Queen of the Tiles by Hanna Alkaf

“But life, like Scrabble, is like that—you get the rack you get, and you just have to figure out how to make do.”

Queen of the Tiles is an entertaining mystery romp that belongs to that subgenre of YA books that combines a whodunnit type of storyline with the kind of teen dynamics at play in Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars. Similarly to a lot of these books, Queen of the Tiles takes place in a ‘confined’ setting, but rather than going for the usual prep school/high school type of backdrop, Hanna Alkaf freshens things up by having her story take place during the World Warrior Weekend, an annual Scrabble competition. This tournament takes place in a hotel in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, a setting that, you must admit, we don’t get to see often in YA. Additionally, our lead is Muslim, and we also get a very casual non-binary rep with Shuba. The story definitely has some strong The Queen’s Gambit vibes and the author depicts the various Scrabble games in a really fun and dynamic way (so that they are anything but boring) and we can see just how devoted and ambitious some of the competitors are.
Najwa Bakri, our narrator, is taking part in this tournament, the first one she’s done since the very sudden death of her best friend.

“Every player knows that words can be twisted to suit your purpose, if the board allows it, and Trina knows this better than most. She is fantastic; she ignites fantasies. She is spectacular; she attracts spectacle.”

Trina Low died during the previous year’s World Warrior Weekend. Since her death, Najwa has distanced herself from the Scrabble world, but she finds herself going back to claim Trina’s former title, that of the Queen of the Tiles. She knows that people who didn’t like Trina, and who were in turn not liked by her, are also vying for that title, and Najwa isn’t ready to give them the satisfaction of winning. Competing again however proves harder than it used to be now that Najwa is struggling with anxiety and trauma caused by Trina’s premature death. The author is really thoughtful in the way she articulates Najwa’s grieving process, capturing just how suddenly grief can engulf you, regardless of how much time has passed since the person you cared for died. Alkaf also shows how grief manifests differently in different people.

Things get harder when new posts appear on Trina’s long inactive insta. Cryptic posts hinting that her death may have been very much not an accident. Joining a long tradition of kid-turned-detectives such as Nancy Drew and the Scooby-Doo gang (both of which get mentioned in the story), Najwa begins solving the posts’ ominous word puzzles and starts questioning the other competitors, most of whom were foes of Trina. There is the pompous boy she was competing against when she died, who seemed less concerned by her dropping dead than verifying whether her death meant he’d automatically won that final round. There is Trina’s ‘other’ best-friend, an ostensibly nice and obsequious girl whose subservience to Trina definitely gives off sycophantic vibes. There is that girl who was caught in a cheating scandal, and Trina may have been responsible for stoking those cheating rumours. And, of course, Trina’s off-and-on again boyfriend Mark, a possessive type who may have grown tired of Trina’s and what he perceived to be as her ‘blasé’ attitude. While Najwa has always been aware of Trina’s thorny character, and her need to prove herself and to one-up others, during the course of her ‘amateur’ investigation she will be forced to really confront the kind of person Trina was.

“That’s just how she was; she saw something she wanted and she went for it with a laser-sharp intensity that could border on the obsessive. All or nothing, perfection or perish.”

I liked the drama, the secrecy, the rumours and gossip. The Scrabble element was really well delivered and it worked really well for the mystery clues. My only quibbles are 1) throughout the story Najwa links words that are being used or were used in a game to her past or present situation. Sometimes this was effective, but the more this device was used, the less impactful it became, and at times I found the connection between word and situation to be a bit far-fetched 2) Najwa’s ‘tells’ got pretty annoying.
The characters weren’t particularly fleshed out or memorable, some were verged on being rather silly but this subgenre isn’t exactly known for having uber nuanced characters so it didn’t really negatively impact my reading experience. I would have however liked for Trina to have been portrayed in a slightly different light, as she ultimately seems a bit of a mean queen-bee cliché. I liked the lack of romance and Najwa made for a rather endearing protagonist. Their resolution to the mystery was a bit of a letdown, as I found the identity of the person behind those posts far too obvious. It would have been more satisfying to make someone else the culprit. There was also a metaphor about Mark being “a conquistador, trying to impose his will on Trina, colonize her spirit and reap her charms for himself, bend her to his definition of what a girlfriend ought to be” which struck me as a rather unhappy comparison to make.
In general, I did like the references we get, especially when they added a dose of humor and levity to the story’s ongoings (“Honestly. Murder. What do you think this is, an episode of Riverdale?”).
Still, I found this engrossing and fun read. If you are looking for a light-hearted whodunnit that focuses on a group of ambitious and possibly backstabby professional scrabblers, look no further.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼


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The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings

“This is the story of the witch who refused to burn. Some people said that there was power in her blood, a gift from her ancestors that she could endure.”

