s OK to want different things from the people around you.

July 2018 Books

July-2018

 

The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser

I watched The Other Boleyn Girl, and realised that beyond what I learnt about Henry VIII and his wives at school, I don’t actually know that much about them. So I used one of my stockpiled Audible credits to download this audiobook. It was a really easy listen, not too dense, and as the title would suggest, it focused on the women in Henry’s life, rather than the man himself. Anne Boleyn is covered in some detail, for obvious reasons – as his second wife and the first to be executed, hers is an interesting story, but it was also nice to read about the women that seem to be less remembered by history.

Freshers by Tom Ellis and Lucy Iveson

I grabbed this in the library, and due to being early for meeting a friend for lunch, and then having a long bus journey home, I managed to finish it in a day, something I don’t tend to do that much any more (more on that later). It’s a fairly straightforward YA story about a group of young people starting university, with our main character, Phoebe, starting her first term already harbouring a crush on a boy from school who has ended up at the same uni. It’s a fairly by-the-books female-male romance, with a group of misfit friends thrown in for good measure, and there’s absolutely zero diversity here – no main characters who are anything other than white, straight, able-bodied etc. But there are just a few threads of feminism woven in, and it’s really readable, with an enjoyable enough ending that didn’t make me roll my eyes. This makes it seem as though I’m damning it with faint praise, but I did enjoy it – evidenced by the fact that I read it so quickly!

Once Upon a Dream by Liz Brasswell

The Disney Twisted Tales were everywhere for a while, so when I was taking advantage of a 3 for £10 offer at the end of last year, I picked the Sleeping Beauty one up to give a read. I finally got around to it recently, and I can’t say that I was overwhelmed! It reimagines the Disney tale as though Aurora didn’t awake at the end of the story, and Maleficent wasn’t vanquished by Prince Phillip. At first I was really enjoying it; the alternate universe that the characters were in really worked, and I was eager to see where it went. But then it got really bogged down and dense, and I just stopped caring; I put it down for weeks before finally picking it up to finish it off, just so I could tick it off. I’m sure that there are interesting stories to be told in this vein, but it doesn’t feel as though they have tried particularly hard, being more concerned with the concept rather than the execution of it.

Invincible Summer by Alice Adams

Another book that I read in a day! I had seen this in a list of ‘best summer reads’, so reserved it at the library, and read it the same day that I picked it up. It’s billed as a great read for anyone who enjoyed One Day, in that it follows a similar structure: we meet this group of friends as they finish their first year at university, and then catch up with them over the next 20 or so summers. It’s not as rigid in its structure as One Day; sometimes we catch up with the gang twice in one year, and sometimes a couple of years pass before we find out what they’re up to. At the heart of the story is Eva, a physics graduate who finds in her friends a family that she lacked growing up. Benedict is a fellow physics student, while Sylvia is an artist, and Lucien, her brother, is not a student but a firm part of the gang. There are romantic entanglements to contend with, and there’s a definite will-they-won’t-they that plays out over the course of the two decades, but there’s much more to it than that, and that’s why I found it so compelling.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney 

This was the final book of my three-book weekend; again, I finished this in one sitting, because I just couldn’t put it down. It’s funny, because there’s not really one character in there who I would describe as likable; they are none of them particularly nice people. The story is told from the point of view of Frances, a young undergraduate who performs poetry with her best friend and ex-girlfriend Bobbi. Their lives collide with those of an older couple, Melissa and Nick, with Bobbi being fascinated by Melissa, and Frances and Nick embarking on an affair. I’m finding it hard to describe what I liked so much about it, especially given that the characters are so unlikeable. They aren’t people that I particularly wanted to spend time with, and yet I raced through the book, eager to get to the end! Maybe it’s simply that it’s especially well-written – I felt as though I was completely immersed in Frances point of view, feeling every bit of physical and emotional pain that she went through.

Books so far in 2018 – 32

 

June 2018 Books

June-2018-Books

P.S. I Still Love You by Jenny Han
I mentioned in my last books roundup that I had picked up the first two books in this series in a charity shop, and I’m so glad I did, because as soon as I had finished reading To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, I was able to crack straight on with the next in the series! Following the events of the first novel, in which Lara Jean’s love letters to all the boys she loved were posted without her knowledge, things have settled down a little, and Lara Jean is in a proper relationship with one of the boys, Peter. However, things are still complicated with Peter’s ex, Genevieve, and get even further confused when John Ambrose McLaren, one of the letter recipients, arrives back on the scene and cause Lara Jean to question her feelings.

Things are lot more teenage-angsty in this story; one of the reasons I loved the first book was that the relationships of the three sisters was an important part of the story, and that is less the case here. But it’s still a hugely enjoyable YA romance, and now I have to get the last in the series to see how it all turns out.

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain
I reviewed Love and Ruin as part of a blog tour, you can read my full review here. The long and short of it is that this is the story of Martha Gellhorn, celebrated war correspondent whose career spanned six decades. The period covered in this novel coincides with her marriage to one of the most famous American writers of the 20th Century, Ernest Hemingway. It’s a fine line to tread between focusing solely on her time as the third of Hemingway’s four wives, and portraying her as what she was; a female war writer at a time when women weren’t expected to be amongst the conflict. I really loved this story; McLain conjured up the hazy paradise of Cuba in the 30s as wonderfully as she evoked the terrifying scenes of war in Spain and France.

The Wives by Lauren Weisberger
My full review of The Wives goes into detail about my problems with the book; it’s not offensive, and it’s an enjoyable enough read, but I feel as though as a reader, I’ve moved on a lot since when I read The Devil Wears Prada, of which this is a sequel. I didn’t actually realise it was a sequel, until I noticed Miranda Priestly’s name being mentioned, and then later remembered that Emily was the name of a character in that book, and she’s one of our main characters here. As I mentioned in my review, I want and need to read much more diversely, and books like this, that feel like totally empty calories, are a bit of a waste of my reading time. of which I don’t have that much. My feelings a couple of weeks after reading it are actually seeming a lot harsher than they did when I finished it – I wanted to get to the end, and finish off the story, and in that respect, it was enjoyable enough. But I won’t be troubling myself to read any more in the series if they come along.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Robert Hack, parts 3 & 4
I’ve decided to lump these two books into one, because in all honesty, I probably should have put all eight issues in one in the first place – they are kind of hard to review individually! I am really enjoying the story though; it’s delightfully dark, and I can’t wait to see how it’s adapted for television. I’m going to resist too much of a review/plot synopsis until I have read all eight instalments!

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld
Whenever I’m asked what my favourite book is, I say American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. It’s been ten years since it was published, and probably seven years since I last read it (I should probably remedy that), but I just remember loving it so much. And now a new release by Sittenfeld is something to be celebrated, though this collection of short stories has been out for a while, and I’ve only just managed to get my hands on it to read. I’m not really clever enough to suggest why she’s so awesome, but all I know is that I love her characters, who always feel so intensely real to me, and when it’s time to walk away from them, at the end of a book, I always feel a sense of loss.

The fact that she manages to do this with short stories is just further evidence of her genius. It’s been a couple of weeks since I read these stories, but the people are still with me. I’m still thinking about the young journalist who leaves her breastfeeding baby behind while she heads to interview a young startlet, and about the high-flying lawyer who happens upon her old high school enemy on her honeymoon and can’t get past the idea of exacting petty revenge. These women (and occasionally, men), are all totally individual and distinct characters, who live and breathe in the pages of the book.

Books so far in 2018 – 26