The Name of Red by Beena Khan

“The men watched with fascination as she opened a book and bowed her head in it. It looked like she was avoiding the crowd, and she appeared to want to blend in. It was impossible though since she’d already caught the attention of her audience by simply standing out in her red dress.”

Smashwords – The Name of Red – a book by Beena Khan

The Name of Red by Beena Khan is an #OwnVoices South Asian contemporary romance about a woman known only as Red who frequents a local bar every evening where she drinks vodka and reads books. One evening an admirer begins leaving specific titles for her upon her favoured reading spot with notes tucked into the pages. Feeling intrigued  by the gesture, she reciprocates the gift-giving with responses to said notes, thus starting a curious friendship. The novel is a debut release.

There were many attributes to The Name of Red that kept me steadfastly invested in the story between Red and her mystery admirer, such as the incredible descriptive writing and the slow-burn interaction between the two individuals, however the novel’s downfall was how unpolished and repetitive the prose became.   

The strongest trait of the novel is the captivating way that the author is able to create atmosphere. It was marvellously easy to picture Red getting situated at the bar and trying to focus on her book, but then becoming wholly uncomfortable when men would gawk at her inappropriately. Another scene was when she receives her first book from the admirer and the caution that she felt along with a twist of curiosity and excitement was delightful and charming. These fantastic descriptives extend to character interactions and dialogue sequences, where details of facial expressions and emotional reactions were shared, providing the reader with a superb recognition of how everyone was reacting to one another. This tends to be a characteristic that is quite commonly overlooked in contemporaries during verbal exchanges and its presence here was immensely appreciated. Additionally, it further cements the heat of the slow-burn development of feelings between Red and her eventual love-interest, Kabir.

The second facet that makes The Name of Red so fiercely engaging is the aforementioned romance. The rapport is built on two individuals who get to know each other gradually through shared (and separate) interests and a natural inquisitiveness about one another’s past encounters and relationships. It helps create a foundation of trust and mutual respect that is splendidly genuine and empathetic. The establishment of familiarity when building a romantic relationship or even a platonic kinship is a great  portrayal of how healthy bonds are forged and something that is vastly needed more of in adult romances.

The only true downfall of The Name of Red is the unpolished nature of the overall writing style. In the first half of the book, there are tons of repetitive words and phrases that make it feel tedious and overtly accentuated, mainly when describing Red’s beauty and the impact that it has on people around her. Rather than being allowed to gauge the reactions and formulate an opinion independently, it occasionally felt like the reader was supposed to respond with or think specific things, and that can become highly grating as one gets backed into a very precise corner. This is further reinforced if one is doing a single reading session for the book.

In later chapters, the quality of the writing takes a significant downturn as well. Rather than the carefully crafted sentences that is found in the first one-third of the narrative, the prose becomes riddled with many grammatical errors and inconsistent sentence structures that detracts from a smooth reading experience. I found myself stopping every so often to re-visit certain passages and paragraphs so that I could understand them fully, which further exasperated the repetitive element of the novel, but in a completely different manner. Suffice to say that the book needed a serious hand at editing as it reads like a second draft rather than a final product.

Writing titbits aside, there was one narrative element I also did not particularly care for and that was the amount of trauma that is introduced later on. Much of the trauma felt like contrived plot devices for shock value and it places a great amount of distance between the reader and the initial investment that hooks one into the plot and character plights. The suspension of disbelief utterly evaporates in the last one-third to one-fourth of the narrative, which then impacts the storytelling quality as a whole. However, I do feel the need to admit that I am not typically a reader of romance, so regulars of the genre may find these elements far more palatable than I did.

Overall, The Name of Red was a great debut. The author has immense potential to be a superb contributor to the genre. Having such a skill for crafting immersive settings and characters that are easy to root for, I am positive that she shall only get better with each new book she releases. I look forward to seeing what her next story shall entail. I recommend The Name of Red for people who fancy diverse slow-burn romances.