Megan Giddings’s sophomore novel is highly evocative of those The Handmaid’s Tale inspired dystopias where readers are presented with a near-future where women—sometimes men—live in authoritarian societies where they have limited rights and freedoms and are under near-constant surveillance. When Women Could Fly does offer a more topical take on this genre, especially with what is going on with abortion laws in the States, and although the reality it presents us with is embedded with fantastical elements, reading this story still sent a chill up my spine. While this has been also compared to Shirley Jackson and Octavia Butler, personally I don’t quite see it. If anything Giddings’ novel was highly reminiscent of those early 2010s YA, where the female protagonists are often forced into marriage (this is not meant as a ‘snub’ as i remember being quite into them). Expect that Giddings’ more mature tone allows for more in-depth conversations about gender and racial discrimination, female bodily autonomy, reproductive justice, surveillance and privacy, and the ye old fear of that which is deemed ‘other’. The imagery and aesthetics did make me think of several horror films produced by A24, and part of me believes that maybe this story would translate better to the screen. That is not to say that it was badly written, far from it. However, several lacunae in the world-building really took me out. Additionally, the pacing was a bit all over the place, particularly in the latter half of the novel.

In this America witch trials are still a thing. To prevent women from becoming witches, the government closely monitors them, watching for any signs of ‘witchy’ stuff. While false allegations are punishable by law, most girls and women live in fear of being accused. The government also requires women over 30 to either marry (a man) or lose almost all forms of autonomy (such as having a job). Some women do choose this option, and are registered as witches, and (if memory serves) under house arrest. Women of color, Black women in particular, are even more heavily scrutinized, especially those like Josephine Thomas, whose own mother is believed to have been a witch after she ‘vanished’ overnight. Josephine, now 28, is ready to accept that her mother will never come back. Josephine has come to resent her mother: for leaving, for leaving without her, and for making her ‘suspect’ in the eyes of the government. With her 30th birthday approaching Jo finds herself forced to consider her options. She doesn’t want to give up her job at the museum, where they are actually somehow allowed to have an exhibition by a verified witch. She is seeing this guy who she kind of likes but feels frustrated by the societal pressure to marry him. Her father, a white guy, is not particularly close to her and he offered little support when Jo was under investigation after the disappearance of his wife.
The narrative opens with Jo having decided to officialize her mother’s death. Her mother’s will includes some specific directions she is to follow in order to then access her inheritance. Jo follows said directions and finds herself coming into contact with a reality that is very different from her own one.

I really liked the writing style, and the ambivalence permeating much of Jo’s narration, in particular in moments when she thinks of her mother or of the way women are treated. I also liked some of the vaguer aspects of this ‘reality’, and I was briefly at times reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘what-ifs’, where he very much focuses on a group of people and is able to capture their experiences without delving into many details about their world and the society they live.
Alas, here the author is inconsistently vague. We will learn that other countries have possibly banned witch-hunts/the monitoring of women but that’s more or less it when it comes to the outside world (“I cry sometimes thinking about how we’re the only developed country to let this still happen.”). Why don’t more women leave the States? Are they banned from doing so? The story may mention this but so briefly that it didn’t really sink in. In addition, we have a registered witch being allowed to have her art in a gallery… which threw me off a little. Why would the government allow her to do that? Her installations and pieces are fairly unsettling and very ‘witchy’…wouldn’t they worry about this being some sort of witch propaganda? The author is also quite inconsistent when it comes to lgbtq+ visibility and rights. In this extremely authoritarian and deeply conformist country, people identify as lgbtq+…Jo included. She’s bi and ‘out’. Her father isn’t keen on it and she knows she will be unable to marry anyone other than a man but I still wasn’t sure of the kind of rights lgbtq+ ppl had. Jo refers to herself as cis and acknowledges that the whole “women=maybe witch” thing her country has going on excludes ppl who identify outside of the gender binary…but we don’t really go into much depth with that other than once Jo mentions that gay men are sometimes suspected of being witches…it also seemed weird that such an oppressive and reactionary government would ‘allow’ ppl to openly identify as lgbtq+. Still, we do get Angie’s perspective on this, who is using a matchmaker who specializes in arranging safe marriages for gay women (for example by choosing gay men as their spouses).
Also, how are YA books with dragons in them being allowed to be published in a country where magic is considered a real threat? Surely the fantasy genre would be banned?!

minor spoilers:
When we reach the halfway point, the story offers us insight into a community that is very different from the one Jo grew up in and once again I found myself having more questions, and the answers we do get didn’t entirely satisfy. The narrative suggests that they have been undetected due to ‘magic’ but I didn’t quite buy that. It also seemed weird that they would not reach out to more ppl. Jo’s motivations in the latter half of the novel were not entirely believable and the ending felt kind of rushed.

Still, despite my issues with the world-building (one too many holes, inconsistent) and plot (which is slow, fast, slow, fast, and with a few situations that clearly just exist to further the plot, even when they are not entirely convincing) I loved the author’s writing style, the parallelism between Jo’s world and our world (“Sometimes, people say Isn’t it lucky to be a woman now?”…kid you not a male colleague of mine said something along these lines and followed with “it is men who have it hard nowadays”), the use of witchcraft as a metaphor for ‘otherness’, the soft magic, the aesthetics, and the friendship between Jo and Angie.
The author does pose some interesting questions about the ‘cost’ of personal freedom, and throughout the narrative she interrogates themes such as love, equality, guilt, and forgiveness. Additionally, I appreciated the nuanced mother-daughter relationship. Part of me was annoyed at the romance subplot, which in my opinion takes away from ‘page time’ from non-romantic relationships. The writing has this hypnotic, remote yet sharp, quality to it that brought to mind Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid. Giddings is certainly able to articulate thorny and ambiguous thoughts and feelings with clarity, however, she also allows Jo to retain a certain air of impenetrability. Jo’s introspections were compelling and I was thoroughly spellbound by her voice. Like I said, the world-building and plot did get in the way of my totally loving this but to be honest I can see myself re-reading this and not minding as much.

Some quotes:

“But there was always an objectiveness that insulated me, always allowed me to stay cool and defuse the situation. It was better for everyone if I remained at least six inches distant. A space far enough for me to evaluate, assess, and then fix things.”

“But all the magic in these museums is the magic of the dead—corpses and curses and in its own way reminding women that if there is anything inexplicable in the world, it is dangerous.”

“I had expected a tightening as I grew older; I would like what I liked and that was the essence of who I was. But my personality gets easily seeped now with new details. I read something new, I watch something new, I eat something new and the world feels again like a place where I want to stay.”

“Magic was everywhere. It felt like when you’re young and with your best friend in the world and you look at each other and feel as if you’re both the most attractive, interesting, fun people in the entire room. There’s nothing embarrassing about this confidence because it’s the truest thing and it lets you both be your best selves for hours.”

“For years, my mother had been a wound I could never fully stitch, one that when I was being honest with myself, I didn’t ever want to scab over, fade, disappear.”

“[My] mother’s absence had been—I was sure—the source of some of the biggest, ugliest parts of me. And because of all that empty space around her, because of time, because of sadness, I had idealized her, too.”

“What is it about love? Why does it make everything seem so important when most people give their love so carelessly to people, to pets, to objects that will never love them back?”

“What was it like to be loved in a way that felt immutable? To not be told I was loved, but to feel it, to see it most of the time?”

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼


Midnight at Malabar House by Vaseem Khan

Midnight at Malabar House presents its readers with a fairly promising start to a new sleuthing series. As you may or may not know I am a big fan of whodunnits and golden detective fiction and ever since finishing Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries I have been on the lookout for a historical mystery with a female lead. Midnight at Malabar House starts off in Bombay on New Year’s Eve, 1949. Inspector Persis Wadia, our main character, happens to be India’s first female inspector. Persis is fairly ‘fresh’ on the force and is keen to prove her worth. Yet, her passionate and driven attitude seems to have only antagonized her peers who are quick to dismiss her on the basis of her gender and her age. It just so happens that she’s the first on the scene of Sir James Herriot, a ‘distinguished’ English diplomat. Persis knows that his death is not a result of a robbery gone wrong and is prepared to pursue avenues that might make her a persona non grata in the force as the wealthy and well-connected guests of Herriot’s party are not happy to be seen as suspects. Her superior too seems to show little concern over the apprehension of the true killer, seemingly satisfied with attributing his death to the most convenient and ‘expandable’ person. As Persis investigates Herriot’s not-so-straight-and-narrow affairs and the various members of his household she is forced to reassess her idea of justice. Persis is assisted by Archie Blackfinch, a Scotland Yard criminalist who becomes her unlikely ally.
The aspect I enjoyed the most was the historical setting. Vaseem Khan demonstrates an admirable ability to render specific time periods and places: from his dialogues to the way the characters comport themselves, Khan shows an understanding of the social mores existing in this period of time. Because of this many characters express unsavoury opinions, and Persis is often at the sharp end of these remarks. I appreciated that Persis was portrayed as a very determined individual. Her characterization does fall a bit into the clichèd territory as she’s the ‘green’ young investigator keen to prove herself and the, allegedly, ‘stubborn’ woman in a male-dominated field. Her stubbornness is made out to be her ‘main’ flaw, something that frustrated me a little. At times this aspect of her character was a tad overdone as if the author wanted to stress that she wasn’t a perfect lead and/or to explain how she has ‘made it’ onto the force. It just so happens that before reading this I’d read another male-authored book with a ‘headstrong’ female investigator/agent/whatever and part of me realizes that may very well be realistic but I’d like more complexity in their characterization. The male investigators are battling inner demons/recovering from traumas/clever-yet-super-flawed or whatever else and the women are ‘stubborn’ and ‘spunky’….then again, this is only the first instalment in a series that will probably go on to make Persis into a more rounded character, so I look forward to that (khan, do not disappoint me pls).
The case is fairly engaging and I liked the plot’s momentum. We have red herrings, some false leads, some interesting dialogues with possible suspects etc. Backdropping this investigation are some thought-provoking discussions on the long-lasting consequences of colonialism, the partition, class-based inequalities, and corruption. This landscape of political and social turmoil adds a layer of tension and urgency to Persis’ investigation, and overall I liked the author’s nuanced approach to these topics. I particularly appreciated how he challenges simplistic ‘good/evil’ binaries. Persis does undergo some promising character growth, as she learns that good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes and that her ambition sometimes clouds her judgment. While she does show empathy for others, there are instances where she is so focused on the big picture, in this case, the identity of the killer, that she can come across as callous. There is a hint of a romance subplot which I am not wholly sold on yet…but maybe the follow-up will make said romance a bit more credible.