The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya

“With every item she tossed into the washer’s gaping mouth, she dissected every sentence she could recall saying to Neela, analysing the implications of her words and how they might have been interpreted.”

The Subtweet: A Novel: Shraya, Vivek: 9781770415256: Amazon.com: Books

The Subtweet by Vivek Shraya is an #OwnVoices South Asian-Canadian contemporary novel about two uniquely separate musicians that formulate a friendship after one of them performs a cover of the other’s song and it goes viral. Their quick-formulated bond becomes a contrast of insecurities and miscommunication as the fame compounds into toxic envy. Then one moment of weakness and a startling subtweet later, careers are devastated, and friendships become utterly shattered.

The Subtweet was a novel that had a vastly unique premise and sounded unlike anything that I have ever read before, which is why I felt drawn to it. While it was extremely fast-paced and easy to consume in one sitting, by its finale I felt that the novel’s listed premise was inherently far-removed from its painfully one-dimensional execution.

Social media is the ultimate platform for networking in the modern day, however, it is also one of the swiftest ways to create havoc and chaos, particularly those built upon the recesses of miscommunication and missing facts. While I understood that this element would play a part in the conflict of The Subtweet’s story, as it does concentrate on virtually crafted camaraderie, what I did not foresee was it becoming the underlying foundation for every single ounce of harmfulness taking place in the book. Ultimately, this is one of my least favourite tropes of all-time, and I felt it became a tenuous excuse for uncertain narrative direction, more so when coupled with the thin level of critique on the subject matter and a severe lack of atmosphere.

Rukmini and Neela, the two protagonists of The Subtweet, are both incredibly unlikeable people, and one of the main reasons for this is that they are women in their thirties who behave like they are sixteen with their petty drama and consistent mistrust of one another’s loyalty to their outrageously fast-formed friendship. A handful of virtual messages and some poorly constructed face-to-face interactions later, they were best of friends, seemingly out of thin air. Not only did this feel entirely unrealistic, it also reeked of doubtful plot subtexts. If we look at them as separate individuals, then there is no development here either to assist in making them endearing, or to garner the reader’s empathy, or even sympathy, in the midst of the chaos that occurs when the hurtful subtweet goes live; a feat that astounded me given the heavy load of dialogue that takes place in the novel. They both provide monologues about the various aspects that make them feel invalidated and insecure in the friendship yet do absolutely nothing to remedy their concerns or allay their fears. This creates a stonewall of storytelling stagnation that sticks around from start to finish.

When the conflict occurs, as I mentioned earlier, it is based entirely on miscommunication. Rather than have an adult conversation to sort out the motives or anger that ultimately led to Neela’s string of hurtful words, Rukmini completely disappears from the picture, never to be heard of again. This was a terrible way to engage with a topic that is supposed to be under a critical lens and create the basis for a thought-provoking examination on the noxiousness that comes with having an online presence.

The Subtweet had a grocery list of themes that it wanted to explore. Some of these include the implications of diversity when a person of colour caters to White audiences’ fetishized perception of cultural content, or when White masses seek to wash away the nuances that separate diverse content as unique creative cultural installations; the vindictive dynamics that are prominent in female-centric friendships; critiques on how privilege plays a part in fame accumulation, especially when it steals credit away from original creators; and lastly, the harmful ways that social media can be manipulated to build overnight stardom, whether that was the desired effect or not. With so many various subjects to shine a decisive lens on, and then some, the book never touches any of it with more than a handful of lines referencing these things. Writing out a single statement admonishing a person for appeasing the White masses in lieu of cultural authenticity is not the same thing as having a crucial examination on the topic! If anything, all it does is admit a desire to do so but illustrate a complete lack of initiative to follow through.

The Subtweet was a book that was ambitious in scope, yet floundered into obscurity with the delivery, leaving behind an immensely frustrating and one-dimensional 200-pages of storytelling torpidity. One of the most fascinating novels of 2020 quickly turned into the most disappointing reading experience I have had in years. As such, I cannot recommend The Subtweet with good faith.