While this whodunnit doesn’t quite fall into the cozy mystery genre it ultimately had a feel-good vibe to it. It was very rewarding to see Persis challenge the people who oppose her or who proudly & loudly share their misogynistic views. If you are an Agatha Christie fan you should definitely check this one out.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

Portrait of an Unknown Lady by María Gainza

“Strange: It has come to me that one doesn’t write to remember, or to forget, or to find relief, or to cure oneself of some pain. One writes to plumb one’s own depths, to understand what’s inside.”

Having found Optic Nerve to be a puzzling yet thoroughly compelling book I was very much eager to sink my teeth into Portrait of an Unknown Lady. Whereas Optic Nerve loosely ties together the unnamed narrator’s meditations on history and art, in Portrait of an Unknown Lady Gainza contains the narrator’s reflections and inquiries into these subjects into what appears to be more of a semblance of a plot. This by no means results in a plot-driven narrative, as there is no urgency to the protagonist’s introspections. Her ruminations are given a freewheeling tempo, one that reminded me of lazy summer days from my childhood. In spite of her philosophical speculations, the narrator’s internal meanderings had a buoyancy to them that saved them from coming across as verbose or laboured.
Set in Buenos Aires the narrator of Portrait of an Unknown Lady is an auction house employee who follows her mentor into the more shady recesses of the art world. When her mentor dies our narrator feels lost, lacking purpose, and direction. She eventually finds solace in rejoining the world she’d left behind, as she begins to search for the identity of a forger, best known for their Mariette Lydis forgeries. In her investigation of this unknown person, the narrator finds herself considering just what a forgery is and whether there is a thing as ‘authenticity’. The first quarter of this slim volume was certainly engrossing as I found the narrator’s recollections of her early days on her job and her relationship with her mentor interesting indeed. As the book progresses however I found myself bored at times. The narrative at times seemed to stray away from its original plot so I found myself forgetting that there was a plot in the first place. I would have probably preferred a more experimental and unconfined narrative, In Optic Nerve, for example, each chapter was very much self-contained, whereas here we have this overarching storyline that never comes to the fore. Still, I always love reading about art, and Gainza demonstrates a vast knowledge of this subject. I liked reading her impressions of certain artists or art movements and the insight she gives into the more administrative aspects of the art world. Gainza is as adroit and insightful as ever but overall Portrait of an Unknown Lady left me wanting more. The snapshot-like stories that make-up Optic Nerve stayed with me longer, as they captured in vivid detail the life of an artist and a moment from the narrator’s own life. The parallelism between her experiences and those of the people she discusses gave the narrative further dimension. Here instead we lack that very specific comparative element, and even if identity, loneliness, and authenticity are central themes, both to the protagonist and her subject, well, it resulted in a far looser comparison.
Still, I can see myself returning to this book as a re-read may result in a newfound appreciation for its story. If you are a fan of Gainza or authors such as Rachel Cusk or Jessica Au, I recommend you check out this one for yourself.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

Joan Is Okay by Weike Wang

Studying so much had its consequences. It caused me to wonder, for instance, if I might be a genius.

Bursting with wry humor and insight Joan Is Okay makes for a quick and quirky read about a woman who doesn’t want to change to fit in with society’s standards.

In spite of what the people around her may think, Joan is okay…isn’t she? On paper Joan has achieved the American Dream, hasn’t she? She’s in her thirties and works as an ICU doctor at a New York City hospital, a job she finds deeply full-filling. Joan’s hard work ethic has earned her respect at the hospital and she’s even due a pay rise. When Joan’s father dies, she flies to China to attend his funeral but, unlike her older brother who stays for a longer visit, she immediately returns back to New York. Her colleagues seem puzzled by her refusal to take time off. Her now widowed mother is staying for a while with Joan’s brother and his family. They keep insisting that Joan should be around more. Her brother, who leads a fairly extravagant lifestyle, nags her about moving away from New York and opening her own practice where he lives. But Joan doesn’t seem to care about money, not in the way her brother does. She also shows no interest in finding a partner or starting a family. She’s content dedicating herself to her work and doesn’t seem to understand why other people may find her choices so baffling. As the narrative progresses Joan begins to feel overwhelmed by others. Her workplace forces her to take her time off to ‘grieve’, one of her colleagues is resentful of her raise and paints himself as somehow having been wrong by the hospital, and her new neighbour keeps encroaching on her private space, inviting himself over and offloading her with things he no longer wants. Then, towards the latter half of the novel, Joan is further troubled by the news of a virus…(you guessed it…covid cameo).

Joan’s idiosyncratic narration is certainly amusing and engaging. She finds social interactions difficult and often takes what other people say too literally. Because she keeps to herself others see her as standoffish and weird. Her approach to her work and the way she process/understand/see the the world around her brought to mind Keiko from Convenience Store Woman and Molly from The Maid. As with those characters, it could be argued that the reason why people view Joan as ‘different’ is that she’s neuroatypical. Yet, no one alludes to this possibility, even if Joan consistently exhibits neurodivergent traits…I understand that women and racial minorities ‘slip’ under the radar when it comes to being diagnosed (and are often misdiagnosed) but given Joan’s profession and the country she lives in…I would have excepted someone to mention this or keep this in mind rather than make Joan feel like an ‘alien’ because she doesn’t react or express herself in a neurotypical way. Anyway, aside from that Wang certainly brings to life the character of Joan. Her interior monologue is characterized by a dry yet witty tone. Joan’s acts of introspection are punctuated by sillier asides having to do with sitcoms and social niceties. When coming across other people she does have the habit of listing their height and weight which rubbed me the wrong way. No one can just look at someone and know their exact height, let alone their weight. It also seemed like an added ‘quirk’ that is a bit stereotypical (of a character who is heavily implied to be neuroatypical and is into a medical/science related field).
We also gain insight into her everyday life working at the ICU. Her father’s death and her mother’s temporary move into Fang’s house makes her reflect on their experiences in America, the linguistic and cultural barriers they faced. Joan also considers how her experiences differ from her brother’s ones; unlike her, Fang was born in China and while their parents moved to America he was left in the care of some relatives. Does he resent Joan because of this? Is his fixation with wealth and status an attempt to prove himself?

Wang is able to articulate complex and often hard to pin down feelings and thoughts. I also appreciated that there were instances where the author was able to point to what state of mind Joan was in without being explicit about it. We can see that Joan is numb without her telling us. Her deflection and minimisation of her own grief were also very convincing and felt consistent with her character.
There are moments where Joan is interacting with her superior, her colleague, or her neighbour, that really convey how uncomfortable she is. Often nothing overtly ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’ has been said but their tones or line of questioning feels invasive or somewhat condescending. Wang also captures the realities of working in a predominantly male workplace. I was reminded of Severance, Edge Case, Days of Distraction, which also explore the experiences of young(ish) Asian American women who have jobs in typically white & male spaces. Wang emphasizes how often (supposedly) ‘well-meaning’ liberals such as her neighbour succeed only in making one feel even more ‘other’. The realism of Joan’s everyday life and inner monologue are contrasted with moments and scenes that verge on the absurd. Some of the secondary characters (such as this random girl who introduces herself as a ‘post-millennial’) came across as cartoonish, and their presence in Joan’s story felt jarring almost.
As the narrative progresses my interest waned. There was a lot of repetition, and some of the situations Joan ends up in felt a bit…trying too hard to be quirky? Kind of a la Fleabag. The inclusion of covid also affected my reading experience. It just stresses me out reading about the pandemic given that we are still in it and no, I don’t care to ‘relive’ those first few months back in 2020. I would have liked fewer scenes with the neighbour or random characters and more page time spent on Joan and her mom, or Joan and her brother. Still, I did find her point of view insightful, particularly when she considers how growing up as the daughter of Chinese immigrants has shaped her and her sense of self. I did find it slightly implausible that she was unfamiliar with so many American things, given that she was born and lived her whole life there…but I guess if you are a truly introverted or asocial person you would have less exposure to popular culture. Still, I could definitely relate to feeling lost or a step behind as there are instances where my English friends and or colleagues say things or refer to things I just don’t ‘get’.

While reading this I was reminded of Mieko Kawakami’s All the Lovers in the Night. Both novels focus on women in their 30s who lead rather solitary lives. They do not seem interested in pursuing romantic relationships nor do they care about ‘moulding’ themselves into their respective society’s ideal of a woman (who is often a wife & mother). I appreciated that story-wise Joan is Okay doesn’t follow a conventional route, which would have ended with Joan ‘finding’ someone or ‘changing’ because of love. Still, I did find the finale kind of anticlimactic. And again, by then, covid had kind of stolen the scene so I’d lost interest somewhat. If you liked Wang’s Chemistry and you can cope with ‘covid books’ I would definitely recommend you check out Joan Is Okay.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼ stars

picture from the new york times.

Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuire

Where the Drowned Girls Go is a relatively compelling if inoffensive addition to the Wayward Children series. Once again Seanan McGuire sticks to the same formula: we have a focus on aesthetics, a fairy-talesque atmosphere, and a story revolving around a girl who is either lonely or made to feel different or insecure about something. Like its predecessors, Where the Drowned Girls Go critiques individuals and institutions that seek to impose conformity on those they deem ‘different’. Here the good/bad binary feels particularly lacking in nuance, and I miss the ambivalence that permeated the first few instalments. Still, McGuire’s prose has is always a delight to read. While here she goes a bit heavy-handed on metaphors involving smiles (we have, to name a few, wan smiles, bland smiles, terrible smiles, terrifying smiles…the list goes on), her hypnotic style is rich with tantalising descriptions and lush imagery. I also appreciate her darker take on fairy tales and magical worlds. As we can see, those who go through magical doors do not always make it ‘home’ unscathed. They carry physical and psychological scars from their time there and struggle to integrate themselves back into ‘reality’.

In Where the Drowned Girls Go we are reunited with Cora who we previously followed on a rescue mission to Confection in Beneath the Sugar Sky. She’s haunted by the Trenches, the world she fell into, and fears that she will once more be transported to that world. She believes that at Eleanor’s school she won’t be able to resist the Trenches so she decides to enrol at the Whitethorn Institute. But, she soon discovers, Whitethorn is not kind to ‘wayward children’ like her. The school instils fear in its students, punishing those who mention their experiences in other worlds and rewarding those who come to view magical doors as the product of a delusion. Cora is bullied by some of her roommates who make fun of her appearance and such. Eventually, Sumi comes to her rescue and Cora has to decide whether she does want to leave Whitethorn. There are a few moral lessons about friendship, not being mean, or not letting others dictate who you are.

While there were fantastical elements woven into the story and setting this volume lacked that magic spark that made the first few books into such spellbinding reads. I also found Cora to be a meh protagonist. Her defining characteristic seemed to be her body, which wasn’t great. Sumi was a welcome addition to the cast of characters as I found the girls at Whitethorn to be rather samey (which perhaps was intentional). I don’t entirely get why Cora got another book. She was the main character in Beneath the Sugar Sky. Her insecurities etc. were already explored in that book…and this feels like an unnecessary continuation to her arc. Still, I love the aesthetics of this series and the wicked/virtue & nonsense/logical world compass.
Hopefully, the next volume will be about Kade…

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ¼

All the Lovers in the Night by Mieko Kawakami

Previously to reading All the Lovers in the Night, I’d read Breasts and Eggs, Heaven, and Ms. Ice Sandwich, by Mieko Kawakami. While I was not ‘fond’ of Breasts and Eggs, I did find her other books to be compelling. As the premise for All the Lovers in the Night did bring to mind Breasts and Eggs, I was worried that I would have a similarly ‘negative’ reading experience. Thankfully, I found All the Lovers in the Night to be insightful and moving. Even more so than Kawakami’s other works, All the Lovers in the Night adheres to a slice-of-life narrative. Yet, in spite of this, the story is by no means light-hearted or superficial. Kawakami approaches difficult topics with this deceptively simple storytelling. She renders the loneliness and anxiety of her central character with clarity and even empathy. Thirty-something Fuyuko Irie leads a solitary life working from home as a freelance copy editor. Her inward nature led her former colleagues to single her out, and she was made to feel increasingly uncomfortable at her workplace. Working from home Fuyuko is able to avoid interacting with others, and seems content with her quiet existence. Fuyuko receives much of her work from Hijiri, an editor who is the same age as her but is very extroverted and possesses a forceful personality. Hijiri, for reasons unknown to Fuyuko, regularly keeps in touch with her and seems to consider her a friend. Perhaps their differences cause Fuyuko to begin questioning her lifestyle. Compared to her glamorous friend, Fuyuko sees herself, to borrow Jane Eyre’s words, as “obscure, plain and little”. But venturing outside the comfort of her home has become difficult for Fuyuko. To work up the courage she begins drinking alcohol, even if her body doesn’t respond well to it. She eventually begins going to a cafe with an older man. While the two speak of nothing much, they seem happy to exchange tentative words with one another.
I can see that this is not the type of novel that will appeal to those readers who are keen on plot-driven stories. However, if you are looking for an affecting character study, look no further. Through Fuyuko’s story, the author addresses how Japanese society sees and treats women who are deemed no longer ‘young’. Marriage, motherhood, and a career seem to be the requirements for many Japanese women. Those like Fuyuko are considered outside of the norm and because of this, they find themselves alienated from others. Fuyuko’s self-esteem is badly affected by this to the point where she feels that she has to go outside her comfort zone, even if the only way to do so is through inebriation. At a certain point, I was worried that Kawakami would make Hijiri into the classic fake/mean female character who is portrayed as aggressive, promiscuous, and a woman-hater to boot. Thankfully that was not the case. While Hijiri is not necessarily a likeable person Kawakami doesn’t paint her as a one-dimensional bitch and her relationship with Fuyuko isn’t sidetracked in favour of the romantic subplot. And yes, on the ‘romance’…I will say that this man wasn’t as nuanced as Fuyuko. I found him slightly boring and generic. I did like that the relationship between the two forms has a very slow build-up to it and the ending will certainly subvert many readers’ expectations.
Anyway, overall I rather enjoyed this. I liked the melancholic mood permeating Fuyuko’s story, the descriptions of Tokyo, the mumblecore dialogues, the way Kawakami articulates Fuyuko’s discomfort, anxiety, etc. Now and again there were even moments of humour and absurdity that alleviated Fuyuko’s more depressing experiences. I also appreciated the novel’s open-ended nature, which added an extra layer of realism to Fuyuko’s story. While some of Fuyuko’s actions aren’t given a ‘why’ or closely inspected, as we read on we begin to understand more fully her various state of mind and how these affect her behaviour.
While the dialogues did have a realistic rhythm, the secondary characters (who usually did most of the talking given that our main character isn’t a talker) did tend to go on very long and weirdly specific monologues that seemed at times incredibly random or oddly revealing. This is something I noticed in other works by Kawakami. Secondary characters go on endless rants or whatnot while our main character gives little to no input. It seems a bit unusual that Fuyumu would come across so many people who are willing to go on these very long monologues that reveal personal stuff. Even so, I did find the majority of the dialogues to be effective.
All the Lovers in the Night is a work of subtle beauty and I look forward to revisiting it again in the future.

re-read: the narrative possess a quality of impermanence that is truly rare in literature. i love the attention that the author gives to Fuyuko’s various environments and the incredibly tactile descriptions. the way the author writes about light reminded me of Yūko Tsushima. i loved re-reading this and i really appreciated how the author prioritises female relationships in this narrative. the relationships and interactions between the various women within this narrative are by no means positive or easy but they speak of the kind of images and norms that their families, communities, and society have inculcated into them. additionally, the author shows how women can perpetuate misogynistic views and attitudes (casting judgement on how other women dress, their sex lives, their marital status) as well how all-consuming and toxic female friendships can be. Fuyuko’s unwillingness to conform to widely accepted ideals of womanhood and her (partly) self-imposed isolation brought to mind Charlotte Brontë’s Lucy Snowe. additionally, the way kawakami navigates her loneliness and creativity reminded me of Lily King’s Writers & Lovers.
despite the issues addressed within the narrative—sexual assault, alcoholism, misogyny, alienation—Fuyuko’s voice has this lulling rhythm that made it easy for me to become immersed by what i was reading. while in my original review i criticised the novel for its ‘monologues’ this second time around i actually found these far more credible as it was easy to see why people would open up to Fuyuko. sad and wistful, All the Lovers in the Night ultimately struck me as luminous character analysis that captures with bittersweet accuracy the realities of leading a lonely existence, missed connections, and the long-lasting repercussions of traumatic experiences.

my rating: ★★

Chemistry by Weike Wang

“Chemistry, while powerful, is sometimes unpredictable.”

Chemistry makes for a quick yet compelling read. While the narrative tries a bit too hard to be quirky, I did find certain scenes and or sections to be fairly amusing. Chemistry implements those ‘in’ literary devices such as an unnamed narrator and a lack of speech marks that I find somewhat predictable. Still, the story focuses on a Chinese American woman in her thirties who is studying for a PhD in chemistry. She’s in a relationship with a seemingly ‘good’ white guy who seems ready to take their relationship to the next stage (marriage). But, like a lot of contemporary female narrators, our mc is not feeling sure of anything. She’s struggling to keep up with the demanding hours of her PhD, overwhelmed by the pressure of other people’s expectations, and confused by her own feelings and emotions (she feels too much, nothing at all). While our narrator is initially able to go through the motions of her everyday life, she eventually slips behind her PhD. Her partner begins to grow restless at our narrator’s perpetual ambivalence towards the future, and soon enough our protagonist’s life begins falling apart. As we read of her present tribulations we are given insight into her experiences growing up. Her focus on academic success was instilled in her by her parents who always seemed dissatisfied with her, even when she studies what they want her to. In examining her relationship with her parents and the way they brought her up the narrator discusses the stereotypes about Asian parents. She also talks about the everyday microaggressions she experiences, particularly working as a woc in a field that is predominantly male. The author also captures those quarter-life crisis uncertainties that make you question whether the ‘path’ you are on is leading somewhere and if it is, whether you really want to reach that destination. The narrator’s growing discontent over her studies certainly resonated with me as I’m currently in my final year of my masters and I feel academically exhausted to the point where I considered (and still am) dropping out. It is particularly frustrating to see that no matter how hard you work or try, you don’t get the results/grades you hope for. On top of that, the narrator also has a dissolving relationship to cope with. While her partner is presented as this supportive nice guy he repeatedly fails to understand where she’s coming from, seems unable to understand her point of view, and remains blissfully unaware of his own privilege (as a cis straight white man from a financially and emotionally stable family).
Our main character’s best friend, who is also nameless and referred to as ‘the best friend’, is also having troubles of her own as soon after giving birth discovers that her husband is betraying her.
While these may all sound like heavy topics the tone of this story is very much light and comical. As I mentioned above, the narrative goes for this offbeat kind of tone that at times comes across as contrived. There were numerous instances where I did not find the narrator funny. There is a running-gag of sorts where she explains a joke to someone because her sense of humor is just so quirky that people don’t always get it. I did find her somewhat endearing. For example, in this scene, where her best friend is once again venting about her cheating husband: “This is all your fault, she says to one of the posters. You did this to him, you and your female wiles. Then she moves on to next poster. I follow and apologize to each woman in turn.”. Or when she imagines what her best friend’s baby is thinking: “The baby has become sentient. When we walk, she screams across the street at other babies, baby expletives, we think. Something along the line of Goddamn it, other baby, don’t try to out-cute me. To make matters worse, she is very cute, so we have a hard time correcting her.”. The writing could certainly be effective and I appreciated the way the author articulates these difficult to pin down feelings & fears. The narrator’s inner monologue is punctuated by scientific anecdotes that certainly fitted her background. While some of her jokes were misses, and her never-ending silly witticism did detract from her actual story, there were a couple of times where I found her genuinely funny.

“It is a double-edged sword.
To be smart and beautiful, says the best friend, and this is probably very close to what every woman wants. I too had high hopes of growing up into both a genius and a bombshell.
To be Marie Curie but then to also look like Grace Kelly.”

While the dialogue often rang true to life (in a mumblecore sort of way), some of the characters struck me as thinly rendered. The boyfriend for example is incredibly generic and exceedingly dull to the point where I did not feel at all affected by his departure. And, while I believed that the narrator is lonely, I wasn’t at all convinced that she loved him. Similarly, I didn’t buy into her bond with the math student she’s tutoring. I would have liked to see more of her parents or that they had not been painted in a negative light for 80% of the story. Still, overall, I liked Chemistry. I listened to the audiobook which was narrated by Julia Whelan, who, bear in mind is one of my favorite narrators, wasn’t the best ‘voice’ for this. That is to say that there are plenty of talented Asian American female narrators who could have narrated Chemistry.
If you are looking for a humorous take on failure, self-fulfilment, parental and self-pressure, loneliness and connection, Chemistry might be your perfect next read. I can see this novel
appealing to fans of Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu, Edge Case by YZ Chin, and Days of Distraction by Alexandra Chang, all which also focus on young(ish) alienated Asian American women who feel stuck or caught in a directionless spiral. If you are a fan of the contemporary literary trend which is disaffected/directionless female protagonists who don’t feel so good, well, this title may a great addition to your tbr. I look forward to reading whatever Wang publishes next!

my rating: ★★★¼

Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park

Brimming with humor and life, Love in the Big City makes for an ​​entertaining read. I found its protagonist’s lighthearted narration to be deeply compulsive and I was hooked to his story from the very first pages. Similarly to Frying Plantain and The Nakano Thrift Shop Love in the Big City is divided into self-contained parts/chapters, each one focusing on a specific period of our main character’s life. In most of these Young, our mc, is a writer in his early thirties living in Seoul. The gritty realism of his daily life, as well as his love & sex life, brought to mind authors such as Bryan Washington. While this book does touch upon things like homophobia, abortion, STDs, suicidal ideation, it does so in a very casual way that never struck me as offensive or careless. Young is easily the star of the show as he makes for an incredibly funny and relatable character. From his failed relationships to his day-to-day mishaps. Young makes for a carefree and admirably resilient character whose inner monologue and running commentary never failed to entertain me. Love in the Big City also provides readers with a glimpse into the realities of being queer in contemporary Korean society. Yet, while the stigma, shame, and or lack of visibility Young experiences (or is made to experience) are sobering, his voice remains upbeat and easy to follow. Additionally, the author’s vibrant depiction of Seoul makes for a vivid setting. My favourite section was probably the first one, which focuses on Young’s friendship with Jaehee, who for a time is his roommate. Things get complicated when Jaehee begins to lie about Young’s gender to the boy she’s currently seeing. The sections that centre more on Young’s partners, well, they did seem a bit repetitive. Perhaps because most of the men he dates or frequents share a similar kind of dull and off-putting personality. Still, I appreciated how unsentimental the author when portraying and or discussing love and sex.
Although I have read a few books by Korean authors that are set in Korea this is the first time I’ve come across one that is so wonderfully unapologetically queer and sex-positive. More of this, please!
Love in the Big City makes for a candid, insightful, and above all witty read exploring the life of a young(ish) gay man in Seoul.

my rating: ★★★ ¼


How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs

How to Love a Jamaican: Stories is a promising debut collection that focuses on the Jamaican diasporic experience, highlighting cultural and generational differences and providing us with some wonderfully realized vignettes. Alexia Arthurs’ prose is engaging, unsentimental yet lyrical, and she’s fully able to bring the places she’s writing of—be it America or Jamaica—to life. Many of her stories hone in on familial relationships, depicting the misunderstandings and differences between Jamaican-American children and their Jamaican parents. While the parents are often shown to be more traditional than their children and are vocal in their disapproval of their lifestyles, their professions, their sexuality, their ‘Americaness’, Arthurs allows them to be dimensional individuals, without resorting to one-dimensional stereotypes.

‘Light Skinned Girls and Kelly Rowlands’, the first story in the collection reminded me of Danielle Evans’ novella, The Office of Historical Corrections. Both stories explore the relationship between two Black women who are unable to bridge the gap created by their different upbringings and financial situations. In ‘Bad Behavior’ a despairing mother sends her misbehaving teenage daughter back to Jamaica to live with her own mother (the girl’s grandmother). While the stories depict different situations and people they are united by their shared themes (of acceptance, guilt, self-divide). Within these 11 stories, Arthurs underlines the difficulties experienced by those who are dealing with family expectations and pressures or living in predominantly white spaces or feeling torn between Jamaican and American customs & cultures.
I appreciated and could relate to the nostalgia and homesickness that affects many of these characters and how sometimes they view their ‘new’, in this case, American, environment as ‘alien’.
Easily, my favourite was ‘Island’. This isn’t all that surprising as it follows a lesbian who has become more and more aware of how her best friends are visibly uneasy at any mention or confirmation of her sexuality. It was sad but this particular story really spoke to me.

While I loved the author’s breezy prose, the authentic flow of her dialogues, her rich examination of Jamaican and Jamaican-American identities (the stories follow people who are united by their heritage but are ultimately living very different lives) as well as her realistic explorations of parenthood, siblinghood, and queerness, only two or three stories really stood out to me. This is one of the cases where less would have been more (to me, of course). I would have found this to be a stronger debut had it had fewer but longer stories. Nevertheless, this was a solid collection with some real hits. If you enjoyed Zalika Reid-Benta’s Frying Plantain or you are a fan of Danielle Evans’ short stories. I look forward to whatever Arthurs publishes next.

my rating: ★★★¼

